An Atheist’s Meditation on “Against Elegies”

4 04 2013

Looking up the Shel Silverstein poem “Sick,” I found this — a serious lamentation paired incongruously, thanks to Poets.org, with the humorous Silverstein delight — from a poet named Marilyn Hacker, called “Against Elegies.” Here’s a snippet that made me think:

For every partisan there are a million gratuitous deaths from hunger, all-American mass murders, small wars, the old diseases and the new.

Who dies well? The privilege of asking doesn’t have to do with age.

For most of us no question what our deaths, our lives, mean.

At the end, Catherine will know what she knew, and James will, and Melvin, and I, in no one’s stories, as we are.

I don’t know that I agree with the sentiment — just because suffering is immense doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to put words to the suffering. They say the Holocaust is so huge that words fail it, but we keep trying, don’t we? “Unspeakable horrors” is really an oxymoron, because we speak of them all the time. In fact, speaking of them is how we exorcise the demons, how we deal with the pain. Elegies are not so much for the dead, just as funerals are not for the dead — they can’t see or care that we cry or celebrate them. (This is what scares me most about dying; that it’s just nothingness, without anything ever coming after . . . I know rationally that life just ends, but forever seems like such a very long time to be nothing. Of course, I suppose you don’t feel it if you’re not a person with feelings, etc. anymore.) But I can see Hacker’s point about death being a solitary experience – you know what you know at the end, no matter how much other people try to make it easier or ameliorate the suffering. Religious people would say that’s being called by God to account for your life, but to me it’s just the loneliness of the human experience. No matter what the end is like, after that end we all end up in the same silent, dark place. (Or perhaps it’s not silent or dark at all. Who really knows. But I have to assume that the end of thought, the ends of neurons firing, brings some sort of silence.) No one dies “well” because all deaths are the same. One person may go quietly while another may suffer in the process, but in the end we all end up in the sane place, as cruel and cold-hearted as that sounds. In a way, that’s depressing, but it’s possible that for a death we would describe as “terrible” — disease, suicide, murder, et cetera — it is a comfort to know that the final end is an identical nothingness, where there is no more suffering because there is no emotion, good or bad, at all.

I don’t think that Hacker is implying that most people have “no question” about what their lives mean because they are so certain of that meaning. The majority of people don’t really think at all about meaning; understandably, they live day-to-day and care more about the little things — family, children, being loved, work they enjoy — than finding some grand Meaning of Life that the Dalai Lama might prescribe. Perhaps she is suggesting that most people don’t ask the question at all — the very definition of going quietly into that good night. And perhaps that’s best. Self-examination is not always pleasant; in fact, too much of it can be painful, and it often doesn’t produce the sort of revelations that gurus and mystics want you to believe it will. It just leaves you more confused and scared and alone. The people who do engage in such rigorous self-examination are often deeply religious or mystical or — on the flip side — take it too far and end up ending their lives early. We must strike a balance between living in the real world, the present, and living with the reality in our heads. No life can be given inherent meaning by tossing a few anodyne words at it; they meaning of most people’s lives escapes us, as that meaning is personal and known only to the deceased. Most lives have no meaning at all in the stereotypical sense; they did not produce a grand invention or change the course of history. Attempting to attribute some superlative-laden grand meaning — he was the kindest man in the world — sells short the everyday, quotidian meanings that truly do characterize our lives. He was kind to animals. He kept doggie treats in his pockets for Mrs. Butterworth’s poodle. That is as touching and sincere an elegy as the lavish sort of praise most eulogizers tend to cram into their speeches. Meaning is a funny thing — it is something inside the spirit of every person, and when that person dies, some knowledge of that meaning dies with him. We can never fully put our finger on the meaning of a death, just as we can never fully understand the meaning of a life we did not live.

But I do take Hacker’s point about elegizing — or eulogizing, really — the few that we happen to know personally while ignoring the millions of deaths of people we’ll never meet or care about. One death is as powerful and sad, if you consider death sad and not just an Eastern-philosophy passing from one state to the next, as another, but we naturally care most about the deaths closest to us, just as we are more eager to read newspaper accounts of the car accident on a local freeway than the famine that killed thousands in sub-Sarahan Africa. We identify with people we see as similar to ourselves; that’s the human tribal mentality, and there’s no way around it. In a way, it’s our way of dealing with the enormity of human suffering . . . or at least that’s the charitable way to look at it. The less charitable interpretation is that we just don’t care about people who don’t directly affect us. Hacker mentions AIDS earlier in the poem, and that certainly didn’t become an issue in the U.S. until it was killing average Americans; when it was an African disease, or even a “homosexual disease,” as the vile Jesse Helms might have put it, we just shrugged and moved on. It’s human nature to rank the importance of deaths by how much they affect our own lives.

I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Each culture deals with death in its own way, and perhaps the people who die thousands of miles overseas are elegized in ways that Americans can’t even comprehend. Is it our duty to take on the guilt and sadness of all the deaths in the world? Perhaps it is, if we are complicit in those deaths — and first-worlders do tend to be complicit, whether they’re aware of it or not. They deny man-made climate change, which exacerbates famines in third-world countries and leads to wars over water supplies. They harbor irrational fears of genetically modified crops that could produce enough food, fortified with enough vitamins and grown with fewer pesticides, to ameliorate world hunger. They spread irrational and scientifically debunked fears about autism-causing childhood immunizations that lead to the full-scale elimination of methyl mercury as a preservative in vaccines that would have enabled large-scale immunization campaigns in poorer countries without adequate refrigeration. They fail to stop dictators who  massacre their own people — a guilt that is very real despite valid questions about intervention in sovereign countries and America’s right to be (or pragmatic self-interest in being) the world’s policeman. So to an extent, all our hand-wringing over the atrocities that occur in far-away places is laced with hypocrisy, as we are lamenting the very deaths we unknowingly promote. But most of the world’s horrors are not the fault of the poets or the elegizers; the blame lies at the feet of distant politicians and even more distant and complicated circumstances. It may seem hypocritical to mourn deaths we technically could have prevented, but compassion — even compassion without action — is not a meaningless virtue.

Elegies have always been more for the living than the dead. We hold wakes and funerals not because the dead can see us and nod sagely in appreciation but because it helps those left behind work through their grief. A teenager kills himself and the tragedy is not only for a life cut short but for the family and friends left without understanding, without an explanation and without the longed-for power to go back in time and intervene, to ask just the right question: “What can I do to help?” And perhaps the answer would have been “nothing.” In the end, the plates of little sandwiches and crudites are not to feed the souls of the past. Jewish families sit Shiva out of tradition and perhaps — I can’t say I’m an expert on the subject — because it helps move the soul from one realm to another. But the practice is really about reconciliation among the living, a coming to terms with loss by gathering to relate memories and share the grief. Elegies bind us together; they give us something to hang on to. They can’t make a vanished life any more meaningful, but the living may be more able to extract meaning from that life. Is that selfish? Is that using the experiences of someone else to assuage our own guilt? Perhaps. But once that person is gone, does it matter? Maybe a tribute to the dead will inspire something that Hacker would consider worthwhile — an effort to stem the death of AIDS in the developing world, or simply a dedication to provide hospice care to more dying Americans.

Of course words are useless in the face of mass suffering, but they are perhaps less useless for those who are not suffering directly, those who must pick up with their lives and continue — and those who, spurred by the sadness and inequity they see in such deaths, may attempt to make a difference in the world. There is nothing wrong with remembering; that, as much as death, has been part of the human experience since we first emerged from the caves. Even Neanderthals buried their dead with jewelry and items to help souls in the next life, whatever that life looked like. I understand the reluctance to churn out standard “wasn’t he fantastic” elegies, but not every memorial has to be in the vein of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” Elegies don’t have to be completely laudatory; they can be a true reflection, an honest look at the bad and good points of a person’s life. So Jim was an alcoholic? Fine. But he also adopted a dozen stray dogs and never missed a Sunday dinner with his aging mother. People are a grab bag of good and bad, and Hacker seems to be focusing on the elegies that falsely illuminate only the good. The reflection that looking backward provides may not help the dead, but it certainly makes life more manageable for the living. And isn’t that ultimately the point? The dead are gone, and somehow we have to work through the guilt of what we did or didn’t do to stop mass killings or — on a smaller scale — what we did or didn’t do to ease the passing of a loved one. So much guilt, even if it is unwarranted, comes with death. We ask ourselves what we could have done better, if we could have loved harder or embraced longer.

Hacker’s line about “Catherine will know what she knew” is in a way depressing because, no matter how her family or friends reacted, “Catherine” will die all the same. But for those family and friends left behind, it’s important to feel that Catherine knew of their love. It’s the only way we can carry on. I’m entirely against elegies for the purpose of helping the dead — if you’re an atheist, as I am, there is no way of doing that — but if they provide comfort to the living, no matter how superficial, they’re worth something. Not everyone can single-handedly stop the Holocaust, and it doesn’t seem fair to say we abrogate the right to commemorate the victims just because we (or our ancestors) did not do enough to stop it. Regret is a powerful emotion, and looking back helps us look forward and not make the same mistakes again. Yes, elegies are useless, but they make the world a more bearable place. They put things in perspective for those who remain. And they address the real, if unfortunate, reality that the death of someone close to you inevitably means more than the deaths of thousands a continent away. We can lament this, or we can acknowledge the value of caring for those for whom we are able to care for. Better to love locally and parochially, even if it’s not as perfect as loving the entire world, than to abandon all deaths to the cold light of history and declare that there is nothing we can do or say to make our day-to-day lives any more manageable.

I would like to think, perhaps quixotically, that there is something after death — “pennies from heaven” and so forth. My grandfather ran into a bank teller with the same unusual name as my grandmother on a day close to the anniversary of her death. Coincidence? My rational mind tells me that, yes, coincidences happen all the time, but like a fine elegy, if such happenstance helps the grieving to get through the day, what’s the harm? It doesn’t diminish the beauty of the encounter. I may not believe in life after death, but I believe in the comfort provided by a line from many a sympathy card: “Perhaps they are not stars, but openings in heaven where the love of our lost ones shines down upon us to let us know that they happy.”