Ben Lerner (2)

Floating beneath the surface in Lerner’s 10:24 is a longing for connection, for art’s communicative possibilities to open up a pathway to community.

“[I] felt the small thrill I always felt to a lesser or greater degree when I look at Manhattan’s skyline and the innumerable illuminated windows and the liquid sapphire and ruby of traffic on the FDR Drive and the present absence of the towers.  It was a thrill that only built space produced in me, never the natural world, and only when there was an incommensurablity of scale—the human dimension of the windows tiny from such distance combining but not dissolving into the larger architecture of the skyline that was the expression, the material signature, of a collective person who didn’t yet exist, a still-uninhabited second person plural to whom all the arts, even in their most intimate register, were nevertheless addressed.  Only an urban experience of the sublime was available to me because only then was the greatness beyond calculation the intuition of community. . . . [W]henever I looked at lower Manhattan from Whitman’s side of the river I resolved to become one of the artists who momentarily made bad forms of collectivity figures of this possibility, a proprioceptive flicker in advance of the communal body.  What I felt when I tried to take in the skyline—and instead was taken in by it—was a fullness indistinguishable from being emptied, my personality dissolving into a personhood so abstract that every atom belonging to me as good belonged to Noor, the fiction of the world rearranging itself around her.  If there had been a way to say it without it sounding like presumptuous co-op nonsense, I would have wanted to tell her that discovering you are not identical with yourself even in the most disturbing and painful way still contains the glimmer, however refracted, of the world to come, where everything is the same but a little different because the past will be citable in all of its moments, including those that from our present present happened but never occurred.  You might have seen me sitting there on the bench that midnight, my hair matted down by the bandanna, eating an irresponsible quantity of unsulfured mango, and having, as I projected myself into the future, a mild lacrimal event” (108-109).

The theme returns in a short lecture given by the narrator at a round-table featuring three writers.  He has explained how the Challenger disaster and its aftermath (a poetic speech by Ronal Reagan, the rash of anonymously generated jokes about the event that circulate through the culture) set him on the road to becoming a writer.

“If I had to trace my origins as a poet to a specific moment, I’d locate it there, in those modes of recycling.  I make no claims for ‘High Flight’ [a poem Reagan quotes in his speech] as a poem—in fact, I think it’s a terrible poem—and Ronald Reagan I consider a mass murderer.  I don’t see anything formally interesting in the Challenger jokes, I can’t find anything to celebrate there; they weren’t even funny at the time.  But I wonder if we can think of them as bad forms of collectivity that can serve as figures of its real possibility: prosody and grammars the stuff out of which we build a social world, a way of organizing meaning and time that belongs to nobody in particular but courses through us all” (115-116).

The wistfulness here reminds me of John Lennon’s Imagine—and seems tied to the author’s (and our?) inability to access Whitmanian mysticism with any conviction.  The skyline is a monument to collectivity.  It could never have been built except by many human hands working in concert.  And even if the various activities encompassed by city life—“bundled debt, trace amounts of antidepressants in the municipal water, the vast arterial network of traffic, changing weather patterns of increasing severity” (108)—are “bad forms of collectivity” they are “figures” of the possibility of collectivity.  Selves share the “meanings” by which “we build a social world.”  The boundaries between selves are utterly porous; we dissolve into one another—and into the stories that we share, the images that guide us.  If only we could tweak those facts, shift them slightly on their axes—then the world and each one of us would be “the same but a little bit different” (a formula for utopia that comes from  Benjamin or Brecht or someone of that ilk; I can’t find the exact source).

We always already exist in collectivities; the struggle is to make them better, to make them serve our deepest longings rather than to stifle and frustrate them.  We fight collectivity (cling to selfishness in all its senses) even as we long for it.  Art is connected to that longing; think of how movies and plays move us to tears, even those of us who almost never cry in “real life.”  We only indulge our longings in the safe space of art, while living our prudent, advantage-seeking, lives in the everyday world.  We know—as Adorno says—what our better selves and a better world look like, and we live out the shame (no matter how deeply we manage to bury it) of the gap between that vision of the good and the sordid realities we inhabit and reproduce.

The web of shared meanings is what we might call “myth”—and what is frightening about the current moment in American history is that the prevailing “myth” is no longer shared. (Probably it never was; more likely is that those who held alternative visions were more ruthlessly silenced in the past.) There are two (at least) utterly incompatible set of meanings circulating through the culture—and they appear so incompatible that the proponents of each find it close to unimaginable to share the national space with the other side.

In a sense, the power of art has never been so dramatically on display.  The left/liberal vision occupies the lion’s share of official culture, from the high art bastions of museums and universities to the culture industry’s popular music, film, and TV.  But the unofficial, unsanctioned world of the internet has spawned the alternative vision of the populist right, which now has its spokesperson in the White House.  Fed by a not inaccurate understanding of its exclusion from “respectable” opinion, populism has developed its alternative modes of communication alongside its refusal to credit anything the official world has to say.

Communication, “spin,” how and to whom facts and meanings are articulated, command the field.  Only catastrophic natural events—the virus, hurricanes, wildfires—seem capable of breaking through the morass of words and images, and not in any definitive, unequivocal way.  That supposed objective barometer of facts on the ground—the market—has proved as fictitious (if not more) than other “social indicators.”  Printing money and piling up debt have become disconnected from any actual consequences.  Inflation remains low, faith in government bonds remains unshaken, the stock market indices remain high.  We do appear to have left a reality-based world far behind.

And yet.  There is so much real and remediable suffering out there.  How did we, the human race, manage to turn all our possibilities, all our astounding capacities, into shit?  Collectively, we have built an amazing world.  But it amazes far more often by its byzantine dysfunctions than its praise-worthy accomplishments.  We can work wonders in medicine, but have developed a bureaucracy for delivering medical care that creates massive amounts of spiritually deadening labor and places obstacles in the way of getting treatment to those in need of it. We can feed seven billion people through our farming practices, but have built a system with perverse incentives that lead to the destruction of food while people go hungry and encourages the depletion of the natural sources of agricultural productivity.  We spend billions of dollars on military hardware, but claim we can’t afford to help the 20% of children who live in poverty.

I have always disliked Lennon’s Imagine.  It seems so removed from actual engagement, so enchanted with its own melancholy.  I find Lerner’s wistfulness more substantial.  He more fully articulates the sense of being both outside and inside of the collective failure.  Outside of it because seemingly unable to effect its unfolding disasters in any way—and outside of it because viewing it from a perspective that makes one unable to take its madness for granted or as inevitable or as immune from harsh judgment.  Inside because one is fully engorged by this whale; one can’t pretend not to be a participant, day in and day out, as one struggles to construct a life, a way of negotiating through this minefield.  Coming to terms with the devil is what we do even if we dream of living otherwise.  Driving one’s car, paying one’s insurance and tax bills to underwrite inhumane systems, consuming then throwing away plastic. The list of contributions we make toward perpetuating the world as currently constituted is endless.

Stop the world, I want to get off.  Whitman’s optimism is no longer available, even if his dreams are.  Lerner returns to Whitman later in the book and wonders about the “ecstasy” that runs through Whitman’s encounters with wounded Union soldiers in the hospitals in Washington DC.  There is something inhuman, deeply disturbing, in how Whitman gets off on the sight of these suffering bodies.  Optimism in such circumstances is reprehensible—and seems linked to an ideology of “glorious sacrifice” that was, I would hope, finally put to rest by World War I.

Where to find that optimism today?  Clearly, some people find in the collectivities created by the demonstrations that have become a recurrent feature of American civil life in 2020.  Insofar as the demonstrations attempt to construct—and make stick—a counter-narrative, a vision of American society antithetical to the racism and division Trump wants to amplify, the battle is on.  It is a war of meanings, and a war between an inclusive vision of collectivity against a divisive one.  Lerner articulates for us the forlorn, but still deeply felt, longing for that inclusive collectivity (the beloved community) even as he reminds us that art (if understood in the widest possible sense) is where articulation takes place, where the meanings we hope to share are first presented.  We can never quite believe that Shelley was right about poets being the unacknowledged legislators, but it is less incredible to recognize how the arts are powerful creators of community—and of the shared meanings that hold communities together.

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