Today at lunch, a friend continued with me a conversation we had started to have online last night. To paraphrase, he was telling me about what he finds inspiring in the worldview of the Old-Testament prophets: these people, my friend said, believed that the smallest injustice was worthy of our attentions, and as valid a point of concern and moral attention as a large-scale conflict, or one to which society imparts greater weight and importance. Without having enough exposure to the Bible to know much about this school of thought, I told my friend I thought this was a morally valuable attitude, but a risky one. If we focus on every injustice, I told my friend, we risk self-annihilation. We risk becoming swallowed by a world of things to fix, and losing our identities and our senses of self in an avalanche of problems and traumas and tragedies. We risk not being able to function as productive members of society, because we can do nothing but be overwhelmed by how many of the reasons that the world is going to hell in a handbasket—and many of the problems which individual members of a society face on a daily basis—are outside of our control.
I didn’t explain this in the context of the conversation, but when I responded that way to my friend, I was of course coming from an intensely personal perspective. The past few months for me have been a struggle at balancing negatives and positives, at knowing when to celebrate and when to fight and when to mourn, at coming to terms with my decision that, in fact, it is important to be a cohesive individual with a set of ideals and principles and morals and desires and reasons for being—and that, what’s more, a person’s state of being is more than a collection of these things. I believe I have some experience with the dangers of being consumed by problems. At risk of being melodramatic, I’d argue that I grapple daily with whether it is as worth my time to better myself or to fulfill my own desires as it is to fight for some external cause. Now, I don’t believe in any sort of “virtue of selfishness.” That’s the farthest thing possible from my mind. But I do believe there is some value in self-preservation, in identity-preservation, in soul-preservation. I have to. I have to believe that I, as an individual, matter; that my rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness matter in the same way as those of someone who is beset by far greater inequalities and injustices than I am. Ego humana sum, to make an emphatic point by butchering Latin—maybe this is just the voice of the latent conservative in me whom I always suspect is lying in wait, but altruism (and I mean “altruism” in a positive sense) is not always my direct route to pleasure and fulfillment. Isn’t it morally defensible to balance self-fulfillment and other-fulfillment? I would argue that it is, and I would further argue that it is impossible to do so without compartmentalizing. Compartmentalizing is an ugly thing, but it is a survival tactic. It’s a way to get through the day and a way to sleep at night, a way to survive until the next day so that you can continue to develop your own self and continue to take on projects and perform actions that will further the elimination of inequality and injustice. If that makes any sense, it was the subtext of how I responded to my friend at lunch today.
Today was an appropriate day on which to raise this issue, subtext included. In my English class this morning, we discussed Sylvia Plath’s poetry, and if there is any art which is awash in the presentation and examination of particularized personal trauma, well, it’s Sylvia Plath’s poetry. I am not by any means qualified to discuss poetry; I feel in over my head in most of this class’s lectures and discussions. But I was enormously fascinated by my professor’s argument that Plath fundamentally altered the way we understand the genre of elegy—in fact, said my professor, she wreaked havoc upon it, smashed it, and turned it inside-out. By Plath’s later poetry, her elegies are not reverential, they are furious. She made it acceptable, said my professor, for successive poets—particularly women poets—to write elegiac poems that incorporated not the classical, reverential emotions of lamentation, praise, and consolation; but an anger and a frustration and even scarier actions like (to use my professor’s terminology again) desecration and annihilation.
My thought, in the context of developing my own juvenile philosophy, is that Plath’s smashing of the elegy, her pulverization of the memory of her father through that elegy-smashing, and, in the end, her own tragic self-annihilation, are some of the risks of being so fully consumed by mourning. My professor said that Plath characterized her reactions to her father’s death as a primary source of her poetic inspiration: what happens when your whole life revolves around mourning, revolves around confrontations with tragedy, trauma, and injustice? Again, I’m a rank amateur, but it seems to me as if Plath’s example suggests that you may be consumed—and destroyed—by the mourning.
Because of one of my chosen subfields of study, I find myself running up against elegies with some reasonable frequency. I am fascinated by how queer individuals have, over time, constructed community and culture, and how the values of community and culture interact in this historically marginalized group. There is perhaps no better example of these patterns than the outpouring of artistic expression that occurred at the onset of the AIDS crisis, as the decade turned from the 1970s to the 1980s—and continuing well into the 1990s. As far as I can understand it, for some gay writers and artists and musicians and theorists and other producers of cultural material, making art and culture that grappled with AIDS was a way of forming community around—collectivizing—uniting—a series of individual traumas and tragedies each important as the next, which, when taken together, became a grave human crisis. I look at this cultural outpouring and coming-together—represented in forms as diverse as Larry Kramer’s plays, Nelson Sullivan’s films, and dozens upon dozens of memoirs and indeed elegies—and I see an instantiation of the ideal which my friend raised. In this art (at least, when I read it), every death, every individual struggle, becomes both important in and of itself, and important as a constituent part of a historical and cultural moment. Another metaphor is Cleve Jones’ AIDS Memorial Quilt: each constituent part of that quilt is important in and of itself, no more or less important on the basis of why it is included in that quilt. These are all elegies, and they are all particular, though perhaps—it’s hard to say—they avoid the risks of subsumation which the Plath seems to illustrate.
I am fully aware of the fact that I have no right to talk about this kind of elegy. This particular genre of collective mourning is one of which I, who was born in 1990, have no possible conception. Today, of course, is World AIDS Day—and I have struggled for the past week to think about whether I have anything to say concerning a crisis which I tend to historicize and yet is fully contemporary; a crisis whose onset and whose particular tragedies I did not and have not witnessed. And yet I have chosen history as my path towards understanding these moments of crisis, and I believe that I do have a duty to understand them, and to do what I can to further the telling of these stories. If each injustice, each death, each singular struggle is a legitimate subject of our attention—and our elegies—it behooves me as someone who wishes to learn to be a historian (but it also behooves all of us) to try.
After the exchange with my friend about Prophets and particular problems, lunch passed without mention of mourning for the victims of life and death. Lunch passed in lightness and brightness, in the silliness that ensues when good friends share a table and a conversation, and when I finally tore myself away I hurried to class across a quad awash in sunlight. I caught myself suddenly joyful: excited for my class, delighted to be moving from one space I enjoyed to another, across the bright and beautiful and green quad. I slowed my pace for a few minutes (this, it should be noted, made me late to class, and earned a sarcastic comment from my professor), and I wondered: why am I seizing this joy? Why am I brushing aside the weight of undeserved deaths to be made happy by something so ridiculous—and so absurdly self-interested—as walking from point A to point B in nice weather?
Well, reader, I think I know why: it is because the task of elegy is an enormous one, a terrifying one, a profoundly disturbing and troubling one. It is because life is not worth living, and death is thus not worth confronting and mourning, without the promise of truth through beauty. And it is because somehow, in some way, we all have to take the threads of our work days, and the knowledge we have gained in them, and the conversations we have had throughout them, and braid all those threads together into a strand which is somehow strong enough to let us fall asleep tonight, so that we can wake up again tomorrow and go about making the world—and ourselves—worth continuing.