It was a great pleasure to read Carolyn Forché’s “Reading the Living Archives” and the accompanying Q&A [May 2011]. In the context of a literary conversation that can seem at times consumed with frivolity, one is grateful for the sense these pieces give of a voice returning urgently to first things and a serious consideration of the sources of literary making, among them the condition of spiritual extremity that Dickinson calls “soul at the white heat.”
Forché is careful to allow a broad interpretation of “witness,” clarifying that she intends by the term both “awareness of the radical contingency of all human life” and, following Levinas, recognition of “our infinite and inexhaustible responsibility for the ‘Other.’” Reading these thoughts, it was hard not to think that “witness,” as used by Forché and the philosophers she discusses, resembles a great deal what might in another philosophical tradition be called “love,” understood as the almost impossible task of recognizing that others (or the Other) have precisely the same claim to existence as oneself.
Although Forché also makes clear that, in this broad sense, “witness” is not a term she applies exclusively to poetry arising from political extremity, it is this poetry that has been her primary focus for three decades. In the context of this body of work, it seems fair to claim that implicit in her discussion of witness as a face-to-face encounter with the Other in the “aftermath” of catastrophe is a claim about a possible role for the literary imagination in determining the nature of this encounter. (“Literary imagination” may perhaps best be understood here as the richly engaged acknowledgment of another’s existence.) If “witness,” which entails a radical recognition of the Other, is one possible response to atrocity, it seems to me that its precise opposite may be “retribution,” which entails his annihilation.
Understood this way, Forché makes the sort of robustly ethical claim for literature that has frequently come under attack. There are of course good reasons to protect poetry from allegiances of all sorts, including allegiance to any proscriptive ethical regime. But Forché, by insisting that the poet she envisions writes from a “hovering and receptive state of consciousness without intention,” makes clear that this is not the sort of engagement she finds in the poetry she admires. Instead, following thinkers like Martha Nussbaum, and in a way that I find both challenging and difficult to dispute, she presents a powerful argument for the central role of the literary imagination in what we might, in this context, call works of love.