In a recent piece for The Baffler, John Washington writes about the aftermath of forced disappearance, discussing Absentees: On Variously Missing Persons by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Click here to learn more about the book. Click here to read the full essay. An excerpt appears below:
“Heller-Roazen’s book is a catalog and cultural history of the ways in which human beings have been rendered less than fully present. While it may sound like an absolute dissolution of being, there is, he argues, a spectrum of non-personhood. All absences have their own legal or epistemological colorings, and Heller-Roazen organizes the typologies. His first category is vanishings (when a person has gone missing and their legal persona remains); then lessenings (when a person is present but their legal persona is diminished); and finally survivals (when a person dies but their persona lingers).
Much of Heller-Roazen’s attention is drawn to literature—from the Icelandic sagas and Arabian Nights to Kafka and Wordsworth—though he also weaves in accounts from legal and religious scholarship, and history. A representative focus is the eponymous character from Luigi Pirandello’s novel The Late Mattia Pascal, about a man who gets a chance to begin life afresh after he’s mistakenly presumed dead. He is initially delighted to be rid of his dreary wife and dead-end job but soon comes to lament that ‘playing dead is not a good profession.’ And though Pirandello’s plot is playful, sometimes ridiculous, there is an existential, wracking concern. ‘There exists a survival beyond the law,’ Heller-Roazen writes. That remainder is what interests us. Through such analysis, Absentees offers a framework for seeing the world from the viewpoint of those who are only partly in it, as well as for those who’ve recently left.
Heller-Roazen pinpoints the critical moment in the thirteenth century when European canon lawyers realized they could ‘sunder the legal persona from the individual body.’ The maneuver was meant, in part, to deal with the confusion surrounding people who had gone missing and become legal deadweights to their spouses and family. What to do with their contracts, claims, debts, marriage licenses? The separation of our legal and physical bodies allowed for a more insidious practice: a person could be absented even while still physically present, such as when they are imprisoned, enslaved, or marked with ignominy. The technical Roman term for such an action was a capitis deminutio, or ‘decrease of the head’—a person is rendered as a legal thing, ‘as dead, although they are alive.’ ‘Someone, assisted by something such as law, religion, or a social force, declares some human body to be unworthy of fully presenting itself or to be, for one of many reasons, unfit to claim proper personhood,’ Heller-Roazen writes.”