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Art as a Tool for Peace and Justice

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by | Nov 7, 2017

Action is the pointer which shows the balance. We must not touch the pointer but the weight.
– Simone Weil

The recent Restorative Justice Symposium organized through Antioch College, the Community Empowerment Organization and the Village of Yellow Springs, under the direction of Jennifer Berman ’84 and Jalyn Roe, got me thinking about art as a curative tool for facilitating peace and justice.  A collection of essays by one of my favorite writers, Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry, explores the power of poetry in this regard, and when I was asked to offer some opening remarks for the Symposium, I went to consult the book, but couldn’t find my copy. However, I did recall an admonition from one of Heaney’s essays in the book: quoted from the French philosopher Simone Weil, who believed that justice, truth and beauty were virtues of the highest order and that none might exist without the others. Weil took up each of these subjects in her writing before her death in 1943. I thought I might paraphrase what I remembered Heaney had quoted:

Justice quickly flees the camp of the victorious.

That is how I remembered it; I repeated the line for emphasis and knew it resonated from the immediate reaction and from the requests later for copies of my remarks and the quote. When I went home I again looked for the Heaney book of essays and this time I found it. What I also found was how sadly my memory had treated the original from Weil:

“If we know in what way society is unbalanced, we must do what we can to add weight to the lighter scale . . . we must have formed a conception of equilibrium and be ever ready to change sides like justice, ‘that fugitive from the camp of conquerors.’”

In this more holistic and instructive statement Weil offers a series of conditions or dispositions from which one acts for the restoration of justice. The alertness to injustice and societal imbalance is an antecedent to the tools of redress, and there are many of these beyond poetry and art. Being “ready to change sides” is only a part of the prescription for action; wanting and learning to know what “equilibrium” might look like and where disequilibrium may reside are preconditions for that change.

In Gravity and Grace (the work from which the above lines are quoted by Heaney) Weil tells us further,

“We believe we are rising because while keeping the same base inclinations (for instance: the desire to triumph over others) we have given them a noble object. We should, on the contrary, rise by attaching noble inclinations to lowly objects.”

Poetry/art and other acts of conscience and heart—deep listening, story, reconciliation and truth telling, healing, compassion, generosity, understanding and humility, for example—allow us to rise together.

This is true because these things, as with a poem, give testimony to our humanity and to the fact that even our “most private feelings are …  shared feelings.” (Stephen Dobyns, Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry, p. 10)

The following poem, perfect for the coming season of “ice scraper mornings,” illustrates how lowly things may easily be inclined towards the noble. It is by Gregory Pardlo from his collection Digest and the series The Conatus Improvisations.

            Aquinas: The mover gives what he has to the one who is moved in that it causes him to be in motion.

            Jumping often refers to something you’d rather not 

            get involved in, but when you’ve left the parking 

            lights on overnight, a jump can mean the difference

            between being employed and not. Worse than having

            to buy a swipe from a stranger on the bus is having to flag 

            a neighbor for a jump. People willing to defibrillate 

            flatlining cars on ice scraper mornings are like organ 

            donors and subway heroes. For karma like that you need

            a Winnebago covered with solar panels sprouting a fountain

            of jumper cables so you can spend your day suckling

            weary vehicles like an electric wet nurse. By your example, 

            thugs would soon measure their cred by a tattooed lightning 

            bolt under the eye to symbolize each battery they have 

            sprung back to life. Soon gangs will jump-in initiates one 

            toothy clamp at a time, and civilians will jump all over each 

            other with reciprocal gifts and hugs, finding power where 

            power is given, a residual lifting of the spirits in the act.

About Lines of Thinking

Lines of Thinking is a monthly feature from College President Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.