Home > Essays > Shadowboxing: Prophet Loss
Askold Melnyczuk
Published: Mon Oct 15 2001
Art: Andrea Chung
Shadowboxing: Prophet Loss

In his poem “Advice to a Prophet,” Richard Wilbur describes an anti-nuclear activist as “mad-eyed from stating the obvious,” so when Joshua Rubenstein, Northeast Regional Director of Amnesty International USA, proposed that we dedicate a special issue of AGNI to Amnesty’s fortieth anniversary, I grew worried. I didn’t know any writers opposed to human rights. Indeed, in the generally liberal Northeast, I know no lawyers or elected officials who would reject the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, or the Helsinki Accords, or even the recent Princeton Principles on Universal Jurisdiction. If all were for it, and none against, what was there to say? Yet last May, the United States was voted off the very U.N. Human Rights Commission Eleanor Roosevelt helped to establish and to which she was the first U.S. representative. Clearly, either the unanimity I perceived was an illusion, or “we” had failed to make our voice heard in those quarters where it mattered.

Editing this issue, I’ve learned again that there’s a gap between collective wishes and singular deeds. In chronicling the selfless acts of individuals in Serbia over the last years, Dr. Svetlana Broz, who is, incidentally, the daughter of Marshal Tito, late president of the late Yugoslavia, has deepened our sense of that region’s struggle. Meanwhile, the story by Iranian writer and former Amnesty-designated Prisoner of Conscience Faraj Sarkohi, imprisoned and tortured under both the Shah and the Ayatollah, demonstrates that faith in the imagination itself endures exposure to even the most brutal of facts.

Thoreau observed that while there is no such thing as a corporation with a conscience, it is possible to have corporations of conscientious individuals, an example of which would be Amnesty International itself. A chapter from Linda Rabben’s history of Amnesty, identifying the organization’s distant roots in the Anarchist Red Cross, founded in 1907 to support political prisoners in Russia, clarifies the appeal of human rights NGOs—Non-Governmental Organizations. These are collectives developed to support the freedom of the individual against the encroachments of states and for-profit companies.

Amnesty’s history is not without ironies. Peter Benenson, who founded Amnesty in 1961, was in part descended from a wealthy Russian family that fled before the Revolution. He himself traced the origins of Amnesty to his reading about the Spanish Civil War, particularly Arthur Koestler’s Spanish Testament. In this issue, a chapter from Michael Scammell’s fascinating forthcoming biography of Koestler, which reads like vintage Le Carré, details the story of Koestler’s collaboration with the notorious Communist publisher and propagandist Willi Münzenburg during his “Spanish adventure.” It is a period worth noting if only because the Spanish Civil War was one of the last causes Western writers supported in significant numbers. A list of Republican fellow travelers who congregated in Madrid in 1936 includes Malraux, Neruda, Alberti, Hemingway, Aragon, Ehrenburg, and Claud Cockburn (father of Nation columnist Alexander). At the same time, the Show Trials had already begun in Moscow, and as the full picture of what collaboration with Stalin really meant slowly came into focus, many writers discovered once and for all that the corruptions of power crossed all party lines; henceforth most Western writers would aim to speak only for themselves.

Disillusionment with propaganda and official history underlies the compelling story of Chinese poet Bei Dao’s metamorphosis from elite member of the Red Guard to a leader in the Democracy Movement. Talking to interviewer Steven Ratiner, himself a poet, Bei Dao takes pains to emphasize that he sees himself as a “creative artist, as a poet,” rather than as a political leader. His insistence on his artistic independence reflects a mantra echoed by every even moderately sophisticated, politically minded writer. “The art comes first,” the writer seems to need to say, as though asserting his allegiance to the muse protects him from charges of partisanship and propagandizing. While not all the work seeking Mnemosyne’s shelter supports such claims, the need to make them suggests how powerful the ideal of artistic integrity continues to be. Surely that isn’t a bad thing: aspiring to independence of spirit is as good as joining Amnesty. Few succeed at yoking imagination to conscience as seamlessly as Seamus Heaney, perhaps his generation’s most original thinker on the crossfire between pen and sword, and it’s an honor to include here his new translation, from Aesop, of all people. Meanwhile, Lawrence Rosenwald’s meditation on the tension between devotion to the “aesthetic bliss” of art and the responsibilities of political commitment is scrupulous and illuminating.

Whether or not the laptop is mightier than the long-range missile, one theme running through this issue is what Chilean-born poet Marjorie Agosín describes as “the quest for historical memory and accountability.” We hear it in Ratiner’s conversation with Rita Dove; in Marguerite Feitlowitz’s memoir about teaching Argentines their own history; in Joshua Rubenstein’s compelling reflections on Polish writer Gustaw Herling and the reasons some histories remain in the shadows longer than others; in Fred Marchant’s introduction of Father Daniel Berrigan, the heroic activist priest and one of our own essential dissidents, whose first published book of poems, Time Without Number, was chosen by Marianne Moore for the Lamont Prize in 1957; in Berrigan’s poem about Alexander Haig and Henry Kissinger; and in what we see of Christopher Hitchens’ powerful book on Kissinger, reviewed here by Michael Scharf. I would note that I disagree on several grounds with Scharf’s review. Hitchens’ book seems to me a great and serious act of moral imagination fueled by a commitment to the memory of those who became, both directly and indirectly, the victims of a graduate student Frankenstein, gravely corrupted by nearly limitless power. The attention the book has received helps support the goal of the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague, and may well discourage the totalitarian impulses of politicians in our own midst.

In 1994, genocide took place in Rwanda under the gaze of people who knew well the phrase “never again.” It happened, Edward Kissi concludes in his review of Linda Melvern’s book about Rwanda, because “people did not care to stop it.” One might well go mad-eyed stating and restating what should be obvious: that we each have more power than we recognize; and that choosing not to use it while allowing those unashamed of exercising their authority by, for example, voting against paying our dues to the U.N., can lead to complete capitulation to forces few of whose values we share. That is why Philip Berrigan’s vivifying jeremiad against nuclear proliferation, made timely by George W. Bush’s renewal of Reagan’s Star Wars fantasy, deserves special mention: the 78-year-old Berrigan wrote it from prison, where, as of this writing, he continues to do his time for “pouring blood on the warhead of a missile . . .”

In putting this issue together, we haven’t tried to be comprehensive. The reader will find here no mention of the murder of journalists in Ukraine, children in the Middle East, farmers in Sri Lanka, or peasants in Colombia. From Tibet to Somalia, from Turkey to Nepal, from Ireland to Armenia, old civilizations continue to be put to the sword.

Asserting solidarity from the safety of one’s study thousands of miles from the site of these conflicts may sound hollow—or, it may be a beginning. If, despite our intentions, we fail to accomplish much, it may be because our sense of our own power was indeed inflated; or perhaps because, as Wislawa Szymborska puts it, “We have a soul at times. / No one’s got it non-stop.”

See what's inside AGNI 54

Askold Melnyczuk is the founding editor of AGNI and contributes a series of essays called “Shadowboxing.” He is professor of creative writing at UMass Boston. Excerpts from his anti-memoir in progress have appeared recently in The Threepenny Review and Epiphany. The Epiphany excerpt, “Turbulence, Love,” was cited as Notable in The Best American Essays 2010. His third novel, The House of Widows (Graywolf Press), won the Editor’s Choice Award from the American Library Association as one of the outstanding books of 2008. His second novel, Ambassador of the Dead (Counterpoint, 2001) was called “exquisite, original” by The Washington Post, and his first, What Is Told (Faber and Faber), was a New York Times Notable Book for 1994.

In 1997 Melnyczuk received a Lila Wallace-Readers’ Digest Award in Fiction. Winner of the McGinnis Award in Fiction, he has also been awarded grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. He has published stories, poems, translations, and reviews in The New York TimesThe NationThe Partisan ReviewGrand StreetPloughsharesPoetry, and The Boston Globe. His poems have been included in various anthologies, including The McGraw-Hill Book of PoetryLiterature: The Evolving Canon, and Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets. He has edited three volumes in the Graywolf Take Three Poetry Series, as well as a volume of tributes to Father Daniel Berrigan and a livre d’artiste on painter Gerry Bergstein. He also coedited From Three Worlds: New Writing from Ukraine.

He previously taught at Harvard University, the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, and Boston University, where he edited AGNI until its thirtieth anniversary year in 2002. A research associate of the Ukrainian Institute at Harvard, he has served on the boards of the New England Poetry Club and PEN New England and has been a fellow of the Boston Foundation. In 2001 he received PEN American Center’s biennial Nora Magid Award for Magazine Editing as well as PEN New England’s “Friend to Writers” Award.

Melnyczuk founded AGNI in 1972 as an undergraduate at Antioch College. (updated 9/2018)

See him interviewed on New England Authors.

Back to top