Literary Ramblings: Reading The Absence

Ella Baker

Ella Baker

In his novel Waterland, Graham Swift suggests that history is a means of forgetting, the implication being that history is filled with narratives that are excluded in favour of those that are recorded. Our history books are missing more than they have, but these absences can often serve to tell as much and sometimes even more than that which is present.  This mode of reasoning that should always be carefully applied when we engage with the world around. A history of civil rights for example will be emblazoned with images and narratives of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., while the likes of: Ella Baker, the founder of the Student Non-violent Coordination Committee (SNCC) and a consultant with the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), Constance Curry, Diane Nash and Ruby Doris Smith, are all relegated to the metaphoric and literal index pages of history text books. The impact of these women in the civil rights movement is huge, but their absence from covers of history text books is not the least bit perplexing.  This absence speaks to and is evidence of the broader biases of the society that produces these text (the biased in this case being the patriarchal tradition of the western world). Without questioning the absence of women in such historical headlines, one might assume that women simply did not play a prominent, or prevalent, or integral part in the civil rights movement, but nothing could be further from the truth and their absence speaks to broad social issues, not the least of which is the patriarchal bias that poisons traditional historical texts. Also missing from the headlines are the masses who made the movement successful. Countless people were arrested during “freedom rides” and “sit ins”, but their names too are missing, or at least dwell in the shadows of Jessie Jacksons and Malcolm Xs, and it is not because they did not contribute as much, but rather because western history is as poisoned by a hierarchical bias as it is by a patriarchal one, meaning that the leaders, who are often responding to, and/or acting on behalf of the masses, are often given more than their share of the credit for the success of a particular movement.


James Joyce

James Joyce

The civil rights movement is just an example. There are always a multiplicity of factors that have helped to bring any given moment to fruition, but not all are represented (indeed a truly comprehensive narrative on any topic is impossible to achieve). In the news headlines, in history books, in novels, and movies, and music and in art, there are always things that people choose to include and things which they choose (consciously or not) to exclude, and that which is excluded can often speak more than that which is included. Artists use negative space just as film makers keep some things off screen and writers are careful as to what to show their readers.  For example, James Joyce, in his collection of short stories, Dubliners, tells the story of a young boy in the narrative ‘The Sisters‘.  The young boy, who is nameless, is taken care of by an aunt and uncle; there is an absence of boy’s biological parents, but this is never mentioned in the narrative.  It is an absence, that though not addressed, casts a shadow over the story.  Why are the biological parents not there?  Why are the aunt and uncle taking care of him?  Why is he not named?  The ‘sisters’ of the title are the sisters of a priest who has passed away after a mental breakdown.  Why are they the title?  The entire narrative is built around the absences of these things.  It these missing pieces of the story that the reader is supposed to see.  It is the questions that arise that the reader is supposed to consider.


In the program 'House', Hugh Laurie's character Gregory House often diagnosed illnesses by considering both what was, and what wasn't present in a patient.

In the program ‘House’, Hugh Laurie’s character Gregory House often diagnosed illnesses by considering both what was, and what wasn’t present in a patient.

Though absence may not seem like much, it can speak volumes.  A doctor or detective, for example, can respectively diagnose and illness and solve a mystery sometimes by noting what is not present in the context of what is present. That which is excluded is that which is absent: reading the absent; being aware of it; questioning it; these things are integral to understanding the world around us. It makes us aware of what voices are missing.  It makes us aware of our own ignorance, and that is the first step to gaining enlightenment as we cannot become enlightened until we are aware of our own ignorance. So the next time you read a book, or a news paper, or watch a movie, or the news, listen for all those things that aren’t said, listen to all the voices that aren’t heard, and in doing this you will find you understand the text better than you would had you simply focused on what was present in the text.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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