There’s this fascinating conversation in Jesse Ball’s novel The Curfew. The scene is an undefined dystopic future, as so many seem to be, where a faceless government has assumed dictatorial control over an unnamed city. The people live in constant fear and anxiety, never going out after dark, always being careful not to cause any sort of ripple that might be noticed by the powers that be, living lives of weary resignation, whispering along the edges of shadows that never disappear. William lives with his young daughter Molly and makes his living as an “epitaphorist,” which entails visiting people whose loved ones have died or been killed, consulting with them about the words they want to adorn the gravestones of the deceased.
Among William’s first visits is to an elderly woman who is looking for the right words to sum up the life of her late husband.
— Well, he said, what do you think, to begin with?
— Paul Sargent Monroe, said the woman. Died before his time.
— That’s it?
— That’s it.
— He was quite old, however, that’s true, no?
The woman gave him a very serious look.
— Well, are you sure you want it to say, Died before his time, on the gravestone? I don’t mean to say that we can’t do that, because, of course, we can, if you like. It just seems a bit, well, just not exactly right.
— I see what you mean, said the woman.
They thought for a minute. Finally, she broke the silence.
— Well, we could change the date.
— The date?
— Make it say: Paul Sargent Monroe. Died before his time and change the birth date to twenty-five years ago.
William shuffled his feet.
— I suppose that’s possible, but…
— You see, said the woman, when people are in a cemetery, and they see the grave of a young man, they stop and feel sadness. If someone lived for ninety-two years, the throng passes on by. They don’t stop for even a moment. I want to be sure of, well…
— I see what you mean.
This is, on one level, a social commentary on the dehumanizing and individuality-obliterating character of totalitarian political regimes. When life is cheap, when creative expression is stifled, when dissent is ruthlessly suppressed, people will do anything to cling to their humanity, to remind themselves that human stories matter. That they ought to be noticed and remembered. That they weren’t for nothing. Nothing matters more than this, we think, even if we have to invent a more eye-catching story than the one that was lived. The woman’s request is, on one level, a plea for the dignity, value, and wonder of a lived human life.
I wonder, though, if the cultural diagnosis extends further yet. The conversation between William and the woman continues:
— Well, he said. If you’re going to do it that way, maybe it’s better to have him die as a child. It could be that he was six when he died, and the inscription could read, Paul Sargent Monroe, Friend of cats. It would evoke his personality a bit, and certainly people would pause then.
A sort of ragged quiet was broken by another fit of coughing.
Happy tears were in the woman’s eyes.
— I see why they send you, she said. You’re right, just exactly right. That’s just what we’ll do. After all, it doesn’t matter what the truth of it was, does it? It’s just to have people stop, and be quiet for a moment. Maybe it’s late in the afternoon and they’re on their way somewhere, to a restaurant. They stopped at the cemetery briefly, and then they pass the grave, and, oh, now they’ll stop a moment. Now they will.
It doesn’t matter what the truth of it was, does it? It’s just to have people stop… If we’re going to make the story up as we go or recast it after the fact, we might as well make it a good one, right? Why not shave a couple decades off a life to make it more tragic? Why not turn a nonagenarian into a small child? Anything to make people notice, right? Anything to evoke a response. After all, it doesn’t really matter what the truth of it was, does it?
The absurdity of the conversation is meant to get our attention. Probably. Or, come to think of it, perhaps not. Maybe such a project doesn’t strike us as absurd as it once would have. Perhaps in a context like ours, where our identities are thought to be almost infinitely malleable and selectively absolute, where our online selves are constantly crafted and curated for public consumption (and, we desperately hope, affirmation), where so many features of public life that were once seen as given are now up for grabs, where there are few, if any, broad narratives capable of capturing our imagination and directing our lives, where the only remaining non-negotiables seem to be the burdensome imperatives of the self and its ongoing definition…. Perhaps for people like us in times like ours, a conversation like the above doesn’t seem absurd at all. The only thing that matters is that people stop and notice us. We can scarcely imagine loftier ambitions than this.
All of this is, of course, simply a reframing of the well-rehearsed critique of postmodernism and some of the conundrums it leaves us to wrestle with. If there is no more Truth, then there are only the smaller fragmentary truths of our own creation. If there is no larger story within which to orient ourselves, there are only smaller competing stories fighting for their place at an increasingly crowded and conflicted table. If there is no God, there are only the little gods that inevitably scramble in to take God’s place—for to be human is to worship, and we will inevitably bow down somewhere, even if at the altar of ourselves. If the facts of the matter no longer matter, then all we are left with is shouting and grasping after power.
If objectivity is reduced to inconvenient fiction, then subjectivity becomes a tyrannical master. If nothing is given, then everything must be taken.