Kay Ryan, “The Elephant in the Room”

This short protest poem has been making the rounds on Twitter and Pinterest — see here, for example — and I wondered if I should write about it. I sometimes worry about writing about “obvious” poems, poems which could be easily understood. Leave them alone, let people make them their own words without hesitation, I tell myself. The “obviousness” of this poem, though, is more peculiar. I believe it only feels known for many. The precise nature of the denial it discusses merits fuller examination:

The Elephant in the Room (from “Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now”)
Kay Ryan

The room is
almost all
elephant.
Almost none
of it isn’t.
Pretty much
solid elephant.
So there’s no
room to talk
about it.

Comment:

“The room is almost all elephant.” Squeezed against a wall, I’m reminded of being ignored at a party. I’m just trying to get as flat as possible here, not trying to bother you, ho-hum. There’s a problem and it’s gotten out of hand. Either I’m being ignored by everyone and trying to find some space distinctly mine, or I’m trying to avoid confronting a serious problem growing in scope and size. There’s an elephant in this room because I’m in deep, deep denial.

How do I know I’m in denial? Because I’m still looking for room in a room jammed with an elephant: “almost none of it isn’t [elephant].” Heck, I’m probing around, trying to see if the elephant is really there. No luck, it’s all “pretty much solid elephant.”

This all leads to a funny, strange conclusion. Since everything is elephant, “there’s no room to talk about it.” What does that mean? In the Age of Trump, it looks like the elephant in the room is spoken of all the time. Not only are the President and his activities and associates scrutinized, but his voters are continually asked about why they made their decision. The media is excessive, but it is full of self-criticism and differing attempts to grasp why the free world is in its present situation. There are incredibly thoughtful critiques on this score: the ones to which I’m most partial talk about how cable news, talk radio, and the Internet involve creating content to radicalize subject populations. It’s been this way for decades now. That content is about filling air time with anger and fear more imagined than real, and that content is cheap to produce and nearly impossible to fact-check. I’m not saying a media which makes money perpetually agitating us is the only problem, but that would be a contender for “elephant in the room,” no?

Ryan’s not interested in my particular conclusion, though. She’s concerned with the shape of denial, and even my opinion is a bit too glib on that front. “There’s no room to talk about it” cuts right to the heart of a demagogic President who manipulates media in his sleep (literally – that’s, for me, the significance of “covfefe”). There’s something about our discussion, right here and right now, that exhibits a more fundamental denial. My mistake is thinking a discussion is even happening. I need to find the proper criteria for truth, for openness, for speaking my mind. There’s lots of noise, and the temptation is to think adding to the noise is self-expression.

On that note, this poem does contain a positive teaching. Find people who are willing to admit they’ve been in denial, or could be in denial. What’s missing from any potential solution nowadays is good faith. If I’m going to find faith, I have to demonstrate it. If I’m going to be trusted, I need to show myself trustworthy. There are no easy solutions to problems which have mutated, which have become much more than the sum of their parts. To show the fly the way out of the fly bottle involves changing how it conceives the bottle entirely, so it can remember that and how it entered. “There’s no room to talk about it” is a call to action. From small steps, like rebuilding trust, we see differently, we speak differently, and we can start moving that elephant back to the zoo.

Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Case of Wagner,” 1st Chapter

for Ricky McAlister

It is raining stupidly in Dallas. Flooded roads have not prevented traffic. Out of the wet and sticky weather people roam into stores, gas stations, restaurants. They do not quite bring boredom with them, but a more specific problem. They don’t know what to do with themselves at home. They want out of the house, a respite from themselves, roommates, and families. Perhaps it is this urge that has caused mankind to engage in centuries of killing. Perhaps man has seen war not only as a way out of the house, but as a way to help others escape the house. The worst that can happen is that you die, which was going to happen anyway.

I want everyone to shut up and read a book. Already I have been told that I know nothing about sports because I wouldn’t indulge a theory from someone who doesn’t know the difference between a baseball and a bowling ball. I have also listened to a rant about an entire workplace needs to be fired, a rant so composed and comprehensive that it did not lack for want of practice. There’s flooding down in Texas, and this is what really happens when all of the telephone lines are down: every crank has his moment.

However, years of rambling about books and poems have shown me that I, as a crank, have certainly had my moments. Does reading do more than act as a pacifier? I’d like to walk through some remarks of Nietzsche, remarks about listening to opera, which I think can be applied to the experience of reading. In the first chapter of The Case of Wagner, Nietzsche tells us he put Bizet’s Carmen on autoplay to such a degree that he surprised himself:

Yesterday I heard — would you believe it? — Bizet’s masterpiece, for the twentieth time. Again I stayed there with tender devotion; again I did not run away. This triumph over my impatience surprises me. How such a work makes one perfect! One becomes a “masterpiece” oneself.

Twenty times he heard Carmen, staying with “tender devotion,” triumphing over his own impatience. So far, this fanaticism seems familiar. However, I would note two peculiarities. First, he says he “did not run away.” One could take this as a joke about the extent of his impatience. I’m inclined to think it is something more, as it implies he has been looking for an opera, a work of art, to do no less than worship. Second, he claims Carmen “makes one perfect,” making its mere listeners a “masterpiece.”

So yeah, I do think Nietzsche introduces the theme of how attentiveness to art transforms us. He’s starting from a specific vantage, that of the fanatic. One lets oneself get a little crazy — okay, maybe more than a little crazy — in order to see how some notes, some words, can move and make us. How is Nietzsche himself molded? He feels he becomes a better philosopher through masterful music:

Really, every time I heard Carmen I seemed to myself more of a philosopher, a better philosopher, than I generally consider myself: so patient do I become, so happy, so Indian, so settled. — To sit five hours: the first stage of holiness!

More patient, happier, more settled: these are traits Nietzsche claims here forge a better lover of wisdom. There is a caveat, of course. As he is “more Indian,” joining “the first stage of holiness,” one wonders if he is indeed becoming a better philosopher, or more religious in some quasi-philosophic way. If loving wisdom entails a radical skepticism which must question belief, it is hard to see how philosophy and religion can be joined. However, I think it prudent to at least temporarily entertain the notion that certain philosophic and religious characteristics coincide. This is not to say that philosophy and religion can be reconciled. It is simply to let Nietzsche’s surface be until a precise reason to question it emerges.

If Nietzsche proposes, for a moment, some sort of alliance between philosophy and religion, he does manage to be clear about the cause. Loving Bizet means rejecting Wagner, and Wagner is “brutal,” “artificial,” “innocent” all at once. This combination is most “disagreeable” and most “modern:”

May I say that the tone of Bizet’s orchestra is almost the only one I can still endure? That other orchestral tone which is now the fashion, Wagner’s, brutal, artificial, and “innocent” at the same time — thus it speaks all at once to the three senses of the modern soul — how harmful for me is this Wagnerian orchestral tone! I call it sirocco. I break out into a disagreeable sweat. My good weather is gone.

Philosophy and religion represent the most ancient of days. In either case, both call mankind to love and wisdom. Modernity, in its brutality, artificiality, and innocence, is about something else. On the surface, it looks like dominion or control. That certainly is one problem of modernity, but the deeper problem reveals itself in the word “innocent.” One of the most cruel things I have experienced in my life — brutal, one might say — has been when I’ve been right, and people with power over me didn’t like me being right, doubling-down on their wrongness. They attacked me on artificial grounds incessantly, making me look wrong for both moral and logical reasons. In their own way, they were innocent. They literally didn’t know any better. One can’t know any better if love and wisdom are not priorities. I submit, for my Straussian readers curious about modernity, how much the fatal flaw of modern thinking is a crude notion of justification. It’s not really about taking control of a chaotic world through knowledge and action, but about the pursuit of technology or expertise being the only justification possible.

What does any of this have to do with reading? Everything. Reading, at its best, is letting an art take over one’s life. It’s countercultural in the extreme, opposing the world from the 16th century onward. That is not to say the world since then has only been a failure: far from it. It is to say that any regime, including a regime of thought, taken to an extreme is no regime at all, no thought at all. So how do we read? Nietzsche, in telling us about opera, informs us of his “aesthetics.” He’s telling us about how he writes:

This music seems perfect to me. It approaches lightly, supplely, politely. It is pleasant, it does not sweat. “What is good is light; whatever is divine moves on tender feet”: first principle of my aesthetics. This music is evil, subtly fatalistic: at the same time it remains popular — its subtlety belongs to a race, not to an individual. It is rich. It is precise. It builds, organizes, finishes: thus it constitutes the opposite of the polyp in music, the “infinite melody.” Have more painful tragic accents ever been heard on the stage? How are they achieved?

Bizet’s music seems perfect, he claims. “It approaches lightly, supplely, politely.” We can see characteristics of the music which the listener can immediately translate for the purpose of shaping his own character. A lighter, more flexible, more polite soul can charm others, be regarded as perfect. It will be “pleasant,” not straining its owner.

There is more. The music can be seen as no less than a life in full. “Rich” and “precise,” one can go back to it and learn much about one’s own life. “It builds, organizes, finishes.” Not just a life lived, but one that can be relived, understood from the inside out. Yet Nietzsche might oppose this interpretation of mine, where music, self-awareness, and the experience of reading are all one. He claims “this music is evil, subtly fatalistic: at the same time it remains popular — its subtlety belongs to a race, not to an individual.” Two problems for my interpretation arise: first, is Nietzsche preventing me from speaking of learning how to be an individual? The subtlety of the music “belongs to a race,” after all. Second, do the terms “evil, subtly fatalistic” stop us from taking any lessons from the music? It is “evil,” and it concerns fate, what cannot be changed.

I suspect these questions are less an obstacle than one might think, but I must be honest about the shortcomings of my interpretation. Suffice to say that I think the “evil, subtly fatalistic” music, where the “subtlety” belongs to a race, speaks to the intellectual honesty of the music. Bizet’s Carmen, in its tragic form, recalls Greek tragedy. It speaks of the pain of love and does not insist on itself as a work of towering genius, one that would remake mankind wholly. The subtlety of a race is precondition, in this case, for the emergence of an individual. Nietzsche thus asks how the most “painful tragic accents,” the voices of the tragedy, were achieved. How does music, or a piece of writing, enable one to discover oneself? He answers this through the via negativa:

Without grimaces. Without counterfeit. Without the lie of the great style.

Wagner’s artifice, as we learn later in the work, involves the constant repetition of a redemption narrative. In other words, instead of displaying pain and tragedy as they are, he tries to impose, showing the worthiness of ritual and sacrifice. Since his heroes and heroines die for love, he ends up warping what love itself is, making a redemption narrative (e.g. Christianity) a syrupy romance. Upon this lazy and brutish sentimentality, Wagner will attempt to found no less than the Reich.

The full experience of reading, then, depends a lot upon what the author does not do, what temptations the audience refuses to indulge. Nietzsche is becoming a better philosopher through Bizet, because Bizet is treating him like an equal, like he is intelligent, and Nietzsche accepts this challenge. Wagner, on the other hand, is a dictator, repeating himself until his listeners despair and then, with no reason of their own left, believe him:

Finally, this music treats the listener as intelligent, as if himself a musician — and is in this respect, too, the counterpart of Wagner, who was, whatever else he was, at any rate the most impolite genius in the world (Wagner treats us as if — he says something so often — till one despairs — till one believes it).

Of course, Bizet, in creating a masterpiece, did not think through how every member of his audience would receive it. This is the great mystery of creating something beautiful which inspires thoughtfulness. Why can’t everything and anything make us wiser? We have part of the answer in what Wagner does wrong. His obnoxious claims to genius are really a form of bullying, and he reinforces the worst tendencies of the modern world, unable to help his audience conceive something different. Still, even though Bizet’s work gives the soul certain graces, what exactly does it do correctly? A very specific virtue accompanies great art:

Once more: I become a better human being when this Bizet speaks to me. Also a better musician, a better listener. Is it even possible to listen better? — I actually bury my ears under this music to hear its causes. It seems to me I experience its genesis — I tremble before dangers that accompany some strange risk; I am delighted by strokes of good fortune of which Bizet is innocent. — And, oddly, deep down I don’t think of it, or don’t know how much I think about it. For entirely different thoughts are meanwhile running through my head.

Nietzsche, one of the greatest readers and writers to ever walk the planet, says he feels a better listener when engaged with Carmen. We can read “listening” broadly, as receptivity to the human condition: “I become a better human being when this Bizet speaks to me.” The funny thing is the precise genesis of this virtue. Bizet cannot know how Nietzsche will know. Nor can Nietzsche truly know Carmen as a work of art. The reader/listener must always work with his perception of what he engages. The true genesis, the true causes of the music are the dangers and fortunes Nietzsche becomes aware of in his own life. As the reader/listener becomes self-aware, he engages the art to a greater degree, and the art gives back as it is given. It is that interplay which constitutes the object. Wagner’s moralistic dictation does not allow for such interplay. Certain propositions, such as “the world is X” or “all people are Y,” do not attend self-reflection as much as replace it. An emergent nationalism, as we’re seeing now, makes every excuse to prevent individual thought, as unity is far more important than difference for power’s sake.

Nietzsche goes even further than I do. His gratefulness to Bizet for making him a better philosopher includes his pinpointing times he thinks he’s achieved wisdom. A better reader, a better listener, is a lover of wisdom, full stop. It’s quite a radical teaching, because the biggest dorks I know who have no chance of understanding the human condition in their present state do read too much. But Nietzsche can see himself growing with the music, can see himself seeing that much more of the world. Paying attention to the words of others is a remarkable advance:

Has it been noticed that music liberates the spirit? gives wings to thought? that one becomes more of a philosopher the more one becomes a musician? — The gray sky of abstraction rent as if by lightning; the light strong enough for the filigree of things; the great problems near enough to grasp; the world surveyed as from a mountain. — I have just defined the pathos of philosophy. — And unexpectedly answers drop into my lap, a little hail of ice and wisdom, of solved problems. — Where am I? — Bizet makes me fertile. Whatever is good makes me fertile. I have no other gratitude, nor do I have any other proof for what is good.

“Whatever is good makes me fertile.” This declaration of the human good is reached only through a willingness to work through difficulties. Nietzsche’s strange discussion almost forms a story. Abstractions, which one must work with as an intellectual, are suddenly brought to an end by the presence of the world. It’s like no less than lightning strikes, but lightning, while shaking one to the core, only gives one a second to see things. “The pathos of philosophy” is how near the great problems seemed to be once, right within one’s grasp, yet they never can be seen again. What one gets instead is a view of the world, from far above. It’s more real, but still abstract in its own way. One learns to deal with smaller problems, with one’s own perspective, and from that individual growth, the glimpse of the whole makes a peculiar sense. It is the inaccessible which underlies all human knowing. It can never be done away with because it is the fact of perspective. The whole world surveyed from a mountain top is the same as being hit with a hail of ice and wisdom, here and there. The funny thing is that what one learns though one’s perspective adds up. It can never be a whole which defines the universe, because it does so much more than that.

References

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Kaufmann. 2000. “The Case of Wagner,” in Basic writings of Nietzsche. New York: Modern Library. 605-606.

Rooted Cosmopolitanism and the Emergence of the Poet in Seamus Heaney’s North

The link goes to a short conference paper I’ve prepared for ACTC’s 23rd annual conference in Dallas, TX. I will be presenting the paper shortly at a panel entitled “Recovering from the Past through Poetry and Literature.” If you’re interested in reading, I’ve uploaded it here:

Rooted Cosmopolitanism and the Emergence of the Poet in Seamus Heaney’s North

Hope you enjoy. It’s a work in progress, and advice is welcome.

Blog in Review: “I haven’t even been regular about blogging,” 4/11/17

What I want shouldn’t be contradictory, but it feels like a contradiction. I want self-control — far less anxiety, far more purpose. And I want to invest in myself, do the things I know are worth doing. Put that way, there seems to be no problem. Self-control should lead to discipline and I should be doing whatever I like well and reveling in success.

Of course, no such thing is happening: I haven’t even been regular about blogging. Self-control and investment in oneself are not the same thing, and the difference shows a multitude of ways. Give up anxiety, for example, and you might give up the inhibitions which lead to better behavior. Or focus on bettering oneself, and realize that your own priorities are muddled. I should be writing and taking care of my health and applying for jobs and doing coursework and corresponding with scholars in my field and making sure I’m giving friends and family the attention they need — the funny thing is that I’m not half as busy as most others, but sorting out what needs to be done at a given moment can be a nightmare.

Which is why for about a month now I’ve been thinking about the ways we punish ourselves. Issa’s “Even with insects” concerns frustration; “On Anxiety” speaks for itself. The overarching theme is that self-expression, voicing and identifying one’s problems, could bring a sense of relief, but oh, so much resides in that “could.” When writing about Andrew Johnston’s “Boat,” I had the thought that we romanticize the power of thought, seeing ourselves as discovering new continents when we’re actually just figuring out the limits of our own minds and lives.

I then switched, in what little I wrote, from the theme of anxiety to love. I wasn’t thinking about anyone in particular, but I did want to address how I felt at earlier times in my life. Fiona Farrell’s “What It’s Like” and H.W. Gretton’s “Triolet” did not disappoint in helping me clear up attitudes I had that were certainly problematic. Andrew Johnston’s “For Rose” helped me identify what matters above all. I can’t say blogging translates into immediate self-improvement, obviously. But it’s nice to have a record of what I’m trying to work through.

Now what’s on my mind is beginning to shift again. I’m working through Seamus Heaney’s “North” carefully, and that means a lot of thinking about what history means. One of his poems, from the short cycle “Bone Dreams,” I thought worth expanding upon. It felt like there was a whole scholastic sort of debate hiding in that verse. More on Heaney coming soon.

As I introduce this last link, I’m thinking it’s apt for how I started this post. Notions like “self-control” and “investment in oneself” imply that we have a lot more power over our lives than we may have. They imply that we give up power, more often than not. Maybe that’s true, but maybe it’s also the case that we’re all a bit scatterbrained, a bit distracted. I rewatched an Arnold movie I rather liked two days ago, “The Last Stand,” and I used the write-up to comment on contemporary politics and what it means to reflect on one’s own legacy. I don’t know in what I invested, and watching the movie wasn’t a demonstration of self-control on my part. Yet I suspect not a few of you will find my musings about the film pretty damn relevant.

The Last Stand

The Last Stand. Directed by Jee-woon Kim. Written by Andrew Knauer. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, & Johnny Knoxville. Lionsgate, 2013.

Jamelle Bouie once tweeted that The Last Stand was the last great Schwarzenegger movie, and maybe it was April Fools’ Day when he said that, but I concur. The art direction makes every scene a comic book panel come to life. A dusty Western town has cornfields and dirt roads glow with sunshine; a diner’s recognizable decor invites through its brightness; the darker, bluish hues of an FBI unit losing a fugitive capture the stress of the situation. Attention to detail makes the action realistic enough. Police tactical shotguns can penetrate the body armor of hired guns, but stand no chance against their scoped, military grade weaponry in terms of distance and damage. The deaths in the movie are grisly and final, and the wounds make you wince. Still, there’s enough ridiculous, over-the-top sequences that one doesn’t forget why one came to the movies.

Certainly, Arnold himself doesn’t forget why he came to the movies. His sheriff in an Arizona border town is only a stand-in for him, but his performance is the heart of the film. People might make the mistake of saying that playing yourself is easy. It really isn’t, and I’ll prove it this way: when was the last time you genuinely tried to be yourself? Arnold’s sheriff, one Ray Owens, used to work in Los Angeles, with a narcotics unit trained in special tactics. One of his deputies in the sleepy small town of Somerton knows this, and pleads with Ray to help him get a job in the big city for action’s sake. Ray answers that Los Angeles is not all it’s cracked up to be, implying that there’s something genuinely good about a town where nothing happens, maybe one where people don’t even see movies.

It’s tough to believe Ray because Arnold is in front of us, acting in a big-budget film right in front of our eyes. Of course, the disproportion between being a cop who can impose his will on dangerous situations and a jacked-up action star makes his advice somewhat believable. If you want to be a policeman who gets the glory he deserves, you don’t know what you’re asking for only seems to strictly correspond to Ray, the sheriff. It can’t possibly have anything to do with Arnold the action star, can it?

But it has everything to do with Arnold the action star. Why do people want to master dangerous situations in the first place? What glory do they see in winning duels, crushing their enemies, seeing them driven away? Why is everything so violent? The villains in The Last Stand have all the bravado and superhuman feats of 80’s action stars. The mercenaries resemble Arnold’s fellow cast in Commando and Predator; the drug kingpin races cars, does stunts regularly, wears designer suits that stay flawless while performing martial arts, designs devious, outrageous plans. Arnold is at his most believable when he says he’s seen blood and death, that he knows what’s coming when the mercenaries plan to secure his town for their boss’ getaway. I submit the only way he can be so believed is that he’s aware of the responsibility he’s had in glorifying violence. As much as I love those stupid Fast and Furious movies, there’s no doubt they contribute a glamour to street racing that street racing doesn’t deserve. There are impressionable people in the world, and media does its best to prey on impressions, no matter how often we try to create things of value.

Arnold’s performance, though, doesn’t end on a tragic note. Throughout the movie he mentors, teaches, encourages. His hero warns the deputy of his ambition, speaks honestly to another scared deputy about fear, levels with the perfectly reasonable complaint that standing up to the cartels is a suicide mission, asks people to finish what they’ve started. It’s impossible in Trumpland to not see a glaring contrast between what no less than Aristotle would have proclaimed gentlemanly — read: political — virtues and the politics of conspiracy theory we have now. It’s impossible to not think that an actor, of all people, learned something reflecting on his career, wondering about what matters. The other performances in The Last Stand, for the most part, match that gravity. Forest Whitaker’s FBI agent, having what could be the worst day of his life, has it out with Arnold over the phone in an exchange made all the more tense because of each’s restraint. Jaimie Alexander’s deputy shows a vast range of emotion over a series of traumatic events: locking up one’s ex-boyfriend, finding a body, facing machine gun fire, seeing your partner die.

Only two things irritate me about the movie. Firstly, I could have used less of Johnny Knoxville’s Dinkum, a small-town eccentric in love with guns. He, like the diner waitress Christie, is an over-the-top caricature, and I fully understand why they have to be in the movie. I get now, in a way I didn’t before, that even the most serious scripts need secondary characters for whom the gravity of a given situation is almost a joke. Only by seeing a lot more of life did I realize that some people just don’t get what’s going on, or get what’s going on in a way most of us cannot recognize. Secondly, and much more seriously, I wish the good guys in this movie were much more diverse, especially Arnold’s deputies. There’s a lot of diversity in the casting, sure, but it did feel like it fell heavily on the bad guy grunt roles. The movie accidentally indulges the notion that small-town law enforcement, i.e. heartland values, and whiteness go hand-in-hand (to be fair, there is an ethnically Mexican deputy who is a fun character). It’s a dangerous notion to give any credence nowadays, though, and I know Arnold is someone who can see this problem a mile away. I suspect the reason why white nationalism is experiencing a revival in certain Christian circles is the inability to see people who are different as concerned with law, concerned with making a place a real home. Ultimately, “American” becomes confused with “white,” as if Martin Luther King Jr. is less American than Charles Manson. In addition to the small town value of not glorifying violence, not destroying people with style to proclaim one’s mastery, it would have been nice to see another value emphasized, that of welcomeness, of openness, of hospitality.