Sunday, September 23, 2012

Perspective, Part Three: "Our Windows, Too, Are Clouded Glass"

We live in a world of shameless self-promotion, overweening egotism, and dubious, spurious, and/or ill-gotten "accomplishments."  What evidence supports this assertion?  Any head-of-state that you can name.  And any "celebrity" that you can name.

Of course, this has always been the way of the world.  However, this age differs significantly from previous ages:  in our time, these people insert themselves into our consciousness in electronic ways that are pervasive and well-nigh unavoidable.  Unless, say, one chooses to repair to a yurt on an empty, wind-swept steppe somewhere in Mongolia.  (Provided that the steppe is free of cellphone towers, of course.)

In the absence of an avenue of escape, one needs perspective.  One needs to remind oneself that these sorts of people are not normal.  They have nothing to do with real life, or with our lives.  Humility and empathy are alien to them.  Thus, they would not know what to make of a poem such as the following.  Never in a million years would it occur to them that Charlotte Mew is trying to tell us something about ourselves, something that we ignore at peril to our souls.

                                       Duncan Grant, "Still Life" (1957)

                 On the Asylum Road

Theirs is the house whose windows -- every pane --
     Are made of darkly stained or clouded glass:
Sometimes you come upon them in the lane,
     The saddest crowd that you will ever pass.

But still we merry town or village folk
     Throw to their scattered stare a kindly grin,
And think no shame to stop and crack a joke
     With the incarnate wages of man's sin.

None but ourselves in our long gallery we meet,
     The moor-hen stepping from her reeds with dainty feet,
          The hare-bell bowing on his stem,
Dance not with us; their pulses beat
     To fainter music; nor do we to them
               Make their life sweet.

The gayest crowd that they will ever pass
     Are we to brother-shadows in the lane:
Our windows, too, are clouded glass
     To them, yes, every pane!

Charlotte Mew, The Farmer's Bride (1916).

                                Duncan Grant, "Girl at the Piano" (1940)

4 comments:

William A. Sigler said...

You open up a rich suggestiveness in your writing today, Mr. Pentz (I might even call it redolent). I believe you are talking about narcissism at root, but to say that kinda spoils the fun, for the gap between "us and them" (more broadly defined) is like that between Mew’s asylum dwellers and townspeople. Overweening self-promotion is the handmaiden of miserable self-regard, of course. People who want us to look away from what we have to do to pay attention to them, like we're their parents, show they don’t consider themselves to be worthy or even alive unless they are loved, famous, better, more powerful. As they don’t see themselves in poems’ mirrors, they don’t recognize that this need for approval gives their power away, whether it’s by the slings and arrows of criticism or the idolatry of adulation. Either way other people are calling the shots on who they are, with all the limitations inherent in someone really knowing another person. Yet this is the virtual world all around us, and I do believe you’d have to go to a yurt in Outer Mongolia to avoid it and its prison cell towers.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sigler: as always, I appreciate hearing your thoughts. I agree with your assessment of things. However, although these people may "give their power away" in a psychological sense, they often exercise a great deal of power in a world that sees them as admirable and/or worthy of emulation. Unfortunately for us.

Thanks for stopping by.

zmkc said...

The beautiful film Tears of the Camel - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Story_of_the_Weeping_Camel - demonstrated, sadly, that even a Yurt in Mongolia is no shelter from satellite tv.

Stephen Pentz said...

zmkc: ah, well, yet another shattered daydream of peace, quiet, and serenity! However, I guess in my heart-of-hearts I suspected as much, even as I wrote it.

Thank you for the information about the movie -- I wasn't aware of it. It indeed sounds lovely. I will try to track a copy down. (Unfortunately, Netflix doesn't have it.)

As always, it is very nice to hear from you.