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Sublime Addiction

May 18, 2009


“Let me show you my sculptures,” Chase said, and took Diane’s hand to lead her into the bedroom. The first one she saw was beside his bed on the nightstand. A naked doll with light peach skin, missing the top of her head–cut off right above the eyebrows. A black metal pole sprung from its center, the top hidden by a shining psychedelic shade. Scarlet, gold, and black melted Dali-like in the shade’s acid paisley dream, blobbing the room’s only light like a lava lamp. The doll, however, sat haloed under the shade in uniform yellow-white light. Involuntarily Diane’s breath floated to the top of her mouth, caught, for a second. A tiny gasp she stifled and ignored. He didn’t notice. 

Great artists make disturbing art, right?

 I used to think that the only people who “got” the world were depressed. How could you watch the millions die in Rwanda, realize the astounding horror of the Holocaust, or watch mentally ill, homeless people shiver in the cold–and not respond with rage–then resignation and depression? The recognition of problems always seemed to come too late or their causes seemed too complex to address.  Any response other than depression seemed either pollyannaish or callous. 

In accordance with that belief, the only artists who counted in my book were people who were “serious,” i.e., they struggled with the suffering of the world and the dark parts of the self. Novelists who dealt with complexities and ambiguities (read: the harsh parts of existence) counted. Musicians who wrote sad, slow music counted. (For God’s sake–not pop! How can you talk about millions dying and– “Do Wah?”) I gave thumbs up to classical composers who wrote in minor keys (or made silence their theme), painters who contorted human bodies into protest art, and filmmakers who montaged people’s stories into hard-to-decipher fragments. 

As her eyes adjusted to the dimness, they swept to the left side of the room, where three shelves–2 X 4s supported with concrete blocks–held more dolls. All of them female, all mutilated. None looked above the age of a two. She counted. Five were missing one or both eyes. Three had their stomachs gorged out like pumpkins. One of these harbored a tiny music box ballerina inside, her arms and legs frozen mid-pirouette. Seven or eight more dolls had arms and legs missing. 

As a culture, evil fascinates us, provided it’s not too close. We love our villains on the screen or halfway ‘round the world–or at least not in our neighborhood! Evil in the sense of suffering also fascinates–again, provided it’s not too close. These two fascinations are not unrelated. If we can link suffering with the punishment of moral evil, we feel safe. Unless we commit the same crime, we will not suffer the same fate. We sidestep the contingency, thefragility of existence for another day. 

Diane looked at Chase, who stood in cathedral-like silence. “They’re all children,” she said. “Why?” His hands fidgeted to the pin on his black coat’s lapel. 

“Because children are the only innocent things in the entire world.” 

At the doors of Auschwitz, the link between suffering and moral evil, always tenuous, broke completely. Whatever universe we lived in was certainly not a moral one. And whatever notion we had of human beings making inevitable progress was an illusion. Capturing the absurdity of human existence in art was both protest and warning. Art became witness to the horrible suffering and meaninglessness at the heart of human existence, an existence vulnerable both to suffering and inflicting violence.  

Artists carried over the dynamic of the sublime aesthetically (its roots in Kant’s Critique of Judgment) despite rejecting the evolutionary optimism of the 19th century. One of the hallmarks of the sublime is pleasure and displeasure felt in the rapid oscillation (or simultaneity) of being overwhelmed by something great or infinite (thus one’s importance is relativized) and feeling one’s importance intensified by being able to appreciate that very overwhelmed-ness. Suffering became the thing that overwhelmed, the destroyer of meaning. Works of art were dark, incoherent, fragmented. Yet, in creating that work–or in viewing that work–we all participate in the other pole of the sublime. We receive pleasure and importance from our ability to appreciate how horrible and meaningless things really are. 

And–like those who naively link punishment to suffering, we gain some imaginary control.

“I suppose that’s true,” she said, looking closer at the coat pin he’d shown her within five minutes of meeting her at the bar. It was a plastic baby boy, factory-painted–the kind you buy at Party City to put on “Congratulations! It’s a Boy!” cakes. Chase had super-glued the baby onto a pin he’d ripped off a plastic name tag holder. 

Perhaps it’s a high price to pay for some pleasure and control. 

“The world destroys innocence–always,” he said, taking her hand and lightly pulling it toward the doorway. She wrapped her fingers around his and followed him back into the den where the petri dish, syringe, and cocaine still lay. 

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 20, 2009 8:37 pm

    oh my. this is amazing.

    • May 30, 2009 11:04 am

      Thanks, Meg! This is the one I thought you’d like based on our conversations. 🙂 Hope everything is well there–and that you’re continuing to write (well, after unpacking…). Miss you.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    September 10, 2009 2:34 pm

    Thanks for your insights and the profound depth of the emotions you can illicit through your words.

    • September 10, 2009 10:58 pm

      Re: Wow
      Wow. Thank YOU. It’s so encouraging to hear that sometimes the writing works!!

      • Anonymous permalink
        September 12, 2009 10:34 pm

        Re: Wow
        You’re welcome. But the way I see it, its my pleasure to read your blog and a great service you provide. Sending lots of encouragement your way! 😀
        Elimelech David

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