Images, Beauty, and Terror

Images have impact!

In my previous post, Zeteo 10/04, I considered Rilke’s poem “The Archaic Torso of Apollo,” where the poet conjures the image of a broken statue of Apollo as he views it in a museum. He traces the impact as his eyes follow the contours of the god’s torso.

The image — what he sees — is complex: he sees stone and also a person or god. Is the uptake religious/aesthetic? Or is the impact one to the exclusion of the other? There’s no easy answer. In part it depends on whether we can take the depiction of a pagan god to carry, for us, a religious effect as well as an aesthetic one.

fall-trees-05Martin Buber alerts us to the contrast between a relation to something that is an “it” — I see the statue only as stone, or only as 3 million dollars worth of art — and a relation to a “Thou” or “you.” Apollo’s torso is a god, a “you” who can speak directly to Rilke. This is Buber’s famous contrast between “I-It” relations and “I-Thou” (or “I-You”) relations.

Buber finds that our relation to living things — trees, for example — participate not only in I-It relations (as board feet there for us to harvest) but also in I-Thou relations (as the lovely tree I’d climb as a kid, that held me high and gently the way my grandfather did).

When the world shrinks to a preponderance of I-It relations, we lose intimate relations, and lose our personhood. If I relate only to dead objects, inanimate “its,” things that do not elicit my feelings of intimate longing or love or revulsion or personal care, then I shrink in a capacity for intimacy and die accordingly — at least my soul dies. I decay toward only another “it.” Rilke comes exquisitely alive as he sees the Archaic Torso. It speaks to him. He addresses it in the mode of an I-Thou or I-You relation.

Images have impact as they draw us toward beauty, the sublime, the exquisite, the charming, or toward religious transport, hope, or terror. Rilke says beauty is but the beginning of terror. And lest we think that an I-Thou relation is always a happy affair, we should pause to consider the image that has had world-wide resonance in the past weeks: a young Syrian child, drowned, washed up on the beach, his hopes, the hopes of his family, even the hopes of humanity, imagesunspeakably crushed.

Speaking of images with impact, perhaps you know the image of two specks, hardly visible against the massive, heaven-reaching edifice — two humans plummeting toward the pavement adjacent to a Twin Tower not yet crumbled. (I haven’t dared to pause with this terrifying image for years.)

Our relation to those plummeting specks is to persons, exactly the sorts of things for whom we aspire to have an I-Thou relationship. Even as broken into blood and bones, the outcome of their fall is not a complete transformation from I-Thou to I-It, anymore than an  Apollo in a dumpster is only an “it” in every respect.

Images have power and impact, perhaps greater than principles or propositions or concepts — though the latter can play a role in our discursive responses to an image’s impact.

Perhaps many striking images are like music without lyrics: they say what they say in ways not easily translatable into sentences we might test or discuss.

rsz_h900_26_155I happened on another image that seems to draw me in several directions at once.

The bird depicted here has just crashed into a pane of glass.  It is dead but, also, as it were, alive in its death.  It’s not unlike the image of the young child washed onto the sand, or the two diminished persons, only specks, in transit from the top to the bottom of the Towers.

Images can rivet us to contradictory interpretative impulses: joy at beauty, sadness at fate. They seem to ask for our full attention and sometimes they force us away from our capacity to grant it. We shutter, turn away in disgust or terror or confusion.

Rilke, again, from the first of his “Duino Elegies”:

For beauty is merely the beginning of terror,
which we can barely endure, and it makes us marvel,
because it blithely refuses to destroy us.

Is this like the beauty of a child we know must some day die, or like the beauty of goodness that is always so fragile, or like the passing of fall colors?  What of the survival of we who are witnesses?  Is survival without emotional cost? Does part of us die with the dying? Can we be grateful for surviving? Only from deep I-Thou relations do these questions even make sense.

Our intimacy with the world is deeper than judgments of good and evil. Onsets of serenity and terror mark an intimacy that is deeper than any associated reflective judgment.

—Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor

Credits: Buber’s I and Thou, was published in Germany in 1923, and first  translated to English in 1937. William Eaton called my attention to a gallery of birds caught in the moment of impact: The translation of the lines from the first stanza of Rilke’s first Elegy is by James D. Reid, Being Here is Glorious: on Rilke, Poetry, and Philosophy, Northwestern, 2015.


  1. William Eaton

    Thoughts undigested: In Rilke the terror comes after the appreciation of beauty, so a simple mind (e.g. mine) thinks quickly of mortality. Beauty makes us appreciate our mortality. Miranda Brandon’s bird photos {} I take to be of birds that have hit walls or panes of glass. Brandon makes beauty of their deaths; the clash of birds’ ancient visual equipment with modern human civilization is turned into a kind of modern dance. Beauty does not bring mortality to mind; mortality becomes beauty?

    Meanwhile, thanks for the Buber explanation. Another Zeteo contrib-utor has been again dipping into Simone Weil’s Nazi era essay on The Iliad, which essay begins with an assertion that force (e.g. fascism or economic forces such as unemployment) turn humans into things. (“It’s” in the Buber terminology.)

    And then we have the people-things falling from the World Trade Center. And ideas of the sublime.

    PS: May I note here, too, that Audubon magazine seems to be under excellent editorial leadership. Brandon’s photos are one of many good pieces it has published recently.


  2. Ed Mooney

    Thanks to both Tami and William for good thoughts. Of course reading a good sentence can land us in an I Thou relation — so it’s not only images that do that. We thank the author for animating us. And it’s true that too much of contemporary culture and politics reduces us to “things.” The odd thing about texting is that in the desire to get a “thou relation” from the person texted we often miss the ‘thou’ across the table or across the room.


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