Sunday, December 05, 2010

Tact and the "Sacred"

Tact is a metaphysical category ("metaphysical category" = something that makes our experience possible) not just etiquette.  When a 'truth' is stated crudely the expression of it has been torn from the deep interconnections between instincts and experiences of the insight giving rise to it.  Some time ago, a friend gave me advice at which I flinched.  He thought I was reacting to his being "overly honest."  Not by half.  He wasn't wrong about what he had to say but by stating himself crudely he managed to be not-right.

In a more public context, a word I recently felt rendered an original insight 'not-right' by crude use was "sacred," which is a word I find that I can best accept when referring to human life, or (following Abraham Heschel) to ritualized time, but not to places: when the word refers to a place--e.g., a religious house, or war memorial--I find that it's cut off from what it's meant to express:  i.e., the hallowing of some aspect of our lives.*  I grow irritated by what feels like propagandizing, because, to me, making something 'sacred' shuts off words and thought; we're being told what not to think as much as what to think.  "Sacred" implies "this thing is beyond either argument or even examination," especially when applied to a place, which we are supposed to see as 'inviolate.'  The word "sacred" asks for internal quiet, which is right at Shabbat, and at funerals, and in all moments of awe, but bullies at other times, and in it's bullying, weakens it's ability to evoke the insight behind it that says "this otherwise unsayable aspect of being human must find expression."**

I felt irritation (which for me is sometimes an alarm bell, signaling a metaphysical emergency, below the level of immediate awareness) at The Arizona War Memorial in Honolulu that commemorates the heart-breaking war deaths of 900 soldiers who died aboard and remain interred in the wreckage.  The Park Ranger guiding tourists through the memorial and Earnest Borgnine's voice, on the guide tapes we rented, referred to the memorial as "sacred" many times over.  Certainly, the memorial--a cool, reasonably humble, white hand stretching beam-wise at midships over the mostly-sunken, rusting hulk of the Arizona--permitted awe and a deep sadness in me, and I saw other tourists tearing up as they read the names of the dead on the marble memorial at starboard, and one could say that calling the memorial "sacred" ritualized our time there--not the place itself--but the word felt wrong.  It seemed too defensively patriotic.  I appreciate how little there is in the contemporary public realm in America to remind us that we're a national people (by now) and that we could use reminders, but I heard more the incipient jingoism behind calling a national monument "sacred" than I heard an honest call to citizenship.  I'm not sure what was being hallowed.  I think the word "sacred" made what was being hallowed difficult to hold in my mind. Were the dead victims?  Were they heroes? Is it possible they could be both?  (e.g., by falsifying the circumstances of their deaths, calling the majority of victims of 911 "heroes" dishonors those who died by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The heroes of 911 were the rescuers, not those who so arbitrarily died.  The arbitrariness of their deaths breaks my heart no less than the heroic deaths of those who attempted to save them.)  Does the Arizona Memorial hallow our capacity for forceful, communal rage, which we can call on to fight for what we (as a people) believe in?

Somehow, the word "sacred" on The Arizona seems tactless in the way that renders both honest communal sorrow and honest communal resolve as untrue (if not quite false). The word seems to coerce rather than cohere.***

*perhaps I contradict myself by saying that I enjoyed the use of the word "hallow" by J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Ghostly Hallows (at least in the movie; I didn't read the book.)  By wondering about the noun, I found myself drawn to the verb, which made the physical totems over which Harry and the bad guy were fighting rather interesting. 

**Again, what I love in Shakespeare's plays is the hallowing of human spiritual yearnings without falsifying them as discrete ideas; the plays sanctify without sanctity.

***This post is a mess. I may clean it up later.

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