Witness Literature as a poetic movement has taken on the task of accumulating, compiling, and arranging documentation of the human race’s catastrophic failures. Keeping with our example, Carolyn Forche’s Against Forgetting is an expansive anthology of world literature, organized by event (ie “World War I”, or “the Spanish Civil War”), beginning with “the Armenian Genocide” and ending with “Revolutions and the Struggle for Democracy in China”. These sections are chronologically ordered by the date of their inception and completion (ie the Armenian Genocide and World War I both ended in 1918, but because the Armenian Genocide began in 1909, and World War I in 1914, the Armenian Genocide is the first section in the anthology). Likewise, the poets of each section are arranged chronologically.
It is thus fair to say that Witness Literature as a poetic movement (or, at least, Forche’s Against Forgetting) has taken on the task, if only by consequence, of organizing. Chronological organization implies a natural organization. Things happened in this order, why would that order not apply to a book?
But by cataloguing tragedy, you create a catalogue of tragedy; you condense and concentrate, and in so doing, you falsify. You serve “tragedy from concentrate” and trust the reader to add water. You pair Neruda and the Spanish Civil War and mention nothing of love poems. How would Paul Celan respond to his work being tied and bound to the holocaust? Furthermore, if we consider the fact that literature is bound in books (or it used to be) and that books are commodities, as they are made of paper and glue, you run the risk of flooding the market with the cheap alternative. Just as many Americans consider an orange juice with 40 grams of sugar to be the healthy alternative to soda, the danger of Witness Literature is that it serves syrup as health food.
This weakness of the genre would not exist if the genre itself did not exist: there is an Orpheus and Eurydice thing here. By claiming witness, you refuse witness.
I know that I am picking hairs. Witness Literature has a place, and the Orpheus thing is only so true. But picking up an anthology of poems is not an act of good will, and I worry that it can be confused with one. I worry that the comfortability of the American middle class induces a guilt which is too easily solved by reading a poem. Likewise, I worry that Americans fetishize suffering and worship it, and are thereby incapable of empathy.Tags: Celan, Empathy, Forche, Neruda