Hole in the Whole
My brothers have a passion for Death Valley and the area around it. I have spent less time there than they have, but it impresses me, too. Beautifully desolate as it is, what interests me most is actually the human landscape, past and present, that it contains, the stories restlessly lost within its boundaries.
I think in the end the reason that I myself am drawn more to the sensibility of the humanities as a historian than the social sciences is that I want the history I write and read to be attentive to and engaged by the idiosyncratic experience of people like the singer at the Amargosa Opera House.
My current book project is a series of essays about the lives of three Zimbabwean men who were born in the early 20th Century and died in the 1980s. The main thread running through the essays is my feeling that I need to write about their lives and choices in individualized, particularized ways, and not to turn them into typified, representative sketches of collectives or groups the way that social history in Africanist scholarship often does, or the way that social science usually aggregates particular experiences into patterns and structures. It’s not that it is invalid to do those things—in fact, it’s necessary and of course I do it myself as a scholar and intellectual, all the time and without apology.
It’s just that I regret it when history as a rhetorical form or intellectual discipline doesn’t make room for the particularity and peculiarity of experience as such. Once when I presented a short summary of my current project to a group of social scientists, one smiled and said, “So you are studying outliers, that can be useful.” Well, yes and no. To study individual stories, or idiosyncratic communities and narratives, as outliers is just another way of typifying them, relating them to a norm or representative population. In a way, I’m arguing that all historical experience is an outlier, that we can find in it something that has to be understood for itself, of itself—but that also can be understood by relating it to what any of us live and do in our lives. Sometimes it takes a life strange to your own life, in all its individuality, to make you realize just how strange even your own life and history are.
Death Valley brings that home, somehow. It’s not just the lonely opera houses, or the obvious ghost towns on its fringe. One afternoon near there my brother, father and I drove out some miles from any settlement on a barely visible dirt path between the mountains, and eventually happened to glimpse a nearby hillside that had a cave or hole at the top. We clambered up about 300 feet to find that we were looking at a homely, crude mineshaft that had clearly been hacked out by no more than two or three men at some point in the last 120 years. It didn’t go down very far, we could see that, but it was still a few years’ worth of work. We could see a few old signs of the work of the unknown prospectors left scattered around. It was pretty clear that they had found nothing of value. A few men shivered through cold desert nights in the winter and blazing heat in the day the rest of the year to dig out some rocks from a desolate mountainside in the middle of one of the great wastelands on the planet.
Maybe one of them left his bones or his spirit or his hopes at the bottom of that hole, or maybe they just shrugged and moved on, unbothered and unruffled by time and labor that could for me be nothing but pointless suffering. I can’t say. I’ll never be able to say. But I’d hate to simply bury that hole inside of a whole, or to lose that opera house to the tender care of a poetics inadmissable in the practice of history.