A great deal has been said about the banality of evil since the second half of the last century. As the locus of evil shape-shifts into the everyday, grounds itself in the mundane, perhaps our language too succumbs to it. From private chats to casual public conversations, from media vocabulary to the words of a parliamentarian: it is language that tells us the extent of transformation that has already taken place and the force of evil that has long been unleashed. When the public nods into agreement at the calls of violence and the slogans of hatred, language itself is rendered timid and weak for the victims. At all such sites language too is lynched and mutilated and made to flee: its possibilities of emancipation are brutally butchered. The very articulation of resistance becomes an impossible burden in the face of claustrophobic majoritarianism, its speech becomes a doomed dream. When words don’t yield much in public life, they seek refuge in private corners of existence. Language escapes the clutches of universities, newspapers, and parliaments, and hides, not unlike Anne Frank in an attic, in places that will shelter its strength. It is then that someone filled with great anxiety and despair in their everyday life, notes in their diary, “I continue to write. This is my heroics. I want to bear witness, precise witness, until the very end.”
These are the words of the Jewish-Protestant German scholar Victor Klemperer. He became known as a diarist for his journals written between 1933-1945 in the Nazi Germany. He also published The Language of the Third Reich (1957), a study on the language of Nazi propaganda. Here are some of his diary excerpts from I Shall Bear Witness (1995):
March 10, 1933: . . . Hitler elected as Chancellor. What I had called terror was only a mild prelude. . . . It is amazing how everything collapses . . . prohibitions and acts of violence. And with it, on streets and radio, unrestrained propaganda. On Saturday I heard a piece of Hitler's speech in Konsigsberg. I understood only a few words. But the tone! The unctuous roaring bark, the bark, really, of a clergyman. . . . How long will I be able to retain my professorship?
March 17, 1933: . . . on Friday, unfortunately, Thiemes was here. It was frightful . . . such enthusiastic conviction and support. The phraseology of unity. Progress piously repeated. Grete (his wife) said, “Everything else failed, now we have to blow this horn.” He corrected her vehemently. “We didn’t have to.” In really free elections he has voted for the right cause. This I can’t forgive him. The poor dog may be frightened for his job. He must howl with the wolves. But why in front of me? . . . Naked violence, breach of law, terrible hypocrisy, unmitigated barbarism poses as law.
April 25, 1933: The focus of the Hitlerite movement is undoubtedly the Jewish cause. I fail to understand why on their agenda this item is so central. It means their ultimate ruin. But probably our ruin as well.
Feb. 11, 1936: Outside the post office a man stopped me. “Don't you recognize me? Dr. Kleinstock, rector of the Vitztum High School. I saw you the other day too. You also saw me but you looked away. I was afraid you looked away because you feared I wouldn’t greet you. That’s why I stopped you to ask, How are you?” I was moved by his attitude. I answered and added, “I was told that you, Herr Rector, are a top-Nazi now.” He: “Oh my God, one can never please everybody.”
July 19, 1937: I myself have had too much nationalism in me and now I am being punished.
Sept. 15, 1941: (after Jews were ordered to display the yellow Star of David) Frau Kreidl Sr. was in tears. Frau Voss suffered a heart attack. Friedheim said this was the most difficult blow to date, worse than the confiscation of capital. I feel shattered, and cannot calm myself. Eva wants to take care of all errands from now on. I will leave the house only at night for a few moments.
April 29, 1942: Another house search, another suicide. Dr. Korn-—a surgeon, Catholic Jew, wife Aryan -- was beaten up in the street. He was ordered to present himself next morning at the Gestapo. Suicide during the night. The head of the search party: “We’ll see to it that nobody among you comes out of this alive.”
May 27, 1942: This afternoon these pages go to Pirna. My latest fear is that there, too, they are not absolutely safe. . . . If discovered there, these manuscripts . . . would destory Eva and me. The danger is so great and constantly present that I have become fatalistic. This manuscript is my duty and my ultimate fulfillment.
May 30, 1942: We spoke this morning about the unbelievable human capacity to endure and get accustomed. The fairy-tale horror of our existence: fear of every knock at the door, abuse, disgrace, hunger, prohibitions, the gruesome enslavement, daily approaching dangers, every day new victims all around, absolute helplessness -- and yet still hours of ease, reading, work, eating more and more miserable food, one vegetates and again one hopes.
June 21, 1942: The empty garden bench outside of my window gives me pain. Ernst Kreidl and Dr. Friedheim sat there last summer. Now Kreidl has been shot dead and Friedheim has “died” in jail.
June 25, 1942: Mornings are the worst. Everything crowds in on you. Will I be beaten and spat at today? Summoned? Arrested? Arrest now means certain death.
[Source of the excerpts: The New York Times, 1996]
This issue contains three brilliant stories revolving around fear, anxiety, trauma, and the ways in which we respond to these emotions, by facing them obliquely, or integrating them into our everydayness, or even by jolting ourselves out of them by taking a step of courage. One story-teller weaves the normalized paranoia of women in a patriarchal society, whereas the other undoes the acceptance of violence against women, yet the third speculates a way of dealing quite beyond ordinary apprehension. The poets in this issue are looking at the devotional/ascetic gaze of women and confessing to being tired; two poets talk about homes and their boredom and their mysteries; another seems to be sending coded messages through poems. One records the ordeal of her father’s presence, while another breaks the conventions by breaking lines and rules of appropriate speech. A poem is dedicated to the last walk with a beloved pet, and another to the cluelessness of being a poet, a language-handler, as it were. There is despair, “i will not read the newspaper, where headlines chafe against their hem/ to the sound of january dogs and broken glass,” as there are attempts to struggle our ways through it. We have three excellent poetry translations, in Hindi and Malayalam, from members of the gulmohur Translation Collective, launched this April.
gulmohur stands in solidarity with the jailed activists and intellectuals of the Bhima Koregaon case; the victims of communal hatred and of state violence; the victims of caste and gender violence; the victims of fundamentalist oppression anywhere in the world; and with all those who dissent in the spirit of democracy to safeguard our ever-diminishing freedoms. We deeply mourn the lives lost in Manipur. We strongly condemn the systemic violence against Muslims.
We’re happy to announce that our Translation Collective has started working towards great labours of love; as the current issue samples some of its wonderful contributions. As usual, we would like to express our profound thankfulness to our readers and well-wishers everywhere. We are immensely grateful to all our friends (on and off social media) who have helped us reach out. We also thank our contributors for trusting us with their submissions.
We hope you enjoy reading Issue 11 of the quarterly. Long live resistance!