• Jen Webb and Andrew Melrose

Human, All Too Human is the monument of a crisis ... the title means “where you see ideal things, I see what is—human, alas, all-too-human”—I know man better’ (Nietzsche 1967a: 283; emphasis in original). So writes Nietzsche, opening his remarkable self-portrait Ecce Homo (‘Behold, the man’; written 1888, first published 1908), and reflecting bleakly on the mass of humanity. It is difficult to dispute this perspective given that, over the century-plus since Nietzsche wrote this, history has recorded crisis after crisis. Human is indeed all too human, never the ideal of which individuals and populations dream.

We wrote this paper while living in separate hemispheres of the world, and separated by 10,000 miles, but in both spaces we sense similar calamities echoing across the dividing seas. Of the several monumental crises of our age (the thrashing and gasping of late capitalism; the anthropogenic destruction of the planet; parliamentary democracy’s gradual crumbling under the weight of agonistic and personality politics), the one currently disturbing us, the one that most seems to demand our active engagement, is the mass of humans across the world who are fleeing disasters: crossing borders; crossing oceans. A major product of this mass movement is change: new people, new languages, new cultural traditions and expectations; new relationships. And, of course, new policies, new strategies of containment and compliance, new tactics of flight. Human. All too human.


The sea’s turquoise skin, unbroken by white;

mountain-spined islands; minute cities

huddled on hilltops.

          Sometimes clouds veil

my sight, in a trance I imagine

gliding over the world’s edge, looking down …

writes Diane Fahey (2011: 123) in the opening lines of a poem that goes on to reveal the struggle Icarus has in reconciling his dream of flight with the furious struggle of the journey itself. As we know, from accounts of this story offered by Ovid and other writers from the ancient world (Melrose & Webb 2011: note 4), his effort to escape his Cretan prison ended in disaster: he died at sea, the product of his search for a better life.


Nietzsche characterises his writing of Human, All Too Human as an escape from his own ‘prison’: the life he was living. Of this he writes:

Any kind of life, the most unfavorable conditions, sickness, poverty—anything seemed preferable to that unseemly ‘selflessness’ into which I had got myself originally in ignorance and youth and in which I had got stuck later on from inertia and so-called ‘sense of duty’. (Nietzsche 1967b: 287; emphasis in original)

‘Selflessness’ is an ‘ideal thing’, of sorts. It is closely associated with moral worth, empathy and altruism. And who could deny the value of such qualities? Empathy, writes psychologist Paul Bloom, is a spotlight that ‘makes visible the suffering of others, makes their troubles real, salient, and concrete. From the gloom, something is seen’ (Bloom 2016: 87); and the seeing generates an empathic response, which itself may generate action. Thanks to the work of government ministers in erecting barriers, pro bono lawyers and refugee advocates resisting government obduracy, and the media reporting it, a spotlight is thrown on the plight of refugees. It makes visible their suffering. How could anyone not want to intervene to save lives, particularly those of children struggling against impossible odds?

Nietzsche’s rejection of selflessness seems to run counter to this human response, though it is not so much an argument for selfishness as a part of his constant critique of unreflective altruism. For Nietzsche, such an attitude is ‘ultimately life-denying and a symptom of decadence’ (Acampora 2013: 371). Life-denying, because it allows the individual subject to avoid building the self; decadent because ‘unseemly “selflessness”’ is, he insists, selfish; it is a way to justify the self on the dubious grounds of having ‘done good’ (see Janaway 2007; Reginster 2000). He is not alone in this attitude; social psychologist CD Batson makes a very strong case for the importance of disarticulating empathy and social action, given that ‘altruistic motivation’ is not necessarily ‘good’, does not necessarily provide the best outcome. Indeed, he observes, ‘empathy-induced altruism’ can do harm, particularly in cases where personal investment causes poor decision-making—hence surgeons are not permitted to operate on those in whose wellbeing they are personally invested (Batson 2011: 26). Self-interest gets in the way too, and can quickly turn altruism into paternalism, generating relationships of dependence rather than autonomy and agency (Batson 2011: 189–90). Bloom takes this critique a step further, observing that the spotlight effect of empathy, by illuminating specific cases that tug the heartstrings, lead to partisan and interested decision-making rather than a more nuanced or reflective approach: ‘its focus is narrow. What you see depends on where you choose to point the spotlight, so its focus is vulnerable to your biases’ (Bloom 2016: 87).

Nietzsche’s argument, then, is not an attack on kindness; nor does it align with the order of discourse presented by conservative commentators who denigrate all calls for social justice as ‘virtue signaling’ (Bartholomew 2015). Rather, it is on the one hand a feature of his lifelong concern to critique and challenge established moral orders—to identify the power relations embedded in such orders, and their deep imbrication in individual selves; and on the other hand, a reflection on his own struggle to go on, to stay alive. His struggle ended in tragedy: only weeks after writing those lines he had collapsed, never to recover. He did not flee, as such, but he did fall out of his life. Still, the sparks that flew from his pen and across his social sphere can be read as the product of his efforts to remake himself and find a more productive way to be human. As Walter Kaufmann comments, ‘This paragraph illustrates beautifully what Nietzsche says about amor fati, freedom from ressentiment, and even saying Yes to suffering’ (Nietzsche 1967b: 287, n.2).


Few people seek out suffering. But if suffering seeks one out, and if the alternative to saying No to suffering is worse than saying Yes, anyone might take that option.


It is tempting to draw an analogy between Nietzsche’s tragedy and that of forced migrants—all those people who find themselves in flight. But it is rather specious to do so; or rather, it is a flawed analogy. No one was holding a gun to Nietzsche’s head; no prison was waiting to ruin him: Nietzsche was confronting the inescapable spectre of his own mental illness along with his heightened awareness of the continued disasters that are part of human society. Still, his attitude to the monumental crises of culture provides perspectives on how people might face the unendurable.

In our own lifetime both individual nations and the idea of the nation-state have been thoroughly transformed by contemporary global practices, and by the mass movements of people struggling to free themselves from the terrors and privations of their own homeland. Zygmunt Bauman’s Globalization: The Human Consequences, first published in 1998 yet still remarkably current twenty years later, spells out the effects of collapsing balance-of-power relations, unequal trade relations and unequal freedom of movement. Similar issues are picked up by contemporary artists, commentators, and scholars, particularly with reference to what is increasingly being described as the ‘forever war’.

The term ‘forever war’ is taken from the title of a 1974 military science fiction novel by Joe Haldeman; reused for the title of a 2008 book by journalist Dexter Filkins to expatiate on the US conflicts in the Middle East; and widely used in military scholarship (see, for example, Simpson 2017–18). A state of constant warfare is associated with negative impacts on individual and communal rights, as well as economic and environmental deterioration. All of these factors combine to effect the ‘withering away’ (Bauman 1998: 57) of the nation-state, and the collapse of protection of rights and safety for citizens. And it is accompanied, in public discourse, by that strange admixture of refusal to speak and constant speaking about the problem of, and responsibility for refugees that would make Michel Foucault prick up his ears. Foucault’s The History of Sexuality begins with a caustic account of the double-discourse practised in western cultures with respect to sexual behaviours:

my aim is to examine the case of a society which has been loudly castigating itself for its hypocrisy for more than a century, which speaks verbosely of its own silence, takes great pains to relate in detail the things it does not say, denounces the powers it exercises, and promises to liberate itself from the very laws that have made it function. (Foucault 1978: 8)

In the early twenty-first century, this same argument could be made about the attitude to refugees. In many cases, people have been forced to leave their homes and seek uncertain sanctuary as the product of the deliberate or careless actions of western democracies engaging in trade wars, conflicts, support for dictators, failure to contain organised crime. Adding to the crisis, international organisations such as the UNHCR or Red Cross have found themselves inadequately prepared to care for, and rehome, those who have been cast onto the ungentle world, while nations like Australia, which must carry some of the responsibility for the collapse of states that leads to mass movements of people, reject that responsibility and explicitly breach international treaties for the protection of refugees.


So what do we do, those of us fortunate enough to have a safe place in the world, aware of our privilege, filled with empathy, sympathy and understanding? Our problem is that knowledge of contemporary politics, and empathy for others, must move beyond sentiment and into action; must look beyond the partial and partisan spotlighted areas to find those things we can do that are not merely self-interested, or merely knee-jerk reactions to a moment of recognition. It is, in sort, the responsibility to find ways to ensure that people who have cast themselves upon the unknown are the subject of human rights rather than simply the object of our compassion. Compassion achieves little, as the popular expression holds: ‘that and a quarter will get you a cup of coffee’ (Green 2011), and political action seems, often, to be little more than a silent scream. But to do nothing is no solution either. WH Auden’s (1940) ‘The Unknown Citizen’ provides a portrait of a person who never challenged the norms and mores of his society—

Our researchers into Public Opinion are content

That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;

When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.

—and whose life seems to have been pretty much pointless. Not that holding the ‘proper opinions’ is necessarily a bad thing, but reflective and ethical citizenship, and membership of human society, surely trump unthinking obedience.

One approach to the monumental crisis of forced migrants, and one that refuses the rubric of the ‘Unknown Citizen’, could be what Nietzsche describes as the logic of ressentiment and in particular ‘The slave uprising in ethics’ (Nietzsche 1967b: 36): a process in which creative energy transforms resentment into social action. This is exemplified by the work of Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish journalist and refugee from Iran who has been incarcerated by Australian authorities, since 2013, on what The Guardian newspaper calls Australia’s ‘notorious offshore detention centre’ (Davidson 2018), Manus Island. Over those years Boochani has written a wealth of journalism and interest pieces, produced a documentary titled Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time (Boochani 2017, a film shot section by section on his mobile phone) and, in 2018 published a book, No Friend but the Mountains, again produced one section at a time on his mobile phone. Boochani is not ‘merely’ a refugee, a man who fled his homeland, who sought safety in Australia by taking a boat from Indonesia to that country, who faced death when the boat took on water and began sinking, and who was plucked from death to incarceration with a hearing, without sentence, and without an end date. He is also a creative professional who has turned ressentiment to creative action, and whose work has put on record a sustained abuse of human rights that can now never be unseen, unheard.


Those of us living in (at least comparative) safety and comfort need to find productive ways to address the global nightmare of homelessness, statelessness, and the apparently unending flow of people from danger to danger. Of course we can donate money to appropriate charities; spend our weekends at rallies and protests; write poems and make art; mail strongly worded letters of protest to our members of parliament; intervene by putting our bodies in the gap between refugees and the agents of government. In Australia, a core of activists have been protesting the treatment of refugees since 1992, to what seems to be little effect; and it may be that such gestures are hopeless. Nonetheless, the long record of governmental abuse is marked all the way by art works that put these judicial and legislative failures on record. This is something that artists do, and often have done across history and culture.

In our case, despite our living 10,000 miles apart, we share a common thread that binds us to this idea; and we have been collaborating, off and on, for the past decade in a long-term attempt to engage the problem of how to 'take up arms against the sea of troubles' we observe around us. For us, reflecting on the possibility that academics and creative practitioners who feel the constant unsettlement of the sufferings of others can only response to the crisis of the present age is to donate, protest, vote, undertake research, make art, our decision was to engage with all those options. In this instance we are collaborating in a kind of dialogue, a mode of expression—prose poetry—that operates in language and form that do not meet the generic expectations of either political or scholarly discourse.

And perhaps this is appropriate, since artistic practice does not easily or inevitably find a fit with social politics. An analysis of the results of a major research project into the lives and contexts of contemporary poets showed that these poets ‘describe themselves as phenomenologically connected to the world, and their societies … but they don’t live there … The space they occupy is ‘other’ to the norm’ (Webb & Carroll 2018: 53–54). Webb and Carroll draw, in this analysis, on Deleuze and Guattari’s essay on Kafka and ‘minor literature’, where they point to a similar fractionalising—or rather, deterritorialising—of culture. Deleuze and Guattari characterise the literature of ‘the Jews of Prague’ as ‘impossible’, insofar as ‘The impossibility of not writing because national consciousness, uncertain or oppressed, necessarily exists by means of literature’ (1986: 16). Any minor literature, they argue, is both political and collective. Political, because unlike ‘major literatures’ which can attend to the inner life of the subject, ‘the cramped space [of minor literatures] forces each individual intrigue to connect immediately to politics’; collective because the comparative poverty, impossibility and invisibility of such literature means it ‘finds itself positively charged with the role and function of collective, and even revolutionary, enunciation’ (1986: 17).

Which is, perhaps, where poetry can productively enter the story. US poet laureate Tracy K Smith (2018) certainly seems to be making that point in her recent article in the New York Times, where she insists on the value of political engagement, and of that engagement being carried out in poetry: 

political poetry … has done much more than vent. It has become a means of owning up to the complexity of our problems, of accepting the likelihood that even we the righteous might be implicated by or complicit in some facet of the very wrongs we decry. Poems willing to enter into this fraught space don’t merely stand on the bank calling out instructions on how or what to believe; they take us by the arm and walk us into the lake, wetting us with the muddied and the muddled, and sometimes even the holy.

And this idea is replicated explicitly in her body of work. Certainly the poetic utterances of a writer like Behrouz Boochani can galvanise political action in the broader (‘major’) community. Perhaps too the small murmurs of poets like ourselves, who operate on the far edges of major literature, can also add to the positive charge of collective enunciation. It can do this, we suggest, because writers are not fully enmeshed in their cultures, by and large. They live ‘double lives’ (Lahire 2010), one foot in the creative world and one is the socio-political. Perhaps it is this doubling that provides them the space in which to refuse the choices of Auden’s ‘Unknown Citizen’, and instead test out the limits of the sayable, the thinkable, and the achievable. Tracy K Smith, in that same essay, proposes a very Deleuzian perspective, indicating the possibility that those operating in a major literature, albeit in the minor mode of poetry, can perform a small act of translation that allows their work to extend beyond the self and out toward a social and political address:

what becomes of the lyric ‘I’ if poems are not so much reflecting as enacting? I suggest that lately it seems concerned with seeking revelation not in privacy, but in community. Not in the meditative mind but in bustling bodies in shared space, in the transactions our physical selves are marked and marred by.

The position we have taken is inflected by such approaches to thought and action, and by the centuries of thought and literature on which our own creative and intellectual foundations are built. We look to commentators and artists like Smith; we draw lines of thought between that and the scholars we reference, and the artists we read. Particularly we connect Deleuze and Guattari, and Smith, and Nietzsche to Italo Calvino’s insights, explored in Invisible Cities (1972). In this poetic novel, organised very much along the lines of a collection of prose poems arranged into chapters, Calvino’s imagined conversations between Polo and Khan can be read as parables or meditations on human experience, while also making sense of ideas through creative dialogue, and mobilising the play of language in order to represent the world in which the fictional Marco Polo and Kublai Khan lived

Our collaboration, set out below, attempts a similar course, one focused on the issue of forced migration; on the play of language and imagination; and on the compulsion to develop an ethical practice. It is inflected therefore also by Michel de Certeau’s observation that ethics is not a set of morals, but a practice; it is ‘articulated through effective operations, and it defines a distance between what is and what ought to be. This distance designates a space where we have something to do’ (Certeau 1986: 19); and we attempt, in the work below, to find the ‘something’ that we ‘have to do’: something that is not so much reflecting as enacting. This work came together when we realised that, without planning or discussion, we were writing prose poems that seemed to be tackling the same disaster, in a minor language and from a minor cultural position. We have knitted these together, along with photographs that punctuate the poetry with visual representations of human frailty in the face of unsettled sea; hoping to make the point that, while compassion is fleeting, poetry is a means of remembering that does not free us to forget.



On the crossing beach

(poems by Andrew Melrose and Jen Webb; photographs by Jen Webb, taken on Elgol, Isle of Skye, 2012)


(a) The wounded world shudders under our hands. Even the most gentle of handlers cause it pain. It won’t be long now. We have done everything wrong, and the catastrophe is already at the door. Call it ‘eschatological hunger’: we know the condition but have not yet arrived at a cure. You are transfixed by the slow sinking of island into sea. I am figuring out how to find happiness after ruin. If it’s true that all our trauma arrives from the future let it come, and fast.

(z) Hazel wood smoke curls teasingly, heading skyward. ‘Hold on,’ she called, but I wasn’t listening to anything except the clock in the hall ticking away the seconds, minutes, days, the sunstruck pendulum swinging, spellbound, I can go, I can’t go, I can go, I can’t go. Somewhere, elsewhere, a man is wishing he had what I have and I feel his shadow on my brooding. He staggers, drunken legged from days at sea, up the beach to reach a safer shore, beyond the dark sea crossing, beyond the life left behind, walking from the coast into fields at harvest time.


(a) When the phone rings, your first thought is disaster. The quaintly fugal trill, the phone shuddering against the shelf, the catch in your throat. All are signs of the sign you wanted never to receive. Take a breath; lift the phone; say hello. Sometimes a call is just a call.

(z) I’ll meet you at the crossing place, at the dark end of the beach, where stragglers gather with hope and heart but no one ever speaks, and the only light to guide them is the moon; glassy stars, fragile light, flicker in time to your beating heart, but on the crossing beach no one speaks, and the only light to guide us is the moon; a mean dark sky, knee high waves threaten to rise, the cold hard real, the crossing sea.


(a) Storm clouds above the stream. Gulls that fly into the wind, shrieking. We batten the windows, secure the bags, we wait. The old argument is still playing out: how you pushed me on board, saying let the dead bury their fucking dead. I clutch my wounds. Refuse to contemplate yours. Watch the waves disappear. Watch the hail arrive.

(z) After the rain the swollen river snatched at our legs and carried us downstream, down through concrete deserts, sodden fields, waterlogged canals. You said, ‘I’ll see you at the delta’; and then the river became the sea and a perilous crossing: sharks, salt water, open wounds, and then arrival in the dark, and then they said, we don’t want you here.


(a) We huddle in our coats along the deck, tip up god’s bottle and watch what gushes forth. Tears, and the wash of sorrow. I hurl a thigh bone at the frozen coast. You juggle dice like knuckles. Yesterday you dared Bruno to swim to shore. He should never have risked it. You never should have made the stakes so high. Now what we share is the memory of too cold a day, too crazy a friend, and water hard as ice.

(z) I worked all night until dawn, with feathers, wax and string, to make your wings, so you could fly. I’ll wrap your dreams in love and strap them on your back, so I can watch you fly. And when the world puts trouble in your heart, I’ll be here to hear you sigh, but when it’s time to let you go, I’ll play no part in holding you back. I work all night and day to keep you away from harm, making wings so you can fly.



Works cited: 

Acampora, Christa Davis 2013 ‘Beholding Nietzsche: Ecce Homo, fate, and freedom’, in John Richardson and Ken Gemes (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Auden, WH 1940 Another Time, New York: Random House

Bartholomew, James 2015 ‘I invented “virtue signaling”. Now it’s taking over the world’, The Spectator (10 October)

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Bauman, Zygmunt 1998 Globalization: The Human Consequences, New York: Columbia University Press

Bloom, Paul 2016 Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, London: Bodley Head

Boochani, Behrouz 2017, Chauka Please Tell Us the Time, co-written and co-directed by Behrouz Boochani and Arash Kamali Sarvestani, produced Sarvin Productions

Boochani, Behrouz 2018 No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (trans Omid Tofighian), Sydney: Picador Australia

Calvino, Italo 1972 Invisible Cities (trans William Weaver), London: Harcourt

Certeau, Michel de 1986 Heterologies: Discourses on the Other, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

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Melrose, Andrew and Webb, Jen 2011 ‘Intimacy and the Icarus effect’, Axon: Creative Explorations 1.1 (September)

Nietzsche, Friedrich 1967a [1908] Ecce Homo (trans Walter Kaufmann), New York: Random House

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Simpson, Emile 2017–18 ‘Clausewitz’s theory of war and victory in contemporary conflict’, Parameters 47.4 (Winter): 7–18

Smith, Tracy K 2018 ‘Politics and poetry’, New York Times (10 December) 

Webb, Jen and Monica Carroll 2018, Creativity in Context: How To Make A Poet, Canberra: Recent Work Press