Contemplating Apocalypse: On the Work of Etel Adnan

Lindsay Turner

To look at the sea is to become what one is: An Etel Adnan Reader. Thom Donovan and Brandon Shimoda, Ed. New York: Nightboat Books, 2014. Two volumes, 392 pp each. $44.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

To look at the sea is to become what one is: An Etel Adnan Reader is a milestone and a monument: a milestone for the ongoing recognition of a writer who, despite her prescience, relevance, and power, has remained marginal for many American readers, and—composed of two volumes of just under 400 pages each—a monument made of words, a compelling presence that’s the product of a half-century of Adnan’s writing. Moving chronologically, the reader collects poems from across Adnan’s career; it also includes large swathes of prose that range from memoir to journalistic dispatch to philosophical musings to personal recollection to aesthetic theory. The volumes reproduce several of Adnan’s works in their entirety, most notably, the 1977 novel Sitt Marie Rose (written in French, English translation by Georgina Kleege) and the long poem The Arab Apocalypse (written in French in 1980, English translation by Adnan in 1989). They also include essays by Ammiel Alcalay and Cole Swensen.

Adnan’s work spans as wide a range of genres and media as it does traditions and continents. Although the reader contains very little of Adnan’s visual production, her work as a painter and mixed-media artist has been increasingly recognized, featured most recently at dOCUMENTA 13 in 2012, the 2014 Whitney Biennial, and the New Museum’s 2014 “Here and Elsewhere” exhibition. The series of observations that follows is less an attempt to capture the whole of Adnan’s oeuvre (which, it ought to be noted, extends well beyond these volumes) or to delineate the collection’s edges than to suggest some paths a reader might follow through it, or some of the lines of contour that emerge out of its rich and varied textures.

I. Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present. (T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets)

“The battles have ceased, but the violence remains.” (Etel Adnan, Of Cities and Women: Letters to Fawwaz)

Sitt Marie Rose is structured into two parts: an unnamed narrator’s account of a pre-civil war moment in Beirut that extends through the beginning of the war in 1975, and a second section comprising seven voices, including the narrator of the first part, after the war has erupted. These parts are called simply “Time I” and “Time II.” The link between them does not have to do with narrative arc, continuity, or discontinuity, nor is the time between the moments given specifically, although the end of “Time I” is dated and the story of “Time II,” the execution of a woman named Marie-Rose, is grounded in historical fact. But the experience of time in the novel is one of simultaneity, instead of progression or development. The novel is an initiation into a time of war; war is the perpetual present of both of the novel’s “times.”

As in Sitt Marie Rose, the time that elapses across Adnan’s career doesn’t necessarily mean evolution; there’s not much stylistic or thematic difference across the work from beginning to end, although of course it registers the passage of time in personal and historical terms, and the work itself is far from uniform. But this non-evolution isn’t repetitiveness; it’s linked to a view of history—and an experience of history—by which it doesn’t make sense to speak of “this war” separated from “that war,” during which the promise of peace and political change is continually present, as is the failure of such promise. Adnan seeks elemental continuity, finding and dwelling most often in an omnipresent and global violence. Or, as she writes in “Master of the Eclipse”: “We’re all the contemplatives of an ongoing apocalypse.”

II. “There is no muse of philosophy, nor is there one of translation.” (Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator”)

In an interview with poet Lisa Robertson, Adnan—who studied philosophy in Paris and at Harvard and Berkeley—speaks of another sort of continuity, one between poetry and philosophy: “We don’t separate thinking from feeling in real life, so why should we separate it in writing?” This continuity has two implications for Adnan’s work. First, she does not shy from self-scrutiny; much of her prose and some of her poetry feels like a sort of thinking-out-loud, and she frequently and eagerly takes on abstractions like love, death, “elsewhere,” pain, spiritual belief, or thinking itself, as in the poem “Transcendence”: “the sleek surface / of my thoughts / disappears / gradually / in the mind’s / fog.”

But Adnan’s philosophical bent also means that for her, as for Benjamin, language is imperfect, and that writing in any language is a problem without a solution rather than a basis for identity. Benjamin writes, “If there is such a thing as a language of truth, the tensionless and even silent depository of the ultimate truth which all thought strives for, then this language of truth is—the true language. And this very language, whose divination and description is the only perfection a philosopher can hope for, is concealed in concentrated fashion in translations.” While to my mind Adnan’s written work is strongest when it’s farther from this edge of silence, the view of truth as an extra-linguistic phenomenon is central to Adnan’s relationship to language in general, and to specific languages (as well as to her turn to visual art).

Perhaps because she does not write in Arabic, Adnan has not been recognized as a “national” writer within a cultural tradition, in the way of Mahmoud Darwish, for example, roughly a contemporary. This state of linguistic exile is partially a result of biography: born in 1925 in Beirut to a Muslim father from Syria and a Greek Christian mother from Turkey, Adnan was raised speaking Greek and French. At age twenty-three she went to Paris to study, and from there to California, where she began writing poems in English as a response to the Vietnam War. While her early works were composed in French, Adnan now writes almost exclusively in English. Neither Adnan nor the reader’s editors foreground translation or specific linguistic crossings; instead, even as Adnan’s choice of any particular language is political, her allegiance is to a symbolic “outside,” even an outside of all language. “I have always been a part of the here and now,” she writes in “To Write in a Foreign Language.” “I am a person of the perpetual present. So I stayed ‘outside’; Arabic remained a forbidden paradise. I am both a stranger and a native to the same land, to the same mother tongue. This century told us too many times to stay alone, to cut all ties, never to look back, to go and conquer the moon: and this is what I did. This is what I do.”

III. “ . . . here we ascend from earth to heaven.”
(Karl Marx, The German Ideology)

“There are some beautiful shots: a marsh the jeep crosses with great splashes. The mud has an ochre color which satisfies. The birds return but it is darker now.” (Etel Adnan, Sitt Marie Rose)

“I know that seeking political and philosophical notions in the street is like trying to construct a barrier to hold back the ocean,” Adnan writes in Of Cities and Women, “but I won’t look elsewhere”: despite her philosophical yearning, Adnan’s work remains, above all, grounded in real places and histories. By gathering together prose selections from (among others) In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country, Paris, When It’s Naked, “Twenty-Five Years Later,” and “To Be In A Time of War,” or poems such as Jebu, “Jenin,” and “Beirut 1982,” the reader performs an operation of deep cartography, constructing a map of Adnan’s experienced spaces. These include the city of Beirut and the years of war in Lebanon; the city of Paris, centered on Adnan’s left-bank neighborhood, as it changes and stays the same; California’s Mount Tamalpais in all manners of mood and weather; and the experience of Palestinian exile. “You can’t think just anywhere,” Adnan writes in Of Cities and Women—nor, her assembled work indicates, can you think without place, or write anything that does not bear the traces of the colors, sunlights, sounds, fogs, wars, and persecutions of its “place” of composition.

The cosmopolitan figure Adnan cuts, in other words, is thoroughly invested in telling the stories of specific nations and people. In The Arab Apocalypse—arguably the reader’s second centerpiece—a surrealist imagination of the sun as force of violence and global oppression, accompanied by the calligraphic signs that Adnan has described as “an excess of emotion,” or “the unsaid,” is counterbalanced by a very specific history: the poem’s fifty-nine sections stand to mark the fifty-nine days of the 1976 siege of the Tel al-Zaatar Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut—a siege that culminated in the massacre, on August 12 of that year, of over 2,000 people (numbers vary), mostly civilians.

A final key to Adnan’s oeuvre might lie in this dynamic conjunction of the local and the global, the identity-based and the universal, and philosophical abstraction and creative figuration. In another passage from Of Cities and Women, she shuttles between the city at the center of her attention and the other times and places that might be made visible through that attention: “Beirut is a good place for meditating on the world’s condition. Although it’s better to avoid generalizations, one could say that it’s an exemplary city, a prototype for the future, the perfect place where prosperity is a factor of underdevelopment.” At the moment of the writing of this review, a different Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp is also under siege, in Gaza: the wars, displacements, and inequalities that continue today need to be thought through in their fully expanded, and most complicated, geographic and historical contexts. This is the sort of thinking, delicate and difficult, that Adnan’s work can model; into a world of conflict and crisis, her stories and images ricochet and linger.

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