Last Sunday, Winston and I took a walking tour of Greenwood Cemetery. Although the cemetery is within a couple of miles of our house, neither of us had ever been there. “Brooklyn’s Victorian city of the dead” was how the outfit that organized the tour described what we were about to see. One thing I learned from the trip is that real estate promotion isn’t only for the living; through the efforts of a well-placed entrepreneur, Greenwood became an intensely fashionable place to spend eternity from the mid-19th century on. (At first, though, the burial plots were a hard sell; it wasn’t until Governor DeWitt Clinton’s family had his remains moved there from a burial site upstate that this South Brooklyn graveyard came into its own.) Because of its natural hills and dales, the place really has the feel of a collection of contiguous villages or neighborhoods, with elaborate mausoleums built into the slopes, looking as elegantly cramped as the huge frame houses of Flatbush. Seeing how the bourgeoisie of the mid-nineteenth century sought to lend their memories a bit of permanence (with Tiffany glass, elaborate limestone carvings, monuments by the premier architects and sculptors of the day) got me thinking about the various ways in which we mortals desire to be remembered: both as these pertain to individual tastes and to culturally prescribed rituals.
“When I die, I’ll live again,” sings Rev. Gary Davis. What does it mean that even people who harbor this Christian expectation often want to heighten the chances that their names, if not the details of their biographies, will be remembered on earth?
Are there any people, anywhere, who genuinely do not give a thought to what will become of them, their bones, their stories, their reputations, their photographs, their intimate possessions—even, heaven help us, their money–after they “pass on” (to use an expression I dislike because it strikes me as euphemistic, though I notice that many people seem to feel it is somehow ungentle to the dead to describe them as having died).
What does it mean that I care terribly about what happens to my words once I die; that I would like nothing better than the assurance (at least the likelihood) of connecting with readers one hundred, two hundred, five hundred years hence? (I should like my name to be attached to the words, but that’s not essential. I adhere to the superstition of authorship: le mot, c’est moi.)
To admit such a thing is perhaps the ultimate damaging confession (a deeply humiliating one, like an announcement of not only unrequited but ridiculously presumptuous love). But I can risk it here, in The Blog Nobody Sees, the equivalent of a ritual carving placed on a mountaintop and left there to decay.
If it is our task, our human task, to (as it were) metabolize our own deaths in advance, meanwhile performing the reciprocal work (memory work) of making the deaths of others mean something, how does this relate to what we attempt to do in the presence of mass death? If each death deserves to be individually reacted to, individually metabolized (I submit that doing this is part of the definition of what I would want to recognize as human; once we abandon at least the ambition to do this, I believe we are lost), then how do we react when statistics come into play? When the individual stories and contributions—even sins—of enormous numbers of the rubbed out cannot possibly be known, or reacted to if they were known? When destruction runs so far ahead of mourning?
These questions are certainly not original. They hover around the Nazis’ Final Solution, around Hiroshima, the Middle Passage, and Europeans’ slaughter of the Americas’ first peoples. They hover as well around the killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda. Architectural forms (museums, memorials) and legal forms (Nuremberg trials, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions) have been invented to address (some of) them.
But why so much repetition? What does it mean to remember, not, apparently, as an effective means of preventing a recurrence, but…well, for what? What does it mean to patch up the world just enough to allow it to limp on to the next bloodbath? What are the implications of living in full view of this cavalcade of mass destruction—annihilation, really?
What does it mean that images of lethal violence perpetrated against the individual body (Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo) and the world’s body (dying species, dying oceans, metastasizing development, depleted uranium weapons, oil drilling, mining, logging in “wilderness” areas) are perpetually before us? How do they reinforce each other?
I’m reading Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet. It’s a wonderful book, though written in High Theory—that language not quite extinct in certain corners of academia, but that already begins to have a nostalgic flavor. I don’t know how I missed this classic when it first appeared in the early 90’s. What was I thinking of? (I guess I was still feeling bruised by my partly self-induced expulsion from the Garden of Lesbianism.)
Epistemology of the Closet is about the centrality of sexual identities, and specifically a vision of “the homosexual,” to modern power relations in Western societies. It looks at canonical texts (Billy Budd, In Search of Lost Time) as a means to understanding how that centrality operates through a series of irreducibly contradictory understandings (e.g. that “homosexual” is both a clearly defined category of personal identity—you either are one or you aren’t—and a sort of seeping contagion that always threatens to cross boundaries—if you’re not blatant, you still could be latent). Sedgwick proposes that, rather than taking ignorance of people’s marginalized sexualities as a “natural” fact (heteronormativity), if we pay attention to how the closet operates, we have to begin to recognize different forms of ignorance (many of them calculated and privileged); she refers to the closet as an Open Secret, illustrating what she means with a witty parallel to Saul Bellow’s notorious question as to whether there has ever been a “Tolstoi of the Zulus”:
“Has there ever been a gay Socrates?
“Has there ever been a gay Shakespeare?
“Has there ever been a gay Proust?
“Does the Pope wear a dress?….A short answer, though a very incomplete one, might be that not only have there been a gay Socrates, Shakespeare, and Proust but that their names are Socrates, Shakespeare, and Proust….” (Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, University of California Press, 1990, p. 52).
Although it probably doesn’t afford the spectacular deconstructive opportunities afforded by the closet’s contradictions, I want to suggest that the notion of a culturally and politically potent Open Secret be applied to our “ablational” world order. That the way we live now depends upon, generates, these episodes of mass destruction; that, via our trashing of the biosphere, we are in effect far along in the process of sawing through the tree limb we’re sitting on; that we have the clear capability to short-circuit the process by simply nuking ourselves (perhaps by accident) before we even reach the point where human life on the planet might cease to be sustainable—these circumstances are as well known as the so-called abuses at Abu Ghraib (which also fail to mobilize most [American] people’s desire to ask any fundamental questions). Yet, as I noted in my last post, people who insist on the significance of these circumstances are generally marginalized, dismissed as “doomsayers” and “nervous nellies” (Epistemology of the Closet, indeed!—apparently even one’s position on whether the fate of the earth is cause for concern or not positions one as implicitly gay or straight). Calling attention to the distinct possibility that things may not turn out okay for the human species apparently threatens something so foundational that the threat cannot be countered with argument; it requires that the person who raises the issue be flatly disqualified from the discussion simply by virtue of having raised it.
Does the Open Secret of our new existential dilemma (that of a species for which auto-genocide has only very recently become a concrete possibility) both reinforce and receive reinforcement from all those other Open Secrets—especially the ones that are waxing so prolific in this latest phase of the life-death of the American Empire?
Open Secrets such as: that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that the Bush administration “fixed the facts around the policy” from day one, that the putative World’s Greatest Democracy has drastically accelerated its longstanding program of squelching genuinely democratic initiatives in any part of the world where they might threaten “our” interests, that the closet is still as potent a force as ever in our national life, so much so that it ought to be retrofitted with a revolving door to accommodate the prelates and right-wing politicians who keep cycling through it, somehow without putting a dent in the notion that the Church and the Right are the pillars of heterosex.
“ ‘We haven’t reached the point of strafing and bombing from space,’ Pete Teets, who stepped down last month as the acting secretary of the Air Force, told a space warfare symposium last year. ‘Nonetheless, we are thinking about those possibilities.’… The Air Force believes ‘we must establish and maintain space superiority,’ Gen. Lance Lord, who leads the Air Force Space Command, told Congress recently. ‘Simply put, it’s the American way of fighting.’ Air Force doctrine defines space superiority as ‘freedom to attack as well as freedom from attack’ in space…. ‘Space superiority is not our birthright but it is our destiny,’ he told an Air Force conference in September.”
—“Air Force Seeks Bush’s Approval for Space Arms,” New York Times, May 18, 2005, pages A1 and C4.