When the Occupy movement broke out in September 2011, I didn’t have anything to say. Conversation in the dining hall would sometimes break out into a discussion of the movement, but I never felt comfortable with my opinions. I ate my food and listened to others speak. When the world seemed to be shaking, and you could hear the people’s voices screaming through the articles on Occupy, and you could see the meetings in our own town, there was an imperative to brush up on your politics and do you homework if you hadn’t already. When the gadflies swarmed the protests and asked the famous question, “What do you demand?” I didn’t want to be the one who didn’t have a response, who gave the movement a bad rap as being romantic or naive. “We want equality!” some would say. And the skeptics responded: “Great, how?”
Nowadays, if you ever talk to someone who participated in the Occupy movement, they’ll laugh in a defeated way, shake their head and say, “we failed.” In his keynote address to the retirement symposium of University professor Alan Wald that took place last week, British-Pakistani activist and writer Tariq Ali chose to discuss the poetry of defeat, a rather dour topic he apologized for in advance. From John Milton to Nâzim Hikmet, Ali looked at the works of literature that had been written in the wake of political defeat. As a former Trotskyist, vocal against Pakistan’s military dictatorship and adamant in organizing protests in London against the Vietnam War, Tariq Ali’s lecture seemed to be a chance for him to come to terms with his own sense of defeat. But I didn’t leave the lecture a newly born pessimist.
In many ways, we inherit the defeat of our mothers and fathers, but we also inherit their endless energy. I had never been so moved by a public lecture as I had by Tariq Ali’s. He measured his words and spoke with sincerity, a quiet anger rumbling beneath the surface. For all the charges of idealism that get thrown in the face of revolutionaries, he spoke with a sober realism. And might I add with a bit of wit? Ironic humor and keen delivery filled the event.
When Michael Löwy, a Brazilian and French scholar of the revolutionary imaginary, introduced Tariq Ali, he chose to read from Tariq Ali’s Wikipedia page, making personal commentary and (in his mind) corrections as he went. He arrived at the publication of Ali’s novel “Redemption,” a critical and satirical book about the major figures of the Trotskyist party trying to come to terms with the fall of the Eastern Bloc. Löwy, who was the inspiration for one of the characters, called Ali’s depiction of him as one of tender irony. To which Ali responded that if tender irony was how Löwy had read it, then he gravely misread the book. Everyone laughed, and with that, Ali began his lecture.
Professor Wald, whose career had been dedicated to documenting the many lives of the American literary left, remarked that people always asked him how to write a good political novel. He said he tells them that in order to do so, you write a good novel, and then change all the names to references of political figures. Voila!
These small asides gave the symposium a sense of a living, breathing community. Many of these people shared not just a common struggle but also a personal history. They read each other’s work, sometimes met at various nodes of resistance or simply had dinner together.
In the wake of defeat, what do we have left? Other than the resolve to continue and endure, we have community and that too must endure.