I got frustrated and discouraged last night trying to think of a caption for this picture. It was from a dance at the end of a parade celebrating Mexican immigrants in New York, and it was strange and ebullient enough to stop anyone passing by–these costumes the guys wore, in particular, were astonishing, each topped with a taxidermied bobcat or possum or some other wild animal in an attitude of defiance, hissing or snarling as if cornered.
But the celebration was taking place at Dag Hammarskjold plaza in the shadow of the UN, and I was a white man on my way to Japanese class, and there were aspiring diplomats on lunch break eating food from the halal food cart on the corner, and there at the end of the block was Trump International Tower, gleaming in basaltic black like the obelisk in 2001. There was too much irony and allegory just lying around, like a readymade I had only to put in a frame and hang on the wall. Anything I had to say seemed too trite or precious to mention, like it could do nothing but generate knowing nods to the misery of the election or to the beauty of immigrant culture defying the ugliness of those who would deny it–all fine and true. But if there’s one thing I don’t want to be doing right now it’s going for the knowing nod.
It only occurred to me this morning that the way to talk about it was to zero in on a detail, about the way the possum’s tail was missing a little hair right where it crooked up from the tailbone, or about the collection of plastic fruits that spilled down the back of one man’s cape, or about how the red chile sauce greasing people’s discarded tamale husks looked so delicious I wanted to lick them clean.
Or about the other white man I saw there, who leapt up on a bench to take a picture and who looked like he could either have been excited by the dancers or angrily gathering evidence for a noise complaint to 311. And how not knowing what to think of him put me on guard not only against him but also against myself: what was I assuming about him? What lines of allegiance was I taking for granted here? What was I assuming about all these people? The slogans I could read on the backs of their shirts seemed like something I could get behind–“por la dignidad de un pueblo dividido por la frontera.” But what did I know about them? What was with all the banners celebrating the Virgin?
When I was up to my neck in school I developed a strong faith in the power of detail, its ability to puncture hyperbole or dislodge cliche. It was something I learned at the knee of Wallace Stevens, among others–his constant transit between the metaphysical and the concrete gave him a kind of power and credibility and beauty and interest that I felt were more valuable than anything I was reading in theory class or had learned in church.
But I have made a mistake all these years in trusting too much to detail–or trusting that any detail will do the job if it’s rendered well enough. The danger is the detail that leaps out at you, or the detail you select–it’s easy to choose one just to confirm your theory or pretty up your argument. I guess I let slide the fact that Stevens spent half his thinking trying to figure out how to replace the gods he felt he watched dissolve in air before him, trying as much to understand the nature of the poem at the center of things as he did trying to describe the things that flung out glittering from that center. In clinging to detail, I realize, I’ve let my mind go soft. I don’t know what I think anymore. I have opinions and prejudices, and I can speak about them, but the thing I valued most in my life—the ability to wrap my brain around a problem and pick it apart—I’ve let that go slack. That’s what I want to work on now, now that the world that gave comfort to all those opinions and prejudices has been blown up by an election that I’m still scrambling to understand.