Summoning Pearl Harbor is a slim, unique work by the renowned art historian Alexander Nemerov that delves into what it means to recall a significant event—Pearl Harbor—and redefines remembering in the process. How do words make the past appear? In what way does the historian summon bygone events? What is this kind of remembering, and for whom do we recall the dead, or the past? Nemerov raises fundamental questions about how we communicate with each other, and how the past continues in our collective consciousness, not merely as facts but as stories that shape us. Below, an excerpt:
When I finally went to Pearl Harbor for the first time, I noticed the most famous fact about being there. From the memorial directly above the submerged USS Arizona and the entombed remains of its crew, I observed that the ship is still leaking oil. Silvery-blue and orange tie-dye pools spread on the water’s surface, floating all around the crusty turrets creaking in the air and the pale patterns of battleship steel shimmering a few feet under. Here was the past still emerging in the present, taking an aquatic form like breath spooling up from below, a psychedelic exhalation as though the state of being dead, and being dead right under a never-ending stream of tourists, required a streak of showmanship, a never-ending colorful wound, extending in a slow ectoplasmic leak, a kind of never-ending guitar solo, that would play out the souls of the chiseled dead in incremental liters until the end of time.
Maybe what went on down there below decks was a party that tourists like me on the beautiful white memorial might only begin to guess. The good cheer of my fellow visitors was being repaid in kind, with interest, by the raucous celebration taking place below. The dead’s revenge on the living would be to refuse the gloom, to enliven the oceanography of the sunken metal corridors and common rooms with hats and streamers, all so that the pious rituals of commemoration—of never forgetting—would get their comeuppance.
In those oil smears on the water, the dead began to take shape for me as a group difficult to please. They were rowdy, unruly, not only in their sailor patois gurgling up in halting, half-strangled offensive phrases. They were unruly in their unwillingness to be helped or honored or remembered. ET IN ARCADIA EGO the tomb says to the shepherds, but it was the great fuck you of the past to the kindhearted present that I thought I heard in the oil.
I learned that Elvis Presley had staged a benefit concert for the Arizona Memorial on March 25, 1961, in Honolulu’s Bloch Arena, raising sixty-two thousand dollars to ensure that the memorial, designed by the architect Alfred Preis, would be finished and dedicated the following year. The king’s songs that night—opening with “Heartbreak Hotel” and then “All Shook Up,” and concluding with “Hound Dog”—must have roused the sleeping crew of December 7, 1941, enough to remind them of a world they never knew.
Something of those glossy tones glugging down beneath the waves, battering around the corridors like stray sonar or the pinging language of beluga whales, must have played loudly enough to hint to the stronger men on board, the leaders of the dead, that something new was afoot, from which they were all supposed to benefit. On that night, emanating from Elvis, the sounds rang down into the bunks of even the dead-most of the dead. Maybe the sailors misunderstood, but the songs seemed like a call to arms they might heed and use as the model, the template, for their own voices. It was a way for them to do away with their doom, to spread good cheer in the only way the dead men knew: by echoing the bubbling flow of the voice they heard from above. Funny how it was that the past—to pay back the present for its sentimental attention—needed to draw on this same sentiment for its own lifeblood. The oil that had always leaked now became their song.
I saw myself in a theater—back then, or was it now? The black-and-white film of the aftermath of Pearl Harbor was spooling out, showing the listing battleships and smoky skies, but back in a corner of the theater I was looking at the floor, examining the stains there, the grounds of popcorn and the gum darkly blooming on the great flowers of the carpet, the usherette’s flashlight beam bobbing on the steps.
A Zero flew on the screen, even as another appeared in my inspection of the floor. Intrigued, I bent down to see what the tiny airplane was made of. I seemed to see in it all things, like it was an encyclopedia of its time. I found it was made of gum wrappers and lipstick and of the darkness itself. I wondered if, over time, the days of Pearl Harbor had gotten so mixed up that the past had become one enormous headcheese, a great kaleidoscopic pâté, things great and small now mosaicked together. Senile, these long-ago things had forgotten their proper functions and now were helping each other as best they could to resemble their just duties and purposes, to approximate their official heraldry of appearance, just on the off chance that someone like me might come along and, peeping in, hope to find everything in order.
But they could not remember what they had been about. So it was that the airplane’s wings were made of a young woman’s sneakers and the sneakers were made of the wings. So it was that if you pressed your finger against the metal fuselage you would find that it gave like a belly, or the fleshy part of an arm; whereas if you could somehow reach out to touch a woman’s body from that time, or a man’s, you would find it curiously hard, metallic, like it was riveted together.
So it was that the soul of things evaded me.
This passage is excerpted from Alexander Nemerov’s Summoning Pearl Harbor, published by David Zwirner Books.
Alexander Nemerov is department chair and the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Stanford University. He has published several books and articles pertaining to the culture of American art dating from the eighteenth century to the 1970s.