A Sociological Autobiography: 41 – Lost and Forgotten

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 come

They kill

They kill

They go

They give us

No numbers

Of the ones they kill.

Ni numbers

No names

They disappear them

They vanish them

It’s how they do it.

 

They come

They kill

They kill

They go.

 

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

 

No numbers

No names

No names

No numbers

 

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.

Watch us

We’re counting

Listen

We’re counting.

And

We count.

 

Rosen’s poem was published in 2005, as was his ‘song of the dead’ From Iraq:

 

We have no mouths

We evaporated

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’.

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