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Representing Disaster

Patrick J Murray
Apparitions of Death and Disease: The Great Hunger in Ireland, by Christine Kinealy, Cork University Press, 40 pp, €11.95, ISBN 978-0990468615 Limits of the Visible: Representing the Great Hunger, by Luke Gibbons, Cork University Press, 40 pp, €11.95, ISBN: 978-0990468622 The Tombs of a Departed Race: Illustrations of Ireland’s Great Hunger, by Niamh O’Sullivan, Cork University Press, 68 pp, €11.95, ISBN: 978-0990468639 Monuments and Memorials of the Great Famine, by Catherine Marshall, Cork University Press, 36 pp, €11.95, ISBN: 978-0990468608 ¡Canto qué mal me sales cuando tengo que cantar espanto! (How hard it is to sing / When I must sing of horror) Victor Jara, “Estadio Chile” The words of the Chilean poet and political activist Victor Jara powerfully express how responding to traumatic events remains one of art’s most problematic undertakings. Written during his incarceration, torture and death at the hands of the Pinochet regime in 1973, Jara’s poem juxtaposes the potential beauty of the aesthetic with the direness of the real to evoke the complexities at the heart of artistic engagement with any human tragedy. Horrific events are, in the words of Shakespeare’s Macduff, beyond articulation: “O horror, horror, horror! / Tongue nor heart cannot conceive nor name thee!” This sense of inadequacy is enhanced when the creative work, with its overtones of pleasure and even whimsy, enters the fray: canto (singing) contrasts in an almost visceral way with the seemingly ineffable espanto (horror). Alongside insufficiency of articulation, art also struggles against the almost insurmountable obstacle of justification, of treating appropriately victims of the most egregious forms of suffering. Of note in this regard is Theodor Adorno’s famous observation that “After Auschwitz, poetry is barbaric”, a maxim which transposes the brutality of the Nazi death chambers onto any attempt to respond artistically, as though the dead will have been doubly transgressed by any subsequent invocation. If we engage with events in the past through artistic mediums, we also tread on delicate ground. To do so without due sensitivity can engender accusations of a lack of sensitivity, or even, in Adorno’s forthright term, barbarism. Poetry, after all, makes nothing happen. To do justice to an occurrence as tragic as the Jewish Holocaust of mid-twentieth century Europe via the medium of poetry may appear impossible, even callously cruel. To engage with the underlying causes of it, and enact – in the tradition of Aristotle – a collective catharsis seems almost inconceivable. A further complicating…



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