Examination of the Artist in a Time of War.
Of each old revolving dance, the music
Like a euphony in a museum
Whenever we become self-conscious of our culture, I mean like, paranoid-to-the-point-of obsession self-conscious, we can very well assume that where we've written these thoughts there sits a few pages away an account of an ongoing military conflict. Our ability to look beyond ourselves is difficult in wartime because so much of what we believe - that thought can transcend base humor, violence, and self-destruction, that we're all inherently "good" - is contradicted loudly on page one. No matter what journal we write in or whose cave we scratch at, the war always precedes thought. War is easier to consider, and war requires no analytical ability to comprehend. War's effect on thought is difficult to measure, but the primary influence is that art suffers immediately, not from persecution but from within; self-consciousness in wartime is an unbearable weight on art.
Now I don't believe that war necessarily pollutes thought. I would argue passionately that the self-obscuring desire to create what can be comprehended by the fewest people is questioned first. It's one of the few healthy reactions to war; self indulgence yields a little to appeals to the broadest audience, and a waning of indulgent art is always welcome.
I cannot avoid the topic of the election any longer. I did not sense the outcome of the Presidential election because I live in Manhattan. Although I followed the polls closely, I was not surrounded by the reality of their findings. I live in a county that voted 82% for John Kerry, and though my naivete left me bewildered in the early hours of November 3, I learned one valuable thing that will help me throughout life. You can feel the politics of a place. I will never be convinced otherwise. Fundamentalism, socialism: even in their faintest incarnations one can sense them as the dominant thought of a place.
At a gas station on some highway, the man waiting for a fresh pot of coffee to brew makes a comment about the newspaper's page one. If he comments anywhere near politics - openly, to the stranger behind the counter - he has put faith in an accepted viewpoint and will never express that which invites sharp critique. The reaction of the stranger behind the counter is all you need to confirm the politics of a place.
And in wartime, page one is a politics that does not invite critique. Critique aggravates "truth;" and as much as I'd like to find a way to argue against this, the guy at the gas station will have a viewpoint considerably harder to argue if it concerns the war. War is not truth, but it is easier to argue on the side of a policy than it is to reason with a dead soldier. By inviting less to be comprehended, less to be critiqued, war is an influence over the present like history is an influence over the past.
"It is not an image. It is a feeling.
There is no image of the hero.
There is a feeling as definition.
How could there be an image, an outline,
A design, a marble soiled by pigeons?"
I have thought a lot about the election, and can only muster a single conclusion that satisfies me, that sends me back to my work. Perhaps the war has made my political analyses shortsighted, or maybe I am experiencing an exhaustion from the election season. What I have arrived at is this: We have chosen empire. Gloss it any way you like, fret over the environment, the illegal wire-taps, the decreased immigration quotas, the military proliferation. I've got a bigger abstraction to invoke. This empire is drawing itself into the same sand with the same stick, the same shifting desert on which other kingdoms were built and here we sit, staring at the carvings illegible. As if our own self-destruction was so difficult a thing to read.
If the left wants to influence American politics in the coming years, the left must side with empire. Empire has never been unpopular within an empire, as cancerous as it is to the security of the rest of the world. Hegemony - the control of resources, the accumulation of wealth and land, and the positioning of influence in all corners of the globe - will be more popular in the coming decades. If the interior of the country votes for hegemony, and no strong discordance forms within, then the majority opinion pursuing hegemony will pursue empire as well. Hegemonic stability theory gives us a half dozen hegemons over the last 500 years, each replaced by a rising hegemon as a result of a major conflict. Portugal to Spain to Holland to Britain to France back to Britain, now to us. I'm no socialist, but to be blind to Karl Marx's predictions that capitalism will self-destruct is to be blind to the politics we espouse. That which sustains us will betray us, and I can no longer put faith in a political party in order to delude myself of this fact.
To look for a silver lining, the empire at its height has always been the strongest influence on the world's culture. My consolation from this election is that our role is to represent the empire, befriend it, use it to our advantage. Conspiring is one thing, but to benefit from it does not mean the relationship has to be mutually beneficial. History will judge the atrocities and the failures of the empire, while the artist who has contributed a body of work that communicates something about us generally, reaffirming the human condition, will survive. That is where my sole faith in politics rests today. I cannot put any faith in elections or movements or the sentimentality of peace, because I know politics will not satisfy our lovers.
"The snow hangs heavily on the rocks, brought
By a wind that seeks out shelter from snow. Thus
Each man spoke in winter. Yet each man spoke of
The brightness of arms, said Roma wasted
In its own dirt, said Avignon was
Peace in a time of peace, said Leyden
Was always the other mind. The brightness
Of arms, the will opposed to cold, fate
In its cavern, wings subtler than any mercy,
These were the psalters of their sibyls."
-Wallace Stevens, "Examination of the Hero in a Time of War"