In a powerful scene in James MacPherson’s Ossian poems, the king mourns the loss of his son in battle: “My eyes are blind with tears; but memory beams on my heart. How can I relate the mournful death of the head of the people! Prince of the warriors, Oscur, my son, shall I see thee no more!”
In the presence of tragedy, the king feels unable to become fully cognizant of his son’s absence. It seems impossible to make sense of senseless tragedy, especially when it involves premature death. Stories of those whose lives are cut short, and our memories of them, create a last remnant of people who lost the opportunity for long and eventful lives.
To work through such tragic events, Dori Laub writes about the importance of a victim’s narrative during massive trauma: “The emergence of the narrative which is being listened to—and heard—is . . . the process and the place wherein the cognizance, the ‘knowing’ of the event is given birth to.” The birth of the event happens through individuals attempting to narrate their traumatic experiences.
Such a painful endeavor to work through traumatic experiences is a process that only those who experienced the trauma can attempt, but what about those who are gone? Giorgio Agamben writes, “The ‘true’ witnesses, the ‘complete witnesses,’ are those who did not bear witness and could not bear witness.” Therefore, after the wake of fatal events, we can never get a complete witness of trauma.
Members of our country experienced a fatal event this week when a young man created his own war on people at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. With many victims dead and others wounded, and with the shooter also dead, it seems impossible to understand such a violent act. Amidst the important debates, stories, and discussions that come out of tragedy in a collective attempt to prevent such trauma from happening again, we must recognize the inability of these victims to witness and our own inability to make sense of their experiences, while doing the only thing we can do for them, remember.
By Brittany Bruner, Humanities Center Intern
Photo by Yazeed