Images of a Broken World

I don’t have much time for today for a longer post, but as I was working through some older e-mail, I ran across the NRP weekly I get and saw this powerful image:

Syrian Child

Though I had seen it before, circulating on social media, seeing it again this morning, it struck me once again. A few things in particular stick with me.

First, the visual rhetoric of the image itself. Putting words to it almost seems to do a disservice, as it feels to clinical, while the image itself feels almost like an inverted icon. In iconography, the image–often of a single figure–should draw one in through its simplicity in an almost mystic transcendence. It is like a light in the distance, calling people toward it.

Here, similarly, we have a single figure in the boy, and like an icon, I simply can’t look away. A profound affect ties me to the image. Some of that affect comes out in pain, sorrow, frustration, etc., but much of it, once again, lacks words. It is simply a blurry, embodied something that fills the room.

Next, the circulation of the image. At the last conference I went to, one of the speakers described the way headlines, statuses, tweets, etc., often circulate without images. More specifically, argued the speaker, they are disembodied. This makes them feel more abstract, hiding the affect and pathos that bodies bring. To highlight the embodied reality of our struggles, then, we should circulate words with bodies.

This image–this body–has been circulating, threading that affect through the world, forcing the embodied realities of a seemingly distant struggle onto Western screens. In time, people have and will forget the image, but it is still there, cropping up now and then, like in this post.

And last, the final thing about this image is its genealogy, its tragic intertextuality with past images and realities. Initially, I recalled a scene in Albert Camus’ Plague, in which a child is dying of plague at the hands of the protagonists. Amid a long and protracted struggle, the small boy screams:

“In the small face, rigid as the mask of grayish clay, slowly the lips parted, and from them rose a long, incessant scream, hardly varying in its respiration and filling the ward with fierce indignant protest, so little childish that it seemed like a collective voice issuing from all the suffers there [. . .] Peneloux gazed down at the small mouth, fouled with the sordes of the plague and pouring out the angry death-cry that has sounded through all the ages of mankind”

“Rigid as the mask of grayish clay” had an unusual resonance as I encounter the image of this Syrian child, grayed with his own mask of debris and dust.

But as Camus’ narrator points out, this scream and this image of the dying child “has sounded through all the ages of mankind.” It is not limited to this plague ward in Oran. In Camus’ scene, for example, the dying child likely links back to the debate in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov where Ivan confronts the religious Alyosha about the death of children. Essentially Ivan argues that he can at least somewhat understand how an adult, who has sinned, may possibly deserve a tragic death, but not a child. Detailing cruel child deaths, Ivan critiques the Christian worldview:

Imagine you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature [. . .] and found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect under those conditions.

This image also inspires Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” which depicts a utopia that requires the continued misery of a single child in order to ensure the prosperity of the world.

I think too of a short story by GULAG-survivor Ivan Shalamov about a child’s coloring book, gradually filled with guard towers and barbed wires as war moves in. “The child saw nothing, remembered nothing but the yellow houses, barbed wire, guard towers, guards with sub-machine guns, and a blue, blue sky,” the narrator says. Forced into a world he didn’t create, the child simply draws what he sees.

And with Shalamov, we get at the reality of these literary images. The 1.5 million children killed in the Holocaust. The children under the Khmer Rouge, abandoned by murdered and deported parents, then near-enslaved at work camps. Or children in war-zones, children whose parents fight in war, children–like those drugged and brainwashed by warlords–who fight in war themselves.

The image above of that Syrian boy, identified as Omran Daqneesh, or the image that surfaced of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian 3-year-old who drowned and washed ashore last year–these images provide a palpable window into a current crisis and a deeper crisis in our world and our histories. As the NPR piece  describes Daqneesh, “Surrounded by shouting, he’s completely silent. . . And he stares. / The world is staring back.”

I think I’ll close on an argument made by nonviolent philosopher Robert Holmes. He describes what a hypothetical alien observer might say about people: “virtually everyone values friendship, peace and happiness; that most persons desire basic creature comforts, love their families, and seek neither to suffer nor to cause pain to others. . . and that most of them wish nothing more than to be left alone to work out their life plans.”

Then, much like the inhabitants of Omelas, we would have to tell these observers

that a scheme had been proposed by which to improve the world. . . which for the present would require that people pour out their wealth into the production of weapons of destruction, organize vast authoritarian bureaucracies called armies, train their sons and daughters to kill and periodically send them out to slaughter and be slaughtered by other sons and daughters similar organized by their governments. . .

In short, argues Holmes, we sacrifice what most of us want–things like family or friendship–to secure some nebulous future prosperity that history shows is often difficult to achieve or maintain, imposing brutal conditions on ourselves in the process.

While not all war works this way and certain people inevitably come up who value a violent ideology over civility, these images–from Camus to the wounded of Syria–give me pause. In particular, though I hate politicizing these images or using them to make my own argument, I can’t help it because I think they offer an important lesson: words conceal horrors.

Describing capital punishment, Camus writes, “When the imagination sleeps, words are emptied of their meaning.” Put another way, when we can’t see or imagine the reality behind words, they don’t mean anything. We forget “the reality hidden under noble phrases,” as Camus writes. When the word “war” no longer signifies the death of children  as an inevitable aspect, for example, we are not actually talking about war, nor the idea of war; we are simply using a word emptied of meaning.

This is not to say that we can’t consider war, but as a teacher of writing, I think we should be clear with the reality our words create. When Cruz says carpet bomb, we must know what that entails: the brutal death of countless civilians. When Trump says deporting all illegal immigrants, we must consider the people themselves. While some criminals may be sent back, as he claims, families will be ripped apart, dreams crushed, labor lost, Mexico and other parts of Latin America possibly destabilized.

This is an easy lesson to glean from history. Turning people into “others” happens again and again. It is the heart of all genocides, from Armenia to Milosevik, and it happens at the level of language itself. It happens when people become “cockroaches” or “rats” or “infidels.” It happens through the repetition of phrases. I happens through the exclusion of complicating pluralities. It happens when words become simplified or misused. When a human being becomes a “load” in Nazi train records.

And in this current campaign in the U.S., all politicians must be held accountable to their words. When Trump says he could shoot someone in broad daylight or insinuates that people could assassinate a president or when he silences fact-checkers and excludes the press from rallies, he must be held accountable. It is the same with Clinton, too, with her often serpentine answers to questions and her past war hawk positions.

Again, all I ask is that we are careful with our language–because on the converse, as the Buddha said, “when words are both true and kind, they can change our world.” We could have any number of worlds, but we must build these worlds with the right words first.



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