By Kevin Rabalais
The goal of an encyclopedia is to assemble all the knowledge scattered on the surface of the earth, to generate the general system to the people with whom we live, and to transmit it to the people who will come after us, so that the work of centuries past is not useless to the centuries which follow… —Denis Diderot
As readers, we spend our lives trying to see the world from other perspectives. We seek to feel as others feel, as they have felt—all of those people across time and place whom our own lives will never allow us to meet.
Those who do not read remain unconvinced that there is more.
The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the door,
and invisible guests come in and out at will
—Czeslaw Milosz, “Ars Poetica”
We read and we question.
We read and we discover, again and again, that things are not always as simple as they seem.
We read and we weigh our apprehensions against those of other nations, other eras.
We read, many of us, because we cannot live without questioning, without seeking to discover and comprehend.
One glimpse at the headlines each day, and we find that the reality of our current era—to borrow from Fernando Pessoa’s poem “Follow Your Destiny”—is more than what we want. And so like Zbigniew Herbert, I call upon the voices of the past—those Old Masters, as he refers to them—to help me understand this new world we inhabit.
The danger in the coming weeks and months, indeed in the coming years, will be complacency, believing that we can do nothing but feel helpless as we watch history unfold. To borrow from Melville’s Bartleby: I would prefer not to. I will write against silence. I will use whatever voice I have so that I can continue to face myself and meet the eye of those individuals whose dignity the government of my country strives to strip.
These paragraphs mark a new occasional series for Sacred Trespasses. In it, I will focus my reading on those writers who have lived through difficult times, writers who throughout the ages have struggled under inhumane and repressive regimes and who, in the face of that repression, have lent their voices to resist, to fight against silence and speak for those who could not speak for themselves.
One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions, and that includes one’s words and silences, yes, one’s silences, because silences rise to heaven too, and God hears them, and only God understands and judges them, so one must be very careful with one’s silences.
—Roberto Bolaño, By Night in Chile
The South African novelist André Brink spent the majority of his life writing under Apartheid. From his essay collection Writing in a State of Siege: “Writing is an affirmation, not only of the individual, but, through him, of the nameless and voiceless multitude who must rely on him to define the validity of their right to be.”
Early in the book, Brink sets down his obligations as a writer, as a human:
Although this paper forms part of a specifically Christian project, I must insist that I am not a Christian and cannot, therefore, approach the subject as a Christian. I do, however, subscribe to basic Christian values: to justice; to compassion which transcends justice; to individual liberty which respects the liberty of others; to a concept of human dignity which accepts that all men are equal; above all, to caritas in its widest sense.
Brink’s fellow South African Nadine Gordimer took a similar stance in her Nobel Lecture, “Writing and Being”:
Others have been condemned by repressive regimes for serving society by writing as well as they can; for this aesthetic venture of ours becomes subversive when the shameful secrets of our time are explored deeply, with the artist’s rebellious integrity to the state of being manifest in life around her or him; then the writer’s themes and characters inevitably are formed by the pressures and distortions of that society as the life of the fisherman is determined by the power of the sea… As a human being, no writer can stoop to the lie of Manichean “balance.” The Devil always has lead in his shoes, when placed on his side of the scale.
Those who pursue guidance will find wisdom in the past, as Diderot reminds us. We are not alone. Others have endured what we must now endure. This new series will look to the solace of those who refused silence. I seek sanctuary in and direction from their voices.