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Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The burden cannot be shifted

In the final volume of his series on the culminating drama of Western Civilisation – written in more confident times - Lewis Mumford saw its future depending on men and women across the world accepting responsibilities ‘they once sought to transfer to an Emperor, a Messiah, a dictator, a single God-like man. That is the ultimate lesson of democracy: the burden cannot be shifted” (The Conduct of Life, 1952:120). Last night at the Durrell School about fifty of us listened for two hours, sober and impressed, to Lia Manesi - Λία Μάνεση - giving an account of the things she’d seen in Chad and Liberia as an aid worker.
Richard Pine introduced and thanked Lia for a talk that must have lasted a hour and half but seemed shorter, which she apologized for complexity and ambivalence without ever confusing, which balanced facts and feeling, which conveyed the perfected mechanisms of corruption infusing aid without blaming givers or takers, a tragic banal symbiosis of guilt, compassion, cruelty, greed and suffering. Her pictures on screen and in words revealed filth, malnutrition, war and death in small enough focus to digest without loss of reason to feeling – pictures the north has seen many times. In the small dark lecture room above Philhellinon Street, this young woman, Greek-Irish, slim, articulate, modest – even humble – described her shared work, questioned her motives without breast-beating, gently asked her rapt audience – of many European nationalities - whether aid was doing good, whether it might even be amplifying harm, yet somehow remained optimistic of human ingenuity and told us about Africa, about individuals, particular places, balancing relevant statistics, with telling personal anecdotes that were neither self-regarding, cynical nor guilt inducing. She respected ‘them’ without patronizing, reported perfidy without blame yet never seemed neutral; the resilience of different cultures and tradition – not just African, how a history of misunderstanding had made a toxic interdependence of rich and poor, ex-colonisers and ex-colonised. Yet throughout Lia conveyed an unhesitant and direct good humour that was on the edge of optimism, though never smug, a faith in persistent humanity without a tinge of complacency. In short she did what all talent does, made her craft look easy. I felt embarrassed that she remembered me from when I’d been out for a day on Andrea’s yacht a summer ago, she crewing
 “Oh yes” I’d said “You were in a bikini. There was no wind to race so we swam in Garitsa Bay”
I guess I hadn’t noticed her.
Afterwards I went for a meal with Paul and Lula who’d invited me to the evening. We talked about Greece and Corfu and corruption, depravity and leaking roofs and bad puns over a meal in one of the older tavernas they knew, off a backstreet. As we returned to their car by the Old Port there was a sudden fracas, two men seemed to be brawling with another who I thought, momentarily, was a woman. I watched, hesitant. Paul went forward to chance an intervention, crying out at the assailants. Lula tried to pull her husband back asking what was going on. One man used a free hand to draw out a police ID, as they pinned the third to a door in the alley. I caught a glimpse of a desperate saturnine unshaven face part covered by long floppy black hair lit by the low street light. The incident passed in seconds. Lula reproached Paul for putting himself at risk.
I said quietly “Interesting, Paul. When it came to reflex action in the heat of the moment you were the Samaritan.”
Lula said, annoyed “You could have been knifed”
“He did the right thing Lula. So did you, to pull him back. It was I did nothing.”
They dropped me home where I started fitting the mended stove door ready to try it out the next day when snow is predicted on the island.
I’m without faith but I’ve never credited that artless argument that killing fields, death camps or the rape of infants was disproof of God’s existence. If God exists he would be Job’s, speaking from the whirlwind, asking, not in anger or reproach “can you hook leviathan?” looking on in grief at the suffering of lapsed men, weeping with them in the same mud, drenched with the same slime...where Christ's blood streames in the firmament... I woke in the dark trying to remember a dream that had happened earlier in my sleep, or so it seemed. I was the parent of a child – a year old perhaps – a little girl. Police had been and gone. Her face when I could look at it was a mass of swollen blue black bruises, her lips swollen grotesquely, shapeless. She had been, she’d…In the dream I was without emotion. A crime had been committed against our child. She was injured. A voice off – Lin’s I think – said at one point
“They raped her and hung her up”
I went to see her and saw only a battered featureless mask, expressionless, silent. Then I was in another place – so had I gone to sleep again and taken up the dream again? – it was a carpeted white walled high windowed office full of people moving easily between different spaces. I was leant against an opening with people passing to and fro. I was staring ahead. A square faced man with chiseled features, wearing a trench coat, passed, stopped, looked at me, reached out...
“Are you alright?”
He lightly touched my elbow. I seemed to dissolve into the wall but didn’t.
“Ng, ng, ng, ng, ng...” I started to gurgle incoherently and then like the rush of vomit I burst the water of my tears from eyes and mouth, still grunting “ng ng ng ng ng” I began keening, a low sound that seemed to be wrenched from my bowels growing louder like a hurricane where sound becomes the prime sensation dissolving time and place.
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Richard Pine's latest op-ed for the Irish Times:
Never-ending cuts and taxes leave people with deficit of hope....It is a litany of “tax, tax, tax”. Young people are doing everything they can to find a way out. The upcoming elections are viewed with utter cynicism. There’s a word for it: sperectomy, the excision of hope.

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