As I was doing a little research on the internet, I happened to land on the homepage of Tin House
, the Portland-based literary journal. I was immediately distracted by something that had nothing to do with the search.
Four lines, 25 words of everyday speech, a rhyme, and a bouncy rhythm. It takes maybe 10 seconds to read aloud, and it tickled me at first, something about the phrase “drives me crazy,” which we usually use to describe a friend’s irritating knuckle-cracking habit or something similar. And then the clever solution: to try to drive someone else crazy, until they see things the way you do…and maybe stop. That means adding to the level of crazy, which is funny to imagine, too.
But this short poem is art, and that means it doesn’t reveal itself on a first or even second reading. The title, Evil, comes into focus: Langston Hughes (1902-1967) isn’t talking about someone drumming his fingers incessantly. The speaker in the poem—Hughes—sees that the reader doesn’t have the same reaction to an unnamed evil that he does, and he decides to “keep on at it” until the reader starts to see things the same way. How is he “gonna keep on at it”? We can only imagine. And we can only imagine what specific evil he’s referring to, though it’s apparently one that’s going to take some group action to overcome. Hughes is committed to enlisting us in his cause.
Actually, it’s easy to guess what is driving Hughes crazy: racism in America. And what’s wonderful about Evil is how it distills the poet’s observations and experience of that racism so quickly. I’ve spent WAY more words digging into it than Hughes used in the poem itself, but I’ve spent way less time considering the provocations, the evil, that brought it on. So, yes, I’m probably one of the people he’s trying to drive crazy.
THAT WOULD BE ENOUGH, TRULY, BUT IT’S EVEN MORE UNIVERSAL than that: We perceive a problem, an injustice, an evil, and we can’t get anyone to pay attention to it. What do we do? Hughes’ poem has the practical answer. We don’t “cure” our craziness, let it go, forget about it. We do the surprising thing—we enlarge the circle of “crazy” people. We persist.
I wouldn’t have chosen that verb persist, I suspect, if Mitch McConnell hadn’t used it to explain the silencing of fellow Senator Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” That’s how things are these days in early February as I write this column—we read and talk about things in a different way than we once did. The culture has become heavily, directly politicized as we try to make sense of a President who doesn’t talk or act in the same way as the Presidents before him. Maybe everyone can agree on that, at least?
Those who find themselves in opposition to this President are finding guidance from African American writers and artists. Where else? No one has resisted and persisted as long as African Americans have. So, right, Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, and especially novelist-essayist James Baldwin, the subject of Raoul Peck’s moving and deeply intelligent documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, show up constantly in thoughtful magazines, journals, and websites.
The Los Angeles Review of Books is one of my favorite websites (I’m even a paying member), and there I encountered Emmett Rensin’s essay Punditry and Commitment, which argued that our public political columnists failed us because they were too concerned with maintaining the pre-Trump power relationships and not concerned enough with imagining new ones. “Yes, the world could be tweaked, but its basic rhythms, the rational correspondence of methods to circumstance, were treated as a settled thing,” Rensin wrote, “while the real, historical possibilities for catastrophe or grace came to be regarded as juvenile fantasy for the unserious.”
That made sense to me, but I was more taken by one of the writers he cited, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961), a French philosopher, who lived through occupation of France by Nazi Germany. After the war, in 1945, he tried to make sense of that experience in a short memoir/essay, The War Has Taken Place.
A quick caveat: though I think our political situation has become extreme, we have not been invaded and occupied by a foreign power. I do not fear for my life as I type this. Nonetheless, Merleau-Ponty’s account contains both immediate lessons for us now and a warning for the future. Rensin quotes Merleau-Ponty at the beginning of the essay as he explains why his generation of writers, academics, and artists were so blind to the Nazi threat: “We had secretly resolved to know nothing of violence and unhappiness as elements of history because we were living in a country too happy and too weak to envisage them…. We were not as yet living face to face with cruelty and death… From our birth, we had been used to handling freedom and to living an individual life.”
A little later Merleau-Ponty slips in a met- aphor drawn from the arts to good effect. The arts, after all, are central to understanding our condition, especially in extreme times.
“We had not understood that, just as an actor slips into a role which envelops him and which alters the meaning of all his gestures… so each of us is presented to others against a historical background we did not choose,” Merleau-Ponty observes, meaning by “background” our roles in society as Christians or Jews, French or Americans, Muslims or Germans. “We had not understood that consciousnesses have the strange power to alienate each other and to withdraw from themselves; that they are outwardly threatened and inwardly tempted by absurd hatreds, inconceivable with respect to individuals.”
Society then becomes an argument and a battle between these phantom roles, “in which real tears and real blood suddenly starts to flow.”
I’m quoting Merleau-Ponty at length because he’s so great at sorting out what’s at stake in any society—what the political pundits forgot—and how to think about it.
“No effective freedom exists without some power,” he writes, talking about individual power, and then, “Freedom exists in contact with the world, not outside it.” The freedom inside our heads isn’t nearly the full extent of freedom.
For me, Merleau-Ponty is warning us. This individual life that I cherish doesn’t exist in isolation. It can’t exist in a state of tyranny. The fight against tyranny in whatever form isn’t fought using abstract arguments, how- ever much we believe in them. It’s a daily grim reconnoitring of “the frontier of the permissible.” What line do we permit the tyrant to cross? What line do we permit our- selves to cross?
This is very frightening to contemplate, and that’s the reason Merleau-Ponty was interested in understanding why the oc- cupation happened in the first place. We should be thinking the same thing, and if we don’t, we have the threat of Langston Hughes, who is gonna keep on it until it drives us crazy, too.