11 January 2009

Nightmares hidden in plain sight

It's more than twenty years since I last experienced aerial, armour and artillery bombardment in a hapless civilian area. The occasional nightmares, however, are as vivid as the day they were minted.

My retrospective nightmares, of course, are the luxury of a "first world" dilettante who quit when he'd had enough. As a Palestinian woman said to me a couple of years ago: "You left because you could; we do not have that option." The people who were centre stage when my nightmares were minted have gone on living them in physical reality. They are living them visibly now, in Gaza and on our front pages, and they have lived them often enough without being noticed.

Even when shown to us, photographs and video in the media cannot give more than a superficial idea of those nightmares. The most horrifying picture (moving or still) cannot even begin to hint at the experience of not just seeing corpses of friends and neighbours and family but wading through them, hearing them scream and not stop as you try to stuff vital parts of them back inside, breathing the charnel house stench of them, wiping bits of their flesh and bone from your hair, clothing, eyes, nose, ears, mouth. Nor, of course, can being an outside observer, however involved, give me a hint of any of this; it was always somebody else's family member, not my own.

But such images are never shown to us anyway. Media will not use them, so photographers and film makers don't offer or even, usually, produce them.

Dr C has been puting up psychologically and emotionally potent examples of what visual material is shown. The Independent on Sunday, to their credit, invited and published reader comment on the issue, but also simultaneously illustrated the prevailing attitude with the comment "Some photographs were, we believed, too graphic to publish." Only in specialist reference material of the sort mentioned by Unreal Nature's "Consequence" post are realities in any true sense portrayed.

"Humankind cannot bear very much reality." But some of us can manage how much we have to bear; others can't. I would prefer to live in a society which was at least open about what we are spared. There is something deeply obscene about seeing all kinds of violence in entertainment (horror films, for instance, where we can wallow in the vicious wet dreams of other comfortable fellow first worlders) but never even a taste of reality in news and current affairs coverage.

Despite 24 hour coverage in our all pervasive media, the nightmare in Gaza is all but invisible in any real terms. Why?

  • "...human kind / Cannot bear very much reality." T S Eliot, Four Quartets: Burnt Norton, (I). 1943, New York: Harcourt.