Friday, September 26, 2008

What Would Jeffers Say?

Two of the most intellectually interesting and nimble people I know are an historian of science and a political scientist, the latter specializing in Constitutional law and how the media report on matters of law. In some ways the two are different intellectually, but they share at least three qualities that help account for the quality of their minds. They are empiricists. They are willing to follow the data wherever they (the data) lead, as opposed to taking a theoretical short-cut to a destination and forcing the data to come along on the vacation Second, they have a sense of irony--about the world and themselves. Third, they're widely read, far beyond their academic specialities. Their reading includes the poetry of Robinson Jeffers.

I see these two and talk with them frequently (one of the perks of this academic job of mine). This week especially I've had them in mind, however, because of the financial debacle and accompanying political circus related to the alleged collapse of Wall Street. Here I must break for a brief rant about conservatives who like to stress "personal responsibility." Arguably, excessive de-regulation (also known as chaos) led to this mess, so how about if some conservatives take personal responsibility for having pushed de-regulation too enthusiastically since, oh, about 1981? How about a simple, "I'm sorry. We were wrong"? It is, however, somewhat amusing to see Congressional Republicans saying No to Bush with regard to the bail-out. Typically, Bush seems to have seen the alleged crisis as an opportunity to try to give the Secretary of the Treasury the powers enjoyed by Henry VIII.

At this moment, when crisis meets farce, I am of course tempted to think of Jeffers and of my two colleagues who like his work. Jeffers thought the U.S. was crumbling by the mid-1940s, as demonstrated by his poem, "Shine, Perishing Republic," in which "this America settles in the mold of its vulgarity, heavily/thickening to empire,/And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out,/and the mass hardens." Later in the poem, he writes, "corruption/Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster's feet/there are left the mountains."

Well, I don't know if even the mountains are left, what with ski resorts, open-pit mining, the spread of suburbia, drought in the Rockies, and all those noisy snow-mobiles and three-wheelers out there. In any event, today I seem to hear Jeffers whispering "See, I told you so."

I suppose it's only fair to concede that Jeffers was a bit of a misanthrope and pessimist; a few friends and family excepted, he tended to prefer the sea, large rocks, and hawks to humans. There is a chance, however, that the current corruption, mismanagement, and inept political spectacle might shock even Jeffers. I'll have to check with my colleagues to see what they think.

Anyway, Robinson, the republic (or empire) seems to be living down to your expectations these days. Maybe this is a good day to read some of e.e. cummings more exuberant, life-affirming poetry and take a break from Jeffers' rocks and hawks
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