Zhadan on War-Time, Language, Memory, and Poetry After Bucha (Part 3)

This is the third and final part of my essays reflecting on Serhiy Zhadan’s acceptance speech for the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels). Part 1 focused on the existential and phenomenological experience of “war-time.” Part 2 turned to Zhadan’s reflections on how war impacts one’s ability to breathe and the many ways that war disrupts, challenges, and reconfigures language. In Part 3, we discuss Zhadan’s insights regarding memory in a time of war; memory will bring us back to language, phenomenological reflections on time, and the possibility of poetry after Bucha.

As one living in the midst of a live war, Zhadan wants us to understand that this is not simply a “different experience.” Rather, living in war-time leaves its indelible mark deep in your innermost being, in your memory. What you live and suffer through in war alters “memory and fills it with excessively painful images, excessively deep traumas, and excessively bitter conversations. You can’t rid yourself of these memories; you aren’t able to fix the past. It will always be a part of you. Hardly your best part.” What you have seen—tortured, maimed, dead civilians, soldiers, dogs, cats, birds; what you have heard—parents crying in anguish over murdered sons and daughters; what you have smelled—scorched earth, homes and hospitals ablaze, human flesh decomposing; what you have tasted—snow mixed with toxins from shelling; and what you have felt—your inability to breathe, the tension that runs through your body at the sound of sirens and other loud noises, a feeling of what goes beyond feeling or pervasive numbness—these experiences are seared into your memory and require you to seek out a new language. That is, you need a new language not only to express, but to learn how to live with these searing memories. The silence, the loss of words, that overtakes you in a time of war, is, however, doesn’t have the final say. Here Zhadan sounds a sorrowful yet hopeful note: “Poetry after Bucha and Izium is still undoubtedly possible. Moreover, it’s necessary; however, the specter of Bucha and Izium, their presence, will weigh too heavily in this post-war poetry, which, to a great extent, will determine its content and tonality. This painful, yet necessary realization that mass graves and bombed neighborhoods will provide context for the poems written in your country—does not fill you with optimism, of course, yet it makes you understand that language requires our daily labor, our constant involvement, our engagement. After all, what do we have in order to make our point, to express ourselves? Our language and our memory.”

Russian missile attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine December 31, 2022. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

This hopeful note about language resonates with Hans-Georg Gadamer’s view of language and likewise brings to mind some of Paul Celan’s reflections about the possibility of poetry after catastrophe. For Gadamer, as linguistic and interpreting beings, we are always striving to find the right words to better understand and communicate events, experiences, and matters of concern. Even when an event or experience leaves us speechless, we are, as it were, in conversation with ourselves as we try to understand what has occurred, what it means, and what it means vis-à-vis our own self- and world-understanding. Gadamer holds that, on the one hand, thinking and language are intimately connected, and on the other, that language, understood more broadly as linguisticality (Sprachlichkeit) is not limited to its verbal expressions. Yet our ability to communicate verbally and share our experiences with others is an essential feature of what it is to be an interpreting being—to live hermeneutically. Rather than placing the logic of the statement (Aussage) at the center of his philosophical hermeneutics, Gadamer emphasizes the interplay of question and answer, which is at the heart of all genuine conversation, even “internal” conversation. In his 1985 essay, “Boundaries of Language,” Gadamer writes: “language is not fulfilled in statements but as conversation [Die Sprache vollzieht sich also nicht in Aussagen, sondern als Gespräch], as the unity of a meaning that develops out of the word and answer. Language attains its completeness [Rundheit; lit. “roundness”; fullness; comprehensiveness] therein. That is especially true for the language of words. But it is surely also the case for the language of gestures, or morals, and of forms of expression from different and foreign life-worlds” (16).

In other words, it is in the ongoing, back-and-forth of conversation—with another or oneself—that we engage in the difficult work of finding the right words, the words that, insofar as they can articulate the reality and truth of an event or experience, enable us to gain a better understanding of the matter at hand and ourselves. Even when you arrive at the answer that an event—such as a traumatic event—can never be made completely or exhaustively intelligible nor rationally justified, achieving these realizations in words is to say something meaningful and true about the event. This lack of complete intelligibility, however, in no way means that injustices cannot be prosecuted. Rather, it means that what can be understood about the event—for example, that war crimes and atrocities were committed—must be documented with the utmost care, so that the testimonies of survivors, eye-witnesses, forensic and other specialists can be presented in the clearest and most comprehensive and coherent way possible. Such work is incredibly difficult, perhaps the most difficult kind of conversation because you have to enter into the darkest aspects of humanity; you have to find ways to talk about the most cruel and inhumane actions. Although the trauma caused by war-time is an extreme event, nonetheless, it involves the kind of labor-intensive, engaged searching for the right words of which both Gadamer and Zhadan speak.

Zhadan illustrates the difficulty and the hope of language through a brief account of one of his friends from Kharkiv who had been injured in the war and had to be temporarily hospitalized. Zhadan’s friend told him that his injury was the result of a phosphorus bomb that the Russians had used and that despite this, his friend—now a soldier in a live war with combat experience and into whose eyes “you could glimpse two months of hell”—was eager to return to the frontline. His friend’s account of what happened to him and especially his desire to return to the frontline to continue fighting for Ukraine’s liberation left Zhadan speechless. As he explains, “This is one of those cases when you simply don’t know how to respond. Language betrays you, you lack language, and you are left merely searching for the right words. They are sure to turn up, though, eventually.”

At this point Zhadan offers another existential and phenomenology description of how time is experienced during a time of war. Here he speaks of time as frozen, no longer flowing, and creating a sense of “cold timelessness.”  This frozen time not only halts the normal movement of time, but it also freezes speech—that is, the here and now of the present is so oversaturated that it seems pointless to talk about the future; frozen time creates a numbness to the future and cuts you off from the past. Listen to Zhadan’s poignant characterization:

“War time truly is a time with a disjointed panorama, disrupted communication between the past and the future, a time when you feel the here and now with maximum acuteness and bitterness, when you immerse yourself in the space that surrounds you and focus on the moment that overwhelms you. There are certain elements of fatalism to this—when you stop making plans and thinking about the future, as you try, first and foremost, to root yourself in the here and now, under the skies that unfurl above you, and the only thing that reminds you that time is passing is the fact that days turn to nights, summer follows spring without fail, and despite the frozen nature of your feelings, despite the stupor, life goes on; it doesn’t stop for an instant.”

Instead of sensing your agency, your connection to history, and your creative aspirations for the future, it is as if you are fixed in the single timeless space of this here and this now abstracted from the normal cadence of time. When you do get a glimpse of some semblance of time’s movement, it is the cyclical, non-individualized, unremitting movement of daytime to nighttime, summer to spring. It’s as if time becomes one of those amusement park rides in which you are strapped in and then the outside wall spins insanely fast while the floor drops out beneath you. All you can do is close your eyes so that you don’t get sick and hope that the ride is over soon. Not only has the world become more dizzying and without a solid ground, but your perception of what it is—the harsh realities shape its contours—is forever changed.  As Zhadan observes, the experience of war-time shifts “the distance between you and reality […] Reality is now closer. Reality has become more dreadful. And now you have to live with this.”

Zhadan does not romanticize war-time; he existentially understands the trauma of war, and yet, he voices, from within the pain, hope—hope in language, in memory, and in a renewed sense of time.

In the last section of his speech, he emphasizes our language and the collective, shared activities that will be required to bring past, present, and future back into fruitful harmony. Here he starts with a series of questions:

“What will our language be like after the war? What will we have to explain to each other? First and foremost, we will have to say the names of the dead aloud. They must be named. Otherwise, there will be a major fragmentation of language, a void between voices, and a fracture in our memories. We will need tremendous strength and faith to speak about the dead, as their names will shape our vocabularies. Yet we will need just as much strength, confidence, and love to speak about our future, to articulate, vocalize, and outline it.”

Zhadan sketches what a post-war communal linguistic, remembering should involve. The names of the dead must be spoken aloud by a community, by a “we.” Past lives stolen from us must be collectively re-membered through present shared linguistic activities—that is, linguistic activities carried out by a community that in some meaningful way allows for an ongoing remembrance of all whose lives were taken. These collective activities contribute to a reorientation of past, present, and future; a restoration of fractured memories; and they give voice, dignity, and honor to the dead. One can imagine the creation of new monuments with the names of soldiers who courageously gave their lives for Ukraine’s freedom and independence, or perhaps an annual reading aloud in religious ceremonies of the names of local citizens whose lives were extinguished during the war. Whatever form it takes, this shared linguistic activity of re-membering is required for the present healing of individuals and the community of the future.

Regarding Ukraine’s future, Zhadan draws attention to Ukrainian agency, responsibility, and solidarity. Ukraine’s future, he says “is shaped by our visions, our convictions, our willingness to take responsibility. We will work at returning our sense of the future, since there’s just so much in our memories that demands our involvement tomorrow. We are all linked by that current that carries us, that won’t let us go, that unites us. We are all linked by our language.”

Zhadan is perhaps also, with his stress on our languageevoking a double-meaning—that is, the our might refer not only to the collective and creative work of poetry, ritual re-membering, and bearing witness, but perhaps also to the willful embrace by Ukrainians from all walks of life of the Ukrainian language, a language forged in a time of war. (Consider, e.g., President Zelensky’s switch to Ukrainian during the present phase of this war and the worldwide interest in learning Ukrainian to show solidarity with Ukraine.)

Zhadan ends with sober words about language in (and after) war-time and, significantly, he connects language and truth. “As long as we have our language, we have, at the very least, the vague chance to articulate ourselves, speak the truth, and tidy up our memories. So we speak and we go on speaking. Even when words hurt our throats. Even when they make us feel lost and empty. The possibility of truth is behind our voices.”

Zhadan on War-Time, Language, Memory, and Poetry After Bucha (Part 2)

This is the second part of a multi-part series reflecting on Serhiy Zhadan’s acceptance speech for the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels). Part 1 focused on the existential and phenomenological experience of “war-time.” In Part 2, we turn to how war impacts the most fundamental embodied experience—breathing—and how war changes language, shifting its “coordinates of meaning” and disclosing the insufficiency of our previous vocabulary.

Not only is war-time experienced as time-out-of-joint but the very act of breathing is transformed. As Zhadan puts it, from the very first day and every day it continues, war is experienced as a “temporal fracture, the absence of continuity, the feeling of air being compressed.” Here in this “zone edging toward death,” to simply breathe becomes laborious because “reality is exerting pressure on you, trying to squeeze you out to the other side of life”—that is, to death. What differentiates the “reality of war” from the “reality of peace” is precisely this sense that events, emotions, and sensations are compressed and your day-to-day, moment-by-moment being and acting in the world is constantly under pressure. There is an “inability to breathe freely and just speak.” To speak the wrong word at the wrong time and with the wrong inflection might result in a beating or losing the opportunity to get food or water for your family; it might even mean your death, depending on the mood of the occupiers. Zhadan is not advocating for silence; prudence is, of course a necessary virtue for war-time; you learn how and when to speak depending upon the situation at hand. Even so, within this compressed, pressurized war-world everyone must at some point speak. “You have to speak. Even during times of war. Especially during times of war.”

Language is, of course, dynamic, living, and constantly shaped by new social realities and events that compel us to rethink our former ways of expressing or describing our world, ourselves, and others. War, Zhadan states, “unequivocally changes language.” Words, phrases, and how we speak is disrupted, challenged, questioned, re-thought, and revised. The horrific, inhumane, experiences of war require a new vocabulary, as former names and ways of talking about events, actions, and political ideologies no longer suffice. Yale historian Timothy Snyder analyzes this phenomenon in his essay, “The War in Ukraine Has Unleashed a New Word,” which explains the etymology, history, and significance of the new word, “Рашизм.” The neologism, “Рашизм,” variously translated into English as “ruscism,” “russism,” and “raschism” was coined to describe the complex of Russian ideology (with particular attention to Putin’s regime) and extreme violence at play in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Рашизм is a term of severe condemnation, which means, roughly, “Russian fascism.” Variants of the word can be traced back to 1995 in descriptions of Russian military aggression in Chechnya (see Wikipedia, “Rashism.”). The terms “Рашизм” (“raschism”/ “ruscism”) and “рашисти”—i.e., “raschists” or “ruscists,” which refer to those who support and promulgate Rashcist ideology and implement its violence—became more widespread in Ukrainian media in 2014, when Russia first invaded Ukraine and subsequently illegally annexed Crimea. (It is important to remember that the Russo-Ukrainian war began in 2014 and had already been underway for 8 years when the Russian Federation launched its full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022.) However, as Synder notes, the term started resurfacing with the revelations of mass graves and atrocities in Bucha and the areas surrounding Kyiv. Likewise, council members of Mariupol used the term to describe the war crimes committed against the residents of Mariupol. In light of the realities on the ground—the hundreds of bodies lying dead in the streets, the mass graves full of tortured bodies, corpses with their hands tied behind their backs and gunshot wounds in the head—Ukrainians had to search for the right word to describe the extreme violence against humans, non-human animals, and the natural world. Raschism (“Рашизм”) is that right word, the word that creatively puts fascism and Russia into play, enabling the complex history, ideological underpinnings, and brutal reality of this war to more sharply come into focus. Not only does the Ukrainian deployment of the term more aptly disclose the realities of the war, but it is also a way to resist and subvert raschist narratives and attempts to erase and rewrite Ukrainian identity. As Snyder observes “Russian myths of empire cannot contain the imagination of the Ukrainian victims of a new war. National identity is about living people, and the values and the futures they imagine and choose. A nation exists insofar as it makes new things, and a national language lives by making new words.”

In fact, which language we decide to speak can connote ethical and political significance. One can, as Ukrainian writer  did, intentionally choose to forego Russian and to write only in Ukrainian. In “Writing off Russia,” an insightful interview with Refayenko conducted by Yale historian Marci Shore, Refayenko explains why he made this choice.

“At the beginning of the century, I positioned myself as a Ukrainian writer who also functions in the Russian cultural-linguistic sphere. It never entered my mind to write in Ukrainian. After 2014, I learned Ukrainian and wrote a novel in Ukrainian, to show Russians and anyone else that even for a Russophone Ukrainian, learning Ukrainian is not a problem–and not only learning it well enough to speak it, but also learning it well enough to write literary texts.”

At that point in his life, Refayenko, wrote in both Russian and Ukrainian.  He wanted, as he put it, “to be clear to everyone that the problem of defending the

Russian-speaking population in Ukraine has never existed—nor does it now, though it was precisely with this slogan that Russian combatants ‘liberated’ me and my family from our own country. We were forced to leave for Kyiv. But we knew of course that the Russians would not stop there. And so it happened. After February 24, I made a firm decision never again to publish a single text in Russian. […] A language has not been invented in which it is possible to talk with someone who has come to your house to murder you, to murder your wife and your child, to destroy your home and scorch your land. And I have no desire to contribute any longer, even if indirectly, to Ukrainian literature in the Russian language. If it does continue, then let it continue without my participation.” Refayenko’s decision is completely understandable in light of the trauma he has undergone and witnessed.

Transfer of civilians from Irpin to Kyiv due to Russian attacks.jpg
By Mvs.gov.ua, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=115915000; Wikipedia “Irpin refugee column shelling

This difficult relationship with language is a perfect segue back to Zhadan’s reflections.  Zhadan discusses the difficulties and frustrations that he and other Ukrainians experience in their attempts to convey to European intellectuals and politicians (and the same applies, in my view, to certain American intellectuals and politicians) what life is like in war. The very architecture of language, says Zhadan, has been altered. The linguistic constructions that seemed smooth and unproblematic in pre-war days no longer suffice. War-time creates new linguistic challenges, in which words like “peace” suddenly become stumbling blocks in the pursuit of common understanding, and this inability to be understood is exceedingly painful for Ukrainians, who are already experiencing day after day, month after month the trauma of war. In what follows, Zhadan describes the frustration and pain that Ukrainian intellectuals, activists, politicians, and engaged citizens experience in this war-time linguistic landscape of fractured discourses.

“Since the onset of war, we have all been trying to regain this disrupted ability, the ability to express ourselves so we’re understood. We are all attempting to articulate ourselves, the truth, the outer bounds of our turmoil and trauma. […] How can one talk about war? How can one manage all the desperation, fury, and rancor in one’s tone, as well as all the energy and eagerness to stick by your fellows, not to retreat. I think we aren’t the only ones struggling to convey what matters most. The world listening to us isn’t capable of understanding one simple thing—when we speak, the degrees differ too drastically. Ukrainians shouldn’t have to justify their emotions, but unpacking these emotions is worthwhile.”

While Zhadan justifiably voices frustration with the lack of understanding of well-intended Western dialogue partners due to the vast differences in experience between them and Ukrainians living in and through war-time, he, nonetheless, does not give up on the possibility of meaningful conversations. However, he is aware that such conversations will be difficult. “We can articulate it; we can vocalize everything that has and will happen to us. We simply have to be ready for the fact that this won’t be an easy conversation. Nevertheless, we have to begin it today.”

The differing perspectives and “fields of vision” among the groups of dialogue partners and even the “varying weight and color” of the words and definitions employed create hindrances to what is most needed—namely, an accurate and true understanding of the present phase of the war and how we arrived at the point. As Zhadan observes, “Sometimes it seems like, as the world watches what has been transpiring in Eastern Europe for the past six months [written in Oct. 2022] it has been using vocabulary and definitions that haven’t been able to explain what’s going on for a long time.” He then focuses specifically on the word, “peace,” and asks what his Western dialogue partners who keep calling for peace—peace now and peace at all costs—mean by the term. The Ukrainians—those actually living through the hell of war—want this war to end more than anyone; but they want it to truly end so that real peace, not a mere temporary absence of artillery strikes, can be restored in Ukraine. It is precisely with their differing uses and understandings of peace that Eastern and Western European dialogue partners are struggling to find common ground.

Here Gadamer’s hermeneutical insights have much to offer Western European and American intellectuals and politicians who want to engage Ukrainians in a genuine dialogue. Ukrainians have demonstrated their integrity and their willingness to die for our shared democratic values. They have shown that, unlike Putin, they are reliable, trustworthy dialogue partners. Ukrainians have existential experience as well as deep historical and cultural knowledge of Russia, its military, and its political strategies and maneuverings. Western partners need to approach Ukrainians with a willingness to listen, learn, and to allow their own present understandings to be challenged and revised. That is, our comportment should be what Gadamer calls hermeneutical openness. We listen to the other, open to the possibility that we have misunderstood and consequently need to amend our former understanding of the situation or question at hand. Although in the passage below, Gadamer speaks of interpreting a text—which for him is a kind of dialogue partner—his insights can readily be applied to the cultural and political dialogue that we have been discussing.

“A person trying to understand a text [Ukrainian culture, history, politics vis-à-vis Russia] is prepared for it to tell him something. That is why a hermeneutically trained consciousness must be, from the start, sensitive to the text’s alterity. But this kind of sensitivity involves neither ‘neutrality’ with respect to content nor the extinction of one’s self, but the foregrounding and appropriation of one’s own fore-meanings and prejudices [pre-judgements; Lat. pre-judicare]. The important thing is to be aware of one’s own bias, so that the text [Ukrainian culture, history, politics vis-à-vis Russia] can present itself in all its otherness and thus assert its own truth against one’s own fore-meanings” (Truth and Method, 282).

To demonstrate hermeneutical openness in a dialogue does not mean that you have no say and the other is always right; nor does it mean that you leave your values and cultural and historical horizons behind. Quite the opposite, one’s values, pre-judgments, and present historically shaped understandings that constitute one’s hermeneutical horizons are foregrounded. (Some of our pre-judgments are problematic, harmful and need to be changed; others disclose themselves as true when put to the test.) Our pre-judgments and biases function as conditions for the possibility of genuine understanding to take place; it is through making our views and the assumptions that enable them explicit in conversation with others that such views can, in fact, be tested. If, for example, our present understanding of what real peace means vis-à-vis Ukraine and Russia is misguided or shown to be false through our dialogue, then we have the opportunity to amend those views and to expand and enrich our horizons.

With this openness in mind, let’s listen to what Zhadan has to say about what true peace means for Ukrainians and to his criticism of Western Europeans (and again, I add, certain Americans) who are calling for peace now and at all costs. As Zhadan explains, what Ukrainians find so disturbing about these types of calls for peace is “the fact that we understand that peace won’t come merely because the victim of aggression has laid down their arms.” Zhadan reminds us that the civilians in Bucha, Hostomel, Irpin, and Kharkiv were, in fact, unarmed, and yet they were shot, tortured, shelled, and ruthlessly murdered and raped. The very fact that these injustices and atrocities have occurred cannot be pushed to side in present calls for peace. And here Zhadan highlights a crucial difference in the respective views of peace. For Ukrainians living in war-time, peace cannot be separated from justice; the two are intimately connected. As Zhadan puts it, “when speaking about peace in the context of this bloody, dramatic war instigated by Russia, some people don’t want to acknowledge a simple fact—there’s no such thing as peace without justice.”

He continues with a litany of what has passed for peace and for what some—those who call for peace now and at all costs—continue to advocate. “There are various forms of frozen conflict, there are temporarily occupied territories, there are time-bombs camouflaged as political compromises, but unfortunately, there won’t be any peace, real peace that provides a sense of security and prospects for the future. And by castigating Ukrainians for being unwilling to surrender and perceiving that as an element of militarism and radicalism, some Europeans […] are doing a bizarre thing; by trying to stay in their comfort zone, they venture beyond the bounds of ethics. And this is no longer a question for Ukrainians—this is a question for the world, for its willingness (or unwillingness) to swallow yet another manifestation of utter uncontrollable evil in favor of dubious financial gain and disingenuous pacificism.” Ukrainians fighting to save their lives and the lives of their loved ones in the midst of bombardments and atrocities are not radicals for supporting their military. Nor are they radical nationalists for rejoicing when their occupied cities are liberated, and the Ukrainian flag is once again flown over a city administration building. Anyone who has been even slightly attentive to the war crimes uncovered in Bucha, Irpin, Kharkiv, Kherson, and the list goes on would, it would seem, grasp the relief, joy, and ability to breathe again that liberated Ukrainians experience when their armed forces return and expel the brutal aggressors.  Zhadan’s statements about certain Western voices staying in their “comfort zone”—in their utterly detached, disembodied comfort zones of thought—and thus going “beyond the bounds of ethics” is worth dwelling with. It is as if certain intellectuals enter into an academic game, which requires them to leave their ability to think and feel with those who suffer, finding it more comfortable to engage in academic word games. For example, instead of listening to Ukrainian survivors of rape and torture and publicly condemning such actions, they focus their intellectual energy on explaining their aversion to Ukrainians’ or journalists’ or other academics’ use of the word “evil” to describe Russian atrocities because the term “evil” has theological connotations and is therefore meaningless. (Or they stress that we must speak of evil actions rather than evil as a reified entity, etc., etc.) Even if one agrees with aspects of their arguments, hyper-focusing on these nuances instead of the horrific violence being carried out in Ukraine illustrates intellectualism gone astray, detached, disembodied, in-humane. We need a re-attunement or re-focusing on the ethical dimensions of our being-with-one-another in this world, the existential here and now that needs protecting so that there can be a future.

Continuing his thoughts about ethics, politics, and language, Zhadan writes:

“It turns out that these days a lot of things, phenomena, and concepts need to be explained, or at the very least, they need a fresh reminder, they need to be re-articulated and embraced again. Typically, war shows what people have been trying not to notice for a long while; war is a time of uncomfortable questions and tough answers. This war launched by the Russian army has suddenly put forth a slew of questions that reach well beyond the context of Russo-Ukrainian relations. Like it or not, in the upcoming years, we will have to talk about things that make us uncomfortable: populism and double standards, a lack of responsibility and political conformism, ethics, which, as it turns out, have hopelessly disappeared from the vocabulary of those who make crucial decisions in the modern world.”

Responding to a possible retort that the issues he brings to our attention deal with the realm of politics—as if politics and ethics have no significant overlap—Zhadan, says, in an Aristotelian spirit, then let’s turn to politics and show how the two are intertwined: as the individual and the community are intertwined, shaping and being shaped by one another, so too with ethics and politics. He starts with a critical tone—namely, that what passes as politics today is quite often a “screen, a chance to avoid bumping into sharp edges” rather than speaking the truth frankly, plainly—calling deceit, deceit, war crimes, war crimes, and genocide, genocide. We even shy away from using the word freedom and need to be reminded as to what freedom is—not the mere lack of constraint, but freedom in the positive sense—namely, the freedom to flourish as an individual-in-community-with-others, and importantly, not just human others but natural and earth others, whose flourishing rather than mere survival is intimately tied to our well-being. Freedom, peace, crimes against humanity, genocide, reparations, occupiers, collaborators, filtration camps, are, in times of war, “lexical units” that “sound particularly sharp and expressive. Avoiding them without getting cut is very hard. They shouldn’t be avoided.”  Let’s not avoid them but face them, inspired by the spirit of courage that Ukrainians are showing day after day living in the midst of sub-freezing temperatures, lack of electricity, and constant artillery, missile, and drone strikes on their critical infrastructure, museums, schools, hospitals, and homes—all of which are attempts to destroy their right to exist as Ukrainians. Let’s call war crimes, war crimes, genocide, genocide.

Zhadan on War-Time, Language, Memory, and Poetry After Bucha (Part 1)

“There is no peace without justice.” Serhiy Zhadan

On October 23, 2022, Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels). This prestigious award has been given since 1950 to individuals who have made significant contributions to peace and to those who have fostered understanding among different people groups. What follows are my reflections on Zhadan’s acceptance speech, which is resonant with philosophical, poetic, ethical, and political themes well worth lingering with—and especially so in this dark time of war.

Bucha after the battle (2022)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Bucha 

After sharing a grim story about a how volunteer in Kharkiv had to obtain a refrigerator truck to collect human bodies that had been lying on the ground for over a month, Zhadan asks a profoundly philosophical question and then responds with an equally profound—not to mention existentially and phenomenologically rich—answer. “What does war change first? One’s sense of time, one’s sense of space. The outline of one’s perspective, the outline of temporal progression changes very quickly.” When you live in a time of active war, your present-time and present-space is so overwhelming present, that the future is occluded. The closest one gets to the future is perhaps tomorrow. As Zhadan explains, “What’s happening to you here and now is all that matters, just the people and things that will be with you tomorrow morning—tops.” However, that presumes that your flat, or wherever you happen to be sleeping that night, isn’t bombed. Surviving, “staying alive and pushing forward another twelve hours or so is the most important task at hand.” Hegel’s “here and now,” which is so quickly subsumed in this dialectic, knows nothing of the existential experience of time and space in a time of war, where “here and now” means I am alive for another hour or another five minutes, and this place, this space, this concrete wall is literally a shield protecting me from exploding missiles and razor-sharp shrapnel shards that will either kill me or rip through my body as easily as a knife cuts through butter—but the this “here” in view is my body and perhaps my blood.

If you survive the night, you awaken with a sense of what is most urgent. That is, in a time of war, you don’t waste time; rather, you welcome time as a gift—whether you are given one more day, morning, or hour, you grasp with everything that you are that whatever time you have must be lived well. Zhadan discloses an experience of time that doesn’t quite fit into phenomenological descriptions of time that one finds in the hermeneutical tradition—namely, “empty” and “fulfilled” time. Instead, war-time seems to involve elements of both but in an intensified, oversaturated way.

Let me explain. In his reflections on our experience of an artwork Hans-Georg Gadamer describes what he calls “empty time” and “fulfilled” or “autonomous time.” (cf. “The Relevance of the Beautiful”; hereafter, RB). Empty time is measurable; it’s the time we experience in our everyday life when, for instance, we are frenzied and can’t seem to find enough time. Here time is experienced as scarce; we create our hour-by-hour daily schedule, but time always shows up as deficient, lacking, never enough. Yet, we also experience time as empty when we are bored and have a surfeit of time. In both cases, time is perceived as something to be filled, calculated, used, or spent. In contrast, Gadamer describes fulfilled or autonomous time as an entirely different experience of time that is “profoundly related to the kind of time characteristic of both the festival and the work of art” (RB, 42). Fulfilled or autonomous time arrives at the proper time, drawing us into its rhythm. Anyone who has genuinely participated in a religious festival or communal musical celebration understands this transformation of empty time into festival time. There is a certain rhythm to a festival, which often unfolds through specific shared rituals, customs, and activities. As we participate in the festival activities, we become so engrossed that it is as if time stood still or took flight. Such festival celebrations are experienced as integral wholes; there is a clear beginning, middle, and end, and all of the parts are organically related and comprise a whole. To illustrate these aspects of “autonomous” time having its own time, Gadamer highlights the stages of human life. For example, he writes: “childhood, youth, maturity, old age, and death are all basic forms of such autonomous time. We do not calculate here, nor do we simply add up a gradual sequence of empty moments to arrive at a totality of time. The continuity of the uniform temporal flow that we can observe and measure by the clock tells us nothing about youth or age” (RB, 42). In contrast with the predictable, monotonous ticking away of clock time, our experience of the arrival of the various stages of human life comes upon us and often rather unexpectedly. “Suddenly we become aware that someone has aged or that someone is ‘no longer a child.’ Here we recognize that everyone has his own time, his autonomous temporality” (RB, 42).

Just as life has its own rhythm, so too with the work of art. Gadamer observes the “close proximity” of life and art in that both display an internal unity or structure. In other words, like the organic unity of a living being, the elements composing a work of art are intimately and internally related; they form an integral whole in which each part has its proper place, and the composition as a whole has its own appropriate rhythm or unfolding. Both the living organism and the artwork are characterized by an “internally structured unity” and both display “autonomous temporality” [Eigenzeit] (RB, 43). Of course, a musical composition offers a clear example of the artwork’s autonomous time. Composers often include tempo markers on their scores, instructing the performer to play certain sections rapidly, adagio, or legato. However, these markings are not simply the decision of the composer; rather, the composer has tarried with the piece and has attuned herself to the proper unfolding of the piece. Both performers of the pieces and engaged listeners, must also “find the right time as it is demanded by the work. . . . The correct tempo can never really be quantified or calculated” (RB, 43).

In sum, tarrying [verweilen] speaks of the engaged participant’s temporal comportment with an artwork. Such a comportment requires an active attunement to the artwork in which one is ec-statically present—that is, “fully there” with the other—anticipating the artwork’s “coming forth.” [By “ec-static,” I have in mind the hermeneutical understanding of the term which originates from the Greek, ek-stasis, which means literally, “to stand out.” In this context, it means a kind of self-forgetting owing to one’s attunement to the other; a displacement or being beyond oneself.] The artwork’s coming forth happens when it “comes to stand” and “the while” [die Weile] opens, suspending our ordinary experience of time such that it is existentially and phenomenologically experienced as a timelessness-within-time and thus as fulfilled time. Here it is as if time stands still.

Returning to Zhadan’s reflections on war-time, I highlight certain differences between it and Gadamer’s notions of empty and fulfilled time. In the experience of war-time, you are also “fully there” and engrossed in your present activities. However, when drones strike and one’s home is shelled, being attuned to and fully there with what is unfolding around you is at the same time to have a heightened awareness of yourself as an embodied self, a flesh-and-blood human being, who is fragile, vulnerable, and mortal. In other words, you are both fully there and fully cognizant of the fact that what might happen next can annihilate you—that is, kill you, violently steal your life in an instant—an Augenblick in a double-sense: a moment of vision in which you are acutely aware that the next moment could be the last. The Augenblick of insight and death.

In war-time, time is so out of joint that empty time and fulfilled time are conflated and both are intensified, oversaturated. For example, a civilian in a war zone counts seconds between the sound of explosions in order to determine what kind of weapon was being used—e.g., a mortar or a howitzer—and thus how to respond. This is in fact what civilians in Eastern Ukraine have been instructed to do—it’s one of many survival tips. Along similar lines, a first responder counts the seconds after an initial explosion and tries to gauge how many minutes remain before the second strike occurs. (This is a brutal and criminal tactic called a “double-tap” strike that the Russian forces used in Syria and currently deploys in Ukraine.) In such cases, time is experienced as both measurable and oversaturated—the very next second could be the last; time is felt at the same time as disorientingly fast and as if “time-less.”

Like autonomous or fulfilled time, war-time has its own time, but it has no “proper time.” War-time is time-out-of-joint in the most extreme sense; what occurs in war-time should never be experienced by any living being—human or otherwise. What unfolds within war-time has its own time but to call it “proper,” “appropriate,” “fitting” does violence to the very fabric of our existence; war-time strangles the excess of life, inhibits the free back-and-forth movement of creative play that characterizes human and non-human animal life. When you live in war-time, its reality is always there; you have moments when you can repress it; but it is always there, always present, even when the bombs are temporarily absent. If you want to survive, a certain degree of being “fully there” is necessary—that is,  attunement in a time of war is a matter of survival. Even when you are fully there and attuned to the movements, activities, and erratic pulse of war, its “parts” are not experienced as an integral or meaningful whole. Instead, its “parts”—the random shelling, shooting, and murder of civilians and targeting of non-military objects such as people’s homes, hospitals, schools, children’s playgrounds, queues of people waiting for bread, using rape as a “military strategy”—all of these crimes and atrocities are unintelligible; they are sense-less; they are “parts” that utterly lack integrity; they will never form a meaningful whole and yet they must be prosecuted; justice must be served. The whole, if we can call it that, appears as fragmented, but what has been experienced, what survivors bear witness to—these parts, that make up this fragmented, disjointed “whole”—must be spoken about; this speech, this witness, this testimony of what has happened in war-time plays a vital role in justice being served and genuine peace returning to Ukraine.

“There is no peace without justice.” Serhiy Zhadan