Fundamentalists have at least one characteristic in common with most scientists. Neither can understand that poetic and religious imagination has a way of arriving at truth by giving a clue to the total meaning of things without being in any sense an analytic description of detailed facts. The fundamentalists insist that religion is science, and thus they prompt those who know that that this is not true to declare that all religious truth is contrary to scientific fact.
How can an age which is so void of poetic imagination as ours be truly religious?
Reinhold Niebuhr, Notebook of a Tamed Cynic
These two items popped up side-by-side in my news feed today and made me reflect on the ways that my irrational love for the Obamas has blinded me to the administration’s policies, or at least made me less clear-eyed about them.
Over the past 8 years, whenever I heard criticism of the president my first response was emotional. I admire this man so much that it was hard for me to hear those criticisms clearly, whether they came from the left or the right (indeed it was probably harder for me to hear them from the left).
So when my friends called Obama the Deporter-in-Chief, and pointed out that he’d overseen the biggest spike in deportations and detentions since… [my rose-colored glasses fogged up before I ever got to the actual number] I retreated into the world of “yeah but” and “but what about.”
Whatever else is true about our President-elect, he’s not someone I have any positive emotional associations with. I don’t admire his business experience, his personal choices, his intellectual character. I don’t hope that some day I’ll be able to be more like him, or that my kids will grow up in his mold.
And I recognize that there’s some value in this: I’ll have one concern with the new president—his policies, and how they affect the people and places I love. I’ll be a lot more clear-eyed than I’ve been in the past 8 years. I hope I’ll be a lot more politically effective as a result.
First, get Melville out of the way:
Nor is it altogether the remembrance of her cathedral toppling earthquakes, nor the tearlessness of arid skies that never rain; nor the sight of her wide field of leaning spires, wrenched cope-stones, and crosses all adroop (like canted yards of anchored fleets); and her suburban avenues of house-walls lying over upon each other, as a tossed pack of cards;–it is not these things alone which make tearless Lima the strangest, saddest city thou can’st see. For Lima has taken the veil; and there is a higher horror in the whiteness of her woe.
In three days in Lima it is true that we saw nothing of the sky, not a flicker of sun. The sky was uniformly white all day, suggesting fog and rain but delivering neither. But I wouldn’t call Lima sad.
Already we are boldly launched upon the deep; but soon we shall be lost in its unshored, harborless immensities. Ere that come to pass; ere the Pequod’s weedy hull rolls side by side with the barnacled hulls of the leviathan; at the outset it is but well to attend to a matter almost indispensable to a thorough appreciative understanding of the more special leviathanic revelations and allusions of all sorts which are to follow.
It is some systematized exhibition of the whale in his broad genera, that I would now fain put before you. Yet is it no easy task. The classification of the constituents of a chaos, nothing less is here essayed.
— Herman Melville, “Cetology”
From childhood he dreamed of being able to keep with him all the objects in the world lined up on his shelves and bookcases. He denied lack, oblivion or even the likelihood of a missing piece. Order streamed from Noah in blue triangles and the pure fury of his classifications rose around him, engulfing his life they came to be called waves by others, who drowned, a world of them.
— Ann Carson, “Short Talk on the Total Collection”
Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
— Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West”
The notion that you can sweat out a cold, that you can purify your body through effort and that the water that beads on your skin and pours in rivulets to the floor is carrying with it the remnants of the virus or the contagion that made you feel bad–it’s so compelling an idea that it’s hard to let go of it. Science says no, all you are doing is sweating, and what’s more you are diverting energy your body needs to fight disease. You will likely get more sick rather than less from it.
It feels so right, though, that it makes me wonder about modes of knowing, makes me think about how science can only describe and say so much. Surely the body has its own wisdom and instructs us in ways that we can’t quantify or rationalize.
I used to justify smoking when I was sick by imagining the hot smoke purifying my lungs, making an autoclave in my ribs, burning out the disease. That too felt right and true in my body.
So maybe it’s not a battle between the body’s wisdom and rational knowledge, but between pleasure and…what. The sweat of a sick body prickles the skin like sleep does, makes the sick body–which is so within itself, so cut off from the world by its misery—feel a kind of pleasure that’s almost like reanimation. A feeling of aliveness in that sweat, at that boundary between body and air, vital and desirable and pleasurable.
Of course there is also this: a mind in a diseased body is a mind in disorder. And sweat, effort, exertion help restore order. The body works and the mind settles into its traces.
I think all the time of a thoroughbred I saw early one morning on a practice track in Saratoga. The horse could not walk straight. It pulled and strained against its bridle. It pranced sideways and threw its head. But the minute it began to run, it was as beautiful and measured an animal as I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s that the way illness disorders the mind is more uncomfortable than the illness itself, and so we rationally choose to exercise. If it prolongs our illness, it also brings us back to ourselves, even if only briefly.
When I think like this I wonder: what will I do when my body no longer works?
On a trip to a giant vegetable farm in Orange County a few years ago, I listened to the farm manager detail all the ways he’d worked to keep his fields free of birds: scarecrows, plastic owls, noise cannons, and–most incredibly–recordings of birds screeching as they were killed by hawks. Nothing worked. The birds adapted to everything.
“Someone has put cries of birds on the air like jewels.” — Anne Carson, Plainwater
(at Goatfell Farm)