If Conscience were a nation, what would that nation look like? We do not have an exact geographical or topographical account of this nation called Conscience. In the case of other countries, some sordid features like xenophobia, vigilantism, discrimination or inequality (of many kinds) may be seen even from the air. The image of Conscience as a nation is the subject of Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney’s astounding poem, ‘From the Republic of Conscience’. Heaney, who has figured in these pages before for his comments on ‘hope and history’, published this poem on Human Rights Day, 1985. Reports from witnesses record seeing this poem framed on the walls of Amnesty International’s offices.
A man arrives in the country of Conscience. At the immigration offices, he is asked to declare the ‘words of our traditional cures and charms/to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye’. Every person who arrives carries her/his own burden here because there are no porters. As a result, one’s ‘symptoms of creeping privilege disappear’. There are no ID cards, passports, visas and documentation of privileges that are also, unfortunately, linked to identities such as nationality.
Heaney then turns to symbolisms – sea, boat, water, ‘inks and pigments’ – that capture the work of not just organisations such as Amnesty, but also referring to poets and writers who use ink to speak against injustice. Addressing the leaders of nations, Heaney writes:
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office –
and to affirm their faith that all life sprang
from salt in tears…
The ‘unwritten law’ belongs to no nation because it transcends the nation. When a leader presumes ‘to hold office’, s/he must remember that such unwritten laws apply to ‘all life’. Then comes Heaney’s stunning climactic stanza:
I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs
woman having insisted my allowance was myself.
The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen.
He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.
This poem, rightly, became the title of a collection of poems published by Amnesty on the 60thanniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Rather than take to polemics, legal highfaluting speech or statistics, Amnesty turned to Heaney and poetry to communicate what its agenda was and is: human rights. What Heaney does is interesting.
When the citizen arrives in the country of Conscience, s/he is forced to examine herself/himself. Heaney claims that we all grow up and into traditions and ways of thinking, a familiar country. We have taken these for granted and only when asked, as though by an immigration official, to declare what we carry within us, do we pause to reflect on them. If we were to reflect on our intellectual or cultural legacies – for instance, secularism, tolerance, multicultural inheritances, shared histories – we would discover truths within them that would then help us for the future. Leaders too, then, must remain committed to these truths gleaned from a self-examination of our legacies.
‘Republic of Conscience’
The dual citizenship means s/he is now not just a citizen of her/his ‘own’ country but also of the ‘Republic of Conscience’, of which s/he is now an ambassador. Once a person has engaged with this history within, s/he is committed to the job of the ambassador of the ‘Republic of Conscience’, no matter which country s/he hails from. This job of the ambassador, writes Heaney, is for a lifetime: s/he would never be ‘relieved’. This is the burden s/he will carry forever, that s/he must speak on behalf of conscience, appeal to it in others. The returned traveller can speak on behalf of others in her/his ‘own tongue’, but speak s/he must.
There is, then, a country beyond the immediate one in which we live. This imagined, or coming, country of Conscience can be approached only by a rigorous self-examination. Heaney thus sees introspection and self-examination as integral to how the members of any nation can become citizens of Conscience. If, on the other hand, we do not wish to be ambassadors of that country, we can choose to remain blind to the values our own countries have produced, and in the process ignore wilfully larger concerns such as human rights. It is not an accident that Heaney’s poem is cited by campaigners welcoming and seeking justice for refugees and war victims. When descendants of migrants in, say, the US, take against current immigrants, they have refused to examine their histories, and therefore refused to enter Conscience.
Heaney calls for a displacement from one’s country of origin into Conscience. This is a voluntary displacement, a willed citizenship of another nation. But this is not displacement as we traditionally see it. Heaney seeks a displacement from a take-it-for-granted acceptance of our traditions into one of critical scrutiny so that we also become members of a transnational, more humane, country, Conscience. This is a reaffirmation of a set of values, beliefs, practices that, as members of a nation, bound us together from centuries.
Unless we revive these principles that enabled us to live together, and if we allow public leaders who have presumed to take office to throw these principles – in many places enshrined in the Constitution and also in lived practices of shared festivities, culinary habits, architecture, and what not – out, we shall forever be banned from Conscience. Nothing prevents us from acquiring a dual citizenship. One can just belong to a nation. But one can also belong to something larger, something intangible perhaps: a country of Conscience coming into being, but towards which we must work at.
It is time, Heaney tells us, we all became ambassadors of that country.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)