Saturday, January 31, 2009

power of the corpse

Read a news article today. I am hesitant to link to the original page, for reasons that you'll understand if you've read this entry of mine. It has a picture of a dead man.

Here is the printer-friendly page.

DETROIT -- This city has not always been a gentle place, but a series of events over the past few, frigid days causes one to wonder how cold the collective heart has grown.

It starts with a phone call made by a man who said his friend found a dead body in the elevator shaft of an abandoned building on the city's west side.

"He's encased in ice, except his legs, which are sticking out like Popsicle sticks," the caller phoned to tell this reporter.

"Why didn't your friend call the police?"

"He was trespassing and didn't want to get in trouble," the caller replied. As it happens, the caller's friend is an urban explorer who gets thrills rummaging through and photographing the ruins of Detroit. It turns out that this explorer last week was playing hockey with a group of other explorers on the frozen waters that had collected in the basement of the building. None of the men called the police, the explorer said. They, in fact, continued their hockey game.

Before calling the police, this reporter went to check on the tip, skeptical of a hoax. Sure enough, in the well of the cargo elevator, two feet jutted out above the ice. Closer inspection revealed that the rest of the body was encased in 2-3 feet of ice, the body prostrate, suspended into the ice like a porpoising walrus.

The hem of a beige jacket could be made out, as could the cuffs of blue jeans. The socks were relatively clean and white. The left shoe was worn at the heel but carried fresh laces. Adding to the macabre and incongruous scene was a pillow that gently propped up the left foot of the corpse. It looked almost peaceful.

What happened to this person, one wonders? Murder in Motown is a definite possibility. Perhaps it was death by alcoholic stupor. Perhaps the person was crawling around in the elevator shaft trying to retrieve some metal that he could sell at a scrap yard. In any event, there the person was. Stone-cold dead.
I think that the reporter, Charlie LeDuff by name, covered this in as sensitive and tasteful a manner as could be hoped. He used it as an opportunity to discuss Detroit's homeless, and the ability of the city to continue functioning unphased no matter what happens to them. If you're homeless, damned near anything can happen to you--anything--and even people who supposedly share your situation will be too busy with their own struggles to worry much about you. LeDuff did an excellent job with that, and I think that including a picture of those feet above a plane of ice that you know hides the rest of a man is part of hammering in that we only care because we don't see, or can pretend we don't see.

But I still have issues with the use of images of the dead. If you don't know what I'm talking about, please check out the entry I linked before. Read it here; this'll make more sense if you do. I think that there I explained it as well as I am likely to do.

Here is my question. Do you feel that, considering a debt that comes with viewing images of the dead, that LeDuff has paid his debt? Or has he just used this homeless man's corpse and his suffering to make a political point of his own? Is he taking up the unnamed corpse's cause, or pursuing his own and using the power created by the stranger's death to fuel his own cause?

And here's the really disturbing question for me. Completely aside from considerations of LeDuff's debt and the repayment thereof, what about me? I've seen this image, and I've been touched by the emotional energy of a man's death. I owe him something, but as I discussed in that previous entry... you cannot always know just what it is you owe the dead. By helping people in Indiana get foodstamps and Medicaid, am I helping to repay a man whose death was caused by disregard? Or is that not what's required at all?

Now that the emotional/spiritual energy created by this man's suffering and this man's death is part of the emotional/spiritual energy of my life, what do I owe him for grokking his death in that way? By observing and considering his death in such a way that it has become part of me and my life (something which cannot be avoided now that the photo of his corpse has been reflected in my eyes), I have taken something from him and made it part of myself.

How can I repay it? I don't know what he wants. You can basically never know what the dead want.

What do you think?

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