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Art and Mourning: Tragedy at Newtown

Beatrice Cahill-Camden has offered her commentary on the recent Newtown Conn. shooting. Beatrice  is a junior at Hawken School, a preparatory school in Cleveland. This was written in her English Intensive last semester.

 

The Scream “The Scream” in American Culture”

‘One of those paintings that would not die’

its warring image

once conceived

would not leave

the leaded ground

no matter how many times

he hounded it

into oblivion

Painting over it did no good

it kept coming through

the wood and

canvas

and as it came it cried at him

a terrible bedtime song

wherein each bed a grave

minded with unearthly

alarmclocks

hollered horribly for lovers and speakers

-Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 1958 A Coney Island of the Mind

 

What is “The Scream”?

Edvard Munch’s 1895 pastel-on-board masterpiece, famously entitled “The Scream” is one of four paintings of “The Scream” created by the expressionist artist. It is one of the most celebrated images of our time. It is also the most expensive piece of visual artwork ever sold, as it was auctioned off at Sotheby’s to billionaire Leon Black for a whopping 119.9 million dollars this past May of 2012. It now is exhibited on loan to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, drawing crowds of hundreds. I have modestly attempted to recreate this universally recognizable masterpiece through the medium of acrylic and oil on canvas, scaled down from its original size. I have attempted to capture the painting’s expressionism through imitating the artist’s use of vibrant colors of reds and oranges, contrasting the haunting dark tones of blue, black and grey. Munch is known for his tactical treatments of dark themes and stimulating the senses through his depiction of the psychological conflict in the not-so-human facial expression of the centered man in the scene.    The feelings that come with the anomie, anguish and anxiety are captured in Munch’s “The Scream.”  The artist was a pioneer of the Expressionist/Symbolism years of the late 19th century and early 20th century. Edvard Munch himself suffered with depression, which pervaded his family.  However, by gathering  his overflowing emotions and developing pure genius in his artwork, in particular in “The Scream,”  Munch captured more than his individual mental suffering. “The Scream” captures feelings which represent the fear and dread in the lives of so many people who suffer the alienation of the modern world. Munch painted on the cusp of modernity and his work prefigures the horrors to come in the twentieth century.

What We See in “The Scream”

The pale white “screaming” man in the focal center has a possessing horrified look on his narrow, ghost-like face, as if he had just seen death itself. His eyes and nose are mere dots: his face seems to swallow all expression in the vast hole of his gaping mouth.  The two dark hooded men, lurking on the bridge in the background are representing fear itself in a human like form – a dementing like object has just been viewed by the white ghost man – he now knows that the devil is a real force that takes place in humans, and this is why he screams.  The ghost-like man is possessed by the knowledge and sight of evil, and he is full of fear and dread.  Part of what makes Munch’s pastel work so celebrated and revolutionary is the way in which Munch captures raw human emotion that so many people fear to acknowledge in themselves. This captured emotion, like the painting itself, does not grow old, in fact it just becomes more relevant with time. Indeed, this utter fear and anguish is seen today in the worst of times across America as it is represented by the corrupted humanity that makes up our generation, tarnished with murders, bombings, mass shootings.

 

The “Scream” of Our Time

The world stopped on Friday the fourteenth of December, 2012 when the worst side of humanity was represented in the slaughter of twenty seven lives, twenty of whom were children, all younger than eight years old. This tragedy has no explanation as it touches the hearts of people all around the world.  There is no reasoning behind the murder of so many innocent, young lives, and there is no taking it back.  No newspaper reporter or tabloid headline will ever be able to explain why these massacre shootings are happening too frequently in this modern world. As the world well knows, there have been many school shootings in the past year, not to mention in the past decade. Some have more lives lost than others, but they are all equally tragic beyond measure.  Words cannot explain the effect these events have on people. America felt Munch’s dark hooded figures looming on the fourteenth of December, 2012. These hooded figures represent the worst possible embodiment of human kind. The fragile lives that were stolen away from families in Newtown, Connecticut were due to a demonic-like possession of a soulless, inhumane moment when the hooded figures that lurk behind the screaming man seemed to take over and slaughter the innocent.  America felt like that ghostly figure screaming on the bridge at first news of the devastating massacre. How can we, as Americans and as humans go on, knowing the suffering of those children and their helpless protectors at the school who tried in vain to save them?

       “Only Connect”: The Hope of Human Connection in a Devastating Time

The only hope for the ghostly figure, the screaming face that all of us feel in the face of fear and tragedy is the hope that now sustains in the families in Newton, Connecticut who know that they are not alone. The man in the painting is completely isolated, aside from the cold company of the hooded men. However, the families are being comforted by the warm touch of communal support from people not only in America, but universally around the world. The Empire State Building lit up its L.E.D. lights in the shining Newtown High School colors of blue and gold, just to let the devastated families know that they are not alone. This shining light lifts the shroud of darkness as an attempt to build a different kind of bridge of shared humanity with the loving families in Newtown. As the brilliant American poet Lawrence Ferlingetti once said “‘One of those paintings that would not die’/ its warring image/once conceived /would not leave/ the leaded ground/no matter how many times/he hounded it/into oblivion.” This poem captures the truth behind Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” as well as the truth that lies behind the Newton tragedy.  It will do no good to just “paint over” the past events of human suffering, for by doing that, the suffering will never end and human kind will never heal. The emotions felt at Newton, and the emotions expressed in “The Scream” will not die, for the warring images portrayed in both circumstances will not leave; they have been forever ground into the hearts, souls, and minds of human kind.

A Closing Thought

Across the street from the funeral home there is a sign that reads: “Only Connect.” This line is taken from an E.M. Forster novel which has the following passage:

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, And human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect…

–E.M. Forster, Howards End

 

Remember this passage next time you look at “The Scream,” or next time you are faced with a heart breaking tragedy. The dreaded emotions felt in either circumstance are dealt with through human connectedness and the realization that you are not alone, for everyone is capable of feeling this “screaming” emotion inside of herself or himself. The feelings that came with the news that twenty children were murdered, as well as seven innocent adults, were felt all across America. The bittersweet truth that emerged from this colossal disaster is that many Americans turned the emotions that came with the satanic event into an expressed form of love and care towards the families of Newtown. As Forster said in Howards End, “human love will be seen at its height.”

 

We Don’t Have to be Helpless: Bereavement

by Anna J. Janicki, MD

The tragedy in December 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut evoke terror and bereavement, however its evocative power that can awake love, connection and a sense of belonging is hard to ignore. We are grateful to Beatrice Cahill-Camden, for her commentary on the recent Newtown Connecticut shooting.  It also needs to be added that the painting The Scream by Edward Munch is on exhibit at MOMA in New York until April 29, 2013

Mourning mobilizes a process, which revives all prior losses and separations as well. It calls on the emotional revisiting of the deepest recesses of our mind’s and body’s organization and reworking of old memories. After a loss life is chaotic. Mature bereavement is dependent on a mature autonomous mind with a capacity for symbolization and mental strength sufficient to endure the annihilating effects of acute and prolonged grief without defensively preempting its full course to personal metamorphosis. Those individuals with a healthy response mobilize mental (ego) strength, and are flexible. They tolerate being torn between these competing demands.  Others, whose grief becomes morbid —destructive — can become too unyielding and rigid, seeking a perfect response to losses and to move on at any cost; however just moving on won’t do. Flexibility helps us maintain emotional stability and cope with internal and external stress. Fragmented life, when is life-affirming even with chaos, has a creative, restorative and re-animating potential.

Anna Aragno, Ph.D. described in her paper Transforming Mourning: A New Psychoanalytic Perspective on the Bereavement Process that healthy grief requires a multidimensional fluidity because it is multidetermined.  The relative maturity of the mourning depends upon the biologic age of the mourner, the nature of the bond with the lost person or object, and on the existing capacity for coping, on defenses and psychic structures at the time of the loss.  It depends on representation, recollection, reconstruction, internalization, symbolization, and narration of the experience.

In the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut I roam in grief.  I have nightmares. I cry suddenly. I imagine being there with the young man, his mother, with teachers, children and their families. And while all this is happening, at the same time I awake to joys and guilt of being alive, the terror of living and mindfulness of being a part of life in Cleveland, Ohio, the USA.  I have a grand sense that I belong on Earth, and I am humbled by appreciation that I am an ant-like citizen of the Universe. Thoughts of murder and suicide are not that far apart, and many suffer social pain because of it. Poets write to grieve, to feel connected and loved.

THE PORTRAIT by Stanley Kunitz

My mother never forgave my father

for killing himself,

especially at such an awkward time

and in a public park,

that spring

when I was waiting to be born.

She locked his name

in her deepest cabinet

and would not let him out,

though I could hear him thumping.

When I came down from the attic

with the pastel portrait in my hand

of a long-lipped stranger

with a brave moustache

and deep brown level eyes,

she ripped it into shreds

without a single word

and slapped me hard.

In my sixty-fourth year

I can feel my cheek

still burning.

 

Roger Craik, a poet, narrates feelings of being an immigrant and coming back to his childhood home. In these excerpts from his poem, he connects through a riot of awakening sensations his love for the new and old home:

“and you turn to wondering

how many people in America you know who’d come

within a stone’s throw of why it’s so

ecstatic being here, alone, with the just-arrived

mussels gaping in their funnel-bucket, candleshine-glistening fries,

and, a benison, the unexpected salad – and here you sit, ensconced,

magnificent, trencherman with three beers down, Christ yes,

of the strongest (a fourth is

swinging on its way) in a goblet, name embossed

beneath the stained-glass window of the abbey where it’s brewed –

and why, when who

in snatches through the din is heard

but twangle-gravelling old Jack J. C. Cash,

all sounding-board and strings and Folsom-drawled fidelity,

afresh it dawns

how miraculously torn you are

I’ll never toe a rule, or line, nor both or similar,

but swear myself henceforth to this:

the unpredictability of things

–and now the half-lit unpredictability of things—

which is the only truth there is.

Poetry, essays, painting and other forms of art, like elephants, never forget. They live and grieve. Avoided, denied, somaticized, obsessional, displaced, incomplete, prolonged, or unending grief are all forms of mourning. It takes difficult and painful self-scrutiny to appraise our mourning work.

We, at the Cleveland Psychoanalytic Center welcome contributions to our blog about responses to the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut.

 


 

 

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