The Aesthetics of Unbearable Grief

 

mourning-in-mumbai-by-gurinder-osan

It is hard for me to look at a photograph that fuses tragedy and beauty without some guilt.  The thought that I might feel any kind of pleasure or aesthetic satisfaction at an image of horror seems almost instinctively wrong.   

Of course, at the same time, I know that beauty is a complex concept. It is not necessarily, nor even typically, “pretty.” We all have found pleasure in gazing at images depicting moments of unbearable sadness and pain.

So what is beauty?

I will always be haunted by a renowned virologist who tried to explain to me why he found the HIV virus – in its complexity and brilliant resistance to being destroyed or even tricked — a thing of beauty. Perhaps sometimes we describe something as beautiful, not because it gives us conventional pleasure or joy, but because we are humbled or stunned at what it reveals of our profound humanness and vulnerability.  Humanness — stripped of artifice and faux gentility – can be sublimely beautiful, even when it leads us to horror.  It is who we are.

To be sure, this is a different kind of beauty, rooted not in pleasure but in awe. If we see beauty in moments of fury, angry crowds, acts of violence, and even death, perhaps we are simply in awe of such unflinching glimpses of ourselves.  Maybe we even find it titillating to see ourselves so nakedly human, so capable of evil, so overcome with grief?

Which leads to this picture from the front page of today’s New York Times by AP photographer Gurinder Osan.

This is a crowd in the midst of unbearable grief; a heaving, surging, human crowd surrounding the grieving family of terror victim Haresh Gohil. It is living the shared pain of a community brought together in a volatile mixture of anger and sadness. It is a swirling and kinetic crowd that —  from the unusual angle chosen by Osan — has formed a human tapestry of grief. The wailing and moaning even seems audible, yet it only takes a moment to recall that this is a silent photograph.   

It is human. It is deeply sad. It is horrible.

It is beautiful.

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo: My Nightmare. Our Nightmare.

emmett_till

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe

Catch a tiger by the toe

If he hollers let him go,

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.

I have spent over a week trying to find the words to tell this story. It is 3:00 a.m.  I am in a strange hotel bed with lousy pillows. I can’t sleep. Maybe a nightmare is best told at 3:00 am.

When Barack Obama was elected President, the social and cultural earthquake I wanted so badly became possible. Certainly not an earthquake that would magically provide a final resolution to hundreds of years of shame, but one that might rip open the racial fault line with a vengeance.

And then came the rhyme.  The damn rhyme.

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe

Catch a tiger by the toe

If he hollers let him go,

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe

My ten year-old daughter, trying to make some choice about lunch or a friend, was employing the old “eeny meeny miny moe” test.  I think she and the tiger ended up picking the tuna sandwich. Yet I almost immediately recalled the countless times in 1950s schoolyards when kids used the same rhyme with a word other than tiger. It was the version that Rudyard Kipling published in 1923 as “A Counting-Out Song” in “Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides:”

 Eenee, Meenee, Mainee, Mo!

Catch a nigger by the toe!

If he hollers let him go!

Eenee, Meenee. Mainee, Mo!

You-are-It!

 This would now be the time to confess that I also said that word out on the playground.  But I didn’t. I do remember how it was often used to settle marble-trading disputes. I also remember kids feeling a perverse thrill that they could vicariously participate in the larger, social ugliness.

 But this was a word that could not have been more forbidden in our house, a word I never uttered after the day — at the age of six – that my wonderful Dad heard me say it and placed a bar of Ivory Soap in my mouth and twisted it around a few times.

 But I am stuck. The rhyme echoes and echoes.  A nightmare.   A rhyme. I want to fully celebrate that Barack Obama will be my President. I will. But the intruder is a rhyme; an echo of an ugliness that was part of what delayed this day for so long.

 Eenee, Meenee, Mainee, Mo!

And that is where I am right now at 3 a.m.

Knowing that at virtually the very moment that Emmett Till faced his final horror, at the very moment that his mother Mamie first heard the news, kids in my neighborhood were probably out in a park – shooting marbles or playing tag – and reciting:

 Eenee, Meenee, Mainee, Mo!

Catch a nigger by the toe!

If he hollers let him go!

Eenee, Meenee. Mainee, Mo!

You-are-It!

 A rhyme. A nightmare.  Our nightmare.