"Why is the poem such an insult to this evil life?”: on Sandy Hook, Blake Butler, Aase Berg and Disaster Aesthetics

by on Apr.03, 2013

A few weeks ago, in the wake of the school massacre at Sandy Hook Blake Butler and I wrote a play of sorts called “Sandy” about the massacre – about the shooting, the reporting on the shooting, the relationship of the shooting to the steady stream of murders of young black people that goes un-reported in the media and to all those drone-killed people elsewhere in the world, all those people saying, “you can’t understand a thing like this, you just have to go to church” (a cop-out for sure), all thes people who want an easy explanation of it, all the people who want such a complex explanation of it that the whole thing becomes diffuse, and the relationship of violence to art, to media. In short, it was a work of art that ate and was eaten by a proliferations of images and rhetorics.

Blake and I were very pleased with it after a few weeks of going back and forth, so Blake started to send it out to various journals that had solicited his work. It soon became apparent, that when they solicited Blake’s work, they did not think he would send them something about Sandy Hook because it was roundly rejected by all kinds of journals. The editors seemed to agree that it was “offensive.”

Why was it offensive? It was unclear to me. We had made an artwork in response to a terrible event, trying to respond fully to its violence, its absurdity, the proliferation of responses, its horror, its ridiculous sideshows.

Why? I will hazard to guess that it was precisely because it contained “too much” art: too many scene changes, too many characters, too many references to Katie Perry, too many dead black youths, too many dialogues with the killer, too many dance performances by his dead mother trying instruct children how to flee from drone attacks. Unlike all those other acceptable responses – responses that replayed the murder act and scene and background endlessly, ours was an artwork that placed art in the violent center.

People are squemish about art about violence and suffering that remains art-sy. Art about disasters should be transparent; to foreground the art, the pageantry is somehow offensive. You are accused of “aestheticizing” suffering, violence, torture etc – as if that is an inherently negative thing, as if that makes it flippant, as if that is not pious enough. As if the art itself is a crime.


This is the subject matter of a brilliant essay by Aase Berg called “Tsunami from Solaris.” Berg talks about having submitted a somewhat grotesque poem about fishing featuring a drowned albino worm to Swedish Radio to be broadcast. The poem was accepted. But then the tsunami in Thailand took place, a horrific event in which hundreds of Swedes were killed. Suddenly the poem took on a new meaning: it was a grotesque poem about the pale-skinned Swedes killed in the tsunami and the poem was shelved. Soon thereafter, there was apparently an episode of Pippi Longstocking in which the kids ride a huge wave. Many people complained that this was insensitive.

For some reason, it was perfectly OK for the Swedish radio to play over and over images of the disaster and the dead bodies, but it was not OK to make art that could be associated with the event. It was OK for Swedish radio to “describe” different scenes of people observing “three minutes of silence” – even though that silence was as Berg says, “fictional” in that it had to be described on the radio to exist – but it was not OK for Berg to describe a paleness that might implicate the poem as a possible response – an aesthetization – of the disaster. In other words, television images of dead bodies that pretended to be “authentic” was encouraged, but what one might call “bad copies,” copies that foregrounded their own artness (even in the innocent case of Pippi Longstocking) was deemed insensitive.

The problem with Berg’s poem is that it’s art, its not “authentic”: or as Berg writes in her essay, it was “ a representation that chafes and fucks up. It is not authentic. It has margins where troubling things happen.”

But it’s here that Berg makes a fascinating connection between the violence of the tsunami and art:

“The tsunami wave is of course also a derailed copy: a ufo-wave that burst into the normal human ocean. It is a wave that doesn’t understand how to be a normal wave and attacks all the tourist beaches and the not-everyday-people’s plagiarized, artificial paradise (the everyday inhabitants in the hit countries worked and were not living in paradise, so they maybe death was closer to their reality). It is as if the tsunami wave was set in motion by the ocean on the planet Solaris in Stanislaw Lem’s novel.”

Art has a kind of antisocial force that ruins “artificial paradises”, paradises that are of course also a kind of art, the kind that pretends it’s “authentic,” and allows people to pretend they have souls, or some other form of interiority, while ignoring the economic exploitation of the area. In difference to that kind of paradise, the poor suckers on Solaris suffer as the planet generates material forms of their memories and fantasies (the most upsetting and perhaps most important one – the black woman – is of course cut out of Tarkovsky’s movie; perhaps she will be in Kara Walker’s remake?) – figures that look human but lack the human soul. The horrifying truth about Lem’s novel is that “The copies with all their deviations says more about the emotional life of reality than the supposed neutral documentation.”

Berg finishes with this brilliant paragraph:

“Solaris is poetry itself. The tsunami is poetry itself. How can on carry on with cruel poetry when the sense of security is collapsing and what reminds one of reality is more horrifying than the real? Why is similarity scarier than authenticity? Why is the copy more dangerous than the original? Why is the poem such an insult to this evil life?”

13 comments for this entry:
  1. Derek White

    What you have to consider is not whether it’s art, but whether it’s art that is interesting. If Blake sent me this piece, as editor of Sleepingfish, i would’ve likely rejected it. Just like i’ve rejected things in the past that use the N-word or use the word “God” with an upper case G. It’s not that i am censoring, it’s just that using the N-word or school shootings are just not something aesthetically interesting to me personally or that fit in with aesthetic i’m trying to achieve for Sleepingfish. Surely there are plenty of people publishing such offensive material (send it to NY Tyrant, he’ll run it), seems silly to complain about that & hold that over editors heads as the reason why they should publish your work (because if they don’t, they are censoring you or they are not hip).

    Tsunami’s & drowned albino worms on the other hand…. that sounds like something i’d be interested in! Though of course, you can’t expect everyone to like it (especially if they’d just seen someone die by a tsunami & didn’t want to be reminded of it) & people have a right to not like it. I saw a band the other day (No Bra) where her (or maybe it was a him) shtick was to play with his/her shirt off. I thought it was gimmicky & stupid (and the bottom line is the music sucked), but as seems to happen in new york, people just stand there & mindlessly applaud. Not that i think she should be censored or told to put her shirt back on, but people in the audience have a right to yell “boo!” just as much as they do to mindlessly applaud so they appear open-minded to their hipster friends.

    Speaking of Berg, read Transfer Fat last week & loved it. I did some ‘imagined” translations on my 5cense site. Feel free to say “boo!” to them!

  2. Johannes

    You just proved my point. How can you say – knowing only that the piece was about Sandy Hook, but not having read it – that it would be similar to using the N-word? You just assume that if authors deal with some atrocity in a non-documentary/realist way, they’re just trying to be “offensive” (whatever that means, I’m totally offended by people I see talking about this event on TV but that’s another story).

    I mean seriously, look back on your comment. Are you saying that you could never like a text that dealt with a school shooting? Why not? What is it about a school shooting that means that if you write about it, you’re being “offensive”? Why is that?

    The play is being published, so people will be able to read it. But if they’re looking for an “offensive” work, I think they’ll be really disappointed. I don’t think our play is offensive. There’s very little bloodshed on stage for example.

    Why do you think I’m “complaining” about not being published? That’s a severely reductive way of reading this post. It’s about the issue of whether – as you seem to believe – it is inherently offensive to write about a traumatic event like Sandy Hook. I’m not really interested in the whole getting-published angle (which you seem so focused on); what I’m interested is in this pervasive sense that you can’t write about these kinds of events in a non-“realist” way, that there’s something inherently wrong about “aestheticizing” violence/suffering etc.

    Did I ever mention the word “hip”? How can you – never having read the play – compare it to some bra-less band? Why is it “gimicky” to write about a thing like Sandy Hook?

    It’s possible that the journals just didn’t like the play. I didn’t deal with them, Blake did, and he said they had told him it was “offensive.” But it’s not really that important. As you’ve just proven, these beliefs are pervasive in our literary culture. If putting myself in the post makes you uncomfortable – makes you feel like I’m merely “complaining” – then there’s a million other examples (like your comments to this post for example).


  3. Derek White

    I didn’t mean to criticize you personally, i thought we were speaking generally here & you gave your & Blake’s piece as an example. I was merely pointing out that sometimes censorship is a necessary convenience. Or at least it is for me, as a admittedly shallow & sheltered editor. Yes, i make superficial pre-judgments. If i saw the word “Sandy Hook” in the title, then yes, that word carries a lot of baggage with it, and i choose to not go there. I don’t care enough to sort out the details to try to figure out if it was indeed interesting or offensive or whatnot. Maybe i might like it, but there’s too many other things out there that i’d rather give a try. The only reason i might give it a chance is because you & Blake wrote it.

    I used the N-word example, because it reminded me of a time where i actually did like a story, but it liberally used the N-word, which to me seemed gratuitous & exploitive. And it’s personally not something i wanted to perpetuate .. as an editor someone might come to me & say you published this piece with the N word & then i have to answer why i felt it was justified & why it is art. You pick your battles & school shootings is not interesting enough to me & we’ve all read plenty about it.

    Perhaps 9/11 is a better example. Call me superficial or in denial, but i have no interest in reading anything people write about it, and am “offended” when i see images of it. Not sure if you saw the stunt that Columbia physics professor put on in his front of his class (http://www.columbiaspectator.com/2013/02/18/physics-professor-strips-plays-911-footage-bizzare-frosci-stunt) .. i though it was all pretty funny & in the realm of free speech, until the part where he shows the towers falling. But other people might’ve found the Nazi stuff just as offensive. Of course this is a physics professor that has certain standards to uphold (not to mention justification of relevance), but still … some things i’d rather just not be reminded about.

    Incidentally, the piece with the N-word i did run, after doing a search & replace with an arbitrary word (i think it was “ghost”). You could change “Sandy Hook” to something else? .. but i guess that would be defeating the purpose.

    I should also mention that any proper nouns turn me off, especially contemporary ones that become quickly dated. This is just my personal preference.

    The Bra-less band i brought up more as an example when you are on the receiving end of art & you have to endure something because people don’t want to “censor” something, and people are afraid to NOT applaud, for fear of being judged by their peers. Just as s/he’s entitled to play topless, we in the audience should be entitled to express our opinion & at least in NYC this is my pet peeve .. people constantly applauding mediocrity. It was not meant as a comparison to you, i was just using another example as you used Berg as an example, as it’s a complex issue with different cases bringing out different angles.

    You have the right & should write about Sandy Hook & i have a write to say that i’m prejudiced against such things, that yes i pre-judged what you & Blake wrote without reading it.

    Anyway, i was just trying to weigh in on the editors angle (being that at the moment i am immersed in reading Sleepingfish submissions). There’s so much stuff out there & it gets tiring making excuses to writers why something “doesn’t fit” & then having them get offended … so it seems almost necessary to make superficial blanket decisions, if anything just to stake out our aesthetic. School shootings or anything to do with guns is just one of those things i personally am not interested in reading about, and i imagine there are others like me.

  4. Spork Press

    We like art. We like the fact that everyone rejected it because it means we’re like you: we believe in art.

  5. Megan Milks

    Hi Johannes,

    Really interesting post. Have you and Blake found a home for the play yet?

    Speaking of school shootings, speaking of copies — this conversation brings to mind Michael du Plessis’s chapter in his book The Memoirs of JonBenet by Kathy Acker where JonBenet finds herself at the scene of a school shooting performed by dolls in trenchcoats, etc. and Teddy (a teddy bear) is shot and wounded, his stuffing leaking out. In a certain way the framing of this scene as a doll scene could make it ‘safe’, in other words less ‘offensive’ – at the same time is decidedly flip and un’pious’. these scenes seem aimed at commenting on the disreality of these narratives, how they are made into spectacle machines, replayed and regurgitated (like gifs, thinking back to that post by Jiyoon). When American Horror Story adopts a school shooting narrative (season 1) you know…something, I’m not sure what. There’s a show that aestheticizes violence and suffering; also is very openly (and I think interestingly) exploitative — of course that narrative thread played out pre-Sandy Hook. I’m really interested in seeing how you and Blake handled this material and look forward to reading the play.

    Your points here and elsewhere also seem related to conversations about Spring Breakers — is it art or is it trash, is it art or is it shock value, is it art or is it exploitation, is it art or is it provocation for provocation’s sake — as though it can’t be both/all.

  6. Johannes

    Haven’t read that book about JonBenet, but it sounds like it would be very much in conversation with a lot of stuff I’ve been writing about.
    Haven’t seen Spreak Break yet; it sounds kind of good (like a contemporary update of Weekend), and kind of tiresome. What did you think?


  7. Johannes

    You have all kinds of “rights,” but what I’m interested in is discussing why there is this pervasive sentiment. Everyone has the “right” not to listen to other people’s opinions, but I would rather have discussions about stuff. / Johannes

  8. Derek White

    It’s just a personal preference. It’s not that i’m insulted, offended, or against these things, or think they should be censored. Maybe Berg has a legitimate gripe, in regards to contemporary Swedes still being squeamish about Tsunamis, but it seems in this day & age, in America, shocking & violent & offensive & exploitive art/entertainment is becoming the norm, or already is. So perhaps the market is at last saturated & we can move on from this notion that art is being silenced or censored because it is offends.

  9. Johannes

    I love you but you consistently fail to actually engage with my argument, and in the process you’re putting more proof in the pudding so to speak. Your statement that the world is so shocking lets get over it already has been used for *ages* to reject certain art by avoiding having to actually engage with it. There *were* editors who did not like the play because they did not think art should be about a contemporary tragedy – that there’s something wrong or “offensive” about “aestheticize” such events, suffering, politics etc. That you assumes that our play is offensive and violent (there’s barely any violence in the play, way less than in the actual event!) shows that you fall into the this deeply ingrained way of thinking about art. You’ve proven my point again and again.
    I don’t think our play is offensive. I think it’s beautiful – but it’s also troubled because it’s about some troubled shit going down in our society.
    As for being “silenced” – I’m not talking about state censorship necessarily (though that happens all the time in various means, even in such weird instances as the student at LSU who was picked up because his homage to my Pageant was evidence that he planned a school shooting); I’m talking about how certain mores and discourses are established and how I oppose them. Your reply is to deny that this is the case while at the same time repeating this mantra: that there’s something offensive about making (non-documentary-seeming) art about contemporary events of trauma or suffering. My argument is exactly that you hold the position you’ve now expressed again and again on this thread. So you’ve proven my point. See what I mean?
    Further, it’s exactly this “personal preference” that I want to question. I always hear this, “This is just what I like, end of conversation.” Well that’s no way to have a discussion! I want to question the assumptions of your personal preference, I disagree with your preference. It’s exactly your “preference” – a very widely held preference – that I want to challenge, discuss. And you have replied over and over by stating that preference.
    So instead of repeating it: Perhaps you can tell me why it is wrong/inherently offensive for art to be about contemporary events?

  10. Derek White

    First off, we are of course speaking generally. I haven’t read the play, maybe i would like it, but i’m just admitting my personal bias towards it based on your description. Both yours & Blake’s work is hit or miss with me (mostly hit), mostly depending on subject matter. So we’re not talking about writing ability, but strictly subject. And you ask me why that is … & all i can say is it’s just a personal preference with me. Perhaps it’s an accumulation of all that we read in the media (of which i read as little as possible), perhaps you could say i’m in denial (i have never seen a dead body in my life, not even to identify my brother or father, this was a choice i made to keep the memories of them living intact), but mostly i just think there is so much out there to read we must draw some lines.
    This morning i’m reading about Mark Twain thinking i want to read his 700 page autobiography & then thinking i need to re-read Huck Finn .. but one must evaluate whether it is worth the time & commitment, or whether my time is better spent reading something else. There’s books of yours & Blake i haven’t read, i want to read them, it’s just a matter of time (your Haute Surveillance creeps higher up on my to read stack). When i read lit journals i usually gloss over most things. Yes, i skip over things about Sandy Hook, but it’s not so much what i am skipping as what i am looking for .. & i can’t articulate what it is i’m looking for .. as i’m usually looking for something i’ve never seen.
    As i was reading/watching all the stuff on the Boston Marathon yesterday, i was thinking things that i’m sure many others were thinking .. the irony of it happening at a marathon, the amputated limbs & all the runners running no longer to an arbitrary finish line but to something else, the timing of it, those “fortunate” enough to finish under 4:09, etc. but are these things that should be said out loud except to your friends? Sometimes i wish the commentators weren’t so damn solemn & predictable, that they could joke about it, or talk about aesthetics of the situation. But the reality is if they did, we’d probably think it inappropriate. There’s a time & place to speak of certain things.
    More than anything, the only reason i’m bothering to weigh in at all, is that i admire both you & Blake as writers & would just rather see your energies applied to other things … but then again if you guys were writing about the things people expected you to write about you’d be stagnant & predictable, so it’s your job to push the envelope, to make something that i’m surprised to like .. i just doubt Sandy Hook is it.

  11. Johannes

    Well I totally agree that you have to make choices; and I’m the first to admit I have a narrow taste. But I also agree that I would rather hear/read your un-solemn observations than the solemn stuff any day…

  12. Derek White

    yes, and speaking of, there’s this by Jimmy Chen: http://htmlgiant.com/random/finish-line/

    “And so, it’s not really a finish line, but a place to run away from something by running towards something else. Everyday we show ourselves how ugly and beautiful we can be, the shinny red inside us spilled out, touching others.”

  13. Johannes

    I also just saw something on the NY Times web site where Fox has pulled an episode of The Family Guy because it features a terrorist attack on a marathon. / Johannes