I went walking beside the river today. The river is a neighbor of mine, just out my back door and across a road. I visit it often, and what I’ve noticed is that it has its moods. Today the water was black and roiling. It was one of those cold, gray New England days, the day after the solstice, when it still feels as though light has drained from the world, even though you know, intellectually, that it’s coming back.
This is what the water looked like:
Looking down into that black water from the bridge above, I started thinking about our desire for the apocalyptic, our secret wish that the world would in fact end. We’ve seen this recently, haven’t we? I think we see it every few years. It seems to be a recurring aspect of human civilization: someone announces the apocalypse, and there is much rejoicing. Of course, the apocalypse never arrives. What we get instead is life going on, with its series of small apocalypses, intermittent acts of violence that seem to have no meaning. Instead of the end of the world, we get a shooting here or there. I suppose one attraction of the apocalypse is that it would provide us with meaning, with closure. That would be it, instead of this going on and on, this continuation of ordinary life.
I think at some level, I can understand why someone might be driven to acts of destruction. We call those acts senseless, but I’m not sure they are, and I suspect that part of my duty, as a writer, is to make sense of them. It’s not a pleasant duty: but I am a writer, and nothing human should be beyond me. Unfortunately, violence is all too human. To understand it, I have to understand what creates violent or destructive impulses in myself. Thinking about this, I immediately remembered Freud’s idea of the death drive, the desire for something that is not life, for a return to the inorganic. There are all sorts of ways in which I disagree with Freud, but I agree with him that we have that impulse, because I can feel it in myself. I am not afraid of heights. No, what I’m afraid of is jumping. It’s the part of myself that asks, what if I did? (I suspect many of us ask that question, and this is a case in which having a vivid imagination is a liability.) I can understand the desire for violence as a rupture of the ordinary, of daily continuity. I can understand how in certain circumstances, someone might want something, anything, to happen. A war, a bomb, a shooting. And I believe it’s important to understand, because only by understanding something can we present an alternative.
I believe that the opposite of violence is not peace, but art.
Art is a way to commit the extraordinary, to rupture ordinary life. To move us to a different plane of significance. It is the way to express most completely all that we are, including our will to life, our desire for death. A great work of art is an apocalypse, a bomb in the mind. It is at once an act of creation and destruction. I can’t walk through a room of Van Goghs without feeling that I am being remade, that parts of me are falling away, that I must change in response. When I write, it is as though I can jump into the dark water without actually jumping. Metaphor saves us . . .
Alice Walker wrote, “Writing saved me from the sin and inconvenience of violence.” That makes sense to me.
This is what the river looked like, when I pointed my camera not down into the water but across it. The buildings of the city glowed in the light of sunset. Day by day, this time of year reminds us, the light returns . . .