Monday, December 31, 2012

stories and memorials for tragedies

Possibly the most soul-draining themes for a story, non-fiction or fiction, include the devastating ethnic tragedies that have befallen peoples of the world.  What set off this line of thought for the present blog was a reading of "The Graves are Walking," by John Kelley, which engages with the death by starvation of over one million people over a couple years period in mid-nineteenth century Ireland, due to failure of the potato crop, and which caused another two million people (in a total population of only five million) to flee their homeland to escape such a death.  There have been larger total deaths in other famines, including 35 million deaths in China in the 1950s, but they didn't have the same imperialist-racist idioms of those in responsible charge of events.

I'd learned the outlines of the Irish tragedy while growing up; my grandparents had emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland later in the nineteenth century, and the folklore of the tragedy used to come out in asides from time to time in families like ours.  Since Ireland had been conquered and was ruled by Britain at the time of the famine, there were plenty of recriminations by the Irish about the enabling role of the British, bordering on charges of willful genocide.  Such willfulness might have been a motivation for some, for others maybe the tragedy owed to a cold-hearted indifference toward the plight of a conquered alien race, and for some it seemed a sign of God's displeasure with the supposed low morals, indolence and superstitions of the Irish race.  Better not to try mitigating God's punishment by lightening His rod with handouts of emergency food and shelter.  It could set a precedent.  Looking at the historical chain of events, the avowed political strategies, and the statistics for the period, there seems ample justification for anger toward the colonial overlords. 

Nonetheless, though the price was high, people survived the tragedy.  There have been recent efforts in Irish study programs at universities and with public sculptures, monuments, and memorial parks in Ireland and the U.S., to commemorate that crushing catastrophe, referred to in Irish as An Gorta Mor, The Great Hunger.  An example is the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park, NYC, near where I grew up.  This seems commendable, but I also get caught up with a concern about public memorials on any grand scale to commemorate a sorrowful episode of victimhood.  Yes, the remembered of An Gorta Mor had a remarkable endurance and courage that helped many to survive, but the artistic dramatization is so often on people as victims and the magnitude of lives lost.  

In a similar vein I think of museums, artifacts, and memorials dedicated to the Jewish Holocaust, to the Armenian massacre, to our own Twin Towers and Oklahoma City terrorist events--non-combatants, civilians who were sacrificed to some megalomania.  Through history, populations were sometimes able to fight and overcome savagery of one would-be conqueror (or fanatic) or another, and it seems  unlikely to be different in the future.  We need the drama of passionate memorials honoring resistance.  The most life-affirming memorials might better focus on the heroic battles waged against oppression, won or lost, and there are plenty of them, but provide simple, quiet groves of prayer or reflection for mourning peaceful victims of atrocities who did not have the opportunity or means to fight back.

Tonight is New Year's Eve; Happy New Year to all.

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