Incredulity: a belated valentine for Elizabeth Barrett Browning

“Have you seen your sister’s body?” asked the man, first by e-mail and then by phone. He was addressing Jordan Ghawi, whose sister had been killed in a massacre at a Colorado movie theater, and his gravamen was that the massacre hadn’t happened, couldn’t have happened.

The incredulous e-mailer was soon joined by others, on Facebook and elsewhere. There were so many others that authorities in the theater’s jurisdiction eventually petitioned their court to remove the names of Mr. Ghawi and others from legal documents released to the public.

Likewise, in Hawaii, where I live, clerks in the state government have stories to tell about the people who ask to see President Obama’s birth certificate, then ask again, then ask again and again and again. For such people the introductory phrase, “No, but really” (as in “No, but really: why did you people kill Christ?”) is the only part of a query that can be allowed to have meaning. The hope is that sooner or later it will be answered, and then we’ll know at last what “really” means. Meanwhile, just keep repeating the word. Make it magic by formulating it into a litany: No, but really. No, but really. No, but really.

And Henry Darger attended Mass several times every day.

We may be talking here about incredulity and displacement as a discipline of the attention: a way of guiding imagination away from its fetid interior confine to the void without, and then peopling that void with imagination’s liberated creatures. In Henry Darger’s case, the people were little girls with penises. For the non-Dargers who can only watch without being able to draw from themselves, the peopling is done by Facebook and Fox News. For them, in pity, this suggested reading. 

Beloved, my Beloved, when I think
That thou wast in the world a year ago,
What time I sate alone here in the snow
And saw no footprint, heard the silence sink
No moment at thy voice . . . but, link by link,
Went counting all my chains, as if that so
They never could fall off at any blow
Struck by thy possible hand . . . why, thus I drink
Of life’s great cup of wonder! Wonderful,
Never to feel thee thrill the day or night
With personal act or speech,— nor ever cull
Some prescience of thee with the blossoms white
Thou sawest growing! Atheists are as dull,
Who cannot guess God’s presence out of sight.

Update, April 10, 2013: in the aftermath of the question “Have you seen your sister’s body?” police in Portland, Oregon, have arrested a suspect with a history of emotional distress and charged him with stalking and telephonic harassment. Aggravated incredulity might be a more accurate and more interesting charge, but the term is probably too close to poetry to make for unambiguous indictability. Here, at any rate, is the prose version.

And here is a YouTube video from last year in which the suspect discusses his having been asked by a security guard to stop regaling shoppers with his views about, among other things, the massacre that provoked his incredulity.