Monday, May 08, 2006

Home from New York, some quiet hours on the grass with the new issue of n + 1, that convocation and collocation of mostly earnest mostly young mostly male writers and thinkers, whose collective ambition nourishes and disquiets within the scope of features titled "The Intellectual Scene" (this month: a scary appraisal of how we are collectively and individually not yet scared enough of global warming), last quarter's "Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop" (the micro and macro brilliantly contained in the band that wrote our youth's paranoid soundtrack right up till September 10, 2001—who steps into the gap now that "they" really are out to get "us"?), or the new editors' symposium "American Writing Today," an admirably inclusive if ultimately prose- and novel-centric survey whose bleakness and pessismism is belied by the writers' own critical energy—that ambition that wants to mestasticize something borrowed, something blue (the European psychological novel which is also the nonfiction memoir which is also the novel of social research, all three categories epitomized for the writers generally by the late great W.G. Sebald—not an American, not even a writer of English) into something new. Oh yes, a little poetry does sneak in: Stephen Burt, our village's premier explainer, offers a few pages of his characteristically gentle incisiveness (he locates the key break between postwar poetry, which had and wanted a "center," and the contemporary centerless, in 1973: from the Age of Lowell to the ages of the Ashberians), while Philip Connors' entertaining memoir piece, "My Life and Times in American Journalism," quotes some poems by Frederick Seidel that appeared in the Wall Street Journal while Connors, queasily, was an editor there. Pretty good poems, too: Seidel hadn't previously been on my radar, but a quick Google (is there any other kind?) finds a review that labels him "probably the last American decadent", a label that belies the anguished moral energy behind the second poem Connors quotes, a post-9/11 poem spoken in the voice of a terrorist that does not try, as Martin Amis recently did, to domesticate hatred and nihilism: the Other stays Other, and if there's a glimmer of recognition it's of the Other in ourselves. I believe it's from Seidel's Area Code 212, which is apparently Dante in reverse, beginning in Paradise and ending in Inferno:
I don't believe in anything, I do
Believe in you.
Down here in hell we do don't.
I can't think of anything I won't.

I amputate your feet and I walk.
I excise your tongue and I talk.
You make me fly through the black sky.
I will kill you until I die.

Thank God for you, God.
I do.
My God, it is almost always Christmas Eve this time of year, too.
Then I began to pray.

I don't believe in anything anyway.
I did what I do. I do believe in you.
Down here in hell they do don't.
I can't think of anything we won't.

How beautiful thy feet with shoes.
Struggling barefoot over dunes of snow forever, more falling, forever, Jews
Imagine mounds of breasts stretching to the horizon.
We send them to their breast, mouthful of orison.

I like the color of the smell. I like the odor of spoiled meat.
I like how gangrene transubstantiates warm firm flesh into rotten sleet.
When the blue blackens and they amputate, I fly.
I am flying a Concorde of modern passengers to gangrene in the sky.

I am flying to Area Code 212
To stab a Concorde into you,
To plunge a sword into the gangrene.
This is a poem about a sword of kerosene.

This is my 21st century in hell.
I stab the sword into the smell.
I am the sword of sunrise flying into Area Code 212
To flense the people in the buildings, and the buildings, into dew.
I can't believe that poem made it into the Wall Street Journal. It was another world, a recognition scene, if only for a moment.

So I am thinking like the editors darkly and brightly on a bright sunny afternoon, having returned from area code 212 which seemed at once the longed-for mosaic of difference and a consumerist carnival stuffed with caricatures, everyone skating on an invisible river of money, talking about real estate in the shops and on the subways and in actual garden apartments. Me and Emily registering to be householders, but what sort of house...? Had a panic attack in Bloomingdales that turned into a migraine; ABC Carpet was better (saw Michael Cross of Atticus/Finch there) but what do its many flatscreens promoting the Al Gore movie mean as one bauble among many in the phantasmagoria of beautiful deracinated objects? (The woman in charge of partnership registries there told us in all seriousness that the store does a lot of benefits—for example, it hosted a party for Vanity Fair's "green issue.") We are weaving and winding our way toward the wedding through a maze of material expectations. And don't we want it to be beautiful? We do we do. But what exactly is "China"? And why do we need it?

It is almost six, not too late to go whack a bucket of balls sunsetward. And who do we become but who we are? Is there any future for the lyric? Is there such a thing as a lyric future? Our garden is the space between us: let it become charged with some sort of language, with what's proper in Mark Greif's sense. His contribution to the "Politics" section of n + 1 includes a proposal for the redistribution of wealth that would guarantee a $10,000 income to every American while taxing 100% of the earnings exceeding $100,000 of any American. It's impossible and impossibly beautiful, because it's upheld with a notion of the proper. What I call pastoral:
True property is that which is proper to you: what you mix your hands into (Locke), what is characteristic of you and no one else, and would change state in anyone else's possession. It is your clothes, your domicile, the things you touch and use, the land you personally walk. Property is the proprium, a possesion which becomes like a characteristic; it starts as if it could belong to anyone, and comes to be what differentiates you. If it wears the mark of your feet and the smudge of your fingertips, your scent and your private atmosphere, then there is indeed something special and inviolable about property, even where it has come into your hands inequitably, by inheritance or a surfeit of income. The diamond worn at the throat every evening must share a certain protection, under the law, with the torn cloak that keeps some shivering person warm.

This is distinct, however, from all wealth which is not capable of being used in the ordinary necessities of a life or even the ordinary luxuries. From any wealth that cannot be touched or worn or walked every day by its possessor, which neither comes from nor enables the mixing-in of hands but always and inevitably exists as a kind of notional accumulation of numbers, the protection of the proprium withdraws. When you have more houses than you or your family can live in, more cars than you can drive; more income in a year than can be spent on what you or your family can actually use, even uselessly use; then we are not speaking of property anymore, not the proprium, but of the inappropriate and alien—that which one gathers to oneself through the accident of social arrangements, exploiting them willfully or accidentally, and not through the private and the personal.
Because I am a poet, and because I think change always begins with the self—or rather, the field in which one mixes one's hands—I will be thinking about this as a morality, as a political economy that might apply to the social field of writing and to writing itself. The proprium may be a new way to think what gets too quickly confused with privilege, which drags down the spirit in guilt and accumulation. More to think on. Meanwhile, school's out. The summer's here. The wedding—its proprium, its field of connection toconnection, its place of first permission—is to come.


shanna said...

graf 3 ("So I am thinking...") is a fine prose poem, josh, maybe after striking "like the editors" & adding a bit off the top of graf 4. :)

Anonymous said...

How would a 100% tax on incomes above $100,000.00 a year affect bridal registry at Bloomingdales?

Unknown said...

Maybe what my blog—what a lot of blogs—need is an editor, Shanna. You could maybe set up a freelance editor's shop.

I found Bloomingdales to be a literally nauseating experience, Jon. But nausea is maybe the appropriate affect for what I'm trying to negotiate right now: a middle-class background and middle-class lifestyle expectations versus my socialist convictions. Here's another snippet from Greif's article that might answer the accusation implicit in your comment:

"'But how can you ask other people to lower their salaries, without giving your life to charity, first? Isn't it hypocrisy to call for cahnge for everyone without turning over your own income?' Morality is not saved by any individual's efforts to do charity, a pocketful here, a handful there. Charity is the vice of unequal systems. (I'm only repeating Wilde's 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism.') We shouldn't have to weigh whether our money would do more good in a destitute person's pocket, or our time do more good if we ladled soup to the hungry, or our study do more good if it taught reading to the illiterate. It always, always would. Because it is hard to give up your money, howver, when not everyone else does, and hard to give up your time with not everyone else does—and nearly impossible when you have less time, and less money, than the visibly rich and comfortable—and frankly, because it's not often a good idea to give up your true calling or your life at all, our giving is limited and fitful. It can never make a large-scale difference.

"Not only decency, justice, and community but nobility, excellence, and individualism can only come about by redistribution, not charity, in a society organized against drastic monetary inequality in the first place. It would be a good society in the broadest sense, one in which life was worth living, because the good life (as a life of morality, and as a life of justified luxury) could be pursued without contradiction."

Anonymous said...

Are you moving? In other words, did you get a job?

shanna said...

no, no. not editing the blog post. culling a poem from it. that paragraph was beautifully written, 'sall.

Wil said...

I've dipped into this blog from time to time, but this post demanded that I comment. I don't have more to offer than general "right on!" types of notions, especially about the never-gonna-happen-but-what-if redistribution of wealth notion. And, towards the end - "Because I am a poet, and because I think change always begins with the self" - to hear this spoken with confidence and in light of the larger world, well, it cheers me. Thanks.

Zeke Hunkaburning said...

Josh, Josh, Josh, Zeke, your "hostile witness commenter" here: look at this quote,

His contribution to the "Politics" section of n + 1 includes a proposal for the redistribution of wealth that would guarantee a $10,000 income to every American while taxing 100% of the earnings exceeding $100,000 of any American.

Question: what percent tax is proposed on incomes over $100,000?

That income level is already taxed at about 28%.

Who could live on an income of $10,000 per year: rent on a 2 bedroom apartment in most cities exceeds $10,000 per year.

If you look at the statistics, I'm not sure of the numbers, but I think that something like over 95% of all tax is paid by people making over $100,000 dollars.

In our major cities an income of $100,000 puts a family solidly in the middle class, with little ability to save.

Taxes, 28% for $28K + sales tax of 5% for $2,5K on $50K; Mortgage or rent, $15K; cars & transportation $10K; food, $15K; phone, utilities, cable, $4.5K; medical $5k.

Conservative estimates.

Ok, we are up to $80K already and we haven't gone out to eat yet, to a movie or a concert or sent our kids to a decent school.

Josh, are you providing for yourself and for your family without accepting any help from any agency?

Do you accept any financial help from any one, including family, grants, etc.

when you talk about these things I think it is important for you to offer full disclosure of your finances and of your means of supporting yourself and of any help or support you have received that has not come directly from your own work.

And I don't mean an ability to write grant applications or anything like that.

You seem to blow a lot of smoke. I'd like to understand the substance behind those signals.

Unknown said...

Zeke, it seems to me you are being deliberately obtuse. If everyone's income was taxed at the level Greif proposes, we wouldn't need sales taxes or property taxes, for example. Also, the $10K is a guaranteed minimum, but doesn't preclude other social services for the unemployed, not to mention health care for everyone and properly funded schools—things we wouldn't have trouble paying for with the kind of tax base the +$100K tax would generate. You are committing the fallacy of imagining that the future will always look like the present, only more so, when in fact the future is curved. One imagined change changes everything else in ways we're not generally very good at predicting.

Socialism works, that's a dirty secret no one in this country wants you to know. People in Sweden (who I believe are taxed at something like 60% at higher income levels) have much less discretionary income than Americans do, but they don't have to spend any of it on education or health care and I imagine they get very cheap housing loans too. And I think of a column in the Washington Post a few weeks back where the columnist expressed scorn and disbelief that none of the French people he talked to could name their country's equivalent of BIll Gates. As if Gates represented the ne plus ultra of human achievement.

Full disclosure of my finances? I'm not running for office, Zeke. It seems to me that demands for disclosure from someone who insists on his anonymity are not to be treated seriously in any case. You have set yourself up as some kind of witch-hunter: fine, but have the decency to show your face. Even Joe McCarthy was that decent.

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