The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 15, No. 3 (Fall 2013)

Terror and Art: A Meditation

Geoffrey Hartman

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 15.3 (Fall 2013). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2013

(Volume 15 | Issue 3)

We have entered an age in which terror is an increasingly familiar experience. By terror I do not mean primarily what may result from the usual mayhem of criminal acts, but something driven by larger and often ideological ambitions. We now confront a deliberate “terrorism,” state- or group- sponsored, targeted or purposefully random, involving single atrocities or massacres. Warfare, whether conventional or asymmetric, is not its only breeding ground. Whereas war, in the past, was not necessarily total but intended to resolve a conflict that could not be settled by other means (see Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens), terror suggests a sempiternal enemy (not unlike the devil in theology) who must be eradicated, not just deterred, to assure the community’s survival or presumed destined greatness.

In its absolute form, terror becomes less the means to an end than a foundational, self-justifying “divine violence.” It seems to mirror —and is even flashed back at—a God whose world in its worldliness compels at times brutal solutions. These are anticipated by the votaries of the French Revolution Maximilien de Robespierre and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, who insist, as is well-known, on the necessity of a “virtuous” use of terror.

The basis of government in revolutionary times, Robespierre declared, “is both virtue and terror: virtue without which terror is murderous, terror without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing else than swift, severe, indomitable justice; it flows, then, from virtue.”

Yet terror is bound to strike fear into more than the faction specifically under attack. It induces a trauma of the body politic; its sequelae threaten to occlude the future of all who learn of it. All the more so today, where its contagion works not only locally but also from a distance—brought to us by the new media....

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Geoffrey Hartman is the Sterling Professor Emeritus and Senior Research Scholar of English and Comparative Literature at Yale University. He was also a founder of Yale's Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. A book of his poems, The Eighth Day, will be published in the fall.

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