The thing about being cynical, or at least performing cynicism for whatever reasons we perform it (I think for me it is an attempt to balance out what, at heart, is a desperate optimism) is that it has a way of coming back to bite you – and very quickly too. Like karma on crack. So when I watched all the reports of the last disaster to hit my little corner of the world, and I watched artist after artist rushing to the Caribbean, to Haiti specifically, and tweeting and facebooking and blogging about their breaking hearts, I admit it now — I rolled my eyes. I said to myself then, affecting the utmost contempt: I guess this is some new kind of industry — ‘disaster tourism’. I know too well, as an artist, that we are all so full of elegies. We are almost constipated with them. And so we wait for the next event, the next tragedy that will so move us that we can pour our elegies into. You won’t catch me doing that, I had thought smugly.
How could I guess then that a few months later I would be invited here, on this two-week tour of Gettysburg and Baltimore and New Orleans and Birmingham, Alabama and Washington DC. The stated remit? To consider how places have faced disasters and how they have tried to bring themselves back from it.
Of course, of course, I’ll try to justify my own excursion, however weakly. I will say, this isn’t a messiah mission at all; it’s not promoting, in equal measure, the desperation of the survivor and the heroism of the rescuer. And neither is this a tour into a landscape full of rubble and news-cameras (Hey! Get a picture of me writing a poem on the stone of a crumbled building! Hey! Get a picture of me crying over a body just pulled from the ashes! Get it on film, my artistic heart breaking beautifully). No. There are no fresh bodies here. The cameras are gone. Some of these disasters that we will be looking at happened more than a hundred years ago. Still the land tries to recover from it, or even tries to forget it. And yes, still artists try to re-imagine it, and make sense of it.
We walked through Gettysburg park today, that massive, sprawling battlefield of the civil war. The park seemed to me an incredible achievement, just as much a constructed work of art as Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. Both try to structure and make sense of the same awful event. And this park, while holding so many monuments, obelisks and equestrian statues, is itself its own gigantic, many-acred, monument. But I was completely taken by an argument that our guide, an eminent historian, didn’t himself share but was kind enough to share with us. So consider this: here at Gettysburg Park is a landscape that has begun to change. The changes are natural. New trees, especially, have been growing. The land is doing this by itself. The land itself is trying to move on. These new trees usher the park into another future; but they distort the park as ‘monument’ – as reminder of disaster. So they’ve begun to cut back the trees. To preserve it as shrine. Our guide is in agreement with this. But I think I am on the side of the trees who don’t want to die as uselessly as the soldiers.
Perhaps it’s my cynicism come back again, but it all seems a terrific metaphor – for writers and their books are always destroying trees to memorialize something or the other. So here is one of my early questions: by throwing metaphor, and meaning, and monuments towards the suffering landscape, as if to structure it, do we help it to move on from its tragedy, or do we trap it in its mourning?