This morning, the town of Red Bank, NJ, and everyone who grew up in or near there woke up to the news that the Broadway Diner had closed, suddenly and without warning. There was nothing to be done — one of the owners had died, and that was it. Shock reverberated throughout my social networks. “My youth is officially over,” wrote one friend. “So many good times here, and now it’s gone,” wrote another.
The thing about the Broadway was that it was actually open 24 hours, unlike the majority of establishments that call themselves diners these days. It was always there for you when the bars closed, or whenever your night was winding down — or your day was starting up. It was also one of those classic neon-and-chrome affairs that let you feel like you were in a Tom Waits song, smoking a cigarette with your eggs and toast.
Well, my time went so quickly, I went lickety-splitly
Out to my ol’ ’55
Pulled away slowly, feelin’ so holy
God knows I was feelin’ alive
There hasn’t been a smoking section at the Broadway for years, but it looms large in my memory. In high school, before we were old enough to go to bars, there were three main places to hang out Red Bank: the 7-11 parking lot, Marine Park, and the Broadway. The basic routine was to get kicked out of each of these places in turn. (Later, we’d get the exciting new Internet Cafe, whose very name is a period piece, but that’s a story for another time.) At the 7-11 or Marine Park, you were definitely loitering. At the Broadway, there was at least the possibility of being a paying customer — a cup of coffee or an order of fries split four ways could buy you some legitimate time. But if you were broke, there was some excellent loitering space out front, as well as the Walk of Shame: a long glass wall that made more or less all its tables visible from the outside. Lore about this name varied: was it more shameful to not know anybody in the diner right now, or to know people in there who hadn’t invited you?
Most of my memories of the Broadway are a blur — it was long ago and far away. But one stands out crystal clear, and that’s the one I’m going to give you today. It was a few years after high school, but I was home for the summer. I had a friend in town visiting, and we’d stayed up all night drinking and talking in my parents’ basement. I was halfway in love with this person, and I don’t remember to what degree I’d told him about it yet, but when 4:30 AM rolled around, neither of us wanted to go to sleep because that would have meant we’d have to stop talking to each other. I was by this time sober enough to drive, so to have an excuse to stay up we decided to go to a diner. First we tried the Middletown Diner, which was very good back then and pretty close to my parents’ house, but it turned out that I was mistaken about its being open 24 hours. Rather than try somewhere else and fail, I pointed the car to Red Bank, where I knew the Broadway would be waiting for us.
And now the sun’s comin’ up
I’m ridin’ with Lady Luck
Freeway cars and trucks
Stars beginning to fade
And I lead the parade
It almost seems impossible in retrospect, but I swear to you that Tom Waits’ “Ol’ 55” came on the radio — it must have been the local community college radio station, some DJ with a poetic sensibility who decided to greet the sunrise with this song. Suddenly everything was perfect — the sky was reddening, the air was cool, and God knows, I was feelin’ alive. There’s something about greeting the sunrise after being up all night that makes you feel free, and holy, and maybe a little sad — it’s a patently irrational choice, a fuck-it choice. We were holding on to our perfect night, even as it was fading into day.
Just a-wishin’ I’d stayed a little longer
Oh Lord, lemme tell you that feeling’s gettin’ stronger
The Broadway was there as it always was, when we arrived at about five in the morning. There was, of course, nobody I recognized along the Walk of Shame. We were the only bedraggled, hungover kids in there — most of the other patrons were men getting coffee and a bagel on their way to construction jobs, or elderly couples sharing orders of pancakes. I ordered eggs and toast and coffee; I did not smoke a cigarette. The diner was a long, slow slide back into real life: the food and coffee made us feel somewhat reluctantly normal, and the people around us were going about their business as though one of the most interesting nights in the world had not just happened. We bought a newspaper, and marveled at what some people thought was newsworthy this morning. By the time we got back into the car, the sun was up, and the night was over.
And it’s six in the mornin’, gave me no warnin’
I had to be on my way
Well, these trucks all a-passin’ and the lights all a-flashin’
I’m on my way home from your place
I know I’m not the only person whom the diner has gently guided back to reality. Things never quite worked out romantically with that guy, and it was for the best that they didn’t, but that night and especially that morning are seared across my memory in brilliant gold. Thank you, Broadway Diner, for your years of service to Red Bank’s lost souls.
And now the sun’s comin’ up
I’m ridin’ with Lady Luck
Freeway cars and trucks
Freeway cars and trucks
Freeway cars and trucks
Friends, we are so lucky to be loved.
My parents are moving out of the house where I spent my adolescence into the house where they will spend their retirement. This requires me to go through all of the nonsense I left behind when I moved out of their house when I was 18 years old, nearly 15 years ago. This requires going through a lot of tedious bullshit, but it also requires going through my box of old love letters from high school.
Let me be clear: I am engaged to be married to the man without whom I could not imagine myself. It’s not that we “finish each other’s sentences,” it’s that together we form whole thoughts and concepts that are bigger and better and funnier and crazier than anything either of us could have come up with alone.
There is an episode of Friends that I remember vividly, in which the female characters all decide that they need to burn all their mementos of their past boyfriends in order to wish themselves new and better luck on Valentine’s Day, and of course it turns into a minor disaster, and of course the firemen who show up to save them are hunky so it all turns out okay. This episode (“The One With the Candy Hearts” – thanks, Google!) aired in 1995, when I was in 7th grade, and probably influenced the very existence of this box of love letters that I would begin to accumulate in high school. It taught me three things: 1) that a lady saves tokens of affection, 2) that she saves them all together in a big box of affirmation to prop herself up later in life, and 3) that a time might come when it was appropriate to set fire to the contents of that box in order to move on.
So: I’m engaged, my parents want me to clean my shit out of their house, and I have to decide the fate of these letters. Time to get drunk, obviously, and read them.
I went into this task 100% sure that after reading them I would want to burn them, that the only honorable thing to do would be to burn them (or, you know, responsibly recycle them). But I can’t. Because they’re beautiful. I can’t quote them to you; it would sound like bragging, and besides, it’s private. But I can tell you that the honesty with which one sixteen-year-old addresses another with whom they are in love is a force that we need more of in this world.
I’m aware that I’m immensely privileged to have such a record: for one thing, plenty of people don’t find any measure of success in love until much later in life; for another, plenty of people don’t or can’t save much from their teenage years; and for a third, kids these days and their Snapchat; do they even know what it would mean to have a handwritten note to get sentimental about in their thirties?
It’s not that I still love any of the people who wrote these letters—I don’t, in any kind of romantic or possessive way. Nor do I entertain any fantasies that they “still” love me, whatever that could mean this many years removed. But I honor, tremendously, what these letters do: they ask for the pleasure of my company, and they explain simply and frankly how much they enjoy it. Most of them do little more than this. Some of them do it in grand, florid prose; others do it in simple, misspelled sentences.
It’s what they say about why they are so eager to spend time with me that motivates me to tell you about all of this. Some of the letters go through a rigmarole about my looks (false), and my sense of humor (getting warmer), but they pretty much all arrive at a single point: these letter writers were all overjoyed that I seemed so much to enjoy spending time with them. A cynic might say that these boys were just trying to get in my pants, and some of them no doubt were, but most of them could clearly never have imagined that possibility in a million years—their innocence is almost breathtaking. These letters made me remember that the real earth-shattering awe of teenage love is the simple fact of love reciprocated: that after pining and yearning alone for so many years, to find someone who returns your feelings is a real live miracle. And it still is, and it always is.
I know I hit the love lottery. I know a lot of people have a lot of love to give. I know it’s not easy, in the guarded adult world, to do so.
But take a minute to think with me about this box of letters—a box full of people saying, essentially, “I love how much you love me.” Think about what that means. And then tell somebody about how much you love them. Do it fancy, do it simple, avoid the word “love” if that freaks either one of you out. But do it!
Friends, we are so lucky to love!
I liked Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby — the visual extravagance was eminently appropriate, the movie was surprisingly willing to poke fun at its own absurdity, and I even liked the controversial hip-hop soundtrack, which I thought added to the dizzying disorientation of the party scenes and also marked the movie unmistakably as an artifact of the present moment rather than a “faithful” reconstruction of history. I’m just going to take issue with one little bit of the movie today, and that’s the end, where Gatsby dies (spoiler alert!) while waiting for a telephone call from Daisy. In the movie and the book both, Nick leaves Gatsby the morning after the accident promising to call him later, and Gatsby says “I suppose Daisy’ll call too,” and expects Nick to corroborate this hope. Then, in the movie, we see Gatsby waiting by the telephone, and having the telephone brought out to the pool, intercut with Nick moping at his office and with Daisy sitting by her own telephone, presumably thinking about calling Gatsby and taking him up on his offer of a life together. Finally the phone rings at Gatsby’s pool, and he thinks (and says) “Daisy!” as he climbs hopeful and starry-eyed up the pool ladder, only to be shot in the back and to fall backwards in stunned slow motion. After he’s dead it’s revealed that it was only Nick on the phone, worried about Gatsby.
It had been a long time since I’d last read The Great Gatsby cover to cover, but I was pretty darn sure this last gasp of hope, the ringing phone that might have been Daisy, was not in the book. And indeed it is not — at least, not exactly. Furthermore, I recognized this revisionist ending — it’s a version of the ending of Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, where Juliet wakes up from the sleep-drug before rather than after Romeo dies from the poison he’s just downed, allowing for the two of them to have an agonizing few seconds of “OH SHIIIIIIIT” eye-contact before Romeo succumbs. And that, of course, was also DiCaprio. So here we have, for the second time, Luhrmann giving DiCaprio an unauthorized minor revision to the source material in which his character sees both love and death in the same moment — the sudden, surprising promise of the one being unraveled before his eyes by the imminent certainty of the other.
In R + J, it’s certainly not in the original script, but it’s at least a choice a director could legitimately make — it involves no alteration to the spoken words. In Gatsby, it’s part of a pattern in which Luhrmann alters the text to remove ambiguities and make Gatsby more purely into a symbol of undying, incorruptible hope. Significantly, Luhrmann leaves out the punchline in what turn out to be Nick’s final words to Gatsby:
“’They’re a rotten crowd,’ I shouted across the lawn. ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.’
I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, [because I disapproved of him from beginning to end.]”
The excision of the remark in brackets from the film’s narration is one of many small ways in which the film gives us a Nick who is more thoroughly starry-eyed about Gatsby than is the character in the book. The invented scene with the telephone call is another, more significant revision in this vein. First of all, the book is cagier about what phone call Gatsby is even waiting for. He certainly says to Nick that he hopes Daisy will call, but when Nick tries to call Gatsby he never gets through and is told that the line is being held open “for Detroit” — whereas in the movie, we see Gatsby specifically telling his butler not to take Detroit’s call, as well as shots of Daisy thinking about calling (which the book never gives us reason to think that she does). The book doesn’t actually “show” Gatsby’s death, but here’s Nick’s imagining of Gatsby’s final moments:
“No telephone message arrived but the butler went without his sleep and waited for it until four o’clock — until long after there was anyone to give it to if it came. I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about… like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.”
This is nearly the opposite of the scene in the movie — not only does no call come, but Nick thinks that Gatsby has finally lost hope, and rather than a final glorious moment of possibility, Gatsby’s death is imagined as almost being caused by giving up on hope. Letting go of hope has caused formerly lovely sights to become “frightening” and “grotesque,” and it is this terrible “new world” that sends forth the ghost-like form of Gatsby’s murderer in the final line here. Luhrmann, on the other hand, prefers Gatsby to remain a perfect, unspoiled symbol of hope until the end. His revision of this scene makes melodramatic tragedy out of Gatsby’s vision of love snatched away by death, and backs away from the deeper tragedy that Fitzgerald draws, of the world’s very animating soul draining out as hope dims.
I’m sure I’m not the first person to compare Gatsby to the Kierkegaardian knight of faith, who says to himself that even though his love is impossible, “I nevertheless believe that I shall get her, namely on the strength of the absurd, on the strength of the fact that for God all things are possible.” The thing about the knight of faith, though, is that he has first to accept that his love is really not possible in this world, and I don’t think Luhrmann’s Gatsby ever gets there. For one thing, Luhrmann takes away the condition that the love be thoroughly impossible by showing those scenes of Daisy with the telephone, thinking about calling. She even reaches for the phone at one point, and the camera cuts back to Gatsby’s phone ringing, and his emergence from the pool only to be shot, allowing viewers to think along with Gatsby that this is in fact Daisy calling. The slow-motion tragedy of Gatsby falling back into the pool is the moment of Romeo seeing his future with Juliet being drawn away from him by the tunnel of his own death — it’s not until afterwards that viewers get the punchline that it was just Nick on the phone. Gatsby’s hope that Daisy will call is not at all unreasonable or absurd in the movie, which takes away some of its poignancy.
To be honest, I’m not sure that Fitzgerald’s Gatsby qualifies as a true knight of faith, either. Kierkegaard explains that “childlike simplicity and innocence” can also account for impossible hope that is just naïveté rather than true faith based on the renunciation of earthly possibility. But Fitzgerald’s vision of Gatsby is nonetheless darker and more complex than Luhrmann’s, and Gatsby’s last moments are an experience of a dead, empty world left lifeless when hope has gone: “He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about…”. What’s striking about these lines is the transformation of natural beauty into uncanny horror. And is Gatsby himself one of these “poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air”? If so, it’s another transformation, from a vision of himself as drawing strength and vigor from his dream to one of himself barely clinging to life through it. Another line of Kierkegaard’s comes to mind: “Through faith I don’t renounce anything, on the contrary in faith I receive everything.” It’s as though Gatsby’s faith has been giving him the world up until this moment, and now suddenly the world is taken away — even though it’s still in front of his face. It’s not just Daisy who vanishes in this tragedy, but everything — and not because of Gatsby’s death, but because he wretchedly remains alive. Fortunately, this world of shadows sends forth its avenging angel.
As a poetry teacher, I loved Melancholia. I’m always telling my students that in poetry (as in all literature), the best interpretations are the ones phrased in terms of “both/and” rather than in terms of “either/or” — and that’s exactly how Lars Von Trier’s film begs to be read. The film is divided in two parts: in the first half, Kirsten Dunst’s crippling depression threatens to sabotage her fairy-tale wedding, and in the second half, a rogue planet called “Melancholia” threatens to obliterate the earth. The absurdly obvious symbolism of a planet actually called “Melancholia” that might actually destroy the earth is so ludicrous as to demand further interpretation. “Yes,” I can hear myself saying to my imaginary poetry-and-film students, “the planet stands for depression. But are you satisfied with that? What else might it mean?”
The first thing I should point out is that the second half of the film — when the actual end of the world is nigh — feels like a relief. The first half is tense and awkward and upsetting: you sympathize with Justine (Dunst’s character), because you realize that depression is a medical condition and she can’t just think herself out of it, but you also wonder along with her relatives why she can’t just, on this one joyous day, actually be happy. When her sister Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), tells her to at least put on a smile and go through the motions for the benefit of everybody in attendance — including the groom — it sounds both reasonable and insensitive. This dilemma cuts to the heart of what is, for me, the central problem with weddings: they are supposed to be about things sincerely and deeply felt by the bride and groom, but they generally take the form of elaborate, complicated ceremonies followed by elaborate, complicated parties that seem to exist much more for the benefit of family and friends than for the actual people getting married. What if you wake up in the morning on your wedding day and you’re just not in the mood to deal with all that nonsense? What if you agreed to deal with all that nonsense because your fiancé and your family want it, but you are medically unable to enjoy it? The right thing to do in both cases seems to be to soldier on and pretend to be happy, because ruining your wedding might ruin your marriage and/or hurt or upset your family members. But then, suddenly, there is a troubling absence at the center of the ritual.
American mainstream culture seems able to tolerate “empty ritual” in just about every case EXCEPT weddings. At funerals, we recognize a wide range of “stages of grief,” and it’s perfectly okay if you feel numb or angry instead of properly melancholy. If you are a regular churchgoer, you will sometimes feel religiously moved by your Sunday services, but it’s okay if some weeks you’re there more in body than in spirit. And there are hundreds of less-religious rituals where the divorce between practice and feeling is widely recognized and accepted: my mother, for example, is planning a retirement party for a woman who, it turns out, really doesn’t want a retirement party but is probably going to get one anyway — and she will probably smile her way through it. But the idea of just smiling one’s way through one’s own wedding is unthinkable — whenever a bride in a movie is a tiny bit less than ecstatic about her wedding, it’s taken as a sign that the love in question is not “true” and Dustin Hoffman is likely to pound on the glass shouting her name at any moment, grinding the “false” ceremony to a halt. (My favorite version of this, incidentally, is when Patrick Dempsey literally busts into the chapel on a white horse at the end of the dreadful film Made of Honor. Um, spoiler alert.) And the other side of the coin is that whenever a groom is less than enthusiastic about his impending wedding, he will inevitably “grow up” just in time to undergo the ceremony with wholehearted and authentic feeling. Clearly there are gender dynamics that might be investigated here — the bride has been pushed into something she doesn’t feel, while the groom has been pushed into something he DOES feel — but I’m less interested in that problem than in the way that both these clichés are rooted in a fantasy of absolute authenticity.
One of the most troubling things about Melancholia for me was that Justine’s groom actually does leave her, right in the middle of the wedding reception, because of how unenthused and disengaged she is about the proceedings. He seems to buy into the Hoffman/Dempsey movie-logic that the rest of the film is trying to put into question, which at first just felt like a misstep on Von Trier’s part to me. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it’s actually not so inconceivable that an otherwise loving fiancé might back out of a wedding under these circumstances — because we are so conditioned by film to think of weddings as absolutely authentic experiences.
In the second half of the film, the question of ritual again resurfaces in the face of the end of the world. This is a circumstance that we have no ready rituals for, because it has never happened before, so we have to make them up. Claire proposes a glass of wine on the terrace, which Justine violently rejects. Instead, Justine gathers up Claire’s child (who would, of course, not have been able to enjoy the bourgeois ritual of the glass of wine) and runs to the forest to gather wood, which they fashion into a makeshift teepee, where Claire eventually joins them. The teepee is an invented ritual: it looks like a ritual, because of its primitivism, and it is endowed by Justine’s performative fiat with magical protective properties. This ritual, unlike the one Claire proposed, was clearly designed with the child in mind: it was meant to include and to comfort him. It also feels more authentic than either the wedding was or the glass of wine would be, because it was tailored to this specific purpose — a unique ritual for an unrepeatable event.
J.L. Austin, of course, has argued that it is precisely the fact of their historical repetition that gives utterances such as “with this ring, I thee wed” their power to make things true in the world. But since at least Wordsworth, we’ve expected “powerful feeling” to take the form of “spontaneous overflows,” which seem difficult to square with the iterative nature of most rituals. This is the kind of inauthenticity that the first half of Melancholia deals with: Justine’s desire to feel authentically leads her to wander out on the golf course in the dark instead of staying at her wedding reception and cutting the cake. But the second half of the film presents a more Durkheimian view of ritual as something that permits, structures, contains, and maybe even produces powerful feelings.
One of the answers I expect my imaginary poetry-and-film students might give if I asked them “what else does the planet stand for?” is “Justine’s wedding.” At first, the prevailing opinion of Melancholia is that it will pass by the earth at an incredibly close distance and provide an exciting (but safe) astronomical spectacle. It seems, itself, like a rite of passage: humanity will have its brush with death but will emerge unharmed. It is eagerly anticipated by Claire’s husband and son, and presumably by many other people around the world. But, like Justine’s wedding, what was supposed to be a transformative “close encounter” turns slowly and agonizingly into a catastrophic collision.
It’s the very externality of the end of the world that makes the second half of the film feel less awful than the first half: unlike Justine’s depression, the planet Melancholia is a real, observable physical object that everybody (eventually) agrees is a huge bummer. Rituals to greet it therefore stand on far less ambiguous emotional ground than Justine’s wedding did. Both Claire’s proposed glass of wine and Justine’s teepee have specific situational goals and reflect specific attitudes toward the end of the world: Claire proposes a classic bourgeois down-with-the-ship attitude, akin to the orchestra on the Titanic, while what Justine offers is something both more imaginative and more sacred. But I don’t think the film comes solidly down on the side of either formal ritual (like the wedding) or spontaneous personal ritual (like the teepee). The wedding scenes are utterly gorgeous, and I think ultimately Von Trier presents the wedding not as a straitjacket from which Justine needs to escape but as an ambitious failed project: both this glamorous, complicated event and the very idea of marital bliss are enormously difficult feats for a person with severe depression. What is easy for such a person is, of course, the end of the world: it seems like something Justine has been expecting. The planet stands for both depression and ritual, then — among other things — and Von Trier asks us to consider the disconnect between situation and emotion in both cases. If ritual is supposed to structure and produce powerful feelings, it certainly presents problems for people whose feelings don’t function in the usual way.
First of all, this is old news to most of you who know me personally, but all of you in blog-land might be interested to know that I’ve got an article published on H.D.’s Trilogy, her WWII epic poem, and her seances in which she talked to dead RAF pilots. It’s in the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory’s most recent issue, and it’s called “‘An Unusual Way to Think’: Trilogy‘s Oracular Poetics.” You can download & read the PDF for free. Yay for the information age!
If you’ve been starved for my friendlier, less academic prose (and what follows below is not enough to slake your thirst), you can also check out the poetry reviews that I recently did for Noö Journal — mine are the first two pieces in the magazine, actually, linked there on the upper right.
Okay, on with the show. In what follows, as the title of this post promises, I will talk about Gertrude Stein for awhile and then I will make some connections to the series finale of Lost, because I am a dork. I will put that section behind the fold, for the spoiler-conscious, and I will endeavor to make the first part of the post worthwhile in and of itself. I will also try to make the section on Lost as general and thematic as possible, so that you can read it and get something out of it even if you haven’t watched the series.
Because I am an immensely unwise person, I have decided that my dissertation requires me to read Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, a 925-page-long reputedly incoherent tome which is actually blurbed with the following line from the New Yorker: “The first stunningly original disaster of modernism.” But to my great surprise, I am enjoying the hell out of it. Here is part of the section with which I am currently madly in love. I quote at some length so you can get the effect of her prose, but please do try to read this attentively, because the nuances are important:
Every one is always repeating the whole of them. Always, one having loving repeating to getting completed understanding must have in them an open feeling, a sense for all the slightest variations in repeating, must never lose themselves so in the solid steadiness of all repeating that they do not hear the slightest variation. If they get deadened by the steady pounding of repeating they will not learn from each one even though each one always is repeating the whole of them they will not learn the completed history of them, they will not know the being really in them.
As I was saying every one always is repeating the whole of them. As I was saying sometimes it takes many years of listening, seeing, living, feeling, loving the repeating there is in some before one comes to a completed understanding. This is now a description, of such a way of hearing, seeing, feeling, living, loving, repetition.
Mostly everyone loves some one’s repeating. Mostly everyone, then, comes to know then the being of some one by loving the repeating in them, the repeating coming out of them. There are some who love everybody’s repeating, this is now a description of such loving in one.
Mostly everyone loves some one’s repeating. Everyone always is repeating the whole of them. This is now a history of getting completed understanding by loving repeating in every one the repeating that always is coming out of them as a complete history of them. This is now a description of learning to listen to all repeating that every one is always making of the whole of them.
A large part of The Making of Americans is essentially a typology of characters — Stein attempts to describe different “types” of people who live in America. This concept is what she is introducing at the end of this passage; the narrator is someone “who love[s] everybody’s repeating,” and has listened sufficiently to everybody so as to piece together a “complete history” of all of them.
But let’s back up. What does it mean to say that “every one is always repeating the whole of them”? First of all, there’s the sense of verbal “repetition,” which of course this text itself enacts. We all have favorite stories about ourselves to tell, favorite topics to discuss, frequent refrains in our daily accounts of ourselves. I presently have a semi-regular non-appointment with a friend of mine for what generally turn out to be quite long conversations about our presents and pasts. He is a relatively new acquaintance, which means I get to trot out some of my “greatest hits,” and have thus had the opportunity to examine this particular(ly narcissistic) pleasure. It’s the pleasure of a well-told story as much as of a well-lived life; I admire myself for both the events and their recounting equally. Because of course for me, these stories are already repetitions, benefiting from earlier tellings. But I worry that some of these stories have stopped being “authentic” because they have been told so many times, and that I might not be giving my interlocutor as much attention as he deserves by launching into these rhapsodies as often as I do. (Speaking of favorite themes, see this post for an earlier meditation of mine on personal anecdotes and the authenticity thereof.) But Stein loves repetition. She would tell me, I think, that repetition makes my stories more authentic, in the sense that as I refine them, they become more perfect expressions of myself. Not only do they become better vehicles for conveying whatever truth about myself inheres in stories about — for example — my summer jobs in high school, but they become better entertainment for my interlocutor, and I think this latter function should not be overlooked.
So there is verbal repetition — but there is also, like, life repetition. In a mundane sense, we all have schedules. We all have approximately set times when we wake up and when we go to sleep, most of us have some kind of official work schedule we have to abide by, and many of us have more or less ritualized ways that we use our spare time: we go to the same couple of lunch places, we unwind at the end of the day with a beer and The Daily Show, whatever. In a more profound sense, most of our lives are shaped by broader patterns of repetition: the same damn relationship hang-ups playing out again and again, the same nonsense day in and day out from your mother that you thought you both would have outgrown by now, etc. Freud’s concept of Nachträglichkeit is also about repetition — according to this theory, certain traumatic events leave us numb because we are unable to process them, but then later (often much later) in life, a seemingly unrelated stimulus can set off an emotional reaction out of all proportion with the stiumulus itself, because this reaction is the result of much-belated emotions connected to the original traumatic event.
What I like about Stein’s formulation (“every one is always repeating the whole of them”) is that it levels all these senses of repetition, from the echoing effect of profound emotional trauma to your verbal tics and your morning coffee ritual, and says that in all of these repetitions you are repeating “the whole of [you].” It reminds me of fractals, geometric drawings made up of pieces that are each smaller-sized copies of the whole. We all, I think, worry about the degree to which our lives our repetitive. Most of us have escape fantasies, whether or not we have any actual desire to act on them. Maybe I read too much Jack Kerouac as a teenager, but I suspect I am not the only person who sometimes fancies that she could be living a better and freer and more authentic life if she could just summon the courage to quit her job and hit the open road. What Stein does here is show us that repetition is authenticity — we can’t escape it even if we try. If we didn’t have desires that lead us to the same perfectly-calibrated cup of coffee every morning, or habitual turns of phrase that are uniquely our own, then who would we be?
The counterpart to this is the theory of love that Stein espouses here: “Mostly everyone loves some one’s repeating.” This is, by necessity, a theory of long-term love. She reminds us that “sometimes it takes many years of listening, seeing, living, feeling, loving the repeating there is in some before one comes to a completed understanding.” If repetition is authenticity, then repetition demands attention — not boredom or disengagement, which might be our more automatic responses. Importantly, Stein recognizes that the repetition in our lives is never exact repetition, though it may look that way to outsiders. Love, for Stein, becomes paying attention to the nuances of somebody’s repetitions. Change does not always happen drastically — in fact, most change in our lives probably occurs at a gradual pace, as a matter of drift in a series of repetitions rather than as a radical break. And what is sharing your life with someone if not the process of gradually letting your repetitions overlap and shape one another?
This is the part where I’m going to start talking about the television show Lost. If you’ve been watching the show but haven’t seen the finale yet, you should probably stop reading. If you’ve never seen it and/or have only vague plans to watch it someday, you can go ahead and continue, because I will not reveal any answers to any mysteries; I’m just going to describe the kind of emotional closure that the show gives us while avoiding specifics as much as possible.
I write to you today in response to an article that some of my friends have been pointing to urgently but not really talking about: On Repressive Sentimentalism, by Mark Greif. The piece is worth reading in its entirety if you have the time, but here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: Greif proposes that progressive politics has allowed itself to be straightjacketed by the rhetoric of the religious right, defending gay rights in terms only of marriage and feminism in terms only of abortion. The particular problem he sees is that progressives seem to unquestioningly accept the ways that the right characterizes these as sentimental issues: marriage is a happily-ever-after union with your destined partner, and abortions are tragic. How else might we view these issues? Greif proposes that the promise of the gay rights movement is not simply equal marriage rights for all, but the possibility that the institution of marriage itself could be radically questioned. The nuclear family once served a number of socioeconomic functions that it no longer does, which has has left marriage with only an emotional function, and one that it does not even fulfill very well. This part of the argument is worth quoting at some length:
[The nuclear family] is no longer necessary as the site of the pre-capitalist workshop. It is no longer the only structure for child-rearing, as children now come out of so many differently constituted families. The family no longer houses the old folks of several generations. It’s no longer even the privileged secular space for intimate confession and support, as this modern necessity is increasingly outsourced, well down the class ladder, to therapists, gurus, and members of all the helping professions. When marriage has as its main purpose a total and unique defense against loneliness and isolation and anomie, then it’s been saddled with a function too grand and dishonest for it ever to meet; no wonder it will seem imperfect, disappointing, not yet the right, ﬁnal marriage.
The appeal to anomie simply ignores, post-1960s, the emotional capacities we’ve gained. We now resist atomization and anomie with the wide range of unusually warm, non-exclusive and simultaneous friendships, often verging on erotism but not compelled to it, both across and within the sexes, and among straights and gays—this extraordinary birthright the ’60s gave to all those of us born, say, after 1969. The range is better than any narrowing. The multiplicity of friendships trumps the marriage structure. Yet these relations really survive, and thrive, only until marriage begins to clear its throat, and they are jeopardized by the cowardly constraints of couplehood. Marriage is lye poured upon the petri dish of the new relations of erotic sociality.
For better and worse (and for richer and for poorer), marriage is also almost inevitably intolerable to any post-’60s individual who counts the accumulation of strong experience and passionate feeling as the sine qua non of meaningful existence.
I will have some things to say about this in a minute, but for now I will continue with the paraphrase. Marriage, sentimentalized as a forever-bond, prevents people from recognizing the other interesting ways that they could be connecting with people. The abortion debate is similarly restricted by sentimentalization; Greif argues that progressives should stop calling abortion “sad but necessary” and start calling it “right and good” — the issue, he says, should be freedom rather than choice: free and legal abortion is required for women to have the most basic equality with men in terms of planning their lives. The connection between the two issues — marriage and abortion — is, of course, sex. Both debates come down to a squeamishness on the part of the religious right about the idea of sex without consequences, which Greif defends as not just fun and fulfilling, but deeply important to developing a more inclusive and tolerant morality:
You have to defend sex because we still have no better model than the actual, concrete sexual relation for a deep intuitive process opposed to domination. We have no better model for a bodily process that, fundamentally, is free and universal. It does not produce (there is no experiential remainder but pleasure) nor consume. It is cooperative (within the relation of the lovers) and, in that relation, seems to forbid competition. It makes you love people, and accept the look and difference of their bodies. […] Sexual cooperation is the other side of our basic human nature, and matches and disarms economic competition. Conservatives look to the chimpanzees, utopians to bonobos. One viewpoint prefers that side of our evolutionary ancestry that punches and rapes; the other that side, of equal propinquity, that rubs genitals and makes out.
I think these are all valuable and interesting ideas, which is why I’m bringing them to your attention, but something about this article didn’t sit quite right with me, and after some thought I realized it was this: Fundamental to Greif’s argument is a valuing of freedom with regard to our interpersonal relationships — marriage is bad because it restricts that freedom, limiting our ability to get to know and love our neighbors, and outlawing abortion is bad because it prevents women from being able to determine the course of their lives. But what happens when you do decide to bring a child into your life, whether by giving birth or by adoption? You commit to loving a person, sight unseen, who may not turn out to even like you very much. You commit enormous amounts of financial and emotional resources to a person who may walk out the door on her eighteenth birthday and never speak to you again. Even if your relationship with your child doesn’t fail quite that dramatically, it’s almost certain that the relationship will not turn out exactly as you imagined — and yet you are still ethically obligated to that relationship at least until your child reaches adulthood. My point here is that it is actually impossible to conduct all of our relationships as though we had no long-term obligations to them. Greif mentions “unorthodox childrearing and communal parenthood” in his list of reforms that utopians have historically fought for, but I think that solution misses the point in two ways. First, it is extremely difficult to manage both legally and socially in today’s world, though it might be viable as a longterm progressive goal. Second, if you were going to make something like communal parenthood work, and have it be more like a family than like an institution, it would have to involve serious commitments to the parenting enterprise on the part of at least one if not several members of the commune — which gets us right back to my point that the freedom to terminate your affective ties at will runs up against a limit case when you are talking about a parent’s affective ties to a child.
The fact that we have a profound — I hesitate to use the world “absolute” — obligation to our children is, I think, an argument for the importance of other kinds of interpersonal commitments, too. I agree wholeheartedly with Greif that the world would be a better place if the family unit were not so tyrannically policed, if family configurations other than man-woman-child were recognized and accepted, but I also think that without commitment there can be no family. (This does not, however, have to mean exclusive romantic commitment.) It’s nice to imagine a commitment-free world where you might be able to wake up each morning and freely choose whether to continue living with and loving your family members, but I think Greif is overstating the amount of choice we could theoretically have in the matter. In “Whom to Give to (Knowing Not to Know),” Jacques Derrida points out that choices like this are extremely difficult if we take them seriously: “As soon as I enter into a relation with the other, with the gaze, look, request, love, command, or call of the other I know I can respond only by sacrificing ethics, that is, by sacrificing whatever obliges me also to respond, in the same way, in the same instant, to all the others.” He gives the somewhat trivial but still troubling example of his cat: why should I feed my cat and ignore all the stray cats in the world? In terms of the family, one might ask: why should I feed this child and not all the children starving in Africa? Why should I devote my time and energy to this partner when there are so many other worthy partners in the world?
A family is, frankly, convenient to most people precisely because it provides us with a fairly easy answer to the terrifying ethical question posed by our limited time and resources and shouted at us by George Thorogood: “Who do you love?”. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Even if we bracketed the question of child-rearing, I don’t think a world without any concept of family is particularly desirable.
That said, I think there are some worthwhile lessons to be learned from Greif’s vision of a sexually-liberated utopia even if you refuse to throw the baby of commitment out with the bathwater of traditional marriage. For one thing, I think he’s right that most people do themselves a disservice if they allow a single romantic relationship to stifle all their other connections to people. I also think he’s right that it would be a mistake to let any romantic relationship go unevaluated — but commitment to a romantic relationship “for better or for worse” doesn’t have to mean not trying to make it better, or not leaving when it’s unfixably worse. The trick is to not allow yourself to slide into complacency, and Greif is not wrong to characterize marriage as an institution that seems almost designed to encourage it — but that doesn’t mean complacency is inevitable.
I turn, as I often do, to Simone Weil. One fragment in her notebooks goes like this: “Possible loves — are for fools — the wise have — impossible loves.” Weil has a gift for making counterintuitive statements that are strangely compelling, forcing you to change your habits of thinking, and this line is no exception. Two kinds of impossible loves come to mind first: those that are prevented by circumstances, and those that are unrequited. Weil is perhaps trying to tell us that these unrealizable loves are valuable because they ask us to make a change, to either break free from those repressive circumstances or to try to improve ourselves to be worthy of our beloved. Possible loves require no such change, and therefore do not help us grow. (This, I think, is similar to Greif’s position.) But there is a third kind of “impossible love” that Weil might be referring to: not the love that is denied us, but the love that we — impossibly — receive. If you can remember that everyone who loves you is a miracle, and if you work every day towards deserving that love, then I don’t think it matters whether you love fifty people or just one person over the course of your lifetime. Love can always change you for the better if you let it.
As you probably already know if you are a literary type, David Foster Wallace has died. In the following thoughts about Infinite Jest, I will not divulge any plot details — but I will discuss the general shape of the plot arc in a way that, frankly, would have spoiled the reading experience for me in a pretty significant way if I had known it beforehand. However, if you’ve read even a single review of IJ, you’re probably already aware of the thing that I’m wary about disclosing; my reading experience was somewhat abnormally sheltered. Let’s put it this way: if this blog post were about The Usual Suspects, it would not tell you about the identity or even the existence of Keyser Söze, but it would tell you that the movie has a twist ending. (We all knew that, right? Sorry. I shed a lot fewer tears for watchers of a two-hour movie than for readers of a thousand-page book.) Anyway, this post will give you information about plot structure, but not about plot. The undeterred can continue reading below.
Yesterday I had the minorly excruciating and entirely bizarre experience of sitting through three hours of personal introductions on the first day of a nine-person seminar class. The class, which I am considering auditing, is being taught by a Jesuit monk turned professor turned journalist and recently re-turned professor, so perhaps he doesn’t know that most graduate seminars consist of intellectual exchanges between people who, for the most part, don’t know each other very well outside the classroom and form their ideas of one another largely on the basis of how smart they manage to sound when talking about the assigned texts. Most graduate seminars begin with “introductions,” but these take the form of “Hi, I’m Mary, I’m a second year in the English department, and I work on Victorian novels.” This professor, by contrast, demanded that each of us give an account of our relationship to Americanness, to religion, and to poetry (this being a class on American religious poetry), and then proceeded to interrupt each of us numerous times with sincerely interested questions. “Oh, what town in Texas was that?” “Would you say your connection to Catholicism is more cultural, then?” etc. For the nine of us to account for ourselves and answer his questions in sufficient detail took the whole three hours allotted for the seminar, which was on the one hand excruciatingly boring and on the other hand fascinating.
What fascinated me was not the particular details of my colleagues’ stories (though they sometimes were quite interesting), but the process of accounting for myself in this way, and of watching other people do the same thing. My “religion” and my “poetry” stories are both things I have recounted so many times that my telling of them in class today was more like a recitation than a process of self-discovery — but my “American” answer was a little more roughshod, and I ended up feeling dissatisfied with it, like I hadn’t really expressed what I’d wanted to. What happened, actually, was that I recited a couple of things about my parents’ families, but I didn’t really get a chance to think or talk about my own “American” experience, which has far more to do with my growing up in suburban New Jersey than with my mother’s family being Irish potato famine immigrants.
Whether or not it was true, it looked to me that my colleagues’ stories were, for the most part, more “authentic” than my own — they seemed to be answering these questions for the first time, and saying something “real,” rather than just rattling off the stories they’d told to themselves and their friends a billion times before. I realized immediately, even as I was having this thought, that it probably wasn’t true; it was just that since I was hearing their stories for the first time, they seemed more spontaneous.
I began to think, while walking home, that it would be a very interesting exercise to try to write one’s autobiography — or even just bits of it — completely without the help of one’s familiar store of stories about oneself. That is, to try to dig up and put into words the parts of your life that you’d never put into words before, not even to yourself. It may be that I’m an academic and a writer, or it may just be that I’m a human and everybody does this, but I am constantly, constantly telling myself stories about myself. Even as I know that I’m fictionalizing and oversimplifying, it’s helpful and reassuring to be able to trace certain kinds of continuity, to be able to say “I presently feel this way because of these other things that happened in the past” and “I did that terrible thing because I couldn’t help it, that is the kind of thing I have always done, but at least I did it less terribly this time.”
I suspect that, the farther back I tried to reach in my past without the aid of my stories, the less I would find. From my elementary school years, I don’t think there’s a single thing my mind could touch that is not already part of my Grand Narrative. But from middle school, and certainly later, there must be things lurking in my mind that are not crystallized into words in the same way that the more “important” events are.
I recently gave a paper at a conference on excess and obsession, which is one reason why I’ve been driven to think about the above things. In a lot of ways, the most illuminating panel at the conference turned out to be the one I had most snickered about to my friends beforehand: the panel on fandom. What the fandom scholars were able to articulate that the more traditional scholars (myself included) were not was, more or less, that what we are talking about when we are talking about “excess,” in any kind of literary/cultural way, is emotion, and that emotion is embarrassing. When you’re a Trekkie, a Xenaphile, or an emo kid, you are identifying with an emotional attachment that is viewed with skepticism by the rest of society because of its publicness and because of its fervor. It seems to me that we are generally expected, these days, to have our emotions quietly and at home. (And hasn’t this always been the case? With the brief subcultural exception of the Summer of Love?)
Many of the conference participants, in other words, seemed to be coding “excess” as “authentic,” to be buying into the idea that that which is unarticulated is unspoiled in much the same vein as my autobiography speculations above. This was particularly true of the queer theorists, at least two of whom focused on queer reading practice as something that draws on textual possibilities rather than textual actualities to move toward an imagined utopian future that is acknowledged as imagined, and yet still must be imagined.
I found their frankness about possibility very helpful. There probably are parts of my life that I haven’t articulated to myself, but the minute I discover them I begin to articulate them, and they become assimilated into the already-existing Grand Narrative, becoming just more examples of this or that Trend In My Life At That Time. Perhaps the only way these parts of my history can have power is as possibilities, as dark corners that remain dark. One of the keynote speakers at the conference remarked that, as a writer, “one has to hide one’s intent” — when I asked him in the Q&A to elaborate, he more or less said that your intent is not going to sell books; that you have to give readers something they want, and smuggle your “real” message in the back door. I can empathize, of course. Nearly every paper in my academic career has had the secret or not-so-secret message of “please please try to love one another,” and I think I would not be exaggerating to say that many, if not most, enduring works of art have exactly this message as well. But slapping a sticker on the front of Ulysses reading “LOVE IS IN HERE” would not particularly have helped Joyce sell more copies — because, as I said, emotion is embarrassing. You have to give readers something else to tell themselves that they want: the challenge of the experimentation, the pleasure of the text, the possibility of pornography, etc.
Probably the best readings of texts are the ones that leave some of the dark places unlit. Psyche should not have lit her lamp to look on Cupid’s face, and love suffers in the labeling.
The New York Times’ Style section ran two articles this weekend advising readers on how to make peace with the experience of receiving a bad gift. The Sweater Only a Mom (and Analyst) Could Love by Matthew Weiner argues that most gifts are disappointing because of the anticipation programmed into us by movies and commercials depicting scenes of joyous, perfect gift-receiving involving ribbons and hugs and tears:
But the reality is that getting a gift is like being set up on a blind date. Like it or not, your friend or family member is sending you a message telling you in a coded way what they think you want, what you deserve and, on some level, who they think you are.
In What Do You Mean, Giving Me That?, Guy Trebay reflects that “the strange and the ambiguous and the mixed and and the heartbreaking intentions behind gift-giving are an overlooked bonus.” Furthermore, he writes:
I feel less lost at Christmas if I conjure an image of the person she was imagining I might become. If the problem with presents is that they reveal too much, that is also their value. Even with the most ludicrous or empty of presents, the exercise of following the object back to its intention is beneficial.
I was struck by how identical these messages were. First of all, are we actually expecting bad gifts now? Are we so pessimistic that the Times had to run two articles mentally preparing us for the experience? But if it’s interesting that these two pieces address the same problem, it’s even more interesting that they propose the same solution. “It’s the thought that counts” is a commonplace, but both these authors play a new tune on the old saw by specifying that one ought to think about the person that the gift-giver imagines one to be. This turns gift-receiving into an occasion for reflecting on the mystery of our relationships — I am surely not the person that my aunt imagines would love to wear a long, faux-tribal necklace made of seashells, but she loves me in spite of and because of this inaccuracy. We can only know each other through fantasies — filters — veils.
Sylvia Plath confronts precisely this question in “A Birthday Present”, which I recommend that you go read before continuing further (it’s just a little too long to reprint here). The first time I read this poem, knowing the standard Plath suicide mythology, I figured that the unnamed gift the speaker longs for was obviously death: “Let it not come by the mail, finger by finger. // Let it not come by word of mouth, I should be sixty / By the time the whole of it was delivered, and too numb to use it.” But the gift is stubbornly unspecified, and the only time it is called “death” is in the conditional: “If it were death // I would admire the deep gravity of it, its timeless eyes.” This opens the door to other possibilities, and in a few places the poem outright contradicts the “death” reading — “only you can give it to me,” for example, doesn’t seem to refer to death, especially given Plath’s multiple suicide attempts. What is it, then, that can only be given by a particular “you”?
Let’s look at the first lines: “What is this, behind this veil, is it ugly, is it beautiful? / Is it shimmering, has it breasts, has it edges? // I am sure it is unique, I am sure it is what I want.” Here, the desired “it” is at least possibly a person. I propose a counter-reading, then — both alongside and against the “death” reading — that what the speaker yearns for is the truth of the other person. She rails at this person to “let down the veil, the veil,” but this is impossible because this person sees “only transparencies, clear air.”
Death stands for profound otherness here, for anything “beyond the veil” and unknowable. But we must recognize veils before we can contest them. This is what the Times’ columnists are trying to tell us about gifts: they are rare opportunities to see how others see us. But if it’s true that we always see each other through veils, then every gift ought to be a “bad” one, to some degree. Somehow, this is not true. Weiner closes his article with an anecdote about the one good gift he received that ruined him for all others — he was a struggling writer supported by his wife’s meager salary and feeling like a failure, when the following happened:
My birthday came, and the gift I wanted was to be shot in the back of the head while I slept — to be mercifully put out of my misery before I gained any more weight or finished the extremely depressing movie I was writing.
My wife handed me a large, very heavy flat box. Inside was a silver Zero Halliburton briefcase.
Now, if you missed the ’80s, let me explain what this was. It was the ultimate briefcase. It was the one you saw in the movies, carried by Feds, moguls, guys in sports cars, drug dealers. It was the kind that was filled with rows of hundreds and then handcuffed to somebody’s wrist. I had admired one in a window at the mall. My wife had clocked that and delivered. It cost $300. Our rent was $800 a month.
It was so extravagant, so ridiculous, so desired. I was speechless. My wife knew what I wanted. I wanted to feel successful. I wanted to go somewhere everyday with my papers in that gleaming hand-held Learjet.
When I saw that gift, I knew that no matter what I felt like, she somehow saw me as the kind of person who carried that thing. She somehow saw me as a success. And yes, there were hugs and kisses and tears.
The reason this gift is so successful is that the way the wife sees the husband is the way the husband wants to see himself — which is very different from the way he does see himself. This anecdote also calls to mind Jacques Derrida’s Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, in which he argues that for a gift to truly be a gift, it has to be unrepayable. Most gifts are not really gifts, because they open up cycles of debt and repayment — once you give somebody something, they are obligated to reciprocate. It’s been a long time since I read it and I don’t have it on hand, but I think he does eventually admit that unrepayable gifts are possible — but only if the gift itself is, in a sense, impossible, as in the case of the Halliburton briefcase. What makes this gift impossible is not only that it is “so extravagant, so ridiculous, so desired,” but that it literally does not correspond to reality — Weiner was not the kind of person who carried that thing, but his wife knew that he could be, and now he is writing for the New York Times as well as executive-producing Mad Men and The Sopranos.
This leads me to a different and better reading of Plath’s poem: it is not just the true self of the other person that she wants — though this is part of it — but her own true self. Here is the end of the poem:
Only let down the veil, the veil, the veil.
If it were death
I would admire the deep gravity of it, its timeless eyes.
I would know you were serious.
There would be a nobility then, there would be a birthday.
And the knife not carve, but enter
Pure and clean as the cry of a baby,
And the universe slide from my side.
What the speaker wants is for the other person’s knife not to impose its own order by “carving,” but to simply cut her open. Death turns into birth, and “the universe” inside her becomes visible. Good gifts, then, can teach us something about who we are — just because our loved ones’ perceptions of us are not always the same as our own doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Love gives us to ourselves.
I realize I’ve said “I’m back for real” a couple of different times now, but this time I think I mean it: I’m back for real. The past few months have been consumed by studying for and taking my Ph.D. qualifying exams, and now that I’ve passed them I am not only much more free to blog but I also have a large backlog of thoughts about poetry that need articulating. So, I hope you’ll welcome me back into your arms and RSS readers as I work through some of this stuff.
As you may remember, a few months ago I promised to write a post on Robert Frost. Now, my primary sympathies as a reader and a scholar are for avant-garde poetry. I had a roommate at summer camp when I was fifteen who loved Frost and read him out loud to me, and behind her back I used to cite this along with her playing the bassoon and preferring math problems to Friday night dances as evidence of her incurable boringness. But my “Twentieth Century American Poetry” exam list included both the raw and the cooked, and I’ve started to see more in the century’s more “traditional” poetry than I used to.
When I made that promise, I was thinking of a poem by Frost called “Hyla Brook” that is particularly relevant to the issues I was exploring in my previous post regarding D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love and the trip back east that I had just taken. The question at hand, to put it plainly, was: given that everything is ever-changing and that other people will never be fully known to us, must we reconcile ourselves to loving phantoms and fantasies? Here’s the poem:
by Robert Frost
By June our brook’s run out of song and speed.
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh bells in a ghost of snow) —
Or flourished and come up in jewelweed,
Weak foliage that is blown upon and bent,
Even against the way its waters went.
Its bed is left a faded paper sheet
Of dead leaves stuck together by the heat —
A brook to none but who remember long.
This as it will be seen is other far
Than with brooks taken otherwhere in song.
We love the things we love for what they are.
The Hyla is a kind of tree frog, but it’s also worth noting that in Greek mythology, Hylas was the Argonaut who was lured into the water by the water nymphs and disappeared without a trace. Here, the brook itself disappears — it dries up so thoroughly that it is not even properly a brook anymore. Only those “who remember long” would refer to it that way; a newcomer would see not a brook, but simply a swath of jewelweed.
The last four lines make it clear that we are not just talking about brooks here. The poem is in fact a criticism directed against “songs” that take brooks “otherwhere” — in other words, against poetry that idealizes, romanticizes, and immortalizes. Against this kind of “song,” the speaker affirms a love that is realistic, that is in the present tense, and most importantly, that is attentive. The speaker, unlike those other songsters, loves the brook even when it’s not a brook. It’s true that he sees the past in the present (he remembers the frogs, and how even they called to mind the earlier snows), but this is not the same as portraying the brook at the height of its babbling ecstasy as though its Platonic form were the only one that mattered.
Frost is the beginning of what I’m coming to think of as an aesthetic practice of humble attention in a certain tradition of American poetry in the 20th century. Frost inherits his rural persona and natural settings from Whitman and also from the British Romantics, but he rejects their excesses as sentimental and instead crafts verse that is variously described as “stern,” “reticent,” and, well, “boring.” In the series of posts I wrote this spring on Simone Weil and Georges Bataille, I explored the ethics of attention — I claimed that for Weil, attention to others (and the associated self-emptying) was a necessary first step for ethical action, while for Bataille, attention to the realities of one’s contradictory self was that necessary step. In the series I am starting today, I plan to examine the aesthetics of attention — how is attention figured by poets, and to what ends? Why is it so often accompanied by stoicism — that is, by a suppression of affect? And why, ultimately, should we care?
One reason to care is that attention is the way out of the problem posed by the ever-changing world and its “sealed” inhabitants, to use Virginia Woolf’s word (from To the Lighthouse). In order to love the things we love for what they are, we must be outward-turning, we must be generous, we must pay attention.