Can I know the unknown soldier?
I started writing this on Anzac Day, 2014, and the Sydney Morning Herald was carrying a story entitled ‘On a foreign field a girl remembers the fallen’:
An Australian schoolgirl unexpectedly wells up with tears over a nameless Fromelles gravestone. Zoe Bell, 17, of St Leonard’s College in Melbourne, isn’t usually like this, her teacher tells me. This isn’t hysteria or histrionics. Just history.
Here in northern France, the numbers and politics and clichés of a century-old war fall away, and the reality of it rises from the ground like the thick local fog. Its meaning chills you so sharply that it can force water from the most cynical, surprised eyes.
All those dead. On this soil, it doesn’t take a supernatural imagination to sense their presence.
There are a multitude of Zoes on the Western Front right now. Swarms of coaches buzz from one cemetery to the next.
(Joe Barton, SMH 25/4/2014, pg 7)
What struck me about this story was the way it played with different understandings of particularity and identity. Because the figure of the unknown soldier is usually taken to epitomise the loss of particularity, the story could be read in terms of effacement. The particularity of people’s lives is progressively lost as we move from individual to collective identities.
If you’re reading the story this way, one nameless soldier can stand in for the ‘all those dead’ because he has had all his distinguishing features removed. But that is just the start of a dizzying process of substitution that ties the Australian in 2014 to the Australian in 1916. Zoe Bell, as another young Australian in the French countryside, stands in for the nameless soldier; and then Zoe is multiplied into a ‘multitude of Zoes’, who are the modern equivalent of the generation of young Anzacs. Each of these soldiers had particular lives, but each has had the meaning of his unique death taken from him so that schoolchildren a hundred years later can define themselves as Australian. If this is so, the coachloads of tourists are grave robbers, stealing from the dead to represent themselves.
But this way of reading the story too hastily assumes that it is namelessness that brings about effacement. After all, although photographed in the story, Zoe Bell, 17, of St Leonard’s College in Melbourne, has also been effaced, offered to Anzac Day newspaper readers back in Sydney as a symbol of all Australian youth, past and present. She is the only person identified by name in the story, but a photograph and proper name have not protected her from being turned into a symbol. If we read the story this way, in terms of substitutions, it seems that, named or nameless, we are each and all inevitably turned into symbols of something else. Particularity is impossible.
But I think there are other ways to understand this story. Certainly the journalist tried to say something else, insisting on the possibility of reality piercing the ‘numbers and politics and clichés’, of the ‘century-old war’ escaping representations to become a shocking but unhistrionic ‘presence’. How could that be? How and when do the ‘numbers and politics and clichés’ fall away? How can the nameless soldier be present when I know almost nothing about him? How can I understand this nameless soldier’s presence without adding ‘supernatural’ elements to ‘reality’?
Zoe’s tears: imagining the unknown soldier
Let me concede that, in some ways, the nameless soldier has been effaced by his anonymity. Without a name or serial number to unlock historical archives, there are many things I don’t know about him. For that reason, I may initially feel distanced and assume that he has been reduced to an empty symbol, just one to represent many thousands of others. But if this is all there were to it, why was it this grave that brought Zoe to surprised tears? What was particular about this grave?
I think this grave got to Zoe because here she couldn’t emotionally entrust the dead soldier to the care of his loved ones, elsewhere. Precisely because there were no facts and no stories to tell, no archive to refer to, Zoe directly felt the responsibility to imagine being those loved ones. She may have said to herself, ‘This person too had a mother who held him’, and then allowed herself to feel how the mother would feel upon hearing of her son’s death. This opening to imagination would have decisively changed Zoe’s relation to the soldier and the war. This is how symbols come to life, no longer representing a century-old past but evoking it, through our lives, in the present.
I want to join Zoe in imagining this soldier dying in the presence of his mother, the person who, I will guess, knew him best and loved him most truly. So here in the mud of the trenches near Fromelles is the Pietá come to life, with the grief-struck mother holding in her lap the mutilated body of her soldier-child. Imagine how she would be and what she would say. She’d know all the facts required for a gravestone and she’d have countless stories about her son, but – this is the crucial point – are these facts in her mind as the reality of this death sinks in? Is she crying for her son in terms of the name she gave him or the city in which he grew up or the regiment in which he served? Is her grief about his being Australian?
My hunch is that biographical facts would come to the mother only when she was distracting herself from reality with consoling stories about his virtue or about the good cause for which he died. In the true depths of her grief, she wouldn’t speak about her son. She would address her son directly, and from her whole being. The key word for the grieving mother would not be the child’s name, which is a public representation, a third person usage; the mother would be focussing on the ‘you’ of her beloved child. The reality is not that ‘he is lost’ but that ‘you are lost’.
Don’t misunderstand me. Of course, the soldier’s mother would be proud of her son’s ‘good name’ and of the achievements that collected around it. Of course she would want his name mentioned in the officers’ dispatches, in the newspapers, on his gravestone. She would want people to go on talking about him after his death.
This is obvious. Less obvious is the ambivalence about this. In his book The Testament of Mary, Colm Tóibín imagines that grieving Mary cannot bring herself to use Jesus’ name, much less call him a Messiah or turn his life into the parable that his ambitious disciples seek from her. The disciples want to spread Jesus’s name, in order to save the world, but Mary is disgusted by this use of her son. I imagine that the soldier’s mother would also feel, in some ways, that her son’s proper name distances him. She would surely rile against those who, on the basis of a few paltry facts, presumed to be able to interpret his life, to fit it into their stories.
But, whether the mother was proud or wary of the symbolic power of his name, this would not be what most matters about him. In the depths of her grief, she is not thinking about her son; she is talking to and with him, directly. ‘You’ is how he lives in her heart; ‘you’, said in its most intimate form, is his secret name. It holds within it every fact about him, but it knows that none of these do justice to his significance, his whole being.
Emmanuel Levinas raised these questions of particularity and effacement when he insisted that the face is not really seen if it is seen in terms of things and symbols, if seen as the mask of an identity. The face is only really seen when seen in its ‘nakedness’, ‘poverty’ and ‘destitution’, when seen without judgement. Seen this way, he says, it is ‘exposed, menaced’, both ‘inviting us to an act of violence’, and commanding us not to harm. As witnesses of this nakedness, we are shocked out of the familiar world of reputations and identities and made to realise that this person
is not a character within a context….: a professor at the Sorbonne, a Supreme Court justice, son of so-and-so…. Here, to the contrary, the face is meaning all by itself. You are you. In this sense one can say that the face is not ‘seen’. It is what cannot become a content, which your thought would embrace; it is uncontainable, it leads you beyond.
This is the ‘you’ for whom the soldier’s mother grieves. The ‘you’ she addresses is present but, for that reason, not finite or definable.
The timelessness of the Nativity
If the ‘you’ allows a direct experience of the undefinable living essence of a person, deeper than name and biography, it follows that the uncontainable ‘you’ whom the mother addresses on the day of his death is also the ‘you’ she held in her arms on the day he was born, perhaps before he’d been given a name, and certainly before the facts of his life had accumulated around his name.
There would have been times when she held him, skin to skin, feeling his perfect weight as their weight together, unable to distinguish his skin pressing against her and her skin pressing against him. There would have been times on that birth day when she lost herself looking into his eyes. In these times she would have known him in his wonder, as his limitless potential, which also, at that moment, revealed her own, which was beyond what she could have previously imagined. To realise that he was a manifestation of the unfolding life of the universe is not to add a supernatural element over and above reality, but to suddenly appreciate what it means to be alive. This is the ‘you’ that she mourns at his death.
And just as the soldier of the Pietá is still the infant of the Nativity, the absurdity of this death in the mud of Fromelles was present at his birth, not as expectation or prognostication, of course, but as the menaced vulnerability and commanding presence that Levinas highlights. A child is just more of the same, but this child, the one into whose eyes the mother gazes, has the fragile improbability of a miracle. Perhaps the mother briefly considered calculating the odds of her meeting the child’s father, of her parents meeting …, but of course she’d realise that this is an absurd exercise with no end. This child’s unique existence, the way this child is so perfect to its parents, is gratuitous. But, the mother already knows, the wonderful gratuity of his birth is also the terrible necessity of his death.
In the heart of our being, a level deeper than names, and before names, the Pietá and the Nativity, the first and the last, belong together, as the same moment, the same relation, the same revelation. They reveal each other’s potential. On the one hand, every infant is unique because of their coming death; on the other hand, no matter how adult, every dying child is an infant to those who see them as they really are. To take one of these nameless moments without the other is to misunderstand them. To altogether leave out these nameless moments, and concentrate only on what can be identified in a person’s life, is to misunderstand the person more grievously still.
If this is so, it is wrong to assume that namelessness is necessarily effacement. Naming can objectify and reduce and control, whereas namelessness can show the deepest respect and love. A nameless grave can prompt passers-by to realise that the dead are not just of the past but are still present among us; it can encourage people to pause, and imaginatively accept the dead person into their life by addressing them directly, intimately, as ‘you’. Such namelessness is not an erasure but an acknowledgement of the person’s particularity.
This soldier, this child
It seems likely to me that the distances that underpinned Zoe Bell’s ordinary sense of identity transformed when she stumbled upon this nameless gravestone. Because she had no factual clues, she did not try to know this soldier as an entity she could know about; she allowed herself to know him directly, through the way he entered her life on this day. She knew him as a ‘you’, and not as a named ‘he’, and this shift from a third- to a second-person relation changed her world and brought tears to her eyes.
She suddenly knew how his mother had known him, in his uniqueness, as a uncontainable presence: as a burst of new life in the world, full of nameless possibility, infinitely fragile. And, strangely, shockingly, it is the incomparability of this soldier that brought the reality of the whole war alive for her, in the present. Zoe’s tears were not histrionic because she was no longer nostalgic, looking back on a distant past to see what it said about her. In this encounter, she had also lost her own self-consciousness.
If I am right, the journalist is wrong if he thinks this experience of presence culminated in a definition of another label, ‘Anzac’ or ‘Australian’. This would pervert the soldier’s uniqueness. There are no labels that define his life or death. But because uniqueness is uncontainable, this soldier is inseparable from others, and is, as John Donne put it, ‘a piece of the continent, A part of the main’. To be particular is not to be separate, isolated by a name, rank and serial number; to be particular is to be meaningful part of an unfolding living whole, to feel yourself in others and others in you.
Only when we address this soldier this way, intimately, as a ‘you’, a presence in our lives right now, do we directly understand that his death is also the deaths of German soldiers, is also his mother’s death, is also Zoe’s death. This is no longer generalisation. It is no longer abstract representation. It is not histrionic or supernatural. It is grounded and real. It is the most basic human knowledge, as available to a young peasant woman in ancient Palestine as it was to the soldier’s mother, as it is to Zoe Bell, 17, of Melbourne.
[If you are interested in questions about uniqueness and reality, you might be interested in some other articles that Ann and I have written. Try, for example, Everyday Presences, or Significance of Signs, or Creative Practice.]