After Babel

by Leonard Schwartz
OLYMPIA, Washington—The Middle East conflict has shaped a significant part of my writing over the past six years. This is so even though as a poet I see myself as lost in the forest of language: even though it is the voice of the poem that is heard in one's texts, not the voice of the poet; even though I think one should never guide the content or stick to the path of a pre-designated subject matter; even though one writes in the dark. Yet so often in the adventure of writing, when I am truly lost, where I find myself is at the proposition: "and behold, the Palestinians became the Jews of the second half of the twentieth century, and the foreseeable 21st." By which I mean: it was we, the Jews, who lived by language alone, without land, for 2,000 years. Now it is the Palestinians who are synonymous with such life. I am saying something very obvious.

Saying is never really obvious. My 2007 book Language As Responsibility assumed the necessity of an address to the other. Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas suggested that the very presence of language implies the existence of an other, and therefore each utterance we make carries weight in the world: utterances that stand as if face to face, where the human face proves the existence of the other. From this premise, Language As Responsibility combined three forms of address to the other: conversation, proposition, and poem. The first section was an interview with the Israeli poet and peace activist, Aharon Shabtai, the second an essay on Arabic and Israeli writing in translation, the third section one of my poems. In the poem I misquote the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva. Early in the last century she wrote, famously, "all poets are Jews." She meant that as poets we are exiled to language, like the Jews were, and that the work of salvage can only be done by way of words, or with whatever words haven't been wasted entirely. I changed it to "All poets are Palestinians." This is true for Jewish poets above all. We must permit ourselves such provocations, remain open to being provoked, and insist on saying paradoxical things.

We speak in a language that is never obvious. For my 2005 book Ear and Ethos I wrote a series of poems for which I decided the constraint would be to only use English words derived from Arabic. The way to dissipate toxic notions like "the clash of civilizations" is not with ball-pen screeds or by assuming the moral high ground, but by demonstrating the falsity of those notions. In English we cannot name a piece of fruit without borrowing from Arabic. Languages are intertwined. There is no clash of civilizations.

The myth of language, as both chaos and wealth, is inscribed in the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel of ancient Mesopotamia, in which the Tower collapses beneath human ambition, or divine jealousy, or both, from whence all human languages come. My prose poem, "The New Babel," grappled with my first-hand experience of September 11th, 2001 as those towers fell in NYC, and the range of thoughts, perceptions, confusions, and feelings so stirred in the months that followed. This was a day many deemed a culmination of the so-called clash of civilizations. (It felt like a little Hiroshima, and like being in a bombed out village in Afghanistan several weeks later).

We speak with one another, thanks to language, or by embracing Babel. On my radio program, Cross Cultural Poetics, I speak by phone with poets, translators, and writers from all over the world. Did you know that in America we publish less literature in translation by far than any other industrialized democracy? That in America, 1% of the poetry published is poetry is translation, while in France 60% is in translation? How can we hear the words of the other if the other isn't permitted a hearing? If the other isn't permitted words by virtue of our own inertia in meeting those words half-way? Conflict can be mediated by culture, but only if culture is willing to engage in the cutting-edge conflicts of its own day and age. Our culture is primed, the poets and translators are hard at work. It is the greater part of the publishing world, having given itself over to commodity and corporate culture, that fails us the most. The Middle East conflict challenges us to overcome the terrible limitations on our own capacity to imagine something other.


* Leonard Schwartz is professor of Literary Arts at Evergreen State College. He is the author of numerous collections of poetry and essays. His literary work is available online at, and his radio program, Cross Cultural Poetics, at

This article is part of a special series on Art and Conflict, which surveys the work of art in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and examines the political dimensions of art in general.

Source: Common Ground News Service, 13 March 2008,
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Other articles in this series

Tear down the wall and dance! by Checkpoint 303
Living conflict, writing peace by Ibtisam Barakat
Jerusalem youth use music to break down walls by Aaron Shneyer