Alizarin showers crescendoed in a pummel on the aching glade, like the blasphemous fires of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The Netflix Intellectual, and the $9.99 burden of proof.
“There’s actually a great Netflix documentary that talks about this…”.
May it please the devil to learn that this overture is the sum total of intellectual life in a time when man who’s never had so much information, knows so little.
An innocent looking enough phrase, which never happens to escape the mention of some well-intentioned individual dealing in earnest his share of what he believes to be thoughtful, meaning conversation. In fact, most of such a consideration even amounts to ‘discourse’ among those unaware of how unoriginal they are and loath to do anything about. So is the genius of this crudest variety of speech: it is almost a carnal flattery to speak and hear it, like a feather to tickle as intelligent all who lift their shirts and expose their bellies.
What after all is so terrible about Netflix documentaries that they should earn our scorn in their hearing and shame in their mention? Is it not enough that the popular mind has taken to a form of television that is meant to be informative and educational? The whole platform is a sensational buffet of pablum and mindless programing, at least (should we not celebrate it?) there’s still a taste for the non-fiction.
In truth, it would be unfair to single out Netflix. Equally accused are any of the high-speed gratification mills that pump their informational tranquilizer into the mass of absent minds looking at once to be sedated and educated. YouTube fits the bill nicely here. So do podcasts and social media apps.
With documentaries, learning has never been so fun, you might have noticed. Displayed like so many flavours of ice cream, behind that glass screen of Deleuze’s desiring machine, the docuseries are ordered into scrollable tiles to excite the eye and wet the slavish glands—and after you’ve dipped your spoon into every sample comes the outpour of pleasure in finally pressing play.
Indeed, what an irresistible ether learning has become.
I might be giving myself away as being possessed of an older fashion, but I am more than a little concerned to see at scale the violation of a most historical precedent: there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Before the improbability of Netflix as educator, perhaps the first place to seek out issue is in the present estimation of the genre itself, ‘non-fiction’, since there is much to be said on this score of a literary type which has flown too large in the popular opinion. A danger for the low-lying minds which bear it.
Non-fiction. What a weighty word it is nowadays, seeming at all points to carry an unearned distinction gotten by its nearness to a supposedly lesser, ‘fiction’, and affording too large a credit to anyone who mouths it in the course of their high-sounding blathering. Why? Because everyone knows there is nothing to be learned from fiction: it is make-believe; the stuff of stories; even worse, fantasy, and cannot be expected for it the repute of serious things, nor especially the subject for serious thinkers. Apparently, the tragedy of fiction is that it is not ‘real’—the very point of it, and one which makes it all the more important. But to the literal-minded, it does not give an account of what is ‘real’ (in which case they often take to mean ‘factual’) and because of this irrecoverable deficiency is cursed as being impractical—particularly for appearing smarter than you are.
Thus goes something like today’s epistemological prejudice on what type of knowledge is worth keeping and for what reasons; all the better for the kinds of informational engorgement that lead onto the extremes of a docuseries petite mort. And so, to carry the point to its natural conclusion, unlike fiction, which excises an unfavourable labour before the humblest learning can be had, non-fiction de-facto educates, and its study is gained by default, by the mere act of exposing yourself to it. Seemingly, from the way people talk so proudly of their Netflix voyages, non-fiction never derives its usage purely from an aim to amuse. There is, however, the uncomfortable reality—since it is such a salient word—that most of it is exactly that, simple, deadened entertainment.
Leaving the state of fiction, and by extension, art, in the life and thoughts of everyday man, I should like to deal more specifically with the subject of multi-media educational programming as a means for learning. Yet the recent side-track earned us an important insight into the primacy of information in the common attitudes and of the imperative for being informed in place of intelligent.
It may be the single greatest fallacy of our age that information on its own is informative.
The confusion occurs at the point of its use; that data devoured in quick drafts turns to insight and the mind gorged on these readymade citations becomes thoughtful. Facts binged and strange anecdotes crammed between the seams, for the ambitious raconteur these quantities are his purchase for impressing strangers and amazing himself all at once. His credo is “know the reported facts and recite from the dictionary of received ideas.” To him, non-fiction is the root of his erudition, and when he hobbles his statistical items together half-wittedly, with the fraudulence that becomes a charlatan, does he incite the source of his supposed cultivation.
Here, among a few, is one of the main contentions I’d like to make. That a hundred facts remembered, or a thousand explanations retained is nothing learned. They are instead amounts which sum to false and empty talk, the Wildean posturing we’ve come to know in Dorian Grey, Bouvard and Pecuchet, Swann hearing Vinteuil’s sonata…
This is not a question of better, fiction or non-fiction, but of correcting a popular error in estimation. Supported almost by the strength in assumption, do people accord the concentrated imbibing of digital information as a legitimate heuristic, and by that same accordance judge themselves to benefit in the bargain for smarts and vainglory. But where their discernment fails them is in their over qualifying the mental sates of watching as those of active learning; in their confusing of reciting for knowing.
Mass media documentaries and videos are educational strictly by content, but they are designed and curated for consumption first, for the maximization of amusement and visceral appeasement; explaining why the average person can binge them in straight succession on the order of whole afternoons, where he is incapable of even an hour’s honest learning without break. Watching these info-concentrates is chiefly an occurrence of insensate viewing, belied by a temporary gain of some arbitrary and stray quasi-knowledge. I say temporary generously, as almost no sooner than they are heard do these loose articles fall out of mind from not having a proper foothold in the intellectual curiosity or persistence necessary to sustain them. Passive absorbance of visual and oratory stimuli is not cognition and the satiated exposure to educational videocasts is no greater a thing than motivational hedonism.
Does this suggest Netflix documentaries are utterly useless for one’s learning; that they do not provide informational value whatsoever? No. But in the general case of their use, do they admit in their audience the limp and palsy states of sensory delectation? Yes.
Ratiocination is scarcely involved in the Netflix process, only its appearance and allegation. Most people, most of the time, merely observe information in whatever form, exciting that limbic response to consumption and curiosity, two compulsions which are their own rewards. There is a euthymic enjoyment about things that are interesting, and the novelty of unseen material is quite to this purpose, apt for overuse and dependency, and rapidly turning from consequence to need. Put in no uncertain terms, pleasure, in whichever way it is had best, is the governing principle behind most forms of mass media use.
The problem then with commercialized information-videos is that they do not incite the mental strain necessary to bear forth a longstanding intelligence.
For information to be informing to us, a connection must be drawn from within a place of foundational understanding; a pre-existing mental architecture that can inhabit and store it in relation to not just what one knows, but also to what one does not. Knowledge is a wholesome acquisition, in the sense that it employs the whole of the faculties for its subsistence, in the intaking and retaining, but also for the comprehending. And still after the affair is set, there is no guarantee of its permanence, as is the ticklish nature of intelligence in even the smartest people. To remain well-kept in your understanding, whatever has been successfully adapted in the mind must be used at frequent intervals of meaningful trial and thought, and not simply in pompous parlour room talk.
As a rule, learning is not an unconscious process, and certainly not as easy as that which can be done from a couch. It is a capricious struggle, requiring its portion of all-around care, whose efforts in maintaining far exceed the ones in growing.
When high-minded reference is made to the newest Netflix documentary or podcast episode, let it be looked upon with the same esteem as if it were a cartoon or marvel movie. For all of them are kindred forms of paltry entertainment which do a poor job disguising the essential ignorance of their spokesmen on subjects that outpace their natural competencies. The imbecile who boasts perjured facts and forged opinions from online videos betrays himself as being nothing more than an uninspired mimicry, looking to pay his boyish ego a lazy compliment. And how eager it seems we all are to oblige him.
Far Within the Madding Crowd
I made my way slowly from the wagon shed up the loose gravel path that came steadily onto the flat of the farmstead. Barn-red buildings rose into view as I gained the elevation, and in the late morning sun, a paint once faded by summer deepened into a rare blush against the white snow. The passage back was taking me to the hitching post, having been sent there at sunrise on commission to receive the guests and stable their horses.
Behind the farmhouse was a flat frozen yard, connected by icy dirt roads that led away at all points: toward the corn fields, toward the milking parlour, and another which curved out to become the entranceway in front, finishing at the paved street where the cars drove by. Set apart throughout the space stood outbuildings at dissimilar intervals; erected like solemn monuments, each wore a wooden sadness in the cold.
Since harvest had nearly ended, we were not yet full into the reserves, and spotted maze towered high in the corncrib, left for winter’s touch through the openwork of the slats. Pa says, ‘cold corn is quality cud’, but I’m not sure whether it makes a difference to the cows. At any rate, the effect was that kernels off the cob fell through the wire-mesh and dispersed in a speckling of yellow and red around four stone feet. This always brought pigeons and doves to its base, which at present, by my crossing too near the crib, caused these birds to scatter in a beating flight.
The flakes came down some, strangely, in an odd patience, without their terminal dance of wind; it was as though in wanting to get a better view, they were being lowered by chords from heaven. Even Nature was sticking Her snooping nose in. “Leave Mama alone!”, I grumbled inside me, kicking loose some pebbles from their icy hold. Ma used to tell that each snowflake carried a secret message from above, and that if we could study them, we might just learn of God: “If one lands on your nose, someone’s tryn’a tell you something.” But that was when I was young and could believe in such things. And besides, Pa didn’t like those kinds of tales. “Quit filling their heads with beans!”, he’d crack with a mouth of smoke.
I came to the spot where hunters of good relation to Pa would stand with city-guns to shoot the pigeons aloft the silos or nesting in the barn. Sometimes, because these men aren’t a good shot, and because city-folk buy their supper in the city-stores, injured birds glide a wounded trajectory down the opening in the cribs’ half-gable to coo on the ears. It’s my charge to climb the hatch on the backside to clear the birds out, else maggots spread to the corn during a warm spell. Many times they are long dead, spread out on their wings, heads lolled back to the side and milky eyes with the pupils dead-center, open, watching-like. Other times when I drop on the cobs, I spot them a fathom across, huddled up to the mesh, sitting sidelong to my approach; a bird will never look frontways at you. As I advance along the shifting bed, they grow scared and start hobbling to and fro, or make a tortured, broken crawl against the fence of the crib—they foresee death in their sideways look. Nothing brings Pa to a fury quite like bird blood on the feed, and he’ll curse the hunters all, swearing to never admit them again. But when they come with welding rods and jars of salted nuts, he relents the matter and collects the offerings with an imperial graciousness.
I was at an angle now in my trip back where I could make out part of the hitching post behind the east corner of the stony farmhouse siding. People in black stood at the edge of the property seeking entrance into the yard, not daring to cross the threshold as told the politeness and propriety of our ways. I hurried myself to meet them, so to get them out of the cold and receive them into the house.
When the wall receded out of view it showed a family of seven, stock-still, waiting respectfully with their horse tied to the wooden rail. Curled bramble was petrified around the bottom of the post and sprigs of wild sage adorned the spot in a virescent trim. Attached to the horse was a four-wheeled buggy of the same shape and make as the rest of ours. A plywood box of spotless obsidian, with cut-outs on either side to act as doors and two plastic windows in front for the driver.
This was our community’s means of carriage, conveying us reliably throughout the entirety of our settlement: a world of about eighty farms, fifty acres a piece, one Anabaptist Church, the Community Hall, and the Believer’s School, grades one to five. Without the settlement was the city that surrounded us on all sides, a hateful and blasphemous place, to where the shunned were banished for contravening the laws of the Old Order.
Upon my advance they tidied themselves into a neat row. The father met my coming by baring his head, while his wife and children bowed from the neck, placing their hands in a prayerful clasp out in front. They were plain clothed, in a type almost identical by sex: the sons were attired after their father, and the daughters, their mother. Looking at the model for the three sons showed a tall lanky man with an oblong face whose cheeks and neck sustained patches of stubble where a dull razor had decidedly missed. He wore tiny circular spectacles that sat at the pitch of his slopping nose and made no effort to cover the cleft stare of his walleye—a common affliction in the community. The boys wore black wrinkled suits; if one was too big, the next was too small, and each with salt stains around the pant hem—cotton shirts stuck out underneath their jacket sleeves, threadbare and yellow at the cuffs. Only the father had suspenders and top hat to match his mourning, which doubled as Sunday garb.
The daughters were older, fifteen or sixteen perhaps, and so together with their mother could be called women. They each wore a simple linen bonnet of a close fitting, meant to cover their small length of hair that betrayed not a single lock to the gaze. Compared to the men they were largely exposed in the chill. Flat, unshapely, rag-cloth dresses hung low on their frame, blousing aimlessly around grey rubber boots. Yoked smocks were stuffed beneath their square bodice and the lot of them cloaked in a dark green from their winter pullovers. Despite these characteristics of dress, it could be said that their most distinctive garment was a severe aspect stitched deep into the face, protecting them at all times from the threat of female immodesty.
I escorted them to the backdoor propped open by a pile of wood Pa chopped the night previous to stay the fire inside. Petra stood in the frame ready to perform her shift that began inside. She neither was permitted into the upstairs chamber where she went yet with the mourners. Her duty was to merely guide them to the quarter that contained Ma. Even Ingrid, in spite of her being the eldest, was forbade there, detained by a vestal post in the kitchen to serve tea and keep the fire.
I took leave of the guests once Petra had officially turned them over in her care. I couldn’t go in after them, not for a tea, nor especially to visit Ma. My capacity that day was as ostler to the visiting families, and I’d have to wait until supper to enter the house.
I departed with the defeat of knowing it was not yet noon, and all the while, Ma lay upstairs, dying.
The sun died behind the silver cap of the silo as a slanted shadow fell large in the direction of the sheepfold—its rippling body yawned in a stretch along the ground, like a shroud of muslin rolling softly atop the jagged stones. There were only a few visitors left, as figured by four hollow carts stowed spaciously in the wagon shed. It was not usual to find a shed this big, but since Pa was a respected elder, well with his own Pa before him having been one of the settlement founders, and with our having the biggest farm—a point well remembered come the Agape—its frequent use by visiting patrons was forgiven the vanity of its considerable size.
Ingrid and Petra stood in the hallway signaling out at me. I knew the look well: the bleating eyes, the quick snap of the head back to check for Pa, the hand beckoning privately that it was safe to come in. My stomach shrunk—I’d forgotten what I’d been waiting for all this time.
We reached the kitchen where Ingrid sat me at the table and poured out the dregs of camomile for me to finish.
Petra, who rose chest-high on Ingrid, sat across from me with plaited jet hair that gathered into two loose skeins around her pale neck. Since she had not reached the age of womanhood, so she did not require a bonnet, and at my question she raised her face to Ingrid in a referring gesture. Her profile showed a boyish contour, tempered by the delicacy of smallish features and female shape. Soft round cheeks uplifted by curling dimples, lips and eyes wide, with a thin tapper and subtle slant true to her age; she used these articles of girlhood to prompt her sister’s reply.
“We’ve yet heard from Pa”, Ingrid spoke, standing on the hither side of Petra, her motherly arm resting on the child’s small back. I braced myself to confirm it in her face, presently glancing up at her. She hid nothing from me. Her’s was a plain look, marked round by gentle lines, with plush lips and a wide handsome stare incapable of dishonesty. Lately, mother’s illness had given it a pallid wash like that of bloodless porcelain; a fairness that seemed to effect a sophisticated melancholy, a fragile and poignant elegance.
“He’s been shut in with Ma all day,” she continued, turning briefly to collect the last of the molasses cookies on the counter. In back of her hung a hand-stitched wool sweater of picot trim that she’d dyed in birch swamp and hung to set in the rain only a few nights prior. She’d made another of the same match for Petra, which cloaked her now.
“Doctor Adal and Father Wilhelm are there at present, along with Mr. Gunter. They’ve been up nigh since morning. Yet we know not about Ma. Petra tells she saw’r Mr. Weber in weeping, standing yonder,” Ingrid pointed to the base of the staircase. “If that be an omen, we dare not attempt to know it–"
She broke off straight away: the floorboards above began to creak. Following the direction of the sound traced a path from the center of the room to the door. Someone was coming down. We tidied ourselves around the table and disguised in somber stares the suggestion we had ever had such casual talk. Sure enough, steps were heard on the stairs, but of a lightness and creaking that seemed a girl’s.
Sofia turned the corner of the kitchen and ceased herself on the spot at her notice of us at the table. A dainty skirt jumped in the absorption of her quick stop, and blue eyes opened ever so slightly at the surprise of me.
I missed her terribly, even just in the time since I greeted her family this morning at the hitching post. Her father was Mr. Gunter, an elder and best sponsor to Pa. We were arranged to be wed in the harvest of two summers next, Sofia and I, and had already spent many a blessed day under the auspices of that arrangement. Visits to one another’s farm, to work and to supp; a joining of our families at church; holidays together under the guided watch of bible readings—I supposed even today could fit somewhere in that number.
“Your Pa’s ask’in for you”, her flat nose twitched some as she pulled back the indiscretion of a smile, brought on by our new-found love’s impulse. We all stood, and Petra buried her face into Ingrid’s side.
Sofia led us out of the room: behind her we followed in a line up the stairs, I before my sisters—the door at the top of the landing rose in height above me with each passing step.
Sofia turned the handle slowly and pushed respectfully into the room. The sweep of the door brought Ma’s bed straight into view, forwards of me at the backwall. I crept into the room to a mass of faces thronged around me at various heights—I cared only to watch the bed, and politeness be damned.
The image of Pa was unavoidable, stationed as he was on a rocker beside the bed, looking at me down the bowl of his lit pipe, testing-like, measuring the stuff of my manhood. The cherry burned red one instant, and the next, an outpour of smoke rose in wreathes around his face, sticking to bits of paint on the wall. Beneath this pall of ash, there was a person lying in Ma’s bed. Someone was resting still on their back, covered entirely by a thin fabric, looking like a slender corpse.
Petra and Ingrid erupted in a shriek, and there was a rush in the room to comfort them. I heard the scuttling to fortify them, I heard their aching bodies whimpering in fits and starts, but I didn’t so much as blink. I was too occupied with the imposter laying in Ma’s bed.
I inched closer to the body sprawled lengthwise down the center of the mattress. There was a lily-white bedsheet draped overtop a breathless massing, jutting up at angles along the span of bone underneath. Feet flopped open by the footboard, rising like tall protrusions in the room. Knobby knees showed dimples where cavities had been carved into the caps. Rolling ribs and the shrunken curvature of breast betrayed a sickly shape. The blanket was smooth on the round of the brow, and I might have just made out Ma’s face under the translucent white.
I extended my hand to pull back the sheet, pinching the soft fabric in an unveiling gesture: “Is that you, Ma?”
At once my cap flew off my head in a commotion of tussled of hair, and my vision swung into a sudden leaning. A beige cotton sleeve gripped me straight in my stumble, turned me away from Ma and wrung me senseless in a cloud of smoke. Pa’s ashen face loomed over me, yelling in a fury that I remarked in left ear alone–my right was still ringing from the blow. Overgrown whisps of eyebrow and lash lunged out at me in the closeness, and the whites of his eye filled their cavernous sockets. I had embarrassed him in this childish irreverence, in failing the composure of manliness he sought to raise in me. He stood above me, shouting, and wagging my arm to steady me. In this well-earned discipline, he displayed to everyone that the laws of the Old Order were safely preserved in him.
Another blow hurled down. More shouting discharged from the corner of his mouth, that in the other, he let his dangling pipe rise and fall with lifelong proficiency—Sofia stared at me in a teary, sidelong glance.
I held the creature under my arm, hard and round to the touch, marked with deep grooves as a kind of texture for the feathers. It was a plastic barn owl, brown or grey, with a white belly, about the size of Petra when she was three and stomped in the cow sty thinking it was mud. Hunters had brought it from the city as a gift to Pa—we’d been having some problems this harvest with spoilage of the silage hay.
Every summer, after bailing, we seal the hay in white plastic wrap, so no pests get in, as we use it for forage in the byre. Some critters inevitably end up in a few of the rounds—as Pa calls them—that lay in rows of ten or twenty on the bare back of the field. Small infestations are usual to the course of overwintering hay; yet, as of late, heavy rains had made better breeding for the field vertebrates, and this meant more nesting in the rounds, which in turn meant more birds on the plastic wrap.
Seagulls and rooks; these were the primary offenders. They’d perch on the bales with pointed nails and rip holes in the plastic to get at the mice inside. One ought to see how Pa gets his hackles up at this. If he catches out the kitchen window a streak of black or silver on the rounds, he clambers to his shotgun by the front door and runs out shooting wildly at the sky, screaming all the while, “curs’ed vultures, I’ll kill every last one of you’s I will!” Crack! Crack! Crack!
I fastened the stake securely in the hollow of the owl and drove it deep in the ground at the center of the bale row. The barn owl towered above the rounds, in easy view to any winged, would-be wrongdoer. But still I wondered, Was this lifeless husk really going to scare off the birds?
Indeed, he cut quite a handsome figure on his pole, this king of the bale, this sire of the plastic wrap. “Oh my, pardon me your eminence”, I acknowledged, genuflecting beneath this nocturnal royal, and baring my head, thrust my arm out with a flourish of straw hat. I roared with laughter. Such boyish humour was fluent in me now that I was alone.
Pa was off the farm for the weekend, out for the annual union seminar where the elders took an accounting of the community’s affairs: crop yield, population growth, future settlement plans, death count. The trip required him to pass along the city’s edge to reach the Community Hall, inaccessible from where we lived by the farming inroads. These unsavoury means often led through a bustling, city corridor, with sidewalks, streetlamps and city-folk circulating in and out of storefronts. I knew the spot well; I’d always kept an eye out for it whenever we went to the Hall. A glimpse of the outside world, of the delightfully forbidden dwelling of the damned. Somewhere in that place was a candy shop, which always at its passing in the carriage made Petra start up in a moaning for a swirly sucker or taffy pop. But that was in the days of Ma when we things were different.
The sun beamed its cheerful light down on the farm, suffusing a hazy gold onto the lap of scorched earth. Today was the day: I’d planned a great surprise now that Pa was gone. Sofia and I were going to go together to that shop, to buy all the candy my small savings could afford us. Ingrid decidedly forbade the very idea of it, “Not on your tintype!”, she punctuated in motherly accent. She got to warning of the city-sinners and of transgressing religious law: “If yee be caught, ain’t nothing under God’s blue sky that can save your soul, nor still your person from the council!” But soon, with her being the older sister and all, and with Ma being dead nigh a year, she could not bear the earnest sobbing from Petra over the coloured treat, and so promised to swear the quest to secrecy.
At last, here she came. Sofia approached the yard from one of the field inroads leading away through the wooded brush.
Curled whey-blonde hair bounced from the undulating ground as she walked—her hair. She held a loose bonnet in her tremulous hand, frightened by the inward forces of passion that had compelled her so readily, so wantonly into this immodest abandon. She drifted slowly into arm’s reach, bashfully, unsure of how this delicate gamble of love would be met. We faced each other under the blue sky, I grabbed her hands in mine, and lifted them between us until they came to a natural bend.
“Hello”, I said, coaxingly.
“Hi”, she whispered, looking up at me from a lowered face.
I paused, letting anticipations linger just a moment longer. Until—
“It’s beautiful, I love it.”
Her whole body relaxed at the reassurance and we both chuckled in the release. Was I engaging in the intricacies of romance? I had no foreknowledge of this game, and yet it sprang from me unconsciously, like a bird that knows to sing without wondering why.
“I brought you something”, and gently freeing her hands, she began unravelling a square cloth tucked inside her bonnet. She produced a silver heart-shaped locket which she now folded in my hands.
“Wait, where did you—”
“It was your Mum’s. She slipped it to me in secrete from her sickbed, the morning she…Umm…Well, you’d been outside all day, hitching carriages and whatnot, and so she knew she wouldn’t see you again.”
I looked down at the plain ornament in my hands, overwhelmed and sentimental despite Pa’s teaching, with tears I felt to be the first to bear me no shame.
We embraced each other for love, for the grace of having found each other, for the happiness of this immortal moment. And in the woolly gleam of that day’s hot sun, surrounded in the solitude of the shimmering heat and a vastness of hundreds of acres, we may or may not have snatched our first kiss.
Father Wilhelm’s hand smacked heavy on the center of the Elder Table, and his echo sent the pitched roof of the Community Hall into a shiver. The bustling murmurs of all eighty families settled promptly to a silence—coughing, swaying clothes, shifting chairs—their stares moved presently to the front of the room where seven council members sat on an elevated stage. There was supposed to be eight at the Long Table, one Elder for each of the delegations, but I didn’t know where Pa was, nor why he’d not come to fill his chair. Examining the podium, I caught Mr. Gunter’s hateful stare, his eyes burning fixedly at me for my disloyalty to Pa, for what I’d done to Sofia.
“Pray, hear me now”, Father Wilhelm addressed the crowd, standing at the center of the table. As he rose in that height, so too did the righteous indignation within him, feeling himself the emissary of God.
“We are brought together today in untoward circumstance of evil and vanity. Sins to be tried to the last of their deserved punishment under the retribution of the Ordnung laws.” He brandished a black leather bible high above his body, wildly, diabolically, in a speech that shook his tunic and made gape the whites of his eyes in extasy.
“I here commence the hearing of Hans Heinrich, son of Elder Heinrich, and Sofia Gunter, son of Elder Gunter.” He lowered the bible with a straight arm, pointing its tip down at us: “who together were caught unsupervised late yesterday, in the dominion of the city, gorging on sweets.”
The crowd gasped behind us, stirring in sensuous rumour. Sofia and I sat in the well of the courtroom: an open space centered between the podium and gallery, in view to all. From a square window on the right a shaft of light threw a religious beam on us.
“Philandering outside the bounds of marriage! Conveying to the wicked lands of the city! And not there did they stop, no! So still did they find occasion to intercourse at the shops, to purchase wares and freshen their own vanity. Witness the working of lust in them, see with your very own eyes the temptations of the Devil!”
An outpour of booing swelled from the gallery. Hissing sprayed at us from the women and children, and the fathers rang in loud jeers, shaking their fists and standing in their seats. Only with a careful ear, and from a lifetime of listening to that sound, could I just make out the sobs of Petra and Ingrid in an undercurrent of the commotion.
“Silence!”, cried Father Wilhelm, slamming his hand on the table once more. “We will follow the proceedings as the Old Order demands. No judgement will be passed by any man but that they should not first find its sanction in God. Let the hearing commence.”
The pastor took a post in front of the table where he was prepared to stand until the completion of the trial. He spared no generosity in confirming the particulars of the story to one of the cardinal sins—even divining some according to his fancy—in the highest degree perpetrated. “Vanity”, “Pride”, “Lust”, “Immodesty”, “Indulgence”, he shot out at intervals many such rubrics of sin, each marking a new section of our trial, liable to last the amount of time needed to sate our prosecutors’ appetites for punishment.
These sources of judgment wrapped themselves around us as steadily as the angle of the sun wrapped around the Hall, and together with the outrage of the crowd, gradually emanated as our inevitable guilt.
When the sky out the window was dark, and the orange of dawn clung to the bottom of the western windows, Father Wilhelm stood in peroration.
“The counsel will now reach a conclusion in the matter of Hans Heinrich and Sofia Gunter—as regards the preservation of scripture, the ways of our people, and the saving of our souls.”
I turned my face to reassure Sofia—the oblique light cast an auburn shade across her face. We looked deep into each other’s eyes, not daring to speak a word, but communicating everything we could hope to say in one glance. We were not going to survive this, we knew it, and with a feeble expression, and a little dust flittering in the rays, we had our goodbyes.
“Gentlemen of the Long Table, I will call upon you at once to give your ruling on the question of Hans Heinrich’s guilt.” Father Wilhelm motioned to the left-end of the table.
Mr. Gunter, called upon, stood in his chair, and vented his hate: “Hear, Hear!”
Mr. Weber, seated next to Mr. Gunter, stood and repeated: “Hear, Hear!”
So, in this manner did Father Wilhelm go down the line of the table, calling on the decision of the seven Elders. Each one of them stood to positively adjudge my guilt.
Father Wilhelm paused in a moment of reverence for my soul. He carried through the will of the council.
“Under the eyes of God, let it be known that Hans Heinrich, son of Elder Heinrich, has been found in violation of the laws of the Old Order, and in the counts of guilt here indicted, will henceforth be banished.”
A cheerful tumult erupted in the Hall.
The whole affair transpired again in a hazy consciousness, without my knowing exactly what was happening. I heard Sofia’s name:
“— and in the counts of guilt here indicted, will she too be henceforth banished from the settlement.”
Sofia slumped off her chair, dropping to her knees. Dainty folds in her skirt collapsed on the floor in a circle as she buried her sobbing face. I couldn’t suffer the sight, less stand for her banishment when mine alone would suffice. I rose before the council.
“On what standing do you say we have committed such offenses? None of you were there to attest in the flesh to the accusations you’ve passed. Is not due some measure of testimony before the absolute condemnation of mankind? If the will of God has spoken through the council, and you have just cause to pursue us so in trial and in charge, then let it fall on me independently, but without witness, you cannot condemn us in common.”
Father Wilhelm watched me through two black dots engulfed in white and loosed a wry smile from the side of his mouth.
He spoke to me with a tinge of delight: “So a witness you’ve asked for; so, one you will get.”
At once, all the Elders turned to look behind them in their chair, directing their gaze at the back corner of the stage, where stood an open door that led off stage into the back chambers of the Hall.
A figure emerged from the portal in a puff of smoke, walking with a characteristic sway that I thought I recognized. The flat rim of a straw hat covered his face down to the nose and dangling in the corner of his mouth bobbed a curved wooden pipe. The darkling figure hobbled behind the Long Table, towards an empty chair at the opposite end, never turning his head from that direction. Slowly, the figure reared the chair, and placing his hands on two knobs that protruded from its decorous back, spoke in a release of smoke.
“I’ve witnessed it. On my way back from the union seminar, I, in the flesh before God, say I’d seen them both in the city corridor, having sweets and embracing.”
The din of the crowd swooned into sudden quiet, Mothers fainted, children held their breath, and the men stood in awe of the man who put his love of God before his only son.
The hero lifted his hat to reveal his face before the Hall. Glory and forbearance marked his expression, and he stared out at the crowd with spartan eyes; never once stopping to look down at me.
The Cost of Writing
‘Writing this from my desk at home, free to take the liberties of a patient’s inconsequence, my only care to the object of this my gratitude, am I aware solely of the responsibility to the artist’s code to truth. If I am correct in thinking our mutual interest lies in each of us as the other’s subject, in that the sense of being a doctor is in your having patients, and that the patient without a doctor is but an animal in its natural state of dying—’
The pen came a weak cropper, “you’re doing it again. I’ve told you a hundred times you can’t write like this, it’s not going to work!” The ejaculation was loud, but no one was in the room. A yawing moan began me once more, “You don’t have it in you, remember that. Look at it, the whole thing, bungling and confused.” Frustration became disgust: “There’s no time left to be a poet; you have to forgive yourself of your plainness.”
I stood up from the desk and rolled the page into a familiar shape—even in this simple action did I feel like a used-up effort. I was looking for the words that save, the ones that if finely borrowed might offer some salvation; for the sake of my lesser parts of course, but also for the disease that was travelling the straits of my blood, devouring them each in sickness.
“What do you want from me? I know it all so well, and still, I must try to deliver myself of some little brilliance.” I did honestly believe this but for the part of me that felt it was at the same time suing for some conviction. The doubt won me over, as it had so many times before, “okay, I cannot carry it off, I know, yet my hand can’t unlearn the affected note.” Here was an ill-conviction of the lowest order. I snapped back, “there you go again! You just did it. Afraid of who you are. Remember, there is no immortality hiding in these bones. Enough with the pretensions, you are in the open, and we can all see.”
If it happened that someone was in the room with me at this exact moment, though they might possess the keenest intuition, they would not have been treated to the preceding scene. Instead, for all their fast attention, they would have witnessed nothing more than the figure of a twenty-year-old boy hunched in the corner of his bedroom, wheezing and shifting his discomfort onto either haunch; an unsteady and leaning form, which after letting out a groan of sorts, arose awkwardly to scrap a mostly blank sheet of paper.
But then again, this is pointless to mention because no one was there; there to remark my clumsy movements, there to discern the violent intercourse playing out in my mind. And soon enough, as in few hours and a car-ride to the hospital soon, I too would cease to be there; the living hour to be stolen from me by my own body.
Standing now in the finish of that internal address, below me on the desk, the vacancy made by the torn page revealed a likeness in its place:
‘When first the conviction to write you seized me, as I set to the order of that high task I had still to learn all the expressions my gratitude was to take, and that number soon growing to an ever-larger count did I begin to wonder not what I would say, nor even how I should say it, but rather, how I could say it. How could I dare your approach? A man, after all, who I owed too much, and if offered nothing less than my most effacing humility would his labors deeply offend.’
The fresh reading awoke a sudden fondness for the forgotten letter: before my very eyes the tombs broke open and saintly fragments walked around in new life. I turned back the pages, reacquainting myself with the visages of the dead.
‘While I do enjoy freely writing to you and giving full standing room to my meandering ways, and while I can be fairly accused of burning the wick a little too slowly for patience, to whatever difference it amounts, I am not trying to be unnecessary with your attention—’
“Why is this here? You know what kind of man he is; he won’t be impressed with preamble. It’s nonsense, the posturing of an amateur—”
Despite these best efforts from my eternal detractor, I was not put off so easily. More, was I even intrigued, determined on to yet another resurrected reading. I tore around the room with notebook in hand, greeting again my handsome corpses.
‘You have supplied me plentiful the lessons of your grand manner which seeks the cut-and-dried above all, in all, as the highest prize of your official affairs. It is a mastery to behold your working of brevity on me, which is all diligence and resolve, that is each day begun anew and forms the largest share of your devotion to the sick; a devotion that has been accounted for at each moment since we’ve met… And since we have met, I should also like to say with much affection how unusually sparing it has been in the use of words.’
“Alright”, I said with a smirk. There was a suggestion in this that I might be on to something. And when the proud accent was detected, and before a usual voice could emerge to refute it— “just hold on a second!”
‘There may be a special annoyance for you in what must seem like this abundant roundabout, and more in the given insult of my knowing your dislike of such indirection in the little just to ignore it in the large.’
‘Surely, adducing my inspiration—’
I loosed a heavy sigh at the overweening presence…
‘Surely, citing my inspiration for the introduction to this letter as an introduction itself suggests a certain sport, a bad attempt at storytelling whose effect might impress none in the least so much as yourself; being that it may put your wonder to the touch to know what its purpose is, and if I am not to your woe a comedian also.’
“Oh but you most certainly are, because the whole thing is laughable.”
‘You can openly trust there is no deliberate play in any of this. I am in the open, trying for this one attempt to have my best showing, to mingle together confession and passion into the delicate balance and bring these words to a greatest offering of thanks.’
“I hate you.”
This was a surprising blow, and it landed on my inattention with a considerable force; one, perhaps, that I wasn't wholly prepared for.
At this point, one might suppose that the effect of such a stroke would be very little, well with it being self-inflicted and coming from an obvious precedent spanning several long years of writing; that this, in the course of my established habit, wouldn’t be hard for me to hear any more. It shouldn’t have been, nor would it if what I read next was anything else:
‘If I have been faithful to my own promises, and by those commitments practiced a dedication in writing this letter, today then marks the day of our final encounter. I had promised myself once, that if I ever found the courage to write you for all you’ve done to try and rescue me from my ill-fate, I would repay you with some humble words of thanks—a fond departure from each other, a goodbye of sorts. I am glad that in my end, I will have done the least to return some kindness and can thereby rest knowing that through this small gratitude I have passed on what will likely be my only chance at remembrance.’
What was to be seen in this reading, which made it all the more painful to me now, was that the day of my palliation, the one that marked the last of them all in this room and in this house, the day of that final eclipse and unseasonable finish, was today. And as I had warned myself so many times before, at this hour truly, the close of my life was fast upon me; there was no time left to write as there was none left to live. And in the early hours of that morning I had just passed in pointless confusion, scrapping paper and tumbling around my room for what would be the last time, what I had for it in the end, as a result of all that maddening to and froe, was an unfinished humiliation, both of that spoken letter and of the boy who failed to produce it. There was no written testament to give my doctor, no marvelous memoir that might survive me. At the end of my all my struggle, had I never found the courage to commit my words in whichever form they came, for in every one of them did I see only the image of my ugliness staring up at me.
A Melancholy Mixture of Misanthropy
Having been made aware, some weeks ago, of a challenge whose central bias I thought would so swiftly be concluded upon, did I decide to pass it up on the confidence I’d have too little to add in the way of an affirmation on human virtue. Never did I suppose that once visiting the challenge again I would have my hypothesis so thoroughly baulked by a unanimous necessity to libel the glorious name. And from a community of writers no less.
I must admit to whomever so bothers with the sentiments of one corrupted individual, that sorrow was mine to witness such a collective show of self disgust. If it is any less than that consummate commitment to the glory of human nature, than a writer’s labour I wish to no longer have. For what is left of a writer when the very essence of what he endeavours to capture and transcribe is a hideous and corrupt malignancy?! Is each and every one of us not a felicitous testament to our nature, higher and transcendent? To malign it so unceremoniously in the ill-humour of trampling dispassion, is a coolness I am accustomed to only in the most predictable misanthrope; certainly not by those who live to essay the human soul.
Alas, this is a challenge of philosophy, and though I would be ever so pleased to wile away in mawkish yarn, an argument must be forthcoming.
I suspect, if I have understood my invigilator correctly, that in her administering of this question she has shrewdly included the play of “nature” to direct our efforts onto one of two paths. There is the question of environmental corruption, of course, and the other, slightly more interesting question of nature as the native quality inherent to all living creatures.
The first has been the cause of some enthusiasm on this forum, and though I wish the upholding of human dignity would garner the same affectation, I do not dare presume to urge another in the placement of their chosen passions—not directly, anyway. But as regards this interpretation of the question, there is not much that can’t be discarded out of hand as beneath the faculties of our best discussion.
Yes, humans exploit the environment—and yet this does not strike me as a profound concern; much rather a practical one which has been taken seriously for nearly a century. Furthermore, I suspect one would be troubled to find any individual in possession of their better senses who could not be brought to accord on this point. Interestingly, however, I predict no issue at all finding not just one, but a mass of individuals who would shed a tear at a felled tree, only to return home to think quite highly of themselves by the fireside, with the logs piled thick on the dog-irons.
Humans steal from their environment, often for unsanctimonious reasons; they also transform it, and restore it, and preserve it. And must we even ask why this is? It is because of what remains as perhaps the last universal truth in this world, that everyone has a right to exist before the resources incumbent to their need; because we esteem human welfare above those things which facilitate it. And none of this is to say that the wastefulness of American excess that partakes of this motive is acceptable, but to apportion so large a share of the complex interactions of man and nature to blatant ill-doing and corruption, to me, smacks of the high-minded hypocrisy characteristic of hippy environmentalism. Industrialism in the Fordist sense of the term, with the chimney stacks and black smoke and clubbing of baby seals, which is the imagery provoking the popular mind on this subject, has existed for two hundred years—an unquantifiable fraction of history—a period which is already well behind us, without the need for Thunbergian histrionics. Was it too much of a cost to bear for all the advancements made by its sake? Are we right to bemoan the bodying forth of human ingenuity in this way, or even pretend to regret it?
Somewhere in the endless security purchased by these advancements, has cropped up a hobbled conscience about how all of it was acquired. A restful, dormant conscience, hitherto sedated with innumerable comforts, weaned on the bountiful breast, burped on the cloth of convenience, and from cholic boredom and diaper rash alike, arose to grouse its ill-content.
This is not a new phenomenon. The romantic ideal of the noble savage far predates America’s latest form of cheeseburger activism; Rousseau himself has been mentioned already in some of the discussions on this topic. However, when he enumerated this idea, it was with a mind to the benefit of mankind, making it a return to nature for man’s sake—man, that is, as his utmost concern and philosophic goal.
Needless to say, no one has taken him up on the proposal: for it was nature herself who cast us out of her custody. Pure nature is a cruelty that could never be approached by civilization’s greatest evil; not with a million bombs and bloodied limbs could you approximate her violence. Nature’s elements, in their simple unimposing state, are sufficient to exterminate the entirety of the human organism. She is an unfeeling, wretched mother, who has churned up in her thrall the better part of all her children, leaving each one to suffer an ambivalent, pathetic end.
We respect nature because we must, and because it is right—a moral evaluation we find nowhere in her setting; but more so, because in our overcoming of her condition, we see that we have broken the evolutionary chain, and must now look to preserve that which is above it: humanity and its ecological neighbours.
There is of course the second head of this question which asks in which way is the corrupting influence between man and his innate nature. Of course, it should first be shown if such a relationship exists before a relative influence can be captured. However, I regret to confess that concluding my first argument, I fear I’ve used up all of my personal facility in this direction, and from a lack of endurance, do not foresee a full discussion on the second, more important question.
I will finish by suing for the human race, applying directly to my audience for its reconsideration of man. Man is not a cancer—by Jove there is nothing so far from humanity than that disease which is mortal agony and perfect sufferance. Rather, commit your words to being defenders of our kind throughout a world that too often forsakes its higher nature; learn to be judicious in your self-recrimination, knowing when the instance of corruption is perpetrated that it is not an indictment of man himself. Let the horrors of your fellow people find you with compassion; try to discover the truth and pity of them, as there can be a place for sympathy even in atrocity. You need not bring down the full rigor of justice on man as offender and criminal, though he is an imperfect beast, do not be his imperfect judge. Consider fallen man under your opinion to be abandoned of his better nature and offer in turn the example of your rectitude as his defense and mercy.
Dear Death, always.
Remember Death. Not because I want you to be scared, or because you don't already, but because it is the answer to most of life's riddles. It is, in its own way, also life's biggest problem, but that is for another challenge. Death will come, and believe it now to be the violent hideous beast that it is; for when you meet that countenance eye-to-eye, there in its face will be imposed the reckoning that most of what you are and were is an irrecoverable vacuity.
Funny enough, this has its advantages, especially for a spirited eighteen-year-old in the springtime of youth. Ultimately, nothing counts save that which you place store in; and there is nothing so liberating as that. In the end what will matter in your passing are the people you have loved, the memories you have gathered, and most of all, the exploring of yourself that you have or have not yet done. Everything else is a falsehood-- an important one for various reasons, but as regards your life, a make-belief that need not bound you to grief and despair.
Remember happiness--remember that it is not waiting for your arrival. Do not expect happiness to look like anything you don't already have!
And lastly, and maybe most importantly of all: affix your purpose to a white whale.
By this I mean to attach your meaning to something that is larger than you, that overwhelms you; a beast that is slayed only in legend. To become the hero of your own story you must make it a mythology, something that is hardly believable even to you. Make of your life's purpose something that is so large and overpowering that if it could ever be done, it would take your whole life's effort--that in your narrow success you may live forever.
On the Responsibility of Reading Poetry
So much of poetry is for the taking in its early reading, in the learning of its peculiar attitudes and infant mannerisms, like the making of a new acquaintance, where impressions are still those partial remarks as to what one expects one is being shown. Though quite unlike a strange countenance or unaccustomed visit, nothing is so much a poem as that which is contained in its very first siting. Ignorance is a special possibility for the student of poetry, not the least realized in his ingenuous perusing when the unfamiliarity of something yet unseen carries off an ephemeral magic almost to the touch. Most readers will keep in common with this sensation the purling rush of night that has reached its ending hour, after early passages of corked French wine, parquet halls and circles round star-lit gardens have flowered into a wanton bloom, and there is but one course left for impending lovers—the flutter before the flush; the resistive velleity that is seduced; the tremulous unbuttoning yielding its final promise.
Such is the invigoration of uncovering a fresh poem that in its initial viewing sets upon you a swell of mystery and intrigue. It is at this stage of innocence when there is reason for invention and belief, that the possible meanings stand before you like a ring of floret brides, waiting to be all your imagination supposes. And if it should happen once the primary pass is over and done, and all those gowned ballerinas have had their turn at do-si-do, that you feel a melancholy sadness at the magic come and spent, fortify to your breast the lingering traces found in dropped ribbons and lipstick glasses to invite back the romantic remembrance.
But do not linger in expired fascinations. For if the preparatory play of your young impression does so excite and engorge you, then trust what a full study can do to go the same length in the intercourse. And by this, of course, I mean the consummation of the poem’s unadulterated voice, the part of it that lives despite you; the words, otherwise, it has actually set out to say.
A sentimental tendency can accord a great deal of motivation to the heart that seeks poetry, but never enough. If everything humankind does has for its core a selfish direction, then fiction must oppose us as the last exception; itself preserving the exception by one narrow exclusion—and it is only a minor point in the reader’s education which in its modest lesson contains the entire difference between art as indulgence and art as illumination, between the sigh of the dilettante and the gasp of the lover.
It is forever easy to go to poetry to accept from it its immediate gifts of song; the rare, sensuous emotion; the knowing, thinking feeling come alive by grief or by rapture, each a wing for that very soaring transport; these are perpetually there, those which in short are the parts added and mingled together to make our sublime reckoning. This is all well and right to a good poem, but proper students have a duty of care beyond themselves in the poetic task, because there is something more to be had that is not about them at all. Something that does not need add to the inclusion any further gratification and in fact may even be a slight unpleasantry—an unsightly gain concluding the handsome pleasure.
So what exactly is the prescription that all unsmiling readers are urged to obey; the one which makes the exclusionary account for fiction as that other than mere indulgence? It is an implicit fidelity, one entrusted to be born like a lovers’ code—no more than a promise to uphold devotion in the tristesse of vanished affair, a pact to untie and be untied from the mast after the sirens have sung. There is something left still in a poem, always, as a discovery to be made concerning essence and being that rises up and confronts existence through your reading. By your recognition do you let it to assert itself against life and struggle widely for a moment, to be heard, to be seen—to scramble about, to claw and maul at the earth; to grab you by the collar and wail, “I am here, can you tell me what I am?!” And after you have piqued truth to this sudden virility and given it its hour of witness, so too must you watch it unceremoniously disappear forever.
The Shape of Silence
A tired approach to the door:
Burial exits raise old entrances from the ground,
Having passed from point to point, like dots all in row,
Pre-work alarm clocks, parking-garage portals, post-day-partum…
the squeezing hinge unanswered in the depths of the house.
You hold my upturned palm, three limp hands,
Together, a coeternity forsaken by parted ways.
Communion by drips from the skyward bag
Watering downward wires, growing and grafted onto hospital sheets,
Rooting up from entwined feet on the bedding.
You grasped me once; that bed sweetly undergrown for us.
Only the monitor can hearken the memory,
Of blushing caducity; atrial tempos keep the past:
Beeping contractions, but also, flooding diastole, flat—
television’s familiar light, falling unbalanced on the couch.
Icy roots break off their ornament,
My snow-in-summer stem loosens again in convalescence.
Winter’s vale, long, now cloudless meadow,
And there you are, where you were still, awaiting me in the healing thaw—
the last of winter’s chill tearing at the window, a testimony on glass.
Again at the door, I’ve seen this lonely site before.
The steps where I sent you out,
A poisoned heart in new-found health.
A chance to steal back life; the bed you wanted still, now too small for two:
“I lost too much, I need to try and find it again”
If it should turn to winter, and the breeze to gale,
Can I endure it all again?
Where did I send you in that wind? Is your hair a yellow hazel, like I remember?
Tell me, my auburn regret: Shall I awake this time from frozen slumber?
the beeping alarm springs me from bed—I am too late.
A close second
Dying, I can do no better than dying. Death is beyond anyone’s ability to relate; but here too, I can give you its pronouncement and first appearance.
Dying is not as complicated as people suppose, and it is certainly not as proud as some thinkers make it out to be in their lofty writings. Perhaps my reader remembers one afternoon in early childhood, when, being out in some strange place, the tyranny of a sudden moment stole your parents out of sight. Can you recount the physicality of the terror, can you travel back to the panic of having lost them in the crowd? That bowelled sickness in youth is what revisits you at the announcement of your death. And dying? Dying is every moment after that; every second you pass in that darkening place, filled with the faces of strangers and monsters; where the cruelty of something you do not comprehend, for that very reason, makes you cry and shriek all the more; where only a moment before you were happy to belong to the familiarity, do you now stand in a massive enigma, innocent of all connection to it. Dying is the forgetting of one’s self. Living is the knowing of one’s self, with all his fears and all his sadness, with all his regrets and mournful years. Any sentiment arising amid the lingering day, amid the comforting permanence which remains a delusion until it can no longer suppose itself for another hour; the fear and trembling of night that knows its morning; the shivering that warms itself in tomorrow’s sun; the fullest pains that befall us amid the state of living—these are the most indescribable raptures of joy amid that other state of dying.
The Death of Poetry: and the rise of the Instapoets
THIS POST WILL UPSET A LOT OF YOU. I expect nothing but your most vituperative dissent in the comment sections. Enjoy.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who takes even a perfunctory glance that their first notice in the artistic discipline, before any else coming from the wide total of its offerings, will be of Poetry, the once solemn figurina of romantic virtue, now molted of her flowers and collapsed, clenching her pale soul between tired gritty teeth. This is not an attention inviting any real doubt; instead, a conclusion which I trust my peers, studied and brimming with the keen intuition of their professed craft, have observed themselves. Indeed, She is a subject over which the sepulcher-lid has slid long before any of us here can be said to have been born—an affair whose example recounted (by Orwell) imparts the same uncontroversy as when it was originally written:
‘There can be no doubt that in our civilization poetry is by far the most discredited of the arts, the only art, indeed, in which the average man refuses to discern any value’
Surely, poetry has come far to fall since the Muses inspired the first blind-man’s tongue to sing splendid verse, ushering his music, from there, along its way on careful course to those heights of the English-speaking Tutored countryside. Reading poetry today, in its pitiful decrepitude, picked and plundered to an unrecognizable incompleteness, one sees a disgraceful mimicry that does not yet approach even parody in its utter lack. She is a fragile heritage now preyed on in imitation by casual passers-by and the ungracious laity so wholly ignorant of any poetic sense; their paltry imitations only good for the recognition that to modern man all art is low art, no more to him than what at bottom is his panem et circenses, unaware and indifferent of Her succumbing to the full drop of dust-bitten disrepute.
If civilization discredits poetry, it is right to do so, for it has waned to a meaningless mockery of the name, bearing none of the likeness to a history so proud and statuesque—and I do not mean a remote history either. But if I were to take this line, I recognize that I would be getting on the wrong side of the problem: civilization does not discredit poetry because the art—as a form and method of composition—is unworthy; rather, poetry has become unworthy because civilization has forgotten how to discern any value from it, and by those means, hold it to the account of its artistic richness.
I am referring to the populist Instapoetry movement that passes as art in a society which cannot be said to have even a cursory familiarity with verse, let alone have been taught its significance in the English classroom. The written is unlike any other art, the more because most uncivilized people do happen to stumble into a gallery then and again or stop to photograph some “beautiful building” on vacation. This is the distinct disadvantage of literature: it cannot be passively observed, and none of its value is accessible on the face of it, as is so with the visual works—it must be read, and painfully at that, to get at what is therein ‘embalmed and treasured up’ (Milton, for the curious). How convenient then that Instapoetry comes in a prewritten masturbational package, neatened of any deeper intelligence and openly glutting the illiterate tastes, made digestible by an absurd reductionism from literary to depictive. By this I do not just mean the ridiculous visual accompaniments underneath every post and printed page—a recriminating fact in itself, for which picture can be more forcefully drawn or excised in evocative shape than the one composed in poesy?!—but I am also inciting the very method of the forgery, which takes reading to the closest shores of seeing, whereby one has less so to read and study the words than he has to simply look and see them—and this last part can be done with a thumb in your mouth for additional comfort.
Punctuation without any conscious sense, scarcely used effectively, if ever properly; too often invoked against itself to abortive or gaudy hyperbolic ends. A dissolution of the capital letter for the sake of it, because it is novel and naughty: this is not a reinvention of the rules for a definite poetic purpose that uplifts and elevates the technique, unassimilable from the nature of the lines themselves—rather, it is titillation and amateurish posturing. Meter? Never counted or considered, unless it be that one in the remembrance of a popular nursery rhyme—maybe the only proper pasteurization left for our diet of Milk and Honey. Metrical feet trampled about the page unawares, for no discernable reason, strewn together in incognisance;
sometimes at the beginning, other times at the end,
or perhaps starting new lines arbitrarily. In the unmeaning amusement of being rid of any endowed structure, (remember that ‘modern’ in today’s terms is a blank refusal of any formal institution whatsoever) do the Instapoets unwittingly forge the trammels to their own poetic freedom. Not to mention the pathological addiction to the swear word (Fuck, shit, crap etc.) as the favorite of all their flash; more so (and this is impressive) than their repetitive vomiting of depressive sexual encounters and self-motivational gall. Swearing to provoke interest or depth, which compacts a majority of the cases, is a cheap recommendation for actual poetic accent, forgoing hard-won sophistication for the lowest pandering to an audience who, if they are so impressed, is not worth the loss in integrity to relate to. These are the primary characteristics, according to my own abilities to see into the matter, that give the essential quality to Instapoetry, an anti-poetic force of the kind severe in its unconsciousness and monomanic in the aesthetic reproduction of the cultural masses.
“Art is subjective! There is no way to measure good from bad.” I hate to have to say that whoever avows this short-sightedness immediately betrays there having no acquired sense of what art actually consists of. The more one is steeped in the voluminous manuscripts of the classical oeuvre, to take from it according to his particular wont, yet absorbed by the effort in translating its consummate lesson, the more he cultivates a sensibility about art itself, attaining quickly the sensitivity to a high and low manner, to a great and poor style. And if by a lengthy effort to that end, does he come into his long-awaited expertise, calling on for confidence in his chosen artistic field the many labours and hours of investigation that compelled him, for his prize and due reward he will have the distinct pleasure of walking into any bookstore in America to see before him under Arts and Letters a miserable corner of Shakespeare (the only sole survivor) crowded out by the protruding belly of those shelves, in endless supply, of a “poetry” no better than the vining paroxysms of a pubescent diary.
What does this all have to do with the English classroom? The English classroom is perhaps the last bastion against the increasingly absorbing program of ‘democratic education’ whose focus is both industrialization and specialization, aspects particularly designed to cull the scientific intellect. Instapoetry is but a taste of what will happen to the arts if we continue in this way, where there is increasingly no societal value left for things other than the technologic. In many ways, the English classroom is lashed into submission by this mechanisation of culture, but too does it enable it by failing a proud protectionism over its singular monopoly of training and teaching the mind to think: no other subject, especially at the highschool level, can make this claim for itself. It should not be embarrassed of its esoteric achievements, and the seeming irrelevance of which it is accused of from a world whose majority will always be ignorant of its utmost importance. The living tradition begins in the English classroom, but it is a fragile teaching that requires an even stricter discipline in a time when any thought worth holding must be shown to be able to be turned to some economic account.
On this platform I’ve heard the criticisms of the modernised mind: picking through the lines; analyzing every word; scrutinizing the meaning of a passage and dissecting it for tone and timbre—that these activities in some degree tire out the study of English. But these are the happiest instruments of literature and critical analysis, the ones which transform a poem to the immortal embers deposited deep at the bottom of the soul; these are the very tools of one’s enlightenment, whose applications are endless and need have no sense of shame about themselves. There is a limitless joy in wrapping both hands around a poem and forming such an intimacy with each and ever word, to touch its essential texture and fabric—for what you are actually feeling is in fact the very allusive substance of life.
This is not a comment on English teachers, to be sure, nor any specific English classrooms across the millions in this country. If anything, it is an invocation to the teachers and classrooms that know the fundamental value of their subject, and who are right in their fear of its dying in our culture so hideously against its own illumination, to cloister the dim flame of life in their delicate custody, and with their gentle care, alight the wick in the minds of precious youth, so that they may carry it forward into the darkness of all their working days.