I hear the axe has flowered.
So many times I've been told pain is necessary for growth. That all will be better if someone is hounded, neglected, or outright hurt.
The axe flowers. We really want to believe this. We want to believe there are people who can handle tough situations because they're tough. Because they're willing to make hard decisions. Hard decisions which are justified because they're hard.
I can't help but think about what an axe does to a tree. Trees are not weak. Their trunks support other lives. An axe doesn't make an incision. Brute force strikes, making a combination of a dent and cut. The force shakes every part of the tree, a resounding doom.
I hear the axe has flowered. I have heard from those who truly mean well. They will speak of those who died for a cause. Whose lives were spent in struggle. The cause means their lives were meaningful, no? That their lives were well spent?
No, we must protest. The axe has been given moral agency. Sacrifice is romanticized. People who are willing to be present for others, who know the stakes, who are eager to give are not mere symbols. They do make life better for all of us. That so much is asked of them is a travesty of justice.
Still. The notion that the axe flowers dominates. The mere thought of pain and sacrifice ennobles many. To say things could be better without violence from the state or a craving for martyrs sounds ridiculous. Everything has a price, and we believe we're better for naming it.
I hear the axe has flowered (from Guernica) Paul Celan (tr. Ian Fairley) I hear the axe has flowered, I hear the place can't be named, I hear the bread that looks on him heals the hanged man, the bread his wife baked him, I hear they call life the only refuge.
I hear the axe has flowered / I hear the place can't be named / I hear the bread that looks on him / heals the hanged man.
"The hanged man" centers these remarks of mine. The image speaks to political violence. It evokes the idea of state-sponsored murder. Or a terrible confidence, the attitude that everyone can work and prosper. If our assumptions legitimize suffering and death, then our grip on reality is suspect.
That is how I read "I hear the place can't be named" following "I hear the axe has flowered." "The place can't be named" is a horror, ghostly and bloodsoaked and sacred. It should not be named as demons or gods should not be named. But dehumanization is also daily, a commonplace. Remarkable, then, that the US public remembers the names of mass shootings, as if a gun culture celebrated as the epitome of right and a government addicted to militarization could not erase the wrong being done.
Celan's lyric pushes further. "I hear the axe has flowered, / I hear the place can't be named, / I hear the bread that looks on him / heals the hanged man." The invocation of life-preserving mana, the body and blood, "the bread that looks on him / heals," forces us to confront our euphemistic vision. Do we actually see what's going on when people are sent to jails or camps or beaten or killed? I suppose it could be said we can't. Too much reality cultivates despair. Nothing is truly worth doing in life except surviving because grave injustices attend every action. I think it is pretty clear nowadays this is an excuse to preserve unjust regimes. Certain political orders are very good at murdering, silencing, and defaming their opponents. They divide and conquer, turning natural allies against each other. In large part, they do this by conflating hate with optimism. The myth underlying a deep sense of the sacred is used to create an "us versus them." Some people are hanged; bread from those that love them bears witness; the executors are mere instruments of the greater order which brought into being the pain and the love.
Celan both punctures the unreality and illustrates it in the same image. "I hear the bread that looks on him / heals the hanged man, / the bread his wife baked him." To be beloved is a brutal fact. Your loss will hurt others, no matter what you've done. The violence of the state, the violence of martyrdom, has costs beyond the immediate loss of life. Celan only briefly edges toward sentimentality. One's mind threatens to break contemplating the grief of someone about to be a widow, someone reduced to a last, fruitless gesture. His language does not go further.
It's almost tempting to declare the widow the true victim, and that's the trap which I believe helps unravel our unreality, an unreality relentlessly declared through "I hear." The injustice is that someone is being hanged by a regime which wants to hang people. Not just government, but society itself, has failed. If society manages to overthrow such rulers, it reconstitutes itself. "I hear they call life / the only refuge" cynically and powerfully dismantles our mundane acceptance of the most egregious wrongs. We'll say this is all we have, then act like it should be preserved at any cost to others. What would it mean to truly live? Democratic government requires an existential ethic. That people fight for others, not to demonize or exploit them, requires an almost superhuman sense of what is at stake.