Loss, sorrow, and the small details

For all the cheerful chatter about objects that fill the world and the pleasures (great and small) that fill our lives, the facts of fragility and transience remain; all the lists we can make and fill and all the bunkers we can build and all the sizzling neural bundles we can muster will put those reliable nonfictions to flight only for a moment. I awoke this morning to find a sniffly J. at her laptop bearing a double litany of grief of two very different kinds-the terrible accountings that follow the seige of a Russian school whose teachers and students (and some of their parents) were held hostage, and the destruction by fire of the Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek, one of the world’s great repositories of German literature….

While I expect that the seige and its aftemath will be featured prominently in the American press (J. reads the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant online, partially because they’re really good about timely updating. I read Dutch at about the same rate of speed that they update their content), I’m less certain about how the destruction by fire of a great library would contend for column inches in the modern American mediasphere. While both stories have tallies of destruction and irreplaceable loss at their heart, it would be foolish to even attempt a calculus of sadness.

The enabling technologies that allow me to cram little links into my occasional ramblings and do such a fine job of flattening the information space also efficiently deliver the pathways to a thousand narratives of misfortune-of crippling events in the lives of total strangers delivered right to your screen with just enough factuality to tear your heart out, and force you move on. Oh, and have a nice day.

I think that the enormity of such tragedy is such that the only way I can imagine or deal with it is to take refuge in the contemplation of resonant detail; you start from there and work your way toward some attempt at understanding, even if you know that having all the details doesn’t mean you understand anything. Sometimes, you have help with this: a long wall covered with nothing but names, or a room full of shoes. Other times, you have to search, and to tell yourself that contemplating that search later on may tell you something valuable about yourself that will prepare you for the next search after that.

So I’ll just mention two of the little details that struck me, pause for a minute or two, and then move on.

The library fire isn’t as difficult a disaster to communicate to a non-bibliophile as it once was. The destruction of a place filled with unique and irreplaceable objects can now reliably described as a catastrophic head scrog/disk crash for some portion of someone’s entire culture; almost all of us can instantly summon that emotional memory, right down to the initial moments of hope that perhaps something was saved or could be preserved and the dreary accountings for absence that follow and reappear at random future moments. But this article from the German news included an unexpected image-of a small crowd of German citizens roused from sleep standing in the heat and the puddles and the smoke passing single volumes hand-to-hand in a great line, trying to rescue what small number of books they could. Nothing selective about it-just standing in line as books whose contents and whose market value they might have been entirely ignorant of passed from their left hands to their right hands and on to the next person in line while what remained untouched was consumed forever.

It’s too early at this point to even begin to imagine what news is to come about the seizing of Middle School #1 in Beslan, North Ossetia (it seems proper to name it in full), but one phrase in the reporting was all it took to fill my mouth with the taste of dread. It seems such a simple detail that just recording it here is all I can imagine saying, at this point.

It happened on the first day of the new school year.

Loss, sorrow, and the small details

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