Friday, August 15, 2014

A Brief for the Prosecution

An old friend, a poet herself, linked today to this poem.  Just the part of it that showed in the preview pressed certain buttons in me.  After acknowledging "Sorrow everywhere.  Slaughter everywhere", the poet declared "But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants."  No no no, I thought.  Not today, not this week, not this year, not this century, I will not let this one pass unchallenged.  So I took a deep breath and commented: "'Defense' of what? I'm sorry, but that thing is vile."

(And that was before I'd read the lines "If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down / we should give thanks that the end had magnitude", which confirmed my contempt for the performance: if the locomotive of the Lord runs us down, there's no magnitude in our end, we're just one more caterpillar on the tracks.) 

The person who'd posted the poem on his tumblr (not the poet himself, who died in 2012), replied in a few minutes:
The poem isn't a defense but a kind of preparation. I don't think it is vile. It admits the world is filled with horrors but says we cannot give ourselves over that entirely, that we have to live and love despite ourselves, despite the awfulness in the world.
I'm not sure what "a kind of preparation" is supposed to mean, but his response strikes me as the lowest kind of apologetics.  (Where, after all, does "the awfulness in the world" come from?  Who fills the world with horrors?  That's why I object to the bit about "the locomotive of the Lord" -- it appears that the poet accepted exactly the kind of theodicy I have no use for.)  I also think he's misreading the poem in terms of his own preconceptions -- what Walter Kaufmann called the exegetical fallacy, reading your beliefs into a text and getting them back endowed with its authority.  I replied:
If it's not a defense, it needs a different title. But what struck me as vile was the line "we enjoy ourselves because that's what God wants." Which god? According to every orthodox theology I know of, and most non-orthodox ones besides, suffering is something that God wants, either because we've brought it on ourselves or because God wants to test us, or because God works in mysterious ways, or other such nonsense. If I want to read good poetry about human suffering, I'll read the Book of Job. Or Marge Piercy, who's written some good poetry on this subject over the years.
To which he replied,
Okay, be angry and carry on. Jack Gilbert is one of the great poets of the 20th Century, and this poem is one of his most beloved. But no one is forcing anyone to read it. --- shared it as many people have today.
Great poets have been known to write great garbage.  They are not above criticism, and indeed it's all the more important to criticize them when they say something stupid or evil.

I confess I'd never heard of Jack Gilbert before today. According to his obituary in the New York Times, "Brief for the Defense" (quoted in its entirety there) is one of his best-known poems.  Because I haven't read anything else by him, and I'm not going to start now, I have no context for the statements in this poem, though I find it hard to imagine what context could make them anything but malignant.

Then my poet friend chimed in:
My only comment is to note that the word "risk" is in this poem for a reason.
That's exactly the kind of use of words like "risk" I object to.  (It reminds me of "intervention," which also sets off alarms for me.)  Of course the word is in the poem for a reason; I just don't think it's a good reason.  I think it's posturing, preaching to the choir: like Marilynne Robinson daringly declaring herself a liberal and a Christian, like Greg Louganis telling gay audiences that he knows It's not a choice, like Barack Obama telling his fans that if Wall Street wants a fight, that's a fight he's willing to have, like black conservatives denouncing the Civil Rights Movement in front of white Republican audiences.  Risk without cost, risk without risk.

And what kind of "risk" is involved in "delight"?  I speculate it's the "risk" that it won't last forever but will pass.  Maybe that really does deter some people.  But that delight will pass is not a risk, it's a certainty.  I see the wish to escape transience as one of the main impulses (and errors) behind much religion, born of a wish to achieve bliss that will never end.  I understand that wish -- how could I not? -- but it's never going to be fulfilled.

I'm not surprised that the poem is well-loved by the kind of people who sentimentalize the smiles and laughter of the destitute from a safe distance, admiring and praising the big smile of your ragged shoeshine boy before you go back to your comfortable hotel room and, ultimately, to your suburb.

I was amused by her friend's dismissive "be angry and carry on" -- as if anger were a bad thing.  But then a lot of people think it is.  (At least, other people's anger is a bad thing; their own is worn with pride.)

Of course I wasn't forced to read the poem.  But I respect my friend, which means I take what she puts on Facebook more seriously than I do what many other people I know post.  (Except for the cat-related material.)  I'm not saying she should not have posted the poem, but having seen it and read it, I won't be told I should not respond to it.  (And to be fair to her, let me stress that it was not she but her friend who got all spitty about my reaction.)

That's always a difficult question in a place like Facebook.  On one hand, you've got people who have conniptions at seeing anything they dislike.  On the other, you've got people who think that freedom of expression means no one is entitled to disagree with anything they post.  My friend is a librarian as well as a poet, and committed as most librarians are to freedom of expression, even when it's offensive or disturbing or unpleasant.  Most of what I disagree with on Facebook I don't respond to.  When I do comment, I do so carefully and I hope thoughtfully.  Often I decide not to comment after all, and cancel what I began to write; sometimes I bring my complaints here.

According to my friend's friend, it would seem that "Brief for the Defense" is being used to express the feelings of a lot of people lately; perhaps because of Robin Williams's suicide, because of the summary execution by police of a young black man in St. Louis and the subsequent repression of community objections to the slaying, perhaps because of the latest Israeli blitzkrieg in Gaza, perhaps because of the renewed civil war in Iraq, perhaps the combination of all these things and so much more.  It was because of all these things and more that I found the poem a wrong-headed statement, and chose to say so.

I suspect that my reaction to this poem and all that it represents is a matter of temperament.  I would prefer that there's no god, No One out there, rather than Someone watching the world and doing nothing about it except shedding great salt tears.  I know that there are many who'd disagree with me, and I suppose "Brief for the Defense" speaks to them.

It's probably not out of place to add that I agree with part of the poem, the idea that people somehow find reasons to go on living and celebrating their lives in the face of the horrors they suffer.  Where I differ is in the poet's declaration that God wants them to do so.  I don't believe in gods, but if they exist, their wishes don't determine what I think or do.  If we "risk delight," it's not because of the gods, but despite them.  (The "risk," if any, in most theologies would be that the gods don't want us to be happy, and will punish us for daring to be so.  Compare C. S. Lewis's very orthodox claim that Yahweh makes people suffer because they've had it too easy, and "The creature's illusion of self-sufficiency must, for the creature's sake, be shattered.")  It would be altogether right to go on living in flat defiance of their wishes, and to curse them and the locomotive they rode in on.