"Social Contract"

Here’s a prose poem, from Deciphering Scars (1997). 
 

SOCIAL CONTRACT

 
Under the ethereal haze of fluorescent tube lighting fermenting in a liquid base of cigarette smoke and stagnant air that has become the shared content of all our lungs

dizzying scenes of human interaction and boredom and distraction and countless miscellaneous encoded expressions combine to form an isolating wall of Plexiglas
 
too transparent to allow me to ignore the world it separates me from
 
too blurred to let me understand
 
this random mess imposed on a framework of assumed order, these loose elements somehow unified, by noise, or by action, or perhaps by mere proximity
 
while all apparent contact terminates on surfaces of skin, of eyes, of the barriers that shape us
 
into individuals, define us by what we are not. This too we share in common, we
 
flickering bits of smoldering ash still huddling for warmth around the chaos lingering in the afterglow
 
of the Big Bang.
 
 


 
When I was in college at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, I loved shopping at the original Borders…and when they moved into the old Jacobson’s building across the street—which, it turns out, was when the Borders brothers sold the store to Kmart who made a chain out of it, but I didn’t know that at the time. In both locations, I liked to stop by their “untranslated foreign literature” section and browse the plays and novels by French existentialists. I’ve gotten over that phase, as you do. But it’s probably pretty evident in this poem, written a few years out of college. In fact, I remember writing it while sitting at xhedos in Ferndale (directly north of Detroit), most likely enjoying an Italian soda and live music and the company of my good friends. Not at all the scene in the poem, but it sets the date of this poem to 1997.
 
In Ionesco’s novel, Le solitaire (The Hermit), there’s a scene in a restaurant where the main character finds he can no longer understand the language everyone around him is speaking, and feels isolated from them. To be honest, I don’t recall whether he feels he’s behind glass, and my copy of the novel is packed away right now. That’s where the Plexiglas® image comes from. 
 
We all know what “social contract” theory is about: in really broad strokes, that human beings are atomistic individuals who relate to other human beings only through social contracts which can be broken at will. I could never figure out how one is supposed to have entered into such a contract with one’s mother (and other family members), but I’m probably ignorant of some deep intricacy in the theory. But I’m of the belief that “I am because we are.” Just in case you didn’t pick that up in the poem.
 
I suppose if we root around in this metaphor, the “shared content of all our lungs” is a clue to our basic unity as humans; breath has long represented spirit, or essential nature—from ruach in the Hebrew Scriptures to pneuma in the Christian Scriptures to spiritus in later Church tradition, the word for “spirit” is, essentially, “breath.” In an environment where humans believe they’ve created themselves and don’t need each other, that shared breath has become toxic and suffocating.
 
Metaphors are interesting, aren’t they? I suppose it’s because I’m a poet, but I’m convinced that metaphors are useful not just for expressing thoughts, but also for thinking them. Once you find a metaphor for something, by investigating the metaphor, you can often learn about the thing it stands for. For example, in a paper I wrote for a seminar on creativity last spring, I investigated the metaphor of houses, or architecture, for systems of thought. By thinking about houses (I proposed), you can discover truths about thought systems.
 
I think that’s a huge piece of the revelatory power of art. Even non-verbal art forms serve as metaphors. A few years ago I was in a class where Peter Selz, a well-known art historian and curator, now Professor Emeritus at UC-Berkeley, was asked how he decides what artworks to include in an exhibition—in other words, what makes for “good” art? He thought about it for a week, and came back with this response: “Good” art is “a visual metaphor for significant human experience.” Notice he said nothing about beauty or novelty or even technical expertise. And, of course, you can replace the word “visual” for other art forms. 
 
Isn’t that a brilliant definition?
 
So works of art take on a life of their own, beyond what the artist herself or himself even intended. A good work of art will continue to speak to its audiences/viewers; and as a metaphor, it serves as a sort of template for various human experiences. That metaphor allows us to gain insight about the human condition, precisely because it relates to our experience.
 
I don’t know whether this or any of my poems stand up to such high standards. But we can all think of works of art that do.
 
PS— Peter Selz referenced that question and his response in the biography by Paul J. Karlstrom, but he misquotes himself. Somewhere I have the paper where I (like my fellow students) immediately wrote down exactly what he said, but I committed it to memory right away. “A visual metaphor for significant human experience…” That’s the revelatory power of an experienced art historian!
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