This month, I have been reading the book Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence by Judith Butler. I had read the title essay earlier this year for a class and was deeply moved by it, so I wanted to read the complete work.
To call literary criticism or theory “moving” might seem like a contradiction in terms. This book is an exception.
The piece begins with the experience of grief and attempts, from there, to work out a better way of responding to violence, one that does not provoke further violence. The scope and breadth of the implications are compelling, but it is the interpersonal aspect that has been most poignant for me.
Butler writes this, “Loss and vulnerability seem to follow from our being socially constituted bodies, attached to others, at risk of losing those attachments, exposed to others” (20). As a graduate student intending to enter a career in academia, transience is a way of life I am learning to accept: moving frequently, saying goodbye to friends, adapting to new environments. Being a socially constituted body is difficult in that context.
Butler continues, “When we lose certain people, or when we are dispossessed from a place, or a community, we may simply feel that we are undergoing something temporary, that mourning will be over and some restoration of prior order will be achieved. But maybe when we undergo what we do, something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are…” (22).
Earlier this summer, I read Salman Rushdie’s novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Lengthy, like most of his writings, the novel is nonetheless one of my new favorites. At one point, the narrator speaks about loss in a way that echoes Butler’s sentiments:
“…whenever someone who knows you disappears, you lose one version of yourself. Yourself as you were seen, as you were judged to be. Lover or enemy, mother or friend, those who know us construct us, and their several knowings slant the different facets of our characters like diamond-cutter’s tools” (510).
In this way, we give select others permission to tell our story. We grant them the right — for good or ill — to name us. In doing so, we acquire a stake in each others’ lives. To lose, or to grieve, reminds us that we are not autonomous and in control. As Butler says concisely, “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something” (23).
As painful as that experience can be, I think we receive from it a new appreciation for our own vulnerability, and perhaps a new humility in our relationships with others as well.
As I said, plenty to ponder here…