1 2/3 where / the rift is, the break is
To step into the shadows and get used to the half-light and the failing-light is to meet those stilled by suffered injustice. Like the suffering of the couple, found dead in Ireland’s winter of 1847, ‘of cold, of hunger, of the toxins of a whole history’, their voices are preserved in keens that carry hope and Justice.To listen is to recall international human rights law’s material source and generative force: our susceptibility and sensibility to unnecessary suffering. But the intended cure dissembles, its tempered-tone seems to plead:
So all that is left is an itemised list of suffered injustice. Not just an inventory of what’s ‘in the story’ but what created it. Not just grand proofs but as Eavan Boland makes clear particular proofs.
But her feet were held against his breastbone. / The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.
Skinned, the story of these proofs, those that instance this body of law, and those that rise up from our beginnings, grand and particular, past and present, are the same. Break them open dear reader and I suggest they share the same fabula or bones.
the seeding hostility
Keening up through every grand and particular proof is the question: who belongs to this Earth? Like Toni Morrison’s baby-ghost, it lingers, laying bare the darkness in which this law is proved, its seeding hostility. The threat as Hannah Arendt delineates ‘of not belonging to the world at all’. Or of not being fully claimed as belonging.
Though the threat lingers, it only becomes a story when it’s fleshed and fleshed out. And as Louise Glück quips, in her telling of Persephone’s abduction to the underworld, it has a very particular rhythm — ‘where / the rift is, the break is’.
Like that millennia-old story, in its first act, this story beguiles us. Like Persephone, we are asked to deny the seeding hostility. (‘White of forgetfulness, / white of safety—’) The threat is not a threat, it’s ‘disguised as suggestion’.So there's no coercive force. No ‘hammer’ or ‘chain’ made this ‘Tyger, Tyger burning bright’, only the ‘fearful symmetry’ of the mind: the force of ideas about who and what we. Exploiting as Hannah Arendt make clear in The Origins of Totalitarianism our inclining to view such ideas as fixed and immutable, rather than, as Siri Hustvedt limns, 'vulnerable at the site of incision — the place where we sever one thing from another’.
Without such dissections, there can be no formal thought, no discrete disciplines, no articulations of human experience. These separations delineate the borders between inside and outside, me and you, up and down, here and there, true and false.
So in this millennia-old story that lives now, ontological ideas, grounded in presumed epistemic truth, are not a device to prove perception, but ‘a device to / refute perception’. To disprove the phenomenal: the quality of being fully human. Rifting faulting lines between us, holding us in a ‘vice' we cannot always see and creating a miasma that lingers.
Because suggestion or suggested scientific fact gives the rift meaning or effective power, it makes the story’s next act logical. What I suggest to you, dear reader, is the earth’s ‘deep violence’. The break: the denial or attenuation of our quivering ‘electric' presence before the law. Our official standing as persons. Our intrinsic worth or dignity as ends in ourselves. Our essence and freedom to live to the rhythm of our own ‘starry echoes’. Official strictures on the exercise of our irradiating volition — and in extremity the qualification of our standing or existence as persons — are legalised as acts of law, reasoned as necessary and proportionate, sublimated as acts of benevolence or common good and systemised through public policy and practice. Some of us are to be protected from predetermined harms. Others of us are to be saved from our supposed aberrance or even indolence. Even today in this 21st-century.
Read the inhumed faces // of casualty and victim; / report us fairly, / how we slaughter / for the common good / and shave the heads / of the notorious.
Like the Greek gods of old, the darkness in which this body of law is proved has many guises. Seldom is its form a wraith-like dementor. More often it’s Kafkaesque, obscured by suggested epistemic truth, presumed justice, inferred common good and beguiling benevolence or charity. What the escaped American slave, Frederick Douglass, called ‘a gross fraud’, the 18th-century feminist philosopher, Mary Wollstonecraft, a ‘mockery’ and the doyen of children’s rights, Janusz Korczak a ‘lie’ —
If the deceit is not undone, in its utterance and acting out, effective power is melded with affective power, creating a story that lingers. Lingers, long after its implements have been abjured and abrogated, gaslighting possibly you, dear reader, and definitely me. And so Toni Morrison’s baby-ghost and so many others come and go, come and go.
Down by the steam in back of 124 her footprints come and go, come and go.
the continuing threat
Even now, no one is safe. Not from the rift nor the break. Not the gods. Not us. For the hostility that suggests to Demeter in Louise Glück’s Persephone the Wanderer and Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved that they have ‘no wish / to continue as a source of life’ persists.Some of us though are less safe than others. How many of us are burdened with an iteration of the logic above? On the basis of our race, colour, ethnicity, gender, age, sexuality, disability or other aspects of our humanity? Who can count them? All because of our inclining for ‘negative creation’, parrying our differences as transgressive, blotting ‘out the idea / of mind’ and blowing closed ‘the doors of perception’.
Thank you for reading starring the dark. Like more? Join the journey and weigh in.
E Boland ‘Quarantine’ Code (2001); A O’Kelly ‘Anáil na Beatha’ Schull Workhouse, Ireland (20 July 2018) [The full performance included keens for historical and contemporary places affected by famine worldwide, people ‘moving’ from famine and war-stricken districts and for those in the nearby famine grave.]
E Boland ‘Quarantine’ Code (2001)
L Glück ‘Persephone The Wanderer' [‘In the first version, Persephone / is taken from her mother’], ‘A Myth of Innocence’, ‘A Myth of Devotion’, ‘Persephone The Wanderer' [‘In the second version, Persephone / is dead’] Averno (2006)
W Blake ‘The Tyger’ Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794) [‘What the hammer? what the chain, / In what furnace was thy brain?’]
H Arendt The Origins of Totalitarianism (1968) 468-471, 469 [‘Dialectical logic, with its process from thesis through antithesis to synthesis which in turn becomes the thesis of the next dialectical movement, is not different in principle, once an ideology gets hold of it; the first thesis becomes the premise and its advantage for ideological explanation is that this dialectical device can explain away factual consideration as stages of one identical consistent movement.’]; S Hustvedt ‘Borderlands: First, Second and Third Person Adventures in Crossing Disciplines’ A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind (2016) 343
S Heaney ‘Kinship’ North (1975)
T Morrison Beloved (1987) 275
L Glück ‘Persephone The Wanderer' [‘In the first version, Persephone / is taken from her mother’] [‘In the second version, Persephone / is dead’] Averno (2006) [In her grief, Demeter brings unending winter and then its cyclical return and though ‘as a god, she could have had / a thousand children’, she has ‘one child, a daughter’.] T Morrison ‘On Beloved’ Mouth Full of Blood (2019) 282 [‘Suppose having children. being called a mother, was the supreme act of freedom, not its opposite?’] T Morrison Beloved (1987) 149 [Based on Margaret Garner’s story, Sethe on sight of the slave catcher batters her infant, Beloved, to death: ‘she simply swung the baby towards the planks’.]