“Why is the poem such an insult to this evil life?”: on Sandy Hook, Blake Butler, Aase Berg and Disaster Aesthetics
A few weeks ago, in the wake of the school massacre at Sandy Hook Blake Butler and I wrote a play of sorts called “Sandy” about the massacre – about the shooting, the reporting on the shooting, the relationship of the shooting to the steady stream of murders of young black people that goes un-reported in the media and to all those drone-killed people elsewhere in the world, all those people saying, “you can’t understand a thing like this, you just have to go to church” (a cop-out for sure), all thes people who want an easy explanation of it, all the people who want such a complex explanation of it that the whole thing becomes diffuse, and the relationship of violence to art, to media. In short, it was a work of art that ate and was eaten by a proliferations of images and rhetorics.
Blake and I were very pleased with it after a few weeks of going back and forth, so Blake started to send it out to various journals that had solicited his work. It soon became apparent, that when they solicited Blake’s work, they did not think he would send them something about Sandy Hook because it was roundly rejected by all kinds of journals. The editors seemed to agree that it was “offensive.”
Why was it offensive? It was unclear to me. We had made an artwork in response to a terrible event, trying to respond fully to its violence, its absurdity, the proliferation of responses, its horror, its ridiculous sideshows.
Why? I will hazard to guess that it was precisely because it contained “too much” art: too many scene changes, too many characters, too many references to Katie Perry, too many dead black youths, too many dialogues with the killer, too many dance performances by his dead mother trying instruct children how to flee from drone attacks. Unlike all those other acceptable responses – responses that replayed the murder act and scene and background endlessly, ours was an artwork that placed art in the violent center.
People are squemish about art about violence and suffering that remains art-sy. Art about disasters should be transparent; to foreground the art, the pageantry is somehow offensive. You are accused of “aestheticizing” suffering, violence, torture etc – as if that is an inherently negative thing, as if that makes it flippant, as if that is not pious enough. As if the art itself is a crime.
This is the subject matter of a brilliant essay by Aase Berg called “Tsunami from Solaris.” Berg talks about having submitted a somewhat grotesque poem about fishing featuring a drowned albino worm to Swedish Radio to be broadcast. The poem was accepted. But then the tsunami in Thailand took place, a horrific event in which hundreds of Swedes were killed. Suddenly the poem took on a new meaning: it was a grotesque poem about the pale-skinned Swedes killed in the tsunami and the poem was shelved. Soon thereafter, there was apparently an episode of Pippi Longstocking in which the kids ride a huge wave. Many people complained that this was insensitive.
For some reason, it was perfectly OK for the Swedish radio to play over and over images of the disaster and the dead bodies, but it was not OK to make art that could be associated with the event. It was OK for Swedish radio to “describe” different scenes of people observing “three minutes of silence” – even though that silence was as Berg says, “fictional” in that it had to be described on the radio to exist – but it was not OK for Berg to describe a paleness that might implicate the poem as a possible response – an aesthetization – of the disaster. In other words, television images of dead bodies that pretended to be “authentic” was encouraged, but what one might call “bad copies,” copies that foregrounded their own artness (even in the innocent case of Pippi Longstocking) was deemed insensitive.
The problem with Berg’s poem is that it’s art, its not “authentic”: or as Berg writes in her essay, it was “ a representation that chafes and fucks up. It is not authentic. It has margins where troubling things happen.”
But it’s here that Berg makes a fascinating connection between the violence of the tsunami and art:
“The tsunami wave is of course also a derailed copy: a ufo-wave that burst into the normal human ocean. It is a wave that doesn’t understand how to be a normal wave and attacks all the tourist beaches and the not-everyday-people’s plagiarized, artificial paradise (the everyday inhabitants in the hit countries worked and were not living in paradise, so they maybe death was closer to their reality). It is as if the tsunami wave was set in motion by the ocean on the planet Solaris in Stanislaw Lem’s novel.”
Art has a kind of antisocial force that ruins “artificial paradises”, paradises that are of course also a kind of art, the kind that pretends it’s “authentic,” and allows people to pretend they have souls, or some other form of interiority, while ignoring the economic exploitation of the area. In difference to that kind of paradise, the poor suckers on Solaris suffer as the planet generates material forms of their memories and fantasies (the most upsetting and perhaps most important one – the black woman – is of course cut out of Tarkovsky’s movie; perhaps she will be in Kara Walker’s remake?) – figures that look human but lack the human soul. The horrifying truth about Lem’s novel is that “The copies with all their deviations says more about the emotional life of reality than the supposed neutral documentation.”
Berg finishes with this brilliant paragraph:
“Solaris is poetry itself. The tsunami is poetry itself. How can on carry on with cruel poetry when the sense of security is collapsing and what reminds one of reality is more horrifying than the real? Why is similarity scarier than authenticity? Why is the copy more dangerous than the original? Why is the poem such an insult to this evil life?”