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Ashes to Ash 2


John Ash, Melancholic Historian


The semantic paradox at the heart of elegy makes it a prime site for the investigation of a semantics of absence, namely the construction of a monument to absence whose monumental presence, in consoling the mourner, actually ends the process of elegy and destroys the very presence of absence the monument was meant to preserve. Ash seems sensitive to this basic paradox in a work like “The Monuments” where a fictional community commit themselves to an endless process of building monuments even though, “The Monuments meant nothing of course” (Ash 134). The reasoning behind this is melancholy, “Each year the monuments grew larger / The citizens demanded this. As their lives got worse they wanted / longer staircases to descend, towering fountains...” (Ash 133). In the poem the role of art is to “take the place / of events too unbearable to discuss” (Ash 134), a classic formulation of the consoling power of the elegiac monumental utterance: to produce a reified body, in this case a huge staircase, to stand in for what is missing. A violent muscling in on melancholic absence, elegy imposes its presence at the expense of absence.


However in the sister prose piece, “Funeral Preparations in the Provinces,” Ash notes the manner in which the consoling monument subverts the very ontological presence it is designed to confirm. At the end of a complex mourning ritual where the dead father is placed on a pyre with various fantastic artefacts, Ash cynically notes: “They wept for their father who was dead, but they wept much more for the prancing horses, the elegant chariot, the gleaming kitchen” (Ash 137).

The impossibility of elegy is that it first brings presence to absence by introducing a significant utterance on the back of a radical loss. This undermines the predominant position of absence, and thus of elegy, which primarily gains its semantic power through the favouring of absence. However it also introduces into the monumental form of the presence of absence, a second radical absence which one might term the absence of absence. And once absence is removed from elegy, it ceases to be elegiac and so generically, at least, it dies. Ash is right in noting both the public usefulness of the art monument, and the manner in which the monument puts death to death within the elegiac, but he also opposes the unified monument to loss with the ruins of the lost, in a manner very close to Benjamin’s conception of redemptive history.


In the now famous “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin conceives of a melancholic rather than elegiac history, that is one that does not try to close down the aporetic processes of the presence of absence in our lives:

A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past—which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. (Benjamin 246)

This is the role of the materialist and melancholic historian, to seize all moments of time, to redeem all time, to cite everything. Ash, in this way is a tentative redemptive historian. In numerous poems his tells melancholic narratives of fragments of lost civilisations, as in “The Hotel Brown Poems”:

As we walked towards the temple
the poet said to us: ‘This may seem
a small island to you but once it was
an independent state with its own fierce navy.

The Athenians destroyed it utterly’
The old ramparts were massive, finely jointed
but the area of jumbled stones and bushes they enclosed
seemed no bigger that a modest public park. (Ash 123)

Here history is redeemed by the memory of the poet, but again into a kind of monument with the ruins being compared to a public park, which is one of the dangers of redemption that is not involved in the dialectic of the past and the present. Benjamin warns that: “The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and it never seen again...To articulate the past historically...means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger” (Benjamin 246).


The moment of danger for the event of history is not merely that of a possible forgetting but of being remembered too well. A lost memory ruins memory, but a memory seized upon in a universalist and reifying manner transforms the ruin into a folly, an over-preserved sign of a falsely homogenous past as in Ash’s poem. To redeem the past is to cite everything, to remember every flash, every moment, and because this process resides in the “now” of the apprehension of the event of the “then” in the “now,” the process has no point of cessation, Benjamin argues, until the return of the messiah at the end of time.
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