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Discourse 25.1&2 (2003) 19-35
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Testimony, Quantification, and Need
The question constantly arises, of a proportionate response to suffering. Or of an acknowledgement of suffering as disproportionate and incommensurable. On the day on which I write this paragraph, 29 March 2003, viewers of BBC World have been invited to co-construct the sadness and solemnity of the return to Britain from Iraq, in coffins draped in flags and accompanied by Handel and Elgar, of ten named, killed soldiers, and to attend to the words of an officer who tells us how hard a whole regiment may be hit by such a loss. Also today, on the same channel, with a measure of implicit concern but at more than one remove, we are shown a desperate gathering up of unnamed corpses in a market in Baghdad which has been hit by someone or other's ordinance with the loss of fifty or sixty civilian lives. And also today the BBC relays to us, without much commentary, the Pentagon's monochrome film of the obliteration of a building which is said to have contained 200 of Saddam Hussein's committed supporters, none of whom emerged. Perhaps it is easy for some to say exactly how distressed (or glad) it is appropriate to feel about each of these various cases. But for anyone who is not absolutely certain of the nature and extent of all the rights and wrongs involved, the mathematics are baffling. What are we supposed to do with these statistics? How much attention do we give to the ten, the 60, or the 200—especially when it is asserted, again on the same channel, and on [End Page 19] the same day, that we are witnessing the destruction of a regime that has killed up to 2,000,000 people?
This is hardly a new problem. Consider one of the most persistently anthologized poems in English from the Second World War, a poem whose popularity speaks of an enduring bafflement over the quantification of suffering: Dylan Thomas's "Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London."
Designedly or not, this poem foregrounds the difficulty of registering and reproducing another's pain. Its meaning is much disputed, but this does not seem to have curbed its popularity. It is a sonorous piece, providing a grand noise to accompany an event that seems to demand an emotional response. Its speaker devotes most of the poem to presenting his own predicament as one who will not commit the mistake of misplaced mourning, identifying himself indirectly with the "unmourning water" of the River Thames, which flows, apparently, past the child's ashes (63). And then we come to the enigmatic ending: "After the first death, there is no other." What can this mean? Earlier in the poem, the speaker has promised, "I shall not murder / The mankind of her going with a grave truth" (62), and yet here he is: ending with what appears to be precisely such a grave truth. But perhaps his grave truth, his "truth" about the grave where the child lies, indeed does not murder her, because she is most certainly already gone, gone far beyond anything that the poet can do for her, for good or ill. In that sense, however he might botch this epitaph (and admitting that possibility is the only way to make the poem what it seems to want to be—humane), she will not have to suffer a second death, even if the primary meaning of the line in question might be (as many have taken it) a Christian platitude: death will have no dominion; she will awake to eternal life.
Or is the grave truth that the speaker commits to posterity, despite himself, a much more self-centered one: that there is no other death, after the first, because the mind cannot accommodate more instances of suffering and loss than one? The fact that the speaker of this poem goes on about himself so much—seems so incapable, in fact (not just grandly unwilling), to engage with the particularity of...