Monday, March 31, 2008

The Banality of Poignancy

This ought not to work. On the old principle that "comparisons from nature ennoble art; comparisons from art degrade nature." An educated man who grows up ignorant of the story of his father's death at sea, when the facts of it are readily available. Then, when the story finds him, he tries to fit it into reality, and ends up in ... a David Lynch movie. It ought not to work. But, somehow, it does. The limitation is the poignancy.

So now I know these facts, or I have heard, second or third hand, these stories. I have a story I can tell. If it had been told to me when I was a child, I might have, in a deep and true sense, remembered it as if I had been there when it happened, with at least the same instantly recallable immediacy with which I can summon up the exploits of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, who of course I never saw. But these facts, severed from the family history that might have given them flesh, are, really, no more mine than the images that open Blue Velvet.

I can make sense of them, or hold them in my mind, only as scenes from movies — the likes of The Cruel Sea, Victory at Sea, the documentaries The World at War or Why We Fight — or from the movie that, someday, someone might make (since the facts appeared my wife and I and our daughters and our friends have been casting it). But if any such movie were ever made, the story that I have, as a personal story, would be even less mine than it is now — and the truth is that, now, it isn't mine at all. It is a contrivance—it is a story that I might now remember, but don't. What might have been a personal story dissolves into the public domain of a much greater story, of the War, of heroism and stupidity, arrogance and decency, and hundreds of thousands of the dead — and in that sense, whatever personal memory might be found here, the common memory rightly takes away.