If you go to New York, chances are that you will read the New York Times, that is to say one of the most overrated papers on earth. But don’t miss its truly great page: the Obituaries. It’s the only section I read every day, because I admire the intention that animates it: to remember. And to do so on a large scale, five, six, eight short biographies per day. Compared to Italian newspapers, which devote a very large space to very few people, the Obits have an open, ‘democratic’ feel: lots of people, of many kinds, and most of them not at all famous. Reading their stories, you are reminded that society is made of different worlds and temporalities: where the 36-year-old choreographer who has just put on his first Broadway show appears next to the 101-year-old man who had fought in ‘Palestine’, against the Turks, in the Jewish battalion of the British army.
What is it that survives then, and makes a life worth remembering? What human beings have done—and no one had done before. Which can mean the most disparate things: in the one random month I decided to scan, it ranged from the creation of the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority to discoveries in the field of neuro-muscular dysfunctions; the invention of the Ajax detergent at Palmolive and the institution of mandatory Art courses at Columbia University; euthanasia, the first American ascent of Mount Everest, and mutual funds; a genetic mutation related to diabetes, the concession of interest on bank accounts, the Goodwill Games, or winning fifty-five million dollars at the Florida lottery (and giving them all to charity).
Lots of things. Strange, at times; but all of them truly ‘things’. In this page of the dead the air is incredibly concrete—prosaic, even. All facts: of Sheelah Ryan (the lottery winner), we are told what Foundation she created, how its payments are conducted, the name of its director—all the way to the perhaps unavoidable stray cats. We are given the street, the civic number, and the crossroad of every house built in Manhattan by the real estate developer Joseph Blitz. And of Archer Gordon (who joined mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and cardiac massage), we are told about the manikins he constructed with the Norwegian doll-maker, Asmund Laerdul, for use in medical training.
Things. In the sober and vaguely Hegelian world of the Obits, there is no room for projects, hopes, ideas: only what has been realized counts. And is usually seen, very simply, as an improvement over the past: the only instance in which the Times shows a truly Victorian faith in progress. Each individual destiny makes the world a little better—but just a little, because progress is intrinsically made of small things: no changes of direction, but a myriad regular steps along a well-known path. So, Joseph DiLeo has ‘contributed’ to a medical discovery, and Mildred McAfee has ‘improved’ the position of women in the military; this man has ‘enlarged’ the family firm, that has ‘diversified’ it towards oceanic trade, or ‘cooperated’ to protect American soldiers from malaria, or ‘helped perfecting’ an emergency technique. Subdivided, microscopic notion of human agency, which recalls Chaunu’s pages on eighteenth-century Europe: progress, singular, as the sum of a thousand progresses. A quantitative and orderly march: without confusion, and certainly without catastrophes.
The symbol of this progress—gadgets. The small mechanical, electronic and above all pharmaceutical invention. Concrete and measurable improvements that add up (but slowly!) until you can raise a jet from the ground, or defeat (most) heart attacks. And all signs of a progress without conflict: where the enemy is nature, but never other human beings. In a month, I encounter about fifty politicians, diplomats, religious leaders, local administrators: with a couple of exceptions, they are all on the right side. They have tried to widen civil and political rights, to counter the hidden influence of power, to bring about a more equal legislation; but you are left wondering with whom they had to struggle. The only reactionary flashes are set in the fifties: as if, after McCarthyism, American society had known no division. Even more significant, in a month I don’t find a single case of defeat: no one who wanted something profoundly right—and didn’t succeed. As if losing, for the Obits, were sadder than death itself. And so in the entry on Tomas Fabregas, who died at 36 after a long battle to change the law preventing HIV-positive persons from entering the US, the newspaper omits to add: ‘and lost’. Which, in the end, is quite a meaningful fact.
Among the many many people who manage to ‘improve’ their position, an interesting absence: wage labourers. The rights of African-Americans, women, gays, appear every day; those of the workers, never. The term itself appears only once, in the entry on the rabbi Joseph Glaser (who supported many groups, among whom Native Americans, Tibetan exiles, Israelis, and Chicano farm labourers in California). In the economic sphere, progress seems to mean more goods, larger enterprises, financial wizardry, period. The redistribution of income is absent, or better: entirely subsumed under charity. Of twenty or so major businessmen, one third are presented, literally, as ‘philanthropists’. (Among them my personal favourite, Samuel Rappaport, ‘Philanthropist and Speculator’, who spends ten months in a Federal prison for fiscal fraud, but then gives tons of money to hospitals, the Police Sports League, the Israeli state, and the Philadelphia Children’s Choir.)
The Philadelphia Children’s Choir, for its part, is a good instance of the secret protagonist of the Obits: institutions. In these biographies, life resembles a billiard ball: it bounces from a college to a hospital, from a Foundation to a Centre to a Society to a Club. In the twenty-five lines devoted to Walt Chyzowych, soccer coach, mention is made of ten different clubs and federations: one every fifteen words. Of a song by Major Lance, which apparently gave rise to the ‘Chicago Sound’, we are told in which two festivals it was performed, and what newspaper mentioned it first; but we’re never told what the sound actually sounds like. The music’s meaning is not in the music itself, but in the institutions that legitimize it.