January 21, 2009


An inauguration is a state funeral for the undead, and state funerals are great art pieces. The funeral of the last Pope, of Kennedy, Diana, even of Nixon -- all used color and composition to create an identifiable aesthetic, and provoke emotions aligned with the occasion. The Obama Inauguration did as well. 
Among many other things, the ceremony was a trigger for a kind of grief about wasted time, or opportunity, or lack of courage. This happened while the red-nosed undead grimly watched from his seat, in front of walls of white marble, surrounded in the stands by blue- and black-coated witnesses. And the millions of onlookers seemed (in the satellite images) like the red Styx encroaching -- his cue to get on the ferry and cross over to the other side. Or at least back to Texas. 
Some years ago, writer and New Yorker fiction editor William Maxwell wrote an essay about his state of mind as he approached his 90th year. He had a lot to say about reflection and its perils, and I found myself re-reading his essay after the inauguration. Of memory, Maxwell says: "I have liked remembering almost as much as I have liked living. But now it is different, I have to be careful. I can ruin a night's sleep by suddenly, in the dark, thinking about some particular time in my life. Before I can stop myself it is as if I had driven a mine shaft down through the layers and layers of the past and must explore, relive, remember, reconsider, until daylight delivers me." This nocturnal struggle further reconciled him to his "own inevitable extinction." 
Maxwell's departure not long after he wrote the essay was final, not aeronautic, so grief for him had a clear trajectory. I think the Inauguration of Barack Obama established, both visually and viscerally, only the opening of that mine shaft of memory, only the beginning of that strange work. It seemed to mark not just the starting point for a new era, embodied by a new President reconciled to his own past, but also the starting point for a collective grief about actions taken by a protagonist (himself unburdened by reflection) whom we all must still see, hear, and react to. 

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