Who can speak for the dead?
Last week is ages ago in blog time, I know, but I just came across a passage in Wendell Berry's Hannah Coulter that speaks to a ridiculous pseudo-controversy that engulfed the Internets early last week. Chris Hayes, an editor at The Nation and host of a program on MSNBC (full disclosure: I don't have cable, and have never watched it), made what should have been some uncontroversial remarks about his discomfort with using the word "heroes" to describe Americans who have died in war, since in our dominant political discourse such language "is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war". (I once wrote something similar.) My onetime editor Conor Friedersdorf has penned a nice critical analysis of the idiocy that ensued, but instead of more meta-idiocy let me give you Berry's narrator, speaking of life after her husband Virgil went missing in World War II:
Grieved as I was, half destroyed as I sometimes felt myself to be, I didn't get mad about Virgil's death. Who was there to get mad at? It would be like getting mad at the world, or at God. What made me mad, and still does, were the people who took it on themselves to speak for him after he was dead. I dislike for the dead to be made to agree with whatever some powerful living person wants to say. Was Virgil a hero? In his dying was he willing to die, or glad to sacrifice his life? Is the life and freedom of the living a satisfactory payment to the dead in war for their living? Would Virgil think so? I have imagined that he would. But I don't know. Who can speak for the dead? Who can speak for the dead whose bodies are never found, who are forever "missing"? Who can speak for a young man gone clean out of the world, whose body was maybe blown all to nothing, in the midst of terrible fear or pain, in the midst of his last prayer?
What I did know is this. Virgil loved his life. He loved me. He loved his family. He did not want to die. He wanted to come home and live with me and raise a family, and farm with his dad. He knew we were going to have a baby. He never knew he had a daughter. He never knew her name.
I don't mean to be quarrelsome, but the dead are helpless. I was the mother of a helpless baby, and the wife of a dead man who was just as helpless. The living must protect the dead. Their lives made the meaning of their deaths, and that is the meaning their deaths ought to have. I hated for Virgil's death to be made official. I hated for it to be a government property or a public thing. I felt my grief for him made his death his own. My grief was the last meaning of his life in this world. And so I kept my grief. For a long time I couldn't give it up.
Who can speak for the dead? Surely not those whose main political priorities seem to center on making more of them.
About the Author
John Schwenkler is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at Florida State University.