LEFT: Photo lying in field near bodies of several Albanian men killed on April 27, 1999 in village of Meja (near Djakovica), Kosovo (copyright Human Rights Watch, 1999); RIGHT: actress Thandie Newton as Beloved
II Washing the Dead
In his important book, History and Memory After Auschwitz, Dominick LaCapra notes the current preoccupation -- “intense,” he terms it -- with the problem of memory and its relation to history, and he cautions that the danger in the belief that one can have an “unmediated” encounter with the past as a “pure, positive presence” is that the past is always “beset with its own disruptions, lacunae, conflicts, irreparable losses, belated recognitions, and challenges to identity.”1 As a historian of the Shoah, LaCapra is very concerned with sorting out the various relationships between memory and history, especially with regard to traumatic “limit-events”2 such as the Holocaust, where the historian both wishes to honor the testimony of the primary witnesses and participants while also critiquing the lapses and elisions of that testimony. And this is a task fraught with dangers, for the historian is also a witness (albeit a secondary one) and has to beware of succumbing to a transferential relationship to his subject, whereby testimony and history become conflated. Once a mutually critical accommodation has been worked out between memory and history, LaCapra wants to make sure that the past can be properly “worked through” so that both the subjects and readers of history (and the historian himself) can both know the past and free themselves from a possibly obsessive fixation upon memory in order to be active social agents in the present.
For LaCapra, certain psychoanalytic concepts offer important avenues for relating memory to history after limit-events. Following Freud, he points to melancholia and mourning as necessary stages in coming to grips with an event such as the Holocaust, for both victims and perpetrators, as well as for those in the present wishing to adequately “remember” the event and those who were lost in it. LaCapra writes that “Melancholia may be necessary to register loss, including its lasting wounds . . . . [and] mourning . . . may counteract the melancholic-manic cycle . . . and enable a dissolution or at least a loosening of the narcissistic identification that is prominent in melancholy.”3 LaCapra opposes Freud’s “acting out,” in which the subject is caught in the grip of the mechanisms of a continual repetition of the past, to “working through,” in which the repetition is modified to offer “a measure of critical purchase . . . that would permit desirable change.”4 LaCapra does not believe that the past can be so completely “worked through” that it completely loses its grip upon the present, because that would imply a kind of eventual obliviousness to the past that could also be detrimental. Ultimately, history and memory must exist in a supplementary relationship “that is a basis for a mutually questioning interaction or open dialectical exchange that never attains totalization or full closure.”5
LaCapra views art as having a “special responsibility” to history, especially the history of traumatic events, and he is wary of the artist who wishes to bring about an incarnation or compulsive “acting out” of the past in his work, as the French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann claimed for his nine-and-one-half-hour oral history of the Polish death camps, Shoah, which he asserted was not a documentary, but was rather, “a fiction of the real.”6 Furthermore, Lanzmann stated in an interview, “Memory is weak. The film is an abolition of all distance between past and present.”7 Lanzmann eschewed historical chronology and archival footage in his film, and in his interviews with survivors and perpetrators mixed in with silent tracking shots of blank pastoral landscapes in present-day Poland, he aimed instead for an atmosphere of “hallucinatory intemporality,” because he believed that “the worst crime, simultaneously moral and artistic, that can be committed . . . is to consider [the Holocaust] . . . as past.”8 Lanzmann wanted to produce what he called “an originary event,” in which he, as a participant, could undergo a certain kind of suffering, “permitting, perhaps, the spectator as well to pass through a sort of suffering.”9 According to LaCapra, Lanzmann indulges too often in a positive transferential identification with his subjects and his film, therefore, is a work of “endless lamentation or grieving that is tensely suspended between acting out a traumatic past and attempting to work through it.”10
Of course, LaCapra is focusing his critical articulations about the proper relationship between memory and history upon one of the most traumatic events of our most recent past, the Shoah, which, as LaCapra has stated, brought “the image of Western civilization . . . as the bastion of elevated values if not the high point in the evolution of humanity” to the absolute shattering point.11 The Holocaust exists for many as the one historical trauma most immediately insistent upon our ethical attention, and upon our obligation to properly mourn and remember the past. And Beowulf is an Old English poem that, although it articulates the violent upheavals and terrors, and one might even say, the dashed hopes, of a particular era, because its historical subject matter is culled from a period so far removed in time from the present, we feel utterly cut off from it, except by the vanishing avenue of myth. No matter how “hidden” this early history, however, the later societies in which this poem may have been written and read (and this includes our society) are asked by the poem (rather insistently, I would argue) to consider history and its vanishing figures quite seriously in relation to their present moment. While the poem may reflect a dense web of competing ideologies prevalent in the time of its écriture and reception (and I think it does), it does so in relation to an earlier period which is also fraught with its own ideological conflicts and crises, and it is in the tensions and anxieties raised between the later culture’s memory and representation of its supposed prehistory and the ways in which the subjects of the poem make their own gestures against the grain of historical time and memory, both within and without the poem, where the real interest of the poem, and even its urgency, may lie.12 And countering LaCapra, I think we have to give art some room to conflate and even confuse the functions of the aesthetic and the historic. One of art’s primary functions may very well be to hold open a social space within which the very anxiety produced by the tension between history’s and memory’s points of incommensurability (and between modes of remembering and forgetting) can be performed and played out. A text like Beowulf, whose composition history is fraught with so many unsolvable aporia, thereby continually unsettling our ability situate it historically with absolute precision (with respect to the English culture in which it was originally composed and read as well as to the earlier cultures the poem invokes), would seem to provide an ideal site through which to interrogate the always fluctuating relationships between memory, history and art, to investigate just how far and to what extent the dead have a claim upon our memory, whether or not we in the present have an obligation to “work through” claims of past suffering, displacement and erasure, whether or not there are limits to what history can expect of memory and vice versa, and to explore the tensions and anxiety inherent in those moments when history and memory break off from each other and are incapable of filling in the other’s silences. Even LaCapra, in his most recent book, Writing History, Writing Trauma, has admitted that the freedom of art is great “insofar as the issues are ambivalent and undecidable, and art would be significant to the extent that it explored ambivalence . . . in the most unsettling and provocative manner possible.”13 In order to “work through” the past, one first has to be, as LaCapra puts it, emotionally “unsettled” by that past, and art, because it often represents what is in excess of history, may be best situated to produce that necessary “unsettlement.”
III Marking (Loving) the Dead
One of the most provocative and insistent questions of history is, “what do the dead want from us?” Suffice to say, there is not enough time in the world to adequately answer this question, but I want to suggest that it is that very question that resonates throughout Beowulf, and lends to it a very modern insistency. The poem is infinitely complex with regard to the question, but one of the possible answers it provides is that the dead want to be marked–they want to be “written,” as it were, into the future. They want to matter in the present that follows after them. Beowulf himself represents what Benjamin called “the secret heliotropism” by which “the past strives to turn toward the sun which is rising in the sky of history,”14 and he calls attention to the relationship between memory and “marking” (or, writing), when he conveys to Wiglaf, just before dying, his request that “the battle-warriors will command that a bright mound be built . . . high on the whale-cliffs.” (ll. 2802-05) Beowulf desires this not only as a gemyndum ("reminder") for his people, but also as a marker to future seafarers “when their ships drive from afar over the darkness of the flood” (ll. 2806-08) to keep Beowulf in mind. Beowulf’s desire to be marked with a memorial built high on a hill where it will be seen by travelers passing by on their ships, which ships can only come to Beowulf’s grave from a future that is now forever out of his grasp, can be seen as a desire to be kept alive as the marker of a particular historical moment, or memory. But the memorial, seen from afar, is also blank, and accretes with time, not memory, but forgetfulness. The last epithet applied to Beowulf by the poet, that he was “eager for fame” (lofgeornost), has often led critics to assume that Beowulf’s greatest sin (in the eyes of the poet) was his pride, perhaps even, his too-great faith in himself at the expense of a faith in a Christian God or a “hereafter,” but I want to suggest that Beowulf was always focused on the “hereafter” of the always-present world, and his desire to be “marked” in that present world is also a kind of erotic longing for an embrace with that place -- more specifically, with what is vital and alive in it.
I want to consider here a juxtaposition of images of embraces with the dead that detail that embrace’s erotic nature, and also raise some disturbing questions about how we in the present can most properly remember the past and mark the dead, especially with relation to traumatic history. Stanley Spencer, one of the three most important English figurative painters of the twentieth century, along with Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, spent a good deal of his life working on massive visionary canvasses that fused the everyday life of the English village he lived in, Cookham, with the spiritual and the erotic, and he believed that “true modernity necessitated reclamation of the past.”15 One of the recurring themes of his work was resurrection-the first of these, painted from 1924-27, was The Resurrection: Cookham.
Shortly after this, in 1932, he painted one of his most important works, The Resurrection of the Soldiers, which was part of a monumental cycle of paintings commemorating World War I that was installed at Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere.16
The painting shows the soldiers climbing out of their graves bearing white crosses and reuniting with their dead comrades in all manner of embrace. The men are touching everything and also clasping each other -- some men (in the background of the painting) are lying close to the mules, one man kneels at Christ’s side, his head in his lap, one man caresses a turtle, while another clasps a dove to his chest. Of the painting, Spencer, who was a soldier in the war, wrote, “During the war, I felt the only way to end the ghastly experience would be if everyone suddenly decided to indulge in every degree or form of sexual love, carnal love, bestiality, anything you like to call it. These are the joyful inheritances of mankind.”17 On a more personal level, Spencer’s painting, Welcoming Hilda, painted in 1953 after his first and estranged wife’s death from cancer, represented his reunion with her after death, as husband, father, and lover.
Spencer had betrayed Hilda on more than one occasion, and not long after divorcing her in order to marry the painter Patricia Preece–a union that proved to be disastrous -- he regretted his decision and spent years urging Hilda for a reconciliation. Only when she was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer did she allow him back, in order to have him with her as she was dying. In the painting, everyone has been returned to a time before the initial break with Hilda -- Spencer himself is a young man, and his two daughters, who were in their twenties when Hilda died, are children again. The tone is one of tentative, yet physical joyfulness in which all arms caress and embrace Hilda’s body, but tellingly, Hilda looks away as Spencer kisses her.
This image points to one of the more troubling aspects of what we might call the return of the departed, which is also the return of history, and of history’s Others in the present. In Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, the return to 124 Bluestone Road of the daughter, Beloved, who was murdered by her own mother, Sethe, in order to ensure that she would never grow up as a slave, is at first a somewhat joyous occasion for Sethe, who sees a chance to undo her earlier crime and reclaim her lost child, but Beloved’s entrance into the house as a physical presence (literally, from the stream behind the house) is at first preceded by a terrible haunting of that house, in which the ghosts of the past rattle the living out of their wits. One by one, from the time of the initial haunting through the arrival and then tenancy of “the fully dressed woman [who] walked out of the water,”18 all the members of the household, including Sethe’s sons (Howard and Bulgar), her lover, Paul D., and other daughter, Denver, are forced out of the house until it is just Sethe and Beloved, who continually insists to all the other members of the household who try to help and love her, “She [Sethe] is the one. She is the one I need. . . . she is the one I have to have.”19 And, as Morrison’s narrator puts it, Sethe was “licked, tasted, eaten by Beloved’s eyes.”20 Beloved’s “wanting” of Sethe leads to a type of harrowing possession -- both physical and psychic -- where Sethe, finally alone in the house with Beloved, and cut off from the rest of her social community, becomes locked in what LaCapra would call the repetitive, compulsive “acting out” of the past, in which “the past is performatively regenerated or relived as if it were fully present rather than represented in memory.”21 Beloved, waxing into grotesque proportions in her somewhat obscene pregnancy -- for how can the dead give birth? [but this, of course, is also a metaphor: the present, or future, cannot be “born” out of the traumatic past without horror] -- grows increasingly angry, accusing Sethe of having left her behind where “the dead men lay on top of her,”22 but when Sethe begs her forgiveness, Beloved won’t give it, and when Sethe herself becomes angry, Beloved turns violent, breaking plates and windowpanes, thereby keeping in motion the melancholic-manic cycle which, apparently, cannot be broken. But what does Beloved want? At one point in the novel, Beloved, wishing to be pregnant, seduces Paul D. by telling him she wants to be touched “on the inside part”23 and for someone to call out her name. Paul D. resists at first, but when he does finally give in, he loses himself in the calling of that name, just as Sethe eventually loses her mind. In the end, all that is left of Beloved -- and the same could be said of Beowulf -- is her name, which both marks and fills her absence.
2By “limit-event,” LaCapra indicates that the Holocaust was unique “in a specific, nonnumerical, and noninvidous sense. In it an extreme threshold or outer limit of transgression was crossed, and whenever that threshold or limit is crossed, something ‘unique’ happens and the standard opposition between uniqueness and comparability is unsettled, thereby depriving comparatives (especially in terms of magnitude) of a common measure or foundation” (LaCapra, History and Memory after Auschwitz, 7).
5LaCapra, History and Memory after Auschwitz, 20. More specifically, LaCapra writes that “memory exists not only in the past but in the present and future tenses. It relates acknowledgment and immanent critique to situational transcendence of the past that is not total but is nonetheless essential for opening up more desirable possibilities in the future” (23).
12Roy Liuzza has written that Beowulf is “frustratingly ambivalent–it is not quite mythical enough to be read apart from the history it purports to contain, nor historical enough to furnish clear evidence for the past it poetically recreates.” Furthermore, he writes that “the poem itself is a monumental exercise of the historical imagination, poetically re-creating a past which is itself multilayered and temporally complex” (“Introduction,” Beowulf: A New Verse Translation, ed. Roy M. Liuzza [Broadview Press, 2000], 16).
16This cycle of paintings were commissioned by Mr. And Mrs. J.L. Behrend, who wished to commemorate Mrs. Behrend’s brother, Lieutenant Henry Willoughby Sandham, who had died in 1919 after contracting an illness during the war. The chapel was constructed by the architect Lionel Pearson after a design that Spencer himself created. Spencer saw his chapel-house as linked to the chapels of the early Italian masters, especially Giotto’s early fourteenth-century Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, with its cycle of frescoes narrating the life and death of Christ (McCarthy, “Stanley Spencer, English Visionary,” 22-23).