A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
My husband had surgery last week. As the dutiful wife, I accompanied him to the hospital with much reading material to occupy myself as I waited during his procedure. Hospital waiting areas are a great commons. Everyone there is waiting on someone we care about to undergo some medical procedure. No matter how minor the procedure, and if you or someone you love is having the procedure it is never really minor; this is a stressful time. I was reading Adam Thirlwell’s wonderful review essay about The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham, in the 23 April 2015 issue of the New York Review of Books. The essay engaged me deeply, and I was thinking about language, Jacques Lacan, and psychoanalysis as I read his review. Thirlwell argues that indeed Ulysses was a dangerous and provocative book, in part, because Joyce abandoned any romantic conventions in Ulysses. Joyce wanted the voice of his book to be the true narrative of the mind, which is usually not spoken, and often not fully available to consciousness. He wanted to shed the conventions for narrative structure, which hew more towards a style of discourse determined by social norms; which if you have ever tried to read Ulysses you know the author does little to appease his reader. Joyce was interested in the actual thoughts of the thinkers from that supposed day in Dublin, not in telling an organized story. This is one of the questions of psychoanalysis, what is it that we truly think? And what do we relinquish to be liked by others? And to placate our own internal critic?
Thirlwell argues that Joyce transgressed literary convention by writing about sex in the style of a private narrative. In this book, Birmingham credits Joyce’s letters to his wife Nora, written in 1909, before Ulysses, with being a “secret headwater of modern literature.” One of the passages from the letters is a fantasy of “Nora squatting over him, with ‘a big fat dirty snaking thing coming slowly out of your backside.’” Thirlwell says “at this point, it seems that Joyce discovered that everything could be said. There was nothing that could not be transformed into language.” (52) And yet, we do hesitate to say everything that comes to mind.
I was absorbed in my reading, thinking these deep thoughts. I was feeling the pleasure of immersion in an intellectual task. But, the waiting room is a great commons. There was an older couple sitting near me. They would occasionally speak quietly to each other, but then the quiet, which I was enjoying very much, ended when the woman’s son arrived. This was a surprise; she had not expected him. (All I am about to relate came from my eavesdropping, which while morally suspect, was unavoidable given the volume of their conversations.) The mother began to cry when her son arrived. She said she thought he and his family were on vacation. He explained they had done all they wanted to do, and he really wanted to be here with her. She wept a little, he was comforting to her. She told about how loving everyone had been at her church, and told her they would pray for her, and whose ever surgery she was there waiting out.
At this point, I’m a little annoyed that this happy reunion was keeping me from my reading, but I was voyeuristically engaged as well. You see, the son must have weighed 400 pounds. He talked about some walks he took with his wife and kids, and I was seriously wondering how he managed. Then, the account of the vacation turned to what they ate on the trip. I overheard details of fried chicken, and fried pork chops, dripping in gravy. There was macaroni and cheese, and potatoes—at the same meal. The only green thing on this menu was green beans, with bacon. There was banana pudding, peach cobbler, and chocolate cake, all offered for dessert at one place, but, they thought, why pick among these options! They all sounded so good, that the family ordered them all “and we just ate from each other’s.”
I was now in my mind somewhat disgusted by my imagining this very fat man eating copious amounts of foods, which were too high in fats, and of poor nutritive value. I heard nothing of broccoli, carrots, or grilled fish—no whole grains, instead they ate biscuits. I was a bit irritated that my reading was slowed by my being distracted by his account of gorging, but I was also feeling a bit superior. In my mind I am an intellectual who does serious reading, and I don’t eat like I have been let loose at one of those places that advertises “All You Can Eat.”
I continued my eavesdropping, and was then treated to his utter disdain for “those people who don’t realize this country is founded on Christian values.” He was outraged that “there are some people who want to get the Ten Commandments out of the courthouse! Don’t they realize those are the values of this country?” Now I was even more superior. I scoff at the notion that this is a Christian county; this is a secular and pluralistic nation, and all of the excess this man seemed to represent was repugnant to me. He was a crude, fat, rube, regurgitating right-wing, even Tea Party talking points, and he was interfering with my thinking.
But then I saw myself, my own mind at work. He feels just as superior as I do. This rube and I have this in common; there is someone we can dredge up in our minds to whom we feel superior. And that is the point of this essay. No matter what we spend our time on, the clash in the political sphere fuels these private feelings of superiority. “I am better than you” we tell ourselves, “for the following reasons….” But in the meantime we are enduring a period where income inequality is unequaled in our history; a singular era of the erosion of our middle-class, and the loss of human capital. That man, upon whom I looked down, has much more in common with me, than either of us does with the One Percent. He and I should be allied in the fight against the usurpation of our shared way of life by the powerful, and yet these ideological differences interfere with us recognizing our commonality. This is the bread and circuses of the 21st century, and seductive as it might be, we should be wary when we enjoy, as I did, feeling superior to our fellow citizens.
Copyright 2015 Phoebe A. Cirio