LOOKING DEATH IN THE EYE

EXCERPTS OF TWO WORKS BY E. ANNIE PROULX

 

"'Now, what I want you to do. I want you [to] cover local car wrecks, write the story, take pictures. We run a front page photo of a car wreck every week, whether we have a wreck or not. That's our golden rule. No exceptions. Tert has a big file of wreck pictures. If we don't have a fresh one, we have to dip into his file. But we usually have a couple of good ones. . . .'"

 

"We are driving calmly on the highway when a flurry of brake lights stutters in front of us. In the distance we see the familiar red and blue flashing, and along the shoulder comes a honking, blaring ambulance. The line of traffic moves like cold oil. The wreck is well off the road, in the median, but although the highway is clear, every vehicle goes past as slowly as it can and the occupants, including you and me, crane and look."

 

"Certainly photographs have been associated with death and the dead from the early days of the process, notably through memorial images of children and adults dressed in their finest clothes and posed on chairs or sofas as though reading or asleep. Above all, memorial photographs were personal, produced for a specific bereaved family, showing a specific individual, and often displaying anecdotal content. They were not always beautiful; some show tracks of blood curving from the nostrils to the jaw, the shriveled and emaciated faces of dehydrated infants, blistered mouths, and glaring eyes."

 

"Car wrecks! Stunned with the probabilities of blood and dying people."

 

"That innate need to stare at the hurt and dead, at scenes of accidental or criminal violence, is common to all humans. It is the need to experience another's fatal injury through eyes and imagination, to wonder in what way it will come for us and how we might protect ourselves from such a frothing end."

 

"Quoyle dragged the suitcase under the single wharf light. He found a piece of pipe and jabbed the lock. The pipe clinked against the brass. The lock held. Quoyle looked around for something to pry, a screwdriver or chisel, but there was nothing but stone and broken glass. In frustration he raised the pipe over his shudder and swung as hard as he could at the lock. A metallic crack and, with a frightful wave of stench, the suitcase sprang open.

Under the light he saw the ruined eye, the flattened face and blood-stiff mustache of Bayonet Melville on a bed of seaweed. The gelatinous horror slid out onto the wharf."

 

"[I]n our century there was, until very recently, a profound social taboo against looking at the dead, injured, and deformed. Decent people did not pay attention to or show interest in death: we still apply the epithets 'voyeurs,' 'morbid curiosity-seekers,' 'sick puppies,' to casual starers; we still feel guilty when our own eyes turn helplessly to bloody scenes.

In the past two decades, however, we have found a small, socially approved way of satisfying this ancient, inquisitive hunger, and that is through photographs."

 

"'I don't know why I never get any good stories,' said Nutbeem. 'Just the sordid. Just the nastiest stuff for Nutbeem, vile stuff that can't be described except in winking innuendo and allusion. . . .Here's a doctor at the No Name Medical Clinic charged with sexual assault against fourteen female patients--'provocative fondling of breasts and genitals' is how they put it. The choirmaster in Misky Bay pled guilty on Monday to sexual assault and molestation of more than one hundred boys over the past twelve years.'"

"'That's what sells this paper,' said Tert Card. 'Not columns and home hints. Nutbeem's sex stories with names and dates whenever possible. That was Jack's genius, to know people wanted this stuff.'"

 

"Perhaps it is the persistent documentary reputation of photography, the continuing public belief in an objective role of the photographer's eye, that has lately funneled much of the illustration of the darkest human experience out of literature, sculpture, and painting and into photography. It does sometimes seem as although creative work has been subdivided and assigned different functions and channels. . . . Literature's assigned function apparently is to uplift and instruct. . . . When Bret Easton Ellis's American `Psycho was published several years ago with its explicitly violent killing and sex scenes, there was a howl of outrage. . . . Yet had the objectionable scenes, no matter how vile and malevolent, been transformed into platinum prints, would not critics have accepted them? Would we not have stared at them in horror and fascination? The irony is that the constant public exposure to the state of deadness and death's things in photographs throws the whole subject into a category of general interest. We can gaze at death unendingly, since there is no personal message conveyed from the dead to the viewer. Death's hand is gloved. The photograph displays death to us safely filtered, without pain or grief, in emotionless beauty."

 

Proulx, E. Annie. The Shipping News. New York: Simon &

Schuster, 1993.

 

---. "Returning Death's Gaze." Harper's v296 (1998): 31-35.Proquest

Resource 03668974. Copyright Harper's Magazine Foundation 1998.