- Poetry in the Shadow of Human Rights
It is a mortal error to expect from poetry the supersubstantial nourishment of man.Jacques Maritain, Frontiers of Poetry
Between 1945 and 1948, the poet and politician Archibald MacLeish participated in the founding of the United Nations and its Commission on Human Rights and helped draft the century’s two most important declarations of human rights: the preamble to the United Nations Charter (UNC) and the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). As an esteemed writer, rhetorician, and public intellectual, MacLeish was called on at different times to articulate the mission of the UN and human rights to a global public.1 Yet, the archive assembled in this essay––a selection of poems, preambles, notebook entries, and written fragments––reveals how, in each case, the institutional responsibility of declaring rights led MacLeish to explore alternative political and philosophical foundations for postwar justice. Tasked with fine-tuning the declarations, MacLeish came to question the very grounds of postwar universalism. Like his contemporary, the German social theorist and refugee Hannah Arendt, MacLeish refused to look past what the philosopher called the “perplexities” of claiming universal human rights in the wake of World War II, the Holocaust, and the continued plight of the stateless and rightless (Origins 290).2 Also like Arendt, he set himself the formidable task of imagining ontological grounds for universal rights that did not rely on the tradition of natural and divine law.3 Yet, whereas Arendt engaged the task of rethinking human rights through political theory, MacLeish pursued alternatives in and through poetry. [End Page 512]
Buried in MacLeish’s official papers from the founding of the UN are assorted literary fragments and formal anomalies: preambles written as poems and poem fragments scribbled in the stolen moments between his official duties as Assistant Secretary of State.4 These neglected or forgotten writings cleave open space between the institutions codifying human rights and the abstract objects that these institutions rendered. This space allows us to consider more soberly the felt compatibility between lived historical moments and the categories and concepts that emerged to give order and meaning to a society reeling from catastrophe. The first part of this essay reads these fragments as evidence of poetic thinking that the challenge of articulating absolute human value in the wake of war and genocide occasioned. “Actfive,” MacLeish’s last modernist long poem, emerged from these fragments and is the focus of the second part of this essay. Begun on a scrap of paper during the UN’s founding and completed while MacLeish was at work on the UDHR, “Actfive” represents a critical point of convergence among literary modernism, postwar memory, and the history and politics of human rights.
1. On Poetry and the Human Person
The historical arc of this essay follows MacLeish as he navigates the abstractions on which human rights were founded at the UN. His goal, I argue, is to ground radical human value without recourse to the intrinsic worth of a “person” before the law (whether national, international, or divine). Yet, to get a sense of the scale of human life that MacLeish’s writings sought to make available for subjective encounter, we may first touch on the exceptions sown into the language and philosophy of human rights and the “human person” at midcentury. More importantly for our specific purpose, I also survey the literary forms underwriting the distinctions between humans and persons encoded in the century’s founding documents of human rights.
The preambles to the UNC and the UDHR both turn on the same promissory, ex post facto promise to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person” (1). Few sentences have had more of an impact on the politics of our time, yet few are less straightforward in their meaning. The “human person” of human rights law is not, strictly speaking, the human as such. The English “person” derives from the Latin persona and the Ancient Greek prosopon, meaning an actor’s mask, later the actor themselves, and finally a human being recognized by some form of law, whether divine, natural, national, or international...