Monday, May 19, 2008

Miscellany 2: Grave Injustice

We live in a strange world. It is not a strange nation, but a strange world withal. "The Developed World" is peculiar because of how it has been developed.
"What is food to one man may be fierce poison to others" -- Lucretius, De Rerum Natura
I was at the local inexpensive prepared food vendor, eating a Big Mess, and the fact that I was began to ring bells in my mind. Earlier, I had been listening to BBC World Serviette, and they had discussed a controversy about the Dutchness of York. She had said that anyone in a council flat could eat properly and that there was no reason to be obese.

Now, for my money, the original Fergie has always been sexy and alluring and beautiful. She has had her gaffes, but she has always seemed somehow more realistic and human than her sister-in-law, whose genetic beauty left little room for human experience and the negotiations of unhappiness. Then again, redheads always attract men.

Fergie's advice to the poor of London is not new, and it really shouldn't even be news, except that she feels that lack of information is the reason the poor eat poorly, while the well born eat well. If you, reader, wish to be fit and healthy, cook at home. It's easy, and it will save your life. Even I know this, and yet there I was, reflecting on how I knew it, as I ate a Big Mess Meal for $4.60.

The truth is that our world is developed because it has gotten structured around one central, misaddressed paradox. For us in the Developed World, luxury goods are cheap, and staple goods are expensive. In the "developing world," luxury goods are unthinkable, and staple goods are the whole concern. These two paradigms -- the emphasis on plentiful staples and the emphasis on plentiful luxuries -- has caused enormous suffering.

In the US, it's common for the bigoted and the resentful to point to a poor person's house and say, "Oh, but he's got a satellite TV!" or "Oh, but he's got an X-Box!" This is because luxury goods like games are cheap, in the US and UK, but the house to put them in is impossible to afford. The super high calorie Ho-Ho is cheap, but the meat and vegetables on a table is expensive. If restaurants with good food ran as inexpensive as bad food, this would be a different world than the Developed. The Developed world is the mass produced world, and nutritious and good food is apparently (only apparently) impossible to mass produce, while preserved and fattening food can go from truck to freezer to fryer in minutes.

The poor are time poor, generally, and skills-poor, as well as cash poor. One of the first things depression and despair will do to you is get you away from tasks like cooking, especially if there is an alternative that looks faster and less expensive. As the developed world dies to get enough agriculture, the developed world has to subsidize the non-production of agriculture, because it has too little demand for that kind of thing.

Good luck, Fergie.

My other topic is the grave. Yesterday, I went to a family reunion with a group of people to whom I am only distantly related. Before and after this, we went to visit cemeteries. Not so oddly, we had been discussing, before all of this and afterward, our own ends and final resting places.

Of all the things I saw, the grave featured to the right was the most breath taking. The young lady buried there was only eighteen, and there is a small photo of her on her headstone, as well as a replica of her family dog, sleeping beside her. It's very touching, and those two things alone, even without the verse on her stone, are poignant enough to bring tears.
"The breezy call of incense-breathing morn
The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed
The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed. " -- Thomas Gray

It's affecting, and yet what I saw, for the most part, was a general run of stones. Some had clear engraving, some faded, some mossed over. Some were cracked, some were tall, and some had plaster-like figurines nearby.

It was depressing, but not because of the thought that I must one day lie in such a narrow cell. What bothered me was that there would be little to represent me. Most headstones function either for utility or to mark the sorrows of the survivors. The young lady's stone tells us that she was loved, that her loss has obliterated the joys of her family and friends, and the constantly fresh flowers on her grave say that she is remembered now and freshly. It is a monument to her value.

Is there nothing, though, to speak of the person?

" Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form:
Then have I reason to be fond of grief." -- Shakespear, King John III iv ll. 92-7

Why, when we have designers making "clamshell" packaging for iPods and scissors, when we have designers coming up with clever ways to hide cup holders in cars, when we have designers rethinking the t-shirt, do we have the same funerary architecture and monument as we had in 1900? It's not like we lack for examples of style, if we want to look.

Of course, all that old stuff was designed to attest to power or beauty of the dead. A gloriously rococo stonework tells the passerby that the person below was once more beautiful than all others, according to the sextons. A giant spire says that the dead was once mighty. All of these boastful and empty gestures are out of line for we in the developed world, as we no longer expect anyone to come to pass by our markers and be inspired, no longer expect people to be awed, no longer think that we have to throw fear or awe onto the passerby. Those of us who believe in an afterlife seek humility in death, no matter how we struggled against anonymity while alive.

What depressed me was that there was no choice for me. There would be no stone that would indicate to the visitors to other graves that I was once witty, that I was creative, that I sought to explore my world with mind and heart, that I wanted to see every relationship as it was and as it could be. Why, I wondered, doesn't some bright spark at RISD, SCAD, or other design school set down and get to work making monuments that are playful, interesting, creative, thoughtful, and a measure of the person, as well as a frozen record of the regard of the survivors? It seems unjust some way.


Anonymous said...

Thank you.

The Geogre said...

A comment, and again thanks?

Well, thank you, indeed. This means that I can finally write something new. I've had a thing in mind, and I've been very unhappy with this particular post, so it's off to the thinking room.