How would you defeat the bias of language? I don’t mean a bias that demeans or excludes people. I mean the bias that results from the lack of comprehension. Communication of representational, figurative or abstract thoughts can be tricky, even with a common language. And harder still to convey as the overlap in the roots of language lessen. A Venetian might understand the gist of an Argentinian story but what’s clear when uttered in Japanese is almost certain to be opaque to someone who hears in Greek.
Perhaps painting and sculpture, music and maths don’t suffer the same misunderstandings. The surrealist fantasies from Joan Miró are best considered under the influence of his much quoted ‘I try to apply colours like words that shape poems, like notes that shape music.’ Michelangelo made David and David’s beauty has had universal appeal for over twenty generations. One of Ed Sheeran’s songs might have had 5 billion views on You Tube but the 1893 songbook Song Stories for the Kindergarten gave us the Happy Birthday ditty that outranks and will outlast all current performers. And of course, Einstein’s maths are the same for the expression of E = mc2 in any setting.
Let’s look at war, for example, now that we are being told that Azerbaijan won their recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh with drones.
First, a small digression by way of background. War is one the most significant social things humans do. Where I live, stories of war are generally told in English. That’s where I have a problem because I only speak English so I’m at risk of having a partisan view of the story. Fortunately, the very, very best war stories, writing, musings and poetry as told in other languages get translated for me. But to translate them is to change the detail if not the gist. And besides, all history is reinvention if only because historians can only write about what is known. In Ireland, some of what is known is locked up in British archives until the 2050s, presumably to ensure that no one can be prosecuted for taking sides and/or putting state interests ahead of citizens rights. There will be no truth on these issues before declassification.
Art about war takes conflict around the world so that everyone who experiences it can safely respond to the art. The genius who was Pablo Picasso capitalised on, if not invented, this approach with Guernica. I once travelled to London where I saw a melted human in a box in the Imperial War Museum. (Christmas office parties are often held in the strangest places.) While that’s not art, it’s not me being in the firing line either. I have seen photographs in the safety of my own home, of fellow human beings who were squashed paper flat after being overrun by heavily armoured tanks. No, that’s not art either and while you might be repulsed by my descriptions, you are spared the brain-searing imagery of both of these things. The best of art, depictions like Guernica, are representational and figurative, perhaps abstracted ideas of death and destruction.
Ironically, drones take war across the world so that soldiers can respond to what they see and in doing so, they operate their wars remotely from comfortable chairs near coffee docks while eating sandwiches and later going home to play with the kids in the pool, perhaps have some friends around for a chat over dinner.
Of course this remote, abstracted soldiery is safer than fighting wars like Brian Turner did in Iraq. Then again, here are some of his words that leave little to the imagination.
‘Believe it when you see it.
Believe it when a twelve-year-old
rolls a grenade into the room.
Or when a sniper punches a hole
deep into someone’s skull.’
– ‘The Hurt Locker’ from Here, Bullet. Copyright © 2005 by Brian Turner.
Future wars may not be documented by poets like Turner because the warriors will be spared the horrors of the battlefields. There might be survivors and they are likely to be the civilians. Civilians have almost never been given access to the post-trauma treatments that are so important for the soldiers that traumatised the civilians in real time while keeping their ambiguous futures ambiguously safe. I repeat ambiguous purposefully because nothing in was is ever clear cut.
We will wait to hear the first truths from Nagorno-Karabakh. At first, there will be tales of glorious done assaults with those Turkish drones, the little drones that could. But spare a thought for how the drones killed civilians and their children, kids who should have been hearing nursery rhymes and bedtime stories in their own homes and not fleeing, shit scared in the night to the misery of refugee camps that can’t cope and will soon be forgotten.
As a friend reminded us at his daughter’s wedding in Nicosia, forty years after the family was forced off their lands by yet another Turkish supported war, ‘we are refugees’.
Plus ça change.