THE WAY THINGS ARE
By Colette NiReamonn Ioannidou
There are few who can describe human remains with the eloquence of Irish Nobel poet Seamus Heaney. Grauballe Man is too long to include here but these lines suffice: ‘The head lifts, the chin a visor raised above the vent of his slashed throat that has tanned and toughened. The cured wound opens inwards to a dark elderberry place.’ He adds near the end, ‘…hung in the scales with beauty and atrocity: with the Dying Gaul…’
Beauty and atrocity are chain links in many of our cultures. We proudly tout the joys of our art, music and literature but in our guise of civilized human beings, we are often reluctant to own atrocities that have destroyed lives and lands of others. This is ancient death.
Heaney was keenly interested in the cultures of the past, giving English voice to the sad plight of Sophocles’ Antigone in The Burial at Thebes and Scandinavia’s Beowulf. The willingness to commit ritual murder or to induce death by cold blooded torture has always been and always will be it seems, present in our kind.
In a recent Living interview with Theo Panayides, Jim Muir recalled atrocities he witnessed as a correspondent including disembowelment; what savage fiend did that? In conflicts, ordinary people become rag doll targets, sacrificial victims, statistics. Yet each has their own story, dying in ways that are neither natural nor peaceful. History is crammed with unspeakable crimes against humanity. War crimes are being investigated in the current horror ongoing in Ukraine. Russians helped Ukrainians to avoid capture as Cypriots aided friends and neighbours escape advancing Turkish forces.
Humans are also good at turning on their own race when civil war or political clashes cause rifts. Both Ireland and Cyprus are strong examples of brother turning on brother during division. We label these crimes bestial, but beasts mostly kill to survive. There are exceptions. More than once, I’ve seen well fed dogs torture cats, taking their time over killing them when I was helpless to intervene. As with the killer-cat instinct, they allow the victim release then pounce as it tries to run. I have one male cat who attacks anything that moves in the garden not to eat but to torment. Another sits on a chair and lazily gazes when sparrows and doves fly down to feed on seeds under the trees: same species, different natures, variety we find in people.
The feral cats I feed rub up against my old dog, sensing she’s no threat. The unlauded army of volunteers who help feral creatures regularly face abuse from people who loudly complain that they are dirty and spread disease. I know people who walk their pampered dogs and don’t pick up the mess the canines leave on the pavement to attract flies. The same people will rub, and scrub and waste tons of water to be seen cleaning outside their own homes.
An incident of cruelty in a school here brought back my daughter coming home from elementary level in tears one day holding a plastic bag of newborn kittens that had been thrown in a bin. Adding to the ghastly method employed to suffocate them, the perpetrator used insect spray inside the bag ensuring hideous suffering. A man I once knew told me gleefully that his sons were playing with the kittens his cat had given birth to. My smile soon turned to an angry riposte when he told me the ‘play’ included burying them alive to see what would happen. Some are incapable of understanding that warm blooded creatures suffer as we do when hurt or attacked. Incapable or indifferent, unable to empathise. The same applies to those who hurt or kill innocents without conscience.
Haemon says in Heaney’s translation of Antigone, ‘The use of reason, father…The gods have given us the use of reason.’ Reason is swept away too often by ignorance or belligerent emotions. Heaney’s intellect allowed his enquiring mind the capability of delving deeply into the lives and actions of proud overlords and warriors as well as everyday folk from the mythical past, and the minds that gave them everlasting life. Living through the Troubles in Northern Ireland, he knew first-hand what men and women are capable of when hatred and guns enter the political picture. In his introduction to Beowulf, he praises JRR Tolkien’s interpretation of the poem. Another man of highly creative imagination, Tolkien assumed the original poet had felt his way through inherited material helped by creative intuition. Perhaps the difference between those who can imagine and those who can’t explains kindness and empathy, cruelty and indifference.