The Fragile Bow: On Imagination and Atrocity
My mind these days is strung to such a pitch that the magazines at the grocery store checkout bring me to tears. There are the faces of all those children, all those children, and the silence they sing wounds. I know I’m not the only one who hears it—we all do—that silence. But it feels like I’m listening alone. We see their eyes in the photos, all those children, looking out at us. Someone told them to smile and they did. I can’t imagine one of them saying to me a single word, any word. I can’t imagine putting a word in one of their mouths. There’s just this silence, this wound, this senselessness of a wound—some nameless realization that something now is missing. Where there should be presence, there is absence. I want to say “silence where there should be song.” But there aren’t words for it.
Not seeking exactly solace, not knowing exactly what I seek, I have turned back to a page in an ancient play many times to find again some words that feel to me most human, words I need now, faced by unspeakable faces. These words are spoken by a son whose father has died. Neoptolemus must know something of grief. His father was Achilles. Neoptolemus, just an adolescent, has come with Odysseus to the barren island of Lemnos to trick an old hero grievously wounded to return to Troy and end the war; you see, Odysseus has had a vision: the war can end in no other way save by the arm of this hero shooting arrows from his bow. Trouble is, nearly a decade ago, this same hero traveling with Odysseus to Troy and landing on the island of Chryse, this man stepped into a patch of ground sacred to the island’s nymph, and a serpent bit him. It was no simple snakebite. The wound it gave Philoctetes festered; it would not heal, but it would not kill him. The stench of the wound endlessly rotting made the other soldiers sick. They felt disgust. But worse were the hero’s cries. Wounded in more than mere body, Philoctetes bore in him venom that tormented his mind, that despaired his spirit, cycles of suffering that might ease momentarily but would not cease. A kind of madness would arrive in him; he said he could feel it coming. Then the pain would stop words. Then his voice was reduced to one cry so heart-rending, his agony’s song agonized any who heard him—almost as if Philoctetes’s pain became their own. Or if it wasn’t, that it should be, that it could be: his wound, their own. Odysseus, fearing Philoctetes’s pain would strike away his army’s courage, took his men and left the hero on another island—Lemnos—when, unconscious from his wound, he lay insensate on the ground. I can imagine his last words spoken still hovering in the silence of the air: don’t leave me alone. These were the words he spoke to Odysseus before his pain lost him to consciousness. These are the words Odysseus ignored.
He was left alone. Alone and wounded. Alone with a wound that could not heal. His only companion: his bow. No ordinary weapon, it was a gift from Hercules, given when that great hero, child of Zeus, suffering his own grievous injury, had built his own pyre, but could find no one to light it so that he could finally die; no one save Philoctetes, his old lover, who alone set the flame to its work. The bow was his reward. What arrow springs from it cannot fail to hit its target. Abandoned on Lemnos, Philoctetes lived by shooting birds as they winged through the air, dragging himself across jagged stones to retrieve his meager meal, waiting, as day after day piled into years, for someone, anyone, to come and find him. He needed someone not to see past his wound, but to see through it—not to the man he used to be, but to this man he is: the hero in all his fragility.
One way to think about a wound is to say it is absence in the midst of presence. The wound is what is missing. To say that “time heals all wounds” mistakes time’s own wounded work. Ask Philoctetes, he knows. Nine years’ time healed everything but his wound. Time pours into a wound and wounds it more. Another way to think about a wound is that it keeps us open to the world where otherwise we might be closed. Then harm becomes home to unexpected capacities of sympathy and wonder. Some such wounds we’re born with: eyes and ears, the wound of the hand as it opens and opens again, and the mouth, that wound through which words speak.
Neoptolemus is told by Odysseus to “ensnare / the soul of Philoctetes with your words.” The young man does so; someone told him what to do and he did so. But something within Neoptolemus awakens as he talks to trick this man, old friend of his father’s, some old sense that words aren’t used for cunning purpose, that words aren’t clever but open, and honest. Neoptolemus hears in what Philoctetes says the wounded depth of the hero. I want to say the boy learns how to listen woundedly. When the maddening fit comes on Philoctetes, he asks Neoptolemus what he asked Odysseus so many years ago: Do not go away from me. He is in pain so he yells it. Do not go away from me! And then Neoptolemus says those words I turn and return to—he says:
I have been in pain for you; I have been
in sorrow for you.
In these words is his promise. His promise is to remain, vigilant witness to another man’s suffering, witness to another’s wound. He has “been in pain” for another; he has “been in sorrow” for this man, words by which, so I must understand, he means he has been within the sorrow of another, bears in himself some corresponding wound to the wounded man, and putting tricky words aside, has found in another’s pain the beginning of a moral life. That life says: I am within your hurt, within the very harm of you, where I will keep you company, where I cannot help but remain.
I have been in pain for you; I have been in sorrow for you. These are the words I hear, even now, somehow still in the air, as the milk carton crosses the laser and $2.79 flashes up on the checkout screen. And the children’s faces, all those faces, their smiles—I can’t help but think it—are taut like a strung bow: the arrows they shoot never miss.
I want to ask a question, and there is no way to ask it but in words. I want to ask how I’m wounded. I want to ask you if you are wounded, too.
I fear solace is anxiously haunted by the worry that it’s only a trick I play on myself, something I talk myself into; I worry comfort has lost its comforting. The calm that ancient page gives me is overturned so easily by other books I’ve read. Only in Sophocles’s play Philoctetes is Neoptolemus portrayed in such fine light. Most accounts of him paint the young man as vicious, cruel even when war’s cruelty is the measure. Neoptolemus is the one who climbs pillaged Troy’s tower with Hector’s child in his hands. Astyanax’s mother would climb with her child the same tower to point out his father on the battlefield. Neoptolemus is the one who drops Astyanax from that height to the ground. He kills Priam, King of Troy. He kills both child and elderly. Neoptolemus is in no one’s pain; he is in no one’s sorrow. Now he is pain’s source, its cause, and to every cry of mercy he makes himself deaf, and where in the eyes he could see life begging to remain alive, he sees death. He sees the death he will bring, and still, despite its horror, he brings it.
Achilles appears to his son a last time, rising up from the underworld, making demands. It is said his ghost arrives cloaked in the violence of his past, enraged as when he drew his sword against Agamemnon, his own leader; enraged as when, Patroclus slain, he entered again the field of battle and laid waste to every life that neared him. This ghost comes without solace, comfortless, offering no peace. This ghost says none of the Greek army can leave until the Trojan princess Polyxena is sacrificed; no breath will blow the ships home until this girl no longer breathes. “Let my shade be pleasured by the death of Polyxena,” says the ghost. It is Neoptolemus who gives his father this pleasure; it is Neoptolemus who kills this girl.
He hears a voice in the air and gives it image. The image is his father’s. I imagine Neoptolemus made a choice; I don’t know if it felt like a choice was being made. He chose to hear his father’s voice as real. He listened and he did as he was told. I try to rewrite it in my head, as I try these days to rewrite so much. In my version, Neoptolemus hears his father’s voice but he will not recognize it, he lets the ghost remain just a ghost. A ghost cannot bear wounds, being all wound, being only absence. A ghost just acts like it has wounds, and if you can imagine them, then the ghost will ask you to avenge its harm. It takes work to imagine the ghost; I fear it is work we’ve become terribly adept at. The air, I know, is filled with voices. Most of them we cannot hear. Still, they speak to us. Some make demands. Some hover in the air asking us not to leave. Some ask worse things.
I kept the radio turned off after the children at Sandy Hook were murdered. I couldn’t bear it; I couldn’t bear the fact. At night I dream I have to turn off the television so that I cannot see the images of the next school shooting. I have trouble looking at the eyes of my own children, their eyes open to the world in such a way they cannot see yet what is too dark to see—even in full light what is too dark to see. Their eyes haven’t yet adjusted.
After a week, I risked it. Driving home from daycare with Iris, my two year-old. Voices talking of gun control. Voices saying we need more help for the mentally ill. I could imagine the faces of the people speaking if I tried hard. I support it, what they say, all of it; I do not believe it.
Another week and the voices all talk of a fiscal cliff. Voices telling us we are nearing the edge. I think to myself of Neoptolemus. Sometimes I see him holding forever in his hands Astyanax, Hector’s child, holding him in the air, over the edge of the wall. Sometimes I see how he holds in his hand forever a knife. I think of him when that wind begins to finally blow. Polyxena dead, and so the wind blows. That wind, I doubt it came gently. Maybe it came like a gale, and like a gale, it screamed against the things it pushed. Centuries ago that wind began to blow, and centuries ago it blew us off the cliff, pushed each of us off. For so long we’ve been falling that the rushing air feels to us like solid ground—or so it does, until something happens, something we call “unimaginable,” and the air that seems to hold us steady disappears, and we know we are falling still, even now, only because we are falling faster.
How high is the fiscal cliff, I wonder. Over what strand does it tower? Is it higher than the walls of Troy? Click off the radio and drive into the garage. Then the voices speak in their silence again.
In late July of 2012 James Eagan Holmes walked into a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. This happened in the state in which I live. He came dressed in full tactical gear; he came bearing weapons. He threw canisters into the theater that filled it with smoke. People thought—well, they thought he was somehow part of the show. They thought it was a show until he opened fire.
I would have made the same mistake. More than stepping in through the back door of the dark theater, it must have seemed he stepped down from the screen itself, the smoke some astonishing feature as it pours from two-dimensions into the very air the audience breathes. How real what is not real seems, I would have thought. I worry about how long I would have remained entertained. I worry about how long it would take my mind to realize the sounds of bullets were not punched through speakers but through the air itself. I worry how long it would take me to grasp the fact, the awful fact, that it was no button in a control booth being pushed, but a trigger being pulled—again and again and again.
At his preliminary trial, the prosecution closed by showing photos Holmes had taken of himself. Dressed in his all-black combat gear, his hair dyed a brilliant, toxic orange. The prosecution said he put contacts in his eyes so that they appeared to have no irises, no whites. He put in contacts that made his eyes look as if they were all wound. But it was a lie. His eyes weren’t wounded at all. His eyes are what wounds. He imagined an unimaginable thing. I wonder what voice told him it was okay to do what he did; I wonder what voice he imagined so vividly it commanded him to do as he did. He put some lenses over his eyes. Then he got to work listening; then he got to work, not seeing, but imagining he’s seeing.
In early February of 1818 the poet John Keats wrote a letter to his good friend John Reynolds. He wrote:
It has been an old Comparison for our urging on—the Bee hive—however, it seems to me that we should rather be the flower than the Bee, for it is a false notion that more is gained by receiving than giving. No, the receiver and the giver are equal in their benefits . . . Now it is more noble to sit like Jove than to fly like Mercury. Let us not therefore go hurrying about and collecting honey-bee like, buzzing here and there impatiently from a knowledge of what is to be arrived at; but let us open our leaves like a flower and be passive and receptive, budding patiently under the eye of Apollo and taking hints from every noble insect that favors us with a visit.
Keats asks us to reconsider what imagination is. We call “unimaginable” those acts so atrocious we would give anything—we’d give our eyes away—not to have to see them as actual. But I fear we often imagine exactly what is for us unimaginable. Our imaginative lives have become not only “bee-like,” but we imagine ourselves away from the fact of this world by creating others. We tend to fields that don’t exist, fields that thrill essence into excess, where bees become hovercraft and blooms explode.
I stare at as many screens as the next person. Seldom do I hear in the echo of those virtual bullets the steady buzz of my imagination working to make it real—but I am at work in it. The consequence, I fear, of imagination when it is at work, when the hive of the mind is deafened by its own hum, is that the boundary between what is real and what is not real breaks down. Sometimes—these days, often—this explains to me how Neoptolemus heard Achilles make his murderous demand. Keats suggests a quietly radical redefinition of what imagination must be for us who live in this world—this world that is real, that is, all of us. He suggests that imagination is exactly what is needed to decipher the actual from the fictional, the living from the ghosts. I hear the poet suggest that the world is not real for us until we can imagine it. But to imagine it is different than we had thought. The work to do is passive. Our burden is only to be patient: to let time wound us. The imaginative mind is the one that opens flower-like and trusts that what must visit it will. Isn’t a flower only a wound, “blossom” and “blood” springing from the same linguistic root? To work at imagination is to forsake its gift: receptivity replaced by busy work.
Let me imagine the field. The wind blows across it. On the wind are those unheard voices, all of them. Those voices blow across the field, blow through the flowers open in it, carry on their gust the pollen that widens the field, that sends roots down into the ground that otherwise might fall apart. Apollo’s eye is nothing other than the sun. Eyes nothing more than flowers that feed upon what light looks at them. Let me imagine the field. The flowers of those children’s eyes.
It feels facile, laughable, naïve, absurd, to suggest what it is I’m suggesting: that learning to read a poem might avert senseless tragedy. I know it cannot be true. But when I imagine it, it is. When I see that a poem is a guide not away from the world, but our introduction to it—those of us, all of us, who need to be continuously re-introduced to the fact that we exist among others who exist, and we must learn to be in their pain, to be in their sorrow. Heroic work gives sense back to what is senseless; it doesn’t explain or resolve, it doesn’t explicate and rationalize, it lets us feel. A poem trains the nerves. A poem insists the mind is but a nerve. A poem teaches us how to imagine the world, and imagination draws us into it, into what is real. We can feel it.
Then the voices in the air, those ghosts that speak and demand we honor them, those voices even now surrounding us, urging us on without our knowing it, we can hear them, we can see them before us speaking, not as real, but as visions, as visions making demands we need not obey; for their hold on us isn’t real, it isn’t actual, and we can turn aside, we can put down the knife in our hand. And to those other voices, those voices saying, “do not go away from me” we can say, I won’t, I won’t abandon you. I’ll remain.
Dan Beachy-Quick is the author, most recently, of An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky (novel) and A Brighter Word Than Bright: Keats at Work (literary criticism). He is a Monfort Professor at Colorado State University where he teaches in the MFA Writing Program.