Sunday, June 6, 2010

The forced quiet of suffering

I snagged the quote below from a page, just after the dedication, in the recent tome The Book of Calamitiesby Peter Trachtenberg, except that I used a different translation [to English from Russian] and extended it:
I look at this life and see the arrogance and the idleness of the strong, the ignorance and bestiality of the weak, the horrible poverty everywhere, overcrowding, drunkenness, hypocrisy, falsehood. . . . Meanwhile in all the houses, all the streets, there is peace; out of fifty thousand people who live in our town there is not one to kick against it all. Think of the people who go to the market for food: during the day they eat; at night they sleep, talk nonsense, marry, grow old, piously follow their dead to the cemetery; one never sees or hears those who suffer, and all the horror of life goes on somewhere behind the scenes. Everything is quiet, peaceful, and against it all there is only the silent protest of statistics; so many go mad, so many gallons are drunk, so many children die of starvation. . . . And such a state of things is obviously what we want; apparently a happy man only feels so because the unhappy bear their burden in silence, but for which happiness would be impossible. It is a general hypnosis. Every happy man should have some one with a little hammer at his door to knock and remind him that there are unhappy people, and that, however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show its claws, and some misfortune will befall him -- illness, poverty, loss, and then no one will see or hear him, just as he now neither sees nor hears others. But there is no man with a hammer, and the happy go on living, just a little fluttered with the petty cares of every day, like an aspen-tree in the wind -- and everything is all right.
― Anton Chekhov, "Gooseberries"
Also powerful, and also true, these words by Trachtenberg in the book's introduction:
We live in a country whose politics and culture sometimes resembles a vast machine designed to deny the inevitability of suffering. The machine works by promoting the fiction that suffering happens to other people, under circumstances so exotic and bizarre as to be statistically impossible. In this manner suffering becomes entertainment. The disease of the week isn't cancer or heart attack but Bubble Boy syndrome. On television more people die of terrorism than in car accidents. The new conventional medical wisdom seems to be that with proper diet, exercise, and lifestyle, nobody has to get sick; maybe nobody has to die except for some fat chain-smokers in trailer parks. Our public policies amount to a symbolic exorcism in which crime, illness, and ignorance are drawn out of the general population and projected into the Gadarene herds of the poor, the black and colored poor especially. Through-out there's the implication that those who suffer somehow deserve their suffering. Do not ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for Stupid.

This fantasy of immunity arose out of traditional American exceptionalism but became prevalent only amid the euphoric abundance of the postwar years. It is a child’s fantasy, and it has made us a nation of children. I believe it accounts for our collective helplessness in the face of illness, our paranoia about crime, our contempt for the disadvantaged. It’s why we have no national health policy and vote for politicians who slash medical aid to the poor. It’s why antidepressants are among the most widely prescribed drugs in the United States. It’s why the attacks of September 11 plunged us into a paroxysm of incredulous rage and self-pity that instead of being allayed by the successful invasion of Afghanistan, keeps seeking new cathartic outlets: today Iraq, tomorrow who knows? It's why our government wouldn't let us see the coffins of the soldiers killed in those cathartic wars, and why we didn't want to see them. Because Americans don't know how to suffer, we are inflicting great suffering on others, and in all likelihood we will bring further suffering upon ourselves. I don't want to speculate about what form this suffering will take. However it comes, I'm willing to bet we'll be unprepared for it, unprepared in the deepest psychic and spiritual sense. Clueless.

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