I've an essay in the new Griffith Review, 'Tragic Intimacy'.
The new Review has a disaster theme, and I'm looking at the arts of disaster: How can disaster be beautiful? A sample:
We might explain away disaster as a simple narrative device: an artistic trope, like titillating flesh. Certainly, drama is vital for narrative, and disasters do provide drama. Even in sculptures, like Dying Gaul, there is an unspoken story - suffering provides the emotional lure, which pulls us into it. And, as David Hume once noted, simply being in the middle of something - story, craft, scientific investigation - can pique our curiosity.
But why disaster in particular, rather than romantic passion, existential bafflement, or some other human drama? The technical solution sidesteps the real question: What, in disaster, asks for beauty's visceral magic?
One answer comes from French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. In his magnum opus Being and Nothingness (1956), he argued that human existence is basically unfinished. Whereas things in the world just are, we are not; our consciousness stands outside itself as time and space, and is always able to be otherwise. With each new moment, we can say ‘no' to the last moment and all that we are. This is Sartre's doctrine of freedom: mankind is continual becoming, liberated from the simple ‘being' of fountain pens, teaspoons and café tables.
And this is at the root of what he called our ‘unhappy consciousness': we're haunted by this pure being. It's what we are, but we can never recover it, because our consciousness grows against it. In other words, we long to shrug off our freedom and simply be. But this is impossible: this longing is itself part of our free consciousness. There is no way out of liberty. We are always incomplete, unfinished.
For Sartre, art can provide a brief remedy for this. He wrote of the ‘noble suffering' of the statue or tragic mask, which is like a dream of our own pure being. We see in it ourselves - our own restless world. But it is suddenly solid, stable. ‘It is presented to us as a compact, objective whole,' wrote Sartre, ‘it is there in the midst of the world, like this tree or this stone.' This is only a brief reprieve from bittersweet freedom, but it has an extraordinary hold on us. It's a glimpse of perfection, a promise of eternal rest.
In this light, disasters become beautiful in art, not because they deny suffering, but because they make our own suffering palpable, tactile. We can point to Picasso's Guernica (1937) and say: ‘There, that is what I am.' They give us pain, without life's unsettling squirm and sprint.