the limits of (my) sympathy
by Fran Lock, with image above by kennardphillips
exhorted to remember her humanity, as if humanity itself were some vaguely miraculous quality, and not the generic condition of everyone from vladimir putin to harpo marx. humanity is so what? is factory settings, the bare minimum requirement. or, because this is schrödinger’s humanity, an arbitrary rhetorical expedient, it phases into existence at the precise moment that scrutiny is applied. that’s cake-and-eat-it talk, and it’s much too late for that. to have lived as an idea, within the hazy, elevated aura of institutional privilege, is to die as an idea. no readmission. no exceptions. and no compromise.
i close my eyes and i see her cold, abstracted stare glyphed big onto shankill terraces, and some bellowing ’ead-the-ball going grey-shush!!!! into my terrified ten-year-old face. or i see a mainland they measure in parade grounds and playgrounds, where all the anthems of unwelcome bare her likeness. so of course, i would be like this, wouldn’t i?
yes. but i know well enough what rational, reasonable people are wont to say: that testimony isn’t evidence; that your grievance invalidates your grievance: chippy little mick, little pikey, little sympathiser. where my sympathy is the negative of sympathy, a perverse inversion of sympathy, its doppelgänger, its creepy, haunted twin. when we mourn, when we sympathise, our mourning is a morally obnoxious act, inseparable from our politics. no humanity ’ere, missus. just boggarts and monsters. psycho-killers, qu'est-ce que c'est? what i can’t stop thinking about is the denial of our humanity – those boys, those boys, the older i get the younger they were – by the british state and the british press, how pitiless that was. why does the brain return to and circle that terrible year? why, in 2022, am i making this obsessive mental pilgrimage to 1981? how to say? here is an incomplete list:
in an editorial, four days before his death on may 5th, the sun describes bobby sands as: ‘a common criminal who is being treated better than he deserves’. john junor writes in the sunday express that ‘i will shed no tears when sands dies, my only hope is that if and when he does every other ira terrorist will go on the same sort of hunger strike in sympathy. and stay on it until they are all in wooden suits’ on the 66th day of the strike when sands finally succumbed, the daily mail branded him ‘a moral fraud’, the telegraph fog-horned that ‘blackmail has failed’, and the sun that ‘the society which has stood firm against violence in [these] long bloodstained years will remain unshaken.’ futile deaths cynically staged on behalf of a spurious cause by men who were – simultaneously – violent criminals, delusional zealots, pathetic pawns. the mind is halted here because this characterisation of the long kesh hunger strikers coloured the way in which our grief was framed, interpreted and held. for many years after. what it was acceptable to say, permissible to feel, the forms your sadness was allowed to take, the space it was allowed to take up. in england.
the oldest of those men was joe mcdonnell (29), the youngest thomas mcelwee (23). they had done terrible things. but their world was full of terrible things. to grow up poor, under occupation, as a second-class citizen. to live with and inside of violence, the claustrophobic pressure of it. the fear, the stress. no exit. whose lives – whose conception of what life even is – must necessarily be abbreviated, stripped back to a few desperate gestures. what i’m driving at is the question of how sympathy will be accorded. who has earned and who deserves their humanity back in their final extremis?
when i think about humanity in its most spirited sense, i think about us, and the hysterical strength our survival demanded – demands. the humanity, that is, that does not inhere, but that emerges and becomes, is made by a thousand tender recognitions of the other in our midst. i am thinking of a vigilant and principled forgiveness in the face of occupation, poverty, exhaustion, and loss; acts of daily rededication: to gentleness, to perseverance, to each other. i am thinking of the effort required to bring forth such nectar, how the burden of this giving is shouldered by those who have least. sympathy is a precious emotional resource; it is painfully finite. it simply cannot stretch to meet the irrational demands of our oppressors to be loved. what i mean by this, is that my sympathy is a gift, an expression of solidarity and care. i will it into being against a long, sad history of intergenerational trauma; against grief, fury, and the immobilizing melancholy of absolute burnout. it extracts energy, it requires courage. it renders us uniquely vulnerable. when i bestow sympathy – when we bestow sympathy – it is intentional and meant: i choose to risk this openness with you because you are worth this risk. i have not seen one thing she’s done that merits this recognition from us, our colonised peoples, their prole-grace.
malaya; kenya; yemen; chile; nigeria....
if you like (if you don’t) put it another way: you cannot honour the victim if you are actively sympathising with their abuser. do i know what i mean by this? not quite, but there is something like betrayal in it. when does an expression of sympathy become an either-or proposition? it has something to do with choice, maybe. it has something to do with power, that fatal imbalance. here is an incomplete list:
the malayan emergency (1948-1960): as a consequence of a guerrilla war between the british armed forces and the malayan national liberation army, the british authorities declared a state of emergency, initiating a twelve year long campaign in which the british military set fire to the homes and farmland belonging to those suspected of having ties to the mnla. during this period they relocated an estimated 400,000 people into concentration camps and sprayed crops with agent orange in order to starve out insurgents.
or the repression of the mau mau rebellion (1952-1960): in which the anti-colonial uprising by kenyan militants saw a counterinsurgency campaign that condemned more than a hundred thousand kikuyu, neru and embu kenyans to detention camps where many were tortured, beat, and sexually abused. by 1960, according to the kenyan human rights commission, over 160,00 kenyans were detained in the camps, and an estimated 90,000 had been maimed or tortured.
or selling weapons both to royalist forces in yemen (1962-1969) and to pinochet’s brutal fascist dictatorship in chile (1973, and throughout the 1980s). or siding with the nigerian forces against the attempted biafran secession (1960): in which some one million members of the ibo ethnic tribe were killed or starved. or –
....and northern ireland
of course, it is the north of ireland that haunts me. to the extent that i can’t separate this empire from its living symbol. stability, they said, continuity. she stood by us. no. she just stood by. indifferent, disinterested, utterly removed. a contradiction, perhaps, a paradox: potent yet powerless. that is, without any real agency of her own, born into the stifling lockjaw of decorum, the isolation and estrangement of hereditary status. and yet, how vivid and compelling as a symbol, as the kitsch and endlessly marketable signifier of britain, or britishness. the acceptable face of. when i think of her it is as something shiny and hollow, a receptacle for whatever idea is expedient to government, to empire. liz without context or depth, a heavily moralised mask, a cartoon, a cardboard cut-out made of herself. oh nationhood, oh philanthropy, oh family. if i could feel, i would feel for this. but to be used in this way is also a choice, isn’t it? an act of moral abdication, a failure of both imagination and ethical nerve. what duty do we owe to humanness? to the humanity of others?
i don’t dispute the sincerity of my friends, or deride their often-troubled expressions of kindness, but this sympathy is being swallowed up by an enormous void, a void that doesn’t recognise their humanity or their effort. for the abused, abjected or oppressed person sympathy is a discipline, for the powerful and the privileged it is a luxury. to afford her this humanity now is to divert and misdirect our difficult love; is to convert that love into an ugly, homogenous expression of obedience. all of england mourns. no. what does it mean to mourn? who is this england? to find ourselves once more outside the imaginative limits of the state, or to be laboriously and imperfectly absorbed by it. they are trying to assimilate us, to perpetuate an illogical and emotionally sensitised state.
who elected him?
in this atmosphere the ascension of charles zips past with indecent haste, ensuring that no conversation about the necessity for a monarchy can intervene. stability is also status-quo, and not everyone benefits equally from preserving that. republican protestors are being arrested. a woman in edinburgh for holding a sign reading ‘fuck imperialism, abolish monarchy’ and a man in oxford who shouted “who elected him?” during a reading of a proclamation in oxford on sunday. both protestors arrested for ‘breach of the peace’. this is where we are, and this is what accretes around these figures, what concentrates within them, this is the state that they legitimate. not sufficiently respectful? to jail with you. the state is criminalising protest, and it is criminalising undesirables, and will any of them lift a finger to help us? make a statement? raise an eyebrow? or does love only flow to model citizens, loyal subjects? to the perfectly respectful? to the quietly compliant?
refusing to honour her life and legacy is not the same as celebrating her demise. i reserve the right to confused feelings, and to complex feelings, and to no feelings. i keep the solidarity pact of my sympathy for other recipients.
The dread poems
i will not
say that you are better off, despite
this year of serially stomached dread,
the radio narrowly maundering,
awfulness passively partnered: once,
twice, three times around, achilles’
heel caught in the rigging of a blue
waltz wigging out. i will not say it,
my tearing wastrel, our sackcloth
scoundrel, scuppering and thrawn.
once, twice, three times: your pain
drawn up from the dull well
of an important love. and all your
footery fondnesses, gathering bad
faith to themselves. even so. even
now, as the world steadies itself for
worse: our solvents, our fallouts,
the fumbling troth of our hexanes,
gold in its lustrous dogma; the war’s
shrewd workings. a crust is thumbed,
and a begging lung is bleating out
the blether of its foulness. but i will
not, despite the thinning wheat,
the ergot in our meted grain. a plight
of sparrows, a slow defeat of thrush,
a harm of tender starlings. finally,
the eye, milked of its insolence,
poorly starred. one, two, and ready
or not, into the pockets of their
gombeen ilk go all the witty
usuries of capital. monsters, crudely
silkened. but i will not. in a time
of wild garlic. in a time of slender
pickets. in a time of absent hands.
in a time of mouths, hot and bloody
with the susurrus of eviction.
and we will sell, first our trifled
then our treasured, then ourselves.
but never each other. so stay, return,
pluck a sweet needle of grass,
the scrumpy tang of pilfered fruit.
and watch the sky. how like yourself,
to shimmer like a solved ghost
and move towards the raving light.
in the end they will eat their own, glaikit
and railing. if you think they won’t, you
are so wrong. never mind, you are tired
all the time. your name is leaking from
the sly, puckered mouths of your affluent
frienemies. there is an obscure pain, a hot
obstruction. in the mouth, in the bowel.
how to go on? the peeling skin of you
is socially sewn, you sweat this winter
undertaking. i swear these english eat
their own. oh, starry-eyed economies,
the forced spite swallowed in a wimpy
text. doubled up, to the bent scope
of a wiry tory thought. you bank their
dirty normal, take it inside, save it for
later. your hunger is climbing the black
rungs of an onion while jamie net worth
oliver tells you how to break yourself
up over a blue flame for under a pound.
you will scrape the spent heat from your
duvet, as the nightmare exceeds your
defeatist thrashing. you are tired all
the time, so graciously mortgaged, so
softly despairing, in the silk pyjamas
of your dead zeal. you carry your rage
on your back like a failed parachute,
falling, like a failed suicide, drifting to
earth, a determined feather, you weigh
next to nil. there is no food, they
have sharpened the songbirds, the sob-
birds, the weasel teeth of ego,
the bagging hook’s patient caresses.
in the end you will slump in the dark,
strewn and rouged, staring the pin-
hole down. you will open yourself
like a bloodshot eye, cabbage-white
cursors flicking all over you. you are
the pre-loved coin of your own realm,
dry-humping your nothings to sweetness.
oh, metered screw. oh, sundered flop.
oh, dusty byword. if you can, you will
glow the machine to tokens, spooning
the ready honey of yourself into
their holes, the failed claims dug
in your goldrush. if you can’t, then
on: to the side-hustle of a stopped
heart. to the amazon mantras
of a mindfully-fucked. doomed
as food. and jeff net worth bezos is
your personal fucking raincloud. is
your household god, curling
a jewelled shit in your hearth. i’m
not trying to frighten you, but you
must be ready, your stomach spilling
open its warm rake of ash, its scald of
air, its sawdust mountain of mouldy
bangers. oh, cadaver girl, we were
lions. we could fit this lightbulb
moon in our mouths. now look, this
angerlund, this nasty salivatrix,
smoothing her hair, dressed in
a mail of cancelled onesers. they are
not men, they are zombies in heat:
they don’t eat because they are hungry,
they eat because they can. and we are
hanging like cured meat inside
a life of airless, viral humiliations. we
were warriors. would trample them:
all open foes, all sugared sneaks. in
a gown of heaving weather, be the
dressed axe, enter this cutting fold.
you were crying because?
it was dr net worth caligari and her
cabinet of sinister ironies, the light-
bulb’s hot indecent for the last time.
how do they sleep, and where will
we? go to the green wood, rip up
the drear, untimely scuts of salix.
crack willow, goat willow, white
as any hastened bride. it was this
face, the raw farce of her smart-
arsed gamine sapped. you are old,
both sundered and glut. i say my
circling over and over. twitching
phlox, a pox rose. i wept myself
shut. soiled hellebore. wet
anemones. these days of sweet,
hysterical remark. darling, did
yous know, i’m a sparrow? my
little beak is all business. yes, i
am the crack of sparrows,
concocting a climax of worms in
my mouth. yes, i’m the asbestos
sparrow, a ghetto suggestion
of bird, i have swallowed this
trippy scald of morning – sky
on fire – and shit out song. he
called me sparrow, so i must be
this funerary ninja, this hedge
figment, the sun a scarlet
machination, the sun my scarlet
enemy. a beautiful punishment
dries out the ground. it was
the heat, dear, and who wouldn’t
cry for the birds? jaws of a chorus,
wired unsaid. it is this scraping age.
the alt-right, cathode-eyed and empty,
who people else this trending war
with booted ludder-logics. it is men,
route march of interloping meat. is
the left-right-left of a yomping
song, and all their scunnered
slogans meatballed into meaning.
yes, i am crying for the girls:
morsels skewered on a porcelain
fork. yes, it’s the pain, being
daintily voided, day after day, my
skin routine is a bowl of shards,
i am fat with bleeding and you
can’t help me. darling, did yous
know, i’m a dirty word for
the worst kind of animal there
is? my howl is a hail mary, our
lady of atresia, of imperforate
syndromes abnormally closed,
seal me against this tribunal
of giants whose hands are a bad
day idly gentling. no really, i’m
a pall of euphemistic fur. dog-
head, queen bitch in a room
of prayerful hostiles. girl is
a wolf-thing, a lunar rejoinder,
the moon, her moon, this hooligan
cherry. it was the water, of course.
it was the war. it was the formal
dread and metered leccy. but yes,
it was also my heartbeat balanced
in a spoon. it is the present,
feebly mischiefed. was. how there
is a snake in my belly forever,
a rope of uneaten liquorice.