Saturday, May 26, 2012

El Tres de Mayo

The men are always faceless, the angles in which they are painted sharp, angular. A sword hangs in motionless from the side of one of the soldiers, a latent violence that is ready to murder should the rifle no longer suffice. In contrast, we see the ordained victims. Some are imploring, others cry to the sky whilst others remain defiant to the last, looking down the barrels that will spell their doom. It's a testimony to that final moment before we are sent, hurtling, down a void, into the unknown. We know that this is a journey we have to take at some point, but in those long days in the sun, walking amongst our friends, we felt confident enough to forget about such a day. Yet when it comes, it is the finality of it which shocks. There is no time to call those we love, that thing we wanted to do when we returned home will never be done, and those dreams we had will never be accomplished. It is over.

The manner in which each victim faces the void is also a testament to how they have lived their lives. The true 'stuff' of which people are made of shows in that final moment. There are the brave, the indifferent, and also the cowardly. Each would give up the persona, the facade that they had meticulously constructed throughout their lives. The philosopher-sage who thought they were ready for death and then found themselves on their knees, pleading for their lives, or the scoundrel who, in that final moment, bares his chest to the pointed rifle in a last act of defiance against a world that never cared for him; almost beseeching his murderer to get it done, daring him to cross that ancient dividing line after which a man is forever labelled a murderer. In a sense, those already dead are the lucky ones, for they have gotten it over with and are now safely beyond the reach of the fear, the horror and the violence. In those final moments, the strangest things are said to pass through the mind of the condemned. Condemned? Yes, for that is what they are, condemned by the cruel circumstance that has led them down this one-way road, condemned by the person who holds a rifle and, though putting it down is the easiest of physical acts to him, chooses to maintain a steady aim in those final moments before a flash of light and sound destroy a being that is like himself.

The murderer, if he retains a splatter of humanity in his heart, might remember the face of his victim for the rest of his life, or he might just turn around and walk down the road, thinking about what he will have for dinner tomorrow or to slow down somewhere to take off his boot and shake out that pebble which is annoying him. Did the victim and the murderer ever realise, years before, or even on the day that they were born, that somewhere, there was a person who was going to kill them one day? Or that they would end the life of such-and-such a person? The thought is a sobering one, like imagining that somewhere in the world there is a bullet with our name on it. Perhaps the man holding his hands to his face in disbelief, or is that denial, cannot grasp the enormity of such factors, and still cannot believe that in less than a minute he will no longer be able to feel the warmth of the sun, make love to a beautiful woman, or enjoy his favourite meal or drink. What would be the correct reaction to the horror that stares us in the face, cold and itself faceless?

The man with the two raised arms in the midst of all the darkness and terror might be trying to ask that same question. Perhaps it is not just defiance which makes him the only person staring directly at the executioners, but also a demand to know why? He is in the spotlight of the painting, so to speak, and his white shirt serves as the anchor or target to which our eyes focus. Everything happening there points as if to that one spot on his clean white shirt, soon to be stained bright red. The rest is all dark, but his outstretched arms and wide open eyes make him the only living creature in that picture that we can connect with and empathise. He is on his knees, but he is the same height as his murders, and his posture is upright. Even in his last moment, he remembers that he is a man, and more importantly, a human being. His raised palms and outstretched pictures are a question, a challenge and a defiance to the mechanical forces which seem to control our lives. The other people might cry in despair and grief, cry out to the heavens or hide their faces from the grim reality. But the nameless man in the white shirt is the only one who is looking at the reality, interacting with it, and existing in precisely the moment that he inhabits. Not even the men with guns have such power as he, such agency. They are merely faceless automatons, uniformed and featureless, and they are as much a backdrop to the painting as most of their victims. As far as the spectator is concerned, there is only one human being in that picture, and he is the man in the white shirt and khaki trousers.  It is as if in one moment, the mechanics of the world were halted, and out of the drab confusion arose a human being who does not accept that this was inevitable, that it was fate or some destiny which got us here. In choosing to look at his killer and face his death, he raises questions for us all, why must it be so?

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