Events such as the tsunamis in Indonesia and Japan, devastating earthquakes or hurricanes that result in high death tolls, industrial accidents that destroy communities—these seem impossible to control and blame is hard to place, even in the latter case. News coverage in such situations tends to focus on damage and recovery efforts, then shifts to the next drama. Tragedies wrought by specific human perpetrators, however, become media spectacles here in the USA. The same few seconds of terrible footage repeatedly fill television and computer screens; viewers feel drawn into the activities of SWAT teams and reporters and the compelling speculations of forensic psychologists, terrorism experts, social commentators, politicians, witnesses. There are heated exchanges on social media forums.
I’m beginning to believe societies get the popular culture they want or, alas, deserve (late Rome’s “bread and circuses,” anyone?). The circuses give us what society’s members, apparently, want to consume. Art, however, offers what they need, whether or not they want it. During times of media frenzy, when the culture in which I live seems numbed by “infotainment” and nonstop visual and audio coverage of tragic events, I find myself turning to art—usually poetry—for grounding, for solace, for affirmation of the human spirit and for a way to confront human truths.
I do not suggest that poetry necessarily comforts. Often, it wears me ragged, forces me to wrestle with ambiguities, to question my values. Sometimes, art brings me to tears.
I do not consider these results to be negative results. These reactions are human reactions; I am reminded of my humanity through my engagement with art.
A good little anthology for times of grief is The Handbook of Heartbreak, edited by Robert Pinsky. Pinsky’s selections cover the human spectrum of sorrows: broken romances, dead pets, war, disaster, family and social losses and the desolate emptiness of depression, sorrow that is concrete and existential, spiritual and personal and cultural.
Speculation is something inquisitive minds do well, but it is easy to believe our speculations, to forget they are merely imaginings that may or may not be valid. When a crime becomes a widely-broadcast web of information blips, the suspect is forejudged in the court of public opinion; I feel concerned about our nation’s commitment to the concept of innocent until proven guilty in a court of law (how on earth will that be possible?). What irks me most about media coverage of the Newtown, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Tucson, Boston Marathon, Columbine and other killings is the retreat into a kind of contorted deductive reasoning based on imaginative constructions of human intent and purpose—the search for motivation that drives the forensic end of these crimes becomes a news story led by experts who imply they can get to the truth. But can we ever know the truth? Each human being is unique and ultimately unexplainable, and often the way we are best reminded of that fact is through art: fiction, theater, paintings, poetry. On his New Yorker blog, Adam Gopnik notes:
Experts tell us the meaning of what they haven’t seen; poets and novelists tell us the meaning of what they haven’t seen, either, but have somehow managed to fully imagine. Maybe the literature of terrorism, from Conrad to Updike (and let us not forget Tolstoy, fascinated by the Chechens) can now throw a little light on how apparently likable kids become cold-hearted killers. Acts of imagination are different from acts of projection: one kind terrifies; the other clarifies.
We need clarity.
I might add that in my day job, I work with young people between the ages of 17 and 24, day in, day out. These young adults experience varying levels of frustration, confusion, numbness, fear, anxiety, excitement, need for risk, need for security, withdrawal, social discomfort, and inner turmoil. I cannot look at the perpetrators of recent civilian massacres without thinking of my students. I do not mean that I am wary or that I think one of my students might snap; what I mean is that I feel compassion for the conflictedness each human being is capable of feeling and that I understand all too well that not all of us are capable of contending with that conflict.
Some of us can accomplish through acts of imagination the confrontation with what terrifies or numbs us. These people include our artists. Those who cannot express or embrace the confrontation are at risk of projecting the inner conflict, fear, or insecurity elsewhere, as Gopnik makes clear.
Can art make us safe? We live in the world: not an inherently safe place. I think if we embrace what art offers us we will not be in retreat from the truths of the human experience but will learn to confront truths, even those that are uncomfortable. Art gives us insight, a step toward understanding. Can art grant us clarity? I think so.
Therefore, Emily Dickinson (305):
The difference between Despair
And Fear—is like the One
Between the instant of a Wreck—
And when the Wreck has been—
The Mind is smooth—no Motion—
Contented as the Eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust—
That knows—it cannot see—