Self-elegies

Whereas week 4’s animal poems provided an inhuman, but still living, perspective through which to filter the imagined loss of the speaker’s humanity, this week’s poems are basically about death. There’s no getting around the end in these poems. There’s only the unknowable task of imagining what can’t be conceived of, by definition.

First of all, a disambiguation. We’re not talking about poems about coming to terms with the death of someone else, which is called an elegy, a literary poetic genre which has its own exceptionally rich history and set of conventions derived from ancient Greek fertility rituals (and I am not making this up). In an elegy, the speaker is a mourner of the dead person who is the subject of the poem, and that speaker goes through the same stages Elizabeth Kübler-Ross describes in her book On Death and Dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. Elegies start out with what is known variously as either a threnody or a dirge, a combination of denial and anger, mostly designed to let the reader know why the departed was particularly special or will be particularly missed. The bargaining stage in ancient Greece involved laying flowers over the pyre of the departed as a sacrifice to Demeter (the goddess of the harvest and regeneration, who by bestowing her favor might transform the dead into the living and winter into spring). Even in the Christian era it is still traditional to feature descriptions of flowers as a gift to the heavens to insure the future happiness of the departed. But after depression sets in for the speaker, who has no other way to affect the afterlife for the departed, and is now faced with loneliness unless something can be done to change his or her outlook, eventual acceptance occurs, and usually we get what is known as an apotheosis: a description of what the afterlife will be like and why the speaker trusts in the happiness of the departed’s spirit.

Far from being an attempt to imagine what life looks like when you remove the human element from the equation, though, the elegy is a profoundly humanist genre. It’s all about human beings and the universal agreement that death is tough to deal with, perhaps the toughest thing to deal with. But elegies are really about other human beings working through loss in order to transform it into coping strategies (a process Freud called introjection), and while the departed subject is certainly imagined, it would be cold comfort indeed if the dead were imagined as having simply ceased, or if the apotheosis did not include some optimistic resolution. You don’t see that very often.

I suppose depicting the world without the self is the ultimate challenge for humanist genres. But on the other hand we could rephrase the task and wonder why it should be hard at all. Perhaps writing poetry about what the world looks like without the humanist subject (that which we have trained ourselves to think of as the center of sense-making) shouldn’t be all that difficult: maybe it’s just another way of describing objective poetry rather than subjective poetry: light on interpretation, heavy on description? ONLY – description still only occurs when something that can look about and analyze or sift through data reports back on what the data mean. When we look around, in other words, we are still interpreting what we are seeing on a baseline, fundamental level, even if it doesn’t take on what we might consider to be higher-order interpretive registers like moral judgment or finding larger patterns. This is one of the reasons artificial intelligence has proven so difficult for computer scientists to design: we’re still stuck on relatively minor functions the human brain (normally) processes effortlessly, like how to recognize a smile out of someone moving the muscles in the their face and lips in a particular configuration.

So it’s hard to project ourselves into anthropomorphic robots. It’s hard too to imagine what interpretations might look like to a slightly altered version of ourselves that lacks some (but not all!) of the characteristics that we ascribe to ourselves. We read Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” a few weeks ago, which some have described as a “self-elegy” including a dirge at the beginning (his rage at the youth of Ireland) and an apotheosis at the end, when he becomes an immortal golden bird. Throughout literary history birds have often been figures of aspiration and the human soul, so perhaps it’s not too hard to see how Byzantium could be a metaphor for heaven or some other idyllic afterlife. But the artificial bird Yeats describes has had to be stripped of all his human desires and bodily appetites (he tells the Sages “standing in God’s holy fire” to “consume [his] heart away” with a purgatorial fire, so it’s just his mind, not his body and bodily desires, that sails to Byzantium). And there are definite consequences, including, I would argue, the loss of some of his poetic inspiration. If you go back and look at the last stanza of “Sailing to Byzantium,” you’ll see that he mentions “gold” an awful lot – four times in three lines, at one point. I’m not saying that gold isn’t great, or a precious metal: it is. But poets normally pride themselves on their creativity and proliferation of vocabulary, so when the poet-speaker relies so heavily on the same term over and over, it should probably make us stop and wonder. Perhaps the speaker lost some of his old poetic inspiration when his bodily desires were stripped from him? And perhaps there is reason to regret immortality if it can only be accomplished at the expense of what made the speaker yearn for it in the first place? That’s an essential — maybe irreducible — part of who we are.

Nevertheless, the poems in the post-humanist subsection for this week are an attempt to speak to something that is fundamentally not like us, or to imagine what life would be like if we were not only not ourselves, but not human at the same time. This happens in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” when the speaker notices that the song of the woman walking along the shore somehow also contained the voice of the ocean, which is sublimely larger than human beings. The question then becomes whether the woman’s song is a song of a human being coming to terms with the “otherness” of the ocean (which would be a profoundly humanist response to nothingness, or at the very least a landscape evacuated of humanist personification), or the voice of the ocean, which would again be different than personification because the voice of the ocean is inhuman, frightening, and unintelligible.

In theory, it’s possible to mentally shed layer after layer of selfhood, usually through prayer or meditation, trying to imagine a universe that does not orbit you, the star and protagonist of your feature-length biopic. The religious philosopher Simone Weil called this decreation, a sort of willing of oneself toward the extinction of subjectivity, the better to comprehend the universe as it is rather than the universe as a reflection of our own egos. This is what happens in Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody – Who are You?” and Keats’s “When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be,” both of which are also explicit good-byes to those aspects of the self that had, up to a point, been reliable providers of meaning to existence, but now, not so much. Dickinson’s poem, of course, is much more sanguine about the task of unimagining the imagination than Keats (which makes sense, since the latter author was dying of tuberculosis at the time). Other quarters (environmental poets chief among them) call this practice post-humanism, and regard the process less as the death of the self than as the reprioritization of the universe over the prerogatives of the human self. This is actually good news – it means we can still be alive after we surrender sole custody of the planet, or of our language, or of our consciousnesses, or of our meanings, rather than needing to think of ourselves as literally, actually decreated. And it’s what I’ll be talking about on Thursday, so I suppose I should leave off for now.

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