It is hard to come up this week with an idea which does not connect one way or another with the crash of GermanWings flight 4U9525, apparently caused by co-pilot Andreas Lubitz. It all points to a textbook situation: a frustrated individual who cannot achieve a goal in life (becoming a Lufthansa captain, it seems) commits suicide claiming in the process the lives of other persons, who simply had the bad luck of standing in the way of an unstoppable death wish.
I do not intend to analyze this person and his motivations: I’ll simply note that, for me, the most baffling aspect is how and why his suicidal cravings overcame the necessary empathy which a person responsible for the lives of 149 human beings, many of them children, is supposed to feel in similar circumstances. I am familiar with the processes of dehumanization to which the victims of monstrous abusers are subjected, from pimps exploiting prostitutes to the Nazi personnel running the death camps. What is particularly bewildering in the case is the lack of utter motivation or benefit. In comparison, the 9/11 murderers seem much easier to explain as deeply damaged human beings.
The bodies. For quite a number of years I have been a member of the research group ‘Body and Textuality,’ and I’ll try to process my think here using the Cultural Studies tools I learned with them. I wrote for one of our collective volumes a very grim article, explaining how the techno-warfare unleashed on the frail human body during WWI, when so many disappeared, was a sort of general dress rehearsal for the Nazi final solution. This applied to the systematic extermination of the Jewish all kinds of technology designed to make bodies disappear, so successfully that many denied the Holocaust ever happened. Then the Americans dropped nuclear bombs on the Japanese that reduced many of the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to mere shadows on the wall. Between 1914 and 1945, in short, we learned the sad craft of viciously breaking bodies and disappearing persons as it had never happened before in human History.
I had to think about these matters recently as a) I have written an article criticizing J.K. Rowling for cruelly disappearing Sirius Black, most readers’ favourite character and, b) because I visited last Saturday Federico García Lorca’s museum in Fuente Vaqueros (Granada). I have actually come to the conclusion that the many dead of the Spanish Civil War whose bodies are still missing have probably taken a subconscious hold on all of us in Spain, which is, most likely, why I could not stomach Sirius’ death (he is also, let’s recall, a political prisoner wrongfully condemned to a life sentence at Azkaban for crimes he did not commit). The friends who took me to see Lorca’s house explained to me that his family’s tepid attitude towards the efforts made to find his body (he was executed for no reason at all, except that he was gay and a progressive man, by Franco supporters) can only be explained by his having been buried elsewhere, in a secret location only his closest relatives know. This would make sense, but, still, the appalling fact that he and many others are missing after so many years makes my heart flinch. In Alfredo Sanzol’s marvellous play, En la Luna (2011), a couple searching for another missing victim despair of ever giving him a proper burial. It’s the early 1990s and the optimistic man tells the depressed woman that there is no way the Olympic Games will be celebrated in Barcelona with all the dead still buried anonymously in dirty ditches by village roads. My hair stood on end… for this is where so many still are.
Reading about WWI, the Nazi death camps, Sirius Black, García Lorca… you learn that you can only properly overcome the terrible process of mourning if you celebrate funeral rites. 9/11 is fresh in our memories as a tragic event whose grief can never be truly conquered since many of the bodies simply vanished swallowed by the extreme violence of the events. Jonathan Safran Foer wrote a poignant novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), narrating how nine-year-old Oskar tries to make sense of his father’s disappearance on that day. The 9/11 missing crop up again and again in fiction, ghostly presences signalling our perplexity before the onslaught of ferocious death.
Sinister planes connect those 3,000 deaths with the 150 this week (and with the other plane, lost in the Indian Ocean one year ago, possibly in the same circumstances). We learned with 9/11 that the images of the broken bodies should not be shown, as a sign of respect for the dead. Tabloids used to show them; I still shudder at what I saw on the pages of Interview after Los Rodeos’ crash, as a too curious 10-year-old. We also learned with 9/11 that DNA positive identification is crucial to allow relatives and friends to close their process of mourning if only on the basis of minimal human remains. This very intense week, we have seen again and again on TV the families travelling to the Alps village close to the site of the tragedy, mourning around a memorial stone their dead ones–as we all hope in Spain that DNA processing will not result in the disaster that it was in the case of the military personnel lost in the accident of the fated Yak 42 flight in 2003. All this coming in the week after the local Madrid authorities gleefully announced that the mortal remains of writer Miguel de Cervantes had been disturbed from their place of eternal rest and will soon be the object of morbid curiosity for any fee-paying tourist.
Ironically, trying not to think of the broken bodies and the broken families, and of the bad luck that trapped the poor people destroyed by a frustrated person’s moment of fury, I decided to watch the most trivial of movies: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last action flick, Sabotage. Now, this is a man whose whole acting career (yes, I know this is an oxymoron) has been based on the display of his muscular body, still in possession of spectacular biceps at 67. Action films thrive, precisely, on celebration of what Yvonne Tasker once called ‘musculinity’ and I just wanted some pop-corn movie in that style. No such luck… Sabotage was, rather, a celebration of the broken body; each of Arnie’s badass team died in terrifying ways, closer to the kind of body horror I have learned to avoid than to your typical action film. The first man to be dispatched is mowed down in his Winnebago by a freight train. When Arnie gets to the site, a local police officer asks him to stick little flags to the dead man’s scattered remains… shown in all gruesome detail.
I think we, human beings, are a mad civilization. We take pains to avoid certain images from reaching us on the screen, on any screen. And, then, as you can see, we generate fake images of what we do not want to see, for enjoyment. All the many series about forensic specialists, the pleasure in zombies, all the graphic, gory detail of the fictional representation of the broken body is telling something quite ugly about who we are. This spectre first reared its head, as I say, during WWI, when the impossibility of bringing home whole bodies led to the gigantic cemeteries in France and all the war memorials. Since then, we have been growing something rotten in our souls, a psychopathic yearning to break human bodies in the worst possible ways–precisely the sick craving that filled the lost soul who destroyed so many human lives a few days ago. May they all rest in peace. May we all learn to prevent horrors like this one.
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