Note: This essay was written in 1992, and is thus the predecessor to "Volta" and the other "macropoetic" essays on this section of the website. Perhaps it is the sharpest and most comprehensive presentation of ideas the ideas that underlie this complex of essays. Impulses to qualify, soften or otherwise modify have been resisted. --E.C.
PRESERVING THE CULTURE OF THE WORD
From the true foe, infinite strength flows into me.
-- Franz Kafka
Some years ago the scientist and novelist C.P. Snow complained, in a book called "The Two Cultures," that while educated persons are expected to recognize a quotation from Shakespeare, it is acceptable for them to look blank when confronted with elementary mathematical concepts.
Since that time the situation has changed somewhat. "Scientific illiteracy" is still widespread, despite popularizations of science; for though it is fashionable to allude to scientific concepts, non-scientists who do so have very little grasp of how these concepts were arrived at. On the other hand, the number of people who still recognize quotations from Shakespeare, or who possess enough verbal memory to quote or recognize quotations from any source, is rapidly diminishing. A person comparing the level of conversation, public debate, decisionmaking and behavior in this society twenty years ago and now might conclude that there has been a precipitous drop in human intelligence. Yet this apparent drop in human intelligence has proved no bar to continued scientific progress; each day brings news of some amazing technological development. In a few years, we are told, high-resolution television will come to us with images of unprecedented sharpness -- and with offerings that will doubtless reach a new level of inanity, if that is possible.
It is as though one half of our intelligence were actually destroying the other half. And furthermore, it is as though the destroying half were not really our intelligence at all, but some kind of fatality in the universe by which one invention follows from another, in a way we have long since ceased to keep track of. There is in truth no scientific culture, in the sense in which there was once a verbal culture, for the latest inventions are understood only by specialists in one field. They do not increase the understanding of a community. They only make it possible for militarists and entrepreneurs to play their games for higher stakes, and for humans to multiply unchecked by disease; none of which are unmixed blessings.
In fact, the dream of scientific "progress" bringing about a materialistic Utopia of ease and plenty for all has long since been seen through, by those who wish to see. We continue to pursue technology, however, not by collective decision but out of individual, corporate and national necessity; like war and population growth, technological progress is a treadmill on which humans are caught. For the earth not to become a penal colony or a robot farm, conflict and procreation and invention would have to be controlled, channeled or sublimated.
Only the culture of the word could conceivably perform this controlling function. But the culture of the word is threatened by technology in a number of interrelated ways, not all of which, I believe, have been sufficiently understood. If we did understand them better, we might at least be able to make the culture of the word more resistant to dissolving influences. Any headway we make in that direction will also assist us in coping with the problems created by technology.
Technological culture attacks the culture of the word, first of all, by disputing the claim of words and stories to tell the truth about the world. I do not know what "E = mc2" really means. No more, in all likelihood, do you. But to both of us the formula conveys one thing: that the world in which we live consists not of trees and grass, tables and chairs, things and names and spirits, but only of matter and energy and numbers. Therefore, the stories we tell about the entities we see and intuit can never be true. To find out what is really going on, we would have to learn about matter and energy and numbers.
This means that the names that form the heart of language, and certainly of poetry, have lost their authority. For they no longer designate anything essential. Hence we cannot invoke them in the way the Romantics still could. In writing "Ode to a Nightingale," Keats was happily free to call on a creature which poets and shamans before him had identified with the soul. In reading the line, "Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!" the modern reader must struggle against embarrassment. Modern poetry no longer employs the vocative, or if it does so, then with a self-conscious irony which is only the mirroring of the antipoetic sneer. To the modern, science-bound eye the bird no longer exists; what exists is a particular manifestation of genes and engineering which, as it flits across our field of vision, reminds us of planes, radar, computers and perhaps a predecessor in design, the pteranodon, whose reconstructed form unnerves us because it so strongly resembles a flying machine. This is of course the Cartesian view of the animal, of the universe -- a mechanical lifelessness which to the human eye can only be an object. To this disenchanted view the shaman calling on the bird as helper is benighted; the Romantic poet who half-consciously preserves the shamanic attitude is sentimental.
This view has enabled humans to obtain great power over the physical universe. For this reason, and because of our tendency to equate truth and obvious power, it is reputed to be true. But I do not believe it is true in the sense of representing everything that is -- though of course it may become true if it succeeds in its aim of wiping out all natural life. It is not true of birds, it is not even true of bugs. This morning in the paper I read an alarming article about an exterminator who maintained a live bug museum. The main exhibit consisted of a kitchen full of cockroaches, surrounded by a high glass wall which was electrified at the top to keep the bugs from getting out. Inside it, provided with all physical necessities including dark cupboards into which to crawl, the bugs were supposed to live and thrive, amid joyful cries of "Yuk!" from crowds of Americans raised on horror movies. But for some unexplained reason, according to the article, the bugs do not like it in there; they reproduce poorly, and keep electrocuting themselves trying to get out. In all likelihood, the honorable descendants of Devonian arthropods were revolted by the feelings coming at them, feelings in comparison to which the simple hostility of a tenement cook would be a breath of fresh air. For the universe is not as dead as most scientists think it is.
The reduction of named entities to numbers, of essences and qualities to quantities, is not so much a description of the universe as a massive act of aggression against it. We understand that it was an act of aggression for the Nazis to tattoo numbers on the forearms of their prisoners, in place of the names that had been taken away, together with their right to exist. None of us, I think, really likes being assigned an ID number; even when the barbed wire is not visible, we know the number represents a coercion, a loss of true identity. But most people still refuse to understand that to reduce nature to numbers is to deny it the right to exist.
If it is difficult for us to grasp the nature of our crime against the universe, this is doubtless because the very existence of any individual in the developed countries is predicated upon this crime. Personally, I think I grasp it because, as a poet, I survive in technological society like a cockroach in one of few chinks in an exquisitely clean modern kitchen. Even so, I am aware of owing my existence to what is driving me toward extinction. I have spots on my lungs, catch cold easily, am susceptible to tooth decay; without modern medicine, dentistry and central heating I would probably not have reached my present age, and certainly not with any teeth in my head. To wish technology undone is to give consent to our own death. Our ancestors used to speak of death as "paying one's debt to nature." We are deeper in nature's debt than they are; and death is harder to contemplate when it means rejoining a nature which we have desouled.
The sacredness of nature and of our fellow-creatures is inseparable from the sacredness of the word, in all senses. Only insofar as words refer to things that are sacred, is it worthwhile to speak the truth, to keep one's promises, to use words reverently and to listen reverently to solemn speech.
Besides undermining the meanings of the ancient names, science and technology have resulted in the coining of many pseudo-names, names of convenience which imply no spiritual recognition of what they designate. Scientific terminology has made perhaps the most stubborn contribution to the desertification of language; the words "deoxyribonucleic acid," to give a mild example, will not scan in any meter, nor can they be fitted into any associative structure. And modern commerce, the twin of modern science, has contributed the brand name, the name that is already a lie, that is coined not to represent but to misrepresent. Hence the poetic word no longer has the resonance it once gathered from the whole of the language, for the language now has enormous dead areas that do not resonate. Poets continue to exist in one corner of a temple that has been turned into a factory, where their ritual activities appear, to the eyes of the machine-driven workers, like an eccentric anachronism.
I said a factory; I might have said a laboratory; science and commerce have a connection that goes beyond the utility of the first to the second. Quantification is typical of both. Science reduces things to mathematical relations; commerce produces things in numbered lots and measures their worth in numbers: so many size 8 shoes, so many shirts with 17-inch collars, at so many dollars and so many cents each. Saint-Exupery's little prince tells the narrator that whereas a child will see a pretty red brick house with pigeons walking on the roof, a grownup will see a house worth so and so many francs. Again there is the reduction to number, the deprivation of essence and particularity. Finally, commerce mass-produces not only consumer goods, but consumers. It is in the interests of large-scale manufacturers to impose conformity of taste, to subvert independent judgment, to have customers, like wares, come in homogeneous lots. Advertisers and purveyors of mass entertainment understand this so instinctively that it goes without saying. As a result, children growing up in a manufactured culture are subjected to conformist propaganda from the time they can sit up in front of the tube. "One of these things is not like the others, One of these things doesn't belong, Can you guess which one?" sings the ugly little puppet. And just where did we get the idea that the thing that is not like the others doesn't belong? Isn't such a notion the absolute opposite of poetry, where the object of the game (as shown in Shakespeare's style) is to combine the maximum diversity of elements into a new coherency? Isn't nature itself a symbiosis of unlike things? How would friendship, not to speak of marriage, be possible if only clones could bond? But at work, at play, in politics of every stripe, the graduates of Sesame Street carry out the mandate with a thoroughness which the most custom-bound society could scarcely produce.
Finally, technocommercialism subverts the word by destroying the community within which the word must be listened to. The repeal of blue laws, which enabled the commercial process to operate unchecked throughout the week; the destruction of the extended family through corporate mobility; the destruction of the nuclear family by divorce, in which the major factors are surely the absence of extended family and the commercial cultivation of playboyism and gender hostility; the occupation of the living-space by the one-eyed monster; the conscription of mothers into the workforce and replacement of mothering by mass day-care; the defunding of older women, once the mainstay of the community; the extension of working hours, which destroys, among other things, the independent intellectual life once cultivated by professionals; the general destruction of trust through the unremitting stimulation of competitive and aggressive impulses: doubtless these steps were not planned together by an insect-minded Central Committee to attack the listening-space which is at the center of community and individuality alike. But that is their combined effect.
It seems paradoxical that technology, that achievement of Faustian intellect, is tending to destroy the human capacity for individuation and reflection. The new inhumanity whose outlines can already be traced has no analogues in the mammalian or even the vertebrate world. The closest thing to it in nature is the termite colony, where the scurrying modules (unencumbered, it is true, by delusions of autonomy) are directed by a strangely disembodied though voracious mind. Our law, indeed, already recognizes this mind by recognizing corporations as legal "persons." The corporation behaves somewhat like a biological entity, preying on the society that charters it and competing with others of its species; a biology student who had begun studying law (but thought better of it) explained to me that a franchise operation is like a virus, drawing off energy from its environment and using that energy to reproduce and colonize another site. Again, technology and commerce are almost inseparable in their workings: the more complex our technical devices, the steeper the efficiency premium on big operations and the more people are locked into these operations, dependent on them for their livelihood in one way or another. The corporations are, of course, used by the powerful and greedy individuals who reach the top of the hierarchy; but it is equally true that the corporate form itself, or the conditions that define it, selects these individuals. The process itself is impersonal. The top dogs themselves lack personality; they are colorless men who have done the will of the Thing. If I borrow the language of the horror movie, perhaps it is that horror movies are crude attempts to mirror the emptying-out of human personality which is the central reality of our time. In Auschwitz the children's games were modeled on selection, gas chamber, and crematorium.
Many people are already quite resigned. A few months ago I read an article by a writer who suggested that as a complex system, the communications utilized by a stockbroker picking up a phone in New York to get stock quotations from Tokyo was as worthy of respect as the adjustments that enable a moth in a tropical rainforest to scent its mate two miles away. (Never mind the awe-inspiring economy and modesty of the one system, the equally awe-inspiring wastefulness and arrogance of the other.) Let the unconscious development of the planet continue, the article suggested; who knows what it is turning into through us. Books on computers come out, telling us that computers can now do almost anything we can do -- paint pictures, write poems, with a bit of help from human programmers of course. Of course the pictures, and especially the poems, aren't any good. But give them time. It should make people wonder that, with all their amazing feats of calculation, no computer has yet produced so much as one haiku of quality. But there is a simple solution to that problem: destroy people's capacity to produce and appreciate good poetry, and they'll forget about the difference. It has already been remarked that for a computer to pass the Turing test, it would not be necessary for the machine to converse like an intelligent, let alone a conscientious person, or to manifest what we used to call human qualities, but only for the human interlocutor to have forgotten what an intelligent and conscientious person sounds like, what human qualities once were.
So what, if we don't like it, can we do about it?
There may be nothing we can do about it. Not every problem has a solution, as any person with a fatal disease well knows. Already several decades ago e.e. cummings concluded in his poem "pity this busy monster, manunkind":
we doctors know
a hopeless case when
listen, there's a hell
of a good universe next door; let's go
But obviously, to pursue an inquiry such as this, one must posit a possibility of solution. One must commit oneself to hope, at least for the space of the inquiry.
There are certain general measures which I believe would help to restore the culture of the word, if they could be agreed upon and carried out. To some readers these measures may at first appear Utopian or Draconian, or both; but they flow from the insight that if verbal culture, like everything to which the right to exist is granted, dictates laws. Some of these rules are old; they were at one time imposed from mixed motives, and have been discarded from motives equally mixed. If there is any comfort to be gained from our present predicament, it is that its understanding may impel us to reassume the sacred from clearer insight.
One such measure would be to restore, by Constitutional amendment if necessary, the "blue laws" which formerly prohibited work and business dealings on Sunday. This would clear a space from which the commercial motive would be excluded. At the time the Constitution was passed, blue laws were generally in force, and work on Sunday was frowned on. The situation is now complicated by the fact that Christianity no longer exclusively dominates the scene; we are aware that there are people whose religion commands them to stop work on Saturday or Friday, instead. In my opinion the Jewish Sabbath should be adopted, for the simple reason that the Jews thought of it first. Until Christians and Muslims can be convinced of this, each business (except for those that are at all times necessary, like hospitals, firefighters and police) should be required to choose one of the three days on which to close, and to post a conspicuous notice thereof on its premises. Violation would result in the forfeiture of all commercial privileges. I would recommend renaming the day of rest "Earthday" (it should surely come more than once a year) to recall not what divides, but what unites us.
Along with the legal prohibition on Earthday work, we should put into practice a social code of Earthday behavior, which should exclude any activities that bind us to the commercial process. Thus, on this day people should not watch or listen to any form of commercial entertainment. Instead, they should read books or, better still, find out which of their neighbors can tell stories or sing songs. Also, they should not engage in competitive sports, because Earthday is about the search for win/win solutions. However, the work of grass roots political organization can and should be done on these days. Each person should devote a few Earthday hours to participation in some small group. The groups should be conducted with some ceremony and according to rules of order that maximize sharing of perceptions and minimize combativeness. Each small group should identify, as its coordinator, the person who is most creative at synthesizing different points of view; and these coordinators should work out some system of communication among themselves. From this network of acquaintanceship, political leaders could be identified. These leaders would not be subject to the corruption of big money, because a non-commercial system of communication with the electorate would be in place.
A second measure would be the establishment of a College of Bards, dedicated to preserving the integrity of the language as the key to that of the community and the biosphere. As the reader no doubt suspects, I consider myself qualified to start such a college and give it its initial direction, though I would gladly yield to anyone with better ideas. Having studied these problems for some years, I believe I can identify the works which it would be essential for a poet with these concerns to know (additions to this list, particularly of well-translated non-Western works, are always welcome). I have also written a number of commentaries which may serve to map out a common ground. Candidates would be required to demonstrate understanding of these works, and also to demonstrate mastery of the sonnet, the ballad, and the blank-verse monologue, and the haiku. The reason for this is not that these are the only valid forms of poetry, but because writing in form is a kind of spiritual exercise (intellectually, it is not difficult; you get the hang of it by reading a lot of formal writing) and the results can be judged somewhat more objectively than free verse.
For the first years of its existence, the College of Bards would doubtless have to work gratis; but it should work toward a reshaping of social values that would enable bardship to become a recognized profession, supporting all who can meet the qualifications. (It is very important that membership should not be determined by competition; in poetry, competition tends to kill excellence off, rather than fostering it.) The conditions of bardic existence should be set so as to provide security while requiring moderate sacrifices. Once having passed the test, bards should receive a stipend, linked to the median income but set somewhat below it, which they would not be allowed to supplement: any gifts received, including half the spouse's after-tax income in a two-income household, would have to be returned to the government. This stipend should enable them to pursue studies in other fields if they chose. Once having finished such a course of study, they would be entitled to a place at any institution relevant to their field which does not already have a bard for every hundred employees. Here, they would have their own office and be free to pursue their own researches. One year in every four, however, would be spent at a working-class job at which they would be subject to the same rules as other employees. Thus, they would serve as a channel of communication among social classes and intellectual disciplines; and the waste of various kinds which they would prevent -- economy being of the nature of art -- would more than pay for their keep. They would be expected to attend regular bardic assemblies, and to accept apprentices. Bards would have lifetime tenure conditioned on good behavior and continued activity; accusations of misconduct or nonfeasance would be judged not by the College but by the regular courts. On the other hand, the College of Bards could function as a court of law for issues involving speech.
For again, if the word is once again to be sacred and powerful, it is important to recall the need to guard against its violation and misuse. To this end, there should be, as a third measure, a Constitutional amendment clarifying the nature of free speech. Distinctions should be made, first between the public and the private sphere, and second between the public discussion of ideas and the public venting of aggression and profanation, which inhibits discussion. It is obviously undesirable to have a secret police setting traps for people and opening their mail and luggage (for the same reason, the "war on drugs" should be halted and all penalties on the private sale and consumption of drugs repealed). But the public display of obscenity and violence is an assault on the mind, just as the public sale and advertisement of addictive drugs would be. I believe we should revert to pre-World War II standards of public speech. Even if an occasional serious work like Ulysses will have to go back to being sold under the table (into which, as said, there should be no inquiry), this would be far less restrictive than the present situation, in which a work cannot be sold unless it contains explicit scenes of sex and violence. Unnecessary curtailments of the literary imagination could be prevented by referring hard cases not to the courts but to the College of Bards, who would be charged with distinguishing between serious work and trash. As a second quality control on books, it should be prohibited for a book publishing company to be owned by any other entity, except a university or recognized professional association.
The major effort, however, should be directed toward restricting public television, publicly shown films, and publicly advertised video. On all of these a simple rule should be imposed, the same the Greeks imposed on the stage at the height of their cultural vitality: no direct showing of violent or intimate acts. Newspapers should also be restricted to brief and general descriptions of crimes, and on no account should these be referred to on the front pages. Finally, there should be written into the Amendment a prohibition against public hate-speech, the aim of which is not to promote discussion but to incite to violence. Again, hard cases should be referred to the College of Bards.
As a fourth measure, there should be a reinforcement of family and communal ties, beginning with that of marriage. My views on this subject will, I fear, not please either the Left or the Right; I can only ask both to contemplate what I have to say in this respect in the light of what has gone before.
Every measure which we can contemplate to preserve the biosphere and the human community presupposes the human capacity for attention and responsible action. And this capacity depends to a great extent on nurture, on responsible childrearing; it also depends on an adult environment in which sexual competition and predation are somewhat toned down, in the interests of mutual respect and cooperation. A society which does not address these needs is not addressing any of its other problems either, all rhetoric to the contrary. Here the responsible person, looking to the right and to the left, can only say, "A plague on both your houses!" I do not know whether it is worse to urge that a woman should be forced to bear every embryo to term, regardless of the circumstances of its conception and the likely conditions of its rearing; or to hold that there is nothing morally wrong when a man marries, fathers children, and then deserts his wife or makes it intolerable for her to live with him, leaving behind an impoverished woman and one or more children who will grow up without the paternal presence which, as the results have shown time and time again, they need. I do not know which is worse than either, except both.
Perhaps as damaging as the absence of fathers is the sense that for society as a whole, children are no longer of much interest except as a market for more trash. Not much provision is made for them in the scheme of things; they simply happen, and then have to take their luck. The institutions of marriage and parenthood cannot stand in isolation, without support from the rest of society. It is impossible to treat this subject adequately in this compass; but one suggestion I would like to make is a substantial tax on all who make large salaries and do not support children directly and adequately. The tax would be collected by the IRS and would go into a special fund, supervised by mothers whose children are grown, to help working divorced mothers and pay for the education of orphans.
Many of today's marital difficulties would be dispelled by the above-recommended restraints on the media; for in the constant presence of examples of violence and degradation, it is difficult to see how the respect for human beings on which marriage is founded can be maintained. In the presence of an Earthday culture, on the other hand, it should be much easier to choose mates wisely and treat them right. But beyond this, there should be a positive encouragement of marriage. Couples who stay married for fifty years or more should receive some public honor and should be encouraged to share their experience and wisdom, especially with the young; they should be paid to help teach courses in marriage in all junior high schools. Marriage education means inculcating the insight to pick out one person with whom you could spend the rest of your life, the courage to make that commitment, the firmness to keep it, and the tact, consideration, humility and attentiveness to make the keeping of the commitment possible and pleasurable. These things are prerequisites both of responsible childrearing and of a responsible society.
Those who do not wish to marry and have children may complain that this scheme penalizes their own sexual choices. However, it is not so meant. If, in Jonathan Schell's phrase, we are to assert our "common parenthood" of the future, then each person must assume some share of the responsibility for the creating an environment in which the next generation can grow up. The one sexual choice that must be rejected is irresponsible parenthood. Beyond this, it must be seen that even if all problems of family and sexual identity could be solved without a verbal culture -- which they cannot -- society would still remain barren of promise. The verbal culture is the "marriage of true minds" in which all hopeful relationships must take root.
I think it will be seen that the four measures I have suggested -- institution of a weekly Earthday, establishment of a College of Bards, restraint on media aggression, and reinforcement of marriage -- are closely interconnected. Each presupposes the establishment of a space from which commerce and at least the more overt forms of competition and aggression are excluded. Within this space, it would be possible to process all messages and decide how to further modify our economic behavior, so as to bring technology and commerce under human control and preserve the biosphere.
This program contemplates some sweeping changes in the sphere of macropolitics. Obviously, these will not be accomplished immediately. But the first steps toward their accomplishment can be taken by any person who reads this. The very first step is of course to reread this program, to understand it, to understand that it is a whole. The second is to make what changes are in one's own power to make toward these ends. The third step is to communicate the program to whoever you think might be receptive. The fourth step is to set up a small group. The fifth is to contact Central (me and whoever else will hopefully have signed on). That is surely enough to start with.
One last observation for now. As I said, it is entirely possible that nothing will work. That given the vast scale of events, the momentum of the forces involved, all human effort to preserve the word and the biosphere has the chance of the proverbial snowball in hell, or of a tree in front of an advancing glacier. No guarantees can be given.
But there are things that are worth undertaking whether they have a chance of "succeeding" or not; there are actions worth doing for their own sake. And part of the work I have outlined consists in the strengthening of this sense. It is perhaps part of learning to act without a profit motive. I believe that it is poetry which best cultivates this sense; that through poetry we can best learn to attune ourselves once more to the universe of names and things, to a universe of the sacred through which the linear time of ends and means can at least occasionally be circumvented. Unless this sense is present, the work cannot be begun. Once this sense is present, who is to say that it cannot succeed?
I conclude, as is fitting, with a poem.
That visible as violence might burn
In the air the fusion of concerted minds
By insight ineluctably confined
In a magnetic circle of concern;
That thus a power might generate to turn
A countermovement to entropic time
And lend attraction to that whole and prime
To which the fleeing fractions must return --
This I have seen, not in prophetic trance
But in the reasoning of a mind compelled
By the sheer daylight force of evidence
That this must and can be. I have not erred:
I swear by earth and stars, by me and you
That though the world be false, yet this is true.