Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Roll Call of Death by Elaine Scarry

The roll call of death should always be taken as it was first taken by Homer in the record of war that stands at the beginning of western civilization.  Here each death, whether Trojan or Greek, comes before one’s eyes in four aspects: the name of the person; the weapon (“freighted with dark pains”) as it approaches the body; the site of the entry and the slow progress of the widening wound (for we are to understand that it is the deconstruction of sentient tissue that is taking place, and that this deconstruction always occurs along a specific path); and fourth and finally, one attribute of civilization as it is embodied in that person, or in that person’s parent or comrade, for the capacity of parenting and camaraderie are themselves essential attributes of civilization.

Each attribute is invoked into the center of the wound, for each is implicated there and itself unmade: so the spear that cuts through the sinew of Padaeus’s head, passing through his teeth and severing his tongue, passes also through through the work of the goodly Theano who “reared him carefully even as her own children”; the bronze point that enters Phereclus through the right buttock, pierces bladder and bone, and pierces as well the shipbuilding and craftsmanship bodied forth in this son of Tecton, Harmon’s son; in the lethal fall of Axylus from his car is the fall of the well-built Arisbe, a home by the high road where entertainment was given to all; the huge jagged rock that cuts and crushes through the great-souled head of Epicles cuts its way too through his gradually shattered camaraderie with Sarpedon.

So, too, the twentieth-century litany of war deaths occurs in the same way: for the United States, the Vietnam War is not 57,000 names but names, bodies, and embodied culture – not Robert Gilray but Robert Gilray, from the left the artillery shell approached, entered his body and began its dark explosion, exploding there, too, the image of the standing crowd that each week watched his swift run across the playing fields of Chatham; not Manuel Font but Manuel Font, around his fragile frame the fire closed in, burning into his skin, and skull and brain, burning even into the deep, shy corners where he studied at school.

So the list would continue through tens of thousands of others.  That the war deaths occurred on behalf of a terrain in which pianos could be played and bicycles could be pedaled, where schools would each day be entered by restrained and extravagantly gesturing children alike, must be indicated by appending the direction of motive, “for my country,” since deaths themselves are the unmaking of the embodied terrain of pianos and bicycles, classmates, comrades and schools.

The “unmaking” of the human being, the emptying of the nation from his body (“for the nation”) is equally characteristic of dying or being wounded, for the in part naturally “given” and in part “made” body is deconstructed. When the Irishman’s chest is shattered, when the Armenian boy is shot through the legs and groin, when a Russian woman dies in a burning villager, when an American medic is blown apart on the field, their wounds are not Irish, Armenian, Russian or American precisely because it is the unmaking of an Irishman, the unmaking of an Armenian boy, the unmaking of a Russian woman, the unmaking of an American soldier that has just occurred, as well as in each case the unmaking of the civilization as it resides in each of those bodies. The arms that had learned to gesture in a particular way are unmade; the hands that held within them not just blood and bone but the movements that made possible the playing of the piano are unmade; the fingers and palms that knew in intricate detail the weight and feel of a particular tool are unmade; the feet that had within them “by heart” (that is, as a matter of deep bodily habit) the knowledge of how to pedal a bicycles are unmade; the heads and arms and back and legs that contained within them an elaborate sequence of steps in a certain dance are unmade; all are deconstructed along with the tissue itself, the sentient source and site of all learning.

1 comment:

  1. The road of injury leading to the town of freedom