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Sunday, March 7, 2010

Lost in Translation

You'd think that, as a literature major, I wouldn't be as resistant to symbols and abstraction as I am. I live in the realm of abstraction; it's a comfortable place, they know me here. I'm getting a degree in it, even. I'm so used to dealing with the realm of the metaphor and story, actually, that it can be really hard to turn that part of my brain off sometimes. "Will you just sit back and enjoy the movie?" my husband occasionally smirks at me. (Other times, he's worse than me. We laugh it off.)

It's not really myth or symbol itself that bothers me. It's seeing that process of myth-making firsthand that's been so disorienting. When a deceased person passes from a living, imperfect being to a myth, to me it almost feels like an annihilation of the individual who once lived but now can't speak for themselves. And yet, I'm a medievalist, for crying out loud, I've read saint's lives.  Sanctification, many times, is a process of forgetting; when the imperfections that made them a mere person are gone, then someone writes a text to exemplify their holiness. And that's how you make a saint in the early Middle Ages: forgetting, coupled with a narrative. No wonder that some of my favorite holy people are often the tenacious ones, the royal pain in the asses who spoke for themselves or left a record of their frailties: Perpetua, Augustine, Boniface, Leoba; Thomas á Beckett; Julian; John Donne. 

Abstraction anxiety?

And a lot of it is my feeling that the media is portraying Matthew Shepard as a saint. And making him as a martyr. And I don't think he was. I don't think he was that pure.

-- Sherry Johnson, in TLP (2001): 64

Although thinking of what has happened to Matt as a translation to sainthood is admittedly anachronistic, the process that Sherry dislikes above is nevertheless a good fit: forgetting, coupled with a story, makes Matt something more than human and less than human at the same time. He's a symbol or a myth. When that happens in a story like TLP, where's the real person? To where, and as what, does he get translated to?  And I also wonder: where does that very human impulse to translate the flesh and blood of a real person to symbol come from? Sherry Johnson fears that impulse, I would say, for all the wrong reasons; she merely believes that Matt isn't a good candidate based on the slander and hearsay she's picked up around town. I'm just as hesitant, but I'm more concerned about the ethics of making a man into a myth in the first place. Is it fair to the deceased? Or, is it what they would want?

It's not just regarding Matt, however, that I've wondered about this.  I saw the same thing happen when my grandmother died earlier last year (It will be one year next week). My grandmother was, honestly, a remarkable woman: stubborn, fiery, and loyal, she could out-drink and out-curse a man in the way that only a horse-breaker's daughter from the Judith Basin could. She lived through a turbulent marriage with an angry and often violent man for over half a century, made a career for herself, and raised two independent daughters.

And yet at her funeral, she became the loving, obedient wife, he was the cheerful husband, and they lived a loving, compassionate marriage. That's what the preacher said, anyhow, when faced with writing a euology for a woman he'd never met. My sister turned to me with a look of horror on her face while my grandfather and his children just nodded, seemingly in agreement. I thought I was living in The Twilight Zone. If you talked to our family after the funeral, Grandma turned into a type: the perfect wife, the ideal mother, the best grandma ever... I was doing it too, I kept catching myself. The abstraction of my grandmother was, for a time, more comfortable-- and more powerful-- than the profane and passionate woman with whom we had lived. When I got my mother and her sister out of the communal fold and talked more privately, however, we talked about her again as she really was. The impulse to abstract her seemed confined to a community, rather than an individual level.

When it comes to Matt, it bothers me a little that I know so little about this person who has had such a profound effect on my own life by the simple fact that he died horrifically. I really didn't want to treat him as the abstraction, and so I started craving messy, mundane details about his life. When a Casper native told me that Matt was actually a pain in the butt kid to deal with when they were growing up, I was thrilled. I was a pain in the butt kid, too; I could finally relate. I prefer my people to be complicated. I like the messiness of humanity, more imperfect than ideal. As far as I'm concerned, that's where you can see the glory in God's creation.

When I teach this play, my students are really frustrated with the lack of information they get about who Matt really was, too; some of them have even referred to him as a "hole" in the center of the play. Little things in TLP can gesture to, but can never really reach, that real Matt-- like his lack of common sense, for instance, or his possible attachment to his shoes. But since that real person is now irrevocably out of reach, that's all the play can do--gesture towards the absence, try desperately not to forget. And yet, even as it tries to commemorate Matt and keep him from disappearing, it participates in that act of sacramentalization that gives him a narrative, and a symbolism, that can threaten to overshadow the real human being who gave rise to it.

And why can't they ever get at the real Matt Shepard? It's no fault of Tectonic Theater; they can never get to the real Matt because his murderers robbed him of the ability to speak for himself.

Another thing that bothers me is how the fact of the Matt-ideal changes how his death gets treated. For instance, I was talking with someone who said Matt's death was such a shame because "he seemed to be headed towards such good things-- like he was going to be somebody special." I had to demur. To me, it wouldn't matter if Matt was headed towards being President or a part-time roofer living near the cement plant. The tragedy for me is that he was a real person and didn't get to choose his own destiny. Recently, when the Shepard-Byrd Act finally squeaked into law after years of floundering, a friend who knows about my history texted me excitedly:

I heard here at [a restaurant] and it made my day. we're one step closer and Matthew's death is no longer in vain.

To be honest, the sentiment made me pause, and I started wondering: what does it mean for somebody's death to be not "in vain?" Is a death something we can really exchange for some good social reforms to make it all better? (I ask myself these same questions about James.) If we asked Matt what he'd prefer-- to be a major symbol of the equality movement and have a national hate crimes bill named after him, or to live just a little bit longer, to complain about school and grades, to be lonely or unemployed and suffer angst and doubt again-- what would he pick? I know what I'd pick. TS Eliot, however, when he had Thomas á Beckett consider the same situation, was sorely tempted with the power of becoming a saint because he was terrified of this thought:
And men shall only do their best to forget you.
And later is worse, when men will not hate you
Enough to defame or execrate you,
But pondering the qualities that you lacked
Will only try to find the historical fact. (38-39).
Faced with the entropy of history, Beckett considers martyrdom and abstracting himself into sainthood even though he fears damnation for his pride. He knows the power he will have as a saint, as one translated from the earth to something far less historical, less concrete, and far more potent, than a mere human being. Would the lure for that kind of power be something that a real person would  actually pick?  It must be-- Che Guevara did it. 

But that's the problem: Matt didn't get to pick. He just had that terrible fate forced upon him by a couple of men looking no farther than his his wallet and his shoes. But perhaps I over-think things. I didn't make any mention of all this to my friend, naturally; I just texted him back to thank him for the sentiment.
And that's the reason that I suppose I've had a problem referring to "Matt Shepard" for the most part when I talk about him. To me, "Matt" was a real, live human being whom I never knew, one of God's gloriously imperfect creations just as frail and amazing as the rest of us. "Matt Shepard," however, is a symbol of something else entirely. When in doubt, I default to the human. It made me almost jump out of my seat when Romaine Patterson said the exact same thing in The Laramie Project:10 Years Later a while ago; I had naively failed to consider how those who knew Matt might be thinking about all this, too. I guess that the main difference is that it sounds like Romaine has made peace with the existence of those two Matts, and she has found value in both. Perhaps that's the best path to take.

In any case, Romaine, thanks for being willing to say that. You've given me a lot to chew over.

PS-- in case you were wondering, today is a Catholic feast day-- Perpetua of Carthage, one of my favorite saints.  She and several of her friends died in an arena somewhere in or near Carthage in 203 AD, and she left behind a fascinating account of her time in prison.  The stained glass above commemorates her death with her co-martyr Felicty by damnatio bestiae.  Perpetua is carrying a palm branch signifying her martyrdom.


1) Saint Boniface, Apostle to the Germans from a window in the Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs (OLEM) in Cambridge.  From Lawrence OP's Flickr Photostream: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Saint Boniface was a self-appointed missionary to the Saxons and Frisians in the eighth century, and he left behind a body of letters detailing his work.  He was a stubborn, self-righteous, socially insensitive curmudgeon-- and he was holy.   He is buried next to his kinsman Leoba (an equally incredible and stubborn person) in Fulda, Germany. 

He is pictured here holding a book with a sword through it, representing the nature of his martyrdom.  He was attacked by a band of Frisians while preaching, and he tried to defend himself with the book he was holding in his hands. The book reportedly survives as one of the Codicii Bonifatii (but a fellow medievalist friend of mine who has studied Boniface assures me that it's not the right book).
2)  Julian of Norwich, window from Norwich cathedral.  Photo courtesy of Ian-S's Flickr Photostream: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Julian was an anchoress of Norwich in the Middle Ages (that means she literally walled herself into a cell to pray and meditate the rest of her life).  Julian was the foremost mystic of her day; God granted her a series of visions, called shewings, which she meditated on and wrote about in Revelations of Divine Love.  They're utterly fascinating. 
3) Detail of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, from church of Notre-Dame of Vierzon, France, 19th century.  Original photo by Gaetan Poix.  Available under a Creative Commons 3.0 license. 


Eliot, T. S. Murder in the Cathedral. 1935. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1963.

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