Emerson’s watershed moment

On March 29,1832, 28-year-old Ralph Waldo Emerson visited the tomb of his young wife, Ellen, who had been buried a year and two months earlier. He was in the habit of walking from Boston out to her grave in Roxbury every day, but on this particular day he did more than commune with the spirit of the departed Ellen: he opened the coffin. Ellen had been young and pretty. She was 17 when they were engaged, 18 when married, and barely 20 when she died of advanced tuberculosis. They had made frantic efforts at a cure, including long open-air carriage rides and massive doses of country air. Their life together had been stained almost from the start by the bright blood of Ellen’s coughing.

Opening the coffin was not a grisly gothic gesture, not the wild aberration of an unhinged lover. What Emerson was doing was not unheard of. At least two of Emerson’s contemporaries did the same thing. […] Emerson opened not only the tomb or family vault but the coffin itself. The act was essential Emerson. He had to see for himself. Some part of him was not able to believe she was dead. He was still writing to her in his journals as though she was alive. Perhaps the very deadness of the body would help a belief in the life of the spirit. […] We do not know exactly what moved Emerson on this occasion, but we do know that he had a powerful craving for direct, personal, unmediated experience. This is what he meant when he insisted that one should strive for an original relation to the universe. Not a novel relation, just one’s own. […]

Emerson’s own journal entry from this March day was terse: “I visited Ellen’s tomb and opened the coffin.” They had been utterly in love, and for a moment, on September 30, 1829, their wedding day, the future had seemed clear. Notes and letters flew back and forth. They traveled and wrote verses together and laughed at the Shakers who tried to woo them to celibacy. She intended to be a poet, he a preacher. He had accepted a pulpit in Boston and they set up a home that became at once the center of the Emerson family, as both his mother and younger brother came to live with them. Now, a little more than a year after Ellen’s death, Emerson’s life was unraveling fast. Though he was a much-loved minister in an important Boston church, he was having trouble believing in personal immortality, trouble believing in the sacrament of communion, and trouble accepting the authority and historical accuracy of the Bible. The truth was that Emerson was in a fast-deepening crisis of vocation. He could not accept his ministerial role, he was unsure of his faith, and he felt bereft and empty. He was directionless.

At Ellen’s grave that day in Roxbury in 1832 Emerson was standing amidst the ruins of his own life. More than 10 years had passed since he left college. Love had died and his career was falling apart. He was not sure what he really believed, who he really was, or what he should be doing. […]

In the months immediately ahead he continued to walk to Ellen’s grave every day but now his concentration on death was broken and he reached a major watershed in his long struggle with religion. He would live no longer with the dead. “Let us express our astonishment,” he wrote in his journal in May, “before we are swallowed up in the yeast of the abyss.”

Before the year was out, Emerson had resigned his pulpit, moved his mother, sold his household furniture, and taken ship for Europe. He set out on Christmas Day, 1832. A northeast storm was on its way as the ship sailed from Boston, plunging into the grey expanse of the North Atlantic.

Emerson: The Mind on Fire, by Richardson, Robert D. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1995: 3-5.

Barfly

This barstool ain’t big enough for the both of us, my brother used to say. We were toddlers. I was into vodka back then because of all the spirits vodka most closely resembled water, which was what I really wanted. I couldn't speak many words, just grunted, pointing to the bottle of water behind the bar, croaking and banging my hand on the bartop for the bartender to bring the bottle and drip-drop it into my sippy cup. I got used to the flavor and grew to like it. Later I diversified, pointing to a different bottle, grunting at a shiny beer tap, choosing whatever I liked and nodding when asked if we wanted to charge the tab to our mom's room.

Mark Greif on Seeing Through Police

A surprise of being around police is how much they touch you. The purpose of touching by police is to make persons touchable. Touch readies more touch. It is preparatory.

The sudden violent arrest at a protest is almost never sudden if you have been watching the officer and the longer sequence.

In recent decades, African Americans have made proverbial the facetious offenses that police seem to be pursuing: “driving while black,” “shopping while black,” and walking while black.” The history of racial terrorism by whites is old. Police have gradually taken up its responsibilities in a process that goes back more than a century. Police departments’ role in racial terror has survived even where racism has waned and their forces have integrated nonwhite officers. Racial terrorism is simply part of the job for local and metropolitan police forces in America – any policing at the level of the city, broadly construed.

Racial terror creates enormous complications for any ordinary theory of what American police do, just as it carves a fundamental division between the experience and the expectations that non-African American citizens have of police and those held by African Americans.

The more time you spend looking at police, the more you see that the law is not a true resource for them…Police lack law…This explains the police perception of, and anathema toward, any symbol of disorder or mess. In their daily practice, police pledge at every level to avoid mess or clean it up.

Part of the reason police seem at present un-reformable is that they have no intelligible place in the philosophy of democracy. It’s possible they never have. When our theories of democracy took shape, police as we know them were a minor tertiary agency and an afterthought. If police don’t take stock of the Constitution, might it be because our Constitution can’t conceive of them?

Liberal and social contract theories of democracy – from Hobbes and Locke to the American Republic constituted in 1789 – do have a central place for punishment, but not for police. Crime and punishment belong to judicial proceedings and courts, where the cause can be unfolded after the fact.

Secrecy by police in a public place always identifies them as a suspect. Yet police departments hold tightly to their capacities for secrecy and claim them to be necessary for their heroic function of detection and investigation. Insofar as as detection of crime is what police wish their job was about, police are likely always to strain for greater secrecy in a democracy.

Where sight disappears, abuse becomes possible.

Police are negotiators, but without access to contract, law or eloquence. Their medium is not law. Police negotiate without any single, unitary reference or goal. Even a traffic stop becomes a negotiation.

When police eye African Americans, harass African Americans, obstruct the movements of African Americans and wind up drawing their guns and murdering African Americans – which even in the twenty-first century they do with regularity and impunity, no matter the police department or region of the United States – it’s first because America still sees racially. Kidnapping an African labor force to build the country is still the country’s unrepented sin.

Violence is given to police as a technique they alone can use, in the service of the overall nonviolence or pacification of society such that citizens need never use violence legitimately upon one another – they route it through police, so to speak. But this formal device winds up defining police by their application of violence. They wind up originating violence as a means of resolving any social deadlock. Police add violence to situations. This becomes a way of injecting testing violence or domination into the heart of society in a public way.

Our neighbors may support [police] wickedness. We may have no idea how to fix it. Still, police violence differs from other forms of violence and domination that have no visible presence, or public check. The police measure out in public what the society will tolerate, even to our shame.

 

 

Greif, Mark. Seeing Through Police, from Against Everything: On Dishonest Times. Verso Books, London, 2016: 270-285.

the poet sleeps

NotebackAlways another page to fill; the size and shape of the page is inconsequential. I keep my pen in my hand and my hands on the steering wheel.

*

The poet sleeps

while driving

during live broadcasts

the poet dreams

of the future

with folded hands

cigarette dangling

no one speaks to the poet

fearing fire in his eyes

the poet takes note

as always

to return to sleep

deep as abandoned mines

and dream across

landscapes of horror and delight.

verve/violence/virtue

The young man dismounted his horse in the mad clatter of battle and forgot about his life, the unwritten codes and reverence of the land and deep honored traditions. He forgot about his young wife and the lump in her belly and he moved swiftly through the fog of rifle smoke trailed by his own long braids and the mad shrieks of wounded men. He approached the white man with red hair lying supine and staring at him from the mud. There were men upon wild horses weaving incoherently through the smoke with their guns or war clubs raised and there were fleeting visions of other men riding boldly and bareback but long ago killed on the battlefield and a small white sun directly overhead trembled each time the white men in blue coats fired their wagon-gun.

The young man stepped over the men strewn across the sodden prairie field and unsheathed his bowie and crouched down next to the white man. He took a handful of the man’s red hair and looked into his eyes. A bullet whistled over the young man’s head and another screamed by his left ear and he sliced the white man’s forehead from temple to temple and said to him quietly in Lakota, “The wind does not cry for you.”

Then he stood and tore the scalp from the white man’s skull and held it up to the sky and screamed while the white man in his final moments of life watched his own blood drip down the young man’s arm, his torso, lean and brown and heaving muscle in the gray light.

That night the young man sat alone in his tipi and thought about the mystery of battle, the subtle violent leanings of men and the power to forget one’s self amid the jolts of heightened awareness. Outside, the red fire glowed bestial and the hypnotic throb of victory drums brought to life the dancing ghosts of many dead men both white and red and the young man agreed with the ageless wisdom of his ancestors that warfare was indeed more spiritual than physical, that courage was an extension of the self but that acting upon that courage according to honor and principle was integrally selfless.

The young man reclined onto his blankets and listened to the chanting of his people and breathed deeply to remove the walls of his mind. He remembered what he had said to the white man with red hair and he reminded himself that the wind cried for no man, especially not the man who honored and defended it with his own life.

Marquee

In the town of young men and women voices could be heard shrilling in the quiet pocket of night. Streetlight glow painted the walls of the closed brick shops on main street and the young men and women walked drunkenly by them clutching at one another and laughing at nothing but the levity of their shadows and the understanding that this world belonged to them under some unpenned contract with the figurative constraint of time looming somewhere indiscernible. The young men and women came from privilege and knew that privilege would be awaiting their immersion back into the real world and clouds danced swiftly in front of the oblong moon so close and yet so distant from their lives.

They lived in shared light and they spoke of the dreams they often had with nothing but youth in their guises and the young women drank and danced and the young men drank and watched the women and all of them were living deviations of those people they otherwise always were. They fell in love with the poisoned facades of themselves and squandered their summer days and nights and some of them discovered the nature of their childish rue while others glimpsed clear and firm into their future and saw a formal departure from the very youth that bound them. There were many days of heat and stupor but there were even more nights of blithe abandon and the recklessness we tend to tolerate until a particular age or experience of life’s revolving strain has been reached.

The sun or the scent of a friend awoke them in the afternoon and carried them through another boundless and eventful evening worthy of their potential narratives in the far-off and same but somehow much different life. They knew they were constructing the future diagram of their fondest and most bereaved reminiscences like the perfumed skin of all their favorite summer romances, like the collective delight of all their twilight laughter. The young men and women operated beneath the protective shroud of the town’s own undemanding regulations and flourished in the narcotic bliss of being young and knowing it and heeding to no authority save for that which lives among the tanned hide and billowing hair and rampant nubility of its hormonal supplicants.

I knew this town and I lived there as witness to its mystical lessons. I grew disenchanted by its charm for I was no longer young nor free of responsibility and perhaps I never had been. The tension swelled within me so that soon I grew to imagine a world where the town of young men and women no longer subsisted but burned steadily somewhere between the iron gates of perdition and the subtle snickering memory of those who had escaped the wrath unforeseen. I imagined the young men and women running naked and hairless through the smoldering streets beneath a bloodred autumn sky with their skin bubbling from the heat and their eyeballs liquefied and melted to their cheeks.

There was caution in my rumination but I believed the agonized fate of the young men and women to be taut and certain. Each night I dreamt the same horrific dream where the town collapsed in fiery ruin and the sky turned black above those callow heads and all the smiles and all the town clocks were washed away in sweeping conflagration while sparing the select few dramatis personae compliant enough to withstand the terror and each morning I awoke from that same dream smiling. I would walk to work and see the young men and women in the town still awake and poisoned from the night previous and I knew that God would play the role of god in the film version and I would direct the cataclysmic beauty of the tale to the visual medium and watch orgasmically while the young men and women of other towns across the cosmos sat mesmerized into silence by the film’s searing truth. And I knew my name would appear on the marquee just above the title of the film in thick red letters and that the earth would ultimately swallow that black hole of loathing where neither future nor past was ever paid any deference.