Something more than politics

7 Mar

Something “more” than politics–

Patricia’s poem

after I have set the table
folded the scottowel into napkins cooked
this delicious eggplant stuffed with bulghur wheat
then baked the whole thing under careful
covering of mozzarella cheese
said my grace

don’t you bring Anita Bryant/Richard
Pryor/the Justices of the Supreme Court/don’t
you bring any of those people in here
to spoil my digestive processes
and ruin
my dinner

You hear?”

June Jordan wrote this poem in the late 1970s. If you substitute different names for Anita Bryant (singer and anti-Gay/lesbian spokeswoman) and Richard Pryor, it expresses what I have felt many times in the last six months. Miroslav Volf wrote, “Politics touches everything, but politics isn’t everything, not by a long shot.”

There is something more than politics–what is this “more”?

The more–family, faith, religion, personal integrity, the recovery of loved ones from cancer, art, cookouts in the backyard, the Cubs, the Packers–we all can names places in our lives that are “more” than politics–even though they may well be touched by politics.

In these comments, I’m focusing on art. When his novel, Underground Railroad, received the National Book Award, Colson Whitehead responded, with his eye on the current political situation, “Be Kind to everyone, make art, and fight the power.”

Why should we make art? The poet, Joy Harjo, gave an answer to this question when she bestowed the National Book Award for poetry: “Poetry carries the spirit of the people and is necessary at the doorways of transition and transformation.”

The words of George Steiner have stuck in my mind: Journalists insist the present moment has the most urgent claim on us–it is the hub of our universe; for artists, to the contrary, it is the longer view that counts, and the deeper view.

The politics of the day is mean and cheap. June Jordan’s Patricia has worked carefully and lovingly to prepare the meal for her guests–and she wants to contrast sharply with “mean and cheap.” Her mozzarella and eggplant transcends politics, and she means for her guests to share that transcendence–at the same time, the poem opens up other possibilities for transcending politics.

Consider Pablo Picasso’s painting, “Guernica” (see above). Rooted in a current event, it probes deeply to portray the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the Nazi German Air Force in April 1937. Picasso cries out that bombing was the rending of creation. And not just bombing that town, but also Srebinica in 1995 and Aleppo from 2012 until the present and Palmyra in 2016–all war, in other words. The list of “Guernicas” is endless.

Even the best journalistic treatment cannot convey the depth and breadth of Picasso’s painting. Wilfred Owen did the same in his poems from World War I. In “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“it is sweet and right to die for your country”–in other words, it is a wonderful and great honor to fight and die for your country), written in 1917, he foreshadows the bombing of Guernica in his description of a soldier dying of a mustard gas attack:

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.”

Dripping with irony and sarcasm, Owen calls irrevocably into question the “old lie.” The journalist’s task is to report the soldier’s suffering and death in vivid terms, as TV news brought the Vietnam casualties to our dinner tables in the ’60s and ’70s. The artist’s message is a different one: war is a violation of the created order, and smoothing it over as noble sacrifice is a lie. This is not a condemnation of the soldiers who fight and die, but of the societies and their leaders who send soldiers into war.

It’s not a matter of escaping politics, but nourishing the deep places of our lives. I have tried to cultivate these deep places in my own life. I visit friends in our second-floor rehab unit. I read newspapers, but watch little TV news. I bought a small volume of Christian Wiman’s poems, “Once in the West,” and found these wonderful lines:

“Too many elegies elevating sadness
to a kind of sad religion:

one wants in the end just once to befriend
one’s own loneliness,

to make of the ache of inwardness–

music maybe. . .”

Make the decision now to befriend the deep places of your life and make them into music. Share your music with us.

(c) Phil Hefner. March 7, 2017

4 Responses to “Something more than politics”

  1. Richard Busse March 8, 2017 at 1:13 pm #

    Love it Phil.

  2. Liftthescreen March 8, 2017 at 4:56 pm #

    Good to hear from you, Rick–how is everything?

  3. Liftthescreen March 8, 2017 at 5:03 pm #

    From Mark Hoelter–

    From Mark Hoelter–

    Excellent. Yes…and….

    I am tempted to make a distinction, to which I’ll try to give words. There is a natural politics, so to speak – a coming together of people registering all of the “more” that you itemize. Ideally this is a town hall politics, or a politics of “the commons,” wherein all the people speak from their lives and of their lives (their hopes, dreams, victories, defeats, emotions, desires). They, the people, are part of the “polis,” the “city” as a metaphor. They search for and aspire to a supple-enough and resilient structure to ensure that all of “the more” of their lives is balanced fairly for each of them and between them; is included at least in the genuine hearing of it, of “the more.” This “structure” of the “polis,” this natural politics, is a process and always in process, always changing. It is an emergent phenomenon in the way Nancy Abrams, among others, talks of emergent phenomena; being an emergent phenomenon, it is natural. It grows out of us naturally when we are at our best, or at least seeking our best.

    Without going into the why’s and wherefore’s (some would use the old word “sin,” some would point to Kierkegaardian “angst,” some would reference our most primitive neurological wiring) people try to freeze this natural politics. They work very hard to keep a particular structure of the polis the only structure, unchanging. They say in effect, “Do not bring your ‘more’s’ to us in order to change the structure. The structure is good, is sacrosanct, must remain. You must conform your ‘more’s’ to fit and suit the structure. The structure is not made to serve you; you are to serve the structure.” (Sound familiar? “The Sabbath is not to….”) I call this a superficial politics. It can be either liberal or conservative, either Republican or Democrat in the USA.

    So: natural politics (or perhaps deep politics, as in “deep ecology”) versus superficial politics.

    For what that’s worth,

    • Laura March 10, 2017 at 6:53 am #

      I have been thinking along these same lines. “We are the news.”

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