Djelal Kadir


On his book Memos from the Besieged City: Lifelines for Cultural Sustainability

Cover Interview of April 19, 2011

A close-up

The brief Epilogue of Memos from the Besieged City, like many aspects of this book, pivots on its two epigraphs.  The first is from Walt Whitman’s ambiguously democratic and imperialist “Democratic Vistas” (1871); the second is from Theodor Adorno’s 1967 essay “Commitment,” a palinode to his 1949 statement on the inevitably barbaric nature of poetry after the Holocaust.

The passage cited from the latter essay reads, “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream: hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems.”  Torture is an integral part of terror and our own age is self-defined as an age of terrorism.  Poetry in the broad sense of literature–its composition and reading–may well be the most efficacious antidote to terror, whether the terror practiced by states or by non-state agents. Human history complicates such a desired role for poetry: While this desideratum has often been corroborated, poetry’s civilizing role has also been disconfirmed, with more than one torturer also having responded to the muses’ call.

The lifelines traced by Memos from the Besieged City are literary lines, more accurately, lines of literacy, or the ability to read the historical past and decipher the historical present. As re-traced quickly in the Epilogue, this book is a retelling of modes of literacy and the dangers to those throughout history who have taught us to read and write otherwise.  This, at the end of the day, is the nature of true literacy—that is, critical discernment, rather than prepackaged recitation.

The “Minute on Method” recapitulates in this Epilogue a reminder of how we develop and cultivate the wherewithal to enter into and become part of the ongoing conversation–a nexus with and an articulateness about our inheritance from the past and our legacy to posterity, without which the nihilism of inarticulateness finds us at the edge of the abyss of barbarity and its familiar terrors.