The Polsonal is Perlitical
The Close Read: “I Woke Up”
The past couple of weeks I have been sharing some thoughts about history and politics and the “thrownness” of our lives, while making some deep personal connections. I wrote last time that these thoughts have implications for my ideas about “political art.” I place that phrase in quotation marks because it is such a vague one. What I mean by it, as an object of my disfavor, is art of such clear political purpose that ideological tendency rules and overwhelms humanistic and aesthetic ends. From the inspiration to the method to those ends, the drive is political rather than artful. It is political expression dressed up as art. It is bad art. Are there exceptions? Always, as below. But that’s thanks to the art, not the politics. We live in a time when this is particularly so. The nexus of art and politics, and academia, too, has become so functionally and linguistically intricate that all three have infected each other, to no greater detriment than to literary art, especially poetry. One can find the same jargon at work in academese, in “social justice” propagandizing, and in poetry, both in the poetry and the language that poets – also, often, social-justice-advocating academics – use to talk about their own and others’ poetry.
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In this language, human experience is recast as political experience. The famous phrase of Second Wave Feminism, variously attributed, is that “the personal is political,” and it is easy to see how both leading and rank and file members of the Second Wave, acting out of the cultural conformity and repression of female potential that had ruled their lives through the 1960s could understand their personal lives as political. But such thinking was hardly new even then. Marx had already conceptually systematized the material forces shaping and directing individual and collective life, and this thinking was activated with the Russian Revolution. The ensuing century-long dispute set what was judged as bourgeois personal life against what was then the world altering political project of the proletariat, and which asserts itself now in the uprising of marginalized identities of the pre-decolonized world. The dispute is hardly settled, and it is excellently condensed in this scene from the David Lean film adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago.
The film has carried an uncertain reputation among Lean’s epics. Film adaptation of great novels is always a fraught endeavor and was especially so in this case. The novel is innovative and hybrid, highly literary, and doesn’t foreground its central romantic relationship the way the film does. The film is unabashedly a great romance. Pasternak’s vision sees beyond even the personal-political duality, imagining forces that transcend both. The film makes sweeping world history serve as backdrop to a love story. While that balance may not accurately represent a novel that works on a more complex intellectual plane, it isn’t – old argument – a film’s purpose to fulfill that mission, and the film nonetheless doesn’t ignore that core antagonism: it stakes out a position, quite clearly in this scene, reflected throughout the film.
To set the scene for those unfamiliar with the story, Zhivago is a famous poet making his living as a physician who gets caught up like everyone else in the upheaval of world war, revolution, and, by this time, civil war between the Bolshevik Reds and Tsarist White Russians. At one point, the married Zhivago was pressed into service along with Lara, the young wife of Strelnikoff, who here interrogates him. The two fell in love – the love story of the film – though Strelnikoff is unaware of it.
Incisive dialogue clearly carves out the terms of antagonism:
“I should find it [your poetry] absurdly personal…. Feelings, insights, affections. It’s suddenly trivial now.”
“The personal life is dead in Russia. History has killed it.”
“The private life is dead, for a man with any manhood.”
“Your point. Their village.”
“What will you do with your wife and child in Varykino?” – “Just live.”
This conversation does not occur in the novel. It was written by the screenwriter Robert Bolt. Bolt scripted several of Lean’s epics, including Lawrence of Arabia, winning Oscars for this film and for A Man for All Seasons, from his own play about Thomas Moore’s contention with Henry VIII, leading to his beheading. He had a view of these subjects with which I align myself, one reason I admire the scene.
The power of poetry.
In that light, I’m not well situated to admire Jameson Fitzpatrick’s poem “I Woke Up,” yet I do. It isn’t that I don’t agree with so many of its insights. I agree with almost all. Yet it builds an argument – and build an argument it does, a clear ideological one – and with such art that it very nearly persuades me against my own deeply held convictions. By the end of the poem, I actually am persuaded for a moment – until I’m loosed from its rhetorical grasp and free to consider ideas outside the poem, and I’m then reminded of why I believe what I believe.
In what follows, I’ll offer a close reading of the poem, analyzing it, in sympathy with it. My audio commentary will be interspersed throughout the poem. (You can find the uninterrupted text of the poem here.) Then I’ll consider some of its crucial elements again, along with some outside the poem, all of which lead me back away from its hold on me but not from my admiration for it. (It isn’t particularly relevant to the poem to make these distinctions, but to avoid confusion in my pronoun use, as I understand it, Fitzpatrick lived life as a gay male using the pronoun he, before adopting they, and now, from recent photographs, presents as female and uses she.)
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