Friday, August 20, 2010


We define ourselves through the lens of tragedy. We see our faces reflected in the wake of disaster. Destruction tells us that we live, and it tells us how to live. Or how we should have lived. And it feels sickening to me--sickening that everything we do, say, and are must be refracted off of a traumatic moment.

This is what I realized today.

I was sitting in an orientation at a university where I'll be picking up a course this fall, and one particular speaker referred nonchalantly to the fact that we are in a post-Virginia Tech era. I had never heard this term before, but I didn't need it to be explained to me. We are post everything, aren't we? In my own work and discourse I comment on our post-Holocaust moment, the postmodern era, post-9/11 ethics, the post-secular. We engage in a discourse about ourselves that is premised on the phenomenon of looking back.

We are all, it turns out, too much like the biblical Lot's wife. We are all looking back on our burning city, indifferent to the consequences. Indifferent to the possibility that we may become like salt and stone. Immovable.

We are concerned with after, when perhaps, as Rosa suggests in Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl, there is only during. We look back and imagine we see the climax of our existence. And it is terrible and destructive. We build our lives around it, making meaning out of the meaningless.

Yes, I know--we can only know what came before. We have no access to what lies ahead. But sometimes I fear that we need trauma--or destruction, tragedy, devastation, loss--to form our identities. We don't define ourselves in relation to the positive or celebratory moments in our collective our individual experiences. We don't, for instance, say that we are in a post-emancipation-from-slavery era. And an individual is much more likely to say that he is a recovering alcoholic or a Holocaust survivor even if he is also a successful businessman and father of five happy children.

Happiness cannot cut us to the core, it turns out. We cannot be post-happiness. And who would we be if we were?


Daniel said...

If we were post-happiness, we'd be pessimists. An alternative to post-tragedy would be pre-happiness. But this probably runs against the "fear of the unknown." There's no certainty of happiness or tragedy. I agree with you that the best median would be the during.

Monica said...

You're probably right, Daniel. The term "post-happiness" isn't quite right, although given our cultural affinity for negativity I'm surprised we haven't adopted it. It's just that...if we're post-trauma, and the legacy of trauma continues, it would follow (at least it would seem to) that a post-happiness situation would function in the same way. Except that it doesn't. Happiness doesn't sink in and hover over the trajectory of our lives; that's the work of violence, apparently.

Kevin said...

I want to think about this post some more, Monica--am finishing a post on this very subject (built around the gorgeous closing dialogue in "Man Who Was Thursday").

For now, let me try to invert one, and only one, of your points: as I understand the story, the problem with Lot's wife was not that she looked back; nor was it that she looked back with "indifference"; she didn't.

Rather: contrary to the nomadic spirit proper to ethics--of being an ever-ready exile-- of stepping out when called-- she had her affections rooted too deeply in the past--had fetishized the familiar--a failing emblemized by her fate--being turned, not into something 'immovable', but into a preservative, in mocking tribute to her unfortunate conservatism. Thus her failing--her sin-- was NOT in being "post", but in refusing to move on--in refusing to be 'post' enough--in refusing the velocity and improvisation ethics requires. She was 'called out'--heard the "Who will go?" and, instead of issuing an immediate 'here am I!' hesitated--fatally.

On this reading, it is not looking back that's the problem--e.g. it's not a problem that, say, a people remember their time in slavery, or still consider this experience 'definitive'. The problem would arise only when they--or anyone-- turn back with more than their heads--the problem is when they look, AND 'in their hearts, turn back to Egypt'

Monica said...

There's a midrash that tells us that the reason Lot's wife looked back had nothing to do with her affection for the city. Rather, she was torn between her desire to move forward with her husband, and her love for the two daughters she had left behind. I have always seen her decision to look back as the more ethical decision. I venture to say that if I knew that my two daughters were burning to death behind me...I also would look back. Of course, this is a lesser known midrash on the story, but it's my favorite. She wasn't turning back to Egypt, so to speak; she was turning toward the family she was being forced to leave behind. I appreciate her inner conflict here, much more than I would appreciate a story that depicted her as staunchly moving forward with no regard for her daughters.

Of course, this reading detracts somewhat from the way I use the story to enhance my argument, but still. I guess the point is that the traditional reading of Lot's wife--that she gazes back longingly on the tragedy--is a kind of metaphor for what we seem to do. But, as my alternative reading of the story suggests, perhaps the reasons we "look back" too often are as nuanced as Lot's wife's reasons.

Casey said...

Good stuff as usual. I'm in an Emerson frame of mind, though, so I took issue right from the start with your stylistic "we" -- or if you insist on "we-ing" me, then I dissent from the deterministic vision you describe.

In fact, doesn't Emerson address just such a complain at the beginning of "Nature": "Our age is retrospective. It builds sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why... ?"

And I know Emerson can sort of wash over a serious person, but he understands and sort of escapes from your notion that identity is contingent on having a past--by saying, to hell with identity (unless of course, you have a perverse preference for the kind of suffering that comes from insisting on identity in this manner?).

Maybe it's time we all study the Greeks or the Renaissance or even Dadaism again, rather that Virginia Tech, The Holocaust, and 9/11?

"Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense."

That's from Ralph too. :)