Class Notes

Beyond Words

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Our struggle to understand what cannot be understood

By Paula Marantz Cohen


 

Much soul searching has followed the Newtown shootings. We have tried to understand what happened by examining our parenting practices, educational institutions, and cultural assumptions. After the incident, my husband and I theorized that the shooter, barely more than a teenager, had had a tantrum of the sort our children used to have, and that his access to guns turned his juvenile “acting out” into mass murder. Although I still hold that access to guns must be, at least in part, blamed for the tragedy, I also see my initial response as an oversimplification.

Soon after the shootings, I received a group email from a friend arguing that guns should not be blamed for the tragedy. No, she said, lax morals were the problem. But like the gun argument, the moral one is, by itself, inadequate. What, after all, does my friend think is the manifestation of lax morals—a breakdown of family structure, a decline in religious belief, an over-indulgence in violent video games, or, for that matter, an unrestricted access to guns? Both she and I are trying, through our generalizations, to make sense of something that frightens us beyond words.

When I say “beyond words,” I mean it literally. The inadequacy of representation pertains most obviously to films and books about the Holocaust. How can a book encompass such an enormity? How can a movie presume to represent it? The rationale for speaking about it is, of course, to try to prevent a recurrence, but we are also trying to understand it.

The killings in Newtown are beyond words—though countless words have been spoken and written about them. But this is the point. Words are our makeshift remedy, our stop-gap measure, our bandage on the gaping wound. Making meaning out of what makes no sense is an inherent human desire. We want to control and understand what escapes our control and understanding. Words are a balm. We reach out across the abyss to connect with others in the hope that we will feel less alone, less vulnerable.

Speaking and writing also help us distance ourselves from what happened. Our explanations subtly assure us that we are outside the realm of attack, or that we can prevent such things from happening again. There may even be some truth to our rationalizations, but they are always incomplete. Institute stricter gun laws, and bad guys will still find a way to have guns. Teach better parenting, and there will still be wayward children. Make ethical training more central to our way of life, and there will always be those who use ethical precepts to mask wrongdoing—or ignore them completely. Our solutions are never complete or fail-safe. But they are useful, not only in the incremental improvements they can help effect but in putting us at a remove from what we could not otherwise endure.

I am reminded of one of the more wrenching lines by Victorian sage George Eliot in her great novel Middlemarch: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. Her new novel, Suzanne Davis Gets a Life, will be published this spring.

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