Meditations on Massacres and Memory

I started this post several weeks ago while grading annotated bibliographies. The Paris shootings of November 2015 had just occurred, and I was having major difficulty focusing on the task at hand. Everywhere I looked, I saw images of Paris, of Beirut. My Facebook and Twitter feeds were filled with images of the Eiffel Tower and quotations urging awareness, conversation, and an end to what seems to many of us senseless and horrific acts.

And I couldn’t help but think: we’ve been here before.

My Honors students at that time were reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (2015), and I found myself overwhelmed with the connections between this text and the events of recent memory.

When I first picked up this book over the summer, I was intrigued by the placement of a chalice on the cover. Expecting an appearance of the Holy Grail from Arthurian legend, I searched eagerly through the pages. Like much of modern Arthurian fiction, this book offers no grail. There is no cup, stone, or platter which heals all wounds, restores sanity, and restores life to a diseased and dead land. Just as in real life, there is no quick fix, no easy answer.

Interestingly, the Kindle edition features a tree rather than a chalice on its cover:

I wonder how much control Ishiguro had over the cover images. This second one speaks to me of roots sent deep into the earth, absorbing nutrients released from decaying matter. Thus, the past influences the future as nutrients are continually released to the environment only to be taken up by new growth. We can see this as a sacrifice of the older generations to nurture the future, but that doesn’t really seem to be a theme in Ishiguro’s text. Rather, what I’ve taken away from it all is the near impossibility of the younger generations–whether they be flora or fauna–to move away from the influences of the older.

Sometimes, though, those roots may be difficult to see. Consider this passage from the opening of Ishiguro’s novel:

You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated. There were instead miles of desolate, uncultivated land; here and there rough-hewn paths over craggy hills or bleak moorlands. (3)

Our first day discussing The Buried Giant was focused on the setting, and I was struck by these opening lines, particularly the use of the word “uncultivated.” This is a land without memory–or at least, it first seems to be–and much of the narrative is driven to explore the implications of forgetting. But as the characters progress, they encounter the roots of their past–although often only as fragments rather than as a unified narrative:

“Here are the skulls of men, I won’t deny it. There an arm, there a leg, but just bones now. An old burial ground. And so it may be. I dare say, sir, our whole country is this way. A fine green valley. A pleasant copse in the springtime. Dig its soil, and not far beneath the daisies and buttercups come the dead. And I don’t talk, sir, only of those who received Christian burial. Beneath our soil lie the remains of old slaughter. Horace and I, we’ve grown weary of it. Weary and we no longer young” (171).

I wouldn’t be surprised if Ishiguro had in mind the fields of Flanders, where waves of poppies obscured the horrific slaughters of World War I.

But as the characters within Ishiguro’s novel attempt to recapture their lost past and their distant heritage, Ishiguro’s prose reveals how difficult that can be. Notice the heavy use of the subjunctive mood (“would”) by the character Gawain in this passage:

“Master Axl, what was done in these Saxon towns today my uncle would have commanded only with a heavy heart, knowing of no other way for peace to prevail. Think, sir. Those small Saxon boys you lament would soon have become warriors burning to avenge their fathers fallen today. The small girls soon bearing more in their wombs, and this circle of slaughter would never be broken. Look how deep runs the lust for vengeance!” (213)

Gawain is expressing his opinion–not facts. There is no guarantee that “Those small Saxon boys . . . would soon have become warriors burning to avenge their fathers,” and Ishiguro expresses this through the young Saxon boy who travels with the main protagonists, an old Briton couple. This boy, devoid of the memory of the slaughter between the Saxons and the Britons, is not aflame with an inherited desire to revenge his predecessors–at least, not until another character–a Saxon warrior whom the young boy comes to admire greatly–begins to instill such ideas in him. But even then, when the young boy is compelled by his Saxon mentor to promise to hate all Britons, the boy pauses. . . . surely he is not meant to hate the kindly Briton couple with whom he has traveled?

My other class last semester was getting ready to begin Beowulf, and the story of the fight at Finnsburh immediately came to my mind. There is a moment when the leaders of the Danes and Frisians pledge peace to one another:

Ðá híe getruwedon on twá healfa
fæste frioðuwaére (1095-96)

But the peace is fragile, and the conflict between the two groups runs too deeply to be ignored:

þonne him Húnláfing, hildeléoman
billa sélest on bearm dyde (1143-44)

Towards the end of the winter, well after the death of the Danish leader Hnaef (whose sister had married Finn, the leader of the Frisians, a warrior places a prized sword in the lap of Hengest, Hnaef’s successor. This is a call to remember the death of Hnaef–not to celebrate his life, but rather to avenge his death. Finn and his retainers are slaughtered and the Danes return home (with Finn’s Danish bride). Despite the importance of the oral contract in Anglo-Saxon society, the memory of the deaths of their leaders is too strong and wins out.

And there are so many more examples that I can name–from Norse saga, where so many youths are killed (or hunted) so as to avoid future vengeance (Volsunga Saga, Hrolf Kraki). Closer to home is the thirteenth-century Suite du Merlin, where we see how one’s understanding of the past continues to influence the future, particularly in the case of Sir Gawain shortly after his knighting. Much earlier in the narrative, his father, King Lot of Orkney, has been killed by King Pellinore; now, as King Arthur prepares to welcome Pellinore into the company of the Round Table, Gawain reacts strongly (please allow me to quote at length from one of my articles on Gawain):

. . . after Gawain is knighted, “dirent auchun de Gavain pour chou que biel et apiert le veoient: ‘Cil vengera encore son pere, se il vit longuement, de chelui qui l’ochist’” (210) ‘some said of Gawain, because they saw him fine and capable, “He will yet avenge his father on the one who killed him, if he lives long enough”’ (Asher 120). Provided that Gawain survives into adulthood, there is complete certainty—as signaled by the use of the future tense—that he will behave in a way already predicted by social expectations. Also, inserted between Gawain’s recognition of Pellinor and his expression of grief is the comment that “on li ramentevoit chou qu’il avoit son pere ochis” (212) ‘someone reminded him that [Pellinor] had killed Gawain’s father’ (Asher 122). We quickly see this belief of social responsibility internalized by Gawain when he tells his brother that “‘se il plaisoit a Dieu que je venisse au dessus, je ne lairoie pour tout l’or de cest siecle que je ne li trenchaisse le chief aussi comme il fist a mon pere, si comme on me dist’” (213) ‘“If it pleases God that I come out on top, I won’t for all the gold in this world fail to cut off [Pellinore’s] head as he did to my father, as they tell me”’ (Asher 122).

Gawain, as a result of the society in which he has been raised, has no choice but to avenge his father.

So how did I get here from thinking about the Paris massacre? Let me try to pull my thoughts together.

In the days–weeks, even–following the Paris massacre, I saw a variety of responses, ranging from horror and calls for prayer, but also an increased emphasis on the “Other” and their differences from “us” (whoever the “us” may be) and a desire to isolate and even destroy that “Other.” Yes, the shooters belonged to ISIL–but they belong to a subset of Islam. As many over the last few weeks have attempted to make clear (although often to closed ears), not all Muslims are terrorists (and having lived several years in Kansas, I appreciated seeing friends comment, and in an attempt to help support this truth regarding ISIL and Islam, that people such as Fred Phelps do not represent all Christians)–yet despite these efforts, a Muslim woman who stood in silent protest at a recent Trump rally was quickly escorted from the premises.

A lot of my scholarship deals with the construction of identity, and one thing that I have learned over the years is that there is no one clear path, no formula for how to make a person, whether they be a knight, a damsel, a priest, et cetera. Each character–even in medieval romances–is subtly singular. Yet in the news surrounding me today, the individual faces are being blurred. One adherent of Islam is being made to represent all of Islam, followed quickly by a desire to condemn, exclude, and even eradicate all of its members.

I’d like to offer a variation on George Santayana’s well-known quotation from his 1905 The Life of Reason:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

In Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, the characters spend much of the narrative unable to remember the past, with the result that they often do fall into repetitive behaviors. Along the way, they grasp at fragments of memory–enough to ensure that once the mist which has robbed them of their memories has dissipated, they will, at least in Sir Gawain’s view, re-enter an endless cycle of slaughter. It’s not so much, though, that they remember the past–rather, they remember–or in the case of the young Saxon boy–are taught to remember–only part of the past–the strongest memories, the most painful losses, the searing rage–which then directs their behavior.

They remember a version of the past–and as a result, with no call to examine it carefully, they are doomed to repeat it.

A caution, though–please don’t misinterpret my comments as critiquing France’s response (or the world’s responses) to the November 2015 killings. These were horrific, just as were the killings in Baghdad, Nigeria, or Beirut (all also in November 2015). My intent in my rambling thoughts is to express my fear of these seemingly perpetual cycles of violence, particularly when they expand, through ignorance (either willful or not), to encompass innocent bystanders. Rather than react immediately out of fear or anger, can we not question instead the history which has led us to these points in time? Why do we do the things we do? Is it out of sheer necessity? Or perhaps the roots which connect us to our heritages serve more as puppet strings.

Perhaps those who examine the past–from multiple angles–are the ones who can escape the cycle.

Just my two cents, however naïve they may be. After all, regardless of our genders, social positions, education levels, religious views, or skin colors, we all share one important feature–humanity.



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