Emily Dickinson, “There is no Frigate like a Book” (1263)

I can’t stress enough one lesson I’ve learned the hard way, over and over again, my whole life. You can read so much so well, carefully considering the author’s most subtle points, bringing them into dialogue with the rich poetry and prose of other thinkers, illustrating all these amazing thoughts through memorable teaching and highly crafted writing, adding your own contribution for the ages. You can read so much so well, be an incredible scholar, teacher, writer, and—I daresay—thinker, and still be a complete fucking idiot.

I don’t say this out of any particular anger at anyone, not even myself. I mean, if I were to be angry at myself, I might get to be “an incredible scholar, teacher, writer” and “thinker” according to the person who wrote the above paragraph, and that’s quite a few compliments I definitely don’t deserve.

What’s gnawing on my mind is this concern: Do books really make us wiser? They don’t necessarily stop conspiracy theories or genocide. In some cases, a literary surface of high class and higher thoughts has advanced some of the cruelest, most senseless causes the world has ever seen. With more experienced readers or academics, issues which require especial sensitivity can be reduced to complicated jargon or become games over who is correct about the most trivial point.

I can’t explain to you what exactly makes someone wise. I can say this. Some people who I consider wise (you can feel free to inhale an entire salt shaker here) have used books in specific ways, even if they themselves hate reading. Those ways are worth reflecting on, I believe:

There is no Frigate like a Book (1263)
Emily Dickinson

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry—
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll—
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human soul 

Dickinson’s poem has a surface of the “Books can take you anywhere!” sort, the kind of thing we tell children to avoid buying them a Nintendo Switch. In recent years, I’ve become more enamored by cornball rhetoric employed by parents and teachers, but I still don’t like that line. Books helped Florence and Paris come that much more to life when I visited, but Florence and Paris would have rocked no matter what.

Books are effort. I think one reason why my drafts for published papers don’t quite measure up to my other writing and teaching is that I can’t yet properly express the intellectual labor involved in unpacking meaning or identifying problems in the first place. Showing that strain isn’t just important, it isn’t just what a scholar does. Reading essentially is that strain. Dickinson speaks to this while indulging a fantastic simile: There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away. A book isn’t a flying carpet or a teleporter. It’s like a frigate, which could refer to any light craft, but typically designates a warship. What kind of work is reading? It’s like sailing against the ocean for days or weeks. It entails knowing how to respond to trying circumstances in order to stay on course, make good time, or even defeat an enemy.

That almost sounds insane the way I’ve put it. Who reads a book to defeat an enemy? All those guys on Reddit saying “I studied the blade” while posting memes nonstop? But I’m thinking about the times I could credibly say a book spoke to me. I’d write out a line or passage from it and think about experiences or thoughts I had and how they compared. I was trying to identify what I valued, and in the process, I may have identified a problem I hadn’t seen before. Going to different lands isn’t a result of the book alone—it depends on the reader.

Dickinson’s next lines have an earthy power, but do not imply the movement from continent to continent that the frigate does. “A Page / Of prancing Poetry” far surpasses “Coursers”—like frigates, these could be horses known for swiftness, or they could be warhorses. Poetry also is born of struggle, no matter how fancy or “prancing” it is. Again, I think agency is being passed to the reader here. If frigates entail knowing how to sail, coursers entail horsemanship. Dickinson establishes that there is some sort of skill involved in reading, and I do believe this is true, but I don’t know someone advertising themselves as someone who will teach you how to read is anything other than a grift. There’s a process and skill that needs to be respected with regard to reading well, sure. There are people who are much better to read with than others. But as a close-reader who has trained others in how to practice this “art,” I don’t advertise myself that way. I much prefer to say there are things in which I’m actively interested—I have a set of moral and intellectual priorities, not only a skill with a certain type of rhetoric—and that reading well is just one part of developing a sensitivity to the world around me, the impact and aspirations of the past, and what is entailed in envisioning a better future.

For her part, Dickinson, while I’m having grand thoughts about reading inspired by her, tightens the circle of the poem. She initially likened books to expensive, elaborate craft. Then she described them as being like a horse. She ends with a much more meager—to use her word, “frugal,” image: This Traverse may the poorest take / Without oppress of Toll / How frugal is the Chariot / Which bears the human soul. This is a far cry from the “Books can take you anywhere you want to be!” rhetoric. The Chariot is “frugal;” what’s being avoided is a mere toll; the human soul can’t really do any better than this. Books aren’t just struggle, they aren’t just work and skill—they’re also necessary.

In other words, if I ask “Why don’t books make a better world?” I’m asking the wrong question. The question is really how reading, used well, may help us make the choices we need to make. If that question is valid, another follows immediately: since reading won’t always help, in what ways can reading badly or reading the wrong things make the world worse? All we have are words. When people say there is no need for reading, that only experience and action matter, what they’re really saying is only one set of experiences and actions matter—their own. They have words they do not want challenged. When people read widely to expand their consciousness and are still blind to the problems others face, that means they’re doing the right thing but not enough of it. All we have are words, and words tell us they’re not enough by giving us more words.

The Weakerthans, “Utilities”

In the history of ideas, utility looms large. You’re probably familiar with “utilitarianism,” the greatest good for the greatest number, an idea used not only as an ethical theory but as a means of making the United Kingdom dramatically more democratic.

In my studies, the concept of utility occurs in far more instances than just “utilitarianism.” When Descartes speaks of mastering nature or Bacon speaks of the relief of man’s estate, the idea is that knowledge should serve practical ends, advancing science and technology. That’s utility, placed against theoretical ends such as a more humanistic or religious set of inquiries. In Xenophon, if I remember correctly, someone asks Socrates if sickness can ever be good. Socrates replies with whether it is better to be at a battle or be sick so that one avoids the fighting.

It seems “Is this useful?” is a low but powerful response to claims on behalf of noble or religious causes. I’d go further. Genuinely wise people do not sound like they’ve only read books and have never talked to another human being. You need to know the low in order to engage the high; the practical is how one can even conceive the theoretical. With the right perspective, questions about utility are really questions about whether we are rational animals, knowing creatures who love to learn. If knowledge is good for us, it makes itself useful, no?

*

“Utilities” begins with a state of self-neglect. One can’t even be useful to oneself. [I feel like] today doesn’t like me isn’t much of an excuse for anything. Our narrator refuses to engage the “taste” in the air, the smell of the sink, or the car that might not be able to move.

I’ve been in states of mind like this for so long that when I’m happier—like I am now—it’s hard to for me to recognize that I have these terrible habits which I’d better get rid of. Some things change when I’m happier—there’s more cleaning and cleanliness, more organization and accomplishment, far more sensitivity. But creating a situation where there is a pronounced tendency for bad habits to fall away and good habits to replace them? Nowadays I believe that requires a Batcave, Alfred, and the whole computing power of Wayne Enterprises, if not the demonic resurrection pit of Ra’s Al Ghul. I don’t know if there are revelatory moments which, primarily of themselves, facilitate processes of change. I do know that structure and support help.

All the same, I not only feel happier now, but I feel like I’m taking better care without having full knowledge of what I’m doing. Which brings me to the problem these lines contain: I just wish I were a toothbrush or a solder gun / Make me something somebody can use. I want to feel useful, but that often depends on other another person seeing me as useful, like they see “a toothbrush” or “solder gun.” This is no way to become more useful or build self-esteem, we solemnly nod, yet every single one of us can testify it works to a degree. It’s as if there is a moment which will cause things to steadily get better. That moment involves being loved, and our fantasies about being love or in love aren’t complete nonsense. Not being loved really hurts, to say the least.

How emotionally independent can we possibly be? The second and third stanzas of “Utilities” describe a movement, as it sounds like the narrator pokes around in his basement (the corners of the basements of the world) and then leaves the house and goes outside (got a face full of ominous weather / smirking smile of a high pressure ridge). In the basement, he’s musing about wishes, as if he were rummaging through the basement looking through family memories, i.e. photos lying yellow and curled. Outside, he’s speaking the language of failed relationships: Got more faults than the state of California / And the heart is a badly built bridge. There are multiple sources of love and multiple types of wishes and desires concerning those sources. The feeling I get, listening to this, is that our narrator is overwhelmed. There are too many wishes, too many boxes of photos, too many abandoned electronics, too many faults. It sounds intuitive to say that he could really use some help getting started, even if the other person brings an additional basement full of old photos and useless electronics. “Utilities” ends with a plea; it doesn’t end with redemption, just the hint things could get better. The narrator got up and saw the miserable condition he lives in. He went outside and acknowledged his faults. We hope Make this something somebody can use is something he not only applies to his situation, but can apply to himself. (Clever: “this,” replacing “me,” means the song itself, if found useful, proves his utility.) One thing I’ve learned in my years is that one cannot possibly have too much support.

*

“Utilities” does ask for love. There’s no getting around the urgency of this request, voiced earlier in the song: Make me something somebody can use. While I feel supported right now, I don’t expressly have that kind of love in my life, and I think I should speak to why I might be happier, more useful, and yet not feel as needed.

When I was preparing to teach Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Ethics of Ambiguity” last week, I stared at this passage quite a bit:


Man, Sartre tells us, is “a being who makes himself a lack of being in order that there might be being.” That means, first of all, that his passion is not inflicted upon him from without. He chooses it. It is his very being and, as such, does not imply the idea of unhappiness. If this choice is considered as useless, it is because there exists no absolute value before the passion of man, outside of it, in relation to which one might distinguish the useless from the useful. The word “useful” has not yet received a meaning on the level of description where Being and Nothingness is situated. It can be defined only in the human world established by man’s projects and the ends he sets up.

I thought “a being who makes himself a lack of being in order that there might be being” was solid for introducing the students to Existentialism. You choose some “lack of being” in order to reconstitute your being. I think I used the example of giving up what you’re really into in middle school (guns) so that you can find social approval (someone to date).

What I didn’t talk about but made a bunch of notes on was how this implies a point prior both to happiness and utility. You’re trying to figure out what your happiness would consist in; you’re not unhappy or happy. And to speak of utility in relation to being sounds really out of place. Useful with regard to what?

So am I happier because I am in touch with the truth of my being? Please. I think I’m happier because I got a gold rank in Teamfight Tactics, League of Legends’ autochess mode. I do believe that our desire to be useful, though, is not necessarily fundamental. If questions about utility are about the value of knowledge, then there’s an infinite number of ways to be happy. One need only know them.

The Weakerthans, “Pamphleteer”

“Pamphleteer” opens quietly, a rapidly moving guitar getting louder, until drums crash in. Then, with a full sound, three big, anthemic chords ascending, followed by three big, anthemic chords descending.

Some notes later, a more ambiguous resolution to the phrase.

The song as a whole is told from the viewpoint of a guy trying to, you know, overthrow capitalism. (This sounds far more plausible and desirable than when I first heard this song, to be honest.) He’s got his pamphlets and stands on the street corner, trying to confront the businessmen walking by during rush hour. To say they ignore him would be an understatement: Facing rush hour faces turned around / I clutch my stack of paper, press one to a chest / Then watch it swoop and stutter to the ground.

I don’t want to play at being a sociologist or anthropologist through song lyrics. But I can say there are moral phenomena at play, sometimes, for which we don’t have words because they’re so harsh. For example, take the current President. He openly takes and uses bribes, self-deals, covers for the worst regimes, undermines the law and the spirit of the law. We all know this. What we haven’t come to terms with is that “hypocrisy” isn’t the right word for when he accuses his political opponents of the same, they prove innocent, and a not insignificant part of his base still cheers for him and repeats his lies. That’s not “hypocrisy”—that’s a symptom of white supremacy. He’s allowed to commit crimes and get away with them because he’s a white man of a certain standing, that standing dictated by his wealth. For that part of his base, he’s demonstrating racial “superiority” by openly flouting the law, lying about other people, and getting cheered on by them. It’s that ugly and that’s why we don’t really have a term for it. If we actually put in the time it takes to think through and come up with a term for this phenomenon, we’ll go insane.

In the case of ignoring the pamphleteer, “ignoring” is also not the correct term. The businessmen are a herd. They’ve accepted capitalism as the only reality. They’re not even bothering to imagine a different system and will not hear anything else. Those who think of entrepreneurs as a dynamic, innovative bunch really should try to come to terms with the culture of knowing current prices, market valuation, and a bunch of rumors about who’s-moving-what for the sake of trading and literally knowing nothing else. You can say this fulfills some kind of productive function when all is said and done, but honestly, it isn’t hard to see how this sort of behavior could lend itself to approval of authoritarians.

Our pamphleteer is a bit crazy, but he’s honest about how awkward his daily encounters are. Not only do his pamphlets fall, being blown away, but he sees his own failures, his own weary self, in every mirrored window. He knows he doesn’t come across as someone who immediately commands respect. He’s aware he gesticulates weirdly and wildly: How I don’t know what I should do / With my hands when I talk to you. He’s worried that his passion is not causing a revolution, far from it: How movements rise and then dissolve / Melted by our shallow breath / How causes dance away from me.

The honesty isn’t just admirable. It allows the pamphleteer to tie together two threads in his own words, both of which directly bear on how we conceive politics. The first is politics as religion. This the pamphleteer embraces—he’s more than willing to be like a Jehovah’s Witness on a street corner, he takes whether he can get converts to his cause personally, his invocation of The Communist Manifesto‘s “specter” sounds less like theory and more like hope based in a providential dispensation. I don’t think I need to say too much, regarding the current state of America, about politics being religion. If you need help envisioning this, consider watching, um, some business news.

But there’s another way of conceiving of one’s passion for politics. Isn’t it a lot like wanting to be loved? Seeing your dignity reflected in acceptance by another? A close read of the lyrics reveals a number of places where the pamphleteer sounds like he’s lost someone and wants to win them back. Examples: Why do I still see you in every mirrored window / In all that I could never overcome? and How movements rise and then dissolve / Melted by our shallow breath and, of course The rhetoric and treason of saying that I’ll miss you / Of saying “Hey, well maybe you should stay.” The trouble with talking about politics and being personally loved nowadays is that one has to deal with the topic of “incels,” radicals who believe they are entitled to being loved, pushing themselves to hateful and angry extremes.

I believe we can dismiss “incels” as a serious topic, ironically enough, because their complaints about “love” are really complaints about others not being subordinate. They feel they’re entitled to something and they intend to collect. When this is frustrated, they get angry. Weirdly, that incels are too concerned with power places them outside politics for the sake of this discussion. What’s relevant to us is the portrait of the pamphleteer. Yeah, this guy is a little crazy. He wants converts. He wants to be loved for what he does. He’s trying to convey what he thinks—and he might be 100% right about—is a greater truth. And he’s stuck alone on a street corner, unable to communicate despite throwing his energies into writing the right words.

It’s that idea which makes politics such an infuriating mix to deal with: the idea that minds can change because of the right words. That’s what links politics to religion and love—a brain screaming something like “maybe if I say the right thing?” Yet attempts to understand politics get even worse when we stray away from words and try to describe political phenomena purely empirically, through results or actions alone. I get that some people are uncomfortable with saying political philosophy, for example, is purely talk. If we accept that in a negative way, it’s dismissive of political philosophy. If we accept it in a positive way, it smuggles in values precisely where there should be a hard look at how things actually work or a robust debate about values. I believe there is something else at stake here, though. Treating political phenomena as talk, as this attempt to get the “magic words” politics, religion, and love are all searching for, lets us see what people really want and how they regard others. In other words, there’s an authenticity here that’s foundational, independent of most sets of values. Deny it and we can’t have good things.

Our pamphleteer sings “I am your pamphleteer” over and over as the song fades into nothingness. I used to think he was steeling himself for the next day of rejection, declaring who he thinks he is in order to find courage. That may be true, but it’s too cynical, especially when facing the possibility that he’s probably entirely correct about the way we live now. This might be helpful: the more you know yourself, the more it may be the case you can be lost in this world which only wants to hear affirmation of itself. You’ll doubt yourself, you’ll feel like nothing’s working, you’ll still try. You’ll have integrity. There’s an answer to what force on earth could be / Weaker than the feeble strength / Of one, and that answer is that identity is not a force. It’s something far more important, potentially far more valuable.

Mary Ruefle, “Sent to the Monk”

Last night I watched a man who could barely take a step without struggling to breathe buy cigarettes.

I don’t want the image to leave me. Dark, pronounced lines marked his features. They emphasized his verticality, his fight to stand upright and walk. He didn’t talk much—what I mostly heard were wheezes and gasps.

For me, the last few days have been really good. Lots of walks, reading and writing, even winning at video games. I have been thinking about growing older, alone, and in large part I’ve been thinking about people who I feel didn’t age well. What I want most as I grow older is the right attitude, regardless of who is or isn’t in my life.

To see someone suffer so much entails realizing that my own reasoning is so damn privileged. A debate about considering risk factors or making “better” life choices does not do justice to that line of Jane Kenyon’s: But one day, I know, / It will be otherwise. The word “otherwise” does a lot of work—it cuts off trying to think through future adversities, as you can’t know what will hit you or how what afflicts you now will hurt. I’m privileged to be able to make choices now which benefit me in some small way. I’m privileged to be able to believe that I can heal, that I may be able to avoid or mitigate some future trouble.

I’ve been staring at Mary Ruefle’s “Sent to the Monk” here and there the last few days. I use Twitter as a scrapbook, and one of the virtues of having to revisit a timeline of captures is that I have to see things I wasn’t originally looking for. Ruefle’s poem, which features withdrawal-like symptoms from what one supposes a meditative experience, is raw. The past can swallow us whole, if for no other reason than our having no concept of the future:

Sent to the Monk
Mary Ruefle

Night falls
and the empty intimacy of the whole world
fills my heart to frothing.
The past has trudged to this one spot
with a flashlight in its mouth
and falls into the stream.
Ancient tears beneath the surface
rise and scatter like carp,
while an ivory hairpin floats away
like a loose tooth going back in time.

What should be a blank slate, a landscape neutral if not good, instead creates panic—the empty intimacy of the whole world fills my heart to frothing. The emptiness is too much, too close. The thought or memory that one could be loved overwhelms.

More than overwhelms, it drowns. The past has trudged to this one spot with a flashlight in its mouth and falls into the stream. When I panic about being loved, I ransack every image in my head, every part of a memory. Every regret I had or could have floods my mind. Questions of love are taken as questions of worth. Questions of worth entail trying to assess one’s worth immediately.

For Ruefle, griefs long forgotten come to life, creating an ecosystem she will dwell in—Ancient tears beneath the surface rise and scatter like carp. The fish must be found, as she brought them into being, after all. The last lines, where an ivory hairpin floats away like a loose tooth going back in time, describe both the futility and necessity of her project. Going back to solve riddles from one’s childhood can set one back years and may never resolve. Should one try to identify conflicts from long ago? Of course: anything that helps you understand your sensitivity can be good. Still, to identify such a process as a challenge would be an understatement.

Ruefle steps away from the “empty intimacy” of the world because it causes the past to roar back with a vengeance. The gentleman I witnessed struggling to breathe is caught in an exceptionally vicious present, one in which imagining a future is a luxury. And myself—I’m not a middle road between these two. I’m incredibly fortunate to have a moment where I can think about what my sufferings mean. I can understand that being alone feels terrible, and there have been plenty of moments where it felt like I would lose control. I’m not in the midst of that right now, but I would say that is luck more than anything. And it is pure luck that I have my health and can do small things to help better it. I don’t know what to think about aging except, as much as within my power, to bear witness to the whole world, embrace its empty intimacy when I can, and breathe. There is some kind of quiet dignity in simply being, but what a privilege to be healthy enough, or to feel loved enough.

Emily Dickinson, “Apology for Her” (852)

Dickinson’s reflections on sexuality can be harsh. The last two lines of this short poem have a distinct tone, as she seems to feel wronged, holding a certain pride at the isolation of another—Herself, without a Parliament / Apology for Me. I believe that tone can be used to unlock a specific interpretation of this poem, an interpretation which doesn’t hesitate to get personal and philosophical and pained, all at once:

Apology for Her (852)
Emily Dickinson

Apology for Her
Be rendered by the Bee —
Herself, without a Parliament
Apology for Me. 

Apology for Her / Be rendered by the Bee—apology for who? Regarding what? “The Bee” brings the problem of male sexuality into play. If “Her” is a flower—and Dickinson does not hesitate to identify herself with flowers—it is possible to say bees use flowers, only giving anything back through pollination. “Men are trash,” Twitter is fond of saying, and it looks to me like Dickinson would tweet the same. Male bees are unthinking and unreflective. They take for the hive’s good, serving a Queen, but can really be said to “apologize” for their exploitative behavior with one excuse: they simply don’t know any better.

Bees, like men, are truly unapologetic. This calls to mind another significant issue. More than likely, Dickinson was aware of Book 2 of the Iliad, where the mass of Achaean warriors are likened to bees when summoned to an assembly by their rulers:

…the people pressed forward to hear. They swarmed like bees that sally from some hollow cave and flit in countless throng among the spring flowers, bunched in knots and clusters; even so did the mighty multitude pour from ships and tents to the assembly, and range themselves upon the wide-watered shore, while among them ran Wildfire Rumour, messenger of Jove, urging them ever to the fore. Thus they gathered in a pell-mell of mad confusion, and the earth groaned under the tramp of men as the people sought their places.

This passage, where the “mighty multitude” of armed men indulges rumors while gathering “in a pell-mell of mad confusion,” is Homer depicting men when they’re governable. They are assembling; they will listen; like bees, they put in the work. When studying ancient political philosophy, this bee simile is fundamental—if one doesn’t take it seriously, a number of other comments about human nature and governance are inaccessible.

Dickinson seems to wonder about manliness as a construct. At worst, men use and exploit. But what if being obedient and dutiful is the best? That doesn’t seem good enough for love, no matter how much one may want to be wanted by another. It doesn’t seem to be good enough for proper democratic participation. The key problem: a lack of reflection means an inability to admit wrongdoing.

There is no apology for the flower. She feels used, and I believe at this juncture we’re warranted in making a further assumption. “Her” stands for female sexuality in general. “Her” includes Dickinson herself. The transition from “Her” to “Herself” entails the emergence of Dickinson’s individuality. Herself, without a Parliament / Apology for Me—I read this now taking “Parliament” literally: an assembly of representative men. Without such men—without letting a crude manliness assert itself in her life—Dickinson asserts her dignity, finds her self.