Send Me a Poet :: Open Thread
[General] Carpenter snapped up his intercom. "Send me a poet," he said.
He waited, and waited...and waited...while America sorted feverishly through its two hundred and ninety millions of hardened and sharpened experts, its specialized tools to defend the American Dream of beauty and poetry and the Better Things in Life. He waited for them to find a poet, not understanding the endless delay, the fruitless search, not understanding why Bradley Scrim laughed and laughed and laughed at this final, fatal disappearance.
"The Disappearing Act," by Alfred Bester (1953)
Sixty years ago the science fiction writer Alfred Bester predicted a 22nd-century, very lengthy world war being fought by America in which the atrocities were so severe that more and more soldiers returning from battle not only withdrew into an autistic world within their own minds, but could literally physically disappear for periods of time into a fantasy world of their own creation, full of people, places and things anachronistically collected from their dreams. They would physically vanish from their secret hospital ward (Ward T) for hours and then days and then weeks at a time, leaving their doctors and generals behind scratching their heads about this disappearing act, this human telekinetic evolution.
Once they thought they understood this new power somewhat, their attention shifted toward the potential it might give the military to get the upper hand in the seemingly endless war to protect our cultural commitment to "beauty and poetry and the Better Things in Life" (by transporting American troops back in time to defeat the enemy then).
The problem they had in understanding the soliders' power well enough to actively harness it was they no longer technically understood the process for creating dreams. In order to win this war to protect our way of life, the country had forced everyone into specialized fields of study, ensuring the generals could call on experts on any practical topic at any moment to respond quickly to the unpredictable progression of the war.
The hell these disappearing soldiers had to live through before this ability came to them is left to the reader's imagination, but the hell awaiting those people who were unable to figure out how to travel into their own private American Dream, whether to win the war or escape it, was hauntingly imagined by the short story's end. In the story, General Carpenter, who was leading the war effort, called back from prison a rogue historian (Bradley Scrim, imprisoned for pointing out that the effort to save the American Dream was actually killing it) to help him understand how and/or why these soldiers were disappearing. Scrim, rather bitter for being imprisoned and fully aware of Carpenter's militaristic designs on this new power, is here explaining to Carpenter what he was able to determine by examining the soldiers in Ward T:
“The concept is almost beyond understanding. These people have discovered how to turn dreams into reality. They know how to enter their dream realities. They can stay there, live there, perhaps forever. My God, Carpenter, this is your American dream. It’s miracle-working, immortality, Godlike-creation, mind over matter... It must be explored. It must be studied. It must be given to the world.”Scrim's joke on Carpenter, of course, is that he knows there are no poets left in this highly professionalized society.
“Can you do it, Scrim?”
“No, I cannot. I’m a historian. I’m noncreative, so it’s beyond me. You need a poet...a man who understands the creation of dreams. From creating dreams on paper or canvas it oughtn’t to be too difficult to take the step to creating dreams in actuality.”
“A poet? Are you serious?”
“Certainly I’m serious. Don’t you know what a poet is? You’ve been telling us for five years that this war is being fought to save the poets.”
“Don’t be facetious, Scrim, I—....
"Send a poet into Ward T. He’ll learn how they do it. He’s the only man who can. A poet is half doing it anyway. Once he learns, he can teach, your psychologists and anatomists. Then they can teach us; but the poet is the only man who can interpret between those shock cases and your experts.”
Two things I've read recently have made me remember this story (which I had first read in high school). One was Anton Vidokle's provocative essay on (among other things) the professionalization of the contemporary art world, "Art without Market, Art without Education: Political Economy of Art."
In discussing how Warhol had masterfully bridged the business and art worlds toward his own individualist ends, Vidokle concludes:
Warhol’s economic independence seems to have been misunderstood. The independence that came from his bridging of the bohemian sphere and the sphere of day-to-day commerce has been converted into a vast proliferation of so-called artistic practices that treat art as a profession. But art is not a profession. What does being professional actually mean under the current conditions of de-skilling in art? We should probably be less concerned with being full-time, art-school-trained, professional artists, writers, or curators—less concerned with measuring our artistic worth in these ways. Since most of us are not expected to perfect any specific techniques or master any craft—unlike athletes or classical musicians, for example—and given that we are no longer tied to working in specific mediums, perhaps it’s fine to be a part-time artist? After all, what is the expertise of a contemporary artist? Perhaps a certain type of passionate hobbyism, a committed amateurism, is okay: after all, we still live in a reality largely shaped by talented amateurs of the nineteenth century, like Thomas Edison and so many others. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to work in some other capacity in the arts, or in an entirely different field, and also to make art: sometimes this situation actually produces much more significant work than the “professional art” we see at art fairs and biennials. Ilya Kabakov supported himself for decades by being a children’s book illustrator. Marcel Duchamp worked as a librarian and later sold Brancusi’s work to make a living, while refusing to be dependent on sales of his own work.but the other thing I've read recently that reminded me of Bester's cautionary tale, was the chapter in Douglas Rushkoff's brilliant new book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now on the "collapse of the narrative." He begins his explanation of why he believes we are living through the collapse of traditional narrative with a very compelling description of the importance of storytelling:
As a medium, stories have proven themselves great as a way of storing information and values and then passing them on to future generations. Our children demand we tell them stories before they go to bed, so we lace those narratives with the values we want them to take with them into their dreams and their adult lives. Likewise, the stories and myths of our religions and national histories preserve and promote certain values over time. That's one reason civilizations and their values can persist over centuries.
Rushkoff's basic argument as to why narrative is collapsing is that the values and collective goals our stories have until now expressed and preserved and (and therefore communicated forward to successive generations to guide us in moving forward) have relied on our culture being "future-focused," and yet, according to him, we no longer are:
When people stop looking to the future, they start looking at the present. Investments begin to matter less for what they might someday be worth, because people are no longer thinking so much about "someday" as they are about today. A stock's "story"--the rationale for why it is going to go up--begins to matter less than its actual value in real time. What are my stocks worth as of this moment? What do I really own? What is the value of my portfolio right now?Rushkoff argues that these stories worked for a while in the US, they "helped us construct a narrative experience of our lives, our nation, our culture, and our faith. We adopted an entirely storylike way of experiencing and talking about the world." And that the act (or art) of storytelling became a valued part of our culture itself.
The stock market's infinite expansion was just one of many stories dependent on our being such a future-focused culture. All the great "isms" of the twentieth century--from capitalism to communism to Protestantism to republicanism to utopianism to messianism--depended on big stories to keep them going. None of them were supposed to be so effective in the short term or present. They all promised something better in the future for having suffered through something not so great today. (Or at least offered something better today that whatever pain and suffering supposedly went on back in the day.) The ends justified the means. Today's war was tomorrow's liberation. Today's suffering was tomorrow's salvation. Today's work was tomorrow's reward.
He quotes Aristotle, though, who said: "When the storytelling in a culture goes bad, the result is decadence."
Indeed, here in the US, after the turn of the century, Rushkoff argues things began to move so quickly we lost our collective future-focused patience (the "discontinuity generated by the 9/11 attacks should not be underestimated" in understanding this, he notes). With that lack of patience, we also seem to have lost the time we're willing to dedicate to traditional, linear storytelling. That art form takes a certain degree of patience to endure the set-up, the character development, the story arc (from introduction to crisis to climax to conclusion).
I know myself that during and in the aftermath of 9/11, I was not consuming information patiently enough to endure such time-consuming constructs. I wanted to know what was going on now! because I was convinced our very survival, and the survival of "the American Dream of beauty and poetry and the Better Things in Life" depended on us having access to that information now.
Indeed, since then, even when we told ourselves we simply must relax, we increasingly did so with DVD or online libraries of stories and, very importantly, remote controls! that enabled us to skip over the boring parts, skip the development if we wanted to, essentially, skip the narrative and live entirely in the now of our favorite bits...the crisis...the climax. Instead of spending an evening relaxing, surrendering our minds to another person's carefully crafted story, we could construct our own faster-paced diversion, channel surfing from crisis to crisis, climax to climax. No commercials, no painfully slow development...no traditional narrative...and, taken to this practice's logical conclusions, eventually no reason for anyone to create the more traditional vessels to carry forward the experience of our lives, our nation, our culture and our faith. I highly recommend Rushkoff on this. I've been obsessed with it lately.
In fact, my previous, admittedly strange, post was an experiment in traditional storytelling from a post-narrative-collaspe point of view. What I mean by that, is it intentionally begins by acknowledging time constraints (under-edited, raw prose, choices I realized were probably wrong, but which were left in anyway because developing the replacement transition would take too long); and yet still acknowledging the role of stories to convey values (lest we lose them entirely); doing so via the time-tested role of universal (i.e., project-able) stereotypes, motifs, and symbols; and yet conceding through a Sloterdijk-esque admission that even though there's something off about our "hero's" motivation, he's the best we got, so we might as well move forward with him, because our Beckettian sense of self tells us that move forward we must, at all costs.
All of which is not designed to launch a new career in literature, but more humbly to simply open up a more in-depth discussion of the role of story-telling in a post-narrative culture. Consider this an open thread on that topic.