A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Prague Writer’s Festival, 2017
1. America on the Hot Seat
A large pleasure it was this November (10th through 16th) to visit Prague (with my friend Jan) as tourists, Americans dazzled by this city of ancient culture and stunning beauty, and to attend programs of The Prague Writer’s Festival — readings, panel discussions, films. We arranged our trip to align with PWF, since the fit was too good not to — this year’s festival theme being James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time.
Yes, we said, let’s do it — a chance to renew appreciation of a perhaps underappreciated, great American writer. In The Fire Next Time, an essay of power, conviction and courage, Baldwin acknowledges the fraudulence of the Harlem churchifying he practiced as a fill-the-offering-plate, teen-prodigy preacher. His renunciation of Christianity leads to his profound analysis of racism as a projection of white fear and the historical burden of “whiteness” associated with this awareness.
Among writers at PWF from many places — Syria, Austria, Russia, Morocco, India — the most direct link to Baldwin was Washington Post journalist Wesley Lowery. As a reporter, Lowery covered police shootings in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland and elsewhere and the protests that spawned Black Lives Matter. As with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Lowery’s They Can’t Kill Us All takes Baldwin as the forerunner to contemporary understanding of American racism.
The on-stage conversation (Monday, the 13th) with Baldwin’s book as topic — gracefully moderated by Maria Golia, American living in Cairo — veered quickly from The Fire Next Time to international politics. This didn’t surprise me. In advance of going to Prague, I’d reminded myself of other trips — Latin America and Europe — where I’d found myself in political discussion explaining, even defending, the USA, sometimes from a stance nearly opposite what I’d likely be taking if the same discussion were with Americans. I soon felt myself on that familiar ground.
Austrian novelist Robert Menasse almost gleefully took up the cudgel to beat on the USA. Most EU problems, he said — throwing down the glove — are America’s fault. Mentioning a report of 70 instances of U.S. bombing of other nations since WW II, Menasse said American aggression creates messes, such as millions of refugees, with which European countries are left to grapple. Provocatively, Menasse argued — extending Baldwin’s insight that American whiteness created “the Negro” as a mental construct — that America, by its aggression, creates its own terrorism.
Not without validity, though overstated and unqualified, Menasse’s statement invited response. There’s no lack of irony in the author of They Can’t Kill Us All speaking back to anti-American rhetoric, but Lowery embraced the challenge. In an increasingly global world, people flow, as always, away from want, toward safety and opportunity. The EU, observed Lowery, doesn’t absorb millions of immigrants from Latin America as the United States does. Starting from post-WW II piles of rubble, he added, unselfish American foreign policy helped to build EU prosperity. Europe didn’t complain at being rescued from its own fascism. Since the colonial era, he said, Europe has been America’s model of how to conduct foreign affairs, including the use of force to achieve ends. “America,” said Lowery, “didn’t invent hubris.”
The line drew applause from one audience member, silence from everyone else. Without evidence, Menasse asserted that Europe has a capacity for self-critique that America lacks. One notices that when people not from America talk about American politics “America” is often a monolith. From trans-continental distance, such discussions tend to ignore stratifications of discourse — liberal, conservative; coastal, midwest; urban, rural; from many ethnicities — that inflect our politics and make it perhaps more complicated than European nations smaller in size and population as well as less diverse. The discussion remained civil, illuminated contrasting positions, and arrived at no particular conclusion.
Self-critique and the capacity for it — it could have been a cue to bring discussion back to Baldwin. The Fire Next Time is, in many respects, a project in self-critique: from the perspective of an adult looking back at his youth and an American writer in Paris looking at the probably ineradicable stain on his country’s heritage of democracy. No one took the cue. If they had, we may have heard something like these closing words from Baldwin:
“Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others — do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time.”
2. Faith and Poetry
Strolling cobblestone streets in the shadow of medieval spires, history staring at us any way we turn, down winding alleys or through ancient market squares — the question often on our minds was, Where the heck are we? Better look at the map again. Usually it wasn’t an existential question, and often had to do with getting to the next session of the 2017 Prague Writer’s Festival, where the theme was James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time.
Although international politics often occupied discussion at PWF, another topic — more appropriate to Baldwin — came up the first evening (Saturday November 11) when Syrian poet Adonis (nom de plume of Ali Ahmed Said) talked about “The Question of Islam.” The internationally known Arabic poet (some of whose work is translated by Samuel Hazo) offered perspective on tribal fears, extended over 700 years, from when Islam was the dominant world culture, to the current era, in which a progressive religious practice exists alongside the medievalism of an extremist minority.
Pointedly, Adonis posited that one can be a believer — practicing a faith system — or a poet. One or the other, he said. Not both. In the modern world, he asserted, religious belief excludes authentic being, open to self-revision, which — by his framework — is a defining feature of a poet.
Although Adonis didn’t mention The Fire Next Time, he reinforced a pivotal statement in Baldwin’s narrative of self-awareness and freedom. “It is not too much to say,” says Baldwin, “that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being . . . must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church.”
With this statement, Baldwin concludes his synopsis of the power dynamic of Christianity in Western conquest and colonialism— “proof of the favor of God.” He differentiates Christianity and Islam as they relate to whiteness and blackness. “The white man’s heaven,” said a Black Muslim minister in Baldwin’s retelling, “is the black man’s hell.” Over the course of The Fire Next Time, first published in 1963, still remarkably relevant, Baldwin describes the attractive, but ultimately unacceptable to him, appeal of the Nation of Islam to American black people.
To this American, it didn’t go unnoticed that Adonis’s statement — believer and poet as mutually exclusive — brooked no contention at PWF. It was one way to know, perhaps, that I wasn’t in America anymore. As Charles Simic, the great poet who (having grown up in Yugoslavia) carries European consciousness into his work far more than USA-born writers, says: “America is God crazy, as everyone knows. It’s impossible to be an American writer without taking that into account.”
Despite Prague’s glorious cathedrals, the Czech Republic may be the least religious country in the world; about 10 percent of people, according to polls, practice a faith, predominantly Christianity. Historically, this small nation’s struggle for independence can’t be separated from struggle for religious freedom, government divorced from Catholicism. A national hero and figure of inspiration through the 20th-century travails of Nazi-ism and the Soviet era is Jan Hus, priest, scholar and teacher, who in 1415, refusing to recant his democratic “heresies” about priestly privilege, burnt at the stake.
More recently, the Czech national leader was a writer who endured imprisonment to resist a different faith system, the ideology he called “the lie” — Soviet communism. A literary cousin to Kafka, Václav Havel asserted, through the absurdist comedy of his plays, an idealist sense of individual identity. Raised as a Catholic, Havel likely wouldn’t disagree with Adonis, but was, nevertheless, by no means an atheist:
“There are some things that I have felt since childhood: that there is a great mystery above me which is the focus of all meaning and the highest moral authority; that the event called ‘the world’ has a deeper order and meaning, and therefore is more than just a cluster of improbable accidents; that in my own life I am reaching for something that goes far beyond me and the horizon of the world that I know; that in everything I do I touch eternity in a strange way.” (from Disturbing the Peace)
PWF 2017 celebrated James Baldwin as among the greatest American writers of the 20th century. Or ever. I may not have arrived at any conclusions I didn’t already hold about being a poet. But it was beautiful to be in Prague and among writers from many parts of the world, and a joy to help appreciate the moral force, courage and conviction conveyed in the pages of The Fire Next Time.
Copyright 2017 Mike Schneider
Mike Schneider won the 2016 Robert Phillips Prize (selected by Richard Foerster) from Texas Review Press, which in 2017 published his chapbook “How Many Faces Do You Have?”