The War Against Oblivion


SINGER-SONGWRITER Mat Callahan introduced a tune in the middle of his set at the Galeria de la Raza by saying that he used to be a taxi driver. Once, pulling over to pick up an old woman in the Tenderloin, San Francisco’s skid row and residential-hotel neighborhood, he groaned inwardly, thinking that this was going to be the accursed two-dollar fare for a half-hour ride about two blocks long. The woman opened the door and announced, “My name is Ethyl, and I pray for cab drivers.”

The song was about her, alone in her rented room, praying for others, and the introduction, or Ethyl, stuck with me. Praying for others while your own situation is dire seems like an act of enormous generosity, but it can also be an act of salvation, of solidarity, an act that mitigates the loneliness of your condition. And the conditions of others. Amnesty International recruits people to write to political prisoners, both to let the prisoners know they are not forgotten and to radicalize the imaginations of the letter writers by making the incarcerated real and particular, people whom you address directly.

The word compassion emphasizes emotional generosity, the ability to respond to others. The word imagination identifies what it takes to be able to extend yourself that way in the first place, to let another person in, or let in everyone in the category of taxi drivers or political prisoners or the people of Iraq. Ethyl of the Tenderloin invited a lot of people into her small room, made her own world larger, and now lives on in the song of an émigré ex-cabbie musician who has subsequently tattooed her on my mind.

Callahan’s song immortalizing Ethyl, who prays for taxi drivers, brought to mind Fernando Botero’s suite of dozens of monumental Abu Ghraib paintings, which I’d seen a few weeks earlier in a New York City exhibition. The Colombian painter was so disturbed by the images of U.S. torture of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib that he was unable to ignore it, to sweep it into the bin of horrors anyone who watches the news carries around somewhere inside. He gave the prisoners who were humiliated, tortured, and brutalized some of the timeless magnificence of Christian paintings of martyrs and saints. There were brown men in pink bras and panties, kneeling figures bound by ropes, a shackled standing figure in one of the now-familiar black hoods, a bull-like head and neck of a man in a red blindfold, covered with dozens of small bleeding cuts, each drop of blood precise and crimson like those of the Christ in the old icons. The prisoners radiate transcendent dignity, as do the flayed and disemboweled saints.

That the painter most famous for pleasant images of rotund figures in smooth domestic scenes — boudoirs, picnics, dinner tables — was prompted in his seventies to stray so far from his prior work spoke to the power the images had over him. Or perhaps that language is backward, for much of the world saw the images, and what distinguished Botero was his power to feel so deeply about suffering so far away. Creativity is much celebrated in this culture, but the ability to interpret, to unlock representations and release their power and the truth encoded therein, matters as much or more. To be able to do so is a talent of active engagement, not just passive reception. The popular belief that books most need writers is wrong — writers give birth to a text, but it’s the readers who keep the text alive, giving a few works a life span that extends across centuries or millennia.

Botero’s paintings also depict the people who most rigorously prevent such response in themselves, the torturers, though not as the smirking figures seen in the snapshots. Torturers are trained in shutting down their imaginative empathy with their victims. Repression, compartmentalization, dehumanization of themselves, and demonization of their victims make them capable of their work. In a way, we have all been trained as torturers of a sort in this economy and nation that generate a huge array of atrocities while training us not to see or feel them. Enormous violence is all around us, in the brutality of capitalism as it devastates for profit rural landscapes, from Amazon rainforests to Wyoming ranches, produces poverty for more profit, and consigns the resultant poor to incarceration, illness, homelessness, and dead-end jobs. Mainstream American culture is an inculcation in unimaginativeness, or rather, in directing the powers of imagination in safe and sterile directions — the triviality of celebrity news items, the murky depths of therapeutic self-absorption. (That is to say, therapy at its most degraded teaches a self-absorption that is itself an affliction, a shrinking down of the larger world and of the possibilities of imagination and empathy that can be a means of liberation from one’s own suffering.)

Some celebrities nowadays use their notoriety to divert public attention to more meaningful subjects, to Darfur or land mines. Other people emerge from the sidelines to ignite the imaginations of a society, as Rachel Carson did forty-five years ago with her word-picture of a pesticide-drenched spring in which no birds sang. Activists constantly toil to bring to bear the images and words that will likewise ignite the imagination, that will make distant troubles real and urgent. Paintings like Botero’s Abu Ghraib suite are directly engaged in this war against oblivion, though in a sense all good art is training in imaginative power, in awareness.

Pesticides, Darfur, land mines, clearcuts, Abu Ghraib, poverty, prisons: the weight of suffering and damage is overwhelming. Opening oneself to all of it can be paralyzing too, but people choose to be aware, choose, as we say, their battles — or not. Imagination is constantly being prodded or sedated by the surrounding culture; the British media, for example, take climate change very seriously and the changes in Britons’ consumption patterns that could help mitigate it are part of everyday news and debate, so much so that air travel is a recognized evil there, but a barely discussed one here.

Industrial society introduced obliviousness when it generated a world in which more and more of what we impact lies beyond the horizon, and the military-industrial-entertainment complex made it worse. Imagination can reclaim what vanished, but not all people possess this gift, or curse, to the same degree. I have a friend for whom the war in Iraq has been utterly real, utterly horrifying, all the time, every day. The destruction of families, of lives, of sanity, of cities — of so much these abstract terms cannot evoke — is a constant presence for him, a goad for his own heroic and creative anti-war work, while it is at best, I am ashamed to admit, an intermittent one for me. A more careful reader of the news than most, he seeks out details, investigation deepening the care and the awareness that prompted him to begin probing. He makes the war real, while much else makes it unreal.

The crises of our time mostly require this kind of attentiveness, the empathic imagination that Ethyl brought to cabbies and Botero to Abu Ghraib inmates, an ability to imagine and to care about what is not seen. What does it take to imagine the Earth in a hundred years, the condition of children in Baghdad now, the well-hidden poverty proliferating throughout America and the forces that create that desperation, the abstraction that is the Earth’s upper atmosphere and the catastrophes that will result from its thinning? The poet Diane DiPrima has been saying for a very long time, “The only war that matters is the war against the imagination.”