Sunday, July 13, 2014

Terezin: "The Beauty/How it Matters"

Sit with me and tell me once again
Of the story that's been told us
Of the power that will hold us
Of the beauty, of the beauty
Why it matters

-Sara Groves "Why It Matters"

I think of this song, not directly, not in quotations, but I think towards the shape of it in my life as I walk through a museum after Terezin.

Terezin is a town and former concentration camp (Nazi, WWII era) in the Czech Republic. My writing program took a trip there yesterday, saw spaces where lives were undone. And also, the places that lives were lived.

In the museum, the top floor is dedicated to a display of art that was composed in the nearby ghetto, the last work of thousands who lived there.

Pictures, stories, poems, cartoons, children's operas, music sheets, a newspaper the teenage boys composed each day of local events and escapades. Someone organized an orchestra of the talented musicians who were there. They held concerts.

When the Swiss Red Cross came through, some painted pictures of the darkness and smuggled them to other countries. Ultimately, the Red Cross reported that things were fine in Nazi Czechoslovakia.

They weren't.

In the end, the majority of those who lived in this space were sent on trains to Auschwitz and died in the gas chambers. They made their art in the shadow of current and future loss.

Christian Wiman notes in "My Bright Abyss: A Memoir of a Modern Believer" that there is two kinds of art (I paraphrase here): that which drives towards life and which drives towards the self.

I could not have made what they made, they in a circumstance beyond what I've known. I've had loss and watching things die. It takes people with you to keep making things.

Standing in a field, thinking this over, I had no thoughts but strong desires and instincts, tangible imaginations: I just wanted a baby. I wanted a baby after all the children who were executed. I wanted to paint a picture with the strong stench of oil paint on my fingers. I wanted to cook a huge meal and feed it to a table of friends, a large glass of wine at each seat. I wanted to dress up, touch perfume to my neck, and go dancing. This instinct, to make in the face of destruction, I think this is a human instinct, part of the goodness still residual in us. I don't trust it or foster it.

In Sarajevo, a man named Vedran Smailović regularly playing his cello in ruined buildings during the Siege of Sarajevo, most notably performing Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor (wikipedia). There was destruction: so make.

it's protest of the darkness
And the chaos all around
With its beauty, how it matters
How it matters

I don't know that art itself will save the world. I don't believe that humanity-alone can save itself. But if I were to write a manifesto for myself, a hope of what making would do, it would be this: to make art that draws towards life. Only that. Towards life. I would be humbled more than I could say if anything I do, whether writing or otherwise, would accomplish such a thing.

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