Blog in Review: “how we can do cruel, barely human things out of perceived necessity,” 7/15/17

Kay Ryan’s “Crocodile Tears” has direct political significance. I discussed that significance a little, but I spent more time talking about the everyday behavior of everyday people. However, at this moment, politicians and other powerful bullies are flooding this country with fake tears. And it’s working. Do people actually value remorse and forgiveness in any way, or do they love the gross abuse of morality? They might see the ability to manipulate moral rules to one’s advantage as a power to be admired. By extension, people unwilling to manipulate those rules, people who are sincere or innocent, are looked at as deserving victims.

When I wrote about Yosa Buson’s “Early Summer Rain,” I thought about my inconsistency of tone. I decided to leave the silly jokes right next to the contemplation of loneliness. There’s something absurd about musing on two houses in the rain, but it is an absurdity worth confronting.

Ha Jin’s “Missed Time” is a gorgeous love poem. When commenting on it, I wanted to understand how we speak of being fulfilled. On the one hand, there’s the feeling of joy, but on the other, there’s our actual legacy. These two themes meet in a problem, the problem of speaking of that which is, so to speak, “beyond words.” “Missed Time” does a nice job — unintentionally, I suspect — of illustrating that.

Amy King’s “Perspective” speaks for itself. I never thought I would be convinced by Marxist critiques of media, but I find them to be more or less correct nowadays. Usually, those critiques go off the rails when they try to tie conspiracy theories about rich businessmen to how journalists on the ground actually cover things. A more subtle critique involves seeing what media coverage silently confirms, how horribly troubling attitudes and beliefs are given credibility. A historical perspective helps: if you can picture people 20-30 years from now retching at the thought of the Daily Mail and Drudge, you can start to see the awful ideas you’re indulging. I am not exempt from thinking stupid things about other people, myself, and I need to better temper my media diet.

Emily Dickinson’s “They Say That Time Assuages” strikes me as a poem that dives into the bitter end to find something truly redemptive, no matter how small. Not all of you may feel that way, and that’s fine. I do think this is a common refrain among serious poems, though. In a similar vein, William Carlos Williams’ “Complete Destruction” wonders how we can do cruel, barely human things out of perceived necessity. My comment on the latter asks you to think about how that poem, in truth, is as loving and pained a remembrance for his cat as can be had.

I took Buson’s haiku “New Year’s Day,” about New Year’s Day and the day after, as an admonition to write more. We’ll see how long that lasts.

Yosa Buson, “New Year’s Day”

New Year’s Day I resolved to do more, to change bad habits, to live better. That went pffft pretty fast. A few weeks ago I resolved to write more, and hahahahaha you can see how I fed that promise toxic waste. A bit of a chuckle, then, accompanied my spotting Buson’s haiku:

New Year's Day
Yosa Buson (tr. Yuki Sawa & Edith Shiffet)

New Year's Day
and on the day after,
fog from place to place in Kyoto.

New Year’s Day and on the day after — yup, nothing’s changed. Spring should blossom; green should crack through the frost; sunlight should sparkle on the water. Nope, all we’ve got is fog from place to place in Kyoto. In 18th century Japan, everyone walks everywhere. I imagine cold, humid, damp fog, a perpetually gray city. Nothing has changed, everything looks the same. Going from place to place feels futile.

Yet you can detect the optimism in the wordplay. The fog will lift, and the very thing producing misery now is a shroud. You don’t know when good things will happen. What makes the New Year awesome is that it reintroduces us to the fact they can happen.

Does any of this mean I’ll make good on my resolutions? I don’t know. I’ve been documenting how I feel when I don’t do things. I guess that’s a start. I confess it does not feel ideal. If I called myself lazy and that worked, if I provoked a sense of shame, that would feel a lot less mysterious.

References

Sawa, Yuki and Edith Shiffert. Haiku Master Buson. Union City, California: Heian, 1978.

William Carlos Williams, “Complete Destruction”

Of this, I can never be quite sure. A gorgeous Persian cat, straight from Blofeld’s lap, initially gave me an attitude when I was a guest at a friend’s residence. At that time, the friend also had an old dog in enormous pain. That dog was completely deaf, walked funny, smelled funny, always seemed like it was straining. It couldn’t accept affection, though it was far from aggressive. I was as nice as I could be to that dog, finding where the treats were hidden, and giving those treats, pets, attention, and water to the dog when I could. The dog couldn’t reciprocate at all; it took what I gave and limped away. The cat noticed. It became a lot friendlier, looking for my affection all the time. I really started to like that cat; I played with the idea that it was deeply sympathetic to the dog and its condition.

All this is to say what we already know. The loss of a beloved animal has a specific gravity. The stories spun around it have the most powerful certainty, unchallenged in our own minds. We love every iota of its physical being, almost unconditionally. It was an icy day: there are not many days more chilling than those which involve laying an animal to rest. With no formal ritual for this, one has to deal with one’s own memories as they present themselves, the bluntness of dominion:

Complete Destruction (from poets.org)
William Carlos Williams

It was an icy day.
We buried the cat,
then took her box
and set fire to it

in the back yard.
Those fleas that escaped
earth and fire
died by the cold.

The bluntness of dominion — We buried the cat, then took her box and set fire to it in the back yard. I read “dominion” as a suggestion from the curious splitting of backyard. If indeed we have been appointed stewards over nature, then our earth is designated by us (“yard”) relative to our purposes (“back”).

However, a split compound is not necessary to understand that those who loved the cat are completely in charge of her body and possessions. They bury her, returning like to like. They set fire to her box in order to kill the fleas. This is not ritual. They are caretakers, playing God, and two themes leap out at me. First, I wonder how caretaking reconciles with the violence, the gruesome nature, of burying the cat and setting fire to everything hers. I know the practical explanation: to have a household entails protecting that home, not simply growing and maintaining it. Simply knowing, though, does not entail understanding how things relate. The poem testifies to our ignorance in knowledge. We knew the cat as part of our family; her burdens were our burdens. But what did we truly know and love? All that’s left of her are fleas which must be killed.

The fleas, what’s left of the cat, remind me that our detritus and pains are in large part how we are conceived by others. What’s left of us harms, unless rid. Those fleas that escaped earth and fire died by the cold — this leads to another consideration. The cold takes over, does what human agency cannot do. In a way, impersonal, awful forces use us for their purposes. Our end of protecting ourselves fits into a ruthless universal logic, where the elements which constitute life return to themselves. When I first wrote on this poem, I spoke of Plato’s Protagoras and residency. Residency: we have our household, the cat has her box, and each has laws and possessions particular to it. The funny thing is that the laws of one domain can call for the complete destruction of the other, without regard for its value. There is at least one higher domain than human life, the cosmos itself. This leads to the problem mirrored in the Protagoras. The human beings of this poem carry out a fatal, terrible mission. What they do has to be done. In the dialogue, there’s a famous discussion about courage between Socrates and Protagoras. The question comes up whether people who dive into wells to retrieve pots dropped deep inside are really courageous or merely crazy. In order to answer the question, it is provisionally resolved that one needs to talk about courage as being governed by reason. While the nature of courage is certainly not in play here, it does look like Williams might have another suggestion for such a discussion. Maybe certain actions must be taken in a less than conscious manner. Sometimes, what matters most is that we are effective, that we get things done, but there is a price to be paid.

Emily Dickinson, They say that “Time assuages” (686)

I imagine most have muttered that which does not kill you makes you stronger to themselves. At least for myself, I said it several times with a tinge of positivity. Only that much, though. Once, when so sick I could barely see a few feet in front of me, when breathing was labored and painful. I’m not at all sure how I recovered — I know I should have gone to the ER. Another time, when I didn’t hear from a girlfriend for days. We hadn’t fought, everything had been going well, oh look we’re broken up. My most paranoid thoughts, confirmed. Yet another, when I didn’t hear for months about work I submitted. In all cases, I meant to turn suffering, disappointment, and anger into something still bitter but not fatal. Some kind of capacity marked less by resilience and force, more by ability and possibility. I guess I wanted to indulge my right to my disposition in speech so I could reserve strength for other thoughts, focus, and action.

Dickinson’s bitterness smolders below, but at whom or what does she rage? They say that “Time assuages” — Time never did assuage — is she angry at Time itself? Or those who told her that with time, all would be well?

They say that "Time assuages"(686)
Emily Dickinson

They say that "Time assuages" —
Time never did assuage —
An actual suffering strengthens
As Sinews do, with age —

Time is a Test of Trouble —
But not a Remedy —
If such it prove, it prove too
There was no Malady —

“Time never did assuage,” as the anger at being lied to and Time itself becomes a still more vicious ambiguity. An actual suffering strengthens / As Sinews do, with age — her suffering is stronger, causing more pain, and she is stronger, continuing to endure that pain.

Only now, years after first reading this poem, do I understand what’s happening. She’s mad at everyone and everything, most especially herself.

Hers is not quite self-hatred, though it runs deep. Anger at time is anger at your own life. You’re angry that other people have advised you badly. You’re angry that you needed that advice, that this was a first attempt to cope. Not even sure you know what coping means, you’re angry that you aged and coped in some half-baked way. You’re stronger, harder, and wounded: the pain isn’t going away. You’ve grown into it. Your life serves it. Do you seriously want it some other way? Time is a Test of Trouble — But not a Remedy: she only knows her own life because it is a “Test of Trouble.” She relates to herself through her pain.

Again, though, it’s not self-hatred. The “Test of Trouble” was real, and so, ironically, is the self that wants remedies. At first, If such it prove, it prove too / There was no Malady sounds like a morbid repetition of the idea that life is nothing but pain. Time cannot prove “a Remedy,” for if it did, the cure and disease would be the same thing. But life is more than pain. “Malady” points to a self that could be wounded, a self that could be afflicted. These last two lines, then, indicate the existence of something good, something whole. There is a sliver of light, the realization that one has to do something with the maladies, a step to resolve to not let them take complete control.

Amy King, “Perspective”

for X., because you need to stop being racist and apologizing for all that is wrong in the world. There are harsher consequences than my words or anger. There have to be.

When this age only lives as a topic of academic interest, years from now, I don’t think it will be possible to communicate how central the concept of race was to us. I don’t even know the remote past would understand our obsession, as it looks to me like Ancient Greece would be vicious to anyone who was a stranger, but not directly because of skin color. The future will probably take note of our bigotry and racism the way we do of superstitions we’ve rejected. “People really believed that?” they’ll gasp, and then they’ll get into their self-driving cars and be amused by an assortment of fully automated fidget spinners, thinking no more of our silly opinions.

It is up to us, then, to understand our obsession with indulging stereotypes and prejudice. It isn’t as simple as mere ignorance — it’s about wielding power. White nationalism translates into material gains for some, status gains for others. But even that is not sufficient to explain its appeal. The only thing I know, something I must try to communicate to the future, is that a more complex and fatal humor defines the body politic. Amy King’s “Perspective” helps illustrate just how nasty and troubling it is:

Perspective (from Poetry)
Amy King

When I see the two cops laughing 
after one of them gets shot
because this is TV and one says
while putting pressure on the wound,
Haha, you're going to be fine,
and the other says, I know, haha!, 
as the ambulance arrives—
I know the men are white.
I think of a clip from the hours 
of amateur footage I've seen
when another man at an intersection
gets shot, falls, and bleeds from a hole
the viewer knows exists only by the way 
the dark red pools by the standing cop's feet,
gun now holstered, who
yells the audience back to the sidewalk.
I know which one is dying 
while black and which one stands by white. 
I think this morning about the student 
in my class who wrote a free write line 
on the video I played
that showed a man pouring water
on his own chest, "...the homoerotic 
scene against a white sky" with no other men 
present. Who gets to see and who follows
what script? I ask my students. 
Whose lines are these and by what hand
are they written?

The perspective King starts with is well-documented, and it is safe to say America knows it, though many try to deny it. One will find her first 8 lines contentious. Cops on TV laughing about a gunshot wound sounds absurd for those unaware of years of police militarization. Flag-waving, romanticizing instruments of state violence, makes a lot of money for media organizations not formally tied to the government. Precisely because of this, one might argue that the motives of those who are never critical of police or soldiers are purer. They see a powerful country with serious devotion to law, order, security, and love media that praise what is ordinarily praiseworthy. They don’t see the below as insanity, but as strength, if they admit it ever happened at all:

When I see the two cops laughing
after one of them gets shot
because this is TV and one says
while putting pressure on the wound,
Haha, you’re going to be fine,
and the other says, I know, haha!,
as the ambulance arrives—
I know the men are white.

On the one hand, King invites us into her subjectivity. “I know the men are white,” she declares after verse documenting no less than a literal violent fantasy. On the other hand, she bears witness. She sees what the TV presents, and the television shows an officer saying he knows he’ll be fine after a deadly confrontation. She all but says outright that some do not have to bear the costs of deadly violence while inflicting it on others. America is more than a violent place: it’s a playground for killers.

Against this, many will argue. They’ll say this is jaundiced, influenced by identity politics. They’ll insist on the impartiality of law and order, claiming that no one gets abused by the law if they’re not doing anything wrong already. King cuts off these arguments, though, through three simple words: this is TV. There’s no way you could show this unless it was shocking or acceptable. Everyone in America knows it isn’t shocking — the arguments against critics of police violence simply seek to discredit the critics. There’s only trying to justify violence, never trying to make peace or insist on deescalation. America belongs to a few who can do whatever they like with it. The Spartans, we note, used to mount ferocious campaigns of ritual slaughter against the Helots to keep their skills sharp and keep the Helots in line.

It isn’t just the television, though. We have hours upon hours of abuse of power documented by amateurs. We don’t care that it tells the exact same story:

I think of a clip from the hours
of amateur footage I’ve seen
when another man at an intersection
gets shot, falls, and bleeds from a hole
the viewer knows exists only by the way
the dark red pools by the standing cop’s feet,
gun now holstered, who
yells the audience back to the sidewalk.
I know which one is dying
while black and which one stands by white.

Our media, which will outlast us, stands as record of what we did and consumed, revels in presenting raw violence and fear as legitimate authority. Still, the viewer only knows the man is dying because of pools of blood; the actual violence done to a black body is invisible to us. It’s insane that we live in the 21st century and people genuinely believe others are less human than they are, but that’s what it takes to not see violence done to others and retch. That the officer with gun now holstered… yells the audience back to the sidewalk might seem a frightening detail, and to some in this country, it is. To many though, it is the essence of morality.

The romanticizing of state violence goes hand-in-hand with violence in the name of sect. What ails America now is the same thing Jefferson once warned us about: the religious wars of Europe are here. Only, instead of Protestant vs. Catholic, we kill in the name of morality itself. People genuinely believe that without guns they cannot be free, as apparently Jesus wasn’t free. They believe that without the willingness to kill, to defend something sacred, they will be destroyed from within. To purge themselves of their own sin, they kill minorities; morality is the ability to use one’s arms for a supposed good. The disease is diversity, everything around you that could be a foreign thought. Everything is idolatry except devotion to the holy sword.

You could say this is an NRA/KKK fantasy come to life, and it certainly is. You might even say it is a minority of Americans. There I would stop you. It’s not a minority. It’s the product of having everything and not having any real values. That it is contentious to link Christianity with peace on earth shows how far we have fallen. No Jeremiah will show up this time, as the prophets spoke to this ages ago. We are the authors of our own decline, and we secretly know we replaced God with ethno-nationalist hatred. Like anyone devoted to the craft of bullying, we double-down. The fervor of our belief will save us — God will save the ignorant, will He not? I have news, and it isn’t good: I’m pretty sure God doesn’t like seeing people gun others down and then call anyone critical “the real racists.” I’m pretty sure that’s a one way ticket to Hell. But what do I know: I read Nietzsche and Marx, both of whom Tom DeLay told me were the anti-Christ (apparently there’s two).

America is a free country, and that means there will always be a debate over values. Can that debate, though, be allowed to dictate the value of human life? The strange thing is that in this environment, any observation will become part of that debate, and thus any observation could determine, directly or indirectly, the value of life. “Judge not that you will not be judged.” Underneath all our violence is some kind of erotic longing, but that eros does not promise peace. It promises confusion, where we don’t know how we see, how others see, and trust is lacking all over:

I think this morning about the student
in my class who wrote a free write line
on the video I played
that showed a man pouring water
on his own chest, “…the homoerotic
scene against a white sky” with no other men
present. Who gets to see and who follows
what script?
I ask my students.
Whose lines are these and by what hand
are they written?

Maybe a homoerotic image was shown on the video during class; maybe there was something devoid of any eroticism. “Pouring water” might indicate some kind of cleansing. What is sacred to one is outrageous to another. Instead of looking to resolve confusion, restore trust, King preaches responsibility. The student is to reflect on who gets to see, what script she followed. If you say something, why did you say it, but also how did you say it? Are certain statements — certain perspectives — privileged? This is not simply Tocqueville’s “tyranny of the majority,” where the majority limit opinions because they hold fast to a few. This is the problem of tyranny, pure and simple. If you can throw entire religious and ethnic groups out of the country based on your paranoia only, you’re not quite the worst sort of tyrant — you’re not a genocidal maniac, necessarily — but holy, you’re pretty bad. One has to take responsibility for one’s perspective, and yes, that includes me, too: Whose lines are these and by what hand are they written? The failure of modern democracy is that moral responsibility really is one’s domain, and unfortunately, people would rather create cults than work to accept others.