A Terrible Beauty

 “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.

The deadly but beautiful box jellyfish is
“the world’s most venomous creature”.

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.

About Nikki

Author of non-fiction books HOPE IN SMALL DOSES and BECAUSE I SAY SO as well as numerous published essays. Her new novel, THE FORMER ASSASSIN, is due out January 2018.
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7 Responses to A Terrible Beauty

  1. Greg Correll says:

    What a remarkable set of juxtapositions. And lucid. The Hope perspective is a rich one, and does not preclude a steady look at the edges of hope, too.
    And I now have new things to read and watch. Thank you Nikki.

  2. Maura Swanson says:

    I saw “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and was in pain almost the entire time. I could have stopped watching it, but I felt compelled to see where it was going and how it would end. Even though the movie was intensely disturbing, it was also deeply thought provoking. Your insights into have helped me to better process the flood of “clear as mud” emotions I felt after struggling with the necessary messiness of the characters’ lives. I don’t think I will ever be able to watch it again, ad yet I have recommended the film to many friends.

  3. gary justis says:

    Nikki, thanks for a thoughtful piece on the most important duality we face as human beings. In visual art we are always trying to reconcile the beautiful with things terrible as we try to understand an object’s multiple nature. True art accepts and confronts this challenge…perhaps the main reason why, in our heart of hearts, we admire and honor our writers and journalists.

  4. AJ Calhoun says:

    Nikki, I’m so grateful you’ve chosen to elaborate on this theme and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” in particular (and yes, it is a perfect example of the meaning of “terrible beauty”). When I saw it a while back I was lifted by that very terrible beauty, and more recently the same thing happened with “The Sessions.” I haven’t red “Yellow Birds” yet, but it is certainly high on my list now. As a veteran of both sides of the EMS chain or care I am intimately familiar with the mechanism of terrible beauty, but that is something that never burns out in me. Your article is beautiful in its appreciation for what some may fail to apprehend. It may be that one has to have experienced something along these lines to fully appreciate it. Thank you again. In a perverse way I feel vindicated.

  5. Matt Paust says:

    Thanks for reminding me of “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, Nikki. I first learned of it in a discussion on NPR but let it slip from my mind. I did not know of “Yellow Birds”, and will make a point to check that out. It’s unfortunate that artistic works such as these too often don’t get the attention they — and we — deserve.

    • Nikki says:

      We’ve become inundated with and inured to all sorts of bad news. We keep ourselves at a remove because otherwise it’s all too much. What these kinds of movies and books and poems (and music, too; I need to investigate further in order to make recommendations) remind us is that most of life is a mix of the grim and the inspirational. I noticed that right after 9/11. I know that’s probably not a PC thing to say but there you have it.

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