I can’t help but experience other people’s tragedies and triumphs through the distorting prism that is my self. Maybe you can relate. Well, here’s something I felt after the horror of Uvalde, for what it’s worth.
When I was about to graduate high school, I wrote a speech to be considered as a student speaker at graduation. I never submitted the speech, and thus was never considered. My friend Michelle was the chosen speaker (in addition to our valedictorian), and she did a wonderful job. For a long time, I wondered what if…
What if I had tried out and gotten it and then given my speech and been accepted as some kind of rhetorical demigod? (I never so much worried about how other people might have appreciated my speech (or not); I suppose I only marginally wonder how other people might appreciate this blog post, or not. It’s still a me-factory making me me).
I decided not to go back and find my draft of the speech before writing this post. I remember enough of it, and the point here is that I am free–or I feel free, which might amount to the same thing–of that what if feeling now. In fact, I feel relieved that I did not give that speech, even as an audition. Here’s why:
“Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.”
This is a line from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, and also a line from my speech. I attributed it, of course. For Mr. Vonnegut, the line is an epitaph, a hard-won irony in the story of Billy Pilgrim, a man who is a witness to the firebombing of Dresden by British and American planes, a horror that killed an estimated 25,000 people.
And in my speech, as I recall it, I used the line to first call attention to the painful things going on in the world as my classmates and I moved through the grades. Among other examples, I highlighted the Columbine shooting, which happened in the spring of 1999, a season before we entered high school. Such things, I suggested, hurt us vicariously. I understand that there was a new and newly palpable fear among American high school students, or maybe all students, after Columbine. But, I’m sorry to tell you, I don’t think that’s all I was doing my making the reference. I think I was also misery name-dropping. I was engaging in the romanticism of the terrible. I was, in fact, a little proud to be a member of the post-Columbine generation.
I don’t feel good about this, but I also don’t claim to be particularly unique in my sins. One of my theatrical heroes is Spalding Gray, and the show that made him famous was a piece called Swimming to Cambodia, in which he tells the story of making The Killing Fields, a movie which dealt with the Cambodian genocide. Again, let me emphasize that this show made him a major figure in the theater. Yet he also received a withering review from influential critic Pauline Kael:
“He thinks like an actor; he doesn’t know that heating up his piddling stage act by an account of the Cambodian misery is about the most squalid thing anyone could do.”Ouch.
I suggest to you–and I am not looking for pity; I can forgive my 18-year-old self his dramatics–that I was heating up my piddling podium act by an allusion to the Columbine misery.
That’s only half of why I’m relieved to be rid of the what-ifs of this speech. Part two:
Later in the speech, the rabbit I pulled out of my hat was the idea that “even the hurting was beautiful.” And this, on May 24th, 2022, is the card that collapsed the whole house, once and forever.
“No,” I said aloud to my past self. “No, it wasn’t.”
The hurting was not beautiful. The hurting was, actually, hideous. And it seemed to me on May 24th, 2022, that this country’s beauty, from sea to shining sea, from Maine’s soup to Florida’s nuts, is, and has always been (at least since Jamestown) a hideous beauty. Whether it’s the lush South that winks at us with its antebellum agonies, the snow-laced New England that put a frozen heart at the center of our politics, the West, with canyons and salt flats that smack of apocalypse…I could go on, but I won’t. Since May 24th the tide of my aesthetic disgust has ebbed a little. But the thesis remains:
The hurting is not beautiful.
In fact, I read this afternoon that the hurting has killed the husband of one of the murdered teachers. Hurt can kill us.
On December 14th, 2012, the day of the Newtown massacre, I had a late afternoon class to get to. I wrote a blog post first, one which was so nihilistic, I guess, that a good friend of mine called another good friend to express concern that I might kill myself. I didn’t. (Clearly.) I sat in my car before walking to class and I made a bargain with myself. I would get out of the car and go on with my life, and, in return, I would not let this monster world eat me. I would go out on my own terms. I had no desire to die in that moment; I wanted to live, but I wanted to live with the promise that I would decide when enough was enough. I read a lot of Dostoevsky back then. It was a mood.
That night I went home and drank myself into such a stupor I wet the bed. That didn’t bother me so much, honestly. I felt it was a point in my favor, all things considered. I mean that kind of despair.
It’s been almost ten years. I’ve been sober for six. I still read a lot of Dostoevsky. I still want to live, and I don’t think much of that bargain I made anymore. I’m a little scared, to be honest, by how little I hurt right now. I feel detached. I know there is beauty. Maybe it hurts because there is beauty, because there is beauty even though it hurts. Or at least that’s part of the hurting. Maybe in another ten years I’ll know how to feel today. But I’m running out of Russian novels.