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Visual Anguish and Looking at Art

Carol Zoref

Have you seen it?  

‘It.’ The question comes easier this way, or perhaps with less difficulty than finding the words to name an absence instead of a presence. The question is tucked between the detailing of deadlines, news reports, and the practicalities of living in a city that has been bombed.  My verb of choice: bombed. Neither ‘event’ nor ‘tragedy’ sounds right, though nouns will come soon enough. For now, here at the beginning, only verbs will do.   

I understand these were commercial jetliners, not ICBMs, that split the steel and glass of the World Trade Center. But these were missiles none-the-less, guided to their targets by hand, by eye. Someone, a person, had a long-standing vision, intentions, imagined the explosions and death that would follow. The relationship of this action to seeing, including my seeing, is one of the things I cannot get out of my mind.

Have you seen it?

The question is whispered because of the magnitude of painsurrounding the subject of the wondering. It is a wondering inhabited by solemnity, sorrow, and an inference, I think, of shame. To have seen suggests a desire to look, and desire itself, in these first few weeks, is a feeling regarded with misgiving.

I live in Manhattan but I work in a suburb. The colleagues who also make this short trip each day are the ones who ask the question in the early weeks of our grieving. The others, the non-city dwellers, offer a beautiful meal from autumn’s bounty; a bedroom quiet even with the windows wide open, a comforting press of a hand. They are kind and generous and, above all, sincere, wanting to know how we urbanites are holding up.

They are glad they are not us.   

 This is the sentiment I am certain they are harboring, though I do not have concrete evidence supporting this thought. I am generalizing with unfairly broad brushstrokes (is there any other kind?) because what I saw on September 11th was so abominable, so obscene. The usual and more exacting particularities of experience with which I navigate the world — the sound that something makes, the finer points of how it appears — have been eclipsed by a numbing of the senses that can accompany shock.   

The relationship of apprehending the world through the impression of things, versus feeling the world through emotions and understandings, is always a fluid composition. Whatever balance I characteristically strike has been thrown askew. I am also fearful that my observing such wretchedness only blocks from where we live, not shielded as most people were by the framing of the bombings by a TV screen, will somehow render me disgusting, as well; that people will look at me and be reminded of the day’s horror to the exclusion of anything else. This suggests more about the limitations of my own thinking of the moment than about the psyche of anyone else.

I did not ever want to know first-hand the thwump of a jet flying into a skyscraper, its cacophony resembling an empty construction bin being brusquely dropped at night onto a deserted street, all the people in the neighborhood busy sleeping. Or the sirens that commenced their wailing minutes later and did not stop for days. I did not want this information reinforced when a second hijacked jet created the sound again eighteen minutes later. As if I might have already forgotten or disbelieved and my eardrums, those compilers of sensory accuracy, were seeking verification. I did not want to hear the roar rising from the thousands of workers walking uptown as the first tower collapsed and then the second. Their shouting was like the cry of a stadium crowd watching football, but an anguished aggregation of screaming rather than cheers.  I did not want the sounds of my own screaming, either, or the feel of my fisted fingers pulling the hair at the back of my neck or th!e grotesque taste of fear-laced breakfast in my mouth when I threw up.   

I did not want my skin saturated by the viscid smell, like a scummy swamp fire into which someone kept tossing radios and telephones which shorted out as they hit the water. The number here reaches thousands, too. I did not want the fine, gray powder that turned to a mucilage of soot on our windowsills, a residue of everything that once was and now was not.

The very worst are images of people falling off and jumping from the burning buildings, though I kept saying at the time this could not be possible. I did not want to see what I was seeing; did not want to believe in the accuracy of my senses, though they are always where I start knowing what I know. These images of people, unlike the sounds or the smells of that day, are a series of agonies for which I will offer no simile. There is a time when only the thing itself must do: a moral decision, not a technical one. The suffering of those people was their suffering; it was neither a metaphor for something else nor something that can be more meaningfully depicted by simile. At least not yet, not so soon. Perhaps these, like the nouns I avoid to describe the bombings, will come later on, when my relationship to that day is altered by the promise of perspective and understanding that comes with time.

  I do not want to be a detail in this mural I am rendering. I wish I were not among those of us who live closer and closer and closer, still. Meaning we who, having witnessed the horror through our living room windows and then on the streets, as my partner and I did, continue seeing it, the unfolding of it over and over, until even with eyes closed it is all that we see.

The dogged persistence of these unassimilated images creates its own particular terror, all the while serving as a reminder — re-staging might be more accurate — of the experience as originally encountered.   

This, I am told by a psychologist-friend, is the predictable pattern of trauma. The brain, having been asked to understand faster than it can absorb, replays the unprocessed stimuli again and again. This yet-to-be comprehended information appears repeatedly on the surface of the mind’s eye, the place where new information waits its turn to be digested.

What does one do, then, with this backlog of awful images, the ones for which the brain finds no place because it is slow in making room for what is unbearable? The brain continues to process new images, other less terrifying pieces of stimuli, but not these. There is no way to attend to them faster without disengaging from the painful discourse of processing, from the communion between the heart and mind that is consciousness. One would have to disengage from the testimony of the senses; deny them out of a delusion that the processing is complete. An invitation, for sure, for the pain to re-emerge at some later where it will hurt most, a location that won’t announce itself until it is bloodied. Does this mean I should abandon hope of finding some form of relief? And what about the senses: have they been irreparably damaged by a bombing I could taste and feel and smell, hear and see? I ache for something greater for my senses, which are not intended solely for witnessing grief.  I want them to feed once more my longing to understand, my desire — there is that troublesome word again — to know even what is painful.   

What I find is my brain, still so over-stimulated, cannot focus. I am incapable of doing what I want to do most. I pick up only those books I must read for work. I think about writing but am unable to write, which is as close to writing as I get. Almost three weeks pass. I am wondering if and when I will ever feel anything else. I realize I am waiting to feel different and waiting itself makes me feel out of control, as out of control as I felt watching those flame-engulfed towers collapse. The waiting, because there is no end in sight, feels unbearable.

Then I notice in The New York Times, where every article now reads like an obituary,a review of an exhibit nearby in SoHo, photographs by Kenro Izu titled Sacred Places. For as drawn as I might be to the notion of the sanctified, it is the idea of place itself that compels me to lay the review in a prominent spot on my desk, confirm the hours, block out time in my schedule so I might go. The physical world, perceived through vision, often activates my processes of wondering and contemplation. In the absence of my own imagining—one of the means by which I navigate what I am wanting to understand—I intuitively turn to the inventiveness of others. I am preparing now to venture into a singular world in which, according to The Times review, sensory perception is central. It is a realm that promises not people—and therefore the potential for the interpersonal landscape that always triggers the deepest of my upsets—but the eminence of place.    

 The photos in the gallery on Wooster Street are of sacred sites in Tibet and China and Cambodia. They are of temples and shrines and sanctuaries. The photos are exquisitely detailed, exposed as they were with the 300-pound, large format camera that Izu carried over one range of mountains to the next.   

Some twenty years worth of beautiful work and what I get stuck on are the political consequences for those who believe in the sacred. Tibetan monasteries have been shuttered for decades by the occupying forces of the Chinese government; Buddhist temples in China itself, after years of desecration by Maoists, have been restored and converted into attractions for western tourists; the ancient ruins of the city of Angkor Wat have been bruised and battered by the neighboring armies of Asia, by the colonial armies of the west, by the Khmer Rouge cadres of Cambodia itself. What gets lost again as I consider these photos is what is hallowed, obscured this time not by governments but by my own impalpable thinking. I am deliberating what I know from the histories, rather than turning to my wounded, weary senses in order to see.

This kind of perceiving—my information-driven knowing of the moment—seems far removed from the work’s intentions when I consider each photograph on its own terms.   

I start again.   

In the opening photo, a jewel of a mountain is showered by sunlight no other nearby peak receives. The other mountains are not diminished by this, though the undeniable fact is that they are in shadow. And I, unable to shake the chill that has invaded my bones these recent weeks, become as keenly aware as I am of anything that day of my wishing to be embraced by the sunlight, too. The eminence of place, as rendered so artfully in these contact printed, platinum-palladium photos, provokes in me the desire for an elation of being. This is one of the things art does when we permit ourselves to absorb it by allowing it to absorb us as well. It reveals to us a quality of feeling; makes us recognize the feeling as if it is something we had previously known somehow, though we had never before imagined its existence in this way. It is so much because Izu has envisioned his  intentions so masterfully that I become able to feel this at all: through his mindfulness of dimension, both tactile and conceptual; through his patient exposures of many minutes rather than the usual fractions of seconds, therefore casting that distinction into further relief; through the belabored use of 14×20-inch sheets of film to better register detail, and by doing so preventing the distortion that might result from immense enlargements. Each photograph is an invitation to a reciprocity of experience, rather than something done to the viewer, as with the bombings.

With this image of Kailash in Tibet, I begin reacquainting myself—albeit self-consciously, clumsily—with the act of beholding.  For the first time in weeks, I am able to look at something closely; I can regard, receive, discern, and apprehend an impression of things fully and purposefully through visual reception. I am aware of having a visceral response as well. I feel a euphoric flush on my face in addition to a touch of vertigo from looking down and up, left and right, again and again, as if I, like Kenro Izu, am standing at the foot of that very mountain. All this, in conjunction with a willingness to work mindfully with the accumulation of experience, enables me to understand something in a way I had not known it before, something relating to states of awe. It is the experience of coming to know in this way, however haltingly, which is central to my feeling alive.

A week passes and I am attending a conference on the Upper East Side. When my meetings end, I head down the block to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I have resolved to see the newly opened exhibit of drawings by Bruegel the Elder, a heavy-handed decision. Why heavy-handed?  It will be good, I keep telling myself as I climb to the second floor galleries, a way to embrace the world. It is as much an instruction as a thought.   

I’ve got to get out of here,is what I am soon thinking, en route from the first print to the second, trying unsuccessfully to persuade myself to stay. The problem lies not in Bruegel but in me. I am unable to contemplate these images of people eating and scavenging and playing and torturing and making love or engaging in brutal and unloving sex; unable to find room in myself for the twisted faces and twisted bodies that are the human heart of Bruegel’s drawings. They are too brutal, look too much like the colorless and still smoldering steel and broken glass of lower Manhattan.

  Anyone observing me hastily leaving the exhibit might have thought I was disinterested. But the problem, which is always the problem in the face of trauma, is that I care too much; I care so much that I am unable to distinguish between a drawing and the three-dimensional world. My relationship to metaphor is missing, misplaced; the people in Bruegel’ s drawings are as tangible as the jumpers from the Twin Towers, their agonies actual and literal, not representational or metaphorical. My capacity to receive an impression of things, to allow myself to absorb art and allow it to absorb me in a thoughtful, edifying or enlightening way is at the mercy of the reflexes seeking to protect me from further anguish. My brain, without my conscious participation, has established newly circumscribed boundaries: The un-peopled, exalted worlds of Kenro Izu, Yes. The overpopulated and suffering worlds of Bruegel, No.   

What I have also learned about trauma is that any severe shock can trigger a re-experiencing of an episode from the past. So I am feeling assaulted, abandoned, unable to untangle the threat of harm from harm itself, though the sensation of being threatened is a category of trauma, as well. I am having an anxiety attack in the Metropolitan Museum, despite my being long past having these with regularity and being well practiced at not letting them show. There is a difference, though, between what I am feeling at this moment and those archetypal, Ur-traumas of long ago: I can remove myself from the Bruegel exhibit because, over time, I have learned how to do that, too.

The past knocks on my door again. I walk the corridor to the 19th century paintings, home to the Met’ s collection of the Impressionists, just as I did when I was 16 years old and in love for the first time in a way that caused me more anguish than elation. That troubled yearning, in combination with other elements particular to my adolescence, left me feeling like an inexpressible mess. I often went then, as I go now, to the Impressionists for their unembarrassed lushness, for their light. So much light, so much color. And beauty. Degas’ dancers, Seurat’s strollers, Matisse’s women. Except, for now, too many people. Cezanne’s still lifes. Better.

I am standing before Van Gogh’s “Green Vase With White Roses,” though the white of those roses is created with most anything but white. And the roses are beautiful. And the green vase is beautiful too, green with lots of blue in it suggesting a balance against the green backdrop, a yellow infused green and therefore the opposite of blue. The same yet different, an irresistible harmony.

And why should I resist?   

At the opposite end of the museum are 17th century Dutch still lifes, works painted two hundred years prior to Van Gogh’s. I am reminded of Mark Doty’s book-length essay Still Life With Oysters and Lemons, which I recently read and then read again. My level of anxiety spikes, then passes. A revelation! I will visit the painting by Jan Davidsz de Heem that inspired Doty’s rapturous exploration of the relationship of the object world to memory and the imagination. Perhaps this is why I have been drawn to the Met, to finally see this painting that is so much in the back of my mind. As if I truly need a reason. Yet it feels good to have a purpose, however humble, this organizing principle for my time in the museum. What are organizing principles if not challenges to chaos, if not providers of even modest degrees of control?

“Still Life With Oysters and Lemon” is the smallest painting in a room filled with still lifes; an abundance of grapes and lobsters and lemons and snipe and, in one by Jan Van Huysum, minute yet precisely rendered ants, contributing as they must to the decay of a setting of fruit. Still life does not mean no life; it suggests a devoted concentration to the abundance of a moment. The observer, however, needs to keep company with that moment, as envisioned by the artist, for much longer than a true moment. That is when the wondrous relationship of reciprocity—being absorbed, absorbing in return—can begin taking place. Even when the vision is one of death.   

  I picture the many others who have looked at these paintings too, some in ways that I perceive them and some in ways I would never consider, all of which reminds me that it is not me alone beholding them. I am, as Mark Doty writes of us, a member of a community of attention givers. Which is probably the place I have been wrenched from these lost weeks and for which I have been yearning; the place where I live with a keen mindfulness of the world as initially received through the senses.

There is another term I learned from my psychologist friend that I find appealing as well, though I stretch its application so far as to render it somewhat inaccurate. Still, it reflects something acute to my sense of injury. The phrase is “counter-trauma,” used for describing a person who returns to the site of their ordeal as a means of asserting authority over their experience. That is precisely what I was seeking when I found my way to the Impressionists, to the Dutch still lifes, to Izu’s spirit-filled photographs. I was seeking to counter my sense of trauma through a part of me still hurting. Not through the category of image offered by Bruegel, which comes closer to my actual experience of visual anguish; which might, in the future, serve as a metaphorical vehicle for my revisiting that day.  I was seeking to counteract the experience of visual trauma through the act of seeing itself, only made possible again by looking at beauty.   

What I had seen of the World Trade Center bombing and could not stop seeing had traumatized my mind’s eye, continued taking place in the here and now. I had to coax my literal eyes into looking around again carefully and faithfully before I could try once more to absorb what my mind’s eye was still refusing.

I was tending to my heretofore inconsolable eyes on that visit to the Met and to Izu’s “Sacred Places.” I was introducing exquisite and sublime images to my traumatized consciousness not as replacements for the horrors I had seen, but as additions. The Izu exhibit was the first step: the stillness of place in steadfast images, their quietude suggesting preconditions of tranquility and potentiality of relief. The Impressionists, later on, were a way to absorb the beauty of a more internalized, personalized world, at the same time as my mind was struggling still with the awful images it continued rejecting. That was the necessary order of experience before the aestheticized anguish of Bruegel could again be considered. And why not? This is how we ideally begin our infant relationship to the world: through fundamental, beautiful sensation. It is how we start preparing for the more complex and ambiguous forms of beauty that will follow.   

Powerless as I was, I had found a way, long after it ended in lower Manhattan, to stop the bombing in my mind’s eye.   

  The assault on my sensory capacity, so central to my being, impelled me in conscious and unconscious ways to get it back. Should I feel shameful for that? That would mean feeling shame about being alive, survivor’s guilt. The dead, I imagine, would think this a waste. The dead, I imagine, would think of better uses for living time.

What I am doing now is reasoning, and shame and guilt do not always have their origins in reason. Which is why the shame I felt as I walked to the remains of the World Trade Center between my visits to the Izu exhibit and the Met was pointless, though I felt it nonetheless. Perception does not convert as fast as we would like into active understanding. What I was doing downtown in those weeks when our sidewalks were still empty but for those of us who live here, when our streets were open only to emergency vehicles, was paying a condolence call. I was also engaging in a more exacting act of counter-trauma, though I did not know it at the time because I was acting out of an impulse for which I am grateful. And yet, it was not enough.

My visit to the Met, it turns out, was the more correcting form of reparative mastery.  Perhaps this was the case because of the sequencing of events. But it was in the museum that I finally consciously identified the location of a particular injury and a means by which to tend to it. Not that this diminishes or annuls my other efforts. Understanding takes place in stages, not all at once. This is a fact I know well, but one I lost sight of in the depths of my anguish. Then, an evidently irrepressible desire to absorb and understand enabled a new sensibility to ferment, to emerge, to contribute to the long undertaking of a restoration of self.

It is through the senses that the exterior world is made palpable, and through our thoughtful attention, such as engaging with or making art, that this knowledge accumulates meaning.  Events in their verb-states often resist our predilection to comprehend because they feature action and reaction ahead of reflection, analysis, and insight. The legacy of inconsolable grief and, potentially, despair come when life’s arbitrary horrors are fixed in the moments of their happening.  Unlike the elongated moment of a still life, these frozen images and feelings are unyielding; they can wield as much destructive force as the initial trauma itself. It is by discovering a means through which to begin our reckoning, by extracting from the experiences themselves whatever it is we need in order to drive ourselves forward, that we make room within for that which is otherwise unbearable.

So to those who ask Have you seen it? I answer, Yes.