Some policy optics best serve to soften up intractable issues for a second look (seven examples from the humanities)

1. Climate emergency parsed through a poem by Jorie Graham

–I liken one of our complexity challenges to that of reading Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain” as if it were still part of the news (it had been written less than two weeks after the sinking of the Titanic).

So too the challenge of reading the first sequence of poems in Jorie Graham’s Fast (2017, Ecco HarperCollinsPublishers). The 17 pages are extraordinary, not just because of pulse driving her lines, but also for what she evokes. In her unfamiliar words, “we are in systemcide”.

–To read the sequence—“Ashes,” “Honeycomb,” “Deep Water Trawling,” and five others—is to experience all manner of starts—“I spent a lifetime entering”—and conjoined ends (“I say too early too late”) with nary a middle in between (“Quick. You must make up your/answer as you made up your//question.”)

Because hers is no single story, she sees no need to explain or explicate. By not narrativizing the systemicide into the architecture of beginning, middle and end, she prefers, I think, evoking the experience of now-time as end-time:

action unfolded in no temporality--->anticipation floods us but we/never were able--->not for one instant--->to inhabit time… 

She achieves the elision with long dashes or —>; also series of nouns without commas between; and questions-as-assertions no longer needing question marks (“I know you can/see the purchases, but who is it is purchasing me—>can you please track that…”). Enjambment and lines sliced off by wide spaces also remind us things are not running.

–Her lines push and pull across the small bridges of those dashes and arrows. To read this way is to feel, for me, what French poet and essayist, Paul Valery, described in a 1939 lecture:

Each word, each one of the words that allow us to cross the space of a thought so quickly, and follow the impetus of an idea which rates its own expression, seems like one of those light boards thrown across a ditch or over a mountain crevasse to support the passage of a man in quick motion. But may he pass lightly, without stopping—and especially may he not loiter to dance on the thin board to try its resistance! The frail bridge at once breaks or falls, and all goes down into the depths.

The swiftness with which I cross her bridges is my experience of the rush of crisis. I even feel pulled forward to phrases and lines that I haven’t read yet. Since this is my experience of systems going wrong, it doesn’t matter to me whether Graham is a catastrophizer or not.

–I disagree about the crisis—for me, it has middles with more mess than beginnings and ends—but that in no way diminishes or circumscribes my sense she’s right when it comes to systemcide: “You have to make it not become/waiting…”

2. Finding value through different genres

–Capitalism, imperialism, militarism, racism, nationalism, atavism: with that line-up, who’s got a chance? Isn’t it better to start at the other end and answer: “What really-existing political conditions and cultural practices allow for the expression of fallibility?”

Why so? Because we want the practice of finding value in things to continue.

–What is finding value ahead? It’s less like a prediction than, pace modern cosmology, a report from a distant planet, wholly like ours except its present has fast forwarded in a way that remains unignorable for ours.

No wonder, then, rapid change isn’t ignored and utopians want something more. No wonder poems matter, since poems favor words many people don’t know and new words can be new worlds. Including worlds uncolonized by our very own historically-contingent “ism’s.”

3. What Shakespeare’s missing lines tell us about war

The playhouse manuscript, Sir Thomas More, has been called “an immensely complex palimpsest of composition, scribal transcription, rewriting, censorship and further additions that features multiple hands”. One of those hands was Shakespeare–and that has contemporary relevance.

–The authoritative Arden Shakespeare text renders a passage from Shakespeare’s Scene 6 as follows (this being Thomas More speaking to a crowd of insurrectionists opposing Henry VIII):

What do you, then,
Rising ’gainst him that God Himself installs,
But rise ’gainst God? What do you to your souls
In doing this? O, desperate as you are,
Wash your foul minds with tears, and those same hands,
That you, like rebels, lift against the peace,
Lift up for peace; and your unreverent knees,
Make them your feet to kneel to be forgiven.
Tell me but this: what rebel captain…

The last two lines, however, had been edited by another of the play’s writers (“Hand C”), deleting the bolded lines Shakespeare had originally written,

Make them your feet. To kneel to be forgiven
Is safer wars than ever you can make
Whose discipline is riot.
In, in to your obedience. While even your hurly
Cannot proceed but by obedience.

What rebel captain….

What has been effaced away by the deletion is, first, the notion that contrition is itself a kind of war and a safer war at that.

–According to the Arden Shakespeare, “The act of contrition might be described as wars because the former rebels would enlist themselves in the struggle of good and evil, and would fight against their own sin of rebellion.” In either case—contrition or rebellion—obedience is required. Actually, nothing was less safe than rebellion whose “discipline is riot”.

What has also been scored out, in other words, from Shakespeare’s original passage is the clear accent on contrition and peace over continued upheaval.

–But the absence of contrition by those involved in the formulation and implementation of war policies is precisely what we have seen and are seeing today.

For to prioritize contrition would mean refocusing obedience from battle to a very different struggle in securing peace and security, a mission in which our ministries of interior and defence are notably inferior, be they in Russia, the US, China or elsewhere.

4. Global Climate Sprawl

You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet. . .It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.

I want to suggest that Global Climate Change isn’t just a bad mess; it’s a spectacularly, can’t-keep-our-eyes-off-it, awful mess of getting it wrong, again and again. To my mind, GCC is a hot mess–both senses of the term–now sprawled all over place and time. It is inextricably, remorselessly part and parcel of “living way too expansively, generously.”

GCC’s the demonstration of a stunningly profligate human nature. You see the sheer sprawl of it all in the epigraph, Philip Roth’s rant from American Pastoral. So too the elder statesman in T.S. Eliot’s eponymous play admits,

The many many mistakes I have made
My whole life through, mistake upon mistake,
The mistaken attempts to correct mistakes
By methods which proved to be equally mistaken.

That missing comma between “many many” demonstrates the excess: After a point, we no longer can pause, with words and thoughts rushing ahead. (That the wildly different Philip Roth and T.S. Eliot are together on this point indicates the very real mess it is.)

That earlier word, sprawl, takes us to a more magnanimous view of what is going on, as in Les Murray’s “The Quality of Sprawl”:

Sprawl is the quality
of the man who cut down his Rolls-Royce
into a farm utility truck, and sprawl
is what the company lacked when it made repeated efforts
to buy the vehicle back and repair its image.
Sprawl is doing your farming by aeroplane, roughly,
or driving a hitchhiker that extra hundred miles home…

This extravagance and profligacy–the waste–are not ornery contrarianism. For poet, Robert Frost, “waste is another name for generosity of not always being intent on our own advantage”. If I had my druthers, rename it, “GCS:” Global Climate Sprawl.

5. War

–I finished reading the Collected Critical Writings of Geoffrey Hill, which discussed a poet I don’t remember reading before, Ivor Gurney. Which in turn sends me to his poems, which leads me to his “War Books” from World War I and the following lines:

What did they expect of our toil and extreme
Hunger - the perfect drawing of a heart's dream?
Did they look for a book of wrought art's perfection,
Who promised no reading, nor praise, nor publication?
Out of the heart's sickness the spirit wrote
For delight, or to escape hunger, or of war's worst anger,
When the guns died to silence and men would gather sense
Somehow together, and find this was life indeed….

The lines, “What did they expect of our toil and extreme/Hunger—the perfect drawing of a heart’s dream?”, reminded me of an anecdote from John Ashbery, the poet, in one of his essays:

Among Chuang-tzu’s many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing was still not begun. ‘I need another five years,’ said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.

It’s as if Chuang-tzu’s decade—his form of hunger—did indeed produce the perfect drawing. Gurney’s next two lines, “Did they look for a book of wrought art’s perfection,/Who promised no reading, no praise, nor publication?” reminds me, however, of very different story, seemingly making the opposite point (I quote from Peter Jones’ Reading Virgil: Aeneid I and II):

Cicero said that, if anyone asked him what god is or what he is like, he would take the Greek poet Simonides as his authority. Simonides was asked by Hiero, tyrant of Syracuse, the same question, and requested a day to think about it. Next day Hiero demanded the answer, and Simonides begged two more days. Still no answer. Continuing to double up the days, Simonides was eventually asked by Hiero what the matter was. He replied, ‘The longer I think about the question, the more obscure than answer seems to be.’

I think Hiero’s question was perfect in its own right by virtue of being unquestionably unanswerable. In the case of Chuang-tzu, what can be more perfect than the image that emerges, infallibly and unstoppably, from a single stroke? In the case of Simonides, what can be more insurmountable than the perfect question without answer?

–Yet here is Gurney providing the same answer to each question: War ensures the unstoppable and insurmountable are never perfect opposites—war, rather, patches them together as living: Somehow together, and find this too was life indeed.

Ashbery records poet, David Schubert, saying of the great Robert Frost: “Frost once said to me that – a poet – his arms can go out – like this – or in to himself; in either case he will cover a good deal of the world.”

6. The best synonym for macro-designs is “not noticing”

–“Design” is a trigger-word for me, when it encourages the notion one can macro-design the micro. Anyone who has tried to implement as planned—today’s version of clockmaker God and the echt-rational—knows how plug-and-play designs don’t work, as contingency and context invariably get in the way.

To see how this matters, consider a late poem of Robert Lowell, “Notice,” and a gloss on it by Helen Vendler, the critic. Here’s the poem in its entirety, centering as it does around Lowell’s leaving an asylum after a manic-depressive episode:

Notice

The resident doctor said,
“We are not deep in ideas, imagination or enthusiasm –
how can we help you?”
I asked,
“These days of only poems and depression –
what can I do with them?
Will they help me to notice
what I cannot bear to look at?”

The doctor is forgotten now
like a friend’s wife’s maiden-name.
I am free
to ride elbow to elbow on the rush-hour train
and copy on the back of a letter,
as if alone:
“When the trees close branches and redden,
their winter skeletons are hard to find—”
to know after long rest
and twenty miles of outlying city
that the much-heralded spring is here,
and say,
“Is this what you would call a blossom?”
Then home – I can walk it blindfold.
But we must notice –
we are designed for the moment.

–I take up Vendler’s gloss when she turns to Lowell’s last line:

In becoming conscious of his recovery by becoming aware, literally moment by moment, of his new capacities for the most ordinary actions of life, the poet sees that ‘we are designed for the moment’—that our consciousness chiefly functions moment by moment, action by action, realization by realization. Biologically, ‘we are designed for the moment’ of noticing.

–What Lowell is doing in the last two lines is also revisiting, I’d like to think, the second line, “We are not deep in ideas, imagination or enthusiasm” and making this point: The designs put upon us by ideas and enthusiasms differ from the noticing designed into us in at least one major respect.

We notice the ideas-that-design because noticing is not an idea. Knee deep in noticing is not being knee deep in ideas or enthusiasms because noticing is a kind of momentary alertness—“Is this what you would call a blossom?”

–So what?

For me, Lowell is spot-on. Macro-designs imposed upon the world are best described as forms of not-noticing. I was once involved in an urban environmental project, where what college students were taught and what they found on the ground were not just different but orthogonal:

  • Vacant lots were said to be ideal for community gardens but could not be used for gardening because prior use had rendered the soils toxic (that is why they were vacant);
  • Daylighting city creeks was recommended to improve public access to a restored natural area. Local residents preferred instead leaving creeks inaccessible rather than opening them to out-of-sight criminal behavior;
  • A clean-up campaign to reduce street litter became something more when the gloves distributed for the effort were pierced by discarded injection needles; and
  • Planting more trees along the street was touted as an ideal urban improvement, but in practice doing so raised liability issues, ranging from tree roots buckling the sidewalk to cutting away those roots rendering the trees more prone to falling.

Had I taken time to notice what other people had already noticed, things might have been different. More formally, the inevitable gap between professed ideals for all cases and actual practices across a run of different cases signals the importance of alertness, not design assumptions, for practice.

7. “Ridicule is the only honourable weapon we have left.” Muriel Spark, novelist

I can’t quote them because Heidegger was a Nazi, Pound a Fascist, Sartre a Maoist, Eliot an anti-Semite. I don’t read Foucault because he didn’t care if he infected guys and I don’t read that mystery writer because she’s a convicted killer. I don’t go to baseball games because of the players’ strike way back when and I refuse to watch that man’s films because he’s said to have messed with his own kid.

I don’t buy Nike because of the sweatshops, listen to Wagner because he was a Jew-hater, or have a TV because it makes children violent. I can’t eat tofu because of genetically modified soybeans or cheese because of genetically modified bacteria. I don’t listen to Sinatra because he was a nasty little man or Swarzkopf because she was a collaborator. The U.S. government’s been screwed since Johnson and the Great Society (no, since FDR and the welfare state (no, since Lincoln and the Civil War (no, since Jackson and the Trail of Tears (no, since Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase (no, since Washington and his plantation slaves…)))).

I don’t trust Freud because he didn’t understand women, Klein because she couldn’t get along with her daughter, Bettelheim because he’s said to have hit kids, or Laing because he too wasn’t nice. I think we were never further away from nuclear war than during the Cuban Missile Crisis (only afterwards did Brezhnev insist on nuclear parity). Plus it’s a good thing Japan has lost decades of economic growth or they’d’ve been re-armed by now.

From time to time I’ve wondered if Socrates could go to heaven. Speaking of which, why is Adam painted with a belly button, where in the Bible is the turkey that keeps showing up in those pictures of Eden and Noah’s Ark, and for that matter why do shadows first show up in early Western art only? Do you really think historical Jesus worried about who licks what where?

Dying means my total annihilation: Too bad for eternity, I say—it doesn’t know what it’s missing. It’s only when I’m dead that I become “will always have been.” Still, little gives me quite the exquisite pleasure as knowing my secrets die with me.

Which makes me wonder: Other than the streets, where do squirrels go to die? And whatever happened to pineapple upside-down cake and Saturday drives? I have to wonder, did Wittgenstein read Rabelais: “Utterances are meaningful not by their nature, but by choice”? Can there be anything more mind-numbing than beginning, “In hunting-and-gathering societies. . .”? And just who did say, Freedom is the recognition of necessity (Hegel, Engels, Lenin, who)? E Pluribus Unum: Isn’t that Latin for “Follow the dollar”?

Whatever, every morning I wake up and thank heaven I wasn’t born a minority in this country. If I had a magic wand, I’d solve America’s race problem by giving everybody a master’s degree. I’d make sure they’d all be white, married, professionally employed, and own homes. (BTW, every adult in China should have a car; with all that ingenuity they’d have to come up with a solution to vehicle pollution.)

But then again, I’m quite willing to say that the entire point of human evolution is there hasn’t been any worth speaking of. As for the rest, I suppurate with unease. It’s probably—possibly, plausibly?—wise not to think too much about these things.

Principal sources: References found in early blog entries.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s