Draw Your Weapons by Sarah Sentilles; Random House, 320 pp., $28
“This Report Contains Graphic Content,” the video warns; “Viewer Discretion Is Advised.” A man lifts a dead girl from a hospital bed while music oddly reminiscent of The X-Files theme plays in the background. The film cuts to a room full of bodies—children, old men, women—killed by sarin gas. Then the dirty, bloodied five-year-old whose shell-shocked face the world came to recognize as #SyrianBoy, Omran Daqneesh. Finally, a montage of corpses and trauma care connected to April’s chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria.
Watching these images does not make me a better person. They do not help me understand the Syrian civil war, honor the dead or help the living, or ease anyone’s suffering. They might shock and appall, unless I have been numbed by the proliferation of such images, as many people have. So what are they for? Would it be better if I wrote a poem for Omran Daqneesh? Or painted a picture, like the one Dana Schutz painted of Emmett Till’s battered corpse, Open Casket, which sparked such a furor at this year’s Whitney Biennial? What good is art about war, or racism, or any other kind of human suffering? What relation does it bear to its subject?
Questions like these emerge whenever we reflect on the encounter between the concerned citizen and representations of suffering, especially but not only representations of war, especially but not only representations intended to be appreciated for their aesthetic form. This encounter is the subject of Sarah Sentilles’s book Draw Your Weapons, which approaches its subject through two loose narratives, one about a conscientious objector who refused to fight in World War II, the other about an art student on the G.I. Bill who had served in Iraq, and—in the aggregative style made influential by Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and David Shields’s Reality Hunger—an associative collage of impressions, comments, quotations, facts, and reflections.
Draw Your Weapons ranges widely, from video games to Louis Agassiz, from the author’s memories of divinity school to her reflections on teaching critical theory to art students, from French artist Hubert Duprat’s gold caddisfly cocoons to war-zone tourism. This is no great wonder, since once you start thinking about the relations between aesthetics, ethics, and suffering, you start seeing the problem knotted into nearly every fold of human culture, connecting to the deepest and most tragic riddles of human existence. Sentilles’s approach allows for powerful poetic compression in the way that it juxtaposes superficially unrelated yet resonant material, yet it also risks shallowness and diffusion. Masters of the form develop their themes through ellipses and repetition, always coming back to a discrete handful of tropes and images. Sentilles develops a powerful metaphor in the idea of the box, the cocoon, the coffin—the enveloping body in distinction to the flat image—the body of the violin with which the book begins.
We meet Howard Scott, conscientious objector, through a picture taken of him with his violin on his 87th birthday. The violin, we come to learn, took 60 years to build: Scott began putting it together while imprisoned at McNeil Island Penitentiary. Before McNeil, Scott had been doing his civilian public service at a camp in California, but one day he decided that any wartime service was tantamount to supporting war, so he walked out. He was soon arrested and sent to McNeil. Released before he finished the violin, Scott brought the pieces home with him in a box. Sixty years later, Scott’s grandson had the violin finished and presented to him for his birthday.
The body of the instrument resonates with the strings; the air within carries the sound. Just so, Sentilles recounts how one of her theology teachers discussed “the God who speaks words to bring the world into being, who uses clay and breath to make human beings. … In this story God is a poet and a potter.” Artistic creation is here equated to divine creation, and Sentilles dramatizes this metaphor in a closing gesture of transcendence: Draw Your Weapons ends with a Quaker memorial service, after Howard’s death, at which one friend says, “He was always making music … He’s making music still. Can’t you hear him?”
It is a touching moment, though one haunted by the unresolved chord Sentilles plays again and again throughout the book as she confronts us with broken human bodies, boxes that are cages, and the possibility that the promise of art is not a promise of transcendence at all but a kind of voyeurism or even aggression. The book’s second main narrative strand, following Sentilles’s conversations with Miles, Iraq war veteran turned art student, opens this minor-key counterpoint, making much of the fact that Miles worked at Abu Ghraib prison, though well after the torture scandal there had run its course. These meditations on torture, violence, and complicity contrast, in complicated ways, with Howard’s story of virtuous resistance and creative redemption. One moment stands out: a student in Sentilles’s critical theory class (at an art school in Portland, Oregon), whom she suspects of having violent tendencies, presents for his final project a sculpture of a human body covered in photographs of “disemboweled bodies, disemboweled children, women naked and split open, women dead in the street in their underwear.” Some of her students were afraid, Sentilles tells us. Several of them cried.
What are we to make of this? What relation does art bear to suffering? Sentilles does not say. She circles the question repeatedly, insistently, yet always at a certain remove, suggesting only that art may be a weapon or a tool depending on how you wield it, as if this told us anything, as if weapons weren’t also tools. Sentilles speaks through Susan Sontag and Elaine Scarry and Judith Butler and numerous others, but never for herself, never saying why she had to write this book, what kind of world she hoped to create. Perhaps these are questions she did not want to ask, for though she talks about “spooky action at a distance,” the Manzanar Japanese internment camp, the history of photography, and her students, whirling and whirling, sometimes gracefully, sometimes obscurely, she never plunges into the tragic depths her question opens.
Yet while this may be one of her book’s greatest disappointments, it might also be one of its virtues. For if the redemptive note on which Draw Your Weapons closes remains strained, Sentilles’s gentle resistance to the depths of her own subject is, in its way, an attempt to sound out that which is best in us, the affirmation we always hope to find echoing back in each other.