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The Inferno Where We Live Every Day

The problem is you can’t talk about aesthetics without talking about the principle of hope and the existence of evil.

—John Berger
The White Bird (1985)

It’s hard to eat shit, without having visions

—Allen Ginsberg
“Malest Cornifici Tuo Catullo” (1955)

Look beneath the floorboards, one trauma nestles into the next. Limbs enfold and shiver in the darkness. Across bruised skin, roadmaps of scars lead nowhere good, cigarette burns and whiplashes, a crisscross of razoring, spider-webbing from broken glass. The worst ones don’t show, but nervous eyes twitch in anticipation of another blow, always struck without warning.

A darkened basement, a place to hide secret shames and unconscionable pain. Here the worst came true, where those memories wraith forever. In the darkness, you can’t see, but all our basements connect to all the others. As the Buddhists say, suffering is universal.

The blind chance and open malice that causes human suffering can be alleviated in body (however briefly), any junky can tell you, but the secret soul’s a harder itch to scratch.

Sharp deaths and heartbreaks, cruelties and misfortune catalyze each of us singly, our personal hauntings, but many traumas are collective, exploitations and conflicts, old wounds and everyday indignities. Some might argue that capitalism is pretty traumatic. Its inequalities and injustices, its scarcities and violence, citizen against citizen and state against state and state against citizen (from jails to debt and beyond, all the way to environmental catastrophe). Though such traumas affect us collectively, they defeat us individually. The broken humans sink with self-recrimination into a poverty and failure they couldn’t have possibly invented.

And until we don’t, we all find a way to survive this.

In Edvard Munch’s “The Dance of Life” (1899), the leaden corpses drag themselves across a dancefloor, trapped in a joyless ritual, a dark reveal of humans only pretending to be alive. Every beauteous man and woman brushed by a Renaissance master asserted in their plump tits and rippling muscles an assertion of life against the evils of random chance and hard time. Munch’s revelations bring an awareness that allows detachment. From the first cavern hunters to latest post-Internet ethereality, in each there is an assertion of life in the act of creation.

Artists tormented by visions carve a space out of the darkness, a sanctuary. In the beauty of shapely line, the fulsome space and material of a sculpture, the wild vision of a painting, artists can make solace and connection in each human gesture. Creation is an antidote, perhaps the only one, against trauma, entropy, destruction.

Italo Calvino writes it best at the end of Invisible Cities:

And Polo said: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

The conditions are dour but not hopeless. In the act of creation, the love that makes life possible, I can find a solace that can be shared, and with constant vigilance and apprehension, made to endure.

Art taught me this. And will again and again, every time I need to learn it once more.


Andrew Berardini

Andrew Berardini. Born in California, lives in Los Angeles. Writer, occasional editor, reluctant curator. Teacher at the Mountain School of Art. Art Book Review co-founder. Warhol/Creative Capital Arts Writer Grantee. Author recently of the memoirish Danh Vo: Relics (Mousse, 2015) and the unfinished Standard Book of Colors.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2015

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