Learning to Swim – A Fictional Dialogue

Dr. Shiva Kambari; Specialist for Confidence Building

Learning to Swim
A Fictional Dialogue, With Writers of Fiction

This article was written with the intent of stirring emotions and giving rise to debate! Yet, here I have specifically chosen to concentrate on elements of cultural dialogue through fiction and how these may influence the modern writer in seeking to determine the type and quality of international dialogue as part of the process of building confidence. Aware of the importance and implications of dialogue for any nation’s social makeup and development, I have nevertheless chosen to leave this to be deliberated upon by Iranian authors , who are more able and averse in bringing up all the relevant issues herein. I trust that some of the discussions which shall follow, will prove me right!

I am a relative beginner at writing fiction, having only started some three years ago. And still my article may be one of the longest here presented – as I am passionate enough about what I think and therefore write as well as current international events and how they move me into further thought – to risk this. And passion after all is , next to courage , one of the major elements that link these two words – fiction and dialogue – together; for one must have a passion of some kind to attempt to write fiction , and one must be passionate about an idea, or the putting forth of an argument to attempt a dialogue, or better said, a conscious dialogue.

Conscious dialogue; an attempt at exchange that is carried out intentionally, either in form of a conversation, a piece of written work in conversational form or a discussion of ideas and proposals. An endeavour to knowingly put forth or talk about one or more ideas.

But is fiction, arising from the mixture of retelling of objective facts as well as our subjective grasp of and emotional reaction to these facts, an act of conscious dialogue? And if it is not, how may then this fiction be an instrument of dialogue among groups of people , let alone cultures?

Thinking of dialogue, I turn to the best known of Plato’s dialogues, to his “Republic” and go quickly through the pages, stopping at a heavy marking I have made long ago, which ironically is a quote not of Plato, but of Tolstoy’s “What is Art?”; it reads: “To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having invoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling – this is the activity of art. Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man (or woman) consciously , by means of certain external signs, hands on to others the feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them.”

Consciously. But – again – is art a conscious act? Is the act of writing fiction one which is realized by the doer? Did Tolstoy know of all the elements that came together in him to create characters which went on to make him immortal or was he aware of all that worked through him to make him such a sensitive re-teller not only as some would have it of the Russian soul, but of the human soul?

I can not answer for Tolstoy. But thinking writing as well as creation of any kind a very personal act, and attempting only from there – this personal act -to find a general answer, can only go back to my own meagre beginning and to seek to find some indication there. It was three years ago, and we were in the midst of another war, of another bombing – this one in the heart of Europe.

“ ‘It must be hell not being able to cry.’ I remember having read this sentence in a Novel. But for years I had not been able to cry and it had not been hell. It was now hell not being able to read and not being able to hold back tears! To be prevented by the voices in my head, which wouldn’t stop. I don’t know who was responsible for having started this non-stop barrage of voices. James Joyce must have had something to do with it. I had been reading Ulysses at the time they started and even after I stopped reading the book, the voices went on, no longer logical, coherent or controlled as they had been before, but rather confused, emotional and never ending. Not coming to an end for longer than one or two hours at the time, even at night.

I don’t know who was responsible for the voices. Joyce must have had something to do with it and the attacks on Belgrade. ‘Isn’t this sort of like how the first World War started?’ a friend had quipped the day before. Yes, but then they didn’t have CNN, they didn’t need to watch it all on Television – all live and in colour. What do we need colour for? What is the colour of blood? Red. What the colour of war? And what is the colour of the voices which won’t stop?

A week before Easter! Will the dead in Belgrade arise thereafter, one of the voices asks? Is this the crucifixion of Democracy? What is the colour of the blood of Democracy on the cross and from where does it flow? Are these the questions of a mad woman or a very sane one?

‘What choice do we have’ the friend had asked? What a question to ask someone who has studied International Relations. What choice did we have? We could have forced Milosovich read Ulysses or…..!

I run my hand over the reflection of my yellow skin. Yellow from sleeplessness and from guilt; from the guilt of the crucifixion of Diplomacy. ‘And I can’t say anything’, I think ‘I with the many voices in my head, have none in my throat. Or is it the words that have forsaken me?’ Voices without words? No, the words are still there, but they no longer mean anything except chaos and confusion. What is the colour of confusion? White.

Finally an answer. A few moments of calm.”

That is how fiction, serious disciplined fiction, started for me. Not consciously, but through the endeavour to make something coherent out of my awareness – out of my knowing, and to stop the voices, and also to achieve always greater moments of calm when the chaos around me had come too much to infect and affect my inner peace.

That was almost three years ago; three years through which I worked to control the voices and to give them the gift of words, pouring into sentences, grouping into paragraphs, coming into life – a life that comes from within me, is a sum of all I am , have been and have thought and have felt, but over which I do not have too much control.

Only one month ago, I wrote the following excerpts in a letter to a friend, who asked me about my writing:

“The question concerning what one writes about is hard to answer. I might say this last manuscript was about ‘paining one’s pain’ or love or courage , but I would say it is about a section of life intensely lived. Still, I know I may be asked that question more often from now and am bracing myself for it. ( It is as if one’s parents would be asked what one is about. The answer should be, that one is not about anything, but that one simply is! )

But I shall not go very far in any self-analysis, as I maintain that one’s creative style springs from a complex inner self that creates something new out of the collection of feelings, thoughts, impressions and unconscious wishes and fears – and that no amount of analysis or tearing apart can grasp or pin-point this creative act, that results in that one thing that is greater than oneself and at the same time such an intrinsic part of this self, that it is like a loud ‘Yes’ to all one – all I, am, have been , done and thought in my life.

And at the same, although – when writing – one has no conscious control over the whole, it is a way of gaining control over the reactions and interactions, as well as over the pain that comes from the sensitive ‘sight’ that some of us have, and have chosen – or been forced to – develop , as well as a way of getting to know one’s intricate self. “

And so it is from this personal experience that I may surmise how others, far more experienced and effective than me have come to write – fiction.

Here I turn to Ulysses which apparently started the voices in my head and find another marked passage in the introduction from Declan Kiberd: “Already , in those two books, (meaning Dubliners and a Portrait) Joyce had made a central theme of a perennial problem – that those who know how to feel often have no capacity to express themselves, and by the time they have acquired the expressive capacity, they have all but forgotten how to feel. Only rare, remarkable souls manage to seize a received language and inflect it with the rhythms of individual feeling….. proving that words are not only shaped by feelings, but come, by a strange kind of dialectic, to shape them in turn.”

And there you have it. I talked so much of and about myself only to learn that you are rare remarkable souls, and the bearers of a strange kind of dialectic – whether you like this or not. For you are the writers of Fiction.

But what is fiction?

According to the Oxford, it is: “Feigning, invention; thing feigned or imagined, invented statement or narrative, literature consisting of such narrative, esp. novels.”

Thing feigned or imagined? This fruit of the labour of remarkable souls working through a dialectic interaction? What then is fact and what the relationship between fact and fiction? Fact according to Oxford, which I now look at rather hesitantly, is “ Thing certainly known to have occurred or be true, datum of experience, precise information….” And so on.

Is fiction then, not precise? And if it is not precise, how may we use it as a vessel of conscious dialogue?

The fact is, it depends what one wishes to be precise on. Fiction is the clearest conveyor of the facts of the human condition, of the various and varying conditions of us humans, of our differences and similarities, our pains and travails, hopes and aspirations , beliefs and doubts, health and illnesses, of fears and courage and of loves and losses. In this context, fiction is – among other arts – one of the main instruments of the attainment of culture, which according to the same Oxford, on which I now again look more kindly, is “intellectual development, particular form, stage, or type of intellectual development or civilization.”

And thus is fiction linked to dialogue and to culture, as well as to the integrity of searching for facts, for as Virginia Woolf has noted: “ What one means by integrity, in the case of the novelist, is the conviction that he gives one that this is the truth.”

So, fiction is the work of truth, of personal truth, or in the words of that other Wolf, Christa Wolf, the result of “subjective authenticity”. And thus we come full circle to note that you as writers of fiction are involved in an authentic endeavour to reflect the human truth, the personal subjective truth, and in this realize a dialogue that becomes a link – a bridge – not only between individuals, but also between cultures.

Although this endeavour is not always conscious. At least not conscious of its outcome, as it is not begun with the intention of saying one thing. If it were, I would argue , it could not lead to good fiction. The attempt is much more to reflect a whole, any given whole, any real authentic whole.

But you know all this. And since you know all this, and much more, I want now to take you through an abridged version of the journey I have made, over the years – with the vehicle of fiction, hoping that some of it will spark memories, in some of you, thus binding us together, for however long, if possible through your stay here in Kish, and if not only a few moments.

Ever since the title of this seminar was set, I – trying to find a positive correlation between fiction – which I do not consider a conscious act, and dialogue which I do – have heard the voice of one fictional character in my head; seeking to show me the way. The voice of Aitmatov’s “Jamila” – which I read as a child, and which it took me a very long time to understand, for it took me a long while to know longing and loneliness and the dream of something which could not, would not be achieved – and would still be dreamt. It seems to me that Jamila is perhaps the best example of dialogue through fiction, for many who have read it have probably instinctively grasped the Kirghiz soul – and will forever feel some sympathy when they hear about anything stemming from there.

But if I am to bring in the personal – my personal memories of fiction, in order to explain the inter-cultural dialogue that it has caused within me – then I need to start further back. I must start with an Iranian children’s author, who taught me about other children who were less well off, about ravens and talking dolls, and playmates who would steal moons for one and come along, when one went off with the ravens to run away from people who threw pepper in one’s mouth to shut one up; I must begin with Samad Behrangi. From there I recall a big collection of Chinese fairytales, full of dragons and dark mysteries, and never-ending battles, which did not always end well, but were often fought well. And then a book from a French author about a child , a soldier and war – which made me grasp , very early on, that human beings could be friends, even if the countries they came from were at war with one another.

And from here my mind wanders – as did my eye so often – to my parent’s book- shelf, where stood Hemingway’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls”. “When you are old enough, you shall read that book” are the words my father used so often, that it made me impatient thinking that maybe I would not live long enough to be old enough to read “that book.” But the day came when I was old enough, and I was not disappointed, although rather puzzled by those foreign characters, doing things that people around me seemed incapable of doing, behaving in most unusual ways – in most interesting ways! And the words: “ask not for whom the bell tolls, for they toll for thee” have never since then forsaken me! From Hemingway , my way went naturally to Rolland, who also was eternally responsible, if only in a different way and whose “Jean Christophe” was the epitome of the artist , passionate, responsible, outspoken, sometimes beloved, often misunderstood.

Then, surprisingly maybe for some, came Austen, whose Elizabeths and Elinors and perfectly written stories brought me the model of women – or better said girls – whom I had not seen around me very much; ones which united intelligence and wit with tact and sensitivity. And all through it was Austen’s faultless style, her maddening ability to write a whole novel, hiding it all the while from the servants as they came into the drawing room, almost without a single “mistake”!

And then Tolstoy, with his Anna, whom I adored and did not understand; for why need she love Vronsky and throw her beautiful body to be crushed under the cruel wheels of a train? (This too, it took me many many years , to understand.) But Tolstoy , I understood immediately to be a great knower of the soul; a man who could not only describe himself and be understood – but one who could sketch a woman, and have other women see themselves in her as well! Much like Hardy could with his Bathsheba or Eustacia?

And then came a time only of Hemingway. Of “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Farewell To Arms” and a reverence of travelling and of righting wrongs, and of not understanding women or oneself and yet understanding so much of life anyway. Nevertheless and not surprisingly , shortly after I had to turn again to women writers , to offset the balance. To the far less perfect and more uneven Brönte sisters, to Charlotte mostly – to her Shirley and Jane – coming to the mastery of Goerge Elliot and her passionately idealistic, truthfully enchanting Dorothea.

And then came Wilde, with his humour and charm masking the pain – and the jibes making it all appear as it if it did not matter; this our cruelty and selfishness! The eternal Oscar whiling in one’s soul, only as an Irishman knows how!

And then came, but you begin to get impatient, wondering if I am going to say something about everybody – and I wanted only to get your own memories flowing and can perhaps better round this up by listing some of others only, by naming Chekov, Hugo, Fielding, Thackeray, Steinbeck, Huxley, Wharton, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence, Hesse, Fitzgerald, Sartre, Christa Wolf, and of course Joyce who set the voices loose in my head – and so on, and so on…. All of whom not only were the bearers of their own particular culture into my thoughts – introducing me each time to something new and different – but also caused within me an “inner cultural dialogue” that shaped who I am, how I think ,view and react to events.

Luckily the title of this seminar limits us to fiction, for were I to note all the playwrights and poets, to linger very long on Shakespeare, go on to Goethe and take especial pleasure in listing all the poets -including very many Persian “Greats”, then I will never get to dialogue and it has been my goal all along not only to cause a dialogue between you and your memories , but also to get to the role of dialogue – in international relations!

Because, as I noted, when Joyce started the voices off in my head, we were in the middle of “another war”. But that was all before September 11th.

It is curious how many of us have – already – come to sort events in our head as before and after September 11th. For us , that day – on which three airplanes bearing a number of passengers crashed into three buildings, two of which held a great number of civilians , with another plane intended also as a weapon of destruction crashing in a field – has become one of great importance; one which shook our world and ensured that one way or another, our lives would be noticeably different, after.

But here too , it is easier to turn to what one wrote then, or shortly after.

“Evening of September 11th, 2001: today I lost another belief, although I never even knew it was a belief before; the belief that we shall never never hurl planes full of people at buildings giving protection to masses of other people. Funny I never knew this was a belief of mine, before I lost it!

Someone on CNN is talking and I begin crying for one land that I love, hoping still that somehow, somewhere another, Iran, is not involved.

I cry myself sleep; crying for all the beliefs I am losing, each day, one by one, and for those who perhaps knew in the last minute that their plane would be crashing into buildings full of people , for others who threw themselves down buildings, knowing there is nothing below but granite and concrete, and for the families that will not sleep tonight – and many many nights after, and for the world, which I was not able to protect, and for all the things I have held myself back from saying and doing in the last years that maybe could have somehow hindered this , and for myself….

As I wake up the next day , CNN is still running. So it was not a dream. The nightmare is real and it is still ongoing!

When a child, I read a book about a rabbit who on seeing the horizon, had thought that the sky was falling. Today it is as if this rabbit is within me; I feel as if the sky is falling – not very far away from my feet, as if our horizon has closed up on us.

This is all the result of madness, and the giving oneself the right to make decisions about the life and death of others.”

And some weeks later, I answered an e-mail of my cousin‘s who lives in the US and had almost pleadingly asked me what she was to tell her 4 year old daughter through all this, that she was watching on TV, even as they tried to keep much from her.

“I realized long ago that they taught us baloney when they told us about love and getting along as children and still this is the baloney that gives me hope and personal strength – even now that I know the real world as it is. So feed the same baloney to your daughter , and also teach her to question things and analyse them for herself – for these will one day become her treasures.

The Frankfurt book fair opened last night and at the opening ceremony the president of Greece – Greek literature being the theme this year – said something beautiful: ‘Let us create a civilization of cultures’. Maybe you can arrange a group on something of the same theme directed at pre-schoolers?

At the same time, due to the current situation , the first autobiography of Bin Laden is being sold! And people are buying and reading this too – wishing to know what lies behind ‘evil’! Nothing, just hatred, the wish for power and absolute failing of any ‘baloney’ – better known as a basic system of human principles.

No thank you, I will stick to my literature and to my international relations and to ‘civilization of cultures’”

But I never really got around to finishing what I was reading at the time , for suddenly the world had changed greatly. And suddenly I was fashionable again!

I am sure that some of you have experienced the same, and possibly to a far greater extent; somehow after September 11th; I started receiving e-mails and telephone calls from people I had not heard of in years, bearing various questions about the how and why. I tried to answer them patiently , thinking , if they had only thought and read all along…. If we had all remained involved and active all along, as we bombarded the people of Iraq without supporting their own opposition from within and making sure that it was in a position to bring some openness, some measure of democracy to the country, as we bombarded a country within Europe without paying attention to the message this act was sending or noting how much of our own erroneous policy in the past had lead to the creation of the problem, which we now sought to bombard away, as we exercised sanctions against the people of Iraq and turned aside not wanting to see them starve and die, as we all – each in our own way, aided and abetted the people of Israel and Palestine in their erroneous assumption that by destroying their opponent , they are somehow building a future for their own people, as we allowed theoreticians such as Mr. Huntington, who were left after the cold war without a bipolar model on which their whole power politics and balance of power was based, not as some say to predict the future but in fact to help form and shape it , and thus unable to change their own systems of thought , to seek to bring the new system back to the confines of this limited thought. If we had remained vocal all through the last ten years, when we allowed the chance of a new world order slip, and be turned into the quagmire in which we now find ourselves in!

For we are going through perilous times. And it is exactly during these times, that we must exercise judgement, become involved and seek to restore to dialogue , instead of violence and destruction.

I was not against the attack on Afghanistan. As difficult as this conclusion was for me, I supported a campaign that had to confront a group that had taken it upon itself to reshuffle the world order, to in fact cause disorder so as to gain advantage from it, and I was for the removal of the Taliban, this one of the most inhuman of “rules” on our planet. But I was not for the continuation of bombardment when ground troops could have been more effectively deployed, only to save some American lives, and I hope we can try to hold the current US administration responsible for its promise of not turning its back on Afghanistan, which it is already doing by talking of new wars and attacks, when hunger and chaos are still paramount in that country.

And although I recognised that the game of one sided power politics which we had played in the last years, made it impossible for us to avoid a retaliatory attack after September 11th, I also became determined to do all I could to prevent us from playing such “games”, which end up making us prisoners within the small confines into which we place ourselves, through them. For, surely, the most intelligent of policies are those, that give us the highest number of choices – even at times of crisis?!

I say I , not yet finding a we – at this time – and yet hoping that there are elements of a “we” in there , from where we may start our dialogue in the next days, and thereafter. A conscious dialogue that will lead to confidence building in international relations, in these times of dwindling confidence and increasing fear. For it is to great parts this interaction between fear and confidence, which decides on the quality of and level of existing security within international relations, at any given time.

Confidence is a complex phenomenon that is determined through various social- psychological, economic and political aspects and influences – through events that have occurred in the history of nation states – the feelings and views of the people as well the many sided interests of the states as also actions and interactions in all areas and on the different levels of international relations.

Thus, states and peoples have interests – not enemies. And if it is in the greatest interest of a state or people to live peacefully , then differences of interest will be carried out in ways other than those which lead to war and destruction. Yet the fact is that we have not come to the stage when it is in the interest of each people to seek non-violent means of change, and within the last years, we have even come further and further away from this, than closer to it. So, we live still in a world where it is of more interest to some than others to protect the status-quo , by keeping the peace, even as those who would enjoy the greatest benefits of peaceful behaviour have come to break this at their own discretion, very often unilaterally and dragging the world very much behind, without giving others much choice for dissent. It is in this world, during these confusing and chaotic times, that we must introduce a conscious dialogue, seeking to introduce another new world order, where we do not attempt to vilify each other and create enemies of those who oppose or even threaten us. We must remain strong and resilient when attacked and still human and intelligent enough to know how to avoid a confrontation that threatens not only our existence but the confines of a humanity it has taken us long, very long, to define and determine. Yes, we do have international laws, and guidelines for treating even those who have declared themselves “our enemy”, and yes we do have the right to continue to defend our civil liberties even when faced with outer danger , and yes our cultures are strong enough to bring us through times of danger, and to prevent us from allowing all to cave in on us when confronted with terror and hatred.

We – meaning that part of the world, that great part of its population – who do not believe in the use of death and destruction only for the sake of remaining in or grasping at new power – are strong, and we shall be stronger than death and destruction, if only we can remain true to that which makes us strong, our cultures, our laws, our basic system of human beliefs; for there is only one race- the human race – and our source of strength lies in our unity, which finds it parts and counterparts not always within national lines, but throughout the world, among all those who at least believe in the search for justice.

In the translated words of the late great Iranian poet Shamlou:

Neither just, nor beauteous was life

Before we came upon its stage

We pondered its unattained justice

And beauty came into existence.

And it is time again , that we ponder the unattained justice of life, for much beauty has long been absent from its stage! And it is this “pondering”, this thoughtful and goal-oriented act of seeking actions and solutions, that builds the basis of confidence building – the act of taking conscious steps to increase confidence – which determine the confines of dialogue, as well as its direction.

In the English language, we differentiate between “trust” and “confidence”, with trust being an element of love and the search for security without a proven ground, where confidence is something one has to something or someone, as one knows him, or it and understands its character or content. Confidence is therefore based more on getting to know something and on coming closer to this “other thing”. Thus the word confidence also suggests the existence and acceptance of differences.

Knowledge is consequently, an important element of confidence in relations between states and peoples and this in two distinct ways. First states and peoples must know themselves, their goals, needs as well as their own readiness ,and preparedness to meet these goals and wishes . Second, they should know – or perpetually attempt to know more of – their opponents or fellow states and peoples, their history, national or group specifics and political interests. Here it is important to break through old prejudices and to come to the best possible real picture of those others we share this planet with, even while trying to make some knowledge of ourselves available to – and attainable for – others.

Furthermore, knowledge may generally be said to be imparted in two ways. First it is communicated indirectly through experience, interactions, exchanges and living through events; through the very many facets of life. Second, it is transmitted by conscious efforts, efforts meant both to give out information about one’s self, as also intended to influence and build opinion.

Thus, it is within the confines of all these elements , that your works, you remarkable souls who are writers of fiction, fall. First, they – which instinctively and naturally give voice to a culture or section of human experience and endeavour, act to spread knowledge and to determine its quality. Second they involve us in an exchange of knowledge , that leads to an unconscious dialogue – which has become a very important part of our civilization, and also a very necessary part of human life for many of us.

But of course, you do most of this unconsciously; you do it naturally, out of the necessity to coordinate your thoughts and to create something new from the combination of these thoughts and your feelings and observations and all else that makes you whole, diverse , and forever changing and developing .

Yet even while you unconsciously spread confidence , not only among cultures but within humans, in their own humanity and the achievements thereof ( for what more leads to confidence than also the knowledge of the shortcomings, weaknesses and areas where improvement is needed?) you, along with other artists also consciously impart knowledge and create dialogues on various personal, social and political levels – which are most decisive to the nurture of the type and quality of the climate any given people live in . And it is this decisive cultural role, which determines your level of responsibility during these difficult times, and brings me to hope that you will not allow yourselves to be made silent and pushed further into various corners , but to remain vocal and also become more involved in the dialogue that takes place within each of your countries as also internationally; to become the forerunners of conscious dialogue.

And this new attempt at dialogue may at first be made in two forms. First, of dialogue between writers specifically – and artists in general; a new movement bringing you to talk with one another, to learn from each other and to seek to find strength in the existence of differences of viewpoints and cultural diversity, while encouraging the process that leads to the creative act.

Second, as the start of a new kind of conscious dialogue with your readers, seeking to encourage the development of thought and reflection through the means of literature and the reading thereof, through a new attention to the arts.

We must bring literature and the arts to the children, without seeming to take away their various music channels or other sources of interaction with their generation; we must add to the capabilities of these next generations, knowing and using what interests them – speaking their voice; we must empower and encourage young writers who speak with this voice, who understand the fears of their peers and can pose the questions that go unanswered by them, in an age when many do not even have the capability to formulate these questions, never-mind trying to answer them.

And we may decide to develop a programme to bring literature to the schools and universities and to use its means to help the younger generations to think further than the everyday battles and superficial measurements of success; in short to equip the next generations, with the adequate instruments of thought!

In the west “we” live in the age of communication, but most people have very little of substance to communicate, so we have come to substitute communication of ideas and intentions with advertising and public relations. The truth, the most objectively close we can get to the truth, is in this atmosphere resting on the shoulders of PR managers and the media, mostly television , the quality of which is influenced greatly by advertising.

In the developing countries, “we” are so involved in the battle against hunger or only to stay above the middle half of society, that we have no chance thinking about our human development or about any option than holding our heads above the water.

In both hemispheres, what is suffering is the ability of the average man and woman to think about his wishes, in order to consciously determine his possibilities. Yet the path to more democracy involves not only one person, one vote, but also the capacity to make an informed decision concerning this vote. Is it therefore any wonder that we are veering from this path, when we have failed to create an atmosphere in which this thought is encouraged and furthered? Is it any wonder that we wake up every day in the year 2002 and turn to our newspapers , television news or computers, to find there images of increasing violence and hatred, and words uttered by our elected politicians which do not mirror wisdom or serious reflection?

Possibly there is indeed an “axis of evil” determining our times; this is the axis of terror, panic and hatred that has come to shape our current political life and to threaten our future. For hatred – based not on calculated fear , but on panic grounded in the fear of powerlessness and shaped by lack of knowledge, is the greatest hindrance not only of dialogue but of any form of communication or interaction.

And terror remains terror, whether it is carried out by groups seeking to bring chaos to our world, or by states trying to protect their interest – at whatever cost to many dearly won values. And it remains terror, when we arm those who carry it out, or house them, or encourage them in their hatred of fellow human beings. It remains terror, when we ourselves created the perpetrators for the sake of a few limited interests and political ambitions. So, if we are to fight terror, for the sake of our world at peril, we must each fight that in ourselves which aids and abets terror; first and foremost hatred, ignorance and intolerance and the inability not only to hold dialogues, but most importantly to listen and try to understand, when others are seeking to express themselves.

Here, to halt the pace and stop my own head from spinning from all this that we have failed to achieve and all that we must seek to change with speed, during these perilous times, I return to literature, as often when I seek solace – and a new starting point.

I recall the last words in the title of the last chapter of Erich Kästner’s book -“Fabian” – which is about a jobless moralist in the Berlin of the 1930s – “watching and studying” life! In the final passage, we are told, that “our moralist” seeing a child drowning, throws his clothes aside and jumps in the water. The child, crying, manages to swim to the riverbank. But our moralist drowns, having never learned to swim.

I recall the words in the title of the last chapter, which have left an impression on my mind, much like Hemingway’s “Ask not for whom the bell tolls”; the simple words directed perhaps at all who feel that it is for them the bells toll: first, “Learn to swim”!

And thinking them appropriate for us on this small island , thinking them symbolic as we go through the turbulent seas of violence and terror in world affairs; thinking of the children of other countries, which may be next , indeed thinking of all our children during these times when the questions should be many, and yet the ability to pose them seem so limited – for we limit and hinder them – I pray that you as authors of fiction, learn to swim – in a whole new way. And that you initiate a dialogue that will teach this to us and to our children.

For surely knowledge and intelligence are not worth anything , if they do not lead to change; and if they do not bring us to live life more fully, with more choices, and in a way that encourages human development and cultural diversity!

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