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.”

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