Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Possibilities of Silence and Erasure

"The Great One, when he'd heard of Darius's passing,
hastened his course with restless mind and washed
the corpse with tears that flowed forth in a stream.
Laying aside a prince's mien, he sat
wringing his hands and grieving for the slain man,
whom he had tried so often to cast down
while he stood."
-- The Alexandreis, c. 1180, Gautier de Ch√Ętillon

The narrative of Osama bin Laden's death keeps changing shape, building on itself with additions and subtractions.  The telling and retelling has involved both fireworks (no less than three fraternities at DePauw shot them off as the President was on television) and facebook (the embellished Martin Luther King quote, the sobering citation of Proverbs 24:17 - "Do not gloat when your enemy falls, do not let your heart rejoice when he stumbles").  It has experienced contradictions and is now turning itself over the ethical dilemma of image and memory.  And so it's Gautier de Ch√Ętillon's 12th century poem that comes to mind.  The moment between death and commemoration that Alexander experiences as he gazes upon Darius's dead body.  It's not a comparison - the tears shed around bin Laden's death were for others, not for him. But it works over this idea of commemoration - of remembering or forgetting the enemy.  Alexander builds Darius a tremendous, globalizing memorial that ekphrastically encompasses the entire world, and we are left to wonder at (and remember) Alexander's conquest of absolutely everything.  Bin Laden's corpse is in the sea, enshrouded in a heavy silence compounded by an invisibility that will make commemoration impossible.  Memory will be another matter.

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