Slaughter + on by Ellena Savage
When I was commissioned to write this essay a few months ago, I knew what I would write about. The so-called ‘second wave’ of the thing was enveloping the world, and I was angry.
I was angry for the ordinary reasons—for the way governments everywhere were playing against their people; for the way precarity was again being foisted on ordinary workers and ordinary older people whose extinction seemed to register as ordinary. I was angry for the vague cancellation of my own ordinary future, which would no longer be able to contain the ordinary things I believed I had an ordinary level of entitlement to (a little dog, a holiday, dignified work that I had worked long to be qualified for). But I was angry for other reasons, too. Abstract reasons that made me feel that perhaps I was losing my grip on reality.
As a writer, I am sensitive to metaphors. As a person who cares about the living connections between words used and political realities, I am morally offended by bad ones. Melodramatic, I know. Still, I prefer—always—simple language clearly expressing some unbidden truth, to florid language that obscures it.
I mean. Wave?
Outdated idioms, slack metaphors (ie waves), clichés wielded without sensitivity to the work a cliché can knowingly do—these things make me feel I am living in an ad, or like I am trapped in a flashing game parlor surrounded by real estate agents and police officers with gelled hair and curled lips, hissing words at me they don’t quite know the meaning of.
Life under the thing has felt like that flashing game parlor, that ad, for months on end.
There is no time, I think, all the time, now, for bad language, for bad metaphors, for untruth. There is time for the blunt, the naked, the forthright—or for nothing else at all. For death!
Why was I so angry?
‘Every word is a dead metaphor,’ writes the Argentine poet Leopoldo Lugones.
‘This is, of course, a metaphor,’ counters Jorge Luis Borges [audience laughs].
Metaphor works in the way language works: as a substitution. Metaphor is a mode of transport, a function of human beings’ ordinary conceptual systematic comprehension. And so, in that sense, the wave is a tool of language like any other. It simply aids comprehension.
‘Yet,’ Borges says, ‘I think that we all feel the difference between dead and living metaphors.’ And I agree.
Lugones’ every word is a dead metaphor is a metaphor that pulses with life—and it provokes me. It tucks into the heart of why I write (or why I believed for so long I wanted to write), and why, now, writing has become a more vexing pose to ethically take in the world.
When I was commissioned to write this essay a few months ago, I knew what I would write about: waves! The bad metaphor that betrays its necrophilic ideology! And then, when I sat down to write, my words felt ‘dead’.
For months now they have been ‘dead’.
I mean, to sit here now in my light-filled bedroom, just before lunch-time, and write that, that a word—a mark on a page, for Christ’s sake—could be ‘dead’, when human beings are dying unjustly. This tells me I’ve waded past the ethical limits of my own writing. It also tells me why I care about writing, words, the right words.
Words determine who gets to live and who is made to die. Words determine which reality is reality and which is a distortion.
In his lecture ‘War’, David Antin says that ‘Metaphor operates like the production of an overlay. That is to say one thing gets overlaid onto something else, like a screen, and you print the two images, one on top of the other, and whatever the consequences, that’s what you’re doing.’ That’s what you’re doing.
When the metaphor ‘wave’ is applied to something like the thing, it is not an idle linguistic flourish. It betrays a set of ideological presumptions. It implies passivity and inevitability. It implies that there were no other possibilities in the world. It implies that the thing, which we know to be rooted in historical processes of violent extraction and exploitation, is as inevitable as the next wave crashing on the beach. Hang ten, people.
You know, the ‘wave’ of the thing, the first wave, the second, the inevitable third, is not a wave all. I suggest another term for it: it is an onslaught. An onslaught (from Dutch, aenslag, or on + blow; from Middle English on + sleight; from slaughter + on) of human – political, policy-driven – misdeeds.
Slaughter + on, Wayne. Slaughter + on, Garth.
Wave (‘to wave, fluctuate, waver in mind, wonder; to move to and from’), in my Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, symbolizes the passive principle: ‘the attitude of those who let them be borne away wherever the waves carry them.’ This passivity, accordingly, is ‘as dangerous as their uncontrolled activity. [Waves] stand for all the power of massive inertia.’
When I am anxious, I nightmare about waves. They throw my small sleeping form around as though it were just one more object in the world, just made from molecules like any other molecules. Like I am anything at all. The waves lift me as they swell to the height of towers, and fling me into reefs and sandbars.
Instead of waves, though, lately I have begun dreaming of the moon.
In this one dream, I visit the moon with my brother. It is fertilized and harvested by human eco-tourists. Glasshouse-like, the small planet is glorious to look upon; all lush green, abundant crops, flowers and butterflies. This industry is supported by Planet Earth, which sends shipments of water for the crops, and fertilizer. My brother goes back to earth to pick us up some supplies for our holiday, but he never returns. He’s gone. I worry about him, then learn that the Earth is over, it has been obliterated completely by a formidable alien force. No humans, no animals, no plants, remain. Not even water has survived. I understand then that as the moon crops die, and water becomes scarce, life will gradually wrench itself from my body. I am alone in the universe now—completely. I must accept my fate.
The moon of Earth, like all moons, has no light of its own; it reflects the light of the sun. The moon is of the Earth—she was once a part of the ocean floor, and like Lucifer but in reverse, she fell up. She is bound to an endless revolution around Earth. For these reasons, the moon is often recognised as a symbol of femininity and dependency.
But, like the feminine, all life on earth is contingent on her being. The moon controls waves insofar as she controls tides. Tides are the biggest waves on earth. If the moon were to disappear, the tides would level, the crabs would hunger and disappear, ecosystem death would lead to mass extinctions. Then, the earth would wobble off its axis, creating chaotic weather in which our food bowls would be destroyed. Eventually, the conditions for planetary life, for biological life—the basis for all my dreams—would disappear.
Talk about projection.
The first time I questioned the wave metaphor, I was editing an academic book about, among other things, Australia’s migration history. The author dismissed the waves metaphor, quickly and elegantly, and moved on. It stuck on me. I began to see that the ‘waves of immigration’ metaphor was doing work for the white Australia myth. The image evaded so much, yet it also made its ideology clear: whites were the ‘first’, therefore the most entitled to stick their flag in the land. They were followed by others, arranged in neat decades. This designation and delineation of non-white migrants to the nation elided their vast and active presence pre-Federation, and their enormous—and very often coerced—contributions to the growth of the economy.
Yes, the ‘wave’ metaphor served the fantasy of a white Australia. The waves model was a useful lie. More individually insulting, it relegated individuals—ordinary people living through extraordinary circumstances—to the role of passive constituents of something liquid: a torrent, a flood, a swamp, a liquid event that would unwittingly do damage to an already precarious ecosystem.
And what of the ‘waves’ of feminism?
My conceptual understanding of history was falling apart.
This ‘second wave’ was popularly coined in a New York Times op-ed in 1968. The author of the article wrote that this second wave was an extension of the first wave (thereby inventing for the popular imagination the ‘first wave’ of feminism, too). Her point was to put at rest the fear men had of some feminist revolution annihilating their world. That women could to be free or at least nominally equal in the legal domain, was not, she suggested, an altogether new thing, but simply a new iteration of an old thing, connected to White women’s suffrage, and should therefore be tolerated as an ordinary part of progressive history. An idea similar to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s claim, that: ‘Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not.’
But in linking the first and second waves—using the waves metaphor at all—also created—invented—a particular genealogy of feminism, an exclusionary one that was located solely in the White Anglophone tradition. This metaphor stuck, we are in its fourth iteration, and its stuckness still troubles feminists. For example, why were waves counted in successive number only when they occurred in the western imagination? What about the women’s struggles—of which there have been countless—that occured outside the narrative of progressive liberation? What—if anything—could someone like Hillary Clinton understand about Leila Abdul’s struggle? Both women were born in the same year.
It wasn’t just the imprecision of the temporal claim, or its mealy-mouthed apologies that irked me. It was the passive principle, the idea that the wave carried with it the weak ones who let themselves be borne away.
The crowd, according to anti-democratic thinker Gustave Le Bon, is a human wave, with all the danger and passivity that entails. Le Bon wrote that the masses, when they take the shape of the crowd, are ‘always subject to suggestion’; they are ‘unduly influenced by the eloquence of popular orators.’
‘Ignorant and lacking any appetite (or aptitude) for rational deliberation,’ paraphrases Femis, ‘they are easily stirred to waves of emotion which spread like a contagious disease.’
While I dispute the implications, Le Bon is not entirely wrong. I am seduced by the human wave. It is one contagious disease I can get behind. I do it for fun. Hand my will over to marching crowd, let go of my shame. Like giving oneself to an obsession, like plunging into the ice-cold waters of vengeance, stepping into the crowd makes surrender possible. Surrender from cynicism; surrender from self. Inside the human wave, sincerity tips over to earnestness, and anything, for a moment is possible.
On holiday, as children, my brothers and I found a baby shark lying dead or near-dead on the sand. It had been thrown up by a wave in the previous night’s storm. I leant over and touched the fish’s warm dry skin, which felt nothing like the plump glueyness I had imagined, and I understood then the wrongness of shark fear. My brothers and I carried the small thing, weight of a young kelpie, back to the water’s edge and threw it in. We told each other that once it collected water in its gills, the thing would necromance and dance away, find its shark siblings, and live. We knew, on some level, that despite our hope, it was food for the fishes. Which is itself another form of life.