Philip Larkin, “The Mower”

Twitter can be a good thing, if you’re not committed to speaking trash nonstop like I am. My thanks to Alex Alvarez for introducing her audience to this lovely poem by Larkin. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how people become monsters or how they end up doing monstrous things to others. Typically, this involves an unnatural degree of doubling-down. For example, not just being wrong about something, but insisting that those in the right are wrong, then engaging in constant character assassination to further one’s cause. There are times we have to do cold things to keep our dignity, sure. But a loss of any sense of moderation, any sense that there are other priorities and feelings out there, seems to be prelude to dehumanization.

However, it’s possible to be a monster actively and passively. You can treat people badly through neglect or through setting up artificial boundaries. Sometimes, they can sidestep your stupidity. Other times, though, you might be running over them with blades without realizing what you’re doing.

The Mower (from Poetry)
Philip Larkin

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found   
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,   
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.   
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world   
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence   
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind   
While there is still time.

He doesn’t even realize that anything is wrong, at first — [t]he mower stalled, twice. Machines break and recover on their own, and isn’t life a machine with routines and reasons of its own? An idleness faintly echoes through the opening stanza; things are run over all the time, causing interruptions, and it’s no big deal. Except now. [K]neeling, I found / A hedgehog jammed up against the blades, / Killed. He kneels, and he sees an entire body, an entire life lived, up against the blades. It had been in the long grass — he discovers life itself through his unintentional, fatal violence.

It’s that we discover through violence that’s so unsettling; it only feels just that pathei mathos, the tragedy of knowing by experience, drives some of us insane. There is this puzzle about knowledge that can feel abstract. Do we know when we grasp the proposition, able to talk about its grammar, some attendant events, its consequences? Or do we know when we experience the truth of a proposition we’ve described and worked to explain? I had seen it before, and even fed it, once — he knew of the hedgehog before. That puzzle about knowledge, whether we can truly inform ourselves, concerns how experience defines existence. When he saw and fed the animal prior, that was just part of his day, a set of actions conducted separately from whatever else he did. A set of actions stemming from a routine moral logic. It is not unreasonable to suspect this as foreshadowing that animal being torn to pieces, the wholeness of its body and world meaning nothing to mower blades or our approach to the world. Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world / Unmendably.

Relief is not had through absence. Some of the worst I’ve known make it a continual game to cut others away. If the question of being implies being in the world and caring for it, the question of nothingness does not imply the opposite. Burial was no help: Next morning I got up and it did not. In a way, people who push others away are more committed to the idea of those they push away than anything else. Reminding ourselves that we’re cruel, clumsy creatures who are terrible at love stands as the cruel, clumsy remedy. It’s what we’re stuck with, because we’re not good at knowing and remembering — [t]he first day after a death, the new absence / Is always the same. What we’ve got are moral propositions which tell us to be hesitant about our power and not much else. Trying to harness morality in the service of love is the great hope, the only hope. [W]e should be careful / Of each other, we should be kind / While there is still time.

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