Wordsmith Wednesday: Mos Def’s “Wahid”

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We are highlighting the last verse from Mos Def’s song “Wahid” from his 2009 album The Ecstatic for our Wordsmith Wednesday this week.

The words are:

“Schooling the young like Rev. Run
Quote Pac and tell ’em keep their heads up
And when the pressure comes down press back and press up
Fret not ghetto world guess what?
God is on your side, the devil is a lie
The Empire holds all the gold and the guns
But when all is said and done there’s only
La ilaha ill’Allah”

Mos Def is known for his legendary ability to smoothly weave sometimes dissident ideas together through idiosyncratic rhyme schemes, simultaneously painting in broadstroke and penciling in the details in the wet paint. These lines plant the power of knowledge and hope poetically against military and monetary might, reminding the marginalized to always push back against external pressures that threaten to crush them.As a non-believer from a loose Polish/Italian Catholic background, I don’t connect as much with the religious connotations of this verse as much as I value its message of encouragement and emboldenment of young people coming up in world that may discourage or diminish them. However, it bears noting that the Arabic line roughly translates to “there is no other god than God” in English, referring to idea that all temporary/secular  struggle and desires dissipate in the face of eternal Truth, a concept shared between major monotheistic religions.

In light of our current social and political landscape, it’s important to remember the elements that should unite us in pursuit of Truth, regardless of religious beliefs (or lack thereof): protection of the weak/marginalized/impoverished, morally and ethically sound thought and action, sustained resistance in the face of corruption and abuse of power. Strength through love and empathy is far more sustainable than through guns and gold. Keep your head up and keep pressing back, everyone.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”

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Today’s words come from the chapter “How to Tell a True War Story” from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

The excerpt is:

“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”

When we read The Things They Carried in senior year high school English class, I remembered being struck by the directness and vivid imagery of the book, especially this chapter. O’Brien writes with a blend of austerity and attention to detail that made my teenage self feel as though I could contemplate the human cost of war without ever having experienced the pain for myself. I had lived most of my adolescent life with a vague fear of Vietnam-esque draft being instated for the seemingly unending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and this book taught me how to navigate some of those feelings from a distance in case I ever had to confront them for real. I think that is part of the beauty of literature: it can give you insight into an experience vicariously so that you can learn from, or at least look at, situations from a variety of angles without every having to go through them yourself. Sometimes there is not a clear lesson, but simply a human emotion or event to be considered, just a testament to the reality that is humanity.

Love and respect to all the men and women who have survived or become victims to the horrors of war as well as to their family and friends.

-NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: David Foster Wallace’s “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky”

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The Wordsmith Wednesday this week comes from David Foster Wallace’s essay “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky” from his book “Consider the Lobster.”

The words are:

“Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference? How do I ever actually know whether I’m bullshitting myself, morally speaking?”

This passage appears as an aside in an essay about a biography of Fyoder Dostoevsky, a piece filled with these self-aware inclusions that break the fourth wall. Wallace’s ability to tease out those little gnawing human questions in his writing and engage the reader in conversation is one of the main reasons I’m drawn to him and the above words express something that had been bouncing around in my brain for years before I saw them in print. Thanks to David Foster Wallace for putting words to feelings I think a lot of us have.

– NR

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The Fiery Pits of Profit

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An excerpt from Daniel Pujol’s poem “The Pope’s in China and You’re in Hell” reads,

“When I think about the Devil. And how he’s apparently still restrained by God.

I think about this guy.

He’s not doing anything illegal, but he’s tweaked it just enough.

Just enough to not get in trouble.

That reconciles the whole Abrahamic game board for me. The Devil is like a moral technocrat. An offshore bank account for the soul. Some kind of divine tax shelter.

Make them take what you should give. And just bend the world like a dry noodle.

He really is in the details. Not throned in Hell. He’s emailing in the bathroom, right now, articulating the cusp of not-illegal pleasures, gains, and acquisitions.”

In this poem, Daniel approaches morality with mathematics, imagining the Devil as a business savvy sleazeball rather than some sort of intangible Evil force and, in the process, secularizes sin in a way that emphasizes the role of personal agency as it relates to righteousness and resisting the temptation exploit Lucifer’s moral loopholes. Find the full poem in Issue 2.

Photo Credit: Ingrid D.
(http://road-tripping-europe.com/blog/2014/06/weekly-photo-challenge-extra-extra/)

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