I came across a quote from poem by Bertolt Brecht called An die Nachgeborenen, often in English titled To Posterity. I liked the translation by Scott Horton called To Those Who Follow in Our Wake. Translation is hard—Nachgeborenen is more literally those who are born after. As Mr. Brecht was writing in 1939 from Denmark, having left Nazi Germany, I think it’s relevant that he is thinking of a time after. It’s a powerful poem, but I had just come across this one quote (after the original is not Mr. Horton's but my own attempt at translation):
Was sind das für Zeiten, wo
Ein Gespräch über Bäume fast ein Verbrechen ist
Weil es ein Schweigen über so viele Untaten einschließt!
What is with these times, when
a chat about trees is, almost, a crime
because it leaves so much injustice unsaid!
I’m not really satisfied with my translation, but then I wouldn’t be, would I? Anyway, the poem is complex and difficult, layering despair and hope, pride and shame. He does not know if he was right to stay when he stayed, or to flee when he fled. He talks about die Zeit, the time, when the streets become swamps. And he looks, finally, to those who are born after the time he is in, in a time when each person’s relationship to other people is that of helper, not (as is implied) betrayer, antagonist, murderer. He asks those people, the ones who are born after those times, not in them, to look past his own failings. Not just his, he asks for us, all the people of those times.
We are the ones who were born after.
I find myself, yes, looking at the people living in those times with something of the forbearance begged of me, like I have not before.
I had some good conversations over the weekend, not hopeful but not entirely despairing, and I find myself today wondering: at what point would I commit civil disobedience? When would I accept jail (and potentially beatings or worse) to add one small voice? I have children. I have a job, not that I like it much, but my family could not stay in our home or enjoy the comforts they do now if I were jailed for even a few months. I have already decided that the Dakota Pipeline business is not the point at which I sacrifice what I have. What will that point be? If, after some terrible attack on our citizens, our government does insist on a registry of people whose religion is deemed terrifying: is that the moment I will go and lie on the steps of the registry building until they jail me? Is the moment when leaders of the political opposition are jailed? Is the moment after we have reduced a foreign city to rubble, or do I wait for one of our own?
The truth is, I don’t know. I don’t. I hope it will never come to that—I want to emphasize that it is certainly possible it won’t! But for the first time in my life I feel I need to be prepared for it to reach a point where I will, afterward, regret not having abandoned my family, jailed for the cause of liberty and democracy. We are certainly on the verge of something; I don’t know what.
And yet, I cannot agree with Bertolt Brecht. It’s important to have conversations about trees. Here in Hartford, there is still the end of autumnal splendor. Reds and browns more than yellows, and many of the branches you see silhouetted against the sky are winter-bare. The windstorm on Friday knocked down a few branches and made a leaf shower, but it didn’t strip the trees altogether. My desk recently was shifted a foot or so forward, which had the incidental benefit of lining me up through a doorway with a window that looks out onto the quad. Where before I had to lean forward to glimpse the sunshine, now I just turn my head.
Some of you cannot, in times like these, talk about trees—or books or blocking or bass lines, feeling it is almost a crime to do so, because all the talk about those things we like silences those things we do not. We are, like the poet, looking for absolution for any moment spent appreciating beauty in the midst of ugliness, for any weaknesses in our defense of others, for any words that are not in protest against injustice. We are overwhelmed. So many of us. Overwhelmed. So many of us… we that haven’t (yet) been attacked or degraded, we that still enjoy the rights that we are already seeing dissolve and that we fear will disappear entirely, we that are aware that we have the choice of what to say and when. Overwhelmed. We want to talk about the trees, and we can’t. I’m going to try to do both, to write about justice and about trees. I hope you will also, Gentle Readers all, if you can and when you can.
I have to believe this: those who are born after (and there will be those who are born after) will be more inclined to indulgence if we share generously of our joys as we seek out ways to help each other. Perhaps I am not brave enough to go to jail soon enough; perhaps I am too base and too weak to be a helper of other people. I hope at the right moment we will all be strong enough together (we draw strength from each other in our weakness, don’t we?) but whether we are or not, I want to share in your joys as we share in our fears. Even in these times.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,