“The death camps were not built in the Gobi Desert. And when barbarism challenged, the humanities, the arts, philosophic thought proved not only largely impotent but often collaborative with despotism and massacre,”
–George Steiner, from ‘A New Literacy’, The Kenyon Review, 24:1, Winter 2007, 10-24
To date culture has been a broad disappointment. However our new up-close planet beckons with both peril and promise brought about by advances in human proximity. Evil works best in the shadows. Should a mass awakening break out, culture and its potential for edification may yet serve as a prototype for meaningful civilization. Such an awakening would belie centuries of stony sleep. But it could happen.
The oldest cave art dates back over 30,000 years. So the arc of human culture easily eclipses the totality of human civilization. Practically all things human happened on culture’s watch. Culture has been impotent against the inhuman aspects of human community, maybe even as Steiner suggests actively collaborative. But grassroots proximity is relatively new. Plane travel and commerce have nibbled at the edges of collapsing distance. But the Internet could be a cultural epoch-maker in the sense of advancing the former’s long-sought promise by out-dazzling —with light, speed and ubiquity— the many tedious and banal campaigns that have traditionally typified evildoing.
This then is the progressive manifesto, with a technologist’s bent, put forward by an admittedly darkened heart. In truth I am, like Steiner, rather sanguine on our prospects altogether. The race to annihilate one another, at ever more vast distances, is still in full-swing aided, much like the nearness movement, by some deadly new toys. Evil is a coward. Intimacy requires courage. We are in a pitched battle between the drone and the webcam. Which will win?
One particularly lurid setback came recently for me from a group of photos that I have frankly been unable to erase from my memory banks ever since, those of Afghan and Iraqi babies who, it is alleged, suffered horrendous birth defects as a result of weaponized depleted uranium. I call the sonnets (mini-exorcisms?) that resulted, The Teratogen Series.
According to dictionary.com a teratogen is “a drug or other substance capable of interfering with the development of a fetus, causing birth defects.” Some of the babies I review here may have been dead on arrival. I cannot say. There are also intimations on the Internet that some of these gruesome deformities are not the result of uranium at all, but perhaps abortions and other unrelated defects. Frankly this sort of rearguard polemic affords me small comfort. The fact that these deformities are, in all likelihood, the result of some human-induced predations, either on the environment or on ourselves, is cause enough to shrink back in reflexive shame, before an us-versus-them mentality is allowed to poison the well yet again.
I confess also to being sickened by my complicity, my ‘tax dollars at work’, etc. on what amounts to a well-funded island for Dr. Moreau. Why haven’t I put down the pen and taken up a sword against the Black Iron Prison? I question as well my inclination to drum these tiny monstrosities through yet further exploitations. Come admire my gratuitous trespasses, all neatly metered and rhymed!
I can only address the process as it came over me. In the manner of slowing down to observe a gruesome freeway accident, I found each sonnet gradually falling under the discrete orbit of one picture and one baby. (Note: Due to the graphic nature of the pictures, The New Formalist provides a separate link where they can be viewed.) The overtly ekphrastic nature of this sequence was thus evolutionary and not conscious.
These sonnets deliver me beyond the extremities of my own comprehension. I can’t help feeling we have finally drilled beneath some tabooed substrate. The pictures repel me. I resort at times to black humor in an effort to disarm the already-disarmed. Humor blunts despair. You have to chuckle a bit at these un-embraceable little ewes or go crazy considering the sheer improbability of their existence. My sense of disgust, I am sorry to report, at times exceeds my sense of compassion. I suggest my inhuman reaction may be a human response that seeks to acknowledge our post-human nexus—or is that too many humans in one independent clause?
There is an implicit Rubicon here. I am aware of viewing these pictures and reacting to them from the crossed side. Am I too retreating into the distance? No longer content to do endless doughnuts in the parking lot, the World Uroborus is making a last supper of its tail. The circle has been broken, by and by, Lord. We await now the moon falling out of the sky and the tides’ apocalyptic cessation. One wonders, how much more end we will be asked to endure? There is no getting back behind the horror of these malformed conceptions. We inhabit a brave new world. Why? I believe because we were not brave enough to avert it.
Teratogen 1: Sex on the Brain
“Thy nakedness shall be uncovered,yea, thy shame shall be seen…”—Isaiah 47:3
Teratogen 2: Cabbage Patch Moll
"Hence world picture, when understoodessentially, does not mean a picture of theworld but the world conceived and graspedas picture." –Martin Heidegger