“Ironic Points of Light” by Bronwen Durocher

A friend of mine wrote this on her blog, The True Fight, and I found it to be an insightful appraisal how many of us feel during these times of frustration, fear, and uncertainty.  Please take the time to read it.   

Ironic Points of Light

April 17, 2013

When I graduated from high school in 2005, our class chose to print the emphatic and petulant “We don’t care” on the back of our t-shirts. A bit of hubris? Perhaps. But caring meant believing in something other than what we had already confronted in our post-industrial society at the ripe age of seventeen: we are always-already doomed.  Consider the context.  We had watched the twin towers and our own sense of security crumble as we were ushered into our freshman year. We had watched SARS and Swine Flu sweep the globe into a nebulous media cloud reminiscent of the airborne toxic event in Don DeLillo’s White Noise. It was (is) a world of endless information, of terror attacks, genocide, human trafficking, and despair.  Of course we wanted (want) social justice, equality, compassion, democracy, and truth.  But we can hardly say this words without laughing. We longfor meaning—but how, and in what way?  With round-the-clock access to horror, poverty, genocide, hatred, corruption, capitalism and catastrophe, our senior slogan lent us a certain blasé shield we deemed necessary to survive in a world where caring meant aligning oneself with an inevitably fallible cause.  We watched the world fall apart on computer, phone, and television screens, and in the process we forgot to look around and feel something, or anything at all.

I felt that way again today.  When I walked into work at the Rodeo bar and saw the gory photos on the cover of the New York dailies, I promptly flipped them over.  I couldn’t stand to see another gory picture of some unsuspecting Bostonian suffering and in pain. The photos of the senseless violence and destruction on the covers of these papers felt like they had no narrative.  Here it was, the first terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11.  And yet, for a generation who has grown up with the constant threat of oblivion in our collective conscious, it’s just not that shocking. We turn the dailies over, and we pour ourselves a drink. In my case, I mixed some margaritas.  It was just another day.  Just something else we have to endure.

When I look around at my generation, I see a unique problem. We’re not uninformed.  We’re not less aware than previous generations. In fact, we have unprecedented access to everything happening in the streets in Boston; a school in Newtown; a theater in Aurora. Anything monumental that happens out in the world is available almost immediately, down to the minute, at our literal fingertips.

And yet, is access to every single person’s thoughts (my own included) on every catastrophe helpful or does it make us immune to the horrors themselves? And what makes one horror more significant than the endemic, systematic ones? Is it the randomness of it that makes it so collectively terrifying? In this country, our prisons are overflowing, deep-rooted isolationism and a blind devotion to the second amendment bars us from any kind of reasonable gun control, the national debt is a number so large that we simply pretend it doesn’t exist, the ICE deports American citizens in absurd numbers, we’re still embroiled in combat in Afghanistan, the American “embassy” in Iraq is as big as the Vatican, and it’s come out that the president has the power to shoot you down in your own home using drones. (And no one seems to give a shit.) Let’s not even mention human trafficking, child slavery, diamond mines, etc., etc. It’s like the entire population (of this country and elsewhere) have decided they too, “Don’t Care.” (Fuck the t-shirt. Let’s all tattoo this on our foreheads.)

Of course, caring (or engaging sort of pragmatically helpful way and not on a facebook wall or in an instagram post) seems futile. What in the world can we do about all of this? How do we find meaning?  Should we protest? Buy local? Vote Ron Paul?  We can’t figure out how to deal with any of these postmodern catastrophes.  We occupy Wall Street, but we then we buy clothes made by children for Forever 21.  We recycle our bottles, but never leave our laptops unplugged. (We wouldn’t want to miss out on that Facebook post for the global warming fundraiser.) We talk about changing the two-party system, but then we donate to the party of our choice because, well, F that other guy. We get mad about the electoral college, about campaign spending, and about lobbyists, but then in between elections we kind of forget.  Once we’ve posted that we’ve prayed for Boston on our Facebooks and instagram accounts we feel a little better and then we move on with our lives. We laugh.  We read The Onion and remind ourselves that this cynicism (and a healthy dose of alcohol) will get us through this.  What else can we do?  Terrorists will be terrorists.  That’s what these wars are for, amirite?

And yet, maybe there is something better.  At least for me, there is.  Whenever I feel like every protest is useless, that every charitable organization does more harm than good, or that we’ll be embroiled in endless combat for generations to come, and there’s nothing we can do about it, I think about Theodor Adorno. When Theodor Adorno wrote (in response to the Holocaust poet/survivor Paul Celan), Art may be the only remaining medium of truth in an age of incomprehensible terror and suffering,” he was speaking about the only kind of protection I think we can claim against the dismal reality of our (post)modern world.

In the face of the massive, mind-numbing horror, it’s only through poetry, prose, and art that I find tools to engage with the kind of despair and helplessness that accompanies unprecedented access to terrorism, death, and senseless destruction and devastation across the globe. Literature and poetry are the antithesis to chaos.  They’re attempt at meaning and understanding.  Whenever a poet or writer or artist sits down to compose a few lines, or to represent what they feel, they always do so in the face of the fact that we’re always-already doomed. Art is the antithesis of destruction. I’m not saying all art is good art.  I’m not saying that literature will bring back the dead or feed the hungry.

What I am saying is that we need a narrative. And say what you will about the media’s relentless coverage of the attacks, it’s only through the ceaseless attempts to write and contextualize and to speak about this new suffering that we’ll be able to endure it.  Like Ian McEwan said in his famous 9/11 piece for The Guardian, “Emotions have their narrative, after the shock, we move inevitable to the grief, and the sense that we are doing it more or less together is one tiny scrap of consolation.” (Please, please read this article here. It’s a comfort.) It’s no accident that Ian McEwan, who writes so profoundly about the horror of those terrorist attacks is himself a fiction writer.

What evidence of humanity do we have left, if not in art? Of course literature can be difficult, and, at times, oppressive.  But it wasn’t in History or Journalism classes that I heard my Professor say that man’s only redeeming quality is his (her) capacity for love.  On many levels, art appeals to our human frailties. It is a uniquely human project, after all, and it is in this sense a reflection of all facets of the human experience, be it good, bad, happy, sad, greedy, lustful, sick, detached, or lonely.  We reflect, inflict, and infect the world as we live it, and the more complicated we get, the better our literature and art reflects these complications. Or perhaps we simply reflect the same complications in a new way, as Shakespeare, the metaphysical poets, Homer and Virgil all grapple with familiar themes of mortality, powerlessness in the face of death, violence, and jealousy, and best of all, capacity for love.  Not to mention the many interesting and nuanced stories we tell in respect to our various Gods. It’s these essential human questions, and the all-powerful frame of the story that gives us some way of imparting any kind of meaning at all.

Even when we encounter evil in literature, it is a way of understanding evil that is a sharing in it.  And when we share in these things, we begin to understand where they might come from.  We begin to imagine why someone would want to do something evil; and once we do this, we are far better equipped to feel empathy.  If we feel lonely and afraid, we can find some example in art that reflects and shares in this feeling.  Take, for example, this selection of W.H. Auden’s poem, September 1, 1939, written in New York City on the brink of WWII:

September 1, 1939

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can

Unearth the whole offence

From Luther until now

That has driven a culture mad,

Find what occurred at Linz,

What huge imago made

A psychopathic god:

I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

From the conservative dark

Into the ethical life

The dense commuters come,

Repeating their morning vow;

“I will be true to the wife,

I’ll concentrate more on my work,”

And helpless governors wake

To resume their compulsory game:

Who can release them now,

Who can reach the deaf,

Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie,

The romantic lie in the brain

Of the sensual man-in-the-street

And the lie of Authority

Whose buildings grope the sky:

There is no such thing as the State

And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice

To the citizen or the police;

We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

Here, instead of proscribing a solution to this horrible, brave new world (which is as wearisome as can be to the modern reader) Auden renders these phenomenon as difficult as their experience. All of a sudden the massive onslaught of 20th and 21st century horror becomes a narrative one can bend and twist at one’s command. That power is intoxicating.  It’s also incredibly hopeful. Of course, that doesn’t mean I believe poetry solves everything—quite the opposite.  What I mean is just this: the better the art we digest, the better equipped we are to dealing with our horrifying realities, and the more hopeful we feel. Our imaginations are powerful tools—tools absolutely necessary to inspire the empathy we need in this global climate. Writing and reading stories is an immensely important project because it is a particularly humane project.  It is essentially a process ofunderstanding one another and our world.

And today, when we think about the horrors inflicted upon innocent Americans over the past twelve months, art provides comfort. In moments like this, moments when Obama tells us to pray (What use is prayer to the atheist?) that we begin to ask the bigger questions.  What’s the most important thing about our lives? Are we redeemable in any way? What connects any of us? Again, we long for meaning, and for meanings that reflect the complications we must continue to experience and endure. I think there’s a reason why Adorno’s thought that “Art may be the only remaining medium of truth in an age of incomprehensible terror and suffering,” means so much to us as we digest and try to make sense of massive, senseless tragedy. It’s no surprise that in the days following 9/11 one of the best articles written about that horror was an essay called “Only love and then oblivion,” by novelist Ian McEwan.  In the wake of chaos, it is the artist, the poet, and the novelist who provides comfort, who helps us remember (when we start to forget) what it means to be human.


Bronwen Durocher


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