Gray’s ‘Elegy’ above all else calls to mind the forgotten multitudes:
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
And the very next verse, only the second I can quote at will after four decades:
Some village Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest;
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.
Gray was no republican! But his lonesome graveyard ruminations: (a) query the speed with which we forget the multitudes of non-intimates, (b) dwell on all those truly exceptional humans who have left no lasting trace (or scar), and (c) interrogate the criteria by which we record and render our ‘heroes’ timeless. It was in Gray’s time and is now only a tiny minority who have left names and dates on headstones, so we might multiply those about whom we know nothing by a factor of … well, who knows? And in other continents, countries and communities? Our collective memory of the dead is fickle.
I prefer not to think of this as ‘popular’ rather than public philosophy. Why? Essentially because we are still very much in the business of accumulating and discretely disposing of anonymized corpses.
The likes of the ‘Great War’, Auschwitz, Russian losses resisting Hitler and numerous colonial and imperial excursions have all understandably been held to epitomize the industrialized killing of Fordist or organized capitalism. But the state-sponsored killing of civilian non-combatants did not end either in 1945 or in the mid-1970s: innocent death – or ‘collateral damage’ – has persisted to characterize post-Fordist, disorganized or, my preferred terminology, financial capitalism.
Is there anything more tragic than the incidental death of a child, say in Gaza, caught up in others’ conflicts, robbed of life and swiftly erased from the minds of all but family intimates?
Two poems from a collection by Michael Rosen, Fighters for Life, catch and bottle this better than I ever could:
When they do war
They forget how to count.
They forget how to count
And that’s how they do it.
They give us
Of the ones they kill.
They disappear them
They vanish them
It’s how they do it.
Names are deleted
Names are un-counted
Bodies are un-included
Faces are un-remembered
That’s how they do it.
They come in
They flush out
They mop up
They take out
And it’s worth it, they say.
It’s worth it, believe us,
It’s worth it, believe us.
Of course it’s worth it
It’s so cheap
It’s so neat
If you forget how to count.
If you forget the numbers
If you forget the names
If you forget the faces
That’s how they do it.
But we’re counting.
Rosen’s poem was published in 2005, as was his ‘song of the dead’ From Iraq:
We have no mouths
You don’t see the holes in the ground where we were put
We are the unfound
We are the uncounted
You don’t see the homes we made
We’re not even the small print or the bit in brackets.
You see less of us than you see of the dust
You see less of us than you see of the wind
Because we were somewhere else,
because we lived far from you,
because our minutes, hours, days and years did not last
as long as yours,
because you have cameras that point the other way,
because you talk about other people …
… Of that moment when we went
you can’t even say you missed it.
To borrow – and adapt, with apologies – a sentence from Bhaskar’s Dialectics, the being we know is but a ripple on the surface of the ocean of non-being of which we are ignorant.
All of which brings us to Anthony Blair, who signed us up for Bush’s assault on Iraq and who, according to a belatedly repentant John Prescott, ‘likes invading countries’.