Before and After: Telling Time by Calamity

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People and communities split their existence into segments when traumatic events shatter their lives. Commentator Andrei Codrescu says those "Before" and "After" times get their sense of separation from the size of the event.


Commentator Andrei Codrescu has been thinking a little about traumatic events and they impact they have at our perception of time, specifically how we divide events before and after.

ANDREI CODRESCU: The ampersand dividing before from after is an event. Every person has two big B&As guaranteed. Before & after birth and before & after death. Those guaranteed B&As are a joke on humans. The first has only an after and the second only a before.

One could make the case for death and birth as being just one before and one after, but that's only if one thinks that there isn't any before or after if one doesn't know what it is. But nobody'd be fool enough to assume that.

Life itself may be said to consist of a series of befores & afters linked by the ampersands of privately or publicly significant events. What is certain is that the event has made enough of an impression on the person to forever reference oneself as the self before and the self after.

Overlaying the infinitely cracked mirror of one's private self and the public befores & afters that make up a community. Until several people experience a common before and after, there is no community. The bigger the event, the more people experience a before & after. Historical events have a big enough and before & after to bind a nation. Every war, successful or not, serves that function. In that sense, all wars are civil wars because the people involved mark their history before and after the war.

The other big community-making before & after is natural catastrophe. The people of New Orleans will always divide life in before and after Katrina. New Orleaneans were already traditionally prone to dividing life in a series of big and small befores & afters, because their history was fraught with wars, riots, epidemics, national identity crises and hurricanes. Each of these misfortunes had a before and after that gave rise to a slew of remembrances, the real remembrances, the real writings, embroiderings, Sunni casting, memorializations and rituals.

I'm only examining this because I've had, as I said, some big ones. Before and after immigration, before and after communism and now before and after Katrina.

There is no escape from what history deals with you, no more than there is an escape from the two guaranteed B&As life deals you. The good thing is that when you go through an event with a lot of people, you feel close to them. Close enough to go with them through the ampersands of any coming befores & afters.

SIEGEL: Andrei Codrescu lives in New Orleans.

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