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Every Name in History is “I”

(I’ve been conducting writing experiments, prompted by Eva-Lynn Jagoe. I’m trying to not be precious about it. Here’s a bit of how I approached her prompt to write a piece in which the grammatical voice shifts.)

***

Every name in history is “I,” though you wouldn’t know it for the way our stories pass from one generation to the next. If the individual remains, and most often they do not, then “I” is made into an object of the proper name. The complexity of being becomes the simplicity of thing. However awful the repeal of the capacity for narrative may seem, this fate is to be saved from something worse, which is your subsumption into the unnamed masses upon which history plays. If this fate is difficult to bear—your agency inevitably undone—then persistence must be sought outside of historicization. Here, we experience the other as if they belonged to us.

Another interpretation of the claim is possible. If every name in history is I, then each signifier is revivified when we assume it as our own. I am Friedrich Neitzsche who first authored these words to the historian Jakob Burckhardt in 1889, a mere two days after collapsing in the streets of Turin with his arms around the neck of a horse. I am Jalal Toufic who took Nietzsche’s words for his own in trying to understand the act of murder conditioned by anonymity between a soldier and their enemy in an essay first published in the year 2000. I am the object of address in every “you” or “we” or “their,” performing a restorative kind of magic in answering the offered call. I suppose that poetry is a name for this inverted reification, where the thickness of language compels identification, turning nouns back into verbs. This kind of direct address resists strict interpretation. How do we live within poetry? To live within poetry is to register oneself being addressed. Here we experience the other as if they were us.

The torture of every name in history being “I,” mine, is that history anticipates my name being sung back to me, dead. Nothing registers this loss so deeply as love. How is the form of love reconstituted by history when we recognize that all our electricity will dissipate? Love makes us terrified. Love renders us pathetic. Love is written and rewritten with such regularity as to be utterly banal; history tells us this. Here we experience ourselves as if we were another, our identity unstable and exceedingly vulnerable to the whims of the beloved.

There are many ways of being distant, many ways of being near.

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