You are going to ask: and where are the lilacs?
So begins Pablo Neruda’s poem, I’m Explaining a Few Things. Harold Pinter described the poem as the most powerful literary representation of the bombing of civilians. But for me its power comes as much from this question as the brutal, personal and descriptive language the poet employed to literarily illustrate the bonfires that destroy beautiful Spain.
By framing his poem with this question Neruda makes it personal by forcing the reader to confront an all too familiar contradiction: that it is normal, indeed praise worthy, to focus on the beautiful and on what is “right”.
He tells us that he has changed. The events have changed him, and that he can no longer write in light heartedness or the love poetry for which he was then known. Too honest to himself, for his own self-respect, he is forced to confront the ugliness of reality. This poem represents not only a break with his past, but of an illusion shattered. He confronts that lie of innocence that he can no longer sustain.
Yet in losing this sham of innocence our conscience is regained. The poem may rage. It may wallow in indignation at the ugliness of oppression; less of a place that is destroyed as a people and a way of life and all that this had once stood for. It may accuse, directly, those who have betrayed that which truly binds a society in harmony.
see my dead house,
look at broken Spain
With the question Neruda tells us two things: that it is no longer beautiful to see only that which is beautiful; and he reminds us, arguably the more pointed truth, how easy it would be, and how comforting, to turn a blind eye.
This appeals to a certain kind of myopia. To always see the glass half full even as the water is drained away, rings familiar to every one of us. It is a part of every constructed social environment. It is preached to us through religion and political ideology. It is to be polite. Too often it is given as a condition of friendship. We are always being told it is better to tolerate beyond our own reason. It’s bad form to upset the party.
A patriot is acutely aware of and will often revel in his country’s strength, as is the clergymen of the more humanist moral precepts contained in his given religion. Both however are distinctly blind to the weaknesses and contradictions of their respective positions. In seeking the good life and to be beautiful they learn to view selectively.
It is also an appeal to the self. It presumes happiness to be independent of externalities; something that we not only feel but also control. It confirms a self-centric understanding that is neither reasonable nor relativist in the philosophical sense: for if the glass seems full to me then it is truth, regardless of what others may see.
In Hong Kong we are being given this same choice. We are being asked to focus our attention on those rights that we have, and not on those we want and believe we deserve. We are told to be practical, to be pragmatic, to discard our expectations and to compromise our position.
We are asked to consider what is acceptable to Beijing, as if our position and that of Beijing are independently opposed. But is Beijing not supposed to represent us? What is at stake is not the nature of Beijing but of Hong Kong.
Neruda dares to confront this delusion. His rage and disappointment is directed not only at the reality of the street, nor only at those “bandits”, “Blackfriars” and “generals” who have allowed a blindness to overcome them and to betray the very society and people they are meant to represent and serve. The problem, as Neruda will again come to at the poem’s end, is our blindness.
And you’ll ask: why doesn’t his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?
Blood may not be on the streets, but let us watch for the jackals among us.