Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Latest Tragedy

First and foremost, my thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families.

Once again, we are confronted with an event that irrevocably taints our perception of a place we formerly regarded as a sanctuary. I was wrapping up my freshman year when Columbine happened, and the school hallways and classrooms were thenceforth embedded with a feeling of unease and tension. After 9/11, the very act of going outside felt like entering a different world, strange and vaguely sinister. I had made plans to see The Dark Knight Rises with friends next Tuesday—plans we all intend on keeping—and I’m sure I won’t be able to help noting where the emergency exits are and mentally planning escape routes.

All of us are left with the unenviable task of reconciling the tragedy with how we view the world. We have to somehow allow that something this dreadful and awful and frightening could happen—and did happen—in the world we inhabit and in the end arrive at an outlook of this world that doesn’t drive us to complete despair.

After those of us with no direct connection to the tragedy offer our sympathies to the friends and family of those in the theater—people who are experiencing unimaginable grief—the question of appropriate action gets raised. The Paris premiere of The Dark Knight Rises was scheduled later that day; it was rightly canceled. The promotion of a movie all of a sudden seemed like the most irrelevant thing, all the smiling faces and congratulatory sentiments and funny anecdotes of what happened during production…even the weightier discussions involved with artwork well made seemed pointless.

An artist’s place in the world can sometimes feel a little precarious after world-shaking tragedy. This is what the creators of The Dark Knight Rises are undoubtedly going through. Not only is their movie forever attached to a deplorable event, perpetrated by a deplorable man, but the movie itself, the thing they’d all been working on for months, seems beside the point, shunted off to the side, overlooked. This attitude and position toward the movie is, of course, the correct one to have. For what is art—which is a form of entertainment, really—in the face of bullets being discharged from an assault rifle into human targets? (One minor reprieve is that, as far as I can tell, The Dark Knight Rises hasn’t seriously been blamed for what happened yet, an accusation that would open up a whole other can of worms.)

What the artist struggles with in the days afterward is a real sense of hope-/helplessness. If the world can, in the blink of an eye, render the thing that defines you as a person meaningless, otiose, irrelevant, then what’s the point? The answer to that lies in expectation, both others’ and one’s own. The world does not crumble after a tragedy; it lives on, due to everyone doing what is expected of him or her. Policemen are expected to keep upholding the law, firefighters are expected to keep responding to fires, teachers are expected to keep teaching, bakers are expected to keep baking. And artists are expected to keep creating art. That’s what they do. And if they disintegrated into a paralyzed mess of self-doubt and despair, our understanding would only go so far and we would eventually regard them with the same disappointment we would have for a Senator or a brain surgeon who, in the face of tragedy, throws up his hands and stops coming to work, all while saying “What’s the point?” The point is that we continue to give the world what we claim we can offer it. That’s all anyone expects. Carpenters make tables, bakers make cupcakes, artists make art. It’s that simple.

When 9/11 happened, I was just starting my senior year. By that time, I had decided that I wanted to write, that the way I wanted to be presented to the world was through my writing, and, in preparation for a lifetime’s service in this field, I had already started to think of myself as an artist. On that awful day, we were sent home early from school and classes were canceled for a couple days.  After I had had enough of the terrible imagery on TV, I sat down and started to write. I had no idea what I was going to write, I just felt compelled to do it. I spent ten hours each of the next couple days at my desk, typing away. By the time we had to go back to school, I had completed a screenplay from scratch. It had nothing to do with 9/11; it was a dramatic character piece about relationships. It was only afterward that I realized it was my formal affirmation of what I wanted to do, to be. Writing that screenplay felt like the first mature, adult thing I had ever done.

Doing what we are supposed to do helps us and others make sense of the world. If I had to say, the next time you hear from me, it’ll be in the form of some art.


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