Unspeakable acts take place every day, in many places. People are torn from their lives, maimed and injured in countless ways and in countless places. Most of the time we can deal with this via various methods of filtering the wider world from our daily thoughts. But just occasionally, raw and awful truths come crashing though our layers of insulation, and leave us stunned. And then once the initial shock has worn off, many of us tweet.
Today, was one such day, when a community in Connecticut was rocked by a school shooting of a scale that reportedly dwarfs Columbine, and even the massacre at Dunblane on March 13 1996 (a date etched on the collective psyche of that small Scottish town). Late afternoon, my Twitter timeline erupted with shock, anger, polemic, opinion arguments, and yet more anger. Anger that will grow and then recede as the days pass. Events such as those in Newtown create an urge to communicate at the same time as reducing us to cliches. And then comes the terrible, dissonant juxtaposition of emerging news alongside pre-timed marketing tweets. A stomach-churning mix of banal and heartbreaking.
There’s something about Twitter at times like this that reminds me – as it did last month during Hurricane Sandy - of W H Auden’s Poem Musee des Beaux Arts. From a distance the artist observes the tragedy of Icarus’s plunge from the skies as his heat-melted wings fail him, while, oblivious, a galleon sails by, dogs live their doggy lives and the torturer’s horse scratches its behind on a tree. It’s a poem I’ve loved ever since Mrs Rodgers 6th form English lessons. And one I return to at times when the world’s inequalities and injustices seem too difficult to explain. Because they are inexplicable. Which is why we have art and literature. To give us ways of surviving the intolerable truths. Truths such as the knowledge that whilst Sandy was a natural disaster, this was a man-made one.
Auden’s poem ends with nothing changing. The ship had somewhere to go to, and sailed calmly on. I can only hope that today, enough people decide that’s not good enough. And that all children, no matter where in the world they are raised, have the right to go to school in safety.
Musee des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
In sorrow, and with respect to all parents of murdered children, everywhere.