Sunday, October 06, 2013

ModPo 2013 #27 Accidents, Massacres, Ruins: On Stein's "Let Us Describe." and Narrative

Maguindanao massacre. From 

Gertrude Stein. From A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson.

     Let us describe how they went. It was a very windy night and the road although in excellent condition and extremely well graded has many turnings and although the curves are not sharp the rise is considerable. It was a very windy night and some of the larger vehicles found it more prudent not to venture. In consequence some of those who had planned to go were unable to do so. Many others did go and there was a sacrifice, of what shall we, a sheep, a hen, a cock, a village, a ruin, and all that and then that having been blessed let us bless it.

I did not get this poem at first. It was only after the ModPo video discussion that I truly appreciated the poem. This is an illustration of Stein's statement on narrative. Narrative is a fiction. In life, we can be circling endlessly over a ruin. 

When I think about this in context of the Maguindanao massacre that happended in November of 2009, I get chills. There was a convoy. Some did not continue with the convoy, delayed by something trivial, perhaps a piece of equipment that got left behind. Some people became part of the convoy also by accident, trying to take a shortcut. The difference, of course, was this was a massacre, not a mere accident. I find that I cannot make sense of it. If I were to write about it I would linger in the convoy, in the dread, in the flimsy hope that women and children would not be harmed. It seemed like a certainty. But it was not. At some point, the people in the convoy must have looked around, registering some kind of disorientation and terror. There are no words for those moments. It was a sacrifice. It was a ruin. At that point, there would be no beginning, middle or end. I can only think, "then having been blessed let us bless it." There certainly was no thought of blessing for all those in that scene of horror. The blessing was afterwards, in the grief, among those who were trying to make sense of it. 

Narrative is a structure we cling to so that we can make sense of things. "Once upon a time..." Isn't that the classic introduction to our way of hearing stories? Stein challenges this notion especially in context of life itself. Life is messy and full of contradictions. It is not really a straight line with all loose ends tied in the end. I don't think Stein meant to advocate chaos. I think she only meant to have readers recognize that narrative is a fiction. We can appreciate it but it isn't necessarily the only way to communicate what happened. The Maguindanao massacre has been written about so many times: in news reports, in commentaries. But I circle around it, not finding any sense, grieving still. One can make a beginning, a middle and an end for it. But that is the thing: we find ways to fence it in. As human beings, we find ways to make sense of things. We create stories. But we must remember that these are stories. We tell them to ourselves to comfort ourselves. We must remember who is telling the story, who the story is about and how it is wrapped in structure. 

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