Insofar as the losses of the past motivate us and give meaning to our current experience, we are bound to memorialize them (“We will never forget”). But we are equally bound to overcome the past, to escape its legacy (“We will never go back”). For groups constituted by historical injury, the challenge is to engage with the past without being destroyed by it. Sometimes it seems it would be better to move on—to let, as Marx wrote, the dead bury the dead. But it is the damaging aspects of the past that tend to stay with us, and the desire to forget may itself be a symptom of haunting. The dead can bury the dead all day long and still not be done.
—from Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History
Who will write the history of tears?
—from Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments
Consider this a very strange [and maybe, disorganized and not altogether intelligible] post in which I cobble together random bits and pieces from my pell-mell reading at present, and finally, from what troubles me of late, especially as regards the historical enterprise [the enterprise, in other words, of historical scholarship, historical writing, “doing History,” and so on and so forth]. In his recent post, “Messages to an Uncertain Future,” Jeffrey wrote,
Can the past speak in a voice of its own? Can meaning travel across a millennium, an epoch, or must meaning always be bestowed by an interpreter? According to linguists, a language becomes “unintelligible to the descendants of the speakers after the passage of between 500 and 1000 years.” Suppose you know that you inhabit a present that will someday, inevitably, become someone else’s distant past. How do you communicate with a future to which you will have become remote history?As Jeffrey was likely ruminating and composing these questions, but had not yet posted them, I was driving my car from home to school and listening to Terry Gross’s radio interview [on Fresh Air] with Maher Arar, a telecommunications engineer with dual citizenship in Canada and Syria who, due to false information that Canadian authorities provided to the FBI, was arrested during a stopover at JFK airport in 2002 under suspicion [again, based on false information provided by Canada’s federal police bureau, the RCNP] of being a member of Al Qaeda, and then was deported, by CIA plane, first to Jordan and then to Syria, under our country’s draconian policy of extraordinary rendition, where he was beaten and tortured for a year in a Syrian prison, before he was finally released in 2003. Although Canada has since issued a formal apology to Arar for his false arrest and for his wrongful deportation and detainment, and have also awarded him compensatory damages, the U.S. courts have been unwilling to review the case [they have outright dismissed Arar’s lawsuit for wrongful arrest and detention more than once and it continues to wend its way through circuit courts] for reasons of national security, which is such a craven justification for not reviewing Arar’s case that it simply stuns and shocks me, and ultimately, leaves me saddened and speechless. It goes without saying that, when arresting and deporting and imprisoning Arar, his rights of habeas corpus were suspended, and his family was not initially informed regarding his whereabouts, nor could he retain or speak to a lawyer, and he was not protected by international conventions against torture. And there is also the matter—which we should weigh carefully—of Arar being subject to various forms of torture for an entire year in order to force Arar to produce information that, technically, did not even exist.
I felt very emotional during this interview, and I must admit that I have a peculiar reaction when hearing the stories of those who have been falsely imprisoned and tortured by my government [at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere], or who are being held in secret prisons without their rights of due process, because it has been determined ahead of time that they are “enemy combatants” in a “war on terror”: I feel implicated, almost as if I were responsible for the torture, for the abuse of these persons, for the crime of destroying their minds and souls. Because my government does this in the name of my country, and of defending my country, they do it my name, in our name, and I feel sick because I don’t know how I will wash this blood and grief from my hands, and I do feel, strongly, that I carry some portion of these on my hands. My soul feels stained, diminished. And I see in these events, also, a kind of dimming of possible, more hopeful futures. I literally see horizons constricting, as well as Yeats’s rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouching [again] toward that more narrow, darker future. I feel the world shrink, and I see lights go out, and those black birds from Old English poetry who always wheel over the killing fields, shrieking and screaming. And I also hear Auden’s voice from 1939 talking about the future we inhabit now [again]: this “low, dishonest decade” when “waves of anger and fear / circulate over the bright / and darkened lands of the earth, / obsessing our private lives; / the unmentionable odour of death / offends the September night.” And like Foucault in the Bibliotheque Nationale with the documents of his “infamous men,” I fear that the “intensities” I am feeling in relation to Arar’s story “might not pass into the order of reason.”
Arar described his cell in the Syrian prison as being like a grave, small, dark, and filthy, and that in some of his moments there, he really felt that life was not worth living anymore. He tormented himself with his own constant worrying over his wife and children: where were they? were they safe? were they healthy? were they also in a prison somewhere and being tortured? And in his own words, “I lost hope.” Of his torture [the harshest and most physical portion of which occurred during the first month of his imprisonment], it clearly meant a great deal to him that we would understand, without going into the obvious and graphically lurid details, what happens, psychologically, during torture. He said, of being hit with a cable by an interrogator,
It’s very hard to describe that feeling, that pain, but to give you an example, an idea of how extreme this pain was, I’ve always used this proverb in Arabic that basically says, the pain that results out of these beatings is beyond imagination to the point where you will forget the milk that you have been fed from your mother.Listening to Arar say this, and then typing his words here after listening to them again online, I immediately thought of a moment in Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, when the novel’s hero, nine-year-old Oskar Schell, whose paternal grandparents survived the fire-bombing of Dresden and whose father died in one of the twin towers on September 11th [and whose death gives Oskar an almost constant feeling of “heavy boots,” which is how he describes sadness], imagines a special reservoir in Central Park that would hold everyone’s tears:
In bed that night I invented a special drain that would be underneath every pillow in New York, and would connect to the reservoir. Whenever people cried themselves to sleep, the tears would all go to the same place, and in the morning the weatherman could report if the level of the Reservoir of Tears had gone up or down, and you could know if New York was in heavy boots. And when something really terrible happened—like a nuclear bomb, or at least a biological weapons attack—an extremely loud siren would go off, telling everyone to get to Central Park to put sandbags around the reservoir.We would have great need of such a reservoir if more persons were actually paying attention, or even trying more vigilantly to carefully consider and study the inhumane violence done daily—now, beside us—in our country’s secret prisons, and in our name, for us. And it is noteworthy that in Oskar’s invention, the tears in this reservoir would need to be safeguarded, to be kept in, for his reservoir is also an archive, it is an historical document, it is a record. It is also the museum of communal lamentations. It is also a message to an uncertain future, and it is noteworthy, in this regard, that ever since Dresden, Oskar’s grandfather has not spoken—the shock of surviving that event has rendered him mute. But upon entering the States, when asked to provide his reason for coming to the States, he writes in a notebook, “to mourn and to try to live.” When asked how long he will mourn, he replies, “for the rest of my life.” A reservoir filled by the tears of a community weeping for the violence done to others in its name could be an important testimony to an historical trauma—the torture of “enemy combatants”—that has been done mainly in secret and “off the record.” This is a type of history that passes, almost immediately, into oblivion.
Yes, we have books by Jane Mayer and Seymour Hersh and Phillipe Sands and Philip Gourevitch and other heroic reporters [and even medievalists: Bruce Holsinger, Steve Guthrie, Michael Moore, just to name the ones who I know have written about this] that provide exhaustive accounts surrounding the Bush White House’s use of torture and secret extradition in its “war on terror,” and which accounts also provide what might be called “historical perspective,” but still, each day, and even in this very moment, this torture and wrongful imprisonment and suspension of human rights continues, and it is not and never will be possible to record all of it, to commit it to a full historical record, a complete testimony. It is also worth considering how the entire published record of the Bush White House’s use of torture and secret prisons, or even just the radio interview with Maher Arar, and all of the photographs, documentaries, etc. have not one whit of importance in the current election season. They are, as it were, completely non-significant issues as far as the general press and most Americans are concerned. No one will win this presidential election by saying that they will shut down Guantanamo Bay and release all of the prisoners, or that they will make sure no one is ever tortured again in an American or other prison housing “war” prisoners, or that they will put a George Bush or a Dick Cheney or a Donald Rumsfeld or other government or military officials on trial for abuses of power and war crimes. Which raises the troubling question of what this published record is really for: although much of it may have been honestly intended to shock us now and to get us to act to make this stop, and to "never forget," but the end result is that it is yet just another message to someone else in an uncertain future.
But how, in any case, do you make the best reckoning possible of such agonies as Arar’s—of what is already, in the present, remote history—of each life harmed irreparably, of each mind maimed and destroyed, of each blow, each laceration, each drop of blood, each bruise, each broken bone, each cry for help, each useless prayer, each anguished moment of not knowing when any of it will end? As the poet Spencer Reese writes in “Florida Ghazals”: “I press on the keys of the typewriter attempting to record all those lost and unmarked. / But there are too many, I cannot keep track.” Further along, he also writes: “Alligators swallow the summer light. The thick grass eats the sidewalk. / Whatever is built here is quickly overrun with the advance of chlorophyll.” These lines call to mind the last lines of the novel Beloved, where Toni Morrison writes,
By and by all trace [of Beloved] is gone, and what is forgotten is not only the footprints but the water too and what is down there. The rest is weather. Not the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted for, but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly. Just weather. Certainly no clamor for a kiss.But for the poet Reece, he is not so despondent at the overwhelming task of recording the unmarked [or at the interminable advance of a future that swallows everything whole], and in his “Addresses,” the epigraph for which is the line from Joel 2:25, “I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten,” he writes,
I sing sacredly of suitcases and disappearancesA poet such as Reece, who sings sacredly of disappearances [especially of the abject queers, migrant workers buried in unmarked mass graves, the insane, prostitutes, suicides, death row inmates, and many other lonely figures who make up the bulk of Reece’s poetic devotions], and a medievalist, who desires, in Carolyn Dinshaw’s words, “partial, affective connection, for community, for even a touch across time” [Getting Medieval, p. 21] with those who have, historically, been history’s losers or queer Others, have something significant in common, something that was a concern in the work, also, of Roland Barthes, on whose thought Dinshaw writes at length in her book Getting Medieval, saying, at one point, that “despite the emphasis [in Barthes’s writing] on the ‘absolutely alone,’ relations between lives, between entirely contingent and profoundly singular lives, were indeed a concern throughout the long and otherwise uneven span of Barthes’s texts” [p. 45]. And this brings us back as well to Morrison's "clamor for a kiss": there is an erotic component both to the wish on the part of the dead to be remembered [and in that way, to still be alive, to be kissed, to be touched--although, in Morrison's novel, this wish becomes a kind of rage and violence] and to the desire of the scholar to "touch" the abject Others of the past.
I am a hymnal of my own making recording years
years that are empty years that are full
my eyes indicate some of my liberators failed
but there is no more time to speak of hurts
our time together is leached of extravagances
the room where I address you is empty at last
I open a big book I announce my name
the construction of leaves occupies my time
silence makes up the bulk of my estate
I am ruined but I am not afraid
the sound of the last empty lots is in my spine
from state to state I send out my report
I am recalled to these passages by Heather Love’s quoting of them in her book Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History [Harvard, 2007], which book I picked up after Holly Crocker, during our August discussion and re-appraisal of Dinshaw’s 1999 book, mentioned the important influence of Dinshaw’s work on Love’s thinking on queer history. I cannot recommend Love’s book highly enough—although it focuses primarily on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century texts [by Walter Pater, Willa Cather, Radclyffe Hall, and Sylvia Townsend Warner], it has much to say to those of us concerned with the historical enterprise more broadly, and queer historiographies more narrowly. It has something important to say, too, about taking historical account of suffering, of constructing an “archive of feeling”—in the more specific focus of Love’s book, an historical record of “the corporeal and psychic costs of homophobia,” with particular “attention to feelings such as nostalgia, regret, shame, despair, ressentiment, passivity, escapism, self-hatred, withdrawal, bitterness, defeatism, and loneliness” [p. 4]. In relation to what I really believe ought to be our refusal to turn away from the sufferings entailed within the “remote history” of our present, I find this passage from Love enlightening:
A central myth of queer existence describes the paralyzing effects of loss. The story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 is significant not only as an account of the violence perpetrated against those accused of the grave sin of homosexuality; it also describes the consequences of the refusal to forget such losses. Alerted by the visiting angels, Lot and his family are allowed to escape on the condition that they do not look behind them. Although Lot and his daughters obey God’s order and go on to produce a new lineage, his wife looks back and thus becomes a pillar of salt. By refusing the destiny that God offers her, Lot’s wife is cut off from her family and from the future. In turning back toward this lost world she herself is lost: she becomes a monument to destruction, an emblem of eternal regret. [p. 5]Love’s recalling of Lot’s wife’s “turning back” is a moment of what Love calls “feeling backward” and her book aims to “create an image repertoire of queer modernist melancholia in order to underline the losses of queer modernity and the deeply ambivalent negotiation of these losses within the literature of the period” [p. 5]. Love acknowledges the difficulties attendant upon an historical project that desires to attend to history’s “losers”: “The effort to recapture the past is doomed from the start. To reconstruct the past, we build on ruins; to bring it to life, we chase after the fugitive dead. Bad enough if you want to tell the story of a conquering race, but to remember history’s losers is worse, for the loss that swallows the dead absorbs these others into an even more profound obscurity” [p. 21]. Nevertheless, “we have to risk the turn backwards, even if it means opening ourselves to social and psychic realities we would rather forget” [p. 29]. Love insists, finally, “on the importance of clinging to ruined identities and to histories of injury. Resisting the call of gay normalization means refusing to write off the most vulnerable, the least presentable, and all the dead” [p. 30].
Love will not get any arguments from a medievalist on this one, and it is heartening to see her invoke the importance of Dinshaw’s thought in her work [as well as the work of David Halperin, Louise Fradenburg, Valerie Traub, and Carla Freccero], but while Love’s work is grounded in and is a direct response to the politics of a queer present [and to what Love sees as an inability or refusal in progressivist queer politics to take full and proper account of certain historical regressions that still inhere in those politics and drag upon them], as medievalists, we often go a long distance out of our way to argue for the political disinterestedness of our work. We claim that we have an objective interest in the past and merely want to try to render, as best we can, how it was [which is radically different from, how it was and still is to us]. Or, we criticize those medievalists who really are doing political work [and brilliant work at that, in my opinion: look, for example at Kathleen Biddick’s essay in GLQ 13.2-3 (2007), “Unbinding the Flesh in the Time that Remains: Crusader Martyrdom Then and Now” or Bruce Holsinger's Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror] for trying, supposedly hopelessly, to make medieval studies “relevant” or “hip.” We say that it’s interesting, but it isn’t “real” medieval studies, or it's just "to the side," somehow, another thing but not the main thing, and political critique is best left to, um, political scientists, public intellectual pundits, and the like, or to humanities scholars working in more modern areas whose connections to current politics are more explicitly present.
It still distresses me to this day that one of the external reviewer’s comments regarding BABEL’s Palgrave volume, Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages, was that medieval scholars had no business being polemical—as if to say, you may write on the Bush White House legal memorandums on torture in relation to classical, medieval, and early modern discourses, laws, and practices of torture, but without judgment, without criticism of the present Administration, because that’s polemics, and not scholarship. Or rather, you can have your opinions, but they belong in a different forum. To this day, I am still trying to wrap my mind around how anyone could write about the history of torture and the present situation and not be ethically obligated to judge, to criticize, and frankly, to weep, to be outraged, and as eloquently and as rationally and intelligently as possible, to express that outrage with the hope of moving someone else to be outraged, and to also provide a better historical education for those of us mired in this terrible present, and finally, to bear witness, to bear outraged witness, to send an outraged message to the uncertain future, to catch the tears of an unhappy consciousness, and to create and safeguard a reservoir for those tears.
I was similarly struck by recent outbursts of virtual “fisticuffs” on both the Chaucer and Anglo-Saxon discussion list-servs when some commentators wanted to post messages related to the current presidential election. The general upshot of all this, on both lists, was that neither forum is a proper place for contemporary politics, unless a kind of direct line can be drawn, for example, between Chaucer and Sarah Palin. It may be, of course [and who would really argue?] that the Chaucer Discussion List is not the place to discuss the current election and that it really is the place to talk about Chaucer [duh!], but the implication in many of the comments seemed to be that medievalists interested in that subject should concern themselves with that elsewhere—the places where everything else happens that isn’t Chaucer studies, which apparently bear no real relation to contemporary politics [except by overly forced or tangential or too-slight assumptions of how “then” and “now” might intersect]. And yet, scratch the surface of pretty much any contemporary political issue and a Chaucer text at the same time, especially when armed with the deep historical perspective of a medievalist, and I believe there is no end to the connections that will be found, and further, as Love contends in her book, “politics is inseparable from history” [p. 128]. But why do I even need to quote that, isn’t it obvious? Another, more urgent way of putting all this might be to ask, with Judith Butler, in Giving An Account of Oneself, “How are we formed within social life, and at what cost?” [p. 136]. As medievalists, and as beautifully evidenced in the comment thread to Mary Kate’s post on the Digital Scriptorium and “Becoming (a) Medievalist,” we love old things, sometimes merely, and simply, for their own sake. Ours is, at some level, as much an aesthetic venture as it is an historical one [even before we can “get critical”]. As Mary Kate wrote there,
I find that my interest in paleography is another way of returning to the things I find most moving about medieval literature: the way in which words touch us (and are touched by us) over immense swathes of time. The way in which the physical object of the book survives from the past, and faces questions from scholars its pages might only ever partially answer. But we still get to try.Many of the commenters who responded to Mary Kate’s post told moving stories about being moved by artifacts of the Middle Ages, by their past-ness, their historical weight, their miraculous existence in the present, and I think, too, by being in the presence of those messages from uncertain pasts sent to us, here in the future. We are time travelers, after all, and it’s no accident how many medievalists are also geeks who love television series such as Dr. Who, Star Trek, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Torchwood, Primeval, and so on. But I would also like to see more medievalists recognize the heavy cost to be paid in trying to maintain political disinterestedness, or objective distance, in our scholarship—if we are even just talking about the fate of humanities in the contemporary university [and then, as an extension of this, about human rights], there is so much work still to be done by premodernists, especially, and it cannot be accomplished on the old argument of “the past for its own sake” [although, in some contexts, the past for its own sake could certainly be a worthy project that might encapsulate certain acts of ethical memory-bearing, but for whom and on whose behalf and why?]. I like Mary Kate’s take on the way words “touch us (and are touched by us) over immense swathes of time,” and how the artifact that survives from the past “faces questions from scholars its pages might only ever partially answer,” which also implies that we should have questions, and interested ones, I hope, ones that are invested in the idea that looking backwards also entails feeling backwards, and with some sense that even just beside us there are those whose suffering will need an account.
In her beautiful book Sacrifice Your Love: Psychoanalysis, Chaucer, Historicism, which I never tire of re-reading, Aranye Fradenburg writes,
Rather than relying on an uncritical alteritism to stabilize temporal identities . . . we can see the past itself as fractured, desiring, layered with the possibilities of futures as well as its memories: a “history that will be,” in Jonathan Goldberg’s memorable phrase. Past times do not know themselves, or their pasts or their futures, in fullness, free of desire. [pp. 63-64]Further, she writes that we “cannot confine the work of knowing the Middle Ages to replicating, however hopelessly and/or heroically, medieval cultures’ self-understandings. We also should explore how medieval cultures, like all others, may have misunderstood themselves” [pp. 77-78]. And I hope that we might also take as one of our tasks understanding how our present, even now, is slipping away from us, and as medievalists who care about representing, in every possible fashion, not only what happened, but also what fell off the edge of what happened, what almost happened, what could have happened, what was wished for and then destroyed in advance, what was silenced and unmarked and unremarked upon, what was misunderstood, how the grass crept in and covered it all up and it all became “just the weather,” we might take better care to also consider the already remote and misunderstood history of the present as a chief concern of our scholarship. But I wonder, too, if this job is not better left to the poets and other artists, like Spencer Reese who, in “Diminuendo,” writes, “and when the grandmothers of this universe, / who are the real professors of history, fall off their pillow-cliffs, / their bangled durable prayers howl through the night’s inky branches, / their history blasts down the hard sidewalks, / and their wishes go more or less unobserved, / at 4 a.m. on a grainy morning in Northfield, Minnesota.” And I think here, too, of how Jonathan Safran Foer concluded his novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by including a series of black-and-white photographs of someone jumping to a certain death out of one of the windows of the twin towers on September 11th, purposefully arranged so that when you flip the pages quickly between your thumb and forefinger, the figure is being propelled back into the window. A cheap, literary magic trick, to be sure, but a consoling one.