A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Yesterday, on National Public Radio, “And now the news from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and St. Louis.” There’s a list on which I’m proud to hear my hometown, the city I love!
Our TV is packed-up, and I’m not exactly sorry. My wife and I are doing extensive home renovations. The St. Louis Riots have been televised live, and, frankly, we’re glad we’re missing this new reality show. It breaks our hearts. My old junior college is right where the riots are. I went to parties in the very apartment complex where Michael Brown was shot dead.
Today I teach in a mostly Black inner-city high school. When my students talk about the riots, their feelings run from anger to sadness, from hope to disappointment. They often voice embarrassment, and worry that all Blacks will be seen as looters and thugs. One of my students was tear-gassed.
A Black technician came to our house in order to re-install our cable TV. He lives in Ferguson, the inner-ring suburb in which the riots are centered. He spent a half-hour installing the TV, and we spent an hour chatting about the riots. He was angry, depressed, afraid. But hopeful.
Hopeful. Why? Because these riots, and their aftermath, indicate something larger than just what you see on television. Because the healing of a single wound brings health to the whole body. Because there is every reason to believe that, as St. Louis is at a turning-point, so too is the nation. There is every reason to believe that we are approaching a new reform-minded era. Besides, if the alternative is true, if the 21st Century grows worse than the 20th, then none of this matters. Because the Titanic’s fate will be envied.
But about that hope. There is every indication that this is a time of transition. Our president is Black. TV channels are in Spanish. Homosexuals openly marry. Occupy Wall Street openly critiqued capitalism. The death penalty is itself on the verge of extinction. Some of the finest works of art, that have ever been produced, are being crafted right now. My youngest niece just retired as a full-bird colonel in the Army. I think I was the only passenger who even noticed when, on a recent flight to Prague, all our pilots were female, and all our flight attendants were male. Wikipedia does what the Encyclopedists dreamed.
It is, in short, possible to consider an end of the most corrosive effects of positivism, and the beginnings of a new humanism. Ours is a period of transition. I could cite a thousand examples of this transition. But let’s consider this one.
Scholars speak of the end of Modernism, the beginning of Post-Modernism. Post-Modernism is a fluid critique of Modernism. It is essentially skeptical. It deconstructs. It offers an important vision of transition. But its very purpose is not foundational. It facilitates transition. Transitions are confusing. Post-Modernism gives an explanation, a kind of symbolic solace to the perplexed. To risk a metaphor, it criticizes the old world, it explains the voyage, but it stipulates no port of call.
That’s not a bad thing. It’s simply transitional. But it leaves open the question – a journey to where? It is possible to think of a New Progressive Era, a New Humanism, a New Renaissance. No one likes to think that they just lived through The Modern Dark Age. Yet I’m not sure what else to call the 20th Century. Mustard gas. Stalinism. Auschwitz. Hiroshima. The genocide in Rwanda. The Inquisition blanches by comparison. If the 20th Century wasn’t a dark age, then “dark age” has no meaning.
Which brings me to the poet Petrarch. I’m not comparing the St. Louis Riots to World War I. I am comparing this moment – when the riots have hopefully ended, when we St. Louisans have become reflective – to Petrarch sitting on the top of Mount Ventoux. That moment, the 26th of April in 1336, the poet reflecting, reading St. Augustine, writing, this moment is often thought to mark the divide between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. A person thinking. Praying. Jotting down his thoughts.
But the Renaissance begins with neither the ascent nor the reflection nor the writing. It begins with the poet going home. It begins with an impulse that takes Petrarch to his neighbors, his friends, his readers, his loved ones. It begins, in short, in that moment when the journey becomes love.
Nothing dictates that today’s transition must end badly. Indeed, rather than a New Dark Age, I think we’re entering a New Renaissance, a New Humanism, a New Progressive Era. Which brings us back to St. Louis. We’ve been through two horrible weeks. These times are times of transition. We need to reflect. We need to ask ourselves questions. Why St. Louis? What is the legacy of slavery? Has our lowest class become an untouchable caste? What is the legacy of “white flight”? Why is our city so segregated? This we ask out of love. And out of love do we then come home to our neighbors, our friends, our loved ones, to our beloved city. Where we begin again.
— John Samuel Tieman writing for Vox Populi