Amiri Baraka, “Like Rousseau”

Like Rousseau (from Poetry)
Amiri Baraka

She stands beside me, stands away,
the vague indifference
of her dreams. Dreaming, to go on,
and go on there, like animals fleeing
the rise of the earth. But standing
intangible, my lust a worked anger
a sweating close covering, for the crudely salty soul.

Then back off, and where you go? Box of words
and pictures. Steel balloons tied to our mouths.
The room fills up, and the house. Street tilts.
City slides, and buildings slide into the river.
What is there left, to destroy? That is not close,
or closer. Leaning away in the angle of language.
Pumping and pumping, all our eyes criss cross
and flash. It is the lovers pulling down empty structures.
They wait and touch and watch their dreams
eat the morning.

Comment:

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” declares Rousseau, and we nod as if the pastor has told the absolute truth, for we too hate getting out of bed and going to work on a Monday. It is too easy to miss the full import of the declaration, as its large scope causes it either to veer to the everyday, and perhaps the trivial (some, of course, are absolutely crushed by their workload), or veer to the cosmic, to utopian notions of freedom, and perhaps truly innocent beginnings (a truly free man seems, in some such way, to transcend man himself).

Baraka brings us back to earth, speaking of love and lust, what we do with dust, how we trap ourselves. Rousseau’s Second Discourse famously features men copulating with women before the advent of property through chance encounters in the wild, unceremoniously consummated, forgettable, brief. DC’s bar scene and property market may or may not match this description. Either way, the dust of the earth, constant in both the wild and DC, stands between the world and us. It is how we craft images of those in the process of imagining themselves:

She stands beside me, stands away,
the vague indifference
of her dreams. Dreaming, to go on,
and go on there, like animals fleeing
the rise of the earth.

She’s beside him, but away, far away, as she is “the vague indifference of her dreams.” He is regarded indifferently, but the power of her dreams only matches their incompleteness. She knows she needs to search, that it will feel right when found, but this sometimes entails fear of what doesn’t seem right, and always an aversion, as if there is always a better object.

She is imagined herself, perhaps the dust of the fleeing animals, the rise of the earth. She stands intangible to him, as he’s watching her, and he is certainly intangible to her:

But standing
intangible, my lust a worked anger
a sweating close covering, for the crudely salty soul.

Knowing his invisibility and her desirability, his lust is nothing but “a worked anger,” the sum total of his thought and skin, “a sweating close covering, for the crudely salty soul.” Everything is a play of the imagination, and his has brought him only so far.

Oh, those chains, those awful, awful chains: desire became thought, but failed to become action. Now he’s back to words, words, nothing but words:

Then back off, and where you go? Box of words
and pictures. Steel balloons tied to our mouths.
The room fills up, and the house. Street tilts.
City slides, and buildings slide into the river.
What is there left, to destroy? That is not close,
or closer. Leaning away in the angle of language.

He backs off the chase, but that means he’s back to a “box of words and pictures,” with “steel balloons tied to our mouths.” I can’t help but think of a comic strip panel, where the characters are bound to one moment in time, and the words are piling up fast as he thinks too much about that moment. They pile up with weight, taking his world with it. “The room fills up, and the house. Street tilts. City slides, and buildings slide into the river.” The whole world comes apart in his unfreedom, his intimidation. Rousseau’s call to freedom is not explicitly a call to eros, but it is a call to dignity, a dignity not encumbered by hopeless abstractions. To feel free in the world, to chase dreams and have them transform, that’s growth. That’s life. Not this, stuck with one’s own words, a serial solipsistic hoarder become: “What is there left, to destroy? That is not close, or closer. Leaning away in the angle of language.”

The lovers are so much larger than his world, maybe even larger than our world. We leaned away in the angle of language, and now have to salvage a world/words from the river, “pumping and pumping.” Meanwhile, those who actually tried and failed destroy what we thought was real:

Pumping and pumping, all our eyes criss cross
and flash. It is the lovers pulling down empty structures.
They wait and touch and watch their dreams
eat the morning.

Real lovers don’t sit and idealize, but move on. They have loving to do, he thinks. We know better, he knows better. Their success is a failure: not everything will work out. Still, their unreality trumps our reality. Their dreams eat the morning, as we’re weighted by what they think they’ve experienced. Our words don’t mean anything without a certain courage, one like our erotic impulses, one like Rousseau’s.

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