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TSE  February 2003

TSE February 2003

Subject:

Re: In memoriam to space shuttle Columbia, or a Preface to A Critique of Milton & Guthrie

From:

Carrol Cox <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

T. S. Eliot Discussion forum.

Date:

Tue, 4 Feb 2003 16:05:26 -0600

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (288 lines)

[log in to unmask] wrote:
>
> In a message dated 2/2/03 11:33:29 PM EST, [log in to unmask] writes:
>
> > Someone once said something like 10 deaths
> > are a tragedy, 10,000 deaths
> > a problem in public sanitation.
> >
> > Carrol
>
> I have never seen a more consistently miserable collection of inappropriate
> posts from the same person.
>
> -- Steve --

Concepts of literary, social, & political decorum vary, and clash. Ben
Jonson thought the _Anneversarie_ indecorous, & Donne replied by
affirming its decorum on the grounds that it celebrated the idea of
woman rather than a particular woman. I haven't looked this up and I've
probably got it pretty jumbled, but the concept is clear. (The best
discussions I know of decorum are articles by  Edward Niles Hooker and
William Empson on wit in the Essay on Criticism.)

                        In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a Summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman
A dignified and commodious sacrament.
Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under the earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm of their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.

Dung and death

vs

Who are all these friends all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says they are just . . . deportees.
.
To fall like dry leaves, to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except deportees?

Nancy Gish wrote:

<<<I agree with Kate that some deaths are emblematic and take on that
quality for us. It is not that they are more real or terrible than all
the other deaths but that they are symbolic.  We need to enter into myth
to deal with them.>>>

This is abstractly true -- but of what are these various deaths, that of
the astronauts, of "those long since under the earth," of those who "rot
on my topsoil" symbolic of? There are myths and myths. What myth are we
celebrating here (or constructing)? And note that "we" is merely vague
or rhetorical here, not  a fundamental question as in Guthrie's last
stanza.

Actually, if we (?) are thinking in symbolic terms rather than in terms
of the physical death of actual people, Kate was perhaps not too far off
in her rather astounding collocation of astronauts and movie stars! Why
are the deaths of celebrities so much more touching ("touch more
people") than any other deaths. Kate, in the post Nancy quotes, seems to
agree with Guthrie's radio announcer: "nameless people die every day."

I don't think so. With due sympathy for the astronauts (or anyone killed
today in a traffic accident), I think the deaths of Guthrie's deportees
make a rather better myth, a rather more profound myth, than is apt to
be made of the astronauts' death  -- better also than Eliot's "dung and
death." They can stand, for example, for the thousands of Panamanians
the U.S. army killed in arresting an ex-CIA stooge (more on this below).

"To rot on MY topsoil." WHOSE topsoil? What is the referent of "my"
here? The answer to that question points to an epic yet to be written.
Guthrie also wrote a lesser but still fine song (at least when he sings
it) explicitly naming the nameless. Many ships went down, but I suspect
it was the rhyme of "James" and "Names" that  attracted Guthrie to this
particular ship:

Have you heard of the ship called the good Reuben James?
Filled with hard fighting men, of honor and of fame
She flew the stars and stripes of the land of the free
Now she's in her grave at the bottom of the sea

Tell me what were their names,
Tell me what were their names?
Did you have a friend on the good reuben james?

It was there in the dark of that uncertain night
That we watched for the u-boat, and waited for the fight
The fire and the rock and the great explosions roar
And they laid the reuben james on the cold ocean floor

Tell me what were their names,
Tell me what were their names?
Did you have a friend on the good reuben james?

One hundred men went down to their dark watery grave
When that good ship went down only forty four were savrd
Twas the last day of october that they saved forty four
From the cold icy water and the cold icy shore

Tell me what were their names,
Tell me what were their names?
Did you have a friend on the good reuben james?

Now there are lights in our country so bright
And in the farms and the villages they're telling of the fight
Now our mighty battleships steam the bounding main
And remember the name of the good reuben james

Tell me what were their names,
Tell me what were their names?
Did you have a friend on the good reuben james?

You think my calling attention away from the crew of the Columbia is
indecorous. I think this fixation on the named, the indifference to the
nameless is far more indecorous.

Or the turning of the nameless into mere symbol of the speaker's own
being:

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

I'm not condemning Eliot's lines: I highly admire East Coker but think
the deaths of the seven who (as the papers are all saying) knew their
risk and embraced it make a poorer myth than the do the deaths of the
draftees on the Reuben James, the deportees in Los Gatos Canyon or the
miners of Mannington. (The latter are celebrated by a lesser song
writer, but they impressed one of the Mannington widow's sufficiently
that she was willing to sing them a capello on NPR.)

    We read in the paper and the radio tells
     Us to to raise our children to be miners as well.
     Oh tell them how safe the mines are today
     And to be like your daddy, bring home a big pay.

          Now don't you believe them, my boy,
          That story's a lie.
          Remember the disaster at the Mannington mine
          Where seventy-eight miners were buried alive,
          Because of unsafe conditions your daddy died.
     .
     There's a man in a big house way up on the hill
     Far, far from the shacks where the poor miners live.
     He's got plenty of money, Lord, everything's fine
     And he has forgotten the Mannington mine.
     Yes, he has forgotten the Mannington mine.

     There is a grave way down in the Mannington mine
     There is a grave way down in the Mannington mine.
     Oh, what were their last thoughts, what were their cries
     As the flames overtook them in the Mannington mine.

          So don't you believe them, my boy,
          That story's a lie.
     .
     How can God forgive you, you do know what you've done.
     You've killed my husband, now you want my son.

And for even less skillful words - the words of a teenage daughter in
memory of her father - see
http://www.fortunecity.com/tinpan/parton/2/barney.html

But of course there are not only nameless deaths, but nameless deaths
deliberately inflicted and deliberately concealed.

See
http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Project%20Censored/CensoredNews_1990.html
for more on the following:

*****
UPDATE: In 1992, a powerful award-winning documentary film titled, "The
Panama Deception," produced by Barbara Trent, charged: "The U.S.
government continues to insist that casualty figures from the 1989
invasion were low and the 'human costs' kept to a minimum...an official
lie still endlessly repeated by the U.S. media." The film reported an
estimated 20,000 Panamanians were left homeless by American bombing and
shelling, 7,000 were detained by military authorities for vague reasons,
and as many as 4,000 remained unaccounted for, most of them murdered and
buried in mass graves under U.S. military supervision (San Francisco
Chronicle, 9/11/92)

The National Censorship Board of Panama banned the release of the
documentary in any form in Panama. With a few local exceptions, it was
also denied broadcast rights on both commercial and public television
stations in the United States. "The Panama Deception" received the
Academy Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary from the Academy of
Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences on March 29, 1993 (The Humanist, May
1993). While the official number of dead American soldiers is still
reported at 23, there has been no updated figure concerning the number
of dead Panamanian solders and civilians.****

Another census of the nameless:

There is never a mine blown skyward now
But we're buried alive for you.
There's never a wreck drifts shoreward now
But we are its ghastly crew.
Go reckon our dead by the forges red
And the factories where we spin.
If blood be the price of your cursed wealth,
Good God! We have paid it in!
        (Industrial Union Bulletin, April 18, 1908)

Every poem needs to be read in multiple contexts, and no one context is
the context, but I suggest that I have in this post outlined one
legitimate context for reading

                        In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a Summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire . . . .

These too are nameless dead - reduced still further to a symbolic
manifestation of the poet's beginning in Mary Stuart and Sir Thomas
Elyot. We all go into the earth, but that going has different resonances
in different contexts. Steve wishes to deny me my context as merely a
"miserable collection of inappropriate
posts from the same person."

Barbara Lewalski, in "Milton on Women - Yet Once More" (Milton Studies
6), makes the arrogant claim that the great poets "are gloriously and
supremely right about the most essential things" - arrogant because
implicit in it is the claim that the critic (Lewalski) already knows
what the "essential things" are and what the "right" perspective on
those things is.  It seems to me that Steve in the charge quoted at the
beginning of this post makes the same arrogant assumption: he knows what
the appropriate response is to any event - that is, that his sense of
literary and social decorum is infallible.

You may have noticed one line in "Reuben James" with a surpising shift
of pronoun. The song is primarily third person, but then we have the
lines:

It was there in the dark of that uncertain night
That _we_ watched for the u-boat, and waited for the fight.

The press and TV are full of references to how the astronauts "died for
humanity," but that is vapid. "Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita":
Guthrie is _there_. Even in his slightest songs he can focus on the the
great glory of those without names. And it is never Guthrie
incorporating history -- others -- in his "I," as in _Four Quartets_; he
appears only as a part of a "we."

RANGER'S COMMAND

Come all of you cowboys all over this land
I'll sing you the law of the Ranger's command.

To hold a six-shooter and never to run
As long as there's bullets in both of your guns.

I met a fair maiden whose name I don't know
I asked her to the round-up with me would she go.

She said she'd go with me to the cold round-up
And drink that hard liquor from a cold bitter cup.

We started for the round-up in the fall of the year
Expecting to get there with a herd of fat steer.

When the rustlers broke on us in the dead hour of night
She rose from her warm bed a battle to fight.
She rose from her warm bed with a gun in each hand
Saying, "Come all you cowboys, and fight for your land."

Come all of you cowboys, and don't ever run
As long as there's bullets in both of your guns.

Carrol

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