“All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”
When the poet William Butler Yeats wrote those lines, he was casting his mind to the “Easter Uprising” of 1916, during which Irish rebels protesting British colonialism were killed, captured and later executed. Yeats’ poem, “Easter, 1916” repeats the phrase “a terrible beauty is born” to emphasize his feelings that the level of violence by the British against the insurgents was game-changer. He was right. Instead of suppressing the Irish Republican movement, the brutality reinvigorated it and precipitated the Irish War for Independence a few years later.
The phrase has stuck with me ever since I encountered the poem in a high school English. How does beauty derive from something horrible? How do we appreciate the epiphany or slow growth, the sudden awareness or gradual understanding that might come out of tragedy? After 9/11, I was asked constantly whether we’d “learned” anything. It appeared to me then, as it does now, that we dropped the ball; that is, we’ve missed numerous opportunities to create something wonderful out of the horror—a wiser foreign policy, a balance between pragmatic awareness and paralyzing fear, a wish to build on the spirit of resolve and unity that characterized our nation for a few short months after September 11, 2001.
We are routinely treated to stories about death and destruction, horrors visited upon us by nature and, worse still, by one another. Mixed in occasionally are stories of redemption, the would-be tragedy is given a tacked-on happy ending. I find myself turning away from news reporting simply because the endless and unvaried way in which violence is reported both saddens and annoys me. A kind of faux journalism has arisen that combines a vaguely moralistic tone with blatant rubber-necking—“ooh, isn’t it terrible about the man who was pushed in front of the subway or the nurse who committed suicide after putting through a prank call or the soldiers or civilians blown up in this or that country? How awful and how fortunate we were neither victim nor perpetrator.”
What do we learn from such “news”? What do we gain?
In the hands of master storytellers, however, the inconceivable, the unfathomable, and yes, the unacceptable can be rendered with such lyricism that we are enriched even by our profound sense of loss.
In the last month, I’ve watched “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” an independent film by a young writer/director Benh Zeitlin. The film has received numerous accolades but is relatively unknown outside the rarified world of avid film buffs. I’ve also read “Yellow Birds,” a coming of age war novel by Kevin Powers, a gifted writer who served in Iraq. Both made me appreciate the power of a terrible beauty that doesn’t sugar-coat but lets us see beneath and beyond the immediate pain. The beauty arrives courtesy of the terrible.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is narrated by an imaginative six-year-old girl of uncommon grace and strength. She’s constantly called upon to balance her dreams with the harsh reality of her life with a small band of people living in the lowest and most vulnerable part of the Louisiana tidal basins.
The children depicted here live lives that are, from a conventional standpoint, severely deprived. Mostly hungry, with little access to medical care and minimal education, they live in bug and rat-infested hovels they share with any farm animals they may have. They’re loved, but in a careless, haphazard manner by the adults who are themselves at the mercy of the weather, the government and various personal demons and addictions. There is little help and no compassion emanating from the outside world. Government interference, although intermittent, is heavy-handed and clueless; bureaucracy inevitably makes things much worse.
It’s terrible to watch a child facing the endless series of crises our heroine confronts. Yet there is beauty in the fierce independence ingrained into the DNA of this tiny and preternaturally aware little person. I did feel helpless at times during the movie but by the end, I wasn’t sure anyone from what they called “the Bathtub” would have accepted my help.
“Yellow Birds” is the story of one war, two young men and the kinds of in the moment and ultimately irrevocable decisions that are often thrust upon young men in such situations. We’re mostly in Iraq, along with some narrative back and forth to provide background. Nothing new there: bored boys seeking escape and some sort of sanctioned justification for mayhem have always signed up to fight the battles devised by old men in back rooms. War is hell and the author pulls no punches in describing the elements of conflict: tension, boredom, chaos and utter senselessness. We know, because we’re told and because the book stays honest on that score, that things won’t end well. Terrible, yes…and beautiful in the delineation of the various levels of insanity to which men descend in times of terror. It’s not clear the narrator ever finds peace, although he thinks deeply and tries mightily. Perhaps peace is not what he’s after, but rather, clarity.
Each of these works left me a bit raw. This isn’t usually what I’m after in my entertainment choices, I admit. For one thing, the immediacy of the situation (this is happening now!) angered me. I was also frustrated, not because resolutions weren’t neatly packaged but because I realized there were no tidy endings. Yet these fictionalized versions of the world feel far more honest than what passes for news most days. Therein lies the beauty in the terrible.
Zeitland and Powers are two young artists whose work has both devastated and inspired me. By presenting the terrible with lucidity and lyricism, they enjoin us to understand the complexities in situations that seem to be black and white. I have, at times in my life, been on guard against exposing myself to sorrows I have little power to relieve. Perhaps that’s why I’m so inspired by art that challenges me to see the beauty in what is terrible.