Saturday, September 30, 2017

like bread

Creo que el mundo es bello,
que la poesia es como el pan, de todos.

I believe the world is beautiful
and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.

-- Roque Dalton, "Como tú," trans. Jack Hirschman*

Human beings are not to live on bread alone.

-- Matthew 4:4 (ASV)

Poetry feeds us. Poetry fills the void. Poetry keeps us alive. Poetry makes it possible to get out of bed in the morning.

In the beginning was the sound, but when sound became word there was song. A long time ago there was no boundary between singers and poets, and still today there are times and places where the word is a sound and not just a mark on papyrus. When song comes into being, the problem of meaning cannot appear, because in song there is always something to do and an urgent need to do it. The song makes us move. It makes us move here, not just anywhere. It makes us sound this note, not any other. It makes us move now, not in the future or the past. The right note at the wrong time is obscene -- you're standing on the dock with your expensive ring, and your lover's ship has sailed. So when there is song, there is simply no time for despair. Even if the song is about despair, you cannot despair while singing it.

If you despair, you've stopped singing. If you can't sing, you're in despair. People die in despair, and of despair. Those old guys whose wives of sixty years have died, who tell me, "I don't know how to live without her," should be taken at their word. Their lives are in danger, because she was their song and they don't have another one.

And when we stop singing, there is much to despair about. We are here only briefly, and though some will remember us, they themselves will be forgotten. History is mostly an entrainment of one damn thing after another, of cruelties followed by betrayals, greeds by lusts, addictions by aggressions and pomps by poxes.

Our intricate bodies seem designed as a practical joke. We can choke to death because our breathing and swallowing conflict at the larynx. We vibrate between disgust and desire because God has tangled our organs of excretion and orgasm, so not only were we born inter faeces et urinam, but we return to die of love there, midst joy and stink, over and over. There, I've done it. I've mentioned God, who if involved in anything would seem implicated in these wrappers, these structured sacks of blood and bone in which we lurch, churning the substance of our souls. I'm convinced that, if something corresponding to the word God exists, it laughs, but in this respect the great designer seems to snicker behind its almighty hand.

At work I hear the songs of my people. Sometimes I sing them back. The Lord arrives just in time, they say. He won't burden you with more than you can bear. But I know of many people who were broken before their carriage arrived. And who am I to say that those crushed by the world should be able to bear it?

Now here I touch the boundary of faith. How is it, knowing how soon I'll be obliterated, that I get up this morning to fill this page with words? And you, to write on the page that is this day of yours? This question obsesses me. A colleague said that he gets out of bed for his first cup of coffee, but I think he only postpones the question. I also need my hit of caffeine, but for what? the drug is just a tool, and if it didn't take me beyond itself I would lose the habit.

Pretty soon after waking we start singing, or else we stay in bed. This is where faith engages us. Faith is the song that makes it possible to endure our utter insignificance in the factual scale of things. Light from the second nearest star takes four and half years to reach us, and that distance is less than paltry in the enormity of galaxy, and our galaxy is swallowed by its local cluster, and so on . . .  Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! wrote Shelley, postponing his own despair for the time of writing, and ours for the time of reading, or of speaking again for the thousandth time as I just did.

Faith is beneath reason. And theology, because it tries to give rational account of faith, is as dangerous as high explosive. Its statements are constantly concretizing, turning into stones for us to hurl at each other. Thus our Unitarian disdain for creeds, which we share with some other denominations of Protestant heritage. But even we who shrink from creeds can catch the plague of ideology, theology that does not know itself, ready to inspire crimes because finally, finally we subscribers have shed the Illusions and know The Truth, and knowing Truth we are authorized to dictate words and thoughts, and hurl the proper stones at those who speak differently.

Theology gives faith a bad name. The great slaughters inflamed by concretized theology are the stuff of history and the cable news.

What does not make the papers is the work of faith in all lives and on all days, calling us to better selves, dragging us out of muck and into worlds of spirit, making beauty and love by singing it, summoning patience to bear what must be born, courage to change what should be changed, and wisdom to discern the difference. When my people say The Lord always arrives just in time, they are not writing a tome of history. They are not asserting that bad stuff does not happen. They are not asserting. Period. They are singing.

This is what militant atheism misses. You can of course look throughout the universe and time, and not find a fact that is God. To notice this is to play at high stakes with doubt, a kind of provisional atheism where I sometimes live. Duh. So what? God is not a fact. God is a song. Fundamentalist and atheist alike overlook the category where life occurs. If what enables life is real, then the song is real.

A little child shall lead us, and poetry shall feed us like loaves of bread.

*Poetry Like Bread, ed. Martín Espada (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2000), pp. 128-9.

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Monday, September 4, 2017

masque neutre

An election is not about self-expression.
-- Mark Lilla, on The New Yorker Radio Hour (August 26, 2017)

I don't feel no ways tired, I've come too far from where I started from.
-- spiritual

There are only three important words: justice, truth and love.
-- Rev. C. T. Vivian



This photograph changed the nation.


Photo by Will Counts, Sept. 4, 1957
Elizabeth Eckford, not yet sixteen years old, followed by a white mob who might have beaten her if not for the presence of news photographers, has attempted to enroll at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. She has been refused entrance, and now she is retreating to what she hopes will be safety. She carries a notebook. She is a student who wishes to learn. A lamb among lions, innocent child threading an isthmus of sin, focus of white eyes, she stares straight ahead.

No face is more poisoned than that of Hazel Bryan, also only fifteen years old, shrieking epithets from the center of the frame. Eckford's face however is a blank. I must think that she was feeling many things: fear, grief, anger -- but none of these passions register on her face. Bryan and the mob are expressing themselves. Eckford, by her courage and discipline, is accomplishing much, but one thing she is not doing is expressing herself.

The grand strategy of protest was to unmask the violence inherent in the system. Emotions of the righteous protesters were not the point, and were not on display. If Eckford had broken down in tears, it would only have intensified the violence. Any expression of her outrage and anger might have gotten her killed, or would at least have turned a welthistorische photograph into the record of a shouting match between two teen-agers. This was the template of the classical Civil Rights era: to contrast the calm dignity of black protesters with the threats, assaults and open malice of white people.

Let's not be sentimental about this, or we'll misunderstand. This was not a matter of being nice so that the oppressors would be nice in return. There would be no melting of hearts. The oppressors would not be nice. The emotional discipline of these protests was a strategy, calculated to reveal the malice of oppression on faces that lacked discipline to conceal it.

So when black students sat down three years later at Woolworth's segregated lunch counters in Nashville and Greensboro, they did not come there to express their emotions. And when, almost eight years after the Battle of Little Rock, six hundred people walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on Bloody Sunday, they did not come to express their emotions. When violence came to these people, it was because of their actions, not because of their feelings. They had come there to act and to endure the consequence, captured on film without mixture.

These protests were actions rather than passions. The actions were brilliantly, strategically chosen. The principalities and powers could not let Elizabeth Eckford enter the high school, or let black students sit at the lunch counter, or let six hundred people march from Selma to Montgomery, without losing their authority; so they had to respond, and because there was no righteous option their response could only be violent. These incisive actions had grabbed oppression by the short hairs.

I was trained in the French theatrical tradition of a masque neutre, a face ready to respond to the present because it is unmarked by the past. You and I of course are marked by the past, but you try to respond to the thing in front of you rather than to history; it's a training in presence. If you succeed in dropping your dramas and traumas, then the currents, the sounds, the textures, the lights and spaces, the swirling passions of others are revealed. Eckford's masque neutre was the clean lens that projected the violence of others.

There are historical passions behind these movements -- centuries of grief, of mourning, of righteous prophetic anger, of waiting for the Day of the Lord when justice would roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. But the actions don't speak -- they act. They grab injustice in a place where it hurts.

On the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday I walked with five hundred Unitarians and a hundred thousand other Americans across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In the days before, we were visited by great artists of protest, including Rev. William Barber and Rev. C. T. Vivian.

Vivian spoke with charm, candor and wit about the Freedom Rides, the Lunch Counter Protests, the Voting Rights Marches, the front and backstages of the campaign. A young protester asked him what it was that, half a century ago, had made victories possible, "so that [and here there was a sigh] we don't all feel so exhausted."

In the pause, this is what I thought. I'm not surprised you're exhausted. It's hard work expressing yourself. Coming into the streets every day and evening saying I'm here and I'm black or Latino or queer or poor and you've wronged us and we're angry and you should stop, can wear you out. And the powers can outlast you. To them your righteous sentiments and justified anger are abstractions. They're getting paid overtime. Their patience is greater than yours. They can wait. You haven't got them by the short hairs.

C. T. Vivian said, as I remember, that the movement was repeatedly saved by its strategy, discipline and music.

It seems to me the songs are yet missing, songs that people of different generations, ethnicities and classes can sing together. Could we perhaps sing "Joe Hill", or "We Shall Overcome," without fighting about who created the song and which culture it belongs to and who has the right to sing it and with what apologies to whom? Can we remember what such songs once meant? And can we use them to unite rather than to divide? But perhaps new songs will emerge. Let us hope. They're not here yet.

And the strategies are absent without leave. Strategies that from the first moment put powers and principalities on the back foot, exposing the violence inherent in the system. To say who you are and how angry you are and what you demand and on what day, requiring potential allies to speak from your vocabulary list with your precise talking points, is not a strategy. Where is the direct action -- the action beneath and beyond speech -- that forces a response?

Today's exhausted protesters should study the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Though that action grew from decades of outrage, the execution of it was an exercise in patience, persistence and obedience, shrewd calculation and military discipline. At its center, augmenting the willingness of some persons to walk rather than ride in the back of the bus, was an alternative volunteer transportation system, using over three hundred vehicles for three hundred eighty-one days. There were timetables, commitments, commanders and soldiers. There wasn't, I think, much time for self-expression. Not even the choice of Rosa Parks as the spark of the boycott was spontaneous. She was one of several persons who had been arrested for protesting bus segregation, the one selected as a suitable figurehead. That community then withdrew its money from the bus company. The soldiers of justice didn't have to express themselves every day, because every day they had the oppressor by the short hairs.

I don't know what the new direct actions will be. I am waiting for them to emerge. They will be the kind of thing people can do without expressing themselves. People will be welcome to do them even if they don't come from our social location, even if they don't talk the way we talk. It won't matter how we talk; talk would be a distraction. The action itself, measured by the song, will be the thing.

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

bad word

A Gothic cathedral affirms that it was done by us, and not done by us.

-- Emerson, "History"

In the mind of Thomas Bowdler (1754 - 1825), Cordelia could not die. Bowdler could not live in a world where innocence is so reviled. So when he edited Shakespeare, he altered the data, and gave his name forever to acts of cleaning up the past so we could feel better about it. As one who would in a fallen world act justly, I cannot bowdlerize. I must own my past in its horror as well in its beauty.

My quarrel with the Society for Creative Anachronism is that they squeeze history like a lime to get a drop or two of juice, and then serve up the sweetness as a truth. In their world, everybody is at least a duke (or duchess), and the thousands whose wretched existence enables their dancing and jousting are flushed from sight like so much pulp. Nor in these simulations of nobility is there any account of their filth and stink, their rotting teeth and arsenic-pocked faces.

I do love the art that rises from the muck of these ancient times, the poems and songs, the sculpture and architecture, the glass windows and microscopically intricate books of hours. The artifacts speak to me, strangely modern. I have come to think that our Enlightened view of the person, its interiority and sacrality, was born in the fantasy life of those landed pirates, who lived on stolen vitality and could afford to build a chamber for themselves and close its door. The notion of human rights is a multiply sublimated product of class envy.

And yet we cannot live without universal human rights. Any regime that renounces them is a roller coaster to hell. You and I can't talk about justice without presupposing that every person's rights are unalienable. Otherwise it's just you against me, my fist against your knife, my big brother against your bigger one, my gun against your missile, until we all are dead or wish we were. Whether we measure up to justice as we talk about it -- well, that's a different matter, isn't it? When did that ever happen?

Therefore, though I am obliged to accept the noble heritage of humanity, as an adult human being I must also own the stink and rot. Otherwise I might imagine I am noble. No surgeon can separate the rights of persons from the primacy of sin.

Therefore I will not bowdlerize history. I will not whitewash the record of my people's sins.

There is a word I must not say because it was born in the malice of my people, and the saying of it by people like me encompasses centuries of abuse, violence and terror. But I must maintain the record of its use. I must not say the word, but sometimes I must quote it. I cannot tell my children, "There is a word you must never speak, and I won't tell you what it is."

It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterward, neither.

-- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

By putting nigger in white characters' mouths, the author is not branding blacks, but rather branding the whites.


-- Randall Kennedy, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word

I must not let the word be erased from history. We must know that it has been spoken and written, and continues to be so. We must know its harm, even though knowing its harm is painful. Painful to you, my sib of color, but painful to me as well. And yes I know that my pain with the word is not the same as your pain, not as mortal in its wound. But it is my pain, and I lie if I conceal it. I eschew the bad word not only because saying it would be wrong, but also because the word hurts me. It hurts me that people who look like me, from whom I inherit genes and privileges, obtained their gifts so viciously.

What, I ask, would we achieve if we could expunge from all historic records, all novels and poems, each occurrence of the bad word? Then our children would not know what you, and we sometimes together, have struggled for. They would not know the poisons that pervade our land, the toxin that now rises from the swamp of ignorance and privation. They would say, what in the world are you so concerned about, silly grandpa? Grandma, why this talk of revolution? The past is always disappointing, never to be adored. There is no trigger warning adequate for this: to meet the past is thrilling, and dangerous, and terrifying. It gives us life and drags us down to death.


If I write a Western story, and in my story Bad Bart comes to town and robs the bank, that does not make me a bank-robber, nor does it make me an advocate of bank-robbing. Anyone who said so would reveal himself as an incompetent reader. Bad Bart is not me. Bad Bart is imaginary, and evil.


So if Sam Clemens tells the story of an abused and ignorant boy growing up in a two-bit town in the slave-state of Missouri, and if that boy speaks of his enslaved companion by the word I cannot say, that does not make Sam Clemens a racist or a sympathizer of racism. Huck Finn is not Sam Clemens. Huck Finn is imaginary, and ignorant.


If Huck did not use the bad words of his time and place, the story would be worthless, as phony as a three-dollar bill. Then the story would be complacent and racist.

The best thing about Huck Finn is that he runs away. He carries with him the ignorance, hypocrisy and moral inversion of the town he has escaped from. Wherever you go, there you are. Adrift on the river, his companion a man that immoral laws had made a piece of property, he learns that his right place before that man may be humility. Huck never achieves perfection, nor does his author. But the resistance of Huck and Sam to the nation's original sin is one of the reasons why their story has been revered, not only by Americans but by authors from other shores as well.


In the house of my father the radical pastor the bad word was forbidden. We were taught with rigor that other, respectful word: "Negro." This distinction was one of the sacred values of our home, setting us above the saeculum, the world ruled by those who "didn't know any better." It was a distinction not only of morals but of class as well. So in my genteel Yankee childhood and youth, I never heard the word except as a prohibition, or a shocking evidence of sin. But when we went south, to visit the rural half of the family, I met itinerant black laborers and tenant farmers and their families, who worked on my grandpa's land. Some of the white farmers would speak the bad word in the raw, but for the most part my family spoke of "Nigg-ruhs."

In that neologism can be read the history of the south, its white folk still angry from the Reconstruction, soon to be placed under federal authority by the Voting Rights Act. You don't know these people, they were saying. We've lived with them for centuries; and we'll be damned before we'll say that word you Yankees are so proud of. "Nee-grow," you say. We'll keep our distance from white trash all right, but we'll keep distance from you as well, Galahad, with a word that's neither fish nor fowl. "Nigg-ruh." Put that in your pipe and smoke it.


Compliant and defiant at the same time, they told their history: the romance of a misguided Reconstruction that had awarded franchise and property rights to people who "were not ready." From that inevitable chaos and corruption all had been rescued, they taught, by mercies of the Klan and Plessy v. Ferguson.


Now in my Yankee old adulthood, the word is still not in my vocabulary. I never hear it in my house, or in my social and professional circles, but I hear it on the street, and in the subway, and in front of the bodega. Those who speak the word around me are black men.


And I've heard the word from a generation of black comedians, and I hear it in the fiction and the drama of black authors.

I know the word's use by some black people is a grief to others. It is a grief to me as well, though for special white reasons that lack authority. It is respectful to assume that my brothers and sisters know what they are doing, choose their words for a purpose, and achieve something by their choice. Perhaps they are drawing distinctions among themselves. Or perhaps, like gays who call themselves "queer," they are bleeding the word of its toxin, making it familiar and affectionate in their mouths. Perhaps they are universalizing the black experience, making it definitive in the place of epic whiteness. Not for me to say, though as ally I cannot fail to take an interest.


That the word hurts me is perhaps a side benefit. If I'm a grownup, I'll handle it.

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

her island


from the island




. . . writing compensates for nothing, . . . is precisely there where you are not.

-- Roland Barthes


island flickers
(from Christine's words
on yes an island)


somewhere else you speak
mediated face a screen
flickers on a phone

no don’t look not now
eyes shut to breathe the world in
hummingbird at nose

chatter flutter stop
squirrel in his tree suspends
hawk is on the move

far shore feathered now
crossing channel light in light
rises mist on dusk



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Monday, July 24, 2017

vain hair


What a falling off was there!

-- Hamlet, I. v.

I talk to my hair with oils
I say today I need you to curl
And when I style you,
Stay in place, do not spoil!

-- Sylvia Chidi*

I am letting down my hair -- it's fed up with me, and it's leaving. My scalp is complaisant and lets go of it. Not in clumps, but strand by strand. There's a fuzz of short light-colored follicles in my comb.

I'm vain of it, my hair. There's quite a bit left, with a natural wave and some original color. The doctor told me this would happen: the chemical they pump into me every three weeks goes after fast-growing cells, and hair follicles grow fast. The exodus, plotted for three months, is now.

I'm more or less okay with the plumping and sagging face, the scooping flesh under my eyes, the flop under my chin disrupting my noble profile. But these strands of hair, out of their place, speak to me of what is lost. Sometimes, standing its ground on my cranium, my hair has caused a casual observer to mistake my age.





Why is this a big deal? This is the inevitable consequence of a self-care campaign, a soldier's fight irrelevant to the objective, mere roadside incident in what friends call my "journey." And certainly not the most serious incident but a cosmetic distraction, froth of the underlying churn. Keep moving, nothing to see here.

But that's just it. This is something to see, an announcement of visceral combat. It has that meaning to those who know me. Nothing unusual for the bystander in a seventy-year old man with thinning hair (though now I am exposed in my seventyness); but there is something unusual in me with thinning hair. The bystander doesn't know what is wrong, but I do.

This is something to see. For other signs of the struggle there are strategies of camouflage and concealment, selective presentation and tasteful retreat. Or I can tough it out with more or less success, though this doesn't work with a companion who knows me well. But this is right up there on top of my head, where the flag of my dominion flies. My flag is in tatters.

I suppose I could wear a hat. But what hat?

But I've never had a good relationship with a hat.

And a hat is the giveaway that a chemo patient is losing hair.

But then not everybody knows I am a chemo patient.

I could just be an old guy with a hat. But I don't want to be "just an old guy."

This is all about me, isn't it? I am the auditor who is disappointed. 

*"I Love My Hair"

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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

american tumor

In Adams's fall
We sinned all.

-- New England Primer

He plays extravagant matches . .
.. On a cloth untrue,
With a twisted cue,
And elliptical billiard balls.

-- W. S. Gilbert, The Mikado


People who live good lives, they're healthy . . .

-- Rep. Mo Brooks, May 1, 2017



Because I work in health care, I know that what I sit in is called a geri-chair, though its more formal name is "medical recliner." It's padded, hard to fall out of, and tilts back. The remote control of a flat screen is at my right shoulder, hanging by its cable from the back of the chair; so I have a universe of entertainment before me, as a gracious nurse inserts her needle into the veteran and often-punctured vein on the inside of my right elbow and establishes an intravenous line. After a few short infusions of introductory drugs, one of which makes me euphoric, she begins the main event: the hour-long drip of a substance that kills cells, some though not all of which are the cells that, if left to themselves, will kill me. I do this every three weeks. I've done it four times now, and depending on how things go I'll do it three or maybe five times more.


The first time I did this, in my drug-induced high, with a remote in my hand and a window before me showing, through a frosted sylvan design like that of a Belvedere Vodka bottle, a larger room of nurses and screens and controls, I said I felt like I was on the bridge of the Enterprise. More often I just feel lucky.

I receive my gifts in the entrails of a medical research center, and two high-priced doctors work for my welfare, with their assistants and specialized nurses. I'm enrolled in two research protocols, so I am scanned and sampled and tracked, and all my information is kept in a single system. Most astounding of all however is the money, most of it for drugs, untold amounts of which fly over my head in cyberspace, only droplets of which fall on me as co-pays, virtually nothing. I'm getting all of this, close as dammit, for free. I'm lucky.

To say I am lucky is a theological statement, a defiance of the dominant theology of our time, which says I've got mine so I deserve it and the rest of you be damned. The ruling theology of America now is damn-the-poor theology, damn-the-unfortunate theology, grab-everything-that-ain't-bolted-down-and-run-for-the-hills theology, a looter's theology. It would be easy to join in. It would be easy for me to say I deserve the gifts I am getting, that I'm smart and worked hard, earned my degrees and certifications and picked a final career with a health-care agency that out of sheer moral compulsion would provide excellent medical insurance, and then I managed not to get fired or laid off for twelve years. These were smart things to do, and required work. It would be so easy to say, I deserve what I have, it's my right. As if my life were worth preserving at such expense -- which would be to say it is priceless.

And it ought to be my right. Medical care is a human right, and the medical profession knows it. All attempts to treat medical care as a consumer good are confounded when an uninsured person comes in the door of an emergency room. Such people cannot pay and they cannot, by ethics of medicine, be refused, so they are cared for briefly and sent bills of a size beyond their capacity, which we the public pick up in our insurance premiums. In denying our biblical responsibility to care for our neighbors, we smack ourselves in the face with greater penalties. This is not just greed but worse. It's stupidity.

An uninsured person at the emergency room is not like a poor person presenting himself at the Beamer showroom. Those who can't afford a Beamer don't get one: they live without a Beamer, which is perfectly possible. There isn't any human right to a Beamer. But those who can't afford medical care for the condition I live with will die of it. There is a human right to medical care.

The care I receive should come to me by right, but is only a privilege. In my work I meet people who are dying of what I live with, and might not be dying if they had been cared for as I am being cared for. These are not wastrels and rascals. Many are as smart and worked at least as hard as I have, but didn't have my luck. Their lives under God's eye are as priceless as mine, but they didn't get what I have.

This is iniquitous. The gifts I receive are poisoned fruits of a toxic tree. The American tumor dressed up as a medical system eats at the souls of all who encounter it. It is the best working model, for Christians  and Unitarians, believers and atheists, of original sin. There are no right angles or straight lines or level floors. We play on a cloth untrue, striking as best we can elliptical billiard balls, and we ourselves are the twisted cues. We're smart and work hard, and have the best intentions, but we play for a system, and systems preserve themselves. It's as if someone, a long time ago, an original human being perhaps, did something terrible -- so terrible that it distorts all space and time, warping our motives in all dimensions. This is what we used to call the Fallen World.

Do I refuse the poisoned fruits offered me? Of course not. I preserve my life, which seems precious to me and to those who love me. But the life I preserve is tainted with a sinfulness bigger than my fault, and in working for the good of others through a tainted system I confirm the slanting of the world; but there are no untainted systems.

And yet we must be good. The Fallen World must be made beautiful.

When we twisted creatures join together to do good it's more miracle than arithmetic. And we must pray for miracles each day, not in some remote future when we've all become pure and all our companions in justice are spotless. Such waiting for purity is procrastination.

I fear that my religious dis-organization is falling into procrastination, into the joy of inquisition against those who we know will not strike back because they were trying, imperfectly, to help. There is no ideology and no vocabulary list that will save our country, or save us within it. If we're going to turn the tide we'll need partners who wouldn't have done well at the recent brie-and-chablis party. We must form alliances with some who haven't become comfortable with our words for racial and other injustice. If we win, our hands will get soil on them. We'll need the vision of that wealthy bankrupt sinner who wrote that all human beings are created equal. We'll need that proclamation from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25.* We'll need both Liberation Theology and Enlightenment, imperfect as both human thought-scapes must be.

As for me, I forget ideologies and vocabulary lists every time I go to work in my ministry. I have to work at a deeper, less intellectual level. People are dying and people are grieving, and many of them are poorer than me, and many are of colors darker than the deep pinkness of my northern European extraction, and if I started speaking the language of Unitarian justice debates they would throw me out of the room. My appearance represents those who have done injuries to such people, and my ministry depends on their forgiveness -- forgiveness that, miraculously, is frequently extended, and not because I am free of sin.

"Any decent realtor," writes the poet Maggie Smith, "walking you through a real shithole, chirps on/about good bones." When we struggled against Nixon, the pathological and lawless president of an earlier time, we relied on Sam Ervin, a white Southern segregationist senator, to lead the resistance. Think about that, ideologues. I guess the good old boy had good bones. "This place could be beautiful, right?"**

*25:31-46

**Maggie Smith, "Good Bones"

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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

male gazer

. . . as you were when first your eye I eyed, 
Such seems your beauty still. 

-- Shakespeare, Sonnet 104 (1609)

I realized that, in this world, there would be many instances when my body would not feel like my body.

-- Heather Burtman, New York Times (June 16, 2017)*


I'm a man. I'm straight. Even when I was an unhappy straight man, I knew there was no alternative role, no other kind of creature I could be, because there is no question which portion of humankind attracts me. I look. Science says that men are visual creatures, and old age is no cure. I'm an old straight man. Any relationship based on the notion that I am some other kind of creature would be a house built on sand.

"When you're a star, they let you do it."** Women are in danger from men who look and reach, who see with their hands and their physical strength, making an empire of vision. There are too many assaults, violations, gropings, catcalls; but even short of violence the male gaze, they tell me, tramples a woman's agency, marks her like a terrain to be colonized, a piece of meat to be carved. And I am male, and I gaze.


      I must resolve the contradiction. I must see, but I must not own what I see. I look, but my look must meet the consent of another gaze. This is, as Kant would say, categorical: no woman exists as a means to my pleasure (nor of course do I exist as a means to hers). I suspect that women do their share of looking, though they are less often on the upper side of a power differential. The gaze must be mutual and continuously responsive, a kind of utilitarian duet whose pleasure, if there is pleasure, arises not from body parts or instruments but from the concert of all. My look dwells nowhere, for there is no home where I look, only a provisional permission. Keep moving. My eyes, goes the joke, are up hereThis is a principle I have always known, but I was not taught how to live with it, and the world taught me its contradiction.

      In the David Lean movie Summertime, released in 1955, Rossano Brazzi gazes at Katherine Hepburn across the Piazza San Marco, appraising her like a sculpture. The Ohio schoolteacher, discomfited and denuded with her clothes on, braving a place where American conventionalities are suspended, did not intend to be a spectacle. The gaze provokes an affair. Though there is no act of force, the man exploits a power differential, his Machiavellian skill against her solitariness. The seduction is exposed when she learns he is a married man with a family right there in Venice. This may be how you do things in Venice, she concludes; but I'm from Ohio and it isn't how I carry myself.

      I was eight years old when Summertime was in the theaters. The seduction and betrayal, beginning in the male gaze, was presented with favor. We are to notice that the schoolteacher is traveling alone: she is a spinster, and the seducer is doing a good deed. Rossano Brazzi represented a middle term, unattainable by American men, of the universal message -- that women were to be perused, pursued, taken and possessed. He doesn't take the woman by force, which we all knew was a crime. His second way, by Venetian polish and deceit, was far beyond our capabilities. In our dreams! So what third way was left for respectable men? Hard to describe -- it seems to have gone by the name "respect." Opening of doors, pulling out of chairs, protection from harsh realities, combined with the right hair cream, discreet boasting, and promises of good providing for herself and hers. But the purpose was to pursue and capture, own and dominate. We were so alone.

      This definition of a man's relation to women corrupted the youth into competition. There were a few who seemed to be winners and the rest, observing the evident winners, came to see themselves as losers. If you couldn't capture and possess, if you couldn't display trophies of conquest, you were exposed, and your mates might say you were queer. (That was the definition in those days -- a "queer" was a a failed heterosexual.) The most respectable trophy of manhood was a wedding, but the more common trophy was the narrative of progress on a four-base scale, of notches on one's gun, the communal soiling of reputation, a race to ruin characters by betrayal or by outright lying. If you weren't a winner you were a loser: the only cure for your defect was somehow to recover your "confidence" (for the winners were said to be always confident, and confidence was what opened doors and bodies). You were supposed to carry Vivienne Leigh up the staircase despite her wishes, your doubts and your bad knee: after all, you owned her and you knew what was best. Many of us had no such tales and did not want to fabricate them, so we opted out; but opting out was opting out of manhood.

      We don't tell our stories of man and woman in the same way we did sixty years ago, which is why some of the classics embarrass us in our affection. In The Bishop's Wife, it hurts to watch Carey Grant and David Niven toss Loretta Young through hoops. "Fight for her," says the angel to the bishop, but no one asks her what she wants. And I flinch, in the coda of Casablanca, as Bogart mansplains to Bergman that "Someday you'll understand . .  . . if that plane leaves the ground and you're not with him, you'll regret it." It's all for the best, little woman, I've got man's work to do, so go along now with the other guy. Oh well.

      We're trying -- I and the people I know, work with, befriend and love -- to figure out a better way of living with each other. There are still glass ceilings and pay differentials, harassments and intimidations, but I think sometimes we succeed. Growing up is hard, and it can take many decades for a person or a society to learn the obvious. A joyous truth dawns on me, again and again: a woman, member of that other persuasion who are the majority of humankind, is first middle and and last a person. Rossano Brazzi was on the wrong track. My will to power, if I could find it, would not prove to be my most attractive feature. I've a good head of hair for my age, with a natural wave and hints of its original color, but the best things about me are my mind and my heart. They are only good, can only attract if I give them away. I've been learning: in life as in ministry, it's not about me. My best move is to listen, attend, breathe. I have to be present to that other person. This isn't easy, and I'm messing up right now as I write a thousand words about me and my feelings. Not in me or in the other, but somewhere on the other side of the membrane, beauty might arise. My eyes, goes the joke, are up here.

      Beauty has no objective meaning, but is in the eye of the beholder, and relies therefore on a certain forgiveness. All bodies will prove hideous when viewed without limit or compassion, for in the rule of facts we are all just sacks of bone and meat, blood and worse. God pronounced the world tovah, beautiful, as God created it, but put the human beings in the world, male and female, for shamar, to watch over and keep it, well, beautiful. Beauty vanishes without attention, and thrives with tending.

      "I'll have what she's having." In When Harry Met SallyRob Reiner asked if men and women can be friends, and Harry thinks no, because sooner or later the man will want to "nail" the woman. But this is a love story, and before it ends we learn that Harry and Sally belong together because they were friends.

      How's this for a concept? Not every love is a love story; most, in fact, are not. But first things first. I wouldn't want to be in a love story with someone who wasn't my friend. Can men and women be friends? If they cannot then life is not worth living.

*"My Body Doesn't Belong to You"

**Access Hollywood, 2005

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