I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way people grapple with the contradictions in their lives. I don’t mean contradictions in ideology, which are usually the result of sloppy thinking. I mean what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself” : the mild pacifist who ends up becoming a guerilla leader and hiding out in the hills with a cache of weaponry and three mistresses, but still hates war; the avowed feminist who falls into swooning love with an alpha male, that sort of thing. Or, in a less dramatic example: my VW with its “Local Food” bumper sticker, in line at the drivethrough at McD’s.
“There’s a story behind this!” I want to say. Too bad I can’t stick a sign up in my window saying “My baby is asleep in the carseat and I don’t want to wake her to go into the store, but I am about to collapse from anemic exhaustion and have just discovered that the granola bar in my glove box is moldy.” Excuses, excuses. The mold was probably good for me – certainly, it was organic. If I were serious about local food and organics and ecology, I would have eaten the moldy granola bar, damn it.
Either my sister or I (can’t remember who thought of it first) came up with this notion for a story frame: a poetic cashier working late nights at the grocery comes up with plot sequences to tie together the weird assortments of objects people come out to buy in desperation at 12:48 AM (duct tape, ginger root, preparation H, frozen pierogies, a stuffed toy pig….what the hell is going on here???). Whether it was her idea or mine, neither of us did anything with it because we couldn’t figure out how to use the framing device to make it more than just a framing device.
One of my favorite rhetorical figures is the catalogue: lists of things, diverse things, sometimes unexpected things, real things, get the mind working trying to put them together. I see a lot of Facebook statuses that utilize this device: “Crying baby, dirty dishes, dead mouse on the floor, ecstasy of existence” or “ripe apricots, dusty books, a strange man urinating outside my window.” I like these catalogue-statuses best when they admit both the sacred and the profane, both the miserable and the delectable.
Some of you may recall Chesterton’s “Father Brown” mystery in which the priest and Flambeau are called to the gloomy decayed mansion of a recently deceased miser, and find amidst the requisite suspicious circumstances an odd and perturbing assortment of items. Flambeau is freaked out – “there is no way any one can make sense of this.” And then Fr. Brown proceeds to come up with three different ways to make sense of them – none of which provide the real solution to the mystery – he’s just showing that yes, you CAN make sense of them. There are many different ways to put disparate snippets into a unique whole.
This is the poetic power – the power to put stuff together. T.S. Eliot in his essay on the Metaphysical Poets writes:
“A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, and fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”
(By the way, next time you think you are falling love, I strongly recommend getting a pot of garlicky tomato sauce going in the next room, then cozying up to Spinoza – it really gives one a new perspective on things).
I am intrigued by this idea of the poet’s task, because it shows how such thinking works by dancing among the disciplines, over the barriers that we have set up between them – especially at a time when the Renaissance notion of a “compleat education” is pretty much done for. Specialization may be necessary, but it leaves us out cold when we are trying to use our education to make sense of life. How do we put together Wittgenstein’s language theory with the life cycle of bacteria with the Marshall Plan with the Ontological Argument with Magical Realism with the reasons for the extinction of the Neanderthals? Eliot, who was something of a snob (and deliberately powdered his ascetic face with greenish-tinted powder so as to make himself look even more corpselike, incidentally) might say “well, most people don’t care about putting all this together. Only poets do this.”
This is where I part company with Eliot. He distinguishes the “poet” from the “ordinary man” along this line – and while certainly I believe that there is a difference between poets and non-poets, I don’t think this is it. What he is describing is what makes us human – our Faustian striving past boundaries, our deliberate refusal to be circled by mere environment, our engagement with the world on terms that have nothing to do with usefulness, basic needs of life, food, shelter survival.
Really, we would probably survive better if we WEREN’T falling in love or reading Spinoza, ever. Both are exhausting and distracting activities. “All art is utterly useless,” and yet we pursue it anyway. Falling in love is a lot less simple than a good natural jolly sex drive, and it often involves pining away, acting idiotic, wasting time, definitively NOT furthering the species. Philosophy is even worse. Get a philosophical education and you are most likely doomed to a life of alienation and celibacy (which is, I suppose, why philosophy flourished in monasteries). It’s this sort of nonsensical behavior , as well as our fundamental religious sense (which some folks would probably tack at the head of the “nonsensical” list) that distinguishes us from the animals, and what makes it impossible to reduce human behavior to sublimated natural drives. If we’re all basically just animals, what the hell did we start “sublimating” for, anyway?
Of course, we do sublimate things – and repress them, and justify them, and dream darkly of them in the witching hours. Those are a few ways we deal with all our contradictions.
(I dreamed the other night that I was in an abandoned city, filled with collapsing mansions with the windows smashed and the facades gaping, furniture and carpets tumbling into the empty streets. A few buildings, less decrepit, had lights burning in the windows – people lived there still, but no one would come out onto the street. Everything was beautiful and broken. I was with a young man, not my husband (in my dream I wasn’t married) and I turned to him and asked “why is it that of the three places I’ve lived in my life, every one of them has turned into shit?” At which point the young man blanched, and stammered, and left me….because I’d said “shit.” No great loss there. Incidentally, I have no idea WHAT these “three places” were. I’ve lived in far more than three places in my life, and with the exception of the one house that burned down when I was four, all of them are less like shit now than they were when I lived in them).
Probably there is some bitter contradiction or confusion gnawing at my soul, but never mind, I enjoyed the story.