All the World’s a Bill-bard
They Live, Universal Pictures, 1988
by Joe Linker
The free world is a monstrous protection racket, Gary Snyder claimed in “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution,” an essay in the collection Earth House Hold (New Directions, 1969). Not much seems to have changed in the half century since, and Snyder’s claim might still speak to both politics and poetics:
No one today can afford to be innocent, or indulge himself in ignorance of the nature of contemporary governments, politics and social orders. The national polities of the modern world maintain their existence by deliberately fostered craving and fear: monstrous protection rackets. The ‘free world’ has become economically dependent on a fantastic system of stimulation of greed which cannot be fulfilled, sexual desire which cannot be satiated and hatred which has no outlet except against oneself, the persons one is supposed to love, or the revolutionary aspirations of pitiful, poverty-stricken marginal societies like Cuba or Vietnam. The conditions of the Cold War have turned all modern societies – Communist included – into vicious distorters of man’s true potential. They create populations of ‘preta’ – hungry ghosts, with giant appetites and throats no bigger than needles. The soil, the forests and all animal life are being consumed by these cancerous collectivities; the air and water of the planet is being fouled by them (90-91).
The Captain-elect of a new Ship of Fools, his vassals jockeying for position aboard the whirling vessel, packing for the move, appears to be offering a revision of Snyder’s argument – to wit: The free world is simply a racket. All the world’s a racket, Shakespeare might have said. But the world may be neither monstrous nor protective, but involve more of a random kind of racket, where one might be taken out by a bomb or a mosquito, a kiss or a tuss, a vote or an abstinence, a gun or a pen.
“These five fingers did a King to death,” Dylan Thomas intoned, and “Great is the hand that holds dominion over / Man by a scribbled name” (“The hand that signed the paper,” 1935). Indeed, and “Some will rob you with a six gun, others with a fountain pen,” Woody Guthrie drew from his quiver (“Pretty Boy Floyd,” 1958), but “O make me a mask and a wall to shut from your spies,” I will have Thomas here reply. Maybe a wall would not be such a bad idea after all, were it to wall off lies. Did an advertisement (Make US Great Again) do a democracy to death?
…Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
(“As You Like It,” Act II, Scene VII)
Damage control specialists, Rack and Burns, detectives and pollsters at large, have posted a revision to their billboard on Main Street: “They’re with Her Him!”
The new Captain-elect and his ship of fools might remind one of Faulkner’s trilogy of the Snopes family, where the land in “The Hamlet,” The Town,” and “The Mansion” passes from a doomed and deservedly desecrated and ruined aristocracy to bright and lively malls of advertised goods up and down shopping streets that look the same in every town, streets strewn with gargantuan billboards, gaudy flashing signs, motels motels motels, stalled honking traffic, fast food dives, stop ‘n gos, gas stations, furniture and appliance stores, on ramps and off ramps, and at the end of a side road and down a quiet lane lined with mobile homes, under a giant chestnut tree a one room church that somehow still endures, but its touching potter’s field sacked.
Much of Faulkner’s work speaks to what endures. But he probably thought the work of the human heart, the work that might endure, would never be finished, because it is work done outside the mainstream, off the boulevard, out of the limelight, away from centers of interest and influence and business. There is no pay in it, and it won’t pay the bills. From Faulkner’s essay “On Privacy – The American Dream: what happened to it?”:
America has not yet found any place for him who deals only in things of the human spirit except to use his notoriety to sell soap or cigarettes or fountain pens or to advertise automobiles and cruises and resort hotels, or (if he can be taught to contort fast enough to meet the standards) in radio or moving pictures where he can produce enough income tax to be worth attention. But the scientist and the humanitarian, yes: the humanitarian in science and the scientist in the humanity of man, who might yet save that civilization which the professionals at saving it – the publishers who condone their own battening on man’s lust and folly, the politicians who condone their own trafficking in his stupidity and greed, and the churchmen who condone their own trading on his fear and superstition – seem to be proving that they can’t
(Harper’s, July 1955).
A Gilded Age never completely fades away, and easy it is for the average citizen to get sidetracked down the streets of promise, pubs full of Telecaster blues, the smell of smoke and beer mixed with perfume and sawdust, coffee houses full of folk songs and lush espressos, a movie ticket away from the allure of Hollywood, of show and tell, bright lights, big city, casinos, parades, parties and celebrations. Listen to Walt Whitman, writing a century before Gary Snyder, but who also prefers the outdoors:
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded
I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation,
it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
(“Song of Myself,” #2).
And the shingles hung out everywhere advertise – allure – escape: schools, churches, a job with benefits (however diminished), tenures, cults, unions, businesses, profits, non-profits, promised lands of prescriptions, proscriptions, and predispositions – where one doesn’t have to think for oneself anymore, where one can simply follow the leader, and as far back in the line as one is, it hardly seems to matter in what direction the leader is headed. And at least you’re in line. Ah, access, what is access?
What is called the news may often have been prone to fake aspects, something to do with advertising and propaganda, not to mention who owns the venues. Iago whispers lies to Othello’s self-detriment, news of the household day. Imagine the headlines: King Lear Finds Fault with Favored Daughter! Crazed Hamlet Claims Vision of Father’s Ghost! Polonius Releases 33 Gertrude Love Notes to Claudius! Friar Aids Double Suicide! Shakespeare invents subliminal influence and talk shows pick up the threads after newspapers disappear.
Meantime, the Ultimate Corporate mission statement assures one and all its vision wholesome, entirely keeping with community contribution. Its brand logo can’t be missed, continuous reminders appear everywhere (Joyce’s HCE: Haveth Corpus Everywhere), and its stakeholders are many and inextricably and often inexplicably linked – upriver, downriver, cross river.
Well, in a sense, it could be true, that we really are floating the river together. Walls and registries, wars and terror, capital and labor, arguments and appeasements, all endlessly discussed in public house or church – these worries come and go; is there any reason to think they’ll end soon? Have we missed some important sign of the second coming. Perhaps we missed the second coming altogether, missed the grand rapture. Did no one tweet it? Unhappiness pervades the silence and the noise.
Kwame Anthony Appiah proposes a solution to the mess we’ve made of getting along on our own Ship of Fools in his concept of Cosmopolitanism:
The challenge is to take minds and hearts formed over the long millennia of living in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become….There are two strands that intertwine in the notion of cosmopolitanism. One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance. People are different, the cosmopolitan knows, and there is much to learn from our differences. Because there are so many human possibilities worth exploring, we neither expect nor desire that every person or every society should converge on a single mode of life. Whatever our obligations are to others (or theirs to us) they often have the right to go their own way. As we’ll see, there will be times when these two ideals – universal concern and respect for legitimate difference – clash. There’s a sense in which cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge.
(Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, Norton paperback 2007, xii:xv).
But we may not feel so cosmopolitan living off our local Main Street. But our own neighbors may already be more different than we suspect, or expect. Maybe we don’t really know them. Maybe they have values, fears, wants, needs, that go well beyond the stereotype names we’ve given them for easy cataloging of kith and kind: member of whatever church; member of whatever union; flies a desk in the insurance tower downtown; teaches kindergarten in the burb; works for the city; plumber by trade; conservative; liberal; high tech; laborer; and writes poetry on the side, moonlighting… Wait, what? Poet? In times like these?
From Ferlinghetti’s Translator’s Note to “Selections from Paroles” by Jacques Prevert (City Lights, 1964):
It is plain that ‘paroles’ means both Words and Passwords. Prevert spoke particularly to the French youth immediately after the War, especially to those who grew up during the Occupation and felt totally estranged from Church and State. Since then we have had our own kind of resistance movement in our writers of dissent – dissent from the official world of the upper middleclass ideal and the White Collar delusion and various other systematized tribal insanities. Prevert was saying it in the Thirties. Prevert is one of those who holds on to your sleeve and says: ‘Don’t go for it…keep out of it.’ … But he goes on to tell what human effort really is, and we are treated to tritenesses about the low-salaried proletariat which at least discouraged this translator from finishing the poem [“Human Effort”]. Perhaps, unhappily, such observations are still not trite in France, while we look down upon them from our too wellfed heights, as complacent as any cochon Prevert attacks. (3-4).
The power of the poem – its ability to pass on secrets that may save lives. And that is why we still make time to sit out (whatever our dues-paying occupation happens to be) at the sidewalk café table writing poems on paper napkins. And that is why I stitched this together, to pass on a few secrets that might somewhere down the line save a life, not from death, necessarily, but from fear or hate or being enclosed within the wall of a hollow organ.
About the Author:
Joe Linker lives in Portland, Oregon and blogs at The Coming of the Toads.