Alice Shapiro, “Denial”

Denial (from Saltian)
Alice Shapiro

When one has done most everything
that a childish mind desires –

white-haired and haberdashed
the thread about to unravel
the chink in the champagne glass
about to lengthen
subordinates’ sneers increasing,
attrition in its infancy
is quietly noticed

and pushed down like so much salt
stuck at ocean’s bottom.


At the outset, we’ve got everything, but we’re childish. This may not be a problem. We may be like Greek gods, able to wipe out entire civilizations and then get back home for dinner and laughter. Our whims would have larger purpose and we wouldn’t need morality as we were rational to begin with.

“Haberdashed” is interesting. It sounds like the older image of man has a hat. That’s probably what we’re meant to think, but there’s another definition, which is “to deal in small wares.” As if the dictionary anticipated me looking this up, someone named Quarles has a line: To haberdash in earth’s base ware.

“The thread about to unravel” – not just hair falling or a head covering falling apart. When you’re done with your desires, you’ve weaved something and you can look at it. You can stand back with pride, like as if you’ve accomplished life and unlocked something else. This is our notion of “retirement.” That idea itself, independent of calling anyone in particular childish, has its own peculiar darkness. Do you stop living life because you think you finished something? In my dissertation, I’m spending a lot of time talking about how the philosophic life does not aim for honor because honor is about self-sacrifice and does not bother with immediate or long-term happiness (or heck, even lasting honor). But I could have just as easily talked about how honor and pride make one think that life actually is the goal(s) one sets.

The “thread” unraveling is itself a “chink in the champagne glass.” As you raise and toast, those sneers are present in your glass. People always want to bring others down, especially when one has led by example. “Attrition in its infancy:” the real issue with thinking you can control results in your life is that you’re not going to last. Your lack of activity, independent of your actual end, means others can chip away at your estate.

You’re trapped in your childishness, which offers an awesome defense. You get to take the truth and shove it down to the bottom of ocean. Sure, you’re not the salt of the earth – you’ve really got nothing to share – but the thing about this denial is that you can live with it. Shapiro hasn’t painted someone particularly evil here. This poem pretty much describes Cephalus from the opening of the Republic. We can be better than childish desires, but that involves myriad complications and is a discussion for later. We’ll need a notion of honor not connected strictly with age and accomplishment; we may not be able to live in denial about the vultures around us. The person depicted here may be pathetic, but he’s sane.

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