- The Accident and the Beautiful: On Alan Shapiro’s “The Accident”
Weren’t you afraid that something bad might happen?(Alan Shapiro, “Sleet”)
Alan Shapiro’s account of his brother’s agonizing death from brain cancer in Song and Dance is preceded, by five years, by his prose narrative Vigil, where his sister’s death, also from cancer, is rendered equally relentlessly. By the end of his seventh book of poetry, Shapiro’s parents will have survived two of their children’s deaths. Both father and mother are remembered in one of the early poems of Song and Dance, “Sleet,” where the father steers the family car—singing, two fingers on the wheel—through a raging snowstorm, while the mother nonchalantly lights another Marlboro in the passenger seat. The poet’s childhood memory of a trip through “a rage of wind and sleet” in the protective “warm / dark bubble of the old Buick” serves as backdrop for an ominous voice intervening between the stanzas of that poem asking, “Weren’t you afraid that something bad might happen?”1
Nothing happens on that winter journey. The accident that doesn’t happen in the childhood memory of “Sleet” happens in the subsequent pages of Song and Dance where we learn that no one can save the poet’s brother, David, from the raging tumor in his brain. “Sleet” thus closes with Shapiro’s mournful revision of the earlier narrative: “Just sleet, the slick road, the car going way too fast, / No brother beside me in the back seat, no singing father” (9). [End Page 1]
The accident is the unexpected, the shocking, the unwelcome; its temporality is the instant; it has no narrative extension, no beginning, middle, or end. Accidents are instances without reference; they have no proportionate causality. Although accidents address themselves to nobody, they are also too specific; they always occur to one of us; they claim us anonymously, gratuitously. Accidents collapse the temporal and spatial orders by which we live our lives because they happen at any time, anywhere. They have the substance of “the occurrence of the sudden itself,”2 which is to say they have no substance other than their rupturing of time and space. That is perhaps why Kierkegaard considered the sudden demonic.3
After it has happened, the accident requires repair, redress, or reintegration into what French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard has called the “network of what has happened.”4 The accident, for Lyotard, is an anonymous “it” without reference or antecedent: “It happens here and now. What happens comes later.”5 And yet, although primarily associated with calamity and misfortune, accidents can be surprising in other, more benevolent ways.
The aesthetic experience as Immanuel Kant describes it resembles the experience of the accident. For Kant, the beautiful is an experience of something that cannot be conceptually or emotionally anticipated. The indeterminacy of the beautiful, its non-conceptual, non-utilitarian qualities, assign it the same phenomenology as that of the accident: it happens. Kant describes this happening of the beautiful throughout the Third Critique as an event that presents itself, usually in conjunction with an object that elicits, spontaneously, a liking. “When this happens,” writes Kant, “the cognitive powers brought into play by this presentation are in free play, because no determinate concept restricts them to a particular rule of cognition.”6 Or as Lyotard paraphrases him: in the experience of the beautiful, “The feeling is the immediate welcoming of what is given.”7
What I wish to point out so far is only the structural similarity in the appearance of the accident and of the beautiful, for their manner of appearing is analogous. Just as the beautiful cannot be solicited, so the accident cannot be avoided. The beautiful and the accident are what they are precisely by virtue of how they present themselves: they happen, they have the temporality of the instant; they elicit unpremeditated, spontaneous reactions. [End Page 2]
Moreover, since accidents and the beautiful have similar ways of happening, since their phenomenology is so strikingly analogous, my responses to either—if they are unpremeditated, spontaneous, authentic—cannot but reveal me in the moment of this happening...