By Yair Bar Tzuri
Children of the Age
By Wislawa Szymborska
We are children of our age,
it’s a political age.
All day long, all through the night,
all affairs—yours, ours, theirs—
are political affairs.
Whether you like it or not,
your genes have a political past,
your skin, a political cast,
your eyes, a political slant.
Whatever you say reverberates,
whatever you don’t say speaks for itself.
So either way you’re talking politics.
Even when you take to the woods,
you’re taking political steps
on political grounds.
Apolitical poems are also political,
and above us shines a moon
no longer purely lunar.
To be or not to be, that is the question.
and though it troubles the digestion
it’s a question, as always, of politics.
To acquire a political meaning
you don’t even have to be human.
Raw material will do,
or protein feed, or crude oil,
or a conference table whose shape
was quarreled over for months:
Should we arbitrate life and death
at a round table or a square one.
Meanwhile, people perished,
and the fields ran wild
just as in times immemorial
and less political.
translated by Stanisław Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh
The thought that man, a creature of reason and freedom, is subject to political considerations, dependent on them, ruled by them – is very disturbing. This thought tears at the comforting assumption we have that we are the master of our own fate, that we cannot be devalued or discounted in the name of some narrow interest. Even the philosophical and spiritual question of “being” becomes, in political hands, a bargaining chip: to be or not to be a human being is no longer a spiritual and existential question, but a question within the real, physical world, turning man into matter controlled by narrow and alienated interests. Man is turned into a hostage.
Perhaps we can neutralize the cynical dimension of the song and see it instead as a call to action. Politics is the arena in which people seek to regulate their affairs without resorting to violence. Yet we also know that politics can be very violent. If we accept the poet’s assumption that no place is free from the political, we can redesign the space in which human beings take part in each other’s lives in a nonviolent way. Politics is not only the space in which we take pleasure in slandering politicians from morning until night, those very politicians who gain financially from our slander and despair. Politics is also the arena in which human beings work together for change, aware that one’s actions will have an impact on the larger community.
If so, the political arena is not just narrow and alienating but also a space in which moral human consciousness is liberated. If the question of my existence as a human being becomes dependent on the concrete existence of other human beings, my unfailing sense of responsibility towards others must be awakened. In fact, moral human consciousness is almost asking to be freed. This moral movement, this responsibility for another person, is the opportunity for repair that lies within destruction, whether that destruction is my own or belongs to someone else. This does not justify suffering. Suffering is merely proof of failure, proof of the impurity of the political and of the person working within the political arena. Disengagement from the political, with the claim that politics is cynical and alienated, is conceding that destruction is eternal. Political violence is not an indication of the inevitable nature of the political, but rather of the strength of human action and its potential impact on others and the world at large.
Could our physical space, which is devoid of any special interests, which alienates and objectifies, become a source of human freedom? And how should we ourselves shape this space to allow the interpersonal to rise to the highest level?