Seven years of war and blogging

Via Negativa in May 2004Today Via Negativa is seven years old: an anniversary of little significance to anyone but me and a few of my long-time readers (Hi, Mom!). But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, like so many of the bloggers I read, I began online journaling the year the U.S. and its allies invaded Iraq. I remember how outraged and helpless I felt as even the most massive anti-war demonstrations received little notice in the mainstream media… and then my growing delight as I discovered how easy it was to share thoughts online and began to meet like-minded people through their own blogs and websites, people whose motto — if we believed in mottoes — might’ve been, “Make art, not war.”

So why didn’t we all become political bloggers? By choosing to focus on small moments, ordinary observations and our aesthetic responses to the world, weren’t we kind of abdicating our responsibility as citizens and intellectuals to fully engage in the political life of the nation? I don’t know. For me, the boundary between politics and culture has always seemed arbitrary. Radical questioning shouldn’t stop short of a reexamination of our society’s dominant worldview: hence (at first) Via Negativa. What is it in our thinking, I wondered, that so compels us to devalue the here and now, licensing the destruction of this world in our quest for others? Capitalism, commodification and industrial warfare are symptoms of a deeper malaise, I thought. Here’s something from my late, not-so-lamented Geocities site that I wrote in June 2003, three months after the invasion of Iraq and six months before I started this blog.

* * *

St. Brendan’s Isle. Antilla. The Fountain of Youth. New Jerusalem. It is a commonplace of historiography to note that European explorers from the 15th century on were after more than gold and spices; many were driven by a literal quest for paradise. Though long tradition had placed the Biblical Eden somewhere in the marshlands of southern Iraq, the restless European imagination kept moving it farther and farther east, until — influenced by the widespread recognition that the earth is round — paradise met and merged with the long-rumored Isles in the west.

Christopher Columbus set the pattern, wandering around the Caribbean voyage after voyage in search of something that now strikes us as more than a little bizarre. He wrote, “I have come to another conclusion respecting the earth, namely, that it is not round as they describe, but of the form of a pear… or like a round ball, upon one part of which is a prominence like a woman’s nipple, this protrusion being the highest and nearest the sky” (Select Letters of Christopher Columbus, translated by R. H. Major). Fruitlessly the Admiral of the Ocean Sea sought to navigate uphill to storm the gates of paradise.

With the benefit of 500 years’ hindsight, it now appears that the most valuable discovery from that era — what was truly epoch-making about the New World — was the realization that people could live in orderly societies without kings or potentates. Reports of the relatively peaceful, prosperous conditions of many decentralized native communities in the Americas provided an essential objective correlative for European constitutional theorists and utopian thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries.

For many immigrants, of course, the Americas had and continue to have a utopian allure. But which came first, the dream or its realization? A new book on the making of the King James Bible (Power and Glory: Jacobean England and the Making of the King James Bible, by Adam Nicholson) has attracted attention for its claim that our very conception of Eden may bear the stamp of New World revelations. Hebrew scholar John Layfield, one of the 50 scholars appointed to King James’ translation committee, “had been chaplain to an expedition to Puerto Rico and was enchanted by its exotic landscape and its natives, his narrative of the journey notably lacking in either cynicism or prejudice.” (See the review in The Guardian.) Nicholson speculates that this experience influenced Layfield’s description of the Biblical Eden in the 2nd chapter of Genesis, unchanged by the seasons, planted with “every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food.”

Is it any wonder, then, that the United States of America — according to its founding mythos, Columbus’ true legacy — still seeks to storm paradise? Our mission to the Red Planet evokes the twin pillars of Manifest Destiny, missionary zeal and capitalist free enterprise, in the names of the two robotic explorers, Spirit and Opportunity. Oddly, these names originated through an essay contest sponsored by the Danish Lego Corporation. The winner was a third-grade immigrant from Siberia, Sofi Collins, who charmed NASA officials with her Horatio Alger optimism: “I used to live in an orphanage. It was dark and cold and lonely. At night, I looked up at the sparkly sky and felt better. I dreamed I could fly there. In America, I can make all my dreams come true. Thank you for the ‘Spirit’ and the ‘Opportunity.'” (link)

The search for life on Mars is Quixotic in the truest sense of the word, Cervantes’ Don Quixote having been, in part, a send-up of the conquistadors, according to the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano (Memory of Fire: Genesis). No doubt, any actual discovery that life had once flourished on this now-dead world would prove as epoch-making as the New World conquest. On-going desertification and a growing water crisis on earth would gain an invaluable objective correlative.

Here, too, the language of the King James Bible has had a strong if subtle influence on the way we think. The word “desert” originally meant simply a place unoccupied by humans (“deserted”). But over time, the mental associations of the King James Version have taken hold, and the parched lands of Sinai and the Negev became the archetypal deserts.

Thus we tend to idealize the desert as a primordial condition of nature: the other side of the coin from paradise. And just as Edenic conceptions of the New World have often served as a fig leaf for genocidal conquest, so too an idealized image of the desert has licensed a pervasive myopia about the role of humans in fostering desert conditions. Few tourists in Arizona and New Mexico, for instance, are aware that some of the barren landscapes they find so spiritually energizing are in fact unnatural and relatively recent, the result of only a few years of catastrophic overgrazing in the late 19th century. And the picturesque, light-flooded landscapes of the Mediterranean rim derive from centuries of deforestation and over-browsing by goats.

But of course not all ecocide is accidental: witness Saddam Hussein’s draining of the marshlands in southern Iraq, part of a genocidal campaign against the Marsh Arabs. Barring a concerted, international effort to restore the marshlands — unlikely in the current climate of fear and hostility engendered by the Anglo-American occupation — this original template for the Garden of Eden may turn into desert in a few more years. (Update: “The revival of the marshes remains uncertain.”)

With the same kind of casual, uncomprehending brutality that distinguished Columbus, Iraq’s new conquerors are simply too busy to worry about safeguarding lives, libraries, museums or natural treasures. Like Columbus, we’ve got better things to think about. “Black gold,” for instance. But oil is only the means to an end: the glorious future that awaits us beyond the sky. As the Air Force recruitment ads suggest, we must forever Aim High.

* * *

I was born too late to be a flower child, but of all the images of the 60s, the most powerful for me remain the anti-Goldwater TV ad with the girl pulling petals off a daisy as a voice counts down to nuclear Armageddon, and its counter-cultural mirror-image: that famous gesture of the Yippies, gathered in subversive absurdity to levitate the Pentagon, placing flowers in the ends of rifles. Yes, I still believe in flower power! The sexual partnership between plants and their pollinators is the single most powerful Creation myth evolution ever invented, I think, on a par with the stories about plate tectonics and the sun that had to die to give birth to the complex elements of which we are made. Unlike the fables proferred by religious and political institutions, however, these myths are true, and internalizing their lessons can make us better citizens of the planet. This is why I write.

38 Comments


  1. I remember this! Still wonderful.

    For me, I’m afraid, the Iraq wars were just more waves of violence, that continual lapping on the shore of history: I barely paid attention. I can’t bring myself to attribute more reality to them than the people that make them do: it feels like caving in to their world view to do so. The important things, we’re continually told, are those events far away conducted by evil-minded people who Must Be Stopped, and what there is no time to do is to look at what’s in front of our faces, here and now. But that’s precisely what I want to take the time to do. I don’t know if it’s revolutionary or self-indulgent: some of both, I suppose.

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    1. Thanks, Dale. I certainly share your outlook in many respects. But the aggravating thing is that, theoretically, we do have the power to stop those events — which, from my perspective, aren’t very far away at all. The war for fossil fuels, in which ecosystems and rural livelihoods are collateral damage, has scarred Pennsylvania for some time, and now with the gas fracking boom, is about to get a whole lot worse. When I look at what’s right in front of my face, I see among other things the impacts of global climate change.

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      1. Oh yes, absolutely, & I didn’t mean to imply that those “old unhappy far-off things” don’t have a presence right here. Happy young teenagers disappearing and coming back mutilated in body & spirit (if at all), for one. Oregon supplies more than its share of those. And I don’t mean to be quietist: I just refuse to rank distant warlords, foreign or domestic, as among the interesting objects in my life. They do what they’ve always done, and we’ve seldom been able to stop them, but we can at least refuse to take them at their own valuation.

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        1. Yes indeed! As the Pentagon’s reaction to the Yippees showed, guys with guns really hate not being taken seriously.

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  2. Congratulations on seven years of blogging, and more with your earlier site! Yours was one of the first I got to know when I started my own and I’m still reading. I love your introduction to the theme or philosophy behind your blog – “Make art, not war”, yes! – and enjoyed the new-to-me Geocities post.

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    1. Thanks, Marja-Leena! These seven years have gone by all too quickly, thanks in part to the fellowship of bloggers like you and Dale.

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  3. Are we going to save this world by blogging, writing and reading poetry, building a net with people we’ve never seen before but who share with us the same love for art and contempt for greed, the only true reason behind any war? Am I a hippie if I say “yes”? Then yes, go on, call me one!
    Happy anniversary Via Negativa.

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    1. Hippie! Thanks, Maria. And it’s worth mentioning that we met through microblogging, I believe. Even Twitter has its uses.

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  4. What a good read, both historical intro and mainline piece!

    My 8th blogiversary (sorry, but, like wind, better out than in) is in February and my early posts were also written very much within the general context of that dismal time. Starting up on Salon, I was surrounded by highly articulate, fluently angry Americans and my limey perceptions were very much informed by their overview.

    You were one of the first bloggers outside Salon with whom I linked up, Dave, and Dale wasn’t far behind, so my alternative acculturation continued. And while all around me over here were losing faith in an America that seemed to be turning into a cartoon parody of itself, my respect and regard for the beleaguered intelligentsia were deepening by the day.

    I’m glad that we’re all still here, cranky and sardonic as ever.

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    1. Amen to that, Dick, and I agree — the Transatlantic friendships are one of the best things to come out of this whole blogging adventure. It’s spilling over into more geographically diverse literary magazines now, too, and conversations about poetry and publishing on Facebook that are truly international, breaking down the walls of parochialism.

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  5. Happy Blogday, Dave! Yours is one of the first blogs I found soon after I started blogging, and I found it brilliant and very often thought-provoking – still do. I don’t remember what exactly prompted me at the time, but I distinctly remember finally chancing to leave a comment and was relieved that you were so gracious in your response. You make the blogisphere a welcoming and inspiring place with your creative encouragement of so many writers – and that does make us better citizens of the planet. So cheers to Via Negativa on its 7th anniversary and here’s to many more!

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    1. Thanks, Leslee! I realy appreciate that. You, me and Lorianne were the latecomers to the 2003 parade, but miraculously we’re all still blogging, and I feel good about that. You guys were also among the first three bloggers I met in person (though the third has largely abandoned blogging in favor of publishing with some outfit called Random House — what a loser :) and if I’m not mistaken, your first comment was in the same thread as the Slyph, in response to my public sweating about mastering the Blogger theme hacking to get Haloscan comments going. One big advantage of starting blogging back then, of course, is that one didn’t have the luxury of ignoring HTML, so we were forced to learn some invaluable skills.

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  6. I’m still enjoying it all from the sidelines., enjoying the people you’ve met through your writing…still not writing, just reading and listening. Thanks for keeping it spinning Dave..qrr, a.k.a. qr, a.k.a. the sylph, a.k.a. striped twistie

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    1. Wow, that’s the first time you’ve publicly owned all your aliases! Thanks for all your feedback and generosity over the years, oh Sylph. You were the first to ever leave a comment.

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  7. Happy anniversary, dave! I remember finding you through Chris Clarke’s old blog Creek Running North. Those days finding bloggers who were poetic thinkers and not just political ruminators was a treasure I still remember with great joy. For Roger and me, it wasn’t specifically the war in Iraq that compelled us to start writing things down, but George Bush’s second term and the need to connect with people who could look at the natural world with a protective love and smack down the lunacy of our times with great insight. I still love that stuff!

    So, congratulations to you. As long as our planet still needs protecting and the crazy ones still run the show, there will be many more years of words that follow.

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    1. Hi Robin Andrea! Yes, I even vaguely remember the comment that brought you over here — some joke about smoking dope, wasn’t it? A lot of terribly smart people among the commenters at Creek Running North; I was always a little intimidated.

      Yeah, the election of 2004 was another sad day, especially since Bush managed to win the popular vote the second time around (whether he actually won Ohio, and thus the Electoral College vote, is still a matter of debate). I seem to recall I marked it with a post about crawling on my belly in the dirt under my house to put new fiberglass insulation around the heating ducts, and trying to avoid Hanta virus and the quills of a mummified porcupine. Anyway, it’s been wonderful to have your virtual company for most of this time and see the still-wild West through your eyes and lens.

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  8. i wish i remembered as clearly as you do my own entry into the blogosphere. i think i started in 2005 or 2006 (long after you!). it seemed to be a natural evolution of my return to writing. and since i had a baby, a toddler and a pre-schooler at home, the internet was one of my only ways to interact with other writers for a long while.

    i don’t know about saving the world but i do know my own life is better for this community of writers. thanks for being so steady and reliable all the years i’ve been reading! congrats!

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    1. Thanks, Carolee! I don’t like to talk about saving the world, actually. If we save ourselves and each other, the world will take care of itself. But yeah, blogging has been a great way to overcome isolation, hasn’t it? I’m glad we crossed paths fairly early — it’s been fun. One of these days I hope I make it up your way and get to meet the whole Albany crew.

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      1. that would be wonderful! and we’re fairly close to beth (3 hours to montreal?). we could have a meet-up here for lots of people.

        i think also a few of us were scheming to come down your way. we’ll see. :)

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        1. I think we should meet in Schenectady, just because I love saying it! Schenectady. Schenectady. Schenectady.

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  9. Blind to the present, thus ensuring an unendurable future. Eyes on the sky, only to hit the intervening mountain. Yep: that’s us. In the cockpit recording which is human history, crash is the given, and specific fubar the sole variable. http://www.amazon.com/Black-Box-Recorder–flight-Accidents/dp/0688158927/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1292614774&sr=1-3

    The last decade has steadily hailed cold stones of consquences, and it has been difficult to do anything but crouch in the caves. But many thanks for your excellent companionship there: your diverting and substantial art, the wall-shadows of moving poems, that headlamp with an amazing battery-life.

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    1. Thanks, Julie. Apart from these occasional lapses into over-the-top praise, you’ve been an ideal reader, and I remember my excitement two years ago (?) when I discovered you’d started a blog of your own!

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  10. Dave, if you ever stopped blogging I’d grieve as if I’d lost a twin brother. So glad you’re still here, still thinking and finding the threads that connect the warlords and the warthogs, the fracking and the fractals, and writing about them in ways that make me think more and strive to write well too. As Dick so eloquently put it “while…losing faith in an America that seemed to be turning into a cartoon parody of itself, my respect and regard for the beleaguered intelligentsia were deepening by the day.” Wouldn’t know what to do without my friends here, all of us about seven or eight years old!

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    1. What a shocking idea, Beth. Dave stop blogging? I’d be lost. For ease of searching I have Google as my home page, but Via Negativa has been my real home page for many years. Any browser I use for more than a day or two completes ‘v’ as https://www.vianegativa.us.

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    2. Thanks, Beth. You know the cassandra pages was the original water cooler around which we all connected. I’m awfully glad for these newer bloggers too, though — every time I see another literary friend or acquaintance take up blogging, I’m reminded of how lucky we all are to be living in the twilight of this civilization with its wonderful tools for convivialty and grassroots publishing.

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    3. “Dave, if you ever stopped blogging” … perish the thought. Via Negativa has become my favourite blog. Happy Anniversary Dave.

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  11. Congratulations on the milestone, Dave! The longer blogs go on, the more I enjoy seeing where they started–and why–compared to where they are today. It fascinates me that so much discontent from back then has been channeled into such meaning now, in terms of both content and community.

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    1. Thanks, Jason. Yes, I must admit, I am one of the probably very small fraternity of people who enjoy browsing blogs’ archives. It’s always fun to see where people came from.

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  12. Yay! Congratulations, Dave! This is always one of my favorite places to stop and see the world.

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    1. Hey, thanks, Kat! I’m pleased to hear it — and very pleased that you’ve kept going, too (and for several years longer than me, I believe).

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  13. Dave, so sorry to be late (as usual) in adding my congratulations. You are definitely the Blogger Par Excellence, the poster boy of the blogging generation. When the Nobel Prize gets round to noticing the Blog Oh! Sphere, you will be on their shortlist. Long may you continue making waves.
    Is it really *seven* years? That means I too must be due for a celebration next April.

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    1. Natalie, I protest this characterization of me and my blogging in the strongest possible terms… but I do appreciate it. Thanks for the good wishes.

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      1. Lest Natalie be the last to arrive at your blogiversary party, let me add my belated congratulations, Dave. Seven years seems like an eternity in the online attention span. I’m glad you’re still here, and still going strong.

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        1. Thanks, Lorianne. And to right the balance for your belateness, I’ll extend my congratulations a few days early on your own 7th blogiversary!

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