Sunday, April 10, 2005

It Wasn't Just a Lost Cause, It Was a Big Waste of Time. Oh, And a Lot of People Died. You Could Look It Up.

When I went North to go to college I took with me for display in my dorm room a portrait of Gen. Robert E. Lee, the greatest and grandest of America's beautiful losers.

Not. Not.

I knew why I did it. I did it because I was confused about what it meant to be a Southerner. I was not sure it was a good thing, but I did not want to appear weak by conceding it was not a good thing before the discussion had even begun. Also, with my accent it was pretty clear I was a Southerner, but the picture made it clear I was making it clear. No apologies for being a Southerner. Apologies for the South? Ah, that was different.

I told my family I was going up there to find a Yankee girl to marry. They thought it was because I couldn't find a Southern one, but actually it was because I didn't want a Southern one. I just felt like some honesty. I just wanted someone blunt, who would say what she had to say even if I didn't agree with it. This was not a proposition carefully thought through, and my experience with Southern girls was based on a small sample. Honesty can be found down South, and misrepresentation, both gross and simple, can be found all the way to the Arctic Circle and beyond. But I did have the sense, understood and articulated only in retrospect, that as a Southerner I was trapped in a philosophical, emotional and intellectual twilight, and hooking up with a Southern girl would be the final snare. My people so very much enjoyed the past, bad movie that it was.

There was this war and we lost. You could feel one way, or you could feel the other. You could seethe about losing the war -- which makes sense; no fun losing. Or you could be glad about losing as if it were an inherited martyrdom, a kind of crucifixion. Of course, this made no sense at all, but confusion on so vast a scale had its benefits. We had a lovely sense of justified inertia, of having lost something (poor us) in the War of Southern Impotence, though just what was lost my family was pretty damn vague about or maybe I mean evasive. For they had the grace to know that the slavery thing should be set right off there to one side, well off to one side. This was a noble war that could only be noble because it was lost, a lost cause. Let's not think about the cause or let us say the cause was every damn thing except what the cause was.

States' rights. States' rights to do what? I would have these little internal dialogues, though in school I kept my mouth shut, as I was raised to do. My parents were actually pretty "good on race" in the context of the times. They did not mess me up there. Still, they loved that damn war. The failure to arrive at the war's ends justified us going on and on a century later about the means -- battles, marches, maps, stategies and sufferings -- and the good men who Wore the Gray. It was so murky, murky thinking, murky talk about the "Yankees" ravaging the Shenandoah Valley, though nobody in my family had any vivid stories about rape or burning or whatnot. It was always twilight in our thoughts. We were squinting. We couldn't make out what we meant. And we were the good people, my family and I, not the crackers, not the rednecks, not the Segs, not the people who used the N-word, which we didn't.

All my fine memories of my alleged disquiet. But when I went away to college in the North I took a picture of Robert E. Lee with me. And if you asked me why, it was out of pride in being a child of the twilight. I think of Keat's negative capability, that state of mind "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."

I'm thinking: What a stupid war, what a stupid place, what stupid people but don't you say it to me I am a poet I will hit your face. That was me back then. I married me my Yankee girl. Finally, I had the good sense to move to California, where the problems aren't my problems in the sense they aren't like some hereditary bone cancer you can't remember never having.

Why this rant? The Daily Kos had a link to this very fine essay by Ed Kilgore of the DNC on Appomattox Court House of all things. He seems to have overcome his confusion.

1 comment:

G Pabst said...

The blog goes retail.
Read one essay. Get one free. A blog bogo!
Both well worth the read, by the way.