The horror has set in, the media begun their frenzied but largely predictable work, and the gore of yesterday has given way, as it invariably does, to the a million and one interventions and interpretations and re-re-re-countings of events. Children and their parents are asked to talk as witnesses, to describe details which should stay squarely in the domain of personal grief. Social scientists and psychiatrists are asked to explain and label, to advise and guide; most of their pronouncement vacillate somewhere between conjecture and common sense. Religious leaders are compelled to offer words of comfort, and politicians are thrust behind the podium to say–what? To hold back the tears. All well-meaning attempts, all horrified, all tapping into the depths of their humanity, to extract some semblance of meaning, and if not meaning, then at least solace.
At moments like this, when the parade is in full swing, one collective absence never ceases to surprise me: Those who have tasked themselves with mining the human heart and its troubles: the writers and artists, the philosophers, and the public intellectuals.
But mostly the writers and artists. At moments like this, literature retreats (not that it ever had a prominent place in our public life) and gives way to the “helping professions,” the psychologists, councilors, child advocates, mental health professionals. What would a writer like Joyce Carol Oates, much of whose writing is about troubled youth, have to say about these events? Or a philosopher who focus on the intersection between philosophy and society, someone like Hans Enzesberger who has written so perceptively about “social autism” (in Civil Wars from LA to Bosnia)–and explore violence, loss, education? How would an artist who has devoted his or her energies to the theme of mourning and loss approach this horror?
At moments like this, I am convinced, once again, if I needed more proof, that we are not a country that places its writers and artists and philosophers and intellectuals in the forefront of public life, that thinks of them as national treasures rather than secluded odd balls doing strange things with words and images and ideas and notes. We love easy lingo, platitudes, things we can repeat, things we don’t need to work a little harder to understand. I am by no means advocating that art/philosophy be placed at the service of society, but the conversation which we all crave about these issues will be of much greater complexity and consequence (and much more interesting) if we hear their voices and their opinions instead of the platitudes which always end up filling the silent spaces of public grief. We confuse grief with action and reaction; we are impatient of the slow work of sorrow; we want immediate answers; we want, always and invariably, to “talk about it.”
Literature and her sisters begin with the assumption that we have no iron-clad answers and prescriptions, that’s our lot, the narrow straits through which we navigate the dark waters. Of course, we must change the gun laws and social norms that glorify violence and everyday extremism; we must banish the public chatter that leaves such a narrow space for private grief and mourning. We must do so with the firm conviction that a horror of this kind cannot be reduced, formulated, prescribed, pandered. It requires a wake equal to the calamity’s magnitude. And if, as the media keep repeating, the Sandy Hook massacre is a tragedy, (again, the word tragedy), then we have little choice but to assume the tragic attitude, which is so vastly different from the positivism in which we so often wallow, so alien to our optimistic ways in these troubled lands.