From email@example.com Mon Feb 7 19:07:56 2000
Sadanand, Nanjundiah (Physics) <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Edward Said Commentary on the
Date: Mon, 7 Feb 2000 15:16:57 -0500
If we were to pick perhaps the most symbolically important and
metaphysically significant aesthetic work of the century that has just
come to an unremarkable end (a fizzle perhaps?) it might be Samuel
Beckett's play Waiting for Godot. Originally written by the Irish
author in French, it was later translated by him into English, and
since then of course has been performed everywhere and in every
language. Beckett, I think, described his play's action as
happens: twice, which indeed seems to cover the two-act structure
of the play and its endlessly circular, inconsequential, trivial
discussions between two tramps who are waiting for someone called
Godot to arrive, but who never does. All sorts of interpretations have
been adduced to the playthat Godot, for instance, is God; that the
two tramps are really Adam and Eve; that the play is actually about a
post-nuclear holocaustbut the main thing for me, having read and
seen the play many times since its appearance about 50 years ago, is
that it is about waiting, about unending expectation, about the moment
that comes before something which itself never comes but which in the
process reduces everyone to a frozen state of clown-like, pathetic
banality in which only limited motion is possible in virtually the
And so I feel that, as Arabs now, we are in fact waiting for all sorts
of things to happen with very little certainty as to what they are,
how they will affect us, and what will come after. It is nothing short
of staggering how our powerlessness (which we share with the two main
characters in Godot) has induced in us a similar sort of unlimited
attitude of just hanging on, waiting for the main event to take place
while we play all sorts of banal little roles outside the main action,
so to speak. We are now waiting for the result of the Syrian-Israeli
talks, for the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, and for innumerable
other things to take place, about which we don't know but, like the
two clowns in Beckett, about which we nevertheless produce endless
reams of speculation, trivial gossip, baseless rumour, observation,
information, none of it of any value in the current
impasse. We know that those big men, Barak, Clinton and their Arab
interlocutors, are producing drafts of agreements (frequently leaked
or straight-out printed in the press) and actual facts on the ground
over which we more or less correctly suppose that only the Americans
and Israelis have any real control. Whether Barak wants to give up
five per cent of Palestinian land on 15 January, or four per cent on
10 February, is entirely up to him: we wait, emit a few disapproving
noises, but go along sheepishly in the end.
For me, the main thing we seem to be waiting for is what will follow
the current round of peace negotiations when the peace accords
themselves are signed (as of course they will be), the question of
normalisation, the status of the refugees, the return (or not) of
territory. For most Arabs, there is the feeling that all these matters
are not only beyond their control even to think about rationally, but
that they must be thought about in miraculous and magical terms: there
is an American/Zionist plot-conspiracy,
they are planning to
put all the refugees in Iraq, to make Lebanon give them citizenship in
return for X or Y, that agreement has already been reached on
everything, the rest is a matter of time, and so on.
So great a distance separates ruler from ruled, government from
citizen, that only magical, or supernatural, or paranoid terms will
serve: they (whoever
they may or may not be) have already
decided, they will do this or that, they will make us willing, they
will transport X or Y, and so on and on. In other words, as Waiting
for Godot testifies in both its busy and extremely funny acts (the
play, after all, is a comedy, not a tragedy, and Beckett actually
wants us to laugh, not to feel pity or fear), the act of waiting
displaces one's inner state on to an outside, or exterior dimension.
Waiting allows us to project psychological states of confusion,
anxiety, and inadequacy out onto the world, instead of keeping those
feelings bottled up inside. Unfortunately, these feelings appear
visibly to be comic, and neither dignified nor even tragic.
The other great aesthetic 20th-century object whose main concern is
waiting is by the pre-World War II Greek poet from Alexandria,
Constantine Cavafy, an extraordinary artist who lived all his life
(1863-1933) in Egypt's northern summer and trading capital as an
employee of the Irrigation Office, a homosexual and recluse, and who
never published his poetry in his lifetime except privately. He is now
recognised as one of the great writers of the century, a major poet
and stylist despite the very small number of poems he wrote, none of
them, interestingly, concerning modern Egypt or Egyptians. One of his
most famous poems (which, being a perfectionist, he never felt he
finished or completed satisfactorily) is
Waiting for the
Barbarians, a 35-line masterpiece in his laconic style that
nonetheless allows Cavafy to convey an entire drama. In an imagined
ancient Roman setting, the people are waiting for an attack against
them by a barbarian horde, outside the city.
During the main body of the poem, the speaker describes all the
hurried preparations made by senators, emperor (
why did our emperor
get up so early, and why is he sitting enthroned at the city's main
gate, in state, wearing the crown?), consuls, orators, who are
readying themselves so as to make some sort of favorable impression on
the incoming, probably violent visitors. Then suddenly there is
confusion and bewilderment everywhere. Why? I shall quote the last
few lines of the poem:
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven't come.
And some of our men just in from the border say
There are no barbarians any longer.
Now what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.
The title and situation of this poem was used by the distinguished South African novelist J M Coetzee for his novel (also called Waiting for the Barbarians) about apartheid South Africa, waiting for the inevitable change to happen, as if from the outside, yet in fact forced to confront it inside. This, I think, is Cavafy's point, that the existence (real or imagined, it does not matter) of some threatening alien and outside presence is not only necessary for society to maintain its identity as a sort of mythological barrier against barbarism, but also as a method for postponing the need to face the internal situation, which has long gone on unnoticed and festering so that the external threat can be mobilised against. In the final analysis, neither outside nor inside can be addressed since the whole edifice of waiting suddenly crumbles.
I do not at all want to suggest that, to Palestinians and other Arabs whose lands were occupied and whose lives were changed unutterably by the whole Zionist intervention into the Middle East for the past century, there was no real threat. There was indeed, a very powerful one, especially to Palestinians whose entire society was destroyed. That so many hundreds of thousands of refugees are still waiting to return home is one of the great, awful tragedies of our time. These are unimaginable, unconscionable realities, no doubt at all about that. And yet, what Cavafy and Beckett talk about so profoundly is not the reality, about which they have nothing to say or add, but the institution of the reality, its becoming a phenomenon that induces a state of apprehensive waiting. Kafka has a superb parable about some priests of a mysterious religion going through one of their habitual rituals, when suddenly a tribe of dangerous leopards interrupts the service, scattering the priests and congregation, who are most interested in saving their lives. They survive and then resume their rituals as before, except that from then on a place is preserved in the service for the leopards to appear again, which of course they do not.
Waiting can be a kind of solution to the problems that we don't deal with while we wait. For us, these problems remain as part of the distortion that we have accepted, and indeed allowed for, in our national and cultural life.
Some examples are, for instance, education, which has remained years behind in terms of standards everywhere else in the developing world. Primary school education in the Arab world is still based upon rote learning, imitation of the teacher, and violence as punishment. This kills individual initiative, cancels the possibility of creating an active and questioning mind that grows all the time and, above all, gives rise to a deep hatred of the 'other' (teacher, ruler, foreigner). The reason given for this situation is allegedly that there are more important priorities, i.e. defending against the outside enemy, mobilising for war, giving so much power to the army and party, allowing dictatorship to be the style of government and not democracy. All that is waiting, for Godot, or for the barbarians. But the question is, how long do we wait, and is a solution from the outside, whether it is the coming of the barbarians or their disappearance, the real answer to educational reform? The principles of education, after all, are not dependent on resolving a national crisis like Israel's aggression: on the contrary, it is crisis that makes a new curriculum and a new democratic attitude to intellectual growth and creativity even more necessary than otherwise. The trouble is, however, that too many of us have bought in to the notion of waiting, as if waiting for a miraculous outside solution alone can solve the long-term problems we face within our societies. Hence we have no democracy to speak of, every citizen is in fact encouraged to flatter or somehow placate the ruler no matter what disasters he flounders in and out of, and most intellectuals and journalists accept the principle of self-censorship except at moments when the regime (as in Jordan or Palestine) goes too far in totally unacceptable restrictions.
What particularly concerns me now is that we have as a group of countries accepted the principle of globalisation and the rule of the US acting through the World Trade Organisation. And so we wait till the so-called fruits of that particular pact with the devil are achieved, enduring meanwhile the effacement of the local work force and the emasculation of the unions, which either comply with WTO regulations or are pounded into submission; we accept the diktat that the state sector, responsible for social benefits like health and social security, be curtailed; we comply with draconian measures that limit environmental protection, and that distort our economies so that their priority is to produce export goods determined by the world economy, not by local needs. All this as we wait for the benefits. But the fact is that now, I am happy to say, a few Arab countries are waking up to the fact that the wait wasn't worth it, that, in its relentless expansion of its markets, the US has imposed conditions on developing countries that have been ruinous, and that in the long run we must look to the interests of our citizens before we wait for Godot to appear in the form of prosperity and modernity.
I wish that this kind of awareness was becoming more true of our foreign policies with regard to Israel and the US, neither of which, it should be clear after all this time, can properly be said to provide solutions to any of our problems. As Antonio Gramsci said long ago, when dealing with non-military realities (military realities are beyond our reach, despite the ruinous Arab habit of over-spending on useless military hardware) the only policy to combat failure is one of developing a counter-hegemony against the ruling hegemonic powers. For us, this means strengthening our civil institutions like universities, the media, research and legal apparatuses, participatory democracy, literacythe lot. Without that rising to confront the pauperism, dependence and compliance imposed on us by outsiders, there can be no hope for us to evolve into the kinds of societies a whole new generation of Arabs now, I believe, quite ardently desires. But no, the rulers believe it is best to go on waiting for the barbarians or Godot (they may be the same, after all), since waiting itself may be a kind of solution! But for how long can it work?