A Diminished Thing

 

Robert Frost’s sonnet, “The Oven Bird.”

 

There is a singer everyone has heard,

Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,

Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.

He says that leaves are old and that for flowers

Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.

He says the early petal-fall is past

When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers

On sunny days a moment overcast;

And comes that other fall we name the fall.

He says the highway dust is over all.

The bird would cease and be as other birds

But that he knows in singing not to sing.

The question that he frames in all but words

Is what to make of a diminished thing.

 

 

The fit is hardly exact, but the phrase “what to make of a diminished thing” echoes in my head far too often these days.  The leftist dreams of a communist utopia died a slow and very painful death from 1920 to 1989.  But who would have predicted, as the Berlin Wall came down, that allegiance to and belief in “social democracy” would be on life support in 2020?  Among the kinds of intellectuals I hang around with, Elizabeth Warren is a sell-out and Bernie Sanders a tolerable compromise, but just barely.  All the talk—as in the novels I considered in the last post—is about the injustice and cruelty of capitalism, and the implacable racism of the United States.  That injustice and cruelty is endlessly documented; everywhere you scratch the surface, you find perfidy.  Corruption, betrayal, cover-ups, outright theft, and endless, ruthless exploitation. Even worse: the almost invisible “structural racism” that infects everything.  It all must go.  Only wiping the slate entirely clean will create a world we can affirm.

I can’t help but think that John Dewey nails it when he calls this kind of political rhetoric sentimental.  “[W]hen we take ends without regard to means we degenerate into sentimentalism.  In the name of the ideal we fall back upon mere luck and chance and magic or exhortation and preaching; or else upon a fanaticism that will force the realization of preconceived ends at any cost” (Reconstruction in Philosophy, 73).  No one is offering anything remotely like a blueprint for how to get from here to there.  We just get endless denunciations of here coupled with (in some cases) the vaguest gestures toward there.  Analyses of how fucked up everything is, coupled with stories of outrageous maltreatment, are a dime a dozen.

Recently there has been a revival of a cultural studies move familiar in the 1980s.  Basically the idea is to show that people are not passive victims and to celebrate their ways of resisting—or, if “resisting” is too strong a word, their way of surviving, of carving out a life under bad conditions.  Two fairly recent books, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World (2015) and Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019) exemplify this trend.  Tsing’s book is wonderful in every way, an exhilarating read for its introduction of the reader into a sub-culture far from the mainstream and for its intellectual force and clarity.  I found Hartman’s book a harder go.  Hartman works diligently to find the “beauty” in the “wayward” lives that she tries to reconstruct from very scanty historical traces.  Her subjects are black women in northern US cities between 1890 and 1915.  For me, the lives she describes are unutterably sad; I just can’t see the beauty as they are ground down by relentless racism and inescapable poverty.  Let me hasten to add that it is not Hartman’s job to make me feel good.  The point, instead, is that she aims to present these tales as providing some grounds for affirmation—and I just don’t find those grounds as I read her narratives.

I don’t want to try a full engagement with Tsing’s book here.  (I am late to this party; her book, like Hartman’s work, has been much celebrated.)  The very short summary: she tracks the matsutake mushroom from its being picked in Oregon, Finland, Japan, and China to its ending up as a treasured (and expensive) delicacy in Japan.  The ins-and-outs of this story, from the mushrooms own complicated biology (it cannot be cultivated by humans and only flourishes in “ruined” forests, ones that have been discombobulated by extensive logging) to the long human “supply chain” that renders the mushroom a commodity, offer Tsing the occasion to meditate on ecology, human migration, the US wars in Southeast Asia, and global neo-liberalism.

But for my purposes, I simply want to record that Tsing is interested in how people cope in the “ruins” that the contemporary world offers.  The “ruins” of decimated, over-logged forests.  The “ruins” of lives by the American war in Vietnam (spilling over into Laos and Cambodia).  The “ruins” of a neoliberal capitalism that has made traditional jobs (with security, benefits, a visible line of command) obsolete. The “ruin” of all narratives of progress, of all notions that technology or politics is moving us toward a batter future.

For Tsing, at least in this book, there is no idea that this ruination can be reversed, or that there are political models (like social democracy), that might address these hardships and try to ameliorate them. Only someone hopelessly naive or delusional would credit any notion of possible progress. Instead, we just need to be getting on with the hard task of finding a niche in the interstices of this cruel world, whose mechanisms of grinding people and the environment to ruin will continue unimpeded.  She isn’t even indulging some kind of 1960s dream of “dropping out.”  We are all in the belly of the whale, so whatever expedients can be adopted to make the best of it are to be celebrated.

Here is Tsing’s summation of her vision, the last paragraph before her epilogue:

“Without stories of progress, the world has become a terrifying place.  The ruin glares at us with the horror of its abandonment.  It’s not easy to know how to make a life, much less avert planetary destruction.  Luckily there is company, human and not human.  We can still explore the overgrown verges of our blasted landscape—the edges of capitalist discipline, scalability, and abandoned resource plantations.  We can still catch the scent of the latent commons—and the elusive autumn aroma” (282).

Back to autumn, to the oven-bird with its determination to sing even as summer fades away, and we are left with “a diminished thing.”

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