On the one hand, I cannot relate to Ilya Kaminsky’s “Question.” I have not experienced war or a trauma like it. I cannot begin to imagine the slow rebuilding of one’s sanity after an explosive, bloody shock, only to be literally scared to death again.
On the other, I think of Virgil’s first words of the Aeneid, “I sing of arms and the man.” How a meditation on man and the violence to which he devotes himself entails the question of empire. I don’t much like the phrase “toxic masculinity,” but it has a certain aptness when trying to understand why the current alternative to, say, the liberal international order is a combination of fevered conspiracy theories, vague assertions of will to power, and a sense of tradition so incoherent it would render any true priest or prophet speechless:
Question (from Poetry, April 2018. h/t @spoofyaf) Ilya Kaminsky What is a man? A quiet between two bombardments.
Most try to define manliness as virtue, typically leaning on courage. Without courage, there can be no glory or acquisition or possibility of defense. Kaminsky’s challenge is razor sharp. What is a man? asks a man to be present and alive, not a sacrifice already made, a man in memoriam. Now courage, moreso than wisdom or moderation, is what people say it is. Glory, acquisition, and defense are manifestations of courage being useful for a given political order. It is a virtue more than willing to bestow the title “man” on the dead, and perhaps only the dead.
A man, in Kaminsky’s telling, must at least live between two bombardments. He is that, a quiet between two bombardments. He is only known in peace. This again begs the question of why centuries of thought and propaganda have defined man as only a warrior, to the ridiculous extent of making Christ a martial Messiah when he taught and practiced turning the other cheek. I suspect a phrase I used above, the “possibility of defense,” can do far more work in outlining a psychology of politics. That one needs honor and glory to make courageous self-sacrifice seem worthwhile to a citizenry is only one proposition to consider. Another I feel inspired by our incredibly noisy age, where noise attempts to mask our inability to communicate. That noise in some cases speaks a deep insecurity, and “manliness” is the pre-political notion onto which that insecurity latches. If one can’t feel one can stand on one’s own—if fear of others, loneliness, alienation, a lack of self-confidence defines one’s life—one might doubt whether one could ever stand up for himself, should stand up for himself. In which case, “manliness” is a projection. Everyone else should demonstrate courage, not allow their pain to get the better of them, be the hero story others need. Everyone else should be able to throw bombs, endure abuse and violence, cause abuse and violence. Maybe this will help grow an empire. Maybe it will also prove that man is no better than his worst fears.