I have read two essays recently, from authors who inhabit widely-disparate subject positions, that made me ache physically. The essays, here and here, take on very different subjects – confusions about our public legacy (and what the proper function of government is) versus sexual violence and our refusal to talk about it. One shows the all the contradictions inherent in the New West, and those who are probably right to fear federal power. The other discusses a shared history of abuse and a shared call to silence about that abuse. One happens in the imaginative space of the American West, a place that we as a nation (especially as a white nation) reconfigure to match what we think of as our ideals, while the other (mostly) happens at a teenage party in the suburbs, another imaginative space of course but which is reimagined within specific racial parameters by the author.
Both, though, share a desire to look and speak openly about histories both recent and farther back. They talk about the importance – as critical thinkers, a term that as I write I shudder about its blandness and uselessness – of knowing history, local history, history that affects us and the spaces that we occupy. They don’t argue in the way that I think of when I use the term in my professional life – there are no claims made, no evidence pointed to (although evidence is presented in abundance), no warrants identified, no rebuttals addressed. Instead, they lay out their experiences, identify the connections they tried to make and relationships they tried to forge, and ask us as readers to think subtly and viscerally about the choices we are making now, and the consequences those choices lead to.
Where does the ache come from? I don’t know, but I’m guessing it’s from the shared pain, the acknowledgment of a legacy and a grace and beauty in trying to understand an experience from more than a simple argumentative framework. It is an ache; I feel it in my chest, and in my shoulders, and as my hair lifts itself from my scalp. But it’s an ache that is also intellectual and emotional, a mild jolt of electricity down my nervous system that seems to live a phosphorescent trace. This feeling comes from working with language at its finest – functioning not mimetically, or representationally, but on both of those levels and more. It’s a mad moment of recognition that maybe, just maybe, things don’t have to be as they are.