3/18/07

THE SILENCE OF MALACHI RITSCHER by Kevin Kilroy

from Wikepedia: [Malachi] Ritscher came into the national spotlight after commiting self-immolation on the side of the Kennedy Expressway near downtown Chicago during the morning rush hour of Friday November 3, 2006, as a protest against the Iraq war and more generally against "the mayhem and turmoil caused by my country." Ritscher's suicide is one of only nine reported incidents of self-immolation performed as an act of protest in American history.

“The Silence of Malachi Ritscher,” by Kevin Kilroy—

There’s nothing like a shower to cool you down. Cool fool, nothing. When I watch my mind, it doesn’t move. Joe’s a fucking idiot. I go to work, on-time, I do my shit. Who does he think he is? Why do I care, really, though? My heart isn’t in it. I don’t have passion for that job. [pause]

Before Malachi self-immolated, writes Kilroy in a recent email conversation about his stage drama, I was working on a political play—something that had a purpose beyond attention to mind, imagination, and intelligent expression, which I felt I was spending too much time on. Utopic but with less outrage, more human emotion, trying to accept today's a-political climate and be in it without desiring a vision of how it should be.

All other discussion about Malachi were very surface level—basically: sane? or insane?—and I understand why that was the case as self-immolation is a very difficult action to contemplate. But I felt somebody needed to spend more time doing just that, contemplating this action, and so I did.

What is my point? My argument? What do I desire? Taxes- they connect me, everybody, to the blood we shed. More, go deeper. The two-party system will never work. Alright, yea – but these arguments have no effect. Everybody says them. What can I say that will touch people more than words? What can I do that’s deeper – people need to feel political. They need to get off their asses. Yelling at them, that’s not going to work – I need to show them… [long/snappy pause realizing he could self-immolate—that scary thought has returned to his head.] Those fuckers at my work, they think I’m a joke. Tonight, I’d work on the website more. Public Parking Party dot Org – people will get into it. I’ll get hits. [sighs again] [singing] “They say I’m crazy. OH, Oh-ohOH! But I don’t believe I can be that strong.”

Malachi self-immolated and thereby became a microcosm of fears and questions and nightmares and love and living. Is this an act of anti-patriotism? Yes and no. No, in that it is not anti-anything. But yes, because it contradicts the motions and ideologies of a patriotic gesture. This play is human, it's about relationships, it’s about fears and questions and nightmares and love and living in the world that is present and taking the time out of lives to connect with each other and discuss what is happening.

Also, politics—living politically on a daily basis, working towards a political consciousness— Malachi's reasoning for doing this: there are so few who could possibly feel any empathy for his situation, his internal crisis, and for the decision he made. We, as a society, are so far away from what his action represents, so I wrote a play that creates more possibilities for more people to gain sympathy for his crisis and, if nothing more, I am walking away from this play wiser about to what degree politics should be played out upon my body and the bodies of those I love. And, I hope, with a greater capacity for empathy.

What I am most proud of, and at the same time doubtful of, is the fact that this play does not say anything. I think it shows a good deal of the conflicts and issues and errors in living, but in the end there is no message which I have judged to be more worthy than any other possible message. However, staying connected to people, to loved ones, seems key to this world created in the play. Another message—avoid utopic actions. Another message—politics touches even the most intimate and private and special areas/moments of our lives.

The Silence of Malachi Ritscher
Opens at Theatre Building Chicago
Mar. 23 - Apr. 21*

*After the final performance the script will be burned

17 comments:

Murat said...

Jamba,

I wonder if the three planes which hit the twin towers and the Pentagon are part of that group of only nine reported incidents of self-immolation performed as an act of protest in American history? So much about the reliability of Wikepedia as a source of objective information for you.

Of course, acts of self-immolation for political purposes have been going on in Iraq, in Israel, in Palestine. Only the name is different: suicide bomber.

I wonder if the suicide bombers exploding themselves in the middle of a market in Baghdad are part of American history (part of that group of nine), since they are occurring in the middle of a war the United States is involved in?

That myth that only nine occurred -of course if one takes the "terrorists" out, the "crazies" out, the "poor deluded" out, the "oddball" out,one can come up with a number even under nine.

Ciao,

Murat

Paul Ritscher said...

Murat has missed Malachi's message completely. Are you so blind as to not see that the United States governmental policies created this problem, trained the "terrorists" (previously they were freedom fighters keeping the evil Soviet empire out of the oil fields), financed and armed them - and when they decided not to play our game by our rules, turned our own weapons against us! Our government has capitalized on terror, it has sold terror to the American people through a mass propoganda effort to prolong this horrible war. There are a lot of people making a lot of money off of this war and the longer it goes on the more they make (and the more control they have). This is exactly how the Nazi's took power and kept it for so long. Malachi was a long time peace activist, not a suicide bomber. He was a patriotic American who could no longer tolerate the crimes commited against humanity by our government, not a terrorist.

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Paul,

I'm sure that Murat sees perfectly clear that the US created this (and many other) terrorist problem. You missed his point about the plane-flying terrorists as protestors, self-immolators. All the suicide bombers are also protestors against this US-created problem, just like those Vietnamese monks in the 60's.

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Paul,

Here's another way top put this: if Malachi was "a patriotic American who could no longer tolerate the crimes committed against humanity by our government, not a terrorist," then the suicide bombers who try to kill American invaders of their country are also "patriots who could no longer tolerate the crimes committed against humanity by OUR government."

Murat said...

Paul,

That is my point. By criticizing the ridiculousness of the claim that there were only nine cases of political protest through self-immolation, I am trying to show that such idea can only occur through linguistic manipulation,"terrorist," "sick," "deluded," etc., defanging the act of legitimacy and political purpose. Our age is full of acts of self immolation for political purposes. In fact, in "asymmetrical warfare," self-immolation is the basic tool of the technologically weaker. By asserting that, for example, the Iraqi deaths during the "Iraqi civil war" are part of American history, I am pointing to Americal responsibility in those deaths.

This is a pervasive political responsibility, not only taxes paid by citizens. The American government is conducting this war mostly through borrowing from abroad. By this logic, the enablers also bear this responsibility, besides the American citizenry who elected this government, let itself be diverted by side shows, circuses.

The logic of our historical moment forces us to think almost all issues, political or poetic, beyond (more than outside) the box, in transnational and also I think class terms, seeing our time as the beginnings of an new neo-feudalism. In making a decision, would a CEO today think more of his/her share holders (which may be foreign) than the interests of The United States. What is good for Halliburton (General Motors a goner), etc. today is not necessarily good for the U.S.A. More and more allegiences cut across national lines.

Paul,I think you misunderstand what I am saying. Kevin Kilroy points how Malachi Ritscher's act was framed on the "superficial level of sane or insane." I am trying to show how this occurs.
The American political illusions are created by in subtle (or not so subtle) ways deligitimizing, dehumanizing the other, creating an ambient myopia. It is amazing to me that after five years the majority of the American public does the not the logic of the Arab behavior. For instance, the media is full of the word “cihad,” but much less so with the word “[s[h]ehit,” which comes from the same root and means “martyr” (as dissolution also an important concept in Sufism). American consciousness resists seeing this linguistic connection, which in some measure would legitimize (if only conceptually) the humanity of the other.

Like Kilroy my attempt is to reach out to humanity, to the other, by trying to dispel cobwebs of linguistic manupilation which create the myopia of consciousness. That, it seems to me, is the most “powerful,” active, relevant thing a poet can do.

Ciao,

Murat

Murat said...

Hi, Linh,

Sorry for not mentioning Vietnam for the sake of rhetorical pungency. At one point, I was thinking of including cases from American Indian history, in B-Westerns all those American Indians bancheening on bare horse against guns and rifles. Just one of these movies would be enough to go over the magical number 9.

Ciao,

Murat

Paul Ritscher said...

You are wrong. A suicide bomber is a soldier in a war who is hopelessly outnumbered and out gunned. They attack by surprise because it is more effective than standing openly against an enemy; reasoning that they will die anyway for their cause. Many suicide bombers are manipulated by their 'handlers' and are very much sheep going to the slaughter. I think it is offensive to include these people into the same catagory as my brother or the other self immolators who died for the cause of peace.

Jamba Dunn said...

The mention of the nine surely stood out to me as significant and I was curious to see how readers might grapple with the solidity of this ‘fact’.

I am grateful to all of you for having this discussion. Paul, it’s a pleasure to have you on the site.

Taking my prompt from Wittgenstein—“What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence”—I am going to watch this most interesting dialogue from the sidelines until I can speak clearly on the subject.

mark wallace said...

Well, isn't one difference here that "self-immolation," at least as it's usually understood, is something that one does only to oneself? Doing it to others as well is something very different.

Linh Dinh said...

Yo Mark,

I agree with you that to immolate oneself is different than to immolate oneself, plus one or 100 others. Nevertheless, Murat's made a very sharp observation when he pointed out that there have been far more than nine self-immolators in American history, since you must count all those people who were driven to burn themselves by American policies.

One aspect that hasn't been discussed is the theatricality necessary for a successful self-immolation. When the South Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc burnt himself, his people (allies? handlers?) had the press assembled beforehand. Fire is also a crucial choice. Soon after he died, the novelist Nhat Linh, South Vietnam's greatest literary figure, also killed himself, and also to protest the Ngo Dinh Diem government, but he did it by ingesting poison. Same result, but this much less dramatic and public act generated no press and no international outcry against the target of his protest. His departing statement: "My life will be judged by history. I will not let anyone judge me. The arrest and harassment of the Nationalist opposition is a grave crime, and will lead to a Communist victory. I'm opposed to that and will destroy myself like the monk Thích Quảng Đức, who by burning himself issued a warning to those who has trampled on every liberty." Blah, blah, blah, no one remembers.

Ngo Dinh Diem was installed by the CIA in 1956. In 1963, he was killed in a coup orchestrated by the CIA. That same year, Iraq’s Abdul Karim Kassem was shot after a Baathist coup engineered by, guess who, your tax-and-cocaine-dealing-supported CIA. Among the plotters were future strongmen Saddam Hussein and Nguyen Van Thieu. In knocking off a leader, one becomes in effect paterfamilias to an entire population. Unwittingly, many of us have been orphaned then adopted by the CIA, the world’s number one deadbeat father.

Murat said...

Mark,

The distinction you are pointing to between self-immolation directed o stages of many nly against oneself and the one including others is true.

Here lies the ambiguity of the situation. This distinction is put on the concept of self-immolation by us, subtly emasculating the action of political potency. Then, the only thing self-immolation can do is "to kill itself," which is fine with those in power. In movies or novels of incipient sympathy for disapproved act,for instance a gay person or an adulterer or a black slave, etc., the person in question finally dies or kills himself/herself, from Madame Bovary on. Every one goes home with a few tears.

That's why I brought in the idea of "sehit" (martyr), where the distinction you are referring to does not exist. I do not mean one should practice it, but one should understand it.

May be civil disobedience is the political ideal of golden middle in this situation (one of the great American contributions to political thought). But that idea depends finally the side of the strong remaining on this side of killing the other, on the presence of a mixture of conscience and vulnerability. When whoever it is bombed the Shiite holy site last year in Iraq (which could have been done by a Shiite group itself), the whole purpose was to induce a crossing of that line, to tragic effect.

Paul, I am sorry for my words causing you pain. In no way do I intend to disrespect your brother Michael's act.

Murat

Black Lodge said...

Linh,

The role media plays in a successful self-immolation is an interesting issue concerning Malachi.

Really there was no media coverage-- a few internet sites, a story on Steve Edward's radio show, 848, a couple of columns devoted to an editorial pen--just enough for the action to not be forgotten. The majority of people in Chicago did not hear, still have not heard, about Malachi's self-immolation.

I believe the success of Malachi's action has passed from the hands of the media to the hands of the other - those others paying attention and contemplating, interpreting, and reporting. Those of us aware and willing, we are lucky that Headlines, talking heads, Bono or Oprah or womever have not had any chance to "spin" what occurred, who Malachi was and who he is in our collective memories. What little response in the media that did occur was misdirected, unproductive. And we are lucky that we can easily forget about it.

What I am saying is that these actions that the media ignores, have an even stronger possibility of impacting the quality of humanity (as opposed to the quantity) because those of us who look to present them can leave their emotional resonance intact. We can keep them close to the body - our bodies, the bodies of audiences - in order for more than just the "information" of the event to be communicated, which is all most newspapers, websites, news programs ever attempt to communicate.

Of course this was different in the sixties, for Quang Duc, who now exists on the cover of Rage Against the Machine's album, which we have all seen and been equally unaffected by. Some stories and energies must be communicated in a more intimate setting and by a more emotional source than the mitigating screens that media employs.

Kevin

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Kevin,

I hope you will have a full house for each performance, and that you will be able to stage this play in many cities across the country. Like Murat said, the American citizenry allows itself to be diverted by side shows and circuses, while the most important stories are either ignored completely, trivialized or converted into the sickest entertainment, something they would have done with Malachi had they bothered with him.

Black Lodge said...

Thanks Linh.
It won't be performed again, though, becuase the theater group that is performing it (Theatre 521) burns the script at the end of the run, delete from hard drive, all that. Which I like because it has kept my focus on process rather than product.

Kevin

mark wallace said...

Thanks for all these helpful responses; it gave me a lot to think about.

Murat, I think the distinction Paul wishes to maintain is that the goal of self-immolation is essentially identified as one of peace; it's not an act of fighting back as such, but a final desperate plea to end the fighting. Essential therefore is the idea that one physically harms no one else; the moment somebody else is attacked physically, the meaning of the act is profoundly changed. That's why he refuses to accept that his brother's actions are in any way similar to that of "suicide bombers."

Thus, I would tend to locate the ambivalence more not in whether such self-destruction is politically effective as in whether it's really that peaceful an act. Does the physical violence done to oneself (and the emotional pain caused to those one loves) fundamentally contradict the supposedly driving impulse, that of obtaining peace? I don't think I would try to answer that question, generally speaking--I think it's probably a question that should be answered by those who feel in whatever degree harmed by it.

The number 9, as you point out, is of course ridiculous. Obviously the number simply depends on how one defines what the act is.

The question of the suicide bomber seems to me more one of whether the degree of fighting back is justified. It's protest, yes, but the moral question revolves around the issue of whether the action is justified given the conditions at hand. And in order to entertain that debate at all, one would have to agree on some level, then, that some acts of fighting back--of war--are indeed justified.

And I have to admit that I do think that, that one has a right to fight back against occupation and other violence enacted against oneself and community, etc. At what point one fights back is a very complicated question, of course. Western culture and its love of war usually leads to a situation in which a country is attacking long before it's in any degree genuinely endangered. So while I think that it's possible for a war to be justified, it's clear that most European and American wars have been unjustified. The path for war is often taken because of commonly-held ideologies about celebrating war that lead to leaping to conclusions.

Regarding the suicide aspect, I find western cultural values on this subject quite odd. Being killed for the cause is most honorable, it appears. Killing others and surviving is next, although it comes with the concepts of guilt and confusion. Killing oneself while killing others is the only one of these three that is considered immoral, even unthinkable. It's very strange. The reason, I guess, would be that self-preservation and autonomy is considered the fundamental value; the goal of fighting is to survive.

And the other relevant concept here, one that's also very complicated, is the notion of the civilian, whether civilians of a given country are seen as part of that country's wars, or as outside them. Since most unjust wars led by the United States start immediately with killing civilians, then it's no surprise that other civilians are killed in response.

Which is the reason that many activists who are against war in any and all circumstances would say that making more war will never end war.

But can I agree with that position? I don't think I can, just yet. Wars don't end when one side stops waging them; everybody has to stop. And the people with the most power and weapons have to be the first to stop--and historically, the problem is that they're usually the first to START.

Murat said...

Mark,

Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I do not know whether killing oneself is a totally peaceful act under any circumstances, for reasons you have mentioned.I know the fury I would feel if someone I loved killed himself or herself, besides the grief and despair.

What started this whole change of reactions for me was an attempt to prick the incredible amount of illusion which, in my view, constitutes American public discourse. A lot of it is implicit, like the air we breathe. That's why I picked on the number 9. Because it came from Wikipedia, it somehow had an objective reality, which of course is another kind of nonsense.

It is baffling to me -I don't know how else to put it- that a concept created for totally commercial purposes was able to convince people that it will transcend the principle "garbage in, garbage out" provided enough people participate in it -therefore making it increasingly profitable.

Democracy and free market will give you the truth.

Isn't it amazing how similar the argument for the factual reliability of wikipedia is to the argument for going to Iraq.

What I am saying is balloons need constantly to be pricked, the fog of language in a war need constantly to be vacuumed.

I am sorry that my words had hurtful consequences.

Ciao,

Murat

Jamba Dunn said...

To my mind, self-immolation defies both language and the very act itself. Whatever the origins of the plan, it blazes a hole through politics into nothingness. No photograph or language or number has the right to take this away. No amount of Marxism can tarnish the purity of the gesture—although it would have us believe so. It is I would venture to guess it enters a realm that has more to do with music and poetry and art than our dialectical machinery.

The long history of life belonging, first to the King and then the State that passes laws against its demise (who owns yourself anyway?), is powerless against the gesture of willfully gifting one’s life. It is an act that says there is nothing you can take that I will not willfully give. It is an act that shames the machinery of greed and warfare. Killing others in the incident, the terrorist act, seems radically different to me—a sublimated machine of the State, even in its attempt to overthrow the State. It is an act that contains within it the very war it hopes to end.

No matter the statistics, the names, the politics…—those who perform acts of self-immolation must surely be seen as one in the quality of their sacrifice. This does not bring war to our doorstep in quite the same manner. This is something else; a way of bunking every containing thought and every instance of encapsulation foisted upon us. It is not so much an act of defiance against expectations as much as a disregard for expectations.

To burn the script after the play and dismantle that machinery is courageous in this time of internalized commodification. It is itself an act that rejects the trappings of the idealistic mind, which inevitably seeks to distribute itself through generating a rhetoric or a product that ultimately stands in for the very things which its presence annihilates.