Looking Straight at the Terrible

In the first years of Dick’s forgetfulness, I saw things dimly. Gradually, living with dementia burned away all my illusions. I saw clearly and pledged to bear witness, which called for a naked seeing of things as they really were. Jean-François Millet’s oil painting, Hunting Birds at Night, is a lesson in the naked seeing of things.

             Millet based this painting on his memories of bird hunts. In his childhood village, the peasants hunted pigeons. Large flocks of them would roost in the trees at night. The peasants startled them awake, blinding them with the sudden, bright torchlight. Then they clubbed the birds to death, slaughtering them for food.

            Millet declared that he wanted to disturb the privileged Parisian gallery-goers “in their contentment and leisure.” He did. They were shocked by his depictions of the harsh life in rural France; they didn’t want to see them.

In my enthusiasm, I showed a reproduction of the painting to several friends and explained what it depicts. Some would look away. They could see no beauty in it. But I thought it was stunning: the humble and the luminous, the dark and the light, the barbarous and the beautiful, all captured in one canvas. It enthralled me.

            The American poet Ellen Bass reveals a similar fascination when she hymns the act of butchering chickens in precise, visceral language. She concludes: “I loved the truth. Even in just this one thing: / looking straight at the terrible, / one-sided accord we make with the living of this world.”

            Both Bass and Millet “look straight” at terrible truths. That was how I chose to live with Dick’s dementia. I felt obliged to look straight at the brutal disease that ravaged him because I love the truth, as did Dick.

Anne-Marie Erickson

Featured image: Jean-François Millet. Hunting Birds at Night, 1875. The William L. Elkins Collection. Philadelphia Museum of Art

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