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.