Not Subtle

I looked into the eyes of a dying girl once. She’d jumped from the top of the building where I lived. I was on the sixth floor, she fell from the seventeenth. The impact sounded exactly like an empty travel bag being dropped on the floor. I’d heard that people came to this building to kill themselves, but for a moment I didn’t want to believe what I already knew was true. Somebody had jumped, fallen past my window, hit the ground six stories below.

I went to the window. I looked down. Straight into the face of a dying girl.

Dying, but not dead. She was still there for a few seconds. She moved. Her brain still worked. And do you know what was in her face? Not peace, not sorrow, not transcendence.

Just confusion, and a little bit of fear.

Suicide is not a subtle thing. We’re led to believe that it is by misanthropic, self-involved artists with no grasp of reality. When you jump off that building, it doesn’t fade to the afterlife. There’s no pretty music, no angels playing Mozart on your way down. You fall. Then you hit the ground. Your body is ruined not by some quasi-artistic technique but by physics. It’s messy and painful. Later the janitor has to wipe away your blood.

No, suicide is not a subtle thing. It’s not subtle when two sick old people throw themselves off a roof because they can’t pay their health bills anymore. It’s not subtle when a man puts a gun to his head and blows out his brains in front of Parliament because he doesn’t want to live off digging through garbage.

But maybe these cases aren’t really suicides. They’re murders. They’re murders committed by those who say “give us everything you have, work for us, and in return we will spit on you and give you nothing.” There’s nothing subtle about that, either.

There’s nothing subtle about people dying because hospitals can’t afford necessary drugs. Nothing subtle about dissenters being attacked by riot police. Nothing subtle about my parents losing their life savings in a desperate bid to keep their pharmacy open when they are owed tens of thousands of euros by the state. And absolutely nothing subtle about spoiled, rich monstrosities like Christine Lagarde saying that people like my parents, who worked hard all their lives, who never broke a law or accepted a bribe, who did everything as it was supposed to be done and got nothing, are lazy and greedy and entitled, while the people who took the taxes my parents paid and gambled them away are job creators.

Austerity is not subtle. It’s like a brick in the face. It’s murder and theft and genocide.

And I know we’ve all been taught that subtle equals good, that subtle equals sophisticated. We’ve all been taught politics do not belong in art except as subtext, the more disguised the better. And maybe sometimes that’s true. But maybe sometimes it’s also a way for them to keep hitting you with that brick. Maybe sometimes subtle is a lie, because the truth is brutally simple. Maybe, in fact, sometimes “subtle” is just another word for “cowardly” – a word for the kind of cowardice that we’re not even aware of, the kind that encourages the bully and the exploiter. “I do not believe in a fate that falls on men however they act,” Chesterton said, “but I do believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act.” We are all part of the polis, whether we like it or not. If we discover that the polis has been taken over by tyrants and slave-drivers, if good people are being hanged by their necks in public squares, who but a traitor does not speak up? Who but a coward couches the truth in ambiguous allegories that may be interpreted or ignored according to the whims of whoever wins the day?

And if we are proud citizens of the polis, if we are truly commited to the project of democracy, why should we be so ashamed to discuss the affairs of the polis? Do we condemn a painter for talking about paintings? Do we condemn a doctor for talking about diseases? If we are all members of a society built on democratic principles, as our leaders assure us we are, why would it be wrong for us to discuss the great questions that face us all? Aren’t we, as members of a democratic society, supposed to be the ones calling the shots? I said leaders before, but aren’t they supposed to be representatives?

I know, I know it’s scary. I know it goes against everything we’ve been told about art. But maybe sometimes when they tell you “be subtle” they mean “sit down, be quiet, good doggie” – maybe sometimes when they tell you not to be so open in what you’re talking about, they’re really telling you not to talk about something because it’s inconvenient for them. Sometimes that which appears subtle is shallow, because its subtlety is that of a muddy puddle. Sometimes that which appears too clear and too simple has the clarity and simplicity of the sea on a bright, calm day, the kind when you can see straight to the sea bottom without even diving.

Sometimes… fuck it, sometimes you’ve just got to say “fuck it!” Fuck it, here’s the truth, like a fist in the air, like a brilliant light, like Jesus driving the money changers from the temple with a whip, like a joke that makes you laugh because otherwise you’ll cry.

They haven’t left us any space for subtle.


  1. Evan Balster

    You scared the hell out of me talking about suicide after what happened earlier today.

    That aside, this is a very powerful and eloquent statement. Thanks for taking the time to express it under the circumstances.

  2. lin

    Hear, hear.

    I was thinking of something along these lines when I read a comment on jig about the politics in TSWCE. So easy to claim that an “out of mind, out of sight” attitude is just a personal preference when you still have the choice of having preferences. Subtlety in this context is a matter of privilege, it makes me think of people who never get their white gloves dirty because someone else will clean their shit from the floor. And dear god, it just hit me that your parents have a pharmacy. I wish them luck.

    Give Verena my best. I hope she’ll feel herself again soon.

  3. James Patton

    Completely agree. I was frankly disgusted by Lagarde’s comments. It’s all very well saying that everything will get better if everyone pays their taxes – but surely the point is that many Greeks would love to be *capable* of paying their taxes without starving.

    And that comment about Africa was just utter hyperbole – and spoken by somebody who has got where she is through the benefits that her background and her society have given her. Is she saying that she will only intervene when things become so bad that Greece can be compared to Africa? The whole thing revolts me. The woman is incapable of compassion.

  4. Maria

    Kalispera Jonas, I completely agree. I don’t know whether people are just being “subtle”. I think that people generally don’t care about the “polis” as long as they are having their fridge full of food and their summer holidays booked. Suicides become yet another statistic and, thanks to the media, people became desensitised.

    I feel the same away about the situation in Greece. I’m constantly being told about how lazy, good-for-nothing Greeks are and how good Greeks had it, but frankly in my immediate family and friends’ circle all I see is people that are working hard, some of them in 2 jobs, and in terrible conditions that for many Europeans (of the “first world” Europe that is) these would be unthinkable.
    Lagarde’s comment is revolting in so many ways that I wouldn’t even know where to begin…


  5. Matt L

    Great editorial. I think there’s a very thin line between subtle and shallow, as you point out. If you look at a lot of the best art ever made, it isn’t subtle. Almost all of the best artists have said what they wanted to say loudly and without fear.

    That said, subtlety well wielded can be a powerful tool. True subtlety, not the shallow drivel that some confuse with being subtle, is something that makes an unmistakable point. Rather than a whisper, lost in the noise, true subtlety is a breeze that rushes through a room. It may not be noticed immediately, but it sends papers flying, ruffles carefully groomed hair, sends skirts flying up and hats flying, it touches everything in that room. And yet when they look around no one can place the disturbance.

    Subtlety, done perfectly, can place a thought in a persons head without them ever realizing it. It can make a thought or feeling seem to originate from within that person.

    Nine-hundred-ninety-nine times out of a thousand an artist fails to achieve this result, but man…when they get it right, the world changes.

  6. @Roda: Yeah, that happened. I was living in a dorm that consists of two very tall buildings, colloquially often called the Springertürme (Jumper-towers, because people come there to commit suicide).

  7. dani

    I agree, we have to talk and discuss changes in our society and in how we spend our money ( if we have some)
    Whatever there is, I always am way too scared about the opinions other have on me and I am to lazy to speak up in real live.
    May I change.

  8. Liz R

    i don’t know where to begin…

    it seems like you’re talking about subtlety as a buzzword, or as a thing that people feel they need to somehow “engineer” into their art in order for it to be more meaningful, then ok. i personally make a huge distinction between “subtlety” and “lack of content” though…

    but for me, subtlety in art is something that belies the complexities of everyday life. it’s about honestly capturing some part of the world as it is, and communicating very complex thoughts and feelings in a more abstract way. it doesn’t have to be divorced from the disturbing, or direct, or emotionally-resonant at all. David Lynch are Stanley Kubrick, for example, are two directors who are both extremely unsubtle and extremely subtle in their approaches. the latter, in particular, uses very subtle imagery as a devastating critique on the way power dehumanizes people.

    if you have overt political aims ala Ayn Rand, then certainly subtlety is not something you want. i think there are plenty of history lessons where you can see where this kind of thinking has lead to. i personally believe in using art as a sort of open-ended tool of enlightenment, and not one where straight-out telling people what to believe. if you’re aiming to capture the world as it is with any degree of honesty, subtlety is incredibly important.

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