The Blazing Horror of Now

From the Series: Self-Immolation as Protest in Tibet


I dread checking Facebook these days, but I fear not to. I login and scroll down past the witticisms of the proud parents of toddlers, past the partisan links of a presidential election cycle, past the mundane, the minutiae of my 300 or so "friends" to the seemingly inevitable. It is a routine of mine. It is an addiction. Is it also a responsibility? To look for today's pictures or perhaps a video of another Tibetan who has burned himself to death. Facebook's new interface should make it easier to reduce this phenomenon, this horror, to a numbers game. Like a timeline displayed at a heritage site, it will facilitate objectifying, quantifying, forgetting these were individuals who also had nieces and nephews who said inappropriate and impossibly brilliant things for a child their age. Is it a comfort that the seventeen-year-old Kelsang Wangchuk saved himself from a slow decline into madness? That two dear friends, Lobsang Kelsang and Lobsang Kunchok, lit themselves on fire while holding hands? Phrases like "religious freedom" and "cultural preservation" are political slogans that do not even begin to capture how these monks, nuns and nomads must have felt when they drank kerosene.

Fascination and disgust. My reaction to the twenty-seven intimate photographs of Golog Tulku Lama Sobha's dead body "shared" on Facebook unsettles me. Rubber soles melted into his feet, his face black and his genitals castrated by fire, I gaze in my office, in the comfort of my home, at the stiffness of his corpse. How do I translate for my students the screams, the victory cries(?) of Tibetan bystanders captured in a Youtube video of a nun, Palden Choetso who miraculously continues to stand for what seems like forever as her body goes up in flames?

When the video ends with thousands of quiet mourners gathered for her funeral service or news comes of the police shooting unarmed herdsmen who demanded a corpse from a police station, does it make any sense to reference Tibetan cremation practices?

The Regional Tibetan Youth Congress of New York and New Jersey has come to refer to Tibetan self-immolators aspawo/pamo, heroes and heroines, martyrs for rangzen, freedom. While Voice of America uses the neologism,ranglu mersek (rang lus mer bsregs), "self-immolator" in their broadcasts, I notice young Tibetan bloggers choosing variants upon kulu méchö bulwé gyalches pawonam (sku lus me mchod phul ba'i rgyal gces dpa' bo rnams), "patriotic heroes who have made their great bodies a fire offering," which both indexes the honorific register and refigures these men and women into offering lamps that illuminate the Buddha and the darkness of ignorance.

When the Tibetans started to burn themselves week after week this autumn, just as the leaves themselves began to turn gold and crimson, scholars and activists tried to make sense of this madness. Could they be inspired by Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian self-immolator who set off the Arab Spring? Not entirely: Tapey, a monk from Kirti Monastery in Ngaba, set himself on fire a full year earlier. And what about Thubten Ngodrup, who committed self-immolation in India in 1998? At one point I started to wonder if some of these self-immolators had read "Pawo" Tsuklak Trengwa’s sixteenth century history of Buddhism in Tibet, A Feast for Scholars? In it, we learn of Dölchung Korpön who committed self-immolation for the purpose of ensuring moral conduct among monks. When his skull collapsed, a great rush of light went into the sky, an earthquake shook the ground and flowers rained down. But though my training tells me to parse etymology, identify historical antecedents, and to speculate about a connection between this "practice" and the Buddhist "practice" of discovering sacred relics of bones, intact hearts and tongues from funeral pyres, I am impotent and afraid. What should I say to my friends in Jackson Heights, Queens about the calendars they helped me to find, sold in the shops below the 7 train, that memorialize the dead? I look at the placement of photoshopped flames around the portraits and begin to think about Peircean semiotics. The use of a calendar as a memorial inspires me to reflect briefly on the relationship between death and theories of time. But when I look up at my friends' faces and see their tears, what do I say then besides thank you and feel ashamed, perhaps exploitative? A few weeks later I find myself sitting in a candlelit kitchen in the Boudha neighborhood outside Kathmandu. How do I ask about suicide and despair in front of my friend's girls, ages ten, eight, and two?

All I know is, whether I want to study this or not, the topic of self-immolation cannot be avoided, not for long. Unprompted, Tsering tells me Boudha is filled with police. Tibetan political expression is prohibited in Nepal. Self-immolation is whispered about at home or discussed online. It cannot be separated from mundane life when social media serves as a proxy for the public sphere. Did my cousin's hockey team win their consolation game? Is Dad back from his ski trip out West? I want to see the photographs, watch the videos. This is now. A constant stream of quips, imprisonments, links, suicides, friend requests, protests, updates, and shootings. It never really began. Somehow, it will get worse. When we cannot travel to the site of an unfolding disaster and work ethnographically among the people who are living through this horror, what can we do except gaze and recoil? I am mesmerized by the flames.

26 March 2012

Cameron David Warner, Department of Culture and Society, Aarhus Universitet