It’s said that Americans are inured to images of violence, but I don’t think this has been caused by an inundation of images of true violence. We’ve been numbed by counterfeit images of violence, and by our own insensitivity, our own inability to react. We’ve made of violence an abstraction. If we truly perceived the pain of a particular image – and let’s refer to a photographic image now, rather than a poetic one – such pain as is apparent in a photograph of a maimed victim of a Salvadoran death squad would be too excruciating, if truly perceived, to contemplate or regard.
In situations of extremity, rather than our becoming numb to pain, the pain worsens, and lessens our ability to endure. Each death seems more difficult than the last, and each inflicts its wound on the survivor, who remains tender from that wound when the next is inflicted, when the next loss is suffered.
To write out of such extremity is to incise, with language, that same wound, to open it again, and, with utterance, to inscribe the consciousness. This inscription re-structures the consciousness of the poet.
What has happened in America has less to do with violence itself than with the way such images of violence are read, and with the desire to abstract the violence. As a means of anesthetization. As Americans, we cling, however precariously, to the myth of our staunch individualism. We are inclined to view ourselves as apart from others. Perhaps we do this because we are haunted by the past, by the occulted memory of the founding genocide. If it were true that we imagined ourselves as connected to others, as part of a larger human body, it would no longer be true that we would suffer the lack of feeling in ourselves which we now describe as the condition of being inured to images of violence.