Recuperating & Recovering: Making sense of the senseless, fighting chaos with art

“Mon ame me dit qu’ici c’est trop hard-core.”
— Lola Lafon

“The opposite of death isn’t life; it’s CREATION.”                                                                                                 — Jonathan Larsen, “Vivre la vie Boheme,” from “RENT”

SAINT-PIC-LE-LOUPE (Dordogne), France — This morning on the radio a pundit pontificated that once you become numb to it, you’re no worse than the killers. While I wouldn’t go *quite* that far, I admit to being disturbed by my own numbness in recent days. To wondering if there wasn’t something wrong with me — beyond the need to implement the safety mechanism of ‘blocking,’ of trying not to let into my soul that for no reason — no reason — a madman ran a truck over and mowed down 84 living breathing people and made them dead, including 10 children, on a bucolic beach in the south of France.

I think it’s rather that as a cultural observer, I can’t just think about things in an isolated chamber. Once I *order* my sentiments, I need to share them with tout le monde. And where it concerns a tragedy in which I was not a direct victim or even witness (of course I realize that like all of us living in or visiting France, I was a target) — where I was not at least living in the city that was attacked, Nice — it seems presumptuous of me to try to represent someone else’s pain. To pretend to understand how they’re feeling. Here words aren’t just inadequate, they’re almost… inappropriate. Because for a pontificator — in cases like this anyway — words are an attempt to appropriate someone else’s experience. My children, my wife, my husband, my friend, my sister, my brother wasn’t run over by a refrigerator truck driven by a venomous madman at a moment when s/he least expected it — while on holiday promenading on a beach. How can I claim to *really* understand the feelings of those whose loved ones were? I can’t. In such circumstances, all the tragic language in the world seems like artifice.

What I can do (or what I need to do anyway) is offer some reflections on how other observers are attempting — for the most part with the best of intentions — to process the killings, the maimings, the blood, oh the blood!, mingled with sable, the unprovoked (see what I mean about language being insufficient?) violence of July 14, 2016, meted out on what is for me the most halcyon and peaceful setting possible (Normandy notwithstanding), a beach.

Most of all what I see (and hear — from the French media at least) is an attempt to construct order, to find a system of explanation for an act for which there is no, no explanation, no order, an act which even if deliberate is meant to instill chaos, an act of what I hope certain so-called experts will finally concede is and recognize as nihilism. (Several months back, a professor at my alma mater, Princeton, actually said that the killers and hoodlums of Da’esh aren’t nihilists, but optimists. Comme quoi academic rigor at Old Naussau just ain’t what it used to be.)

Many of us have noted that what makes this one hurt most is the 10 children among the 84 dead. A right-wing politician pointed out that those killed at Bataclan and on the cafe terraces were, also, mostly (though not exclusively) young. And a November 13 widower who wrote a piece called “You will not have my hate,” directed at the terrorists but also meant as an example and testament for his grieving son, said that there is not a pecking order of victims; all are lamentable…. But… it seems to me that what is particularly heart-wrenching about the senseless (and hateful) killing of children is the promise cut down before it can be fulfilled; the sapling stunted before it can sprout up into a tree. So yes, it seems that even though it’s true that all murders are horrible and inexcusable, and all human lives prescious, the gunning down of children is particularly heinous, unfathomable and unbearable.

Once the initial period of mourning opens up enough to allow space for reflection, I think that because recognizing the enemy is essential to defeating him, it may also be the moment to
craft a creative response to the chaos which, if it is not their long-term goal, is along with fear the means by which the terrorists hope to achieve it.

And what is the proper response to the perpetrators of chaos and fear?

Yes, of course, you do the best you can to physically protect yourself and your society from them. You prosecute them for their crimes. You treat and care for the victims, physical and psychological. (I also like the response of the parents of Noemie Gonzalez, the 23-year-old Californian gunned down November 13 on one of the terraces: You sue Facebook.) But because the perpetrators of chaos are also, in their sick, diabolic, and manipulative minds and tactics, presenting a system that pretends — pretends — to order the chaos in the other sick minds that carry out their will, you also offer, you also highlight, you also vaunt, you also celebrate, you also champion an alternative system to counteract chaos. Or systems.

For me, that system — that universe — is art.

Art orders chaos.

Art doesn’t go through words, which can be constricting, misleading, and open to misinterpretation, but through a visual, visceral, and, for certain (but I don’t think it’s required) artists, a metaphysical sensibility. Art appeals to, speaks with, and speaks to all the senses. Art provides a common weal, a common ground, a common thoroughfare. Art is not a polemic, an argument trying to convince you, it is pure sensation. It is pure feeling. It is the innocence of a child, informed by craft and maybe even an aesthetic.

It is pure.

–Paul Ben-Itzak



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