Many people whom the world calls “survivors” reject that word’s shadowy sense of moral elevation—how it implies that they (the still-heres) survived either because there was something morally special about them or because, by virtue of their experience, they grew an extra moral gear. In Philip Gourevitch’s 1998 book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, he writes that “survivors” (he uses the word) of the 1994 Rwandan genocide had to survive their survival time and again. It’s not enough to make it to the other side of trauma; it’s barely a start.
I’ve been interested in works that drain every last triumphalist note out of the experience of staying alive. Works that thwart the inspirational vibe, written in full knowledge that there are always others, kin and strangers, who didn’t/don’t/won’t/can’t make it; that surviving is often closer to death than to life; that bearing witness to the demise of another or to your own near-miss is part torture, part self-mutiny, and it does not end. What doesn’t kill you doesn’t necessarily make you anything. What can works of art that don’t traffic in redemption or inspiration offer in their place? We live in a perpetual state of the aftermath (this is truer now than it was in 1994); this question won’t go away.
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster—Svetlana Alexievich (2005)
This is my favorite book by Alexievich, a collection of searing monologues from those affected most directly (and also permanently and intergenerationally) by the 1986 explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Alexievich says that the “human being speaks beautifully only in two situations… either in love or near death, when people rise beyond themselves.” Who else believes in the numinous potential of a conversation between two people the way she does? For each of her books, Alexievich picks about a hundred voices out of the three to five hundred people she speaks to, and of these hundred, ten to twenty become “pillars”—she returns to them maybe twenty times. The magnitude of her belief: is it language that she believes in, I wonder, that somehow if you don’t give up on it and not rush it and not use it for conversations about nothing, it can carry you to the truth of how people live with loss that should have obliterated them? Alexievich doesn’t do interviews; she’s never in and out with a list of questions. Speaking beautifully is being able “to reach the depth of one’s being.”
Alexievich’s people are the women and children of World War II, Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989, those in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, everyone I grew up with who went to sleep in one world and woke up in another on the day the Soviet Union collapsed, five years after Chernobyl (there is a whole now-extinguished country of us).
I’ve quoted the following passage before, but wild horses can’t stop me. This is from the first pages of Voices. Lyudmilla is waiting for us. She is pregnant and her husband, Vasily, a firefighter, is dying a monstrous death from radiation poisoning. Lyudmilla is not allowed to touch her Vasily; she is forbidden to go near him, except she cannot stay away.
Someone is saying: “You have to understand: This is not your husband anymore, not a beloved person, but a radioactive object with a strong density of poisoning. You’re not suicidal. Get ahold of yourself.” And I’m like someone who’s lost her mind: “But I love him! I love him!” He’s sleeping, and I’m whispering: “I love you!” Walking in the hospital courtyard, “I love you.” Carrying his sanitary tray, “I love you.”
I couldn’t force myself to watch HBO’s Chernobyl. I thought that even if it was good, it’d still be shit after Alexievich.
The Spare Room—Helen Garner (2008)
For a while, while trying to figure out how to be in this world, I latched onto Terry Eagleton’s idea of “hope without optimism.” To peel hope away from the banal, brittle, faked cheeriness that insists, We shall overcome. To understand hope as having the stomach to coexist with despair. But maybe, even if we dump the hell out of optimism, hope can’t be rescued. Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks about the toxicity of hope when it’s insisted on as a public good, particularly when it’s pressed on minoritized communities and their intellectuals, who must perform hopefulness for the sake of discomfited majorities.
The protagonist of The Spare Room, Helen, finds herself furious at her dying friend’s refusal to give up looking for a cure that doesn’t exist. Helen loves Nicola, loves her, would kill for her, but how to bear her monstrous will toward optimism, which leads her to submit herself to the worst quackery? “The cancer will be on the run,” says Nicola, who is staying in Helen’s spare room in Melbourne, so she can be brutalized by an intravenous vitamin C “treatment” at the nearby Theodore Institute (a maddeningly smug name) for two thousand dollars a week. Clowns are doing dangerous, terrible things to Helen’s suffering friend; her suffering friend is cheering them on, smiling a terrible smile of falsehood; Helen’s rage “gushes up like nausea” and then, when it looks like Nicola might stop the treatments, they are both “stricken.”
Helen’s love for Nicola is without question, but three weeks of having her in her spare room is all she can take. One extra day, and Helen “would slide down into a lime-pit of rage that would scorch the flesh off me.”
The Leftovers, season 1, episode 6, “Guest” (2014)—HBO
It’s usually season 2 of The Leftovers that gets praised. Season 1 is too dour, grim, miserable, self-satisfyingly serious, and, oh god!, depressing. How a show set three years after 2 percent of the human population instantly disappears without cause or explanation could avoid being depressing is beyond me, unless I missed a secret-handshake agreement that the televisual arts’ primary task is to jack up everyone’s serotonin levels. Two percent is the show’s genius. Not a total life-stopping catastrophe, but still, 140 million are gone in what’s called “the Sudden Departure,” and the world’s changed. The world was mad. Try now: madder. Episode 6 is given to Nora Durst, who lost her husband and two young children. To lose your entire family makes you a 1-in-128,000 case, also a “legacy,” also unusual, if you choose, as Nora does, to be employed by the Department of Sudden Departure, where she is supposed to sort out who’s legit, who’s not, by inflicting an excruciating questionnaire on those seeking compensation from the government for their loss.
So much to treasure in this portrayal of a person in full-throttle grief (it reminded me of Sonali Deraniyagala’s book Wave—impossible to forget—about the aftermath of losing her husband, two sons, and parents in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami). Nora buys her dead kids’ breakfast cereal, throws out last week’s unopened boxes—remember Joan Didion’s refusal to throw out her dead husband’s shoes in The Year of Magical Thinking? What if he were to come back? What would he wear? The Departure Related Occupation and Practices conference Nora attends in this episode is satirical gold. Back home, she puts on a bulletproof vest and gets an escort to shoot her with a gun. Why? Maybe because she doesn’t want the dread she feels to diminish. Weakening dread—weakening memory—unconscionable betrayal?
The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care—Anne Boyer (2019)
The idea of trauma as something that escapes and exceeds language used to feel true to me. Language, somehow, was too close to knowing and knowingness. Charlotte Delbo: “O you who know / did you know that you can see your mother dead / and not shed a tear…” Like that, yes. I used to feel it was morally necessary to resist those who thought they knew. It doesn’t feel that way anymore. I am not sure what’s different about the world, but Boyer’s formally mega-inventive account of not dying from cancer—an account overwhelmingly interested in suffering as it runs up against language—is the best book on life and death I have read in ages.
Boyer: “That pain is incommunicable is a lie in the face of the near-constant, trans-species, and universal communicability of pain.” Pain defies and defeats language? How about the precise opposite: that the pain of another is so hyper-expressive and gets into us so shockingly fast and deep that we would do almost anything to make it stop? It’s when the hyper-expressivity of language gets comminuted and remade into stories that we need to slow down and pay attention to, say, how cancer becomes a machine for producing epiphanies in the literatures of cancer. Or how it has been privatized in recent memoirs. “To tell the story of one’s own breast cancer,” Boyer writes, “is supposed to be to tell a story of ‘surviving’ via neoliberal self-management”: note the quotation marks around surviving. Survivors are constructed as victors, and to the victors “go the narrative spoils.” “I would rather write nothing at all than propagandize for the world as is”—that’s Boyer in full flight.
“Twenty One” from No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal—the Apartments (2015)
I quit listening to contemporary music in the 1990s, after being married to a musician. But one day, twenty or so years later, I was driving, a track came on the radio, and I had to stop the car. It’s a classic moment: turning your car off to listen—the kind of listen that requires that your arms stop steering, your neck stop turning, the motor vehicle version of stopping dead in one’s tracks. For me, though, it was the first time this had happened. I was driving along a Melbourne street where the Holocaust Centre faces the former public broadcasting studio, now a Woolworths supermarket (where I live, people eat as if the world were about to end), whose side wall faces my eldest son’s former kindergarten. This is what music does: it irons together the time and place of your entry into its orbit. “Twenty One” is written by Australian musician Peter Milton Walsh, whose band, the Apartments, has been around since the 1970s, and is dedicated to his son who died before turning four. There’ll never be a birthday party to celebrate Riley’s twenty-first: no birthday parties, no birthdays, no parties, nothing.
I have tried to listen to the song without crying and can’t. A sense of loss breaks its walls: you breathe it in and it keeps expanding, fills you, fills the world, doesn’t stop. By the time Walsh sings “I carried you on my hip at first. / I carried you on my shoulders. / Carried you to a long black car. You will never get any older” I am broken (I can feel the precise spot) all over again. The grief of this song is precisely the kind that has, for so long, been pathologized in the West. Described as excessive, extravagant, prolonged, unresolved, uncontained. Carefully placed in a diagnostic manual under “complicated grief disorder.” So here we are: in place of the three-headed hope-redemption-inspiration Hydra is a recognition that to love is to grieve, forever, or for as long as it takes. The fear of grief (its contagion, its unstoppability) is a second death. Don’t watch the video clip; just listen.