Untitled (Refugees Sheltering among Ruins), Gerald Pryse, c.1917
by Jenny Diski
Some things are best met with silence. If I were to proceed with this month’s column in an honest way, it would be a blank page, without words. The imaginary blankness of the page represents the other blanknesses I have already created in my life, these past few weeks. A friend just phoned to talk to me about a mutual friend who sadly is very ill. We talk about how she will manage, what we can do, how although we know her and she is our friend, there are thousands, millions of others, also struck down with severe illness. We must bear them in mind, but our friend is our friend and her experience concerns us directly. When that conversation is done, my friend on the phone says, ‘I’m sure we don’t have to talk about…how awful…the dreadful…Do we?’
‘No,’ I say, cutting off his hesitations. ‘We don’t have to. I can’t.’
‘Yes, the same with me. Well, you know…’
‘Yes, I know.’
That blankness. Once again the desire to look away has taken hold of me. The hole in our conversation is the equivalent of the imagined blankness of this page, and the swerving of my mind away from my responses, sad, angry, disbelieving, violent even, as I come across reports.
I no longer watch the news. The Channel 4 News with John Snow as an anchor has been my first place of detailed information about what is going on in the world. It is thorough and serious, it doesn’t have an agenda of the shorter, more popular news broadcasts on other channels, which cut the sadness or cruelty of the world news with upbeat human interest stories, or at least not so much. It does ask you to face what is going on, whatever it is, and it often enough isn’t good, often enough very bad. There are no other news programmes on television that have such a good daily, hour-long analysis of world events. After that, I read the Guardian, online these days, and then weekly and monthly news magazines, in print and on the screen, that fill in the political background of the news or present facets of situations that I haven’t thought of. I listen to some of the hourly bulletins on the radio as well as longer analysis programmes. Of course, there is Twitter, which has now become a kind of infinite curator of daily thought and writing about what is happening; tweets from various journalists or interested people linking to readings and videos on obvious and not so obvious topics, that I would never have found by myself. Keeping up.
I haven’t been my happiest self in the last few months, for no particular reason, at least to start with, just because I am made to have periods of not being my happiest self. But still, while my low spirits continued, I tried to watch the Channel 4 News regularly, to attempt to keep up with the world whose doings I’ve rather lost interest in, as my mood begins to circle its wagons and to look intently and pointlessly at interior reflections of myself mirrored in time and space, rather than out at the world. I know it’s important to know what’s going on. It’s important to witness, not to look away. But I really feel as if I’ve had some inner resolve taken from me, or that I’m missing some protective coating that enabled me to do that.
It has been like that since I saw the news several weeks ago that the three missing Israeli teenagers had been found dead. Of course, the news seeps in, and I find myself with all the emotions welling up. The shelling of schools, the claim that the opposition are using civilians as hostages, the reversal of the reality of who is weak and who is strong to make the aggressors victims and the victims aggressors. Of course, both are aggressors, but the two sides are radically unequal. The one side rich and with American and European weapons, the other deliberately impoverished with a population of 50% children. Not being young, I have nowhere to put the anger I feel, or any excuse for my disbelief. ‘How can they do that? How can they?’ I hear myself saying. And then stop because it’s a naive and foolish question. One that cannot be answered in any way that would be satisfactory to me. I would be on the street, marching with the thousands if I could. But although I have good reasons why I can’t, I also know that I am sure that all the marching by all the decent people in the world will not effect a real change. I know that change comes about in economic and diplomatic ways. If it comes about at all. Still, I am pleased that there is a presence on the street expressing their dismay at the absence of humanity.
I am living such a secluded life. There isn’t a single person I know, or who I correspond with who would take the other side, or disagree with me on more than minor points. No one who doesn’t believe that the motives are not really defence, but land-grabbing and ethnic cleansing. The death of the three students was known about by the government, but not the population, a month before the ‘retaliatory’ aggression. The population is, of course, being used, in the same way that the opposition is sidelined. There must be many who side with the stronger force. I do not put myself in the way of them, any more than I can tolerate seeing the news, except out of the corner of my eyes, or as links pointing to the horror of it on Twitter. I know I’m not alone in not wanting to look. The columnist Suzanne Moore, in the Guardian, wrote how she didn’t need to see those awful pictures of dead and wounded children to know that what was happening was wrong. Words are enough, even the word ‘civilian’ is enough. It isn’t only cowardice, it is also that we’ve seen it before, we don’t need it to show us other people’s pain, or to invade the privacy of those whose privacy has most terribly already been invaded by being killed. If I don’t look at the news or the pictures being put up everywhere on the Internet, it is only because I’ve paid attention to them for decades now. And all that time, I haven’t felt anything I might do could help. Marching, signing petitions, boycotting, of course, all those things, but finally all there is is helpless anger and shame that human beings behave in such a way.
Piece crossposted with This and That Continued. Originally published in Swedish in Gotesborg-Posten.
Cover image excerpted from Guard Dog on a Missile Base, No. 1, Colin Self, 1965