11 September 2006

Elaine Scarry

[from Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain, 1985.

When war is described as turning in its final stage on the element of morale (separable from injuring), what is drawn is a model of war constructed along the lines in the following narrative. A dispute arises between two populations. In order to determine a winner, they agree to have a contest. They could have either an extravagant three-year-long song contest or instead a three-year-long war. They choose the second because, though each would allow the designation of a winner and a loser, injuring—unlike singing—will carry the power of its own enforcement. But after moving through three autumns, three winters, three springs, and two summers during which they butcher one another (if the word is ugly, the acts it represents are far uglier) they begin to approach the third summer, and they realize that not only will injuring not carry the power of its own enforcement but it will not even make possible the distinction between the winner and the loser: despite fluctuations, the body count on each side tends to approximate that on the other side, and thus to continually re-establish the equality of the two sides rather than to expose their inequality. Thus here, at the end of war, at the very place where the exceptional virtue or the exceptional contribution of injuring was to have occurred (and for the sake of which injuring was chosen over any alternative), it is suddenly necessary to make arrangements for the insertion of the song contest into the overarching frame of war. Like an architectural detail from one period appropriated into the building of another period, it becomes the portal through which the final exit out of war will occur. This is the equivalent of the morale argument: the acceptance of the brutalities of war with the eleventh-hour insertion of the chess match or tennis match or talent contest contracted down into the period immediately preceding its ending; the abbreviated contest does not displace or provide a subsititute for the injuries, for thousands of injuries have by this time already occurred and will continue to occur in the final weeks; it instead substitutes for the single element that was thought to necessitate and hence justify the injuring. The fragile song contest (which no one precisely saw, though everywhere here and there it is said voices were heard) is like a small jewel placed down in the midst of a three-year massacre and relied on to perform the very work for the sake of which its own activity had been originally rejected.

1 comment:

  1. Kathryn21:18

    What a perfect quote from Scarry's book for today. Thanks for reminding me of her extraordinary insight.