The Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelof wrote: “When you have come as far in meaninglessness as I/each word is interesting again…” These words are like things hidden in the dirt which we dig up with an archaeologist’s spade. Even the personal pronoun “I” can be retrieved from the loam of history. Ekelof holds the “I” up to the light, dirt still clinging to it. He says that perhaps it was a flint shard “that someone in his toothlessness used to scrape his tough meat”.
Pronouns are embedded in a long history of sufferings. Each generation must bury them in order to live. I remember first understanding this when as a teenager I dug up a 19th century burial ground of old bottles–patent medicines all. That was a burial site of spring and fall toothaches and infant deaths. And the high school students cleaned the bottles and took them home and put flowers in them.
Under the dark membrane of the cultural or collective unconscious are nails and broken wheels; spaces filled with unease; mutilated faces and broken hands; blind children, dark and alone; the smiles of consumptives; glittering rivers in their ancient beds; wounded soldiers making their ways on homemade crutches; oh and there are abstract assertions down there–crippled survivors are the merchants of catastrophes, the mendicants of the evil eye. The ancient pronouns with the dirt still clinging still have meanings, miscast though they may be, like the figures of an Italian circus. Human sentimentality has no sophistication. See, this man over here has the evil eye. We must kiss the bull’s horns.
Each generation must bury the sufferings of the past in order to live. And yet, when we dig these shards of mutilitation up, when we hold them to the sunlight, we must know that they stand for. This is the work of cultural advancement. We must know that torture is torture and not miscast it as an “enhanced interrogation technique” as the W. Bush white house (spelled small) did recently–an Orwellian miscasting that was glibly echoed by our mainstream press. Waterboarding is torture. It was always torture. Hold a buried pronoun up to the light. The people who came before us understood this matter.
This is why we pay attention to old suffering. We do not see it as prologue to our own. Susan Shweik’s excellent book on the history of “the ugly laws” in the United States tells us a good deal about the ways that civic spaces were closed to people with disabilities or people who were in any way deformed. The good and tasteful citizens of Chicago or Columbus, Ohio, or scores of other cities wanted people who made them uncomfortable “off the streets” for indeed, are not our civic byways places of recreation and amusement? By the late 19th century America had plate glass windows and the new ideal that our cities were places for shopping–the city was a new proscenium arch with its Santa Claus. No one wants to see a cripple in front of Macys. Hence the ugly laws.
Old suffering is not a prologue. But it informs. Troubles. In Iowa City, Iowa where I now live, the city fathers and mothers are trying to get the pan handlers off the down town streets. The pan handlers are not violent. They cause no trouble, unless of course the matter is essentially an aesthetic problem. And of course Americans won’t say this. They’ll say that the pan handlers are a nuisance. If being asked for a buck is a nuisance then of course we can create an enormous category of nuisances: the clock on the bank is a nuisance, for it causes me to recall that I’m in a hurry. Grazing cows are a nuisance: they make a man look away from the road. The fluidum of earning and paying is a nuisance. Yes, the economy is a nuisance. And purple Mohawk haircuts; rose bushes; other people’s lullabys–these are all aesthetic problems. They cause me to have to think. How I resent this! How I resent the other people! (Are we getting “close” to the “Tea Party” types yet?)
Here come the people with disabilities–both visible and invisible. They project the dread of the underworld to my easy eye–my lazy eye–my shopper’s eye. Oh I do not want to be inconvenienced by an old dirty bottle dug up from behind the shopping mall, a blue vial that once held patent medicine. I do not want to be inconvenienced by knowing of the infant mortality rates in the U.S. or the numbers of homeless veterans or the unemployment statistics for people with disabilities. Please do not make me think of these things.
The long struggle of people with disabilities lives in our contemporary language and it lives in our culture’s nonobservance. I would ignore the past if I could. But it is all around me.
Even so, I do not believe the past is prologue. Gene Robinson, the first gay bishop of the American Episcopal church does not think the past is prologue.
Again, Gunnar Ekelof: “the little word You, perhaps a bead that once hung from someone’s neck”
Let us imagine someone who was brave, who asked difficult questions, who held onto hope with everything she had. Who did not forswear imagination.
“Yes, I long for home,
Homeless I long for home,
Home to where love is, the one, the good,
Home to my real home!
That home is bright –
In my mind I open the door,
See everything awaiting me there.”