Last week, the day before the image of young Aylan Kurdi washed upon the Turkish shore spread relentlessly across the Internet, Kevin Clarke wrote in America magazine about why it’s important to bear witness to the images of drowned refugee children washing up on Mediterranean shores – even though most U.S. publications couldn’t, wouldn’t, and perhaps even shouldn’t publish the pictures.
I read Kevin’s post before going to bed, and stared sleeplessly into the dark for a long, long time.
The next morning I asked him for the pictures in question, and looked at them myself. They are, in their way, far worse than most of those that have been shared widely on social media. They were banned by Facebook, in fact; you can look, or not. Before you do, know this: my reaction was raw noise, followed by something like convulsion. I have never heard myself this way before. These photos bring forth something like a scream, something like a cry, something like a keen. I won’t sully the sound with adjectives.
In the middle of this, I got a follow-up message from Kevin: "See @bouckap for heartbreaking photo today from Turkey." That was Aylan.
Kevin had already written that witnessing such images might push some of us to political action, demanding that our governments do something to Stop It. The photo of Aylan has had that electrifying effect, and thank God. The refugee crisis in the Mediterranean went globally mainstream in a day, with average people around the world contributing en masse to the relief effort there. The triage work was paralleled by calls for Westerners to take responsibility for complicity in politics and economics that create war and famine and drive desperate people into the sea. Like all giant tasks, this is so huge as to be easily ignored, though it still needs to be said.
Now that our politics have been recalibrated by the public horror at Aylan’s photo, the already-complicated ethics of sharing such terrible images will seem all the more troublesome. We might wonder whether to look at further images: of those refugees who are already lost, or those who will certainly still die, despite new efforts.
No matter how great our political endeavors, however, we should not be turning away from these small pictures of small children — for no other reason than to join in the pain of the dead.
This is not an efficacious motive. There is no political outcome for such action. But the great lie of our hyper-political, progressive age is that political action is an adequate response to history. Our politics functionalizes loss: as one Twitter commentator put it, Aylan’s death would "not be in vain" if it catalyzed a relief movement.
But of course it is. Our posthumous ascription of purpose will not benefit him. There is nothing we can do that will make his death, and his brother’s and mother’s, along with the deaths of thousands of other refugees, anything but utter vanity. It is appalling to co-opt their lives for a future in which they will have no part and for which they did not agree to sacrifice themselves.
There is no political outcome that will make these children not drowned. There is no politics that will pull their shirts down to cover their exposed tummies, the way a parent’s loving hand would do. There is no politics that will make their drenched clothing anything other than the last outfit their parents ever clothed them in, unaware when they did so that it would be the clothing in which their children would die. There is no politics that will give these children another life that does not end in terror and despair and cold water. (God, God, how does one write words like this?) There is no politics that will give their parents anything but the end they had: of going into the dark knowing that their dear ones were lost forever.
All this is permanent. It is done and cannot and will not and will never be undone. And while I am all for good politics, which is to say I am all for a good future, and so I am all for doing better by the refugees that yet live, I also refuse to let the past go as if it were merely the gravel under the sub-foundation of whatever shiny tomorrow we happen to build next.
There is no politics that can redeem what time has irretrievably taken. To stand as witness to the past is to stand either in utter nihilism and despair, or in the desperate, desperate hope that in the end a Redeemer will walk upon the earth, who will bring forth those whose flesh was destroyed, to see and be loved forever by God.
I have no proof of this hope. It is a foolish hope, in its way. And to live my life as if this hope’s truth exceeded time and space amounts to a wager that I acknowledge to be absurd. The wager makes nothing better in the meanwhile. The wager does not bring back those children. The wager simply commands me to be destroyed with them. This is because if we acknowledge the finality of their loss, all consolation is counterfeit. The Messiah will come again, but he is not here yet. Faith is in the doing. Its reward is never proven. And thus there I will go.
I think you should, too. But your wager is your wager, and nobody can stake your claim for you.
This passage from Georges Bataille’s Inner Experience gave me words to seek the destruction I’m describing here. I have been praying for it for a long time.
I had recourse to upsetting images. In particular, I would stare at the photographic image – or sometimes my memory of it – of a Chinese man who must have been tortured during my lifetime. Of this torture, I had had in the past a series of successive representations. In the end, the patient, his chest flayed, twisted, arms, and legs cut at the elbows and knees. Hair standing on his head, hideous, haggard, striped with blood, beautiful as a wasp.
I write "beautiful" … something escapes me, flees from me, fear robs me of myself and, as if I had wanted to stare at the sun, my eyes slip.
…The young and seductive Chinese man of whom I have spoken, left to the work of the executioner, I loved him with a love in which the sadistic instinct had no part: he communicated his pain to me or rather the excess of his pain, and it was precisely this that I was seeking, not to enjoy it, but to ruin in me that which is opposed to ruin.
Before excessive cruelty, be it from men, or from fate, it is natural to rebel, to cry out (the heart fails us): "That can no longer be!" and to weep, to blame some whipping post. It is more difficult to say to oneself: that in me that weeps and curses is my thirst to sleep in peace, my fury at being disturbed.
We must be careful. The pursuit of self-destruction described here is, in its way, a privilege of privilege; the possibility of those who are already secure. And if we run the risk of functionalizing loss for politics, how much worse if we do the same for our own sentimentality, experiencing some frisson of tragedy.
But this is the risk inherent to all solidarity. We escape it by refusing to devolve into wallowing, to our own feelings. God forbid this should be about our feelings. No: it is about how we are actually wrecked by joining the suffering of others. This is not "disaster pornography." This is spiritual mortification.
Bataille describes what he has seen and what the seeing does to him. But I prefer the fragment, isolated by the italics I’ve inserted. It turns Bataille’s indicative mood into an apophatic vocative — a prayer to a self-evidently absent God, the Divine Ruiner, on whose presence my entire existence hangs.
Ruin in me that which is opposed to ruin.
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