Terror and the Imagination


As events unfolded and the number of dead rose in Paris, November 13, The Poetry Society tweeted a quote from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. “Soon we will dive into the cold darkness . . .” The aptness of the quote aside, Baudelaire is a name to conjure with now. We live in a time of terror. “The Flowers of Evil” look prophetic.

Art is a source of resistance to terror. Terror cauterizes our access to a level of reality that is pre-conceptual but absolutely real. Terror numbs the soul. As Baudelaire’s complex devotion to the image suggests, the image may reawaken the soul to its primary landscape.

I am not talking about art for art’s sake. The image in the sense I mean it here, and which I believe Baudelaire meant it, at least part of the time, is an image that connects us to the world of embodied meaning, a pre-conceptual world.

William Desmond writes: “The qualitative presencing of the world as other is given to us over and over again” (God and the Between 38). The philosophic language need not detain us: “qualitative presencing” helps clarify the connection of the image to the world as embodied process — the world as other; and the role of repetition in this self-confirming of the “world as other” undermines the “ennui” normally associating with repetition. This presencing is given to us “over and over again.”

Desmond helpfully remarks on the double burden of the ancient Greek notion of “aesthetic” — both seeming and feeling, appearing and beholding. Aesthetic response says “yes” to created being, from within createdness. Aesthetic horror — as Baudelaire shows — we recoil from; it awakens some recognitions in us.”The aesthetics of creation both delights and disgusts us, resonates with us and repulses us, sweetens us and nauseates us.”

Fair enough. At a time of Terror horror overwhelms the yes of creation: we see the monsters among us. Artists may show this and help us see it. Artists may also show us the primal imagery of the “yes” — such imagery however delicate and intimate may help us break through the numbness that builds up as a response to Terror.

There is a “normal” for which we long, which discloses to us something sacred at the heart of created being.

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