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Wednesday
Feb152012

Snap Your Fingers To The Beat / Essay Excerpt

 

Each history consists of sentences and each sentence has a period at the end of it and after each period there is silence.  To know history, one must know not only what the words in the sentences mean, but also what inhabits the silence at each sentence's conclusion.  Sharankumar Limbale, a dalit author from Maharashtra, wrote about his grandmother's sufferings, "Santamai's tears were like an epic."  He found poetry where others might not even find a vocabulary.
 
Here is a sentence:  "On April 7, 1862, the Battle of Shiloh, one of the civil war's most remembered conflicts, ended."
 
This sentence is simple, factual.  As such, its meaning is self-evident.  Still, without understanding what it doesn't say, one can't understand fully what it does say.  What it doesn't say, what lies interred in the silence beyond the sentence's conclusion, is that the Battle of Shiloh, which lasted only two days, resulted in the death and wounding of over 23,000 soldiers, more than one-fifth of those who participated in the conflict.  It was a two-sided slaughter.  The concentration of so much death and mutilation in less than 48 hours was so horrific that it turned the landscape into a restaurant for vultures.  As Gen. Grant said about one of the fields in which the conflict occurred, "It would have been possible to walk across the clearing in any direction stepping on dead bodies without a foot touching the ground."
 
All of this is beyond the Shiloh sentence, not inside it.  Yet the absence of these specific facts is as much a part of what the sentence means as is anything present within it.  For an event like Shiloh to wind down, for such carnage to conclude, endows the idea of end with a feel that it doesn't possess when we say, "The happiest evening of her life finally ended" or "The World Series ended."  Silence isn't the non-presence of language, description, meaning, it is an integral part of language, description, meaning.  What inhabits the silence often clarifies, i.e., adds nuance or rhythm to, the non-silence.  Understanding a thing or event includes understanding the language that describes it and also understanding that which lies, at least for the moment, outside of language.
 
In spite of silence being a normal part of things, of history, it appears mysterious to us.  The terrain of the unknown.  We wonder, What's hidden there -- fiction,  reality, nothing?  A nation's or a people's history is often like an individual's life: much of its depth lurks in the shadows and haunts the known.  Entering the shadows and finding the silent or unseen can result in understanding.  But the shadows can also swallow us.
 
Willie Sullivan devoured his meal gluttonously.  First he ate pepperoni pizza, then steamed shrimps in cocktail sauce.  Go slower wasn't a phrase he waned to hear.  Next he wolfed down a well-done steak and a baked potato.  For dessert he ingested all the éclairs he could consume.  He was obsessed with food.
 
Once, years ago, Sullivan worked for Mr. Dodd at a nursery in Frederica.  Something went wrong back then and because of this Sullivan and his buddy Lenny got into trouble. At first, though, it seemed like there wouldn't be any trouble.   When he and Lenny went to rob the nursery, they second-guessed themselves and fled before committing the crime.  But when Lenny told Willie later that Willie had gotten cold feet, Willie responded by returning to the nursery days afterwards to show that he wasn't afraid to rob it, but once again he left without burglarizing the place. So, although there was a lot of potential trouble in the air for Willie, no real trouble had materialized.  Not yet, anyway.   
 
But that soon changed.  A few days later the men finally robbed the nursery.  Dodd was killed during the crime's commission:  stabbed, bludgeoned with a metal ice scoop, and brained with a cement block.
 
Soon after Dodd was found, the police determined Lenny and Willie were likely suspects and so hunted them down. After they found them, Lenny told the police that although he helped plan the robbery, it was Willie who murdered Dodd.  Willie admitted participating in the robbery but denied committing the murder.  The final outcome of the police investigation and subsequent trial was a double conviction.  Lenny received a five year prison term and Willie was sentenced to death.   
 
When the execution date arrived, Willie Sullivan ate the last meal described above.  A while later, guards accompanied him to the death trailer where he was scheduled to receive a lethal injection.  The trailer, separated from the other prison buildings, was surrounded by razor wire.  Sullivan wasn't allowed to walk to the facility, but was wheeled on a gurney.  It was a cool, early fall night.  The moon was out.  A day or two earlier, one of the guards told Willie that the snow geese would soon be migrating.
 
As a little kid, the other runts called him Willie "Raggy" because of his wretched clothes.  His mother, an alcoholic while she was pregnant with Willie and a continuing substance abuser for years afterwards, was an inattentive, unreliable and emotionally unstable parent.  Complicating matters even more was Willie's status, with an IQ of only 70, as borderline retarded.
 
The needle's point twinkled like a star.  The night sky swam into his veins.  In a matter of minutes, Willie died.  Location and date of death:  Delaware Correctional Center, Sept. 24, 1999.
 
Willie's legacy is us, his executioners.   We are what he left behind.  In this sense, he is not, yet he is.  Is and isn't, nothing and something are forever intertwined.
 
(J. L. Miller and Dawn Ang, "Delaware Executes Willie Sullivan," The News Journal, Delaware, Sept. 24, 1999, p. A1 and J. L. Miller, "A Quiet End for Sullivan," The News Journal, Delaware, Sept. 25, 1999, p. B1)
 

*****
 
 
I want to understand Willie Sullivan's relationship to history.  I want to know if he ever lifted a handful of potting soil to his nose and inhaled the smell of it.  I want . . .  I, I, I, I.  But what is an "I"?  An unchangeable essence?  An ego whose existence is defined by what it is not -- i.e., every other thing, non-thing and ego in the universe?  Or is the I, like all phenomena in the universe and like the universe itself, not a stable, unchanging thing but rather a process, a becoming?  In such a scenario, the I must be viewed as an identity whose specificity grows not from its distinctness from other phenomena, but from its interaction with other phenomena, an interaction which continually redefines the I by deepening its conception of itself as part of something bigger than itself.
        
If this is true, the "itself" ironically becomes fully itself only by including what it apparently isn't as part of its own evolving identity.  It does this by overcoming I-that separatism and replacing it by an ecological psychology which experiences I and that as aspects of each other in the same sense that the hydrogen atom's one electron and one proton are, in spite of being distinguishable from each other, aspects of an identity (i.e., the hydrogen atom) that can't sustain itself unless the electron's movement and the proton's movement are part of a choreography in which electron and proton ultimately are dimensions of each other within a reality larger than them both.  Like the electron or proton in the hydrogen atom, an I's distinction from another I or thing is not a banishment from that other I or thing, but rather a form of connection to it, a mutuality within a larger environment that would not be what it is without that mutuality.  
       
Each I is part of a larger body, which is the species.  The species is part of a collection of species, all of which, along with the environments they inhabit, make up a total ecology, which is not really total since it itself is part of something else.
        
We forget these things at our peril.  Interconnectedness is part of what we are.
 
         
*****
        
 
Silence isn't silent.   It deafens.
 
In a place that is knowable but that we can't hear, a Muslim mother and father shout and sob in grief.  Their son was killed by a Serb soldier behind a barn that overlooks a stony field.
        
Here are more grievers.  Their pounding hearts thunder as they wail and cry.  At night in a remote spot in Wyoming their loved one was tied to a fence, beaten to within an inch of his life, then left to die, which he did. "Faggot."  "Queer."  "Breaker of God's law."
        
Silence's throbbings are like a Buddhist temple gong echoing across the landscape.  They  call us to worship.  They announce the knowability of what we don't know.
        
The truck that drags the black man to death across a Texas road is the silence on wheels.
        
The silence of the Iraqi woman forced at gunpoint to bare her breasts for her guards in Abu Ghraib is what's heard when the last note of the last song on the slacker's MP3 player fades away and the only music left is the music's absence.
        
Listen to the silence.
        
Snap your fingers to the beat.