Tucson: Learning to Live with the Discomfort of Unknowing
A Post fom Tucson, the Novel by Shannon Cain
This week, the sort of familiar violence we watch on the news has come home to Tucson, and our hometown seems suddenly unfamiliar.
So I did what used to be done in this country, not really so long ago, when the senseless struck: I consulted a novelist. The writer of stories, the reasoning goes, has spent a good amount of time thinking about the human condition and might have something interesting to say about it.
The loss of innocence, says the American novelist Charles Baxter, is partly a recognition that there are depths to things, that what you see isn’t always what you get. The loss of innocence leads us to explore, to try to figure out what it all means. To gain insight.
But the mass production of insight in America is a dubious phenomenon, says Baxter, and some of these insights can seem disturbingly untrustworthy. There is a smell about them, he says, of recently molded plastic.
My call today is for reflection, and calm, and a strong yet passive resistance to the demands all around us that we participate, at top volume, in efforts to neatly wrap up this experience. Perhaps, for a while, we should let it dwell in the realm of inexplicability. We should live with the discomfort of unknowing. Soon enough we’ll be compelled to make sense of it all, but maybe for now the most appropriate and most dignified response is to sit quietly and reflect.
Let’s not allow this tragedy to be commodified for the national and international media. To join in the noise of a debased and thoughtless rhetoric, the kind that people use gleefully without really knowing what it means or understanding its consequences, is fundamentally disrespectful. We ought to give these deaths and grave injuries and indeed our own grief the dignity of their own complexities. We are free to reject toxic public discourse.
We can be grateful that Tucson has a history of investing in the arts. In the months and years to come, we’re going to need our artists. The role of the Tucson artist in the wake of these events is the same as it always is, in good times and bad: to consider that which she sees and to reflect it back to us in all its beauty and pain. To show us who we are, and in so doing to help us see ourselves differently. Said James Baldwin on his eloquent public resistance against the pain and struggle of black Americans: “I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness.” In moments like this, when our hearts are broken open, when the familiar seems strange, when a parking lot becomes a killing field, the artist shows us how to expand our vision.
Image Source: Chris Carlson/Associated Press
The story of what happened on January 8, 2011 in Tucson, Arizona is a moral mystery. Good storytellers understand that tales over controlled by their meaning, as Baxter says, start to go a little bit dead. When a story hits us over the head with what it’s trying to tell us, it can become false to its own shadings and nuances. Perhaps we should take a cue from the artists and try not to explain this right away, but just to see it. Perhaps we ought for now to reject the self-satisfied declarations and false authority of others who are trying to tell our story. Perhaps for now we ought to allow the mystery to unfold without judgment, without attaching a meaning to it, because when we are too busy interpreting, and then yelling out our interpretations, we can’t listen.
(Gratitude to Charles Baxter in “Against Epiphany,” Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction (Graywolf Press, 1997)
Shannon Cain is a fiction writer and a writing coach. Her collection of short stories, The Necessity of Certain Behaviors, was awarded the Drue Heinz Literature Prize for 2011 and will be published by the University of Pittsburgh Press this fall. She is the fiction editor for Kore Press.