100 Notes on Violence
77. Holding Hands
I’ve been trying to look through the sun
at something under the sun or within the sun
(here are the sunny days: 280 a year!), been trying to measure the sun –
taste the sun. But I cannot
break into the sun.
Looking through the sun: the very definition of dangerous futility. The first problem, the obvious problem, is that the sun, gazed upon, blinds all who view it. The second, more sublime problem is that the sun also provides the means by which it can be seen. If you want to see the sun, you must dim it, but if you dim it, you cannot see.
Julie Carr’s inclusion of this paradox—one that tempts all children and against which we warn them—metaphorically predicts one of the book’s anxieties, the efforts to inform children of the risk of violence while also shielding them from it. It also suggests that one way to consider 100 Notes on Violence is to believe that here is a book whose author knows it must fail. Yet she persists, not in the hope that it will succeed, but in the knowledge that the thing she is attempting cannot be done; “success” at such an effort is categorically inapt. The effort is the achievement.
This interpretation rests on the corollary belief that Carr’s subject—violence—prohibits any full accounting. Violence corrupts the distinction between abstraction and practice, and even if we define it so loosely as to claim that violence is simply a category of human behavior, we’ve still done a kind of violence to our use of the term. Via adjectival and adverbial attribution, we’ve left very little that cannot be the subject or agent of violence. Like light or time, violence has become so much a referential familiar that we all know what it is, though we cannot quite articulate what it is we know.
The danger here, of course, is that the combination of great frequency and a lack of explicit meaning render violence a kind of social wallpaper; we notice it less as a feature than as a rhetorical surface against which we can project matching claims. How often do we refer to someone as having a violent outburst, as if one’s outburst could be calm; if we measure the violence of the outburst with the performance of violent acts, what does it mean to say the temper itself was violent, relative to what it predicts?
And yet as anyone who has been the object of violence can tell you, this gets things exactly backwards. The experience of violence is of an interruption of a previously granted norm, an exception, a breach. It distorts by clarification, by bringing what is violent and what is not into sharp relief: the sun, set against a sky its illumination blackens.
While it may seem as if these two apprehensions of violence are exclusive, it’s the degree to which they collaborate that makes Carr’s task apparently unrealizable. To speak of a culture of violence is to define violence as ambient, when its very essence is its particularity. On the other hand, it would be foolish to deny the profound saturation of both conceptual and material violence that characterizes our shared history and our daily experiences.
So what we end up with, perversely, is a condition whereby the abnormal distinguishes itself by virtue of its near-ubiquity. How to think about such a thing? As soon as you establish terms with which to think about it, the subject disappears, leaving evidence of its wake. The wake and the evidence, in fact, become the only aspects of violence stable enough to consider. Sometimes we gauge a property by its opposite, but the opposite of violence is simply the absence of violence, which is an impoverished and astringent definition of peace.
Carr is sharply aware of these problems, and indeed sometimes addresses them directly:
64. From General to Specific
First, the premise: When people feel their freedoms encroached upon, they will hurt whoever seems to be encroaching. Upon.
For instance, when there is too much laundry, the clothes seem to be eating me. My arms and my hands are not my own, I cannot move from the spot. In this moment I begin to grow hot. And once, twice, more times, I lifted my hand to hit, I threw the phone, a book, a shoe.
But, some argue, there is no real and unbreachable boundary between people. When we finally recognize the absence of boundaries, we will, in fact, no longer hurt one another, because to do so would hurt ourselves, they say.
Quite the opposite seems to be true. A lack of boundaries means I can do just exactly what I want to you. Just as Stephen cut a grid into his arm, I can cut one into yours. I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man.
If it is profitable to burn/kiss my own hand/your hand, how do I measure this profit?
In the last two sections of this note, Carr interrupts the relatively straightforward logic the title promises to include examples and referents that don’t bear any direct relationship to the terms of the premise itself. Her refutations discount the theoretical by shifting terms to the personal, a transference doubled by the embedding within that personal customized symbols (Stephen, the burns, the first person quotes from Dostoevsky) which act as contrary evidence only within her hermetic imaginary. This suits her method, for the 100 notes do not culminate in philosophical argument; rather, as the book progresses, Carr increasingly draws upon the content of prior notes to complicate the effect of the later ones, making reductive argument impossible.
For instance, Stephen first appears in Note 42, titled “Two Narrative Poems.” The poet speaks of the aforementioned grid-shaped scar, which as a younger woman she found compelling and attractive, but then mentions that Stephen has also been raped by his uncle, a fact the disclosure of which is complicated both in the story itself and in the poem’s reproduction of it: “This I forgot to say. Various ways of writing that.”
The second of the two narratives describes the poet, now fully adult, meeting with an undergraduate (close to the age of the poet in the first narrative) whose hands are scarred with fresh burn marks. Their subsequent conversation, then, must occur “over the burns. Above the burns.” As with the struggle to see through or under or within the sun, this emphasis on position and perspective indicates Carr’s acknowledgment that a direct approach would elide important aspects of how violence operates. All approaches are prepositional: you can draw various vectors around, but you can never get in, so a direct assessment would be a false one. She could have used fragments to reduce this truism to fairly predictable compositions: fragments (because a true unity is illusory), which together create a mosaic, whose approximation of unity forces multiple considerations of its components. Carr also knows that this method will work better with a more tightly defined violence:
The idea to write a book “about” violence. “What kind?” “The close-up kind.”
Because I cannot write the words “school shooting” into the little search box.
Later I hear that whatever you write into the little search box will somewhere
be recorded as data in order to better sell you.
What does the person searching school shootings want to buy?
I keyed “guns” instead, but I don’t want to buy a gun.
I could buy a gun.
This technique—one of distracted elaboration on aspects of preceding lines, each of which substantially changes the register and the mood—is useful as far as it goes, but the ease with which its complexity is achieved undermines the diagnostic discomfort Carr rightly hopes to create. So rather than simply rely on the logical consequence of the fragmentary, she seeks to complicate the process by abstracting from each fragment phrases, symbols and rhetorical eddies, which she then re-inserts into subsequent notes in ways that compromise their tonal integrity. By the book’s conclusion, then, the discrete parts have been sewn together, though Carr makes certain that integrity, too, disconcerts. Parts A and B of 92 are conventionally suggestive, but B then becomes something else, summoned by but not elucidating of what precedes it. 93 and 94 only further this.
Mother and Daughter 3
“If mother love is, as some bioevolutionary and developmental psychologists
as well as some cultural feminists believe, a natural,’ or at least expectable,
womanly script, what does it mean for women for whom scarcity and death
has made that love frantic?” (Scheper-Hughes)
The National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) lists Colorado as third in the
U.S. for deaths from child abuse.
In 2006, 40,000 child abuse cases were investigated in Colorado. Of those, 8,700 were confirmed.
In all, 24 children died of abuse and neglect.
(Research: to about seeking)
(Every researcher a predator)
safe and permanent families.”
Of men: Walked through the dark: jogger behind me: “overcoat of clay”
Of gravity: And if I were to release my hold.
Of mirrors: The enigma of looking into one’s eyes as if the eyes of
another: the “sudden appearance of the unavailable.” (Nancy)
Of insanity: “The rhythmic range of words fills me with horror” (Roubaud)
Of home: Majesty and Amber
Of the sun: I cannot break into it, its daily resurrection, daily assault.
If a reader is familiar with the preceding 91 notes, these potentially cryptic fragments (what does “launced” mean? How does Dickinson function here?) recall their original, less scattered contexts, but this satisfaction shouldn’t be mistaken for argumentative clarity. Carr isn’t making assertions; the more tightly she weaves the lattice of her sources and structures, the less that basket can hold, which is, I think, as close as she’s willing to come to having a point. Anything that tapers to sharpness—sharpness of intent, sharpness of interpretation—approaches singularity, which Carr rejects. And a point, of course, can also be a weapon.
Carr’s reluctance to editorialize, her general unwillingness to represent quotidian violence without due deference to complexity and texture of the daily lives in which it occurs, is both astute and admirable. And the form she’s chosen (borrowed partially from C.D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining, a debt Carr frankly acknowledges, as she does all her sources) serves this rectitude. But there’s also a risk to it, which isn’t that 100 Notes on Violence might deny readers the satisfaction of didactic purity. The danger is that while Carr reflects the way violence warps and shatters efforts to contain it, she also isolates violence from the very arena of the commonplace she wishes to place it in, because she cannot guess as to how violence originates in persons the equivalent of those who receive it.
Stephen’s elliptical and elusive articulation of the violence he’s received (and done to himself) finds a persuasive poetic analogue here, but the same can’t be said for Stephen’s uncle. We don’t know, and Carr doesn’t suggest, that the uncle is any way equivalent to people who have endured violence as opposed to inflicting it. Likewise, when Carr writes of the malice and emotional abuse her own mother visited upon her (in the harm it causes, Carr uses this as a poignant counterpoint to the more graphic violence she has faced), we meet the mother as a figure of profound curiosity, but one who remains opaque.
Carr certainly isn’t required to imagine the inhabitation of behaviors she finds appalling, the throwing of phones and shoes notwithstanding. The confusion between incomprehension, reluctance and refusal when confronted with violence could very well further the meditation she wants to make. But as long as the agents of violence remain mysterious, violence itself becomes opaque, and that opacity in turns creates a strange placidity, an evenhandedness that sometimes undermines the conditions that violence can provoke. If violence is both regular and irregular, an examination of it might likewise allow various registers, and not just multiple types of evidence.
While the sun cannot be seen through, it is not exactly opaque; if one could see past the blaze, the substance would reveal itself not as substance but agitated gas, flares and loops and roiling cataracts of light: an effect, not an object. Yet even if Carr’s silence about the common origins of common violence (a paradox she manifests beautifully) is like Perseus gazing into his mirrored shield to approach Medusa indirectly only to find himself struck to stone by his own reflection, his own intent, her necessary failure is clearly chosen and bravely made. She’s looked at the sun, and still sees.