Grozny City Center, Chechyna -- March 1995 (Eddy van Wessel copyright)

The photograph of the two women and one child walking through what is left of the streets of Grozny after it was bombed by the Russians in 1995 both haunts the future -- contained in the picture of every glittering modern city is this negative image of its possible destruction -- and also recalls the past, specifically March 1995, when the Russians reduced the city to rubble and many of the inhabitants fled into exile. Although the photographer chose to center his subjects within the center of the frame of his lens, which is also the frame of the present moment in which he and his subjects came together in an instant of time, we cannot help but notice that they are moving from one end of the street, or picture, to the other, and therefore they are always arriving from the past, and also, always disappearing into the future.The photographer, who is really an artist (in addition to being a documentarian), may wish to wrest his figures from the flow of time, but they are always returning to it, and there is only a brief moment when attempting to arrest these figures to understand what is pregnant there. And what is pregnant there is what Walter Benjamin would have called the coming together of the then and now into a constellation. More specifically, Benjamin wrote that "Every present is determined by those images that are synchronic with it; every now is the specific now of a recognizability. In it, truth is loaded to the bursting point with time" ("N [Theoretics of Knowledge; Theory of Progress]," trans. Leigh Hafrey and Richard Sieburth, in Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, ed. Gary Smith [Chicago, 1989], 50-51).  But this does not mean that the Grozny photograph gives us an arrangement of clear lines of sight (and therefore, similarities) between the past and present; rather, it represents the refraction of the past's difference (or "otherness") through the recognition of its continual irruption in the present. It gives us, finally, what Benjamin would have called an "image of petrified unrest" ("Central Park," trans. Lloyd Spencer, New German Critique 34 [1985]: 38), which gathers within itself all the demands of what has been forgotten in history, and what is still being forgotten there. And what is being forgotten there is the command of history's Others for what Emmanuel Levinas called "le face--face sans intermediaire" (Le temps l'autre [St. Clement, 1979], 88). But how to negotiate such an encounter? Levinas himself describes its impossibility: "But responsibility for another . . . does not come from the time made up of presences, nor presences that have sunk into the past and are representable . . . . Such responsibility does not give one time, a present for recollection or coming back to oneself; it makes one always late" ("God and philosophy," in The Levinas Reader, ed. Sean Hand [Oxford, 2000], 180).It may be that art, whether visual or textual, is always structured by the principle of arrest, of taking objects, persons, and events out of the current of time in order to penetrate -- via the mediums of language, mis-en-scene, canvas and paint, etc. -- what is perceived (by the artist) to be either transcendent in time or against the grain of time. The character of Beowulf personifies this arrest in both ways, for he is both the most uber-mythical human personage in the poem (he was likely imagined before by other cultures and will be imagined again in other guises; therefore, he transcends the particular times and places to which the Beowulf poet consigns him, while also obeying the strictures of a conventional archetype), and he also behaves in ways that are often inconsistent with the predominant warrior ethos established both in the poem and even in historical and anthropological analogue. His actions, therefore, create an interruption or "stopping place" in the mytho-historical narrative with which the original audience(s) would have been very familiar. In contemplating Beowulf's actions, they would have been contemplating, not the valorous image of the "heroic past," but the arrest of that past in a figure who is trying, often in vain, to work against the grain of what would seem to be its predominant values: feud and vengeance. Although Beowulf may be the least historical figure in the poem, his very iconoclasm reveals the fissures in the supposedly "heroic" era he inhabits: all is not well, and Beowulf is hurrying to mend the broken and burning fences of his culture.

Beowulf is also a type of Levinasian hero -- a "new man" (novus homo in Roberta Frank's phrase) in the middle of history, as it were -- whose actions often affirm what Levinas described as the definitive moral stance: "in the beginning, it does not matter who the Other is in relation to me -- that is his business" ("Philosophie, Justice et Amour," in Entre Nous: Essais sur le penser-a-l'autre [Paris, 1991], 123). Beowulf does not wait to be asked for his assistance across the dark flood in Hrothgar's Danish court, but by the time he arrives, regardless of the number of enemies he is capable of slaying or the deft diplomacy he is capable of negotiating, the audience already knows from the poet that the place is burning and therefore, with each reading of the poem Beowulf always arrives . . . belatedly. He hurries, moreover, toward an absence that can never be filled. Later, when he fights the dragon, knowing full well what the outcome will be -- his own death -- his actions resonate with Levinas's favorite quotation, spoken by Aloysha Karamazov in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, "We are all responsible for everyone else--but I am more responsible than all the others."


from Eileen A. Joy, Postcard from the Volcano: Beowulf, Memory, History, book-in-progress