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I woke up from a dream of three toddlers drowning in a dark pool. I dove in after, but I could only save two of them, because I only have two hands. Surfacing, I thought of that one time, you fell into the canal. I was thinking as I wrote this down; that happened at this time of year—the chill already in the air, the water still warm enough that we didn’t cramp immediately.

That particular day we were drifting around the neighborhood. J had some work to do and I took you out for a walk. I took pictures of you on the monkey-bar and the slide. I remember this because I remember J salvaging the memory card from the waterlogged camera, saying “wouldn’t it be terrible if these were the last pictures we ever had?” Terrible indeed.

It was one of those Amsterdam Sundays that feel like you are alone in the world. We sat down on a bench. Or, I sat down, you were already up; grabbing a stick, you went fishing over the low railing, put there to prevent cars from driving into the water. To your left was a green houseboat and the water was very wide, where two canals came together in a junction. The air was beautiful and very quiet.

Just then, it dawned on me the railing was way to low to keep you safe; I saw you in my minds eye keeling over, and stood up to go grab you, when, just then you keeled over, your center of gravity already on the other side. I remember standing by the edge of the canal, your white snowsuit submerged in murky water; then I remember being in the water myself, fully submerged. My coat was so heavy and my waterlogged boots, my messenger bag still strapped across my body. I don’t think I noticed those details (the waterlogged clothes, the heavy bag etc.) until I had grabbed you and tried to swim. I was treading water with my two arms around you, but the quay was so high, the pavement now way above our heads.

The houseboat was rigged to a small gangway. I tried to hold onto the rope with one hand, while pushing you up on the platform with the other, but you held on to me for dear life and wouldn’t let go; all I could do was to hang on and cry for help. So we hung there, me clinging to the rope and you clinging to me, screaming and crying for help.

Just then, help came; his eyes widened as he peered over the edge and saw us hanging there. He pulled us out of the water, first you, then me. He must have done, because I remember sitting on that same bench we sat on minutes before, now laughing and laughing, deliriously, so high from adrenaline. I wanted to hug him, but I was soaked, so I just said thankyouthankyouthankyou, and he said “not at all.” Then he got back on his bike and rode on. I didn’t even ask his name or number, but that only dawned on me afterwards when we walked home, a wet trail behind us. We met nobody on the way. I remember J looking surprised when he opened the door and saw us standing there, soaking wet, but I don’t remember him asking any questions. Maybe I just told him we fell in the canal and that was that.

Even so, what I took away from that was that without knowing what to do, I did know exactly what to do. But I couldn’t have done it without the kindness of strangers, because I only have two hands.

[…]

For a time after that I freaked out when cycling alongside a canal, with you strapped into the backseat –I was afraid I couldn’t stop myself from steering right into the water. That year I was teaching at two art academies and getting increasingly depressed, because I couldn’t give my students the mothering they demanded, while I had one at home who demanded his mother. I was walking around the academy with my soul under my arm. So I decided to stop teaching, a decision that felt a little like driving my bike into the canal, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do, and then you either sink or swim.

By way of a farewell gift, two colleagues gave me a copy of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others. It seemed like a cruel thing to do at the time, overwhelmed as I was by the suffering of the world at large and the precarity of life –my own toddler’s in particular—but maybe in retrospect it was an act of kindness?

[…]

In her book Susan Sontag asks:

What does it mean to protest suffering, as distinct to acknowledging it?

The iconography of suffering has a long pedigree. The sufferings most often deemed worthy of representation are those understood to be the product of wrath, divine or human. (Suffering from natural courses, such as illness or childbirth, is scantily represented in the history of art; that caused by accident, virtually not at all—as if there was no such thing as suffering by inadvertence or misadventure.)[1]

To underscore her point, I want to meditate for a moment on an image of suffering, which is clearly the product of wrath — that of Emmett Till’s open casket. In the endless deluge of images of American Suffering, this flotsam from the wreckage of the Jim Crow era continues to resurface.

In the 2017 Whitney Biennial Dana Schutz’ appropriation of that image stirred the waters, which parted into a “pro-“ and “anti-“ pool. Those against argued a white woman had no business representing Black suffering, and called for the painting’s destruction; those in favor reasoned we all would suffer if such censorship were to prevail.

In defense of the painting, Coco Fusco wrote on Hyperallergic:

Hannah Black claims to know more about black suffering than Schutz, but her treatment of history could use more accuracy and depth. She claims that Mamie Till wanted her son’s body to be visible to black people as an inspiration and a warning; however, according to Emmett Till’s cousin Simeon Wright, who was with him the night of his capture and attended his funeral, Mamie Till said “she wanted the world to see what those men had done to her son.” [2]

Pain makes your world smaller. Sometimes pain can make your world as small as a coffin. Mamie Till took her coffin-sized pain and put it on the stage of the world for all to see. The question should therefore be, not if Dana Schutz is “worthy” of representing this pain, in spite of her whiteness, but instead if her painting is worthy hereof.[3]

As far as addressing this issue, Dana Schutz has this to say:

I don’t know what it is like to be black in America, but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension.[4]

I wonder if perhaps this says it all? If indeed it is “incomprehensible” that anything could happen to your child, perhaps yours is a world of staggering privilege, and perhaps that is exactly why this painting itself seems so completely void of empathy. As a representation of the pain of (m)others, I am afraid that Dana Schutz’ is not “worthy;” her glib handiwork draws attention to her own virtuosity, rather than to the humanity of the young victim. In that sense it repeats the violence that left him unrecognizable even to his own mother.

That said: the painting, and its strategic placement inside the Whitney, is “worthy” for once again stirring up racial tension in the elitist art world, which, as Fusco points out, is “not such a bad thing, given the ghastly state of American political culture at this moment.”[5]

Cruel as it may sound: with this image Mamie Till granted us the burden of knowing. Through detailed court hearings, she got to know exactly what happened to her son, who did that to him, and in a perverted way, she also know why. Because she couldn’t bear this knowledge alone, she asked the world to carry it with her; sharing this knowledge gave her the leverage, the power, to make her son’s death instrumental in galvanizing the Civil Rights Movement, for which he became the poster child. [6]

(The knowledge that we still need reminding, after Emmett Till, that Black Lives Matter, hits home when endless news stories about gun violence in Chicago (where Till was born, but didn’t die) suddenly turned out to be about someone we knew… that open casket and that service was the most ceremonial we’ve ever attended, almost like a state funeral, but at its heart, for all the pomp and circumstance, was only great pain and sadness. This death seemed so senseless, for nothing, or for worse: for a mobile phone. The nagging question “why?” hung in the air, unanswered, although in a perverted way we all knew why, and why this is still allowed to happen in America today. The painful is also political.)

In Sontag’s argument, political suffering is deemed worthy, exactly because it is understood to be the product of wrath. When suffering trauma, as Elaine Scarry describes in the essay “Pain and Imagining,” you may call for the destruction of its representation –as a stand-in for the pain itself — hence Black’s call for the destruction of Schutz’ painting.[7]

While sometimes political, suffering is always experienced as a deeply personal injustice. Yet if no trespasser can be identified, we instead can make one up: a vengeful God with the power to “call us home,” to send our way a storm of “biblical proportions,” or a sentient Gaia for that matter.

In that line of thinking, Hurricane Harvey may appear like another attempt by Mother Earth to swallow her young as punishment for our stubborn refusal to wean ourselves of fossil fuel—shutting down 14 oil refineries in the process—but whatever cosmic justice can be gleaned from this happening to Texas, evaporates when you read:

Police in Beaumont, Tex. said Tuesday that a woman and her young child had gotten out of their car on a flooded road and were swept into a canal. When authorities found them, the young girl was clinging to her mother and about to go under a trestle, where they would have been lost for good, police said. The mother died, while the young girl is in stable condition.[8]

We may all imagine now, this girl walking through life, with an imaginary mother by her hand.

According to Scarry:

Imagining a companion when the world provides none, may — at least temporarily — prevent longing from being a wholly self-experiencing set of physical and emotional events that, emptied of any referential content, exists merely as painful inner disturbances. It may be that “dreaming” too, should be understood in this way, as sustaining the objectifying powers of people during the hours when they are cut off from the natural source of objects, so that they do not during sleep drown in their own corporeal engulfment.[9]

Sontag and Scarry, while speaking to the impenetrable and un-communicable experience of pain as opposed to its representation, fall silent on the topic of mundane everyday suffering, the suffering that needs to be acknowledged as distinct to protested, if only to enable the sufferer to move forward through the various stages of grief, toward the acceptance that “everything happens for no reason.”

[…]

Four years ago, my son, whom I addressed directly in the beginning of this text, injured himself during a soccer game. As the high school team’s keeper, he went diving for the ball, when the opposition’s striker delivered a kick to the back of his head.

The result was a massive concussion accompanied by photophobia, balance problems, and vision tracking disturbances.

The eight months recovery, which he spent mostly sleeping, overlapped with the editing of my book Mothernism. I would sit upstairs in the kitchen, whittling away at the illuminated pages on my screen, and ever so often I would go downstairs to check if we was still there, still breathing, submerged in subterranean darkness.

We don’t know if his post-concussion syndrome is the root cause of his current, chronic headache and migraines, and in a sense it doesn’t matter. The narrative of the concussion is appealing because it has a dramatic arch—a violent beginning, a cumbersome middle, and a light at the end of the tunnel.

We have learned, through many myths, biblical and urban, that suffering will be rewarded, that it will make sense, that it will make us better, more worthy, humans. In reality, the more I learn about chronic pain, the less it makes sense, the more it is utter bullshit; it doesn’t fit into a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, but has become, indeed, chronic.

As Emily Dickenson writes in her sonnet XIX:

PAIN has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.

It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.[10]

It was A’s therapist who said “pain makes your world smaller.” It really is true.

The smallest my world ever was, was a waiting room in the ER, where I spent my 47th birthday haggling with a nurse to not admit my 16-year-old to the psychiatric ward, because of suicidal ideation. “What will you do about his pain?” I asked. It was a somewhat desperate gamble on my maternal instinct that he did not really want to harm him self, nor others. I could set aside the time to stay with him on suicide watch, during which he would wean of beta blockers which had depersonalized him to the point where I didn’t recognize my child anymore.

One of the advantages to being a stay-at-home-artist; your time is entirely your own, and entirely everybody’s simultaneously. I am aware that had I not been in this privileged position, that conversation and this story might have had different outcomes.

We still don’t know what causes his headaches, but we are learning to cope. One correlation seems to be the weather; the low pressure of a thunderstorm will provoke a violent migraine to keep him in the basement for days. So we pray to the local weather gods and count our blessings; we don’t have to mourn a lost child, only lost time.

[…]

Not everyone is so lucky. In July of 2015 Nick Cave lost his 16-year-old son in a fatal accident—the youth fell from a cliff under the influence of LSD.

In interviews, Cave resists making sense of his son’s death, by making his a cautionary tail about the dangers of substance abuse for example, and admits that no act of making can make sense of the un-making that is the death of a child.

Like there’s just this thing, and there’s no way to navigate it. It just sits there and it fills up all the space. It fills up your body. It’s like a physical thing. You can feel it pressing against the insides of your fingers. There’s just no room for the luxury of creation.

Still, he insists: People often say they can’t imagine how it would feel to lose a child, but, actually, they can – they can imagine what it is like… A lot is said about grief, especially the conventional wisdom that you do it alone. I personally have found that not to be the case.”[11]

In the broadest sense there is no suffering that is not brought on by (as Sontag puts it) inadvertence or misadventure; our children may well find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, in Texas, in Mississippi, in Chicago, In Amsterdam, on a rocky shore, on a soccer field; it is the systemic oppression that, void of empathy, ignores their and our suffering, which makes our personal pain political and leaves the impression that suffering is foremost a product of wrath.

I don’t know any of this rings true for Nick Cave, but as by premonition—before our sons were but a twinkle in their mother’s eye—he gave me a lyric to take solace in, when I cannot bear the pain alone:

There will always be suffering
It flows through life like water
I put my hand over hers
Down the Lime Tree Harbor

Through every word that I speak
And everything I know
There is a hand that protects me
And I do love her so[12]

In my youth, I imagined “her” to be a lover, or even a sister, but now I wonder if he could have written that song for his mother?

When our kids turn their rage and their sorrows on us with the ultimate accusation, “I didn’t ask to be born!” we must acknowledge that we create pain, just by grace of it being a human condition, but we can also alleviate it. We only have two hands, but that may be enough. That, and the kindness of others. This is a disturbing yet consolidating thought.

[…]

This text was written for, and first performed at, The Mothernists 2: Who Cares for the 21st Century? at Astrid Noacks Atelier, Copenhagen, Saturday October 14th 2017.

Photo by Irene Perez.

 

[1] Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Ferrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2003) p. 40.

[2] Coco Fusco: “Sensorship, Not the Painting, Must Go: On Dana Schutz’ Image of Emmett Till” Hyperallergic 27 March 2017: https://hyperallergic.com/368290/censorship-not-the-painting-must-go-on-dana-schutzs-image-of-emmett-till/ (accessed 13 November 2017)

[3] This is not merely a question of figuration vs. abstraction; like Sontag before her Fusco points out:

Perhaps the best argument in favor of abstraction was articulated by Theodor Adorno after the Holocaust, when he asserted that realist representations of atrocity offer simple voyeuristic pleasure over a more profound grasp of the horrors of history.

Abstraction can lay bare the undertow of compassion that holds us together in the face of adversary; a brushstroke can “breathe” so to speak, when we barely can, as a society. But, it all comes down to the tenderness of the gesture honoring the suffering it touches upon.

[4] Dana Schutz via email, quoted in Oliver Basciano: “Whitney Biennial: Emmett Till casket painting by white artist sparks anger” The Guardian 21 march 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/mar/21/whitney-biennial-emmett-till-painting-dana-schutz (accessed 13 November 2017.)

[5] Coco Fusco: “Sensorship, Not the Painting, Must Go”

[6] Other mothers may not have the consolation of knowing but have made that not knowing the exact point of entry for empathy and used it for political leverage to protest their cause, like in the case for example of The Movement of Mothers at the Plaza Del Mayo in Buenos Aires, protesting the disappearance of their children by the Argentine military police.

[7] Although this destruction would do nothing to alleviate Emmett’s suffering, nor his mother’s, and probably also would do little to alleviate the chore of Black Americans, which Hannah Black confuses with her own pain at beholding the picture, which is, granted, painful to look at.

[8] Todd C. Frankel, Avi Selk and David A. Farenthold: “Residents warned to ‘get out or die’ as Harvey unleashes new waves of punishing rains and flooding” The Washington Post, 30 August 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2017/08/30/harvey-again-makes-landfall-this-time-as-a-tropical-storm-near-cameron-la/?utm_term=.6867d655a23c (retrieved 13 November 2017.)

[9] Elaine Scarry: The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.)

[10] Emily Dickinson: “XIX” Complete Poems (New York: Barnes an Nobles Classics, 2003.)

[11] Luke Morgan Britton: “Nick Cave opens up about grief following death of son” NME, 4 May 2017. http://www.nme.com/news/music/nick-cave-talks-death-of-son-arthur-2066069#T1Mga1vxBu4Cobly.99 (accessed 13 November 2017.)

[12] Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: “Lime Tree Arbour” on The Boatman’s Call (Mute/Reprise: 1997)