Eavan Boland, “A Habitable Grief”

This is what language is: a habitable grief. Reading those words back to myself, I struggle to understand how they apply to the current situation. I watched a group of wealthy young men enter a store and shame another for wearing a protective face mask. The one shamed promptly took the mask off. Nothing I would consider grief hung in the air when that happened, but the death toll from the virus was around 70,000 then.

Not much time has passed since that day. Are we grieving at the current toll of 100,000? Will we ever mourn together? Language is a habitable grief–I do believe that Boland is correct–but while those in the United States of America speak English, they don’t speak a common language. We say words to each other, but we mean entirely different things. There are many who believe they are terribly inconvenienced for wearing a mask in public. They have no idea what it’s like to not have light in one’s home because the power company wasn’t paid.

I have too many thoughts about this subject. I’m not sure how to provide a proper framework for approaching the matter. The typical interlocutor I encounter will argue that it is possible to speak a language with agreed upon meanings and morals. What we need to do, he will say, is embrace a specific religion or set of traditions. A much more advanced expression of this line of thought can be glimpsed in Seamus Heaney’s Nobel lecture, where he demonstrates concern that some narratives lend credence to colonialist/imperialist endeavors. Nonetheless, he holds that “if we have learned to be rightly and deeply fearful of elevating the cultural forms and conservatisms of any nation into normative and exclusivist systems, even if we have terrible proof that pride in an ethnic and religious heritage can quickly degrade into the fascistic, our vigilance on that score should not displace our love and trust in the good of the indigenous per se.”

I believe I’ve learned enough the past 4 years to expand ever so slightly on Heaney’s comment. Authoritarian ideology and attitudes are not separable from profound laziness and ignorance. I haven’t seen much genuine “pride in an ethnic and religious heritage,” but I have witnessed fear of anything that challenges the most self-serving, obnoxious fragment of a myth. Take, for example, “my ancestors made it in America through hard work and following rules.” This is only said to oppose the prospect of the simplest reforms, such as an adequate social safety net or criminal justice reform. A small sample of what is not accounted for: the open borders which existed for a large part of the 19th century; the reality of Reconstruction, sharecropping, and racial terrorism; the Chinese Exclusion Act; the ways in which segregation found its way into policy and law well beyond the South; eugenics. It’s a stunningly ignorant statement that no educated person should even consider, let alone make. Yet it represents the governing ideology of the United States.

On that note, I feel like Heidegger’s comment about a Germany caught between communism and capitalism in “Introduction to Metaphysics” speaks fear above all. It endorses national disgrace and unspeakable atrocities for the sake of a vague pride and imaginary threats to sovereignty. I find this hard to reconcile with his playfulness with Greek philosophical terminology, a playfulness which helps drive my own inquiry. I think a lot about telos being the literal end of matter, the limits which make it a being in the world. The limits are reached because it reaches fulfillment, perhaps fulfillment of its nature, its phusis. One can accuse Heidegger of making high-sounding noises, but those of us who’ve spent a lot of time struggling with the Presocratics, Plato, and Aristotle may be more keen on how he reads. He’s not letting the terms collapse into pedantry; he’s trying to recover the spirit in which the Greeks themselves fought about these notions. You can see the outlines of how earlier thinkers could emphasize different ideas and debate what was fundamentally at stake.

All of this is to say that laziness and ignorance concerning the most important matters can be had by anyone, even those who demonstrate especial sensitivity to how language works. So what would it mean to have genuine “love and trust in the good of the indigenous,” as Heaney says? Would that bring us to a place where we mourn collectively?

Boland speaks as if her individual experience encompasses far more than personal growth. This is what language is: a habitable grief is an earned conclusion. In childhood, “long ago,” she was “in a strange country:”

A Habitable Grief
Eavan Boland

Long ago
I was a child in a strange country:

I was Irish in England.

I learned
a second language there
which has stood me in good stead--

the lingua franca of a lost land.

A dialect in which
what had never been could still be found.

The infinite horizon. Always far
and impossible. That contrary passion
to be whole.

This is what language is:
a habitable grief. A turn of speech
for the everyday and ordinary abrasion
of losses such as this

which hurts 
just enough to be a scar.

And heals just enough to be a nation.

She opens the poem as if she’s telling a story to children. When she declares I was Irish in England, she’s speaking about being lost and hurt in ways only a child can understand and being lost and hurt in ways which can only be understood decades later.

The poem places the audience in the position of being children. Whatever skill we obtain will be immediately helpful given from where we’re starting. For her: I learned a second language there which has stood me in good stead. She learned English and it provided a home of sorts, a “good stead.” This is a most complicated proposition, as those of us who’ve struggled with being treated as an outsider can attest. –I know I’m speaking the same language as those ignoring or mistreating me. Why am I not being heard?–

Using the language of the colonizer as the colonized creates a strange sense of home. The “good stead,” the “second language” is the lingua franca of a lost land. Home is universal, the realm of the possible, and a lost land all at once. It’s communication oscillating between everyone and no one. Boland focuses on being Irish as a product of confrontation with England and using English itself. The trouble, if I’ve posed the problem correctly, is that “Irish” can entirely occupy a space which is simply “not English.” Occupation of that space does not merely fail to do justice to the Irish or the English. What about all the others the Empire has colonized and hurt, declared superiority over just because? Surely they also had to learn English in order to discover and assert their identity.

English is a lingua franca for pains and yearnings yet to be discovered, explored, and understood. Because of imperialism, it constitutes a dialect in which what had never been could still be found. Our pains point the way to our joys; in like manner, being an individual points the way to solidarity. Imperfect regimes and injustices gesture simultaneously toward a more perfect union and the world beyond.

Boland understands that hers is a logic of anticipation. I turned to this poem for insight on how collective mourning is possible in a land that gets its religion and civics from sensationalist cable news and radio designed to continually feed anger. I believe the poem wants me to pay closer attention to how mourning is learned. I remember being an angry, self-absorbed kid who could not understand the suffering others endured. I remember there wasn’t much to tell me to get over myself. Religious rhetoric was about following rules, not getting in trouble, and being nice. If it touched on other areas, it did so in the name of ritual and tradition. It wasn’t really concerned about being a certain sort of person, even though some picked up on that and followed through. The primary civic emphasis I’ve seen with regard to grief is “the troops.” As if John Lewis didn’t get his head split open for the sake of Civil Rights, or in other words, making America a full democracy by sacrificing for its creed.

Grief is not just a reaction to loss. It’s a reflection of all the values which comprise a society. After all, what we often hold to be most noble–what we esteem most–is how people deal with difficulties, how they confront the starkest circumstances and most profound injuries. To live in a society which adores the cheapest sort of celebrity, where acting out gets attention and adulation, is to live in a society which hasn’t grown beyond where I was at 14 years of age. We can’t mourn, because the rhetoric of The infinite horizon. Always far and impossible. That contrary passion to be whole demands a certain maturity. One has to recognize that one speaks to oneself continually about the impossible, creating losses in addition to the losses already had. Expectations are a vengeance upon the self. The “contrary passion to be whole” is a torment which an individual embraces, hoping for a happiness which need not be spoken, but never resolves. Ironically, embracing it makes one more of an individual and can create a greater solidarity with everyone else who has high, almost spiritual expectations for themselves.

In order to mourn, what is needed is a language of the spirit. To be sure, this is a way of speaking ripe for grift and exploitation. When Boland details “a habitable grief,” she specifies its content: A turn of speech for the everyday and ordinary abrasion of losses such as this which hurts just enough to be a scar. She’s not talking about long simmering resentment that boils over into revolution as much as the pains of the “everyday” and the “ordinary.” Her focus is on the legacy of pain each endures. It’s not hard to see this language as a reaction to a daily stream of news from a war where neighbors have turned on each other. If one can appreciate what everyone endures–if one can build from that scarring–a new nation is possible. It is more a spiritual realm than anything else, where as her final line attests, language has been harnessed into mutual recognition and healing. Still, it’s a real possibility for a nation, maybe the only morally responsible possibility. It hard to imagine the United States of Fox News getting there any time soon, as mutual recognition of pain does not mean weighting others’ pain equally. Media observers have talked about the consistent use of “both sides” rhetoric in commentary on current events, where those who jail children are treated with as much legitimacy as those who feed the hungry. One thing missing from that discussion is how horribly infantile this way of approaching things is, as if what matters most is who wins a high school debate tournament. If the “everyday and ordinary abrasion of losses…. heals just enough to be a nation,” it does so because people want to hear voices other than their own, want to hear about experience and loss, how a limit reached constituted a sense of being.

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