“The Dark Knight” (2008)

It sounds strange to say a superhero movie constitutes a serious comment about the War on Terror. But that’s what The Dark Knight is, and it is understandable if people find themselves unnerved by its apologies for sweeping police powers or a vision of justice framed in starkly militaristic terms.

In what follows, I want to address those concerns not so much because of the film but because of the film’s thoughtfulness. It seems to me that it approaches hard questions with especial sensitivity. Then I want to go further, as this country has been deranged in large part because of the War on Terror. (This is Spencer Ackerman’s thought, which will be detailed in his forthcoming book. Follow him on Twitter and preorder his book.) Is it possible to see in the way The Dark Knight treats the subject what has created our present predicament? I submit the film’s presentation of political problems does not map cleanly onto our problems, but there are moments of insight. Still, it’s impossible to envision the Joker telling Batman that he should drink bleach to cure COVID-19 or that wearing a protective face mask makes him less of a man because the Joker is not an idiot. He doesn’t take his instruction from the television or a pulpit which wishes to broadcast above all things.

PRIDE

The film opens with the force and shock of a window being violently shattered. We are then shown who shattered it: a man in a clown mask, calmly readying his cable gun for his next action. He and his fellow robber slide down a cable from that high window to the roof of a bank. It doesn’t look like either have the slightest hesitation as they fly from building to building.

We’re introduced to other murderous clown criminals, a ground team. They also move with military precision. They enter the bank and spend a few seconds surveying the situation. Then they set to work quickly. One fires a small machine gun burst in a location which will echo, freezing everyone inside. Another moves to the opposite side of the bank, flanking the customers and staff.

The clowns demonstrate impressive technical expertise. About two minutes after the smashed window, the bank’s alarm is down. The “alarm guy” is immediately murdered by his fellow robber, who skillfully drills through the vault door. The vault unlocker is murdered by the one who moved to keep the customers and bank staff in line. Even the getaway driver, who runs over that last clown and shows no awareness of what happened to his fellow robbers, makes his entrance on time.

One might see the robbers as a parody of capitalist culture. Later in the movie, Joker jokes about his organization being “small” but having “potential for aggressive expansion.” I grant there is a critique of capitalism here, but don’t believe it alone does full justice to what we’re watching. The United States of America has teams of soldiers who can execute complicated raids in mere minutes. It’s useful to ask what the robbers feel they are accomplishing. Each one wants as much money as possible; the silent implication is that each believes they deserve the largest share possible. Each is skilled, capable, and has practiced his craft. We are seeing soldiers of a sort at work–it’s much easier to think of the robbers as soldiers if we recall the phrase “spoils of war.”

Joker is emphatically not one of the clowns he encourages to kill each other. The deaths of the clowns are near bloodless; the bank in which most of the action takes place is a rich, elegant interior. When Joker reveals his scars and patchy makeup in order to say “whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you stranger,” the effect is jarring. He reveals his scars for a specific purpose. The bank manager whom he’s wounded has watched all the other clowns murder each other and loudly proclaims that criminals once stood for something. That they had “honor” and “respect.” Joker’s reveal and comment shut down that discussion completely. Nothing like it ever explicitly happens in the film again.

What the film does engage is the problem of assuming power and the psychic costs of violence. Its hero, Bruce Wayne, only comes to awareness of the problem in stages and in the end does not fully understand it. His partial understanding is still awesome and most necessary. In the scene introducing Batman, fake volunteer Batmen who want to take their city back try to attack Scarecrow and a Chechen gangster during a drug deal. Batman has to stop the fake Batmen from shooting guns, protect them from the dogs of the gangster, and apprehend who he can. The scene is heavy on the toll being Batman takes on Bruce Wayne. He gets bitten by at least one of the dogs; he hits a wall while trying to attach himself to a moving van; he stops Scarecrow by jumping from a high level of the parking garage onto that van, using the weight of his suit like a wrecking ball.

Batman is power. Bruce Wayne tells us that “Batman has no limits,” and it is clear he enjoys the thrill of pushing himself to become Batman. Maybe more importantly, he understands morality primarily by trying to be Batman. This can be a trap. Asked by one of the fake Batmen why he alone can act as a vigilante–“What gives you the right? What’s the difference between you and me?”–Wayne’s answer, “I’m not wearing hockey pads,” does not inspire confidence. Truth be told, he’s right on a deeper level. What Bruce Wayne properly speaking wears is a mask for the sake of inspiring a greater good. To that end, he has rules. He will not take a life, not even Joker’s at the end of the film. But Wayne can’t explain this in the least to the fake Batmen; he can only complain to Alfred later that people aren’t being inspired the way he hoped. At the least, he could have explicitly stated that he doesn’t use guns.

Moreover, he fails to credit what he actually has inspired. The fake Batmen take punishment during the busted drug deal that Batman would have taken. One of them is hit with a direct dose of Scarecrow’s drug. It isn’t hard to believe this was meant for Batman himself. Further, because the dogs jumped on one of the other Batmen, Batman escapes the brunt of their attack. When Joker kidnaps one of the Batmen and mockingly asks why he’s dressed that way, he tells Joker that Batman is a symbol that he doesn’t have to be afraid of scum. One might say this is too crude, but it’s effectively Bruce Wayne’s own rationale, where he confronts his fear by actively fighting it.

Bruce Wayne’s incomplete understanding isn’t attributable to a simple character flaw like “greed” or “lack of maturity.” The problem is near the same as the small time crooks Joker hired and encouraged to kill each other. When Batman retrieved Lau from his fortified skyscraper in Hong Kong, what struck me was how he flew from building to building, how he too disabled alarms, how he had a getaway vehicle. In short, he ran his own bank heist with military precision. But when Gordon had previously asked whether the Joker, who did set up his own men to die, should be a priority, Bruce Wayne answered that they could get the entire mob and Joker could wait. The callousness toward the lives of “small timers” is gross and unjustifiable, though somewhat understandable. It is true the mob is plenty murderous and a lot of lives could be spared or improved if it collapses. But it’s also true that Batman’s infatuation with his technical expertise has led to a narrowmindedness which reduces justice to a matter of a mere plan. Since his and Gordon’s plan was to take down the mob, stick with it, even if bodies are piling up elsewhere. This mirrors the Joker’s exact complaint to Dent later in the film–no one cares if a “truckload of soldiers” dies if its part of the “plan”–and it inspires Dent to embrace his hatred and kill without remorse.

I don’t know if “pride” is quite the right word for what I’ve been describing. It has connotations of “sin” which mark the bearer of pride as needing redemption. I think that’s more likely true of the small time crooks, even though Batman should not have been as cavalier about their deaths. I don’t think the problem Bruce Wayne is dealing with is simple in the least. He is trying to be his best with Batman. If he doesn’t have significant accomplishments as a vigilante, if he doesn’t become a symbol, a legend, what is it all worth? One might say it was presumptuous to assume so much power in the first place, but that ignores the hand he was dealt. Batman is a most necessary aid to the one good cop, a cop who doesn’t seem to judge his fellow cops. Batman, as initially conceived in the Nolan trilogy, is an attempt to give back to Jim Gordon.

TERROR

The entire film moves at a frantic pace; nearly everything is a response to the Joker’s plans, his attempt to push Gotham into madness. His methods are quite literally terrorism. Assassinations of prominent officials; videos in which hostages are tortured and killed on camera; continual public threats so as to keep others on edge.

It is notable that Batman’s attempts to torture Joker–and Maroni, for that matter–do not work. After Joker has been punched quite a few times in the interrogation room, Joker just laughs that much more. Batman clearly wants to hit him more but holds off. The Dark Knight does evince some skepticism about the efficacy of torture.

Where the film delves into far murkier territory is with regard to police powers and surveillance. Are the “lightly irradiated bills” Batman has given Gordon good for privacy and civil liberties? Obviously not. And should Batman be listening in to a host of conversations or using the entire phone network to track one criminal? These are gross abuses of power. The film gets around this by giving us a Batman who is singular in purpose and “incorruptible,” as Joker himself says. He has the device most destructive of liberty self-destruct once its use has been served. One can also argue that the drug money of the mob gives them far too much power. They have bought a good portion of the police force, and the Joker only unleashes a remorseless, murderous intent already within the mob. That Gotham city’s mob sits on tens of billions only underscores the scope of the problem: there isn’t anything beyond their corruption or their desire to dominate others.

I do not see the film as an endorsement of the Patriot Act. I see it as engaging this counterfactual: if someone were incorruptible, and that someone saw a judge and police commissioner get murdered, a mayor nearly get assassinated, a number of cops and civilians die, an explosive assault on a jail, a DA get murdered, and a mass evacuation of hospitals, all accompanied by terrorist threats and hostage videos, then maybe that someone would create a device to track the terrorist causing all that havoc and have the device promptly self-destruct. A lot rides on the integrity of Bruce Wayne, and he doesn’t disappoint. By implication, those without this sort of integrity need to steer clear from even conceiving such measures. I also see this. There are plenty of Punisher skulls among certain factions eager to continue the War on Terror, so much so they have trouble recognizing the citizenship and full humanity of others in their country. But this Batman, while certainly no civil liberties advocate, is far too humane a figure for them. The essential point is this: he doesn’t kill. (You could rightly argue that he should be a lot more concerned about keeping people out of jail and far more sensitive to what he has in common with murderous psychotic freaks, but that’s another argument entirely.)

Why does the Joker want to break Gotham? The two stories he tells before he’s about to slash Gamble and Rachel Dawes to death have a key commonality: the feeling of being nothing but collateral damage. Whether it was an abusive father slicing up a mother then turning on a child, or a marriage gone terribly wrong, he voices terror at being neglected, at being good for nothing except receiving pain. The film has him recruit those with a tenuous grip on reality–Batman in the most derisive tone calls one a “paranoid schizophrenic”–and it is abundantly clear that the war to make Gotham’s streets safer occurs with little or no regard for who gets hurt in the crossfire. Joker sees Batman as the ultimate joke. Someone empowered by the law yet beyond it, someone empowered by schemes and plans and somehow finding dignity. This is not the case for 99.9% of Gotham; “the soul of Gotham,” what Joker declares he’s fighting for, would be a lot more honest if it simply embraced “madness.” Gotham’s extreme class inequality, even prior to the third movie, creates the problem that Bruce Wayne can violate all the laws he likes in the name of a greater good while those wearing hockey pads can draw inspiration and still get arrested and murdered.

Joker experiences a most existential terror. Justice is nothing but people making plans for him, and if that’s the case, why not come up with crazy terrorist schemes that work and call that justice? Can’t be much crazier than dressing up as a bat to fight crime. His disciple is Two Face, whom he turned from “I make my own luck” to “the only thing approximating fairness in the universe is random chance.” Two Face’s attempt to hurt Gordon at the end of the film can feel shrill–we all know the death of Rachel Dawes was a loss for him and Bruce Wayne–but the complaints he speaks there demonstrate the deeper problem with trying to make Gotham lawful. Two Face feels like he was lied to, and he’s absolutely right. It’s Gordon’s cops, the ones he wanted to get off the force, who betrayed him and Rachel Dawes to the mob. He feels that the burden of pain landed disproportionately on him, and it’s notable that Bruce Wayne doesn’t angrily yell at him, but looks at a man blown half to pieces and says he’s not the only one who lost.

The project to make Gotham lawful and just requires more than a powerful police department and DA willing to stand up to the mob. It requires enormous sensitivity. What of people who were corrupt cops because they had to pay hospital bills? What about schizophrenics unable to get help? What about orphans like Bruce Wayne? What about criminals who wanted to steal something but got their face smashed in by Batman? It’s the fact that sensitivity can’t even be addressed–everything is “you’re either lawful or you’re not,” “you have or you don’t”–that makes the Joker’s and Two Face’s anger potent. It is in this spirit that Bruce Wayne decides Batman deserves to be hunted, that a continual war against crime is unsustainable. But this does nothing to address the very real injustices and losses people have already suffered. It isn’t entirely clear Bruce Wayne can articulate the sufferings of others, though he’s far more aware of them by movie’s end.

PROSPECTS

In this concluding section, I want to focus on how The Dark Knight can and cannot speak to our present situation. It does depict a more or less militarized police force working with a super solider of sorts. It depicts a terroristic threat which gets even Jim Gordon panicked (witness how eager he is for his snipers to shoot those dressed as Joker’s henchmen).

Yet it also backs away from the idea that extreme militarization solves everything. Batman stands down at the end of The Dark Knight. He wants to be hunted, he wants the city to have a symbol of justice tied to what is legal, not extra legal. In the third film, the authoritarian, draconian measures we learn were passed in Harvey Dent’s name do not necessarily follow from the story of The Dark Knight. More than once in this film Alfred says the mob was pushed too far, and the inequality leading people, including cops, to become criminals is evident to the audience and not endorsed by any of the main characters. I do believe, as I’ve outlined above, the possibility for a richer discussion of justice exists by film’s end.

Where we are now as a country is a combination of factors: 1) white supremacy as a potent force in US politics 2) a culture of grift and grifters indulged by American evangelism 3) the War on Terror and its attendant habits of dehumanization 4) incredible concentrations of wealth which by their very nature shatter democratic processes. I think it is quite remarkable that The Dark Knight can speak to two of these factors with insight. I think I’ve said plenty about dehumanization. It’s time now to speak of Bruce Wayne as a potential reformer.

This is where things get tricky. Nolan’s trilogy indulges the notion that Bruce Wayne depends on being Batman, and it is true he does not put in the work of being Bruce Wayne. Most of what we see of Wayne in The Dark Knight is a pose. Sleeping during board meetings, acting like a boor in front his Russian ballerina date, pretending to Jim Gordon that he was trying to beat a traffic light instead of intentionally ramming a potential killer.

The only time we see him vulnerable is with regard to Rachel Dawes, but he barely talks to her anymore. He’s possessive, but his love for her is complicated. On the one hand, he doesn’t deal with rejection or loss well. She’s a childhood friend and he’s obsessed with the memory of his parents. On the other, they’re both passionate about justice, and he does feel like his extralegal endeavors are meant to complement the work she and Jim Gordon do. He’s imagining her to be someone she isn’t, and while this has unmistakable overtones of “Bruce Wayne needs to grow up” about it, I’d be lying if I said imagining people to be something they’re not had nothing to do with love.

One of the things that’s striking about our ultrarich, the billionaires at the very top, is how little they know about anything. By this I don’t mean they can’t speak about problems. They certainly have views about space travel, what city is giving them the best deal on their HQ, employee productivity, and testifying before Congress. Bruce Wayne contrasts favorably with them. He does care about his city, and it goes without saying that he believes destroying organized crime will improve the lot of all Gotham’s citizens.

But a vague awareness of “if this is gone, your life will improve” isn’t much different in spirit than “we’re both devoted to the same cause. We must love each other, right?” There’s a lack of attentiveness to individuals. Wayne doesn’t really pay attention to Rachel Dawes or any of the numerous women he parties with. In the third movie, he begins to address this deficit. It’s a little detail, one easily skipped, but when he emerges from the pit he’s been trapped in, he makes sure a rope is thrown down for the other prisoners to climb up.

To see others as individuals is more than listening or even embracing their causes. It’s attention to how they become who they want to be. Throughout the trilogy, Bruce Wayne pays this sort of attention to his enemies. His ninja training is primarily from Ra’s Al Ghul; when the SWAT team tells him to stand down, he borrows a move from Joker, who threw Rachel Dawes out the window to get away. Knowing all the SWAT are tied together by a cable, he throws one off so they all dangle by a cable from the building.

I would imagine if someone could learn so deeply from their enemies, they couldn’t possibly shatter democratic processes. The truth is, though, that Bruce Wayne has a lot to learn about being a good citizen despite the amount he gives. And if that’s true for Batman, alarm bells should be ringing continually regarding those sitting on piles of money who have never thought of sacrificing for others, but think others should be sacrificed for their sake.

Emily Dickinson, “As willing lid o’er weary eye” (1050)

Lately, I have not been looking at nature too closely. It feels a blur of bugs and heat, an encompassing disorder I must move through. At this moment, though, I’m sitting at the computer. Unless I bring to the screen a particular focus, it is a blur of letters with a blue glow.

I don’t feel compelled to move. Rather, I’m in the mood to master a virtual space without having any idea what it is or what I’m doing. Identification with a willing lid o’er weary eye is easily had, as something makes me tired, but what?

As willing lid o'er weary eye (1050)
Emily Dickinson

As willing lid o'er weary eye
The Evening on the Day leans
Till of all our nature's House
Remains but Balcony

Half the poem consists of a simile pointing to a day’s work requiring rest: As willing lid o’er weary eye / The Evening on the Day leans. The Evening leans—it’s weary, it’s tired, it’s willing to embrace sleep. But what work was done? Anything?

I can’t help but think that nothing was attempted or accomplished. It may have been a day not unlike ours, shut down on account of worry and disaster. An overarching anxiety born of our stars, a mixture of expectations and fate, frustrations and hopes. That’s the only thing which feels real and thus remains: Till of all our nature’s House / Remains but Balcony.

Still, the optimism of the last two lines shines through. Starlight merely signifies the “Balcony” of “nature’s House.” A greater, grander mystery can be envisioned. If the day felt full of failure, why can’t the imagination be trusted? Why can’t the night be seen as a blank canvas for a most beautiful day?

I’m not sure what to say at this juncture. On the one hand, it’s nice to think that “trying” is a process conditioned by hope, dependent on a realm rich with possibility. An optimistic logic can thrive on destroying pessimistic, defeatist claims which usually go unchallenged. I grew up with a relative who would always scream about how the economy was going to collapse. It never did, but his arguments were never attacked despite the large assumptions they made and their inability to identify what was actually important in a given situation. At times, just pushing back against the gloom he conveyed made life a lot less taxing.

On the other hand, I’m not sure what I myself am doing in this virtual space. Reading a few poems? Writing a few words? If that’s the case, going to sleep is perfectly logical, no? Nothing is being done. Maybe I need to step aside and note that the outline of a house illumined by stars is a bit more than a minor miracle. The possibility of “nature’s House” may not be realized on any specific day, but is just as real–if not more real–than our fears and frustrations.

Graham Foust, “The Only Poem”

One of the tasks of political philosophy, I imagine, is accounting for how it is possible for an entire people to be in denial. Emphasis must be placed on “how it is possible.” Critics can ask “What do you mean by an entire people?” and “What if they actually have the truth and you’re in denial?” More rigorous thinkers can charge this topic with being too broad. Topics which are too broad may lead to large, general statements which do no justice to the details of how people live or how things work.

The only trouble with denying my question—”How is it possible for an entire people to be in denial?”—is reality. I can truthfully say “it’s obvious racism is a problem but so hard for people to admit it,” to take one example. I submit the following, though, for your consideration. Our understanding of history depends in no small part on certain narratives. One of the key narratives is of this form: “X number of people made mistake Y because they believed Z.” Such an understanding could be problematic, but also stands essential to how anything at least initially is learned.

Thus, if I ask “How are we currently in denial?”, I have to ask about an understanding of history. How is it shared and communicated? How does it lead to seeing the world in specific ways? The question of possibility has been transformed from a matter of theory into one that is practical. To grasp the possibility of mass denial is to grasp how a people understand themselves.

But how is such a possibility engaged? I can’t just read a history textbook. Plenty do this and repeat the most basic facts out of context as if they were divine truths. Nor can I simply call for reflection, whatever that means. I have far too many examples in my life of people who thought too much, concluded they were right, and armed themselves with the ability to angrily argue with anyone who thought differently.

Graham Foust’s “The Only Poem” opens with a meditation on moral idealism and its limits. At this moment, in the midst of plague, neo-Nazis and white nationalists are marching on state capitals with guns in order to insist on their comfort at the expense of everyone else’s safety. These armed marchers accuse everyone else of being Hitler. I can see who they are, but it’s a lot harder for me to know whether I’m doing the work necessary to defeat their awful movement. Foust’s lines speak to the intersection of “doing the work,” “making a commitment,” and “still being in denial:” This is not a machine. It does not kill fascists. You’re pretending to see the light.

The Only Poem
Graham Foust

This is not a machine.
It does not kill fascists.
You're pretending to see the light.

Winter. Some river,
its claws of water stalled.
You walk across, crossing this, it.

You trust ice, the thermometer,
and riotous loss. Even in danger,
you're a writer, liar.

Some might think his first stanza defiantly apolitical, a turn to nature and away from man-made horror. His poem does not kill fascists, after all. It refuses to be a machine. But “You’re pretending to the see the light” combined with his last “you’re a writer, liar” can be taken as self-referential. I want to assume he’s speaking about the same problem I’m having. I can’t know exactly when I’m in denial, when I’m “pretending to see the light.” This makes commentary on society’s denial of large issues difficult. In the case of the neo-Nazis who are marching, the issue isn’t the Nazis as much as how their protests are treated with far more sympathy than an armed anti-government movement should get. I can see the problem, but do I see the true cause?

One might say the true cause is obvious, for anyone can see a violent lust for power masquerading as freedom. Again, though, that only addresses the marchers. What about everyone else who doesn’t care? A significant part of not taking Nazis seriously is racism in the body politic at large, but there may be a related problem at work. Perhaps people cannot admit they are wrong in any way. Perhaps they’re convinced freedom is their right to value belief over knowledge in any and all cases. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, cruelty to the disabled and a host of other inhuman attitudes are attempts to grab and hold power and also an existential crisis of sorts. It almost seems like people feel that merely thinking about others is a form of selflessness. (It can be, in specific circumstances.)

In which case, the outstanding question entails human completeness. I must wonder about who I’m becoming throughout time. Not only “Do I have a debased notion of freedom myself?” but also whether I am achieving fulfillment beyond conventional moral claims. Am I able to see myself in a natural way, a way which sees others as human but doesn’t deny my dignity? Foust introduces this series of considerations by bringing his persona to a winter walk. Winter. Some river, its claws of water stalled. You walk across, crossing this, it.

His image of a stalled river recalls “you can’t step in the same river twice.” “You can’t step in the same river twice” speaks to both a lack of certainty and the fluid nature of identity. I believe I can accept that I’m responding to things and changing while still being identifiable. But maybe I’m deluding myself when I say that. Maybe it is much easier to know who I am by assuming what I can stand on. Whatever moral notions I have are like frozen water–they assume a more or less similar set of circumstances to what I’ve experienced. It’s like time has been frozen so that I can walk… somewhere. It’s not clear how others are regarded, if they are given any consideration, when I’m walking upon ice.

It’s the trust in this crazy process Foust ultimately settles on as a defining problem. You trust ice, the thermometer, and riotous loss. Even in danger, you’re a writer, liar. Ice is trusted because of scientific knowledge imprecisely applied (thermometer) and a tragic outlook born of cynicism and experience. There’s no real knowledge in our frozen moral notions. I don’t know anything when I accuse my age of being in denial about the most important things. I’m merely “in danger,” “a writer,” “[a] liar.”

One might suspect this reflection is collapsing into a vicious relativism. But on a practical level, morality is fairly relative. Relativism is usually opposed because genocidal maniacs want to argue that no one is any better than they are or people want to argue that their extremely petty notion of right and wrong is what everything else stands upon. Even though I know fascism is absolutely wrong, my moral notions are far from complete. They haven’t seen everything. They have barely accounted for this life, let alone the lives of others. It’s honesty about the conglomerate which serves as moral knowledge for myself that enables a small step away from denial. And sometimes, a small step is all that’s needed. The people most sure about their crazy views of right and wrong are willing to brandish weapons in order to not wear a protective face mask. In assuming the world is their vision of it, they’ve denied the very space in which others could be valued or loved.

Jane Kenyon, “Not Writing”

For a number of us, quarantine entails meeting our insecurities and rediscovering our weaknesses.

This isn’t to say that getting attention constantly is a good thing. But more social interaction, a more active, outgoing life, helps me fully realize what can be done with time alone. It helps put things in perspective, helps me think about what I value and why.

Right now, though, there’s nightmare, fantasy, and some kind of warped middle ground between them. That middle ground is not unlike shutting down, as it whispers “Why even bother?” in such a way that I don’t recognize the question. I do recognize there are answers to other dilemmas for which I need to wait. I do recognize that other attempts of mine to do more have failed. “Why even bother?” is inaudible, but its spirit characterizes my inaction, as if my spirit were less a dove and more like a wasp (no offense to wasps, which actually make efforts toward survival):

Not Writing (from Isak)
Jane Kenyon

A wasp rises to its papery
nest under the eaves
where it daubs

at the gray shape,
but seems unable
to enter its own house.

Kenyon suggests that her inability to write is like not being able to enter her own brain. The wasp rises to the nest, daubs at the gray shape, but can’t get in. The wasp—all credit to it!—tries. It makes painting-like motions, multiple but clumsy attempts to enter. A writer trying to enter her “papery nest,” one would assume, has done all the prewriting exercises. She’s done freewriting for hours, read the work of others and made notes, checked her own diary entries, tried to write on an object she remembers from childhood, etc.

I want my “yeah, I’ve done nothing” confession to count the same as those efforts. On the one hand, it simply can’t–I’ve done nothing. The wasp built that house and is trying to enter it. Other writers are spending their time writing something unfit by their standards or trying to write.

On the other hand, there does seem to be a more fundamental issue, that of fumbling around with one’s own mind. That fumbling seems to link those of us who aren’t even trying with those who are trying with all their might.

*

A wasp rises to its papery nest under the eaves. There’s an ascent towards home for the wasp. Home isn’t some imagined promise. It’s real, “under the eaves,” anchored to a location, of substance itself. A writer’s products are real: the poems, essays, journals, stories, novels, even the bad ones, get readers and attention.

“Attention” requires disambiguation. I think of those who can never go without a significant other, not for one moment. Always a girlfriend or a boyfriend, and if they’re about to break up with one, the next is ready to go in a matter of minutes. I don’t want to judge, but I can’t relate to that need. I don’t need to know I’m wanted no matter what.

Then I think of those who desperately need respect. Everything is a show of authority. I’m not speaking of those who insist on the respect they deserve and use that respect to benefit everyone. No, I’m speaking of those who can’t show the least amount of respect, who try to make everything a joke or an excuse to act out, or those who create artificial standards for every person or situation they meet. Again, it’s a need for attention to which I don’t relate. When I’ve needed respect, it’s because people were treating me like I didn’t exist, like even my physical presence was negligible.

I can speak to what a lack of attention does. I replay in my head my “greatest hits.” Times I’ve given successful papers at conferences. Lectures or writings that inspired questions which had me musing for weeks on end. A lack of attention means I instinctively attempt to give myself attention, not realizing what I’m doing or why. It’s hard to see one’s own value in this state. It’s hard to remember that one’s sense of value is real, that it’s what makes home desirable in the first place.

*

It daubs at the gray shape, but seems unable to enter its own house. Our minds are more than what we value or don’t value. They can put us in motion, allowing us to start the activities which should benefit ourselves and others.

All well and good. So what does it mean to “daub” and fail to find words with which one is comfortable?

It seems like such a small problem. Plenty of people talk without caring about what they say and why. But for some of us, we really need to understand why. We want our words to count.

“Daub” is the key. We need to produce some kind of image which we can relate to and reflect on. That image should be one we can communicate to others. In my teaching recently, I’ve pointed out times that Aristotle seems to take on the persona of someone who is incredibly crotchety (“the young can’t govern! They’re all hormones! Excuse me while I yell at this cloud”), or how Kant may sound like an extremist in order to get us to clarify what we believe. The images of “crotchety old man” or “extreme fundamentalist” are necessary not just for my understanding, but for having any hope of clarifying my understanding. I’m probably wrong, and I’ll realize I’m wrong when what I observe in the text and through others’ reactions shows me another image I must take seriously.

The poem implies that for the writer, the image, for a variety of reasons, is missing. The daubing happens, but the words are either not there or don’t mean anything. Before writing on Kenyon, I tried writing on another poem which had one strong, quotable line and a bunch of other words that if I did something with, I would rewrite the entire poem. It’s possible to write and write and write and say… nothing.

The question is whether one wants to consider this—either my bad writing or the bad poem—a failure of craft. It could speak to someone, no doubt. It’s too glib to call it success, though, and its too personal to let the feeling of failure go. What’s at stake is that something essential needed to be said, not just for the writer but all of us, and at this moment its not being realized. There may be hope, but the future isn’t always helped through present inability.

Jane Kenyon, “Otherwise”

At home, trapped in social distancing—a sort of self-quarantine—while the pandemic rages. Lots to do. Lots to clean and organize, lots to read, lots of dreams and regrets to indulge. But what can I do that’s fulfilling or inspiring?

My immediate desire is to sharpen my skills, to do something small well. To show myself that I can build, execute a strategy, make a plan that works.

There’s a not-so-slight unease. The future, perhaps, is a limit on what is meaningful. And the future does not look good. One example: When I think about mass unemployment in a society cultishly devoted to the idea that some people work and therefore deserve—as if Donald Trump, Jr. has a real job— and others only deserve scorn, I also wonder about a world eager to neglect others, eager to forget they exist. Neglect can be a form of power, and people desperately want to feel power.

In short, the full trauma of unemployment has yet to be conceived. The full assault on the dignity of those who worked hardest but cannot continue, and those who earnestly wish they could work, has yet to be witnessed. It won’t simply be scorn from grifters looking for quick ratings on radio and television by having meltdowns about who is a “taker” and who isn’t. It will be a climate of opinion dictating who is allowed to speak at all, who is allowed a voice. One might say we live in this situation already, and I grant that’s true. I just know that it could get a lot worse, as unimaginable as that seems.

I know it could get so much worse for the conflicts people have with their own selves. How to justify oneself to oneself with little or nothing to do? “They also serve who only stand and wait” is majestic, but so remote. The world was remade from when that was said, in part to deny the truth underlying that statement.

*

In “Otherwise,” Jane Kenyon deals with the unimaginable with every step: I got out of bed on two strong legs. It might have been otherwise. The unimaginable magnifies the real, frames it. Even with all the panic I feel, I didn’t think twice about getting out of bed on two strong legs this morning. But Kenyon has a heightened sensitivity to what must be real, what life has to be, precisely because it will be lost:

Otherwise (from the Library of Congress' Poetry 180 project)
Jane Kenyon

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

She describes a life in which she identifies and loves details. The beauty of things becomes visible to her through her experience. Not just strong legs with which to walk, but sweet milk, ripe, flawless peach. Two experiences in particular constitute a peak in the poem: I took the dog uphill to the birch wood and At noon I lay down with my mate. The recognition of what one might term sensitive souls (e.g. animals, dependent on sensation to engage the world) and rational ones (herself and her mate) follows her listing of cereal and peach, which one could say are products of nutritive souls. The rationality she and her mate employ has an Aristotlean character–it searches for an end to human life, asking implicitly how best to live and love. All morning I did the work I love.

Still, it might have been otherwise. Perhaps it is natural to live and love, but not everyone has the same experience, and even those with lives we consider blessed do not experience the same forever. Kenyon presents us with an image of conventionality, a social ritual firmly placed in a human, all-too-human world: We ate dinner together at a table with silver candlesticks. Something about the “peak” of existence, of being created on the 6th day, is not completely satisfactory. It might have been otherwise points to the problem of temporality, of dependence on time, but while I just spoke of that I don’t think it’s the only issue. The most visible problem, living in the shadow of death, serves to highlight the other ones. In this case, we can readily see another one: the necessity of love and acceptance by other human beings creates a realm unto itself.

It’s a realm centered on artifice, on image-making. “Silver candlesticks,” “paintings.” I slept in a bed in a room with paintings on the walls, and planned another day just like this day. We build our lives to fit certain images, even when we ask hard questions. Perhaps the fundamental problem is precisely the dreamlike character of human existence. Kenyon painted a picture in which she participated in and shared the work she loved. She and her partner searched and encountered natural wonders. Temporality, again, indicates the issue—even to live and love and be loved is not enough—but is not itself the issue. The issue is more or less akin to knowing that one day it will be otherwise. That whatever that knowledge is, in a key sense it is beyond us.

She somehow finds strength and dignity in the face of uncertainty and the end of life. I cannot believe this is disconnected from the attentiveness the poem displays. Most days I can’t remember what I did, let alone tried to accomplish. But “Otherwise” takes every moment and makes it a painting unto itself. Not just a set of images, but words that conjure for each of us very specific experiences and memories. There isn’t a hint of neglect in what might be a model for courage.