Saturday 22 June 2019


Charges by Elfriede Jelinek   {Reviewed by THOMAS}
Who speaks for whom? And to whom? For whom is it appropriate to speak? For whom is it necessary to speak? For whom is it even possible to speak? Whose voices cannot be heard? Whose voices overspeak the voices of those who cannot be heard and take away the meanings of their words? Which is rather to say perhaps that they can be heard but not understood. Which is rather to say that they might as well not have been heard. What meanings do words have when those who speak them have been denied those aspects of their lives that provide the meanings for words? Who then owns or controls the meanings of words? Are there words for which the meanings cannot be taken away even by those who would take away the meanings of words? What do these words refer to? To what extent are words the weapons of all battles, especially of those battles for which there are no other weapons? To what extent are all crises also crises of language? To what extent can crises be addressed, assuaged or remedied in language? To what extent can crises not be addressed, assuaged or remedied at all if they are not addressed, assuaged or remedied in language, either first, or later, or in parallel with any other attempt to address or assuage or remedy such crises? Charges is comprised of three dramatic monologues, or, rather, choruses, or, rather, one dramatic monologue or chorus with a ‘Coda’ and an ‘Appendix’, spoken largely as a mutable plural first person, expressing the experiences of refugees reaching Europe during the urgent humanitarian crisis of recent years, but multivocal and restless enough between those multiple voices to encompass varying viewpoints and experiences. The text takes the form of a complaint, and has conscious parallels with Æschylus’s The Suppliants (in which, rarely for Greek theatre, the chorus are the protagonists, in that case the Danaids, who, having fled their home country to avoid intolerable circumstances, plead first with the ruler of Argos and then with its citizens, who ultimately grant them protection). Charges is remarkable for the obsessive propulsion, subtle shifts and emotional charge of its sentences, which move with such urgent necessity, both exploring and resisting all that is represented by the word “plight”, so often and so easily applied to refugees, who rather have common needs, very much the needs of all humans, than a plight, other than that their needs, these common human needs, are not met by those denying them through selfishness, hatred or fear, if we can distinguish between hatred and fear, and between these and selfishness. The refugees, in addition to seeking permission to have their needs, the common human needs, met, are resisting the single story applied upon them from without, both by those to oppose and by those who support them, seeking to retain their individual stories, their individual losses, despite being reduced to the level of concern almost exclusively for their common human needs, which are not met. Who would deny them? Who is in a position to deny them? It is in the nature of a crisis for the stories of the individual victims to be lost beneath the story of the crisis, for each active ‘I’ to be subsumed by the passive ‘we’ of those branded with the crisis. Jelinek’s text springs initially from anger at the ‘plight’ of a group of mainly Syrian refugees who reached Vienna, took refuge in a prominent church and were then moved by the authorities to a less visible location. The tone reaches a mocking pitch when addressing the authorities’ reluctance to provide for the basic needs of this group ("You have poured all your intentions into one formula and now you can't get your intentions out of this formula."), especially while blithely granting citizenship to individuals who are helped to sidestep the qualifications for citizenship. “Calculations always contain violence,” writes Jelinek. Language becomes the way not only in which needs are expressed but also the way in which needs are denied. A thing and its opposite may well be a pun, not only by homophony or etymology but by referent. There is not enough water to drink but plenty to drown in. Charges is evidence that it is possible, perhaps by aligning the particular and the general through the subtlety and force of its language, for the direct treatment of a political issue to deepen a work of art, both in its content and its form. Language is the battleground upon which writers must contest, or else upon which they submit. “The conquest of the world as image, that’s history.”

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