02 January 2011

Hope Begins Anew

What a beautiful summer day we are starting the New Year out with. After a peaceful, gentle beginning, a late afternoon thunderstorm passed through, left a trail of evening sunshine in its wake, and then, all of a sudden, another, stronger one has moved in, striking bolts of lightning whose thunders echo all around the valley... and now – quel lluvias!

I can’t help but be filled with hope for the future, today. But it is not just the invigorating weather that is affecting me. It is the discovery, today, on this first day of 2011, of a writer and journalist by the name of Stig Dagerman, a Swede whose star blazed a brilliant path across post-WWII Europe, an enlightened soul who wrote of imagining peace long before John Lennon spoke of the same.

Cabo Polonia, Uruguay
photo by Jamie Douglas
This astounding discovery occurred because of the poem that had arrived in my email from my dear friend Monica as a “Happy New Year!” message that has been sent around to people all over Argentina. To me, this is what living in Latin America is all about: people appreciating a thoughtful poem about the human condition, finding hope in hopelessness and strength in the power of not forgetting, linking certainty with possibility, justice with beauty, and each of our stories with all of history. It is about so many things that I am passionate about, and it is so wonderful to know that I’m not the only one.

The annual Stig Dagerman Award distinguishes persons and organizations that continue in the spirit of that amazing Swedish writer and journalist in setting forth a vision of peace and defending the importance and the accessibility of the written word. Eduardo Galeano wrote his poem upon the occasion of winning this award for 2010, addressing Stig Dagerman personally, through the power of the written word that has the awesome capacity to reach across time and into souls whose bodies may have moved on, as Stig Dagerman’s did when he took his own life at the height of his writing career as an insightful observer of human nature. Like Sid Barrett, like Jim Morrison, like Jack Kerouac, like so many other crazy diamonds that have burned fast and bright, Stig Dagerman gave so much light to this world that it is difficult to imagine that his “untimely demise” might have been other than the inevitability of his conflicted character in a world where great hope can be, simultaneously, desperate hopelessness.

So, before Galeano, I must present a poem by Stig Dagerman, on this first day of 2011. The translation is by Laurie Thompson, and the original Swedish follows.

Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay
photo by Jamie Douglas
Just Once a Year

Why don't we make believe just once a year
that Death has drowned beneath the deep blue sea!
No one's life is undermined by fear,
and no one shoots his neighbor for a fee.

Tempests and floods have taken a vacation,
they're resting in some luxury hotel.
Hangmen yawn and wait for inspiration,
and every gas tap's firmly closed as well.

No one's throwing bombs in crowded places,
no drunken driver's crashed into a wall.
'Course it's not true, don't pull such faces!
It's make believe and dreaming after all.

En dag om året

En dag om året borde alla låtsas,    
att döden vilar i ett vitt schatull.                  
Inga stora illusioner krossas
och inge skjuts för fyra dollar skull.

Chacra Ushuaia, Chubut, Argentina
photo by Jamie Douglas
Världskatastrofen sover lugnt och stilla
mellan lakan på ett snyggt hotell.
Inget rep gör någon broder illa,
och inge syster slumrar vid ett slutet spjäll.

Inga män blir plötsligt sönderbrända
och ingen dör på gatorna just då.
Visst är det lögn, det kan väl hända.
Jag bara säger: Vi kan låtsas så.

Stig Dagerman was a dreamer as seer of multiple dimensions – a visionary realist who embraced fear and understood its corrosive effects on the human animal, as he wrote about how the German people had let fear override their sense of justice and beauty, how the group mentality destroys personal responsibility, how life is little more than how we choose to face our fears – not through “fight or flight,” but rather, through acceptance or denial. His spirit shines brightly on...

Now, the inevitable sudden electrical outage has befallen us, here on Cerro Radal, so devices must be unplugged and thoughts of the day, this day that begins the New Year, must be rounded up, as too, must be the candles, before darkness arrives.

My resolution for this coming year must be to continue in the spirit of those who have carried the torch of language’s burning power to move the soul towards justice and beauty, those who came before, along with those who have taken on the charge anew ...because the flickering flame of human progress is what is most inevitable of all human inevitabilities.

And now, the other poem’s time has come. This is my translation – if only it can carry faithfully the intentions of Eduardo Galeano’s amazing use of language. The original castellano follows.

Cabo Santa María, Uruguay
photo by Julie R Butler
The Ways of the Wind

My Dear Stig,

If only we would be worthy of your hopeless hope.

If only we could have the courage to be alone and the bravery to risk being together, because a tooth outside of the mouth serves no purpose, nor a finger separate from the hand.

If only we could be disobedient, each time we receive orders that humiliate our conscience or violate our common sense.

Buenos Aires, Argentina
photo by Jamie Douglas
If only we could merit being called crazy, as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have been called crazy, for committing the insanity of neglecting to forget in times of obligatory amnesia.

If only we could be so stubborn as to continue believing, contrary to all evidence, that the human condition is worth the pain, because we have been poorly made, but we are not terminated.

If only we could be able to continue walking the ways of the wind, despite the falls and the betrayals and the defeats, because history continues, beyond ourselves, and when she says goodbye, she is saying: until later.

If only we could maintain alive the certainty that it is possible to be compatriot and contemporary of all those who live animated by the will to justice and the will to beauty, may they be born where they be born and live when they may live, because neither maps of the soul nor of time have frontiers.

[translation revised on 9 September, 2012]

Patagonia, Argentina
photo by Julie R Butler
Los caminos del viento

Querido Stig:

Ojalá seamos dignos de tu desesperada esperanza.

Ojalá podamos tener el coraje de estar solos y la valentía de arriesgarnos a estar juntos, porque de nada sirve un diente fuera de la boca, ni un dedo fuera de la mano.

Buenos Aires, Argentina
photo by Jamie Douglas

Ojalá podamos ser desobedientes, cada vez que recibimos órdenes que humillan nuestra conciencia o violan nuestro sentido común.

Ojalá podamos merecer que nos llamen locos, como han sido llamadas locas las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, por cometer la locura de negarnos a olvidar en los tiempos de la amnesia obligatoria.

Ojalá podamos ser tan porfiados para seguir creyendo, contra toda evidencia, que la condición humana vale la pena, porque hemos sido mal hechos, pero no estamos terminados.

Cabo Polonia, Uruguay
photo by Jamie Douglas
Ojalá podamos ser capaces de seguir caminando los caminos del viento, a pesar de las caídas y las traiciones y las derrotas, porque la historia continúa, más allá de nosotros, y cuando ella dice adiós, está diciendo: hasta luego.

Ojalá podamos mantener viva la certeza de que es posible ser compatriota y contemporáneo de todo aquel que viva animado por la voluntad de justicia y la voluntad de belleza, nazca donde nazca y viva cuando viva, porque no tienen fronteras los mapas del alma ni del tiempo.


Matthew said...

I came across this article by typing in "group mentality destroys personal responsibility".

Great article/blog.

Julie R Butler said...


Thank you for you input.

This theme about group mentality destroying personal responsibility is so important to understand, because it becomes particularly dangerous when stirred up by unfounded fear.

What I see happening in the US today is that “individual responsibility” is being focused upon, but it is a radicalization of the concept of individualism neither looks inward nor is connective. Each is expected to be responsible only for themselves. And to protect themselves from all enemies, real or imagined, gun ownership is hallowed as the ultimate show of strength. But this viewpoint fails to recognize that gun ownership comes from a place of inner fear rather than of inner strength. Enemies are imagined to be all around. It is a state of virtual paranoia. And personal responsibility is misdirected toward upholding a romantic vision of a nation that is not inclusive of everyone in society and is regressive rather than progressive. The whole idea of personal responsibility has been corrupted by this vision that sees a strong nation as being made up of fierce individuals looking out only for themselves, owing nothing to their communities. This idea is in denyal of the human character that, as Eduardo Galeano percieves it, is based on collaboration and communication of ideas. Whereas human beings are social animals who depend on each other to survive, group mentality tramples all over constructive collaboration and the notion of individuals reinforcing personal strength through community, creating instead a larger body for individuals to feel emboldened by, yet it not only does not strenghten individuals, but worse, it sucks their energy out of them.

I do want to be careful about painting the current revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere as being qualitatively different from the kind of individual energy-sucking group mentality that Stig Dagerman was speaking of in regard to Nazi Germany, and the Tea Party, which is what I have been specifically referring to, here. I don’t see this rising up against state tyranny as fearful group-think, as it is not reactionary to illusionary enemies, but rather, it has been a long-simmering movement that was bound to explode as the youth have found their voice and their means of organizing themselves together in the name of freedom and democracic change. They are not fearful, and they are not violent. It is the power structure that is being fearful and violent.

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