Richard A. Rosengarten
Words spoken at funerals are situated on a spectrum between eulogy and proclamation—between characterization of the deceased and declaration of the convictions of the gathered community. Memorials bring into conjunction two very different and yet equally essential mandates: on the one hand, George Steiner’s observation that what is distinctive about the human use of language is our capacities to say “I love you” and to speak in the future tense; on the other, Shailer Mathews’ dictum that “A man’s religion must not give the lie to the world in which he lives.”
The modern syntax of memorialization is well-encapsulated by “In Memoriam A.H.H.” (1849), Alfred Lord Tennyson’s extended lament upon the sudden death of his friend Authur Henry Hallam. For the poem’s title, Tennyson appropriates a phrase previously deployed chiefly on tombstones and monuments. Etching words on pages rather than in stone, Tennyson is literally able to more fully express his felt disjunction between the seemingly limitless promise of abiding friendship and the decisive finality of death. The poem thus effectively modulates Steiner’s formulations: “I loved you” means precisely that one can no longer speak of “you” in the future tense.
Yet “In Memoriam A.H.H.” also demonstrates that memorializing can create a future. Some of its verses have endured: “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” and “Tis better to have loved and lost, / Than never to have loved at all” are staples of Anglophone diction that serve well to transmit the poet’s sensibilities. Readers do not need to be acquainted with Tennyson or Hallam to recognize and even to embrace the poet’s grief: no less a public figure than Queen Victoria remarked that the poem offered her consolation as she mourned the death of Prince Albert. What Victoria found is there for the taking to this day.
It is a short walk from the emotional vectors of Tennyson’s courageous and extended meditation on his melancholy to their counterparts in public life. The United States has spoken in memoriam most recently of its forty-first President, George Herbert Walker Bush. The occasion of his passing was indeed lament (the image of former Senator Robert Dole saluting the coffin comes immediately to mind). As such it was also an occasion of gestures to a postulated past of a kinder, gentler country and to the hope of its return.
Enter again Shailer Mathews. No citizen with a modicum of human sympathy would wish for the Bush family anything but condolence on the loss of one who was to them clearly beloved. And gestures toward the amelioration of our presently inveterate incivility are surely to be honored. Yet no citizen concerned about, for example, the incipient American problem of racism should readily countenance elision or even forgetfulness of the inexorable link between Ronald Reagan’s announcement of his candidacy for the Presidency in Philadelphia, Mississippi; George H.W. Bush’s deployment of advertisements highlighting Willie Horton in his campaign to defeat Michael Dukakis for the Presidency; the actor Clint Eastwood addressing an empty chair at the Republican National Convention in 2012 as if it were President Barack Obama; and President Donald Trump’s mantra of “Make America Great Again.”
We must speak in memoriam to honor our nation’s leaders without giving the lie to the facts of our history. Doing so can only be answered by a recognition, prompted in part by poets such as Tennyson, that such distinctively human formulations as “I love you” and “we will make America great again” are themselves public acts: that what may begin as private counsel will, when expressed, become a real-world claim, with real-life consequences. Our politics issue from such innately, and widely variant, utterances. The fact that we are intrinsically and purposefully linguistic beings makes us, not at all incidentally, political beings precisely in the act of memoria. Whether in the past or the future tense, we cannot give the lie to the world in which we live.
Image: Former Senator Bob Dole stands to give a final salute to George H.W. Bush as his casket lies in state at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on December 3, 2018. (Photo Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta | AP)
|Richard A. Rosengarten (PhD’94) is Associate Professor of Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School.|