April 16, 2008

Living Next to History

Susan Griffin's collection of history, memoir, and tentative speculations, A Chorus of Stones, is built to be incomplete, to be structured as a ruin. As she describes the systems of denial that make up the "private life of war" -- and the war within our private lives -- there is a continual refusal of what was surely so tempting: a fully articulated counter-memory that would, after brushing against the grain, take solace in some newly exposed presence.

If she is an advocate for a particular form of understanding, it is for a feeling of how history lives within us as an all-too often horrific inheritance; for a sense of the complicated uncertainties that mark human experience. The experiences in Griffin's explorations are almost always the kind of projects blighted by fear, fueled by self-loathing, sourced by torment and rage, and misunderstood because of an abject refusal. In other words, where there is a sense of security there is the greatest weakness, when the past is faced as a reality to be mastered, it appears only as a wish or delusion; framed by a cant, a comforting creed, a rush of the ego.

If her writing in A Chorus of Stones can seem too eager to make parallels where none rightly exist -- a set of willful category mistakes -- she is in no way glib about the means of reaching clarity and insight about our condition in the social world. The motivations for cruelty, or the acceptance of what is -- what Adorno calls the coldness which "does not for one second think or wish that the world were any different than it is" ("Education after Auschwitz") -- are too potent to be erased by whatever construction of insight. The effects of such motivations, however, may be tempered by stacking the stones into the ruin, an open-ended work which asks the critical imagination to account, more than is our want, for modernity's grisly traces; traces which scar us, imperceptibly and irrevocably, like the erosion lines on stones.

Griffin is fond of metaphors through which history is metastasized within, moving from the psyche to the X-Ray to the nuclear weapon, images of the molecular destruction of Being. But her insight that it is the need for security which drives the systems of destruction that cloud the world we now inhabit reminds one of a later work, more supple, and that is W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz. For Austerlitz begins with architecture and stonework, the vast mausoleums of modernity's worst impulses, whether it is the colonial barbarity visible in the cool grandeur of the Antwerp train station, or the modern fortresses that grew more and more complex in defense and defiance that they became nothing but elaborate tombs. We enter these, seeking the past, and finding that the expected presence cannot be grasped. It is as if it never were.

The word that echoes is "gentrification," the idea of a pacified space in which to dwell. That is the necessary space of denial and the very Thing with which one must reckon. There, History is the neighbor, the inscrutable otherness of where we reside. The only response to this, says Sebald, says Griffin, is to write, write; to enter into the symbolic restructuring. In Zizek's language, this is what it seems to be to live next to history:

"We need the recourse to performativity, to the symbolic engagement, precisely and insofar as the other whom we encounter is not only the imaginary semblant, but also the elusive absolute Other of the Real Thing with whom no reciprocal exchange is possible. In order to render our coexistence with the Thing minimally bearable, the symbolic order . . . the pacifying mediator, has to intervene." (Slavoj Zizek, The Neighbor)