Thursday, September 11, 2008

Institutionalized Mourning

Watching today's memorial ceremonies, particularly those in New York and Washington, reminded me of an incident last April that prompted me to rail against the politicization of tragedy. The event was the gathering in Oklahoma City on the occasion of the 12th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, and the incident was the presence of Rudy Giuliani at the event. Here is what I wrote at that time:

I was struck by one particular sentence quoted by Associated Press Writer Tim Talley:

We mourn and hurt and will never forget, but we don't live under fear.

Because it is hard for me to view Giuliani as anything but a politician (and one trying to become the Republican candidate for the next presidential election at that), his use of the first person plural just stuck in my craw. It was as if he wanted to gather the Oklahoma City bombing under the same tent as 9/11 in the formation of a "brotherhood" of mourning and personal pain, then alluding to Virginia Tech for adding new members to this brotherhood. I am really chilled by this kind of political maneuver, possibly because I fear that it may actually work. Sartre had conceived of such a "brotherhood of mourning" in The Flies. This was his version of Aeschylus' Oresteia; and the brotherhood concept was invented by Aegisthus in memory of Agamemnon, who had been murdered by his wife Clytemnestra with the assistance of, you guessed it, Aegisthus. Sartre saw this as manipulation of the worst kind; and, for better or worse, my own world-view was informed by seeing a performance of this play back in my student days.

I suppose my memory was tweaked by seeing Giuliani yet another time and feeling almost as if his very presence leaves a bad taste in my mouth, regardless of whether or not he even says anything. Much of The Flies addresses the bonding-through-familiarity that emerges between Aegisthus and Zeus, each of whom, after all, assumed monarchy by overthrowing an existing monarch (Agamemnon and Cronus, respectively). Zeus seals the bond with Aegisthus when he informs the latter that "Gods need men to believe in them;" and, while he does not say so explicitly, a ruler can only rule if his subjects believe in him.

Jean-Paul Sartre died in 1980, at a time when it seemed as if fundamentalism was the least of the world's problems; yet it is hard to read The Flies today without thinking of Aegisthus in terms of faith-based government. For that matter, it is hard to read it without thinking of the fact that, even after the two terms of the current Administration, it seems as if the government we get is the government that men (and women) want to "believe in," whether it involves the "Christian virtues," ostensibly embraced by John McCain and Sarah Palin, or the "change we can believe in" that has attracted so many to Barack Obama. However, if we cannot transcend our dependence on belief, The Flies still teaches us that our beliefs can be manipulated and that the institutionalization of mourning is one of the more effective ways to achieve that manipulation.

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