“Abstract Numbers” of the Nanjing Massacre, Wenchuan earthquake victims

A translation of a moving article that contends the large numbers with lots of zeroes — but no specific final number and no actual names of victims — robs these two tragedies of the emotional impact they deserve.

It’s a pity that the promulgation of Lu Chuan’s art [the new film Nanjing!] still won’t overcome the enveloping inertia of reality. Jewish Sinologist Vera Schwarcz published an essay in 1995 called “World War II: Beyond the Museum Lights” that discussed how today we often say Nazis killed six million Jews, the Japanese killed 300,000 in Nanjing, but actually using these numbers and terminology makes massacres into abstractions. “Abstraction is the most fanatical enemy of memory. It murders memory because it advocates distance and, moreover, aloofness. We must remind ourselves: what was massacred was not the number six million, it was a person, then another, then another…only in this way can we understand the meaning of ‘massacre’.”*

A similar argument for the earthquake victims, whom the writer fears will be reduced to a numbing abstract number, with no memory of who they actually were. Sometimes I think we in America over-do it, but there is no denying that actual memories of the names and faces and lives of the victims will be infinitely more powerful than a number followed by some zeroes.

As I’ve said before, this site is quickly becoming one of my daily must-reads.

The Discussion: 3 Comments

First FTW. It’s amazing how much stuff I can get done when I get a day off. (Glad you liked the piece!)

April 1, 2009 @ 4:53 pm | Comment

Now I regret posting such a stupid first comment on a serious topic and want to add this: the faces, especially, can be powerful. I think ideally the most a memorial could do to “de-abstract” this kind of tragedy would be a wall full of faces with names. I’ve never actually been to a place with that sort of memorial, but I think it would be really powerful.

April 1, 2009 @ 4:57 pm | Comment

Trust me, I’ve seen stupider comments! Thanks for doing us all a service by translating these things.

April 1, 2009 @ 4:57 pm | Comment

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