Oct 28, 2010

TRIBES, VILLAGES, SPORTS, PART TWO. Thomas Hardy, "The Man He Killed"

The Man He Killed by Thomas Hardy : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

View from Apartment over Citgo station, Middle of Nowhere, Pennsylvania

My friend Viggie reminds me that the lives of those wannabe assassins might be grim—on the job, at home, within their own minds, which are at war with themselves. So I get a few yards down Judge Not road.

But when I see the beauty of most sport—or backyard birds and owls that wink, or, yesterday, the sweating man with a badly injured right arm and leg hobbling down the sidewalk at a workout pace, a man not giving up, a man with more guts than I’d likely have in his situation . . . I become, yes, angry and sanctimonious about mean-spirited, thimble-brained organisms that seem literally to desire the crippling or death of everything that is not their notion of themselves.

In about 1970, in a Southern university, a middle-aged, middle-class white man on the verge of a Ph.D. in English shared an office with a young, middle-class white man (yes, Me).

One day the older man said, in his gentle, churchy way, “You rail against bigotry. Doesn’t that make you a bigot against bigots?”

“No,” I said. “Bigotry is an irrational hatred. A bigot hates with no factual, reasoned basis for hating. Hating ignorant hatred is perfectly rational.”

Fact is, I wasn’t sure that a dictionary would back me on that; there I was, sounding not only self-righteous, but also playing riverboat gambler, fast and loose with linguistics and logic, a skydiver for social justice.

So that night he and I both looked up “bigotry," and to his credit, he volunteered the next day that I was right. He was such an almost-decent guy, but his burning need to hate everything unfamiliar, everything that made him uncomfortable, that challenged his Tribe . . . it got the best of him. And it would violate his self-concept to say what he was really thinking, feeling: if it's new, I fear it; if I fear it, I must hate it, for I hate fear. I am not a fearful guy; to prove that, I'm willing to be a hateful guy.

Am I ready to argue that sports is a microcosm and metaphor for such important human tendencies? Why not? In football, do they still say, "Run to daylight?" But I'll take a breather now and let people catch up.

The Man He Killed by Thomas Hardy : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.


Anonymous said...

Art, I think, finds it subject by defining what isn't. You know, negative space.

And I wonder if that's how our brain ultimately works. So we search out differences in order to define ourselves. But that rather dooms us, as a global society.

Banjo52 said...

AH, that's really interesting. I sure don't have better idea. Do you think your point parallels the (old?) notion that art tries to express the inexpressible?

In either case, I think we're touching on my dull reaction to political or otherwise didactic literature and art. If the content can be reduced to a campaign slogan or moral about good vs. evil, it bores me, even if I agree with what's being preached.

The mysteries and complexities out there and within each of us are fascinating, but to say for dozens or hundreds of pages that Nazis, old and new, are bad, or that racism, sexism class-ism are bad . . . .

That's all true and in need of corrective action, of COURSE. But if that's all the art says, I find it predictable, obvious, and dull. "The devil's in the details," so try to give me the details of this or that (bad) guy's psyche and environment; don't reduce it to a bumper sticker slogan. You almost certainly won't succeed at portraying such mystery, but your attempt might be interesting and courageous. And contagious. That's too cutesy, but true.

Am I still responding to your point at all? Well, whether or no, it was fun, and your point stands.

Banjo52 said...

P.S. What I just said to AH is also the reason I only like, and don't love, the famous Thomas Hardy poem I posted. It's true, it needs to be acted upon, it might even be memorable. But in thought or language, what's there to wallow in? Vonnegut said that writing an anti-war novel is like writing an anti-glacier book.

Mister Earl said...

Several thoughts. Back in 1969 I was explaining to a friend what I thought about the 1969 World Series in which the Mets sized up the heavily favored Orioles in losing game one, then won the next four. I was telling him that we played these games because we could no longer actually fight the people of other towns.

During the Vietnam War I came up with the idea that we needed these foreign wars for the same reason: we need to fight someone, if only vicariously. These foreign wars that don't directly threaten those of us here at home, allow us to fight vicariously, with the assistance of the unlucky few who actually participate.

Referring to Karin's idea: I think for some reason the human mind, or at least the Western mind, wants to discriminate, to differentiate. Why do we give names to all the plants and animals and stars and everything else? Why do we put them in groups and figure out which ones are related to which ones? It's in our nature. We want to know whether that's an oak or a birch. So it's not so surprising that we do the same thing in our personal relations. There's our family, their family, our tribe, their tribe, our country, their country, or race, their race. We like to make lists of the best and the worst and have contests to decide whose best and worst. It's our nature to discriminate, in good ways and in bad ways. Is there really that much difference between defining the ways a pine tree and a hickory are different and defining what's different about those other people across the tracks?

Banjo52 said...

Mr. E, I’ve had similar thoughts, or at least wonderings, about war. It seems clear that for many, many, many, wars serve a purpose other than the stated one. I’ve also heard the theory that they act as a rehearsal in case we ever need combat readiness for a “real” war. How cynical is that?

About discrimination: sounds plausible. Good food vs. poison, doggie pooch vs. rabid wolf, pal vs. bully. Once we decide it’s friend, I suspect the naming also is a way to feel at home with what surrounds us. Instead of thinking/saying, “You and you and you, human, human, human,” we can say “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, chickadee and nuthatch and blue jay and cardinal.” By naming them, maybe we own them, or at least feel at home with them, less threatened, partners and pals. Of course if we got real hungry and were good shots, we’d eat the birds, even though we were on as first-name basis . . . .

Jean Spitzer said...

Banjo, that last paragraph, in the comments, works well. Sounds poetic to me. "You and you and you . . . ."

AH: negative space. Love it.

Banjo52 said...

Jean, thank you. I might owe a nod to D.H. Lawrence (and others?) for the point about owning. He really disliked it.

I like the pals idea better than owning, but in either case, knowing a thing by name is surely likely to increase our understanding of it and affection for it, doncha think? A chickadee is not a blue jay. That discrimination or act of distinguishing is a way of knowing. A is not B. (Except when it is, of course. Both are birds).

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