A Country That Devours its Children
21 dead in Texas, and no hope in sight
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes painted “Saturn Devouring His Son” in a period of madness that consumed his latter years. It was then that the Spanish master produced the fourteen canvases known collectively as the Black Paintings, a visual chronicle of a mind warped by disease—scientists have surmised it was syphilis, or lead poisoning from paint, or a disorder that caused his immune system to attack his own brain. If you walk through the Prado Museum in Madrid you can track the deterioration of his consciousness along the white walls: at first, there are orderly and light-filled scenes of aristocrats and maidens, plump putti hovering over bland Trinities, simpering little dogs. But in the years 1819-23 a darkness descends, soft moues become mad grins, what little light illuminates the ghastly faces serves only to further emphasize the blackness encroaching on the margins.
“Saturn Devouring His Son” is the most famous of these, and perhaps the most famous of Goya’s career, entirely eclipsing the placid decades of sun-dappled contentment. What is particularly striking about the figure of Saturn—who in myth swallowed his children whole, so that, later on, they could break free of his body and go on to rule from Olympus—is the surprise on his face, the shock in the bulging eye as the great black mouth gapes over the stump of what was once an arm, as the reddened hands dig into the headless torso. Saturn is surprised that he is devouring his own child, but he doesn’t stop. Perhaps he cannot. Perhaps he is surprised that he cannot stop, and is frozen in perpetual carnage and bewilderment.
I think of this painting because I live in a country that devours its children, and professes bewilderment each time.
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I was surveying the bleak 288-page report released by the Southern Baptist Convention on its own negligence in doing anything to prevent decades of sexual abuse when the news broke of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and of nineteen small new corpses sprawled in schoolrooms. The smooth, predictable little operetta that is the American public response to notable mass shootings started without an overture. I need hardly recite it again—you are no doubt familiar with it by now, the injunctions not to politicize deaths caused by a politics of death; the professions of grief and heartbreak by those with the power to do more than grieve; the frisson of despair in the general public; the press conferences by authorities; the scramble for details about the shooter, in order to either weaponize or ignore his identity; the discussion of guns; the defense of guns; the hapless sense that nothing can be done in a political system so sclerotic no one expects anything anymore anyway.
There’s a nationwide shortage of baby formula, and the tax credit that halved child hunger expired alongside any public effort to mitigate the continuing pandemic, and laws are being steadily passed that will force women to birth children they don’t want or can’t carry into a country that, all claims to the contrary aside, treats them as target practice. This is a country suing school libraries for carrying the wrong books, and taking away children from their parents for being trans, a country whose response to the massacre of its children is to sell bulletproof backpacks and post policemen at every school, as if cops could move faster than bullets. A country devouring its children and surprised to be devouring its children, one that has done so before, and will do so again.
Trying to write about this after trying to write about the sexual abuse of children—trying to turn all of the above into anything more than a wordless howl, trying to write instead of going outside and staring at my striving bean plants breathing green into the city haze, trying to write because it is expected of me, by myself, by you perhaps, by my gentle and conscientious editor—leads me into thickets of sentences like this one: all clauses, the product of a brain so knotted by grief and rage that any canvas it painted would be all black and the faces goatish, a sabbat of gloaters hiding under false professions of grief.
In lieu of silence, metaphor springs to mind—always the writer’s crutch in times of need. And so I considered a country feeding off its future, a country whose flaccid gerontocrats, duly supping on more wealth than a body could spend in a lifetime, evince an avidity for more, and no other animating principle. A country whose other principal political faction uses paranoia about guns and the open, keening desire for violent retribution as its propulsive force. The mad and the feckless who form the ossified carapace of what could be called a democracy if what the people wanted—vast and documented majorities over many years—mattered in the slightest. Which it doesn’t. Which it hasn’t for longer than I’ve been alive.
So, metaphors: the corpse of a caterpillar being devoured by wasp larvae,
A caddisfly that built a house so grand it died inside and no one noticed,
The end of Rome, and the end of the Weimar Republic, and the ends of empires that are whispers in the long corridors of museums, just friezes of stone where once trod mighty legions,
A lie told so long and so often it continues by rote from mouth to mouth,
A canvas of a ghastly face, its eyes lit with shock, pulling with its hollow jaw at the red-stained corpse of its child, frozen in the twilight of the painter’s madness.
Francisco de Goya is remembered more for his Black Paintings than he ever was for the lush light little scenes that leave no imprint on the memory, his luxuriant years in the Spanish court, before he began to fear madness above all things and exiled himself in the Quinta del Sordo, the House of the Deaf. Madness is interesting, particularly when paired with a febrile hand and a delicate brush, and the story of America’s collapse is being written by a thousand thousand minds sharper than mine and more comprehensive than mine and better equipped to tell you what to do and how to feel and what to think. Me, I think of the open mouth. I think about small limbs whorled out in their moment of death, which came too soon and did not need to come at all. I think about a country surprised by the carnage it creates but continuing to feast. I think of the great limbs of the beast kneeling as it feeds and know it will not rise again.