Nasty, Brutish, and Short

There’s a time for inspiration, for poetic imagination. It’s hard to be inspired if you have the din in your ears of a political bully reminding you incessantly that only he, the strong man, can rescue you from a life nasty, brutish, and short.

Shouting back only confirms that life is nasty, brutish, and short. Shouting back drowns out any reservoir you might have for the voices of imagination or inspiration.  In lieu of shouting, I welcomed a proposal of a  radical change of consciousness. It’s culled from the pages of this blog —  a defense of joy and poetry that had been quietly fermenting in the cellar since 2013.

Joy is an elusive bird, hard to track down, hard to recapture after she’s fled, perfectly convincing when she’s mid-tune, scary when we realize that each tune ends, and we’re thrown back into the nasty, brutish, and short — or the merely humdrum.

Robert Lewis Stevenson tells a fable that I recount in full under Joy a condition of life II (this blog  June 17, 2013). It’s a tale, he says,

that touches very near the quick of life: the fable of the monk who passed into the woods, heard a bird break into song, hearkened for a trill or two, and found himself on his return a stranger at his convent gates; for he had been absent fifty years, and of all his comrades there survived but one to recognise him.

The terror in Joy is the implicit consciousness that it is a transport out of the everyday that may well remove us from all we had known — we might well return strangers to the world we departed as ecstasy swept us up.

Stevenson captures, in this fable, the eternity of pure joy, its capacity to stall clock time and the time of duties and appointments. And he captures the anxiety of life caught between the serenity of the enchanted song that gives joy and timelessness and the grubbiness of sifting through the nasty and brutish and boring in search of that elusive serenity, that elusive bird, that elusive enchanter.

All life that is not merely mechanical is spun out of two strands: seeking for that bird and hearing him. And it is just this that makes life so hard to value, and the delight of each so incommunicable.

In the brute world of power and violence there is no space for “the note of that time-devouring nightingale” of whom “we hear no news.”

When tough-talk and chest-thumping, wrestle-mania taunts and incitements to kill, seem to fill the air — leaving  so little air for even the hope of a “time-devouring nightingale,” where do we turn?

Stevenson avows that the realism of life nasty, brutish, and short is not true realism, that true realism leaves space for seeking and hearing enchantment. He goes so far as to say that

the true realism were that of the poets, to climb after [the nightingale] like a squirrel, and catch some glimpse of the heaven in which he lives. And the true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets: to find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing. For to miss the joy is to miss all.

I think Thoreau seeks — and finds — enchantment and joy in his “befitting reveries” — say his reverie kneeling at the edge of Walden seeing his face and the face of her maker in still waters, joy circulating amongst all three. Stevenson pleads that we can’t afford to

miss the personal poetry, the enchanted atmosphere, that rainbow work of fancy that clothes what is naked.

But I think there is no way to poeticise the brutish world of nasty politics. Nevertheless one must nourish the soul, a space of personal poetry, for otherwise the chest-pounding and threats win out, at our great loss.  There can be no greater loss.

It must be a matter of faith, I suspect, to affirm, with Stevenson,  that “no man lives in the external truth among salts and acids.” He wants to vouchsafe an internal truth of rainbows, joys, and enchantments. He thinks the appearance of acids and brutishness all the way down is false.

But it’s become painfully clear, to me at least, that against Stevenson’s truth, too many in fact live in angry exuberance “among salts and acids” backing the strong man when he says life is nasty, brutish, and short, and reveling at the chance to take vengeful brutishness to all who stand in their way — led, of course, by the curses and insults of the strong man.

I save a space in my heart for Stevenson when he affirms a faith that “salts and acids” can be muted by “the painted windows and the storied wall” of music, poetry, and imagination. But I take this as personal soul-nourishment and heart-maintenance rather than as political credo, advise or action. Naked power is naked power, not to be prettified,  excused or ignored.


2 comments on “Nasty, Brutish, and Short

  1. dmf says:

    indeed, we need both to feed our psyches and to resist tyranny as best we can, Whitman of course knew this as did Ginsberg.
    be kind to your self, it is only one
    and perishable
    of many on the planet, thou art that
    one that wishes a soft finger tracing the
    line of feeling from nipple to pubes–
    one that wishes a tongue to kiss your armpit,
    a lip to kiss your cheek inside your
    whiteness thigh–
    Be kind to yourself Harry, because unkindness
    comes when the body explodes
    napalm cancer and the deathbed in Vietnam
    is a strange place to dream of trees
    leaning over and angry American faces
    grinning with sleepwalk terror over your
    last eye–
    Be kind to yourself, because the bliss of your own
    kindness will flood the police tomorrow,
    because the cow weeps in the field and the
    mouse weeps in the cat hole–
    Be kind to this place, which is your present
    habitation, with derrick and radar tower
    and flower in the ancient brook–
    Be kind to your neighbor who weeps
    solid tears on the television sofa,
    he has no other home, and hears nothing
    but the hard voice of telephones

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