From Crisis to Poetry

Lead piece in this week’s New York Review of Books — crisis in the financial markets. a review of  a book called A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of ’08 and the Descent into Depression.

Failure: the father of crisis. The failed state of Somalia launches the crisis of twenty-first century piracy.

The familiar crises of our time are the children of failed states, failed negotiations, failed systems, failed corporations, failed policies, failed leaders.

The anti-immigrationist right wing is blaming the breakout of swine flu (school children sickened in Texas and New York City) on the failure to wall out Mexicans from the porous borders of the U.S.

Has the world come down with a bad case of the vapors?  So it would appear.

Writing about the financial meltdown, Robert Solow blames the crisis, in part, on “the inevitability of market imperfections.”  Crisis is built into the capitalist market system. Crisis is pre-determined, like death and taxes. We should have learned to expect the next sucker punch.

Yet we are restive. Unprepared.  The world seems out of joint, foreclosing all around us, taking our homes, our jobs, our retirement funds, our sleep.

The age of crisis is at once the age of uncertainty, failure and the expectation of failure.

It has been often observed that there is no tragedy in America. We don’t have a taste for it. We prefer musical comedy, technology millionaires, American Idol and the Super Bowl.  This is an optimistic culture — the culture of Emerson’s self-reliance, Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick and FDR’s outing of fear, in the end, as nothing to fear. We like scary movies because they’re movies.

The lack of a tragedy makes us a statistical outlier in the history of civilization. Rome had the entertaining brutality of the circus maximus, the gladiators eviserated by lions. Ancient Christianity had the crucifixion. Modern Christianity has Mel Gibson’s movies.

Joyce Carol Oates exaggerates in a useful way in saying that America’s only tragedy — in the sense of literary, dramatic nobility — is boxing. Real fear, real pain, real blood splattered on the fans in the expensive seats. Hemingway had to stoke his taste for tragedy elsewhere — in the European theater of World War I, the Spanish Civil War and the bull ring. Melville found his far from the New Bedford whaling industry, many miles out at sea in the hunt for the white whale.

Compared with the tragedies of literature and the countless horrors of modernity, mere failure seems rather bland. We are easily upset. We are what Freud says we are: the neurotic animal. We repeat mistakes with tragic and sometimes comic results. Comic, like the clownish characters in Beckett plays.

I know. None of this is new. But what feels different, if not exactly new, is the nonstop series of crises. As for apocalyptic thinking, that’s hardly new. Waiting for the eschatological denouement in the desert was trendy in the first century after Jesus, and in the years immediately preceding the end of the  first and the second millennia.  We await the curtain call, even as we engage in the denial of death, as Ernest Becker theorized as he himself waited out his own death.

All this prattle about death can be tedious.  Fortunately, these desert stretches of gloom are dotted with oases. I read again about one of those green and fertile places this morning in — of all places — the Wall Street Journal.  The subject was one of the finest poems by William Butler Yeats: “Among School Children.”  (” O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?”)

What I learned from reading Yeats and in conversations about poetry and poets, and in seminars,  and in the act of writing a doctoral dissertation, and in the slow descent into emotional paralysis and the slow ascent into the light again, was said movingly by another poet, William Carlos Willams:

				It is difficult
to get the news from poems
		yet men die miserably every day
				for lack
of what is found there.

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Filed under Crisis Communication, Current Affairs, Literary Criticism, Poetry, Uncategorized

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