Wednesday, December 2, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar: Dec 2, Nicole Walker, Cruelty for Christmas

Perhaps during a pandemic wasn’t the best time to read Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty. Perhaps one should look for more escapist literature when the day-to-day business of life seems already cruel. But perhaps there could have been no better time. Living so close to the Navajo Nation, the news of people dying so often and so early came hard. Students of mine were hospitalized. So many true friends lost their jobs at my University. Black people dying at the hands—the literal hands of the police—starkly showed what the people dying of Covid showed: We live in a deeply cruel society. So why make art of it? Why read literature depicting cruel scenes? Why watch films that showcase torture? Why attend performing art events to watch a male artist crawls naked except for his speedo over glass down Main Street in LA, the choreographer or Elizabeth Streb’s dancers swan dive off platforms to land on their faces or Chris Burden shooting himself in the arm or Yoko Ono inviting audience members to cut the clothes from her body. 

Nelson asks a lot of question of why artists make cruel images and scenes, why they make us watch them, why we make ourselves watch them. Nelson posits a number of reasons—from Aristotle’s catharsis, to Gilles Deleuze’s metaphysical approach to desire, from Brian Evenson’s recasting the center of cruelty from the artist to the spectator to Antonin Artaud’s invocation to wake people up—for why artists want to make cruelty visible, palpable, stomach-churning, inscrutable, desirable, human. It may have been cruel to the students whose instructors for courses they’d originally signed up had been laid off to force them into a class called Pandemic stories. It may have been cruel to ask them to read Albert Camus’s The Plague, to write about their own experience during the Pandemic, and to interview someone who experienced the pandemic differently than they. We tried to expose and explain the cruelty. Why, the Humanities. If you want to understand cruelty, take a class on Western Civilization. We invited professors from across campus to discuss pandemics and plagues. Art historians explained why, although under Emperor Julian, more people died of plague than of war, yet all the art depicted warriors, how Boccaccio in The Decameron described the rich fleeing to the country, and how that paralleled, in some ways, our pandemic to save the rich and abandon the poor. Historians discussed plague in Mexico and public health in Jewish Ghettos before the ghettos were evacuated to concentration camps. Public health professionals discussed misinformation and disinformation. And literature professors discussed Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, the trouble with binarism, and the trouble with Malthus. Julie Pearing, Chair of the Philosophy Department, described the difference between existentialism and nihilism. It’s the work, she argued, that’s different. Sisyphus doesn’t curse the rock. He learns to love its rolling. Our own Dr. Rieux in The Plague discussed the importance of working for and within your community. I talked about abstractions—Camus decries them: Don’t deny the physical evidence in the form of the rat dead on the stairs of your apartment building. 

I don’t know if this humanistic inquiry was cruel or not to the students. In the middle of our own pandemic, do you want to learn how Camus’s Dr. Bernard Riuex lances buboes on his patients’ armpits and groin? We invited students to choose another book to compare with The Plague. A lot of them chose A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit. A lot of others chose World War Z or the graphic novel, The Walking Dead. The zombie books did a great job offering insight into what desperate people will resort to. They also did a great job showing how an us/them cultural divide makes everyone cruel. 

Maggie Nelson talks a lot about consent in The Art of Cruelty and how liberating it can be to walk out of a film or a show where you decide the cruelty you’ve watched is plenty and that you’d rather devote yourself to other brain work in this one, short life you’re given, but I do somehow feel compelled to read the cruelty in the books I pick up—I will myself to deepen empathy this way, but there’s another reason to read the cruelty. I re-read Beloved this summer and the image of the boys in the hayloft, sucking the milk out of Sethe’s breasts felt like a cruelty I had to read. Sarah Broom’s mother losing their family home in Yellow House felt like a cruelty I had to read. When Carmen Machado’s hides from her partner in a bathroom for hours felt like a cruelty I had to read. Natasha Trethewey's mother’s murder, Trevor Noah’s mother’s attempted murder, Claudia Rankine’s ever-updating list of Black people murdered by police in the Kindle version of Citizen, Rebecca Solnit’s recounting of the vigilante police that killed Hurricane Katrina survivors, the foxes farmed for fur in Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, the pet fox thrown from the car in the kid’s book Pax all felt like cruelties I had to read. It wasn’t until I finished teaching pandemic class and read Octavia Butler’s Kindred, where Dana, a Black woman who time travels back and forth between 1976 and slavery times, shows her boyfriend, in 1976, how she’d successfully stab someone if she had to by pretend-slicing a ruler across his abdomen, that I understood what reading all these depictions of cruelty led. Dana says, at least I learned something from watching so many movies. It was then that I realized it isn’t catharsis we’re given or that we’re after. It’s not revelation or epiphany. It’s not an abstraction. It’s practice. Be ready. Some rough beast is always slouching toward Bethlehem. And it’s always and already here. 

But it’s not always cruelty we’re preparing for—there are other beasts here besides Yeats’ slouching one. I’m reading about the largest owl in the world, the fish owl, in Jonathan Slaght’s Owls of the Eastern Ice. I’ve read Peter Matthiessen’s Snow Leopard where I learned it’s not finding the leopard that matters but looking for it. Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Crow Planet makes me practice talking to ravens. What Maggie Nelson says about consent is apt: cruelty is abundant but you can opt into something less punishing too. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to take a break from reading about humans.


NICOLE WALKER is the author of the books The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet, Sustainability: A Love Story, Where the Tiny Things Are, Egg, Micrograms, and Quench Your Thirst with Salt. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and on her website

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