“Como É Ser Um Morcego?”, pergunta o filósofo Thomas Nagel (por Eduardo Carli de Moraes)

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Bat in Flower – A pollen-gilded bat emerging from a flower of the blue mahoe tree, in Cuba. Photograph by Merlin Tuttle, National Geographic.

“What Is It Like To Be A Bat?”

by Eduardo Carli de Moraes

In one of the greatest essays in his book Mortal QuestionsThomas Nagel invites us to reflect in a daring and innovative way, as awe-inspiring as the best Science Fiction films or novels. Forget about mankind for a while and try to identify yourself with the perspective of an animal that’s quite different from bipeds and primates such as ourselves. Put yourself inside the skin of a bat, but not only in a cartoonish or playful way (don’t even waste time pretending you are Bruce Wayne, wearing a black costume and a horned mask, patrolling Gotham City in search of criminals to crush).

Nagel is asking us to attempt to become a bat as it really is in Nature’s web of life: how does it feel to be such a creature?  What Nagel is proposing is an exercise in which a human mind tries to move away from its humanness, venturing outside the zone of familiarity, trying to really grasp what sort of experience it would be like to exist as a bat – or an eagle, or a worm. That ain’t easy, and “philosophers share the general human weakness for explanations of what is incomprehensible in terms suited for what is familiar and well understood.” (pg. 166)

This is not just a role-playing game (“let’s pretend we’re animals, let’s meow like cats!”), nor it’s a creative phantasy which attemps to imagine the future (similarly to what was crafted with such greatness by David Cronenberg‘s The Fly). What Thomas Nagel is after with his sci-fi way-of-thinking, as I’ll further attempt to explore, is an explanation for consciousness and its great diversity of manifestations. Reality contains objectively myriads of different organisms, with different perspectives and subjective experiences, and this field of study – Nature’s richness and diversity – may be explored not only by poets, mystics or people high on LSD, but also by philosophers, physicists, scientists, artists… Maybe we’ll become better humans if we try to understand better what is it like not to be human?

“Conscious experience is a widespread phenomenon. It occurs at many levels of animal life, though we cannot be sure of its presence in the simpler organisms, and it is very difficult to say in general what provides evidence of it. (Some extremists have been prepared to deny it even of mammals other than man.) No doubt it occurs in countless forms totally unimaginable to us, on other planets in other solar systems throughout the universe. But no matter how the form may vary, the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism. (…) We may call this the subjective character of experience…” (p. 166)

 Those among you, dear readers, who are not poetically inclined, may deem as utter philosophical madness to refer to such a thing as “the subjectivity of bats” or the conscious experience of pigs. But it’s been for centuries the self-imposed task and delight of poets, mystics, shamans, artists, as well as many other human animals, to understand and try to verbalize what it means like to be an animal different than ourselves. William Blake, for example, had a fruitful relationship with flies, as you’ll see in the following poem, and he also sung with his lyre some quite fascinating stuff about dogs, horses and skylarks:

 William_Blake_-_Songs_of_Innocence_and_of_Experience,_Plate_37,_-The_Fly-_(Bentley_40)_-_Google_Art_Project

“Little Fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brush’d away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance,
And drink, and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing…”

* * * *

“A dog starved at his master’s gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.
A horse misus’d upon the road
Calls to Heaven for human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted hare
A fibre from the brain does tear.
A skylark wounded in the wing,
A cherubim does cease to sing…”

  WILLIAM BLAKE

Thomas Nagel is interested in exploring the idea of animals as beings who experience the world from a different perspective, from a subjective standpoint which differs greatly according to the organism’s complexity and to the various environments that it inhabits. For example, a polar bear and a huge whale like Moby Dick have very different conscious experiences because they’re living where they do: the first in freezing snowy temperatures, the latter beneath the oceans’s rolling waves. But let’s go back to Nagel’s bats:

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“I assume all believe that bats have experience. After all, they are mammals, and there is no more doubt that they have experience than that mice or pigeons or whales have experience. (…) Bats, although closely related to us, nevertheless present a range of activity and a sensory apparatus so different from ours that the problem I want to pose is exceptionally vivid (though it certainly could be raised with other species). Now we know that most bats perceive the external world primarily by sonar, or echolocation, detecting the reflections, from objects within range, of their own rapid, subtly modulated, high-frequency shrieks. Their brains are designed to correlate the outgoing impulses with the subsequent echoes, and the information thus acquired enables bats to make precise discriminations of distance, size, shape, motion and texture – comparable to those we make by vision.” (pg. 168)

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These fascinating and scary creatures, winged mammals who fly speedily in the air, even though they can’t see anything (thus the expression “blind as a bat”), have an existential experience which is quite hard for a human to imagine and that it’s impossible for us to really “live”. How is it like, subjectively, to fly around being a bat and using a sonar for sight? Does our imagination really permit us to truly experience Batness?

And how to avoid scenes of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, or from the Batman comics, from messing-up our experiment, by appearing on our Hollywood-colonized human-minds, everytime we think of men and bats?

Imagination is limited and usually binds us to a human perspective, argues Thomas Nagel, and to experience what truly is the subjective consciousness of a bat it’s not enough “that one spends the day hanging upside down by one’s feet in an attic.” (pg. 169) Now we’re getting closer to his point: Nagel wants to know “what it is like for a bat to be a bat.” (p. 169)

There seems to exist an abyss of ignorance separating each species, though they all belong to the one and the same Web of Life. We might call this the Abyss of Alterity, but maybe someone needs to be a poet or a mystic to grasp what that means. Thomas Nagel paints a portrait of such an abyss, one we are seldom able to cross, when he writes about men and bats: humans can’t know what it’s like to be inside the skin of a bat, and neither the bat has a clue about how the heck it feels to be a primate such as ourselves. Simply because there’s no bridge that can serve as a means of transportation, from human experience right into bat experience, and vice versa: “even if I could by gradual degrees be transformed into a bat, nothing in my present constitution enables me to imagine what the experiences of such a future stage of myself thus metamorphosed would be like.” (p. 169)

Even an imagination so powerfull and daring as Franz Kafka’s could only reach an anthropomorphized report of what it meant for Gregor Samsa to discover himself living inside the body of a bug. However, for Gregor Samsa, a human mind and a human consciousness are still locked inside the beastly body that he wakes up, in Kafka’s masterpiece The Metamorphosis, suddenly transformed into.

 Thomas Nagel knows perfectly well that one can’t become a bat after being born a monkey, a wolf, a bacteria or a human being, but he also states that human imagination fails to give us any true depiction of the specific subjective character of the experienced subjectivity of creatures of other species  – “it’s beyond our ability to conceive.” (p. 170)

This sets, methinks, epistemology in new grounds and adds a new chapter to the history of Skepticism in philosophy. Nagel’s highly skeptical conclusion – we’ll never really experience what it’s like to be an animal different than the animal we are – also spreads into his consideration of human affairs, where similar abysses of mutual ignorance also exist. For example: “The subjective character of the experience of a person deaf and blind from birth is not accessible to me, nor presumably is mine to him. This does not prevent us each from believing that the other’s experience has such a subjective character.” (p. 170)

If we’re ever to meet extra-terrestrial organisms – be they iron-headed Martians, bizarre aliens from Titan, or other weird creatures from a far-away galaxy… – the same problem would certainly arise: the aliens wouldn’t have a clear perception of what it is like to be a human. Similarly, it would remain as an obstacle for dialogue with the aliens the fact of our human difficulty – or even incapacity –  to truly understand what it is like to be a bat or a whale, a butterfly or an eagle, a worm or a Martian.

Subjectivity, thus, is so highly varied in its manifestations, in its different incarnations, that we must revise our concepts and renew our vocabulary: “subjective” shouldn’t mean only “the personal self”, but some sort of existential perspective that exists in myriads of different ways according to the varied organisms and environments. This “enormous amount of variation and complexity” can be partially explained by Darwin’s theory of Evolution, but what Thomas Nagel seems to be pointing out is this: reality is too complex, its multiplicity is too great, for a mind such as ours, with a language such as we have developed so far, to truly understand it. We’re incapable of an understanding that embraces all subjective conscious experiences of all living beings. This is one of the main problems Nagel’s philosophy deals with, especially in the excellent and mind-boggling philosophy-ride of his book View From Nowhere.

The View From Nowhere

Buy The View From Nowhere at Amazon

“The fact that we cannot expect ever to accommodate in our language a detailed description of Martian or bat phenomenology should not lead us to dismiss as meaningless the claim that bats and Martians have experiences fully comparable in richness of detail to our own. It would be fine if someone were to develop concepts and a theory that enabled us to think about those things; but such an understanding may be permanently denied to us by the limits of our nature.” (pg. 170)

Some sort of disconnection between the human animals and the Animal Kingdom as a whole seems to arise, Thomas Nagel argues, from our mind’s incapacity to truly understand any subjective experience that differs too much from ours. This can’t be explained only by biology, by processes of Natural Selection, because Culture intervenes and imposes its systems, its symbols, its values.

In a civilization, for example, where in thousands of supermarkets one can buy the meat of recently killed animals, already packed, frozen and wrapped in plastics, people tend to dissociate their minds from any sort of empathy with pigs, cows or chickens. When it’s barbecue time and the dead bodies of recently killed animals are being grilled, people tend to never think about the slaughterhouses. People rarely pay any mind to what life feels like, when lived subjectively, when the organism’s existential locus, imposed by humans, is a condemnation to be slaughtered for meat.

Great masses of humans, then, devour tons of meat in their barbecues, in their day-to-day lifes they erect myriads of fast-food joints, staining the landscape with McDonald’s-like signs and ads, without caring about the lives of creatures they deem as unimportant matter. They don’t give a damn about what sort of existence the animals that ended up on their plate, or inside the Big Mac, have lived through from birth to bacon.

“This brings us to the edge of a topic that requires much more discussion than I can give it here: namely, the relation between facts on the one hand and conceptual schemes or systems of representation on the other. (…) Reflection on what it is like to be a bat seems to lead us, therefore, to the conclusion that there are facts that do not consist in the truth of propositions expressible in human language. (…) The more different from oneself the other experiencer is, the less success one can expect with this enterprise. (…) A Martian scientist with no understanding of visual perception could understand the rainbow, or lightning, or clouds as physical phenomena, though he would never be able to understand the human concepts of rainbow, lightning, or cloud, or the place these things occupy in our phenomenal world.  (…) Although the concepts themselves are connected with a particular point of view and a particular visual phenomenology, the things apprehended from that point of view are not: they are observable from the point of view but external to it; hence they can be comprehended from other points of view also, either by the same organisms or by others. Lightning has an objective character that is not exhausted by its visual appearance, and this can be investigated by a Martian without vision. And, in understanding a phenomenon like lightning, it is legitimate to go as far away as one can from a strictly human viewpoint.” (NAGEL, Mortal Questions, p. 173)

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TO BE CONTINUED…

Buy Mortal Questions by Thomas Nagel at Amazon.

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“Raízes e Frutos da Rebelião” – Comentários sobre a luta dos Zapatistas mexicanos contra o Capitalismo Neoliberal

CddeMexico

“To kill oblivion with a little memory,
we cover our chests with lead and hope.”

SUBCOMANDANTE MARCOS,
Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN).
In: ‘Our Word is Our Weapon: Selected Writings’,
Foreword: José Saramago (Nobel Prize In Literature)
Published by Seven Stories Press (New York, 2003, Pg. 100.)


PART I – THE BIG-BELLIED BEAST
AGAINST THE GRASS-ROOTS RESISTANCE

 

CHAPTER I – CHIAPAS LOSES BLOOD THROUGH MANY VEINS

“We are a product of 500 years of struggle: first, led by insurgents against slavery during the War of Independence with Spain; then to avoid being absorbed by North American imperialism; then to proclaim our constitution and expel the French empire from our soil; later when the people rebelled against Porfirio Diaz’s dictatorship, which denied us the just application of the reform laws, and leaders like Villa and Zapata emerged…” – First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, January 2, 1994

EZLNIn the mountains and jungles of the Mexican southeast, an insurrection explodes in January 1st, 1994. Several municipalities in the province of Chiapas are taken over by the armed rebels that call themselves Zapatistas, followers of the legacy of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata (1879-1919).

Led by the campesinos and the indigenous populations of Chiapas, this neo-zapatist movement blossoms into the spotlight of the world’s arena in exactly the same day of the implementation of NAFTA, the Free Trade Agreement of the North American countries.

From day one, it was made quite clear by the rebels that one of the objectives of EZLN’s uprising was to be an obstacle to the implementation of Free Trade policies in Mexico. The economical set-up of Neoliberalism (based on privatization, free competition, consumerism etc.), argues the Zapatistas, is nothing but an authoritarian imposition of rules made-up by “the world of money”:

“The world of money, their world, governs from the stock exchanges. Today, speculation is the principal source of enrichment, and at the same time the best demonstration of the atrophy of our capacity to work. Work is no longer necessary in order to produce wealth; now all that is needed is speculation. Crimes and wars are carried out so that the global stock exchanges may be pillaged by one or the other. Meanwhile, millions of women, millions of youths, millions of indegenous, millions of homosexuals, millions of human beings of all races and colors, participate in the financial markets only as a devalued currency, always worth less and less, the currency of their blood turning a profit. The globalization of markets erases borders for speculation and crime and multiplies borders for human beings. Countries are obliged to erase their national border for money too circulate, but to multiply their internal borders.” – (Marcos, Unveiling Mexico, p. 117)

Wall Street and Washington join hands and try to persuade Mexicans that “Free Trade” will be a marvel for Mexico, but Mexicans have every reason to be suspicious of their neighbor who stole from it a big slice of territory in bygone years. Today, at the frontier that separates the countries, the yankees have built up a huge Wall of Segregation, and soldiers with license to kill can deal with illegal immigrants in very unbrotherly ways.  The same country responsible for La Migra (and Guantánamo Bay, and Abu Ghraib detention facility…) preaches the Free Trade gospel as if it was salvation.

The men and women who have arisen to speak out their discontent in Chiapas are yet to be fully heard by the world-at-large. Artists and writers have helped spread their voices, from Manu Chao and Rage Against the Machine, to José Saramago and Eduardo Galeano. 20 years later, the Zapatistas are still struggling against the powers that want to crush human dignity in the bloody altars of profit. And if the Zapatistas’ scream has the potentiality to be heard and comprehended all around the world, it’s because they accuse the established capitalist system of committing crimes that are visible worldwide, in many different countries: ecological devastation; ethnical genocide of indigenous populations and destruction of their cultures; concentration of capital in the hands of a few multinational corporations etc.

Zapatismo has been called the first revolutionary movement of the Internet-era, the avant-garde guerrilla that’s pioneering the ways to be followed by the guerrillas of tomorrow. But reactionary political powers have been violently trying to silence their voices – and the “money world”, also referred to by Marcos as “The Beast”, doesn’t refrain from methods such as military agression, police repression,  institutionalized murder, and para-military militias. All in order to maintain the Order imposed by The World of Money and to bury the voices of these “indians”, covered in masks and carrying guns, that insist in demanding social justice, autonomy and real democracy.

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Marcos describes Chiapas’s tragedies very vividly in his poetry-filled words: “This land continues to pay tribute to the imperialists”, writes the insurgent Zapatista, “and there’s a thousand teeth sunk into the throat of the Mexican Southeast” (Unveiling Mexico, 1992, pg. 22-23). Would the indigenous populations of southeast Mexico have risen in rebellion if the suffering they endured hadn’t become unbearable?

“In times past, wood, fruits, animals, and men went to the metropolis through the veins of exploitation, just as they do today. Like the banana republics, but at the peak of neoliberalism and ‘libertarian revolutions’, the Southeast of Mexico continues to export raw materials, just as it did 500 years ago. It continues to import capitalism’s principal product: death and misery.

The health conditions of the people of Chiapas are a clear example of the capitalist imprint: 1.5 million people have no medical services at their disposal. There are 0,2 clinics for every 1.000 inhabitants, 1/5 of the national average. There are 0,3 hospital beds for every 1.000 Chiapanecos, 1/3 the amount in the rest of Mexico… Health and nutrition go hand in hand with poverty. 54% of the population of Chiapas suffers from malnutrition, and in the highlands and forest this percentage increases to 80%…. This is what capitalism leaves as payment for everything that it takes away. (…) Chiapa’s experience of exploitation goes back for centuries. ” – Sub Marcos, Unveiling Mexico

In Subcomandante Marcos’ political tought, which seems to be deeply rooted in an understanding of Latin America’s reality similar to Eduardo Galeano’s, Imperialism is the name of the beast which has it’s thousands of teeths sunk into Chiapas neck – and so many numberless others places on this Earth where 85 flesh-and-blood earthlings retain the same amount of wealth as half of the world’s population (according to Oxfam). Welcome to the established economical and political orden in 3rd planet from the Sun, a place of extreme inequality in which the criminal status quo is defended by armies and warmongers, for the profit of speculators, gangsters and banksters.

“A handful of businesses – one of which is the Mexican state – take all the wealth out of Chiapas and in exchange leave behind their mortal and pestilent mark..(…) Pemex has 86 teeth sunk into the townships of Estación Juárez, Reforma, Ostuacán, Pichucalco, and Ocosingo. Every day they suck out 92.000 barrels of oil and 517.000.000.000 cubic feet of gas. They take away the petroleum”, states Marcos, “and in exchange leave behind the mark of capitalism: ecological destruction, agricultural plunder, hyperinflation, alcoholism, prostitution, and poverty.”

It’s easy to delineate the image of the Enemy in the Zapatistas’ hearts: the face of the big-bellied beast of Greed. Imperialism is dirty business, greediness in action, devastating egotism that turns nations into vampires that suck the life-blood of others. Besides the petroleum that gets sucked out of Chiapas by greedy oil companies, another similar process affects the production of coffee: 35% of Mexico’s coffee is produced in Chiapas, but more than 50% of Chiapas’ coffee production is exported. The campesinos that work in the fields to produce it have terribly inadequate life-conditions of nourishment, health, education etc. The true producers are dying of hunger and disease while foreign powers ride on golden streets of robbed privilege.

The list can be enriched with many other “commodities” that are sucked-out of Chiapas to feed, elsewhere, the belly of the beast. There are 3.000.000 animals waiting to be slaughtered for beef in Chiapas: “the cattle are sold for 400 pesos per kilo by the poor farmers and resold by the middlemen and businessmen for up to 10 times the price they paid for them.” (Unveiling Mexico, p. 23) Chiapas’ forests are also among the culinary preferences of the greedy hungry beast: whole woods are cut down by capitalism’s chainsaws, and this precious wood is then shipped out of Chiapas to be sold elsewhere for huge profits. Similar histories could be told about honey, corn or hydrelectric energy – goods that Chiapas produces in large quantities, but get eaten away by this beastly creature which Marcos denounces and summons to answer: “what does the beast leave behind in exchange for all it takes away?” (pg. 24)

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CHAPTER II – THE TIME TO HARVEST REBELLION INSTEAD OF DEATH

John Lennon asked us in his era-defining song to “imagine a brotherhood of man”, but Chiapas isn’t the place to look for it. It ain’t brotherly treatment to exploit, repress and steal fellow humans – and that’s what businessmen and fancy capitalists have been doing against the Chiapanecos. “1.000.000 indigenous people live in these lands and share a disorienting nightmare with mestizos and ladinos: their only option, 500 years after the “Meeting of Two Worlds”, is to die of poverty or repression.” (Marcos: p. 26)

There are 300.000 Tzotziles, 120.000 Choles, 90.000 Zoques, and 70.000 Tojoales, among other indigenous populations, that inhabit the land of the poorest state in Mexico. Chiapas could be rich, but it’s wealth is sucked away and taken abroad, to bank accounts of greedy capitalists, and if you join the Zapatista up-rising against this reality you might end up killed by the repression. How many people has the Mexican Army killed in order to silence the voices that question the undoubtable goodness of the so-called “Free Market”? I leave the question unanswered, for now, and move on, from exploitation to rebellion.

At the dawn of the New Year, in January 1st 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Army descended from the Lacandon Jungle to take over the power in several cities of Chiapas, including San Cristobal de Las Casas and Ocosingo. They believed to be “professionals of hope”, “transgressors of injustice”, “History’s dispossessed”, finally raising their voices to demand liberty, justice, democracy, dignity. This is the moment when they became visible, when they stepped out of the shadows, when they shouted for the whole World to hear.

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January 1st, 1994: EZLN takes power over San Cristobal de las Casas. Photo by Antonio Turok.

“Death does not hurt; what hurts is to be forgotten. We discovered then that we longer existed, that those who govern had forgotten about us in their euphoria of statistics and growth rates. A country that forgets itself is a sad country. A country that forgets its past cannot have a future. And so we took up arms and went into the cities, where we were considered animals. We went and told the powerful: “We are here!” And to the whole country we shouted: “We are here!” And to all the world we yelled, “We are here!”…”

This movement is deeply rooted in History: far from being immediatist and pragmatic, the Zapatista movement demands respect for the rights of human populations who descend from the occupants of this land prior to the European’s invasion. This scream of rebellion raises from an ocean of blood: the genocide of the Indians and the destruction of their civilizations is still an open wound in the Zapatistas hearts, and they won’t allow the world to forget these past misdeeds. In January 1994, Subcomandante Insurgent Marcos reminded us than in Mexico

“during these past ten years (1984-1994), more than 150.000 indigenous have died of curable diseases. The federal, state, and municipal governments and their economic and social programs do not take into account any real solution to our problems; they limit themselves to giving us charity every time elections roll around. Charity resolves nothing but for the moment, and again death visits our homes. That is why we think no, no more; enough dying this useless death; it is better to fight for change. If we die now, it will not be with shame but with dignity, like our ancestors. We are ready to die, 150.000 more if necessary, so that our people awaken from this dream of deceit that holds us hostage.” (pg. 17)

Seen from the capitalists’ perspective, there’s a dispensable strata of the population labeled as “Indians” (so called because Columbus thought, more than 500 years ago, that the land where he had arrived was India…). “Check out the text of the Free Trade Agreement, and you will find that, for this government, the indigenous do not exist.” (p. 66) Social inequality and marginalized people go hand in hand in Mexico: “on a national level there are 2,403 municipalities. Of these, 1.153 have a level of marginalization considered high or very high. States with high indigenous population have the majority of their municipalities with high and very high levels of marginalization: 94 out of 111 in Chiapas; 59 out of 75 in Guerrero; 431 of 570 in Oaxaca…” (p. 67)

 For 10 years the Zapatista uprising had been fermenting in the woods, since 1984, and at the beginning of 1994 time had arrived for their voice to be heard, not only in Mexico, but throughout the world, amplified by the Internet, sending its shout throughout the Global Village.  One of the easiest ways to understand the emergence of Neo-Zapatism is to look at the consequences of the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) agreement becoming active: free market had kicked out the barriers and products from abroad were about to flood into Mexico, like a tsunami, drowning out Mexican campesinos with the devastating power of a Dust Bowl Storm. The Zapatistas knew very well that NAFTA would certainly enrich some big corporations, mainly american and canadian, but would wreck the equilibrium of the local economies – especially in southeast Mexico. NAFTA was inforced with “dictatorial” fashion: it’s a fact that neither civil society nor the indigenous populations of Mexico were consulted on the matter, even tough they would be tremendously affected by the transformations in the National Constitution.

 “The preparations for NAFTA included cancellation of Article 27 of Mexico’s constitution, the cornerstone of Emiliano Zapata‘s revolution of 1910–1919. Under the historic Article 27, Indian communal landholdings were protected from sale or privatization. However, this barrier to investment was incompatible with NAFTA. With the removal of Article 27, Indian farmers feared the loss of their remaining lands, and also feared cheap imports (substitutes) from the US. Thus, the Zapatistas labeled NAFTA as a “death sentence” to Indian communities all over Mexico. Then EZLNdeclared war on the Mexican state on January 1, 1994, the day NAFTA came into force.” – Wikipédia

According to Marcos, NAFTA “only means freedom for the powerful to rob, and freedom for the dispossessed to live in misery.” (p. 73) We’ve heard this real-life story many times: everytime a Wal-Mart opens in a city, lots of smaller stores go bankrupt because they can’t compete with Wal-Mart’s prices. That’s why it’s possible to considerer EZLN as a movement demanding national sovereignty; from the Zapatistas perspective – which arises from the experience of thousands of Mexicans – what is called “neoliberalism” is just a fancy name for imperialist capitalism, for foreign domination, for the sad reality known for centuries in Latin America of wealth being robbed from a country and getting transformed in capital that enriches some big-shot abroad.

In Ana Carrigan’s excellent article “Chiapas: The First Postmodern Revolution”, she reminds us that years before NAFTA forced itself into North America there was already a lot of rebellion by campesinos in Mexico: in April 10, 1992, for example, 4.000 indigenous campesinos marched to the country’s capital and read a letter adressed to President Carlos Salinas, in which “they accuse him of having brought all gains of the agrarian reform made under Zapata to an end, of selling the country with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and of bringing Mexico back to the times of Porfirio Díaz.” (pg. 36)

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“You are in Zapatista territory: here the People rules and the Government obeys.”

“The Zapatistas made their first, spectacular public appearance in San Cristobal de Las Casas. On October 12, 1992, amid demonstrations marking ‘The Year of The Indian, 500 Years of Resistance’, 4.000 young men and women armed with bows and arrows suddenly appeared out of the crowd. Marching in military formation, they advanced to the central plaza where they attacked the monument to the founder of San Cristobal, the 16th century Spanish encomendador, Diego de Mazariegos. As the symbol of 500 years of opression crashed from its pedestal, the Indians hacked it to pieces and pocketed the fragments before disappearing. In the annals of indigenous resistance, the toppling of Mazariego’s statue had a symbolic resonance equivalent to the destruction of the Berlin Walls.” (ANA CARRIGAN)

The communities in Chiapas who have embraced the EZLN program were bound to clash with Mexican establishment. The powers that be, unbrotherly as usual, sent Army soldiers in great numbers in a bloody attempt to silence the rebels. As Juana Ponce de León states,

“for the government, the issue is simple. There are vast oil reserves, exotic wood, and uranium on the autonomous indigenous lands of Chiapas; the Mexican government wants them, but the indigenous communities, who have no currency in the world’s markets, are in the way. While projecting through the national and international press an image of concern for the human rights issues and the intention to resolve them, the government orchestrates the privatization of the Mayan lands and a low-intensity war to weaken and divide the communities.” (Traveling Back for Tomorrow, XXV).

Eduardo Carli de Moraes

A graffiti at City Lights Books, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s bookstore in San Francisco

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Galeano and Jean Ziegler discussing “The World’s Criminal Order”
(In Spanish, Portuguese subs)

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To be continued…

“Esta pirâmide absurda e invertida que é a América Latina…” – Uma jornada com o Subcomandante Marcos (EZLN)

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CHAPTER III – THE CLASH BETWEEN OBLIVION AND MEMORY

“…there once was a man named Zapata who rose up with his people and sang out: ‘Land and Freedom!’ The campesinos say that Zapata didn’t die, that he must return… They say that hope is also planted and harvested. They also say that the wind and the rain and the sun are now saying something different: that with so much poverty, the time has come to harvest rebellion instead of death.” – Sub Marcos, Our Word is Our Weapon: Selected Writings, pg. 33, Seven Stories Press. All following quotes are from this source.

ezln 1 (1)The Zapatistas know their task is Herculean: the Mexican federal Army, certainly backed-up by Washington and Wall Street, greatly outnumbers the army of the Zapatista rebels. The power of destruction of the Establish Capitalist Powers is crushing: they own the police and the prisons, and they pay the soldiers and militias to persecute the Mexicans who join EZLN. The defeat of this insurrectional movement is something that has been aimed at by established powers for the last 20 years – according to Marcos, the enemy would like to see “democracy washed with the detergent of imports and water from antidemonstration cannons.” (pg. 54)

In 1994 Mexico’s president Carlos Salinas de Gortari is considered by EZLN as “the sales manager of a gigantic business: Mexico, Inc.” (pg. 63) Free Trade, for the Zapatistas, is nothing but capitalism’s “law of the jungle”, and it generates a couple of millionaires while throwing millions into hunger, sickness and death. To use Occuppy Movement’s imagery, the top of the social pyramid, the richest 1% of the country, don’t give a fig about defending the rights of the Mexican people as a whole (the 99%): “the only country mentioned with sincerity on that increasingly narrow top floor is the country called money.” (pg. 63)  “On every street corner misery knocks on the windows of the car.” (pg. 64)

Even tough they see peace and social justice as an ideal to accomplish, the Zapatistas feel they would remain powerless if they were Gandhian pacifists. Thus they take arms, just like the guerrillas led by Fidel and Che in Sierra Maestra in late 1950’s Cuba. EZLN, as the name itself sufficiently states, is an armed rebellion and doesn’t comply with what Marcos called, in Aguascalientes, august 1994, “pacifist complicity with injustice” (p. 56) and “fraudulent unconditional pacifism” (p. 58)

EZLN is quite aware that military victory is rather unlikely against such a powerful army as that of Mexico’s established powers, backed-up by Washington and Wall Street. So Marcos tends to underline the symbolical importance of the Zapatista’s up-rising, its capacity to inspire similar movements throughout Latin America. The 4th Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, January 1996, states: “Brothers and sisters of other races and languages, of other colors, but with the same heart, now protect our light, and in it they drink of the same fire.” (p. 87)

“To confront an army superior to ours in weapons and personnel, although not in morality, nullifies the possibilities of sucess. But to surrender has been expressly forbidden; any Zapatista leaders who opt to surrender will be decommissioned. No matter the outcome of this war, sooner or later this sacrifice – which today appears useless and sterile to many – will be compensated by the lightning that will illuminate other lands. For sure, the light will reach deep into the South, shimmer in the Mar de Plata, in the Andes, in Paraguay, and the entirety of this inverted and absurd pyramid that is Latin America…” (74)

The future of Latin America lies not only in its ability to build international solidarity, planting the seeds of a future of social justice and true democracy, but also in its struggle against oblivion. The Zapatistas claim that memory has been progressively wipe-out by the forces of a capitalist production, distribution and consumption system that runs on shallow foresight and narrow hindsight. In other worlds: the system wants us to buy like crazy, and think only of immediate enjoyment of products sold in the markets, thus imposing to our minds oblivion of future and past generations. This is one of the most important ideas to understand if we want to grasp what these more than 20 years of the Neo Zapatista movement in Mexico means:

“On the side of oblivion are the multiple forces of the market. On the side of memory is history.” This thesis of the markets’ attempted murder against memory is illustrated by the treatment conferred upon indigenous populations by capitalists and their accomplices among politicians. The Zapatistas are saying: the past is not to be forgotten, consumed down to ash, thrown in the garbage can, in order for us to “enjoy” the here-and-now of mass society, mass production, mass consumption, and mass ecological catastrophes. The Zapatistas see the past as “a guide to be learned from and upon which to grow”. The problem is:

“the past doesn’t exist for technocrats, under whose rule our nation suffers. The future can be nothing more than a lengthening of the present for these professional amnesiacs. (…) What better example of this phobia of history is there than the attitude of the Mexican government toward the indigenous peoples? Are not the indigenous demands a worrisome stain on history, dimming the splendor of globalization? Is not the very existence of indigenous people an affront to the global dictatorship of the market?” (MARCOS, pg. 147)

The sad thing is: instead of learning from the past in order to build a better future, the authorities in charge of markets and governments complicit to them are basically waging war against those who are labeled by the repression forces and portrayed by the plutocratic media as “The Terrorists”. The inner enemy. The war against the Zapatistas waged by the Mexican Federal Army, with the aid of the Yankees, is simply an attempt to silence by massmurder those who are demanding freedom, dignity, and social justice. In March, 1995, EZLN writes “to the people of Mexico and to the peoples of the world”:

“Our voice was silenced all at once by the noise of the machines of war. Terror was unleashed again in the Mexican lands by the one who, from arrogance and power, looks at us with contempt, denies our name, and gives us death in answer to our thought. (…) With the complicity of big money and a foreign vacation, he wanted to force us with bayonets to deny our history. (…) For that reason, our past went to the mountains. We went into the caves of those who came before us. Death cornered us… Death came to wield its knife-edged oblivion. It came to kill memory. Again, our hand filled with the fire to avenge our own pain, again being animals eating dirt, dying persecuted and forgotten.” (pg. 81)

The name Zapatistas then gains the meaning of a very powerful symbolical weapon: a “collective name”, that any individual can claim for himself, and by adhering to it he goes away from the forgetfullness that his individual self lies buried in.  A campesino who haves always felt as nobody, as one of the many who History will forget, now can call himself a Zapatista and thus believe he’s part of a collective entity that won’t be so easily brushed away to oblivion. Every zapatista will die, but zapatismo will live, beyond the duration of individual lives. When an individual leaps from being an unrelated isolated atom and joins his forces with the supra-individual movement, it’s as if his heart has been connected to a vaster entity and now pulsates with a collective heart.

 “No longer are we the unmentionables. We the forgotten have a name. (…) Having now a collective name, we discovered that death shrinks and becomes small before us. The worst death, that of oblivion, flees so that the memory of our dead will never be buried together with their bones.(…) “They, our ancestors, taught us to be proud of the color of our skin, of our language, of our culture. More than 500 years of exploitation and persecution have not been able to exterminate us. (…) If they destroy us, the entire country will plummet and begin to wander without direction or roots… Mexico would negate its tomorrow by denying its yesterday.” (October 12, 1995, pg. 82-83)

10

* * * * *

You might also enjoy:

Read chapters 1 and 2

TO BE CONTINUED…

Copyleft material. Re-share and re-blog as much as you wish,
but please acknowledge Eduardo Carli de Moraes @ Awestruck Wanderer.

“Houve uma espécie de opção política forçada do PT, segundo a qual a única maneira de melhorar a renda dos pobres é não mexer na renda dos ricos…” – Viveiros de Castro

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Viveiros de Castro: “Houve uma espécie de opção política forçada do PT, segundo a qual a única maneira de melhorar a renda dos pobres é não mexer na renda dos ricos. Ou seja, vamos ter que tirar o dinheiro de outro lugar. E de onde é que eles estão tirando? Do chão, literalmente. Destruindo o meio ambiente para poder vender soja, carne, para a China. Não está havendo redistribuição de renda, o que está havendo é aumento da renda produzida pela queima dos móveis da casa para aquecer a população, digamos. Está um pouquinho mais quente, não estamos morrendo de frio, mas estamos destruindo o Brasil central, devastando a Amazônia. Tudo foi feito para não botar a mão no bolso dos ricos. E não provocar os militares.

Por exemplo: a Lei da Anistia foi imposta tal qual pelo governo militar. Eles não foram destronados, presos, criminalizados. Simplesmente foram anistiados. E boa parte do projeto de desenvolvimento nacional gestado durante a ditadura militar está sendo aplicado com a maior eficiência… Pela chamada esquerda, pela coalizão que está no poder, na qual a esquerda é uma parte mínima, porque tem os grandes proprietários de terra, os grandes empresários…”

CONFIRA A ENTREVISTA COMPLETA:

http://www.publico.pt/mundo/noticia/a-escravidao-venceu-no-brasil-nunca-foi-abolida-1628151

Confira a série de aulas de Viveiros de Castro sobre “O pensamento indígena” no La Revolucion Es Ahora.

http://docu.larevolucionesahora.com

Galeria de Arte na Web: Diego Rivera (1886-1957)

Zapata de RiveraAgrarian Leader Zapata (1931)

“Emiliano Zapata, a champion of agrarian reform and a key protagonist in the Mexican Revolution, here leads a band of peasant rebels armed with makeshift weapons, including farming tools. With the bridle of a majestic white horse in his hand, Zapata stands triumphantly beside the dead body of a hacienda owner. Though Mexican and U.S. newspapers regularly vilified the revolutionary leader as a treacherous bandit, Rivera immortalized Zapata as a hero and glorified the victory of the Revolution in an image of violent but just vengeance.”- MOMA

Rivera - Liberation of the Peon

Liberation of the Peon (1931)

“In Liberation of the Peon, Rivera developed a harrowing narrative of corporal punishment. A laborer, beaten and left to die, is cut down from a post by sympathetic revolutionary soldiers, who tend to his broken body. Peonage—a system of indentured servitude established by Spanish colonizers, under which natives were forced to work the land—persisted in Mexico into the 20th century. The mural offers the injustice of earlier social and economic conditions as a rationale for the Mexican Revolution.” – MOMA

Rivera - Sugar Cane

Sugarcane (1931)

“Set on a sugar plantation, this portable mural introduces the tensions over labor, race, and economic inequity that simmered in Mexico after the Revolution. In the foreground, an Indian woman, with the traditional braids and white clothes of a peasant, cuts papayas from a tree while her children collect the fruit in reed baskets. Behind them, dark-skinned men with bowed heads gather bunches of sugar cane. A foreman, with distinctly lighter skin and hair, watches over them on horseback, and in the background a pale hacendado(wealthy landowner) languishes in a hammock. In this panel, Rivera adapted Marxist ideas about class struggle—an understanding of history born in industrialized Europe—to the context of Mexico, a primarily agrarian country until after World War II.” – MOMA

Flower Festival Feast of Santa Anita by Diego Rivera OSA117

Flower Festival: Feast of Santa Anita (1931)

“Rivera spent the tumultuous years of the Mexican Revolution (1910–20) painting and traveling abroad in Europe. Upon returning to his native country in 1921, he exalted indigenous Mexican people and traditions, making them a central subject of his work. As he later recalled, “My homecoming aroused an aesthetic rejoicing in me which is impossible to describe. Everywhere I saw a potential masterpiece—in the crowds, the markets, the festivals, the marching battalions, the workers in the workshops, the fields—in every shining face, every radiant child.” This painting, depicting a flower festival held on Good Friday in a town then called Santa Anita, was included in a solo exhibition of Rivera’s work at MoMA in 1931. Only the second artist (after Henri Matisse) to receive this honor, Rivera was, at the time, an international celebrity: the New York Sun hailed him as “the most talked about artist on this side of the Atlantic.” – MOMA

"The Arsenal" (1928)

The Arsenal (1928)

“Almost all of Rivera’s art told a story, many of which depicted Mexican society, the Mexican Revolution, or reflected his own personal social and political beliefs, and in The Arsenal is no different. The woman on the right side of this painting in Tina Modotti, an Italian photographer and revolutionary political activist, who is holding ammunition for Julio Antonio Mella, a founder of the internationalized Cuban communist party. Vittorio Vidale, an Italian-born Stalinist sympathizer, stands behind them in a black hat. The figures in this painting are an illustration of Rivera’s transferring his political beliefs onto canvas. He was an active member of the Mexican communist party, and was friends with Leon Trotsky, who lived with him for seven months. ”  – Wikipaintings

Frozen Assets (1931-32)

“In Frozen Assets, Rivera coupled his appreciation for New York’s distinctive vertical architecture with a potent critique of the city’s economic inequities. The panel’s upper register features a dramatic sequence of largely recognizable skyscrapers, most completed within a few years of Rivera’s arrival in New York. In the middle section, a steel-and-glass shed serves as a shelter for rows of sleeping men, pointing to the dispossessed labor that made such extraordinary growth possible during a period of economic turmoil. Below, a bank’s waiting room accommodates a guard, a clerk, and a trio of figures eager to inspect their mounting assets in the vault beyond. Rivera’s jarring vision of the city—in which the masses trudge to work, the homeless are warehoused, and the wealthy squirrel away their money—struck a chord in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression.” – Wikipaintings

man-at-the-crossroads-rivera3

Man at the Crossroads (1933-34)

“Rivera stirred up controversy yet again when he was commissioned to create Man at the Crossroads for the Rockefeller Center in 1933. He was chosen to complete a mural on the first floor of the Rockefeller Center, with the theme of man at the crossroads, looking to the hope of a new and better future. The original work included pictures of women drinking alcohol, cells depicting sexually transmitted diseases, Leon Trotsky and a portrait of Lenin, which upset Rockefeller, who commissioned the work. He demanded that the face of Lenin be changed, but Rivera refused. Rockefeller immediately paid for the work, dismissed Rivera, and covered the mural. Rivera, who was determined to have his mural shown, re-created it at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and renamed the piece Man, Controller of the Universe. The original Man at the Crossroad in the Rockefeller Center was smashed and hauled away in 1934.” – Wikipaintings


Diego Rivera's The Uprising (1931)
The Uprising (1931)

“In The Uprising, a woman with a baby at her hip and a working man fend off an attack by a uniformed soldier. Behind them, a riotous crowd clashes with more soldiers, who force demonstrators to the ground. The location is unclear, though the figures’ skin tone implies that the scene is set in Mexico or another Latin American country. In the early 1930s, an era of widespread labor unrest, images of the violent repression of strikes would have resonated with both U.S. and Latin American audiences. The battle here stands as a potent symbol of universal class struggle.” – MOMA

Rivera - Aztec Warrior

Indian Warrior (1931)

“Of all the panels Rivera made for The Museum of Modern Art, Indian Warrior reaches back farthest into Mexican history, to the Spanish Conquest of the early 16th century. An Aztec warrior wearing the costume of a jaguar stabs an armored conquistador in the throat with a stone knife. The Spaniard’s steel blade—an emblem of European claims to superiority—lies broken nearby. Jaguar knights, members of an elite Aztec military order, were known for their fighting prowess; according to legend, their terrifying costumes enabled them to possess the power of the animal in battle. The panel’s jarring vision of righteous violence offered a Mesoamerican precedent for Mexico’s recent revolution, as well as its continuing struggles.” – MOMA

“Life Far From Hot Baths” – Simone Weil’s philosophy in connection with Zen Buddhist ethics

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“The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away.

To define force – it is that X that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him. Somebody was there, and the next minute there is nobody here at all; this is a spectacle the Iliad never wearies of showing us.

 Nearly all the Iliad takes place far from hot baths. Nearly all of human life, then and now, takes place far from hot baths…

Such is the empire of force, as extensive as the empire of nature.”

SIMONE WEIL  (1909-1943),
Iliad: Poem of Force, pgs. 3-4-10.

 

6Simone Weil reads the Iliad as if she is witnessing before her compassionate eyes those occurrences evoked by the poet’s verses: she doesn’t turn her face away, refusing to see, when the horrors of war are depicted in Homer’s blood-soaked pages. The war between Trojans and Greeks offers infinite occasions for us to reflect upon Force – especially in its deathly effects. What results from the battles is always men laying lifeless on the ground, “dearer to the vultures than to their wives”, and Simone Weil stresses that even the greatest heroes – Hector or Achilles – are frequently reduced to things by the enemy’s force. “The bitterness of such a spectacle is offered us absolutely undiluted. No comforting fiction intervenes; no consoling prospect of immortality; and on the hero’s head no washed-out halo of patriotism descends.” (WEIL: p. 4)

If there’s a lot of tragedy in the Iliad – and it surely has, even tough it was written centuries before the Greek tragedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides) were born – it’s because force often is employed with tragic effects. It’s clear to me that Simone Weil uses the concept of “force” to denote something she morally condemns, and in such a manner that one might fell she has affinities with Eastern wisdom, especially Buddhist ethics. For example, D. T. Suzuki’s Zen Buddhist philosopy, in which he opposes Power and Love and describes them as hostile to one another. Force/power is imposed upon a subject in order to reduce him to a thing, either by killing him (and thus forcingly throwing him back into the inanimate world), either by violating, humiliating, opressing or harming him in such a way that the person is still alive and breathing, but is no longer an autonomous subject. “A man stands disarmed and naked with a weapon pointing at him; this person becomes a corpse before anybody or anything touches him… still breathing, he is simply matter.” (WEIL: pg. 5)

A difference or imbalance between the forces of two individuals are excellent evidence of the onthological presence of Simone Weil’s force or Suzuki’s power among all that’s human. Trivial examples abound. Someone with a bazooka overpowers someone with a knife. A knifed man forces an unarmed woman into carnal processes she wouldn’t unforcibly agree to. And there are hundreds of movie scenes, especially in westerns and action blockbusters, that tell stories about this battle of forces and powers. But for millenia before cinema was invented human history cointained in its bosom duels, rivalry, competion – and one of the most ancient of literary monuments of the world, Homer, has blood of battle soaked all over his pages. To speak like a Greek, human history is filled with ágon and húbris.

Weil writes about the Iliad being a French woman in the industrial-commercial age, and surely her experience in Renault’s factory, where she went to work in order to experience in the flesh the fate of the proletariat, informs her reading of History as a whole. The factory’s of the 20nd century are a force that dehumanizes and turns subjects into things, Weil dennounced on her writings La Condition Ouvrière, and she can sense a similar process mirrored in  The Iliad.

Iliad

“There are unfortunate creatures who have become things for the rest of their lives. Their days hold no pastimes, no free spaces, no room in them for any impulse of their own. It is not that their life is harder than other men’s nor that they occupy a lower place in the social hierarchy; no, they are another human species, a compromise between a man and a corpse. The idea of a person’s being a thing is a logical contradiction. Yet what is impossible in logic becomes true in life, and the contradiction lodged in the soul tears it to shreds. This thing is constantly aspiring to be a man or a woman, and never achieving it – here, surely, is death but death strung out over a whole lifetime; here, surely is life, but life that death congeals before abolishing.” (WEIL: p. 8)

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In the epoch of the Trojan War, it was destiny of a conquered enemy to become a slave, that is, to be turned into a thing, deprived of autonomy, and Homer describes in some occasions how people are forced into ships, taken away “to a land where they will work wretched tasks, laboring for a pitiless master” (HOMER. Iliad. Apud WEIL: p. 9).

A person enslaved is being treated like a beast, like a horse on reins. 12 Years A Slave, Scott McQueen’s film, is a fresh reminder of these horrors. Simone Weil denounces the inhumanity in human affairs wherever she sees it: be it on a Greek epic-poem or in the factories of the car industry. In this we can see how Simone Weil joins hands once again with Buddhist ethics: she denounces the ways in which misused force, or tyranny, disrespects sentient beings by treating them as if they were inert matter.

What Weil and Suzuki denounce in the workings of Force and Power is that lack of compassion which Buddhist ethics, by dissolving the ego, aims to cure ourselves of. Enlightnement or Nirvana, in Buddhism, can’t be achieved without compassion. It may also be argued that French philosophy in the 20nd century has few voices more compassionate than Simone Weil’s.

“Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates. The truth is, nobody really possesses it. In the Iliad there is not a single man who does not at one time or another have to bow his neck to force.” (WEIL: p. 11)

There’s no simplistic dualistic division between the forceful and the forceless in Weil’s philosophy – of course one can be a slave for a whole lifetime, and one can be a master and tyrant from birth to the grave, but force isn’t something a human being can only exert upon others. Nature itself overpowers tremendously each and every one of the sentient and living creatures in its bosom, in such a way that even the most powerful among humans is still a frail thing – and always mortal, transient.

Let’s remember that the Iliad begins when a heated controversy is dividing two very powerful Greeks, Agamemnon and Achilles. This fight for supremacy is all around Homer’s poem, everyone wants to increase his power, and this can’t be done by any other way than at the expense of others. The result of this mad rivalry is huge bloodshed. “He that takes the sword, will perish by the sword. The Iliad formulated the principle long before the Gospels did, and in almost the same terms: Ares is just, and kills those who kill.” (p. 14)

1Certainly inspired and influenced by the philosophy of one of her dearest teachers, Alain  (Émile-Auguste Chartier, 1858-1961, author of Mars ou La Guerre Jugée), Simone Weil is a passionate apologist for philosophy’s powers against inhumanity – because “where there is no room for reflection, there is none either for justice or prudence.” (p. 14) And, she argues, the horrors and tragedies that Homer depicts can also be understood as results of lack-of-reflection, of hastiness to act, of an incapacity to refrain from agression. “Hence we see men in arms behaving harshly and madly. We see their sword bury itself in the breast of a disarmed enemy who is in the very act of pleading at their knees. We see them triumph over a dying man by describing to him the outrages his corpse will endure. We see Achilles cut the throats of twelve Trojan boys on the funeral pyre of Patroclus as naturally as we cut flowers for a grave. These men, wielding power, have no suspicion of the fact that the consequences of their deeds will at lenght come home to them – they too will bow the neck in their turn.” (WEIL: p. 14)

What’s astonishing about these last words is how closely Weil gets to the Buddhist idea of karma. And what’s also touching is how compassionate Simone Weil truly is when she describes those numerous occasions when we fail to treat ourselves as “brothers in humanity” (WEIL: p. 15). But Weil is no Buddhist, and in the text we are following she’s interested mainly in the Greeks and how they also had a concept similar to karma, some sort of “retribution which operates automatically to penalize the abuse of force”. She claims this is the “the main subject of Greek thought”:

Nemesis

Greek godess Nemesis

“It is the soul of the epic. Under the name of Nemesis, it functions as the mainspring of Aeschylus’s tragedies. (…) Wherever Hellenism has penetrated, we find the idea of it familiar. In Oriental countries which are steeped in Buddhism, it is perhaps this Greek idea that has lived on under the name of Karma. The Occident, however, has lost it, and no longer even has a word to express it in any of its languages: conceptions of limit, measure, equilibrium, which ought to determine the conduct of life are, in the West, restricted to a servile function in the vocabulary of technics.” (WEIL: p. 16)

In André Comte-Sponville’s philosophy, especially in his Short Treatise Of Great Virtues, Simone Weil’s ethical legacy lives on, and it’s enough to read his wise chapters on “temperance”, “prudence” or “love” to get convinced that France is keeping alive the flame of these virtues, or at least hoping to spread them by inviting more humans to practise them. “A moderate use of force, which alone would enable man to escape being enmeshed in its machinery, would require superhuman virtue, which is as rare as dignity in weakness.” (WEIL: p. 20)

In Simone Weil’s ethics, moderation of force, care for the feelings of others, awareness of alterity, are virtues to be practised by those who see themselves as brothers and sisters in humanity. But when we look back at History we have few reasons to be optimistic. And besides, as Simone Weil points out with irony, we still live in times where “there is always a god handy to advise someone to be unreasonable.” (21)

Simone Weil’s writings frequently denounces inhumanities commited by humans. She spreads awareness of our common humanity by showing how frequently we treated ourselves in a subhuman fashion. And it’s not true that only the slaves are turned into subhumans when they are forced into slavery: the master also loses his humanity when he enslaves. And war and slavery are dehumanizing forces because they work towards destruction and death, “yet the idea of man’s having death for a future is abhorrent to nature. Once the experience of war makes visible the possibility of death that lies locked up in each moment, our thoughts cannot travel from one day to the next without meeting death’s face.” (WEIL: p. 22)

Is Weil, then, simply a pacifist, a Gandhian? Or did she approve armed uprisings against the Nazi occupation of Paris, for example? Her condemnation of war, and not only on “moral” grounds, but in a much broader sense, in an existential level, would necessarily lead her to a practice of non-resistance? The answer is hard to give, considering that Simone Weil, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), enlisted to fight against the fascists, and can be seen in a famous photograph with a shotgun in her hand, quite willing to add a little bit of force to the Anti-Franco militias. But Simone Weil was no brute – on the contrary, she was gentleness incarnate, and her personal favorite in the Iliad is “Patroclus, who knew how to be sweet to everybody, and who throughout the Iliad commits no cruel or brutal act.” (WEIL: p. 26)

The possession of a fire arm does not imply the right to brutality or cruelty. Being armed isn’t a license to act with mad húbris. When I think of Simone Weil armed with a shotgun in Spain, willing to fight against Fascism when she saw it dangerously spreading through Europe, I can’t be simplistic about pacifism, as if it was some kind of ethical absolute. I don’t believe it is – and neither did Simone Weil back in the 1930s or the Zapatistas under the guidance of Marcos in Chiapas, Mexico, nowadays.

Encounter-with-Simone_Weil-Filmstill-06.

War turns us into subhumans beasts killing themselves in mad rivalry, but how on Earth are we to build a planetary community in which war has been banned, and ample dialogue and mutual enlightnement between cultures reigns? For thousands of years, war seems to follow humanity, always on its trail. That ideal sung by John Lennon in “Imagine”, the Brotherhood of Man, remains to be futurely made flesh. In Homer’s Iliad Simone Weil sees nothing to be optismistic about, just “a picture of uniform horror, of which force is the sole hero.” (p. 27) But what’s sublime about Homer’s art, the lasting artistic value of ancient epic poetry, lies in the poet’s capacity to portray suffering befalling all – both Greeks and Trojans. Thus it points out to the fact that we’re all brothers in sorrow, and that’s an excellent reason for peace and compassion, as a Buddhist could put it.

“However, such a heaping-up of violent deeds would have a frigid effect, were it not for the note of incurable bitterness that continually makes itself heard. It is in this that the Iliad is absolutely unique, in this bitterness that proceeds from tenderness and that spreads over the whole human race, impartial as sunlight. Never does the tone lose its coloring of bitterness; yet never does the bitterness drop into lamentation. Justice and love, which have hardly any place in this study of extremes and of unjust acts of violence, nevertheless bathe the work in their light without ever becoming noticeable themselves, except as a kind of accent. Everyone’s unhappiness is laid bare without dissimulation or disdain; no man is set above or below the condition common to all men; whatever is destroyed is regretted. (…) Whatever is not war, whatever war destroys or threatens, the Iliad wraps in poetry; the realities of war, never. (…) The cold brutality of the deeds of war is left undisguised; neither victors nor vanquished are admired, scroned, or hated. An extraordinary sense of equity breathes through the Iliad. One is barely aware that the poet is a Greek and not a Trojan.” (WEIL: p. 30 – 32)

For Simone Weil, the poet who wrote the Iliad acted with marvelous impartiality, and sang about the misfortunes and losses, about the victories and triumphs, of both sides of the conflict, in such a way that Greeks and Trojans are shown as co-participants of a common process. “Attic tragedy, or at any rate the tragedy of Aeschylus and Sophocles, is the true continuation of the epic. The conception of justice enlightens it, without ever directly intervening in it; here force appears in its coldness and hardness; (…) here more than one spirit bruised and degraded by misfortune is offered for our admiration.” (p. 34) The enduring existential value of such art lies in this: to be aware of human misery is “a precondition of justice and love”, claims Weil. (p. 35)

When Simone Weil affirms that “misery is the common human lot” (p. 35), she’s once again approaching a landscape familiar to Buddhists: one of the Four Noble Truths enounced by the enlightened Sidharta Gautama is  “all is suffering”. From this awareness  springs compassion. Love, justice, compassion, can’t arise without the clear perception of our brotherhood in suffering. However, it’s clear as water that, even tough she was born in a Jewish family, Simone Weil is deeply suspicious of the doctrines and dogmas of Judaism:

“With the Hebrews, misfortune was a sure indication of sin and hence a legitimate object of contempt; to them a vanquished enemy was abhorrent to God himself and condemned to expiate all sorts of crimes – this is a view that makes cruelty permissible and indeed indispensable. And no text of the Old Testament strikes a note comparable to the note heard in the Greek epic, unless it be certain parts of the book of Job. Throughout 20 centuries of Christianity, the Romans and the Hebrews have been admired, read, imitated, both in deed and word; their masterpieces have yielded an appropriate quotation every time anybody had a crime he wanted to justify.” (p. 36)

Belief in gods is seen as highly problematic in Simone Weil’s philosophy, even tough it would be an exageration to call her an atheist, considering the intense mystical impulses that she manifests so vividly in her ouevre. What Weil can’t stand is the arrogance of those who use religion to falsely believe they are superior to the rest, that they are immune from evils that will only befall others. When religion leads to the denial of our common humanity, Weil rejects it: “the only people who can give the impression of having risen to a higher plane, who seem superior to ordinary human misery, are the people who resort to the aids of illusion, exaltation, fanaticism, to conceal the harshness of destiny from their own eyes.” (p. 36)

We still have a lot to learn from the Greeks, including its great epic poet, and Simone Weil admires Homer’s Iliad so much that she claims that

“in spite of the brief intoxication induced at the time of the Renaissance by the discovery of Greek literature, there has been, during the course of 20 centuries, no revival of the Greek genius. Something of it was seen in Villon, in Shakespeare, Cervantes, Molière, and – just once – in Racine. To this list of writers a few other names might be added. But nothing the peoples of Europe have produced is worth the first known poem that appeared among them. Perhaps they will yet rediscover the epic genius, when they learn that there is no refuge from fate, learn not to admire force, not to hate the enemy, nor to scorn the unfortunate. How soon this will happen is another question.” (WEIL: p. 37).

These words also sound, to my ears, in tune with Buddhist ethics, especially for the praise of compassion for the suffering of others. And of course that within the realm of The Other we should include Life-As-A-Whole, and not only human life. The Buddhist notion of “sentient beings” is such a great idea, methinks, because it describes something much vaster than Mankind, something that, without being a god, certainly transcends the individual self. Dogs and cats, lions and owls, sunflowers and worms, they all belong to the great family of the living, they are all sentient beings, even tough the degree of self-cousciousness greatly varies.

If both Simone Weil’s philosophy and Buddhist ethics are worthy of our attention, study and discussions, methinks it’s mainly because of the imminent ecological catastrophes that will quake our future and will shatter the current “Western Way” of dealing with Nature. Or, to put it in another words, it won’t be possible for the West to continue in its industrial-commercial path, on its productivist húbris, in its crazy consumerism meddled with egotisticall individualism, simply because the Earth’s biosphere won’t stand for it – and if we keep on going in the same direction, we can only expect mass-scale tragic consequences arising from so much atmospherical pollution, fossil-fuel burnings, deforestations, oil spills… A wiser relationship with Nature urgently needs to emerge from the cultural slumber of destructive capitalism – or else we’re damned.

Suzuki 2

“Westerners talk about conquering Nature and never about befriending her. They climb a high mountain and they declare the mountain is conquered. They suceed in shooting a certain type of projectile heavenwards and then claim that they have conquered the air. (…) Those who are power-intoxicated fail to see that power is blinding and keeps them within an ever-narrowing horizon. Love, however, transcends power because, in its penetration into the core of reality, far beyond the finiteness of the intellect, it is infinity itself. Without love one cannot see the infinely expanding network of relationships which is reality. Or, we may reverse this and say that without the infinite network of reality we can never experience love in its true light.

To conclude: Let us first realize the fact that we thrive only when we are co-operative by being alive to the truth of interrelationship of all things in existence. Let us then die to the notion of power and conquest and be resurrected to the eternal creativity of love which is all-embracing and all-forgiving. As love flows out of rightly seeing reality as it is, it is also love that makes us feel that we – each of us individually and all of us collectively – are responsible for whatever things, good or evil, go on in our human community, and we must therefore strive to ameliorate or remove whatever conditions are inimical to the universal advancement of human welfare and wisdom.”

(D. T. Suzuki, The Awakening of Zen, “Love and Power”, pg. 70)

REFERENCES

WEIL, Simone; BESPALOFF, Rachel. War and Iliad. Preface by Christopher Benfley. New York Review Books Classics, 2005.

SUZUKI, Daisetz Teitaro. The Awakening of Zen. Edited by Christmas Humphreys. Boston: Shambhala, 1980.

* * * * *

(Article by Eduardo Carli de Moraes, at Awestruck Wanderer,
Toronto, Canada. March 2014.)

“Respeitosamente vândala” – Ivana Bentes entrevistada na Cult de Março de 2014

Ivana

Respeitosamente vândala

Confira, na íntegra, a entrevista com a pensadora e ativista Ivana Bentes, publicada na CULT 188

http://revistacult.uol.com.br/home/2014/03/respeitosamente-vandala/

“As periferias são laboratórios de mundos e a riqueza do Brasil. Não mais os pobres assujeitados e excluídos de certo imaginário e discurso, mas uma ciberperiferia, a riqueza da pobreza (disputada pela Nike, pela Globo, pelo Estado) que transforma as favelas, quilombos urbanos conectados, em laboratórios de produção subjetiva. A carne negra das favelas, os corpos potentes e desejantes, a cooperação sem mando, inventando espaços e tempos outros (na rua, nos bailes, lanhouses e lajes), estão sujeitos a todos os tipos de apropriação.É que as favelas e periferias são o maior capital nas bolsas de valores simbólicas do país, pois converteram as forças hostis máximas (pobreza, violência, Estado de exceção) em processo de criação e invenção cultural.Além disso, o midialivrismo ganha força na periferias, em projetos como a ESPOCC, Escola Popular de Comunicação Crítica da Maré, Viva Favela, Agência Redes Para a Juventude, que formam comunicadores populares e midiativistas…

O Rio de Janeiro serve de exemplo. É um termômetro da difícil e paradoxal tarefa de calibrar essa euforia pós-Lula, do presidente Macunaíma que turbinou a periferia, e os retrocessos no governo Dilma, que trouxe os “gestores de subjetividade”, que revertem e monetizam a potência das favelas e periferias para o turismo, corporações, bancos e para o consumo.O que vemos na publicidade das UPPs, da Copa do Mundo e dos shoppings é o que chamo de inclusão visual dos jovens negros ou da cultura da periferia. Mas os mesmos jovens são mortos pela polícia como elementos “suspeitos” nas favelas ou impedidos de entrar nos shoppings para dar um rolezinho…” – IVANA BENTES na CULT