The work of human thought should withstand the test of brutal, naked reality. If it cannot, it is worthless. Probably only those things are worthwhile which can preserve their validity in the eyes of a man threatened with instant death.
–Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind (1953)
Nine men and women are huddled in a cave, some on their knees, others lying prostrate, their muscles tensed, their faces contorted in anguish, their trembling hands either clasped in prayer or outstretched in forlorn gestures of supplication. Nine bayoneted muskets, meanwhile, protrude from the right edge of the visual frame, aimed squarely at the mass of humanity writhing in the dimly lit cavern. No shots have been fired yet, judging from the absence of black gunpowder smoke, but any second now the triggers will be pulled and musket balls will scream through the air before tearing into living flesh. Any survivors will be bayoneted, their corpses left in a tangled heap, all destined for a hastily dug mass grave. You are a witness to this grotesque scene, but when the fusillade rings out, you will surely flinch, you will shudder, you will close your eyes, you will turn away. Perhaps you will even feel complicit.
The scene before you has been immortalized in the 26th plate of Francisco Goya’s print series Los desastres de la guerra, a haunting entry appropriately titled No se puede mirar, or One can’t look. Over the course of 82 copper plate engravings executed between 1810 and 1820, Goya unflinchingly portrayed the horrors of the Peninsular War, during which one million souls were lost, and crimes against humanity like the one depicted in No se puede mirar became wearyingly commonplace. Inspired by the 17th-century French engraver Jacques Callot’s series Les Grandes Misères de la Guerre, which similarly documented atrocities committed during the Thirty Years’ War, Goya would leave behind a detailed record of his own blood-soaked era, sometimes poignant, sometimes infuriating, and always unswervingly honest. Yet whereas Callot’s prints presented sweeping panoramic views of massacres carried out by soldiers, mercenaries, and vengeful peasants, with the viewer kept at a safe remove from the turmoil, Goya’s vignettes are always on an intimately human scale, his focus invariably tighter, leaving the viewer no choice but to acknowledge the cruel realities of war, famine, and disease in his and in every other time.
It is only natural, when confronted with the extent of man’s inhumanity to man, to look away. No se puede mirar. But Goya could look, and did look, recording what he saw around him, as was the case in plate 44 of Los desastres de la guerra, with its stream of panic-stricken refugees fleeing from French invaders, which he straightforwardly titled Yo lo vi, or I saw this. Not everyone was as perceptive and as frank, however, and his works were promptly suppressed by the absolutist monarch Ferdinand VII, and could not be published until 1863. Even then, critics were unimpressed, even revolted by the style and content of Goya’s prints. The English art critic Philip Gilbert Hamerton, writing in 1867, deemed Goya’s “attempts in etching” to be “without value as art,” adding that “the combination of ignorance with assurance never ended in the production of art more hideously corrupt.” After visiting an 1878 exhibition of Goya’s “dark paintings” at the Trocadéro, Hamerton went even further, complaining that the Spanish artist’s entire oeuvre:
groveled in a hideous Inferno of its own, a disgusting region, horrible without sublimity, shapeless as chaos, foul in colour and “forlorn of light,” peopled by the vilest abortions that ever came from the brain of a sinner. He surrounded himself, I say, with these abominations, finding in them I know not what devilish satisfaction, and rejoicing, in a manner altogether incomprehensible to us, in the audacity of an art in perfect keeping with its revolting subjects. It is the sober truth to say that…Goya appears to have aimed at ugliness as Raphael aimed at beauty.
Goya, Hamerton concluded, “had made himself a den of foulness and abomination, and dwelt therein, with satisfaction to his mind, like a hyena amidst carcasses.” That Goya personally witnessed the very events he so memorably depicted, that he was not a bloodthirsty hyena but a documentarian amidst the carcasses and rubble of Napoleonic Spain, never appears to have crossed the sensitive English critic’s mind. Hamerton was not alone in his discomfiture. John Ruskin, so the story goes, was so disturbed by a set of Goya’s prints that he tossed them onto a fireplace grate and set them alight, an act wholly unworthy of so renowned an art lover, but nevertheless a kind of compliment in a twisted way, indicative of the profoundly unsettling effect Los desastres de la guerra can have on the viewer.
“One cannot look” versus “I saw this” — Goya grasped our collective instinct to look away, while insisting on the need to bear witness. The 20th century, with its world wars and genocides and campaigns of ethnic cleansing, demonstrated just how ahead of his time Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes was, but the lessons and warnings of history remain lost on a great many of us. As W. G. Sebald put it, it seems “We learn from history as much as a rabbit learns from an experiment that’s performed upon it,” and even that is a bit optimistic. We still prefer to avert our gaze, even in this televisual, digital age, when images and information can reach every corner of the globe in an instant.
All of which calls to mind one of the more bizarre phenomena attending the Russian invasion of Ukraine: the proliferation of online trolls wondering “Why is there no footage of the war in Ukraine?” One influencer has claimed that “with every war going all the way back to Vietnam, the press has been heavily integrated with the troops and there’s thousands of hours of live video footage. In Ukraine, nothing. We get no footage, no detailed updates, no graphs explaining how the war is going, who has control of what land, etc … if you question this—you’re called a Putin puppet. We taxpaying citizens are sick and damn tired of these blatant lies from these evil, globalist worms.” Another has suggested that the “lack of war footage … smacks of a scam.” According to yet another popular Twitter account tweeted, “This war is FAKE!”, a conclusion somehow reached by comparing a photograph of a Kyiv apartment building damaged by a Russian missile in February 2022 with a subsequent photograph from February 2023, by which time the structure had been repaired. (If the reader is confused, he or she is not alone.) It does not seem to matter that Twitter, Telegram, and other social media platforms, as well as more traditional news sources, are awash with combat footage, drone strike videos, pictorial, and filmic evidence of devastated cities, towns, and landscapes, testimony by soldiers, aid workers, and refugees, and detailed maps of the frontlines showing various offensives, counter-offensives, and tactical retreats.
This is all absolutely idiotic and quite deranged, of course, evidence of pathological negativism and deluded negationism, though whether the motivations are malign or stem from some sort of misguided psychological self-defense mechanism would have to be determined on a case-by-case basis. Such fringe views are not the only instances of people failing what Czesław Miłosz called the “test of brutal, naked reality.” Everyone who carries on believing that Putin’s schizo-fascist Russian regime is some sort of noble traditionalist bulwark — despite all the war crimes, the extrajudicial executions, the Stalin worship, the insane nuclear threats, the outrageous genocidal rhetoric, the societal dysfunction (evidenced by catastrophic abortion, divorce, and alcoholism rates, cratering birth rates, church attendance less than half of, say, Ukraine, and so forth) — is also afflicted by blinkered, pathological negativism.
It is necessary, then, to look upon the present-day disasters of war, to really look, and to be able to say Yo lo vi. You can look upon the face of the Ukrainian serviceman, initially identified as Tymofii Shadura of the 30th Separate Mechanized Brigade but later as Oleksandr Matsievskyi of the 119th Separate Brigade, who was filmed as he was gunned down in cold blood by his Russian executioners, but not before calmly finishing his cigarette and proclaiming “Slava Ukraini,” thereby becoming not just a victim of a war crime but a posthumous inspiration to millions. You can look upon the bird’s-eye pictures of the besieged Ukrainian town of Marinka, in which every single building has been destroyed or damaged beyond repair, resulting in a hellscape as thoroughly obliterated as Hiroshima or Nagasaki. You can look upon images of the rubble of the apartment building in Zaporizhzhia, struck by a Russian missile on the night of March 1, 2023, from which 11 bodies would be removed, including those of Kamila and Illia Furnyk and their 8-month-old daughter Emiliia.
Then you can say “I saw it,” and you can call it what it is, for it is only by doing so that the civilized world can withstand the test of brutal, naked reality.
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