Monday, April 27, 2020

Musings in a Time of Crisis XVI

. . . statistics, . . . have a kind of moral authority, one whose
meaning may repel us but . . . nevertheless encourages certainty. . . .
~ Shannon Pufahl
"Numbering the Dead" in NYR Daily, April 21, 2020


Do you follow the numbers for your area: the coronavirus cases confirmed, the dead of Covid-19 known? Whether the curve is "flattening" or still sharply rising? 

In the United States overall, more than 900,000 cases have been reported as of April 25, 2020, and at least 52,000 people within our borders have died. Newspapers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times and public health agencies of all kinds track the figures daily, adjust them for probabilities, calculate them by state and county or city, by age, by urban or rural area, by race and gender, by underlying condition(s) and not. They compare them country to country, and worldwide. But for all we can and do measure — and the data do have some acceptable degree of certainty and help us understand the spread of infection and disease — we are left with just numbers, a relative scale.

Sometimes, the numbers on their own speak to us, as they do at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.; at the 9/11 memorial at the Pentagon, in Arlington, Virginia; at the Field of Empty Chairs Memorial to those killed in the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. At such places, the abstract is made conceivable, if still unbearable, through representation in artful form. 

What we don't get is something more fundamental: the stories of the lives behind the numbers that collectively tell us who we are. 

A paragraph in a "Lives Lost" column, a column-inch obituary, a poem, a recitation of names, a tolling of bells: at most, they remind us, offer glimpses.

What does it mean to grieve if we have only numbers, build memorials based on numbers, but fail to learn and keep alive our stories?

And how do we grieve, knowing there exist throughout the country the counted but the unknown? Who grieves for those buried en masse in the trenches on Hart Island in Long Island Sound? With what certainty do we account for the disappeared and unremembered? For the lost stories of joy and hope?


In his recently published Literary Hub interview, the poet Ilya Kaminsky offers several thoughtful questions to consider:

✦ "[. . .] what is silence if you ask any deaf person and [he] tells you that it doesn't exist? Because it doesn't exist for 10% of the population of the planet. . . ."

✦ "[. . . ] So many people want to ask: why did you come to America? No one wants to ask: what did you see when you came to America?"

✦ "[. . . ] At what point does one stop being a refugee? Does one ever stop being a refugee?"

("Ilya Kaminsky: "'Fables Allow You to Break Bread With the Dead'," April 23, 2020)

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