Friday, February 17, 2012

They Fuck Up Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.   
    They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.
It's rare enough to hear poetry in public discourse, but who ever expects to hear the poetry of Philip Larkin? His "This Be the Verse," excerpted above, is bouncy, brazen, and brutal. Hardly the fare of mainstream media and so-called polite society.

Another poem, "High Windows," flows along the same vein yet is richer and more complex:
When I see a couple of kids
And guess he's fucking her and she's
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives--
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That'll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds.
And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
Larkin's verse invites conflicting readings. In the first stanza, does he mean "I know this is paradise" seriously, or is he being ironic? Personally, I pick irony: this is not paradise, even if a young guy is fucking a young girl and she's on the pill. Larkin then widens the poem's scope as he imagines the hand-off of generations. The older generation envies the freedoms and lack of concern that mark youth. The young play upon the machinery that former generations used for work. That machinery includes moral strictures as well as technology. These machines are not discarded, but they are not employed today as they once were.

Yet "the long slide" is a multivalent pun--with quasi-sexual connotations as well as meanings of deterioration--and a downward, dark image. We are told it leads "To happiness, endlessly," but the happiness is uneasy. Another, contrasting image is more positive; this is the slide upward, from the "high windows" to the glass to the infinite blue of the sky. I cannot fathom Larkin here saying anything other than the world is crap. He abandons both the imagined sexual freedom of the young and the imagined envy of the old. He drops the present and the past together. He rejects harvesters and slides for nothingness and nowhere-ness. This world here and now is not paradise because paradise completely privatizes sex, work, happiness, words, thoughts, and time.

My reading of "High Windows" cannot see the poem celebrating the sexual revolution, but this latter view is what literature professor Anthony Esolen advances in a post at the Witherspoon Institute site.

Esolen's purpose is to "reconsider the wisdom" of the sexual revolution--as if the sexual revolution were more a political conspiracy than a broad cultural shift--and then use this reconsideration to think more about "The recent controversy over whether a church, or indeed a single individual, may be compelled to purchase health insurance that provides free coverage for contraception, abortifacient drugs, and sterilization."

Larkin's poem is the only reason to read Esolen's full piece, since Esolen give away everything essential in the first two paragraphs:
  • The sexual revolution = unwise and harmful.
  • The recent changes requiring employers to offer health insurance that covers contraceptive services = unfair and immoral, and perhaps unconstitutional.
Obviously, I think Esolen is on the wrong side of these issues. For instance, he blames the sexual revolution for crime, transience, and infidelity. He must believe these social issues did not exist before women started using the pill--or at least he shows no awareness of how such social ills changed in scope or quality following the sexual revolution. For that matter, Esolen makes no attempt to define the sexual revolution in its historical dimensions; we are left only to boil the term down to something about contraception and promiscuity. Just trust that the sexual revolution was and is bad: that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

In addition to intrinsic badness of the sexual revolution, Esolen sees the HHS mandate as a violation of the US Constitution and civil liberties, but this view is hardly more than a ploy for grandstanding. The mandate supports consumers across the entire spectrum of opinions on contraception. Esolen apparently sides only with corporations and wants individuals to incur the full cost of legitimate medical expenses. One suspects that the people usually burdened directly with these costs can least afford it.

I can forgive Esolen's shallow political pandering--he writes to and for an audience that already agrees with his positions, making their analysis and defense unseemly--but my main complaint is his abuse of "High Windows." Here is his characterization of Larkin's paradise:
Paradise—a perfect garden of delights, with young people rutting and hallooing down the slide to happiness without end. And yet this vision of carefree nature rests upon a strange submission to technology, and a depersonalization of human love.
Larkin might agree with this characterization. Indeed, it's part of the poem's point. Yet Esolen seems to think he's uncovered flaws in Larkin's reasoning. Not so: the "strange submission" is exactly what Larkin notices. There's no machine for happiness, Larkin says, except to look up at the sky and let the old, petty strictures fade into nothingness.

Esolen doesn't know what to do with the "outdated combine harvester":
The bond of marriage that sets a couple truly free, that gives a man and a woman the confidence to devote themselves forever to their mutual good and that of their children, is simply dispensed with. It is relegated to irrelevance, like “an outdated combine harvester.” But that analogy, startling and effective though it may be, is downright strange. Larkin uses it to suggest something ungainly and absurd, but his ironical contempt seems to have prevented him from noticing a contradiction. For there is nothing inherently silly about a combine harvester. It is a tool for reaping the goods of the earth. It does its work quite well, and only becomes “outdated” when a new combine harvester is invented that will do that same work better. The work of a harvester depends upon fertility. The work performed by the “bonds and gestures” of marriage is also oriented toward fertility, like the free and glorious fertility of a beautiful garden—a paradise. But in this poem the whole idea of reaping a good harvest is replaced by reliance upon pills and a diaphragm. It is therefore an artificial and sterile paradise, dependent upon tools that bring to pass a willed infertility. What’s the use of a harvester, when there is no life?
Esolen converts the combine harvester into a symbol of marriage, outdated and unnecessary in the new world of sex without children. With horrific creepiness, Esolen asserts the time-worn paradox that the "bond of marriage...sets a couple truly free." Yes, Ehe macht Freitag, marriage makes freedom--ah, but who defines marriage, and by what right? Esolen may appeal to Yahweh or Baby Jesus or Allah or the Dalai Lama, but what is the proper process for determining which appeal rules in the US? Thinking people should recoil when they anyone, Esolen included, tells them what sets people "truly free." How often have people paid with money, possessions, family, and lives for the true freedom offered by some church or charismatic leader?

The strangeness of the combine harvester is quite deliberate. Larkin is wonderful for unusual images and rhymes: he rhymes "fangs" and "meringues" in one poem. That undercutting strangeness gives "High Windows" it's depth. At no point does Larkin fully celebrate sexual freedom or discard depression-era austerity: both are avatars of the same quotidian idiocy under which people live.

Larkin would similarly explain to Esolen that Christianity is a third avatar, offering a no less "artificial and sterile paradise." When Esolen mistakes Christianity for a moral high ground, his finger pointing to the long-dead Larkin comes off as insincere and self-serving:
Where is that promised paradise of no one and nowhere and nothing, Mr. Larkin? Visit a prison, and ask the men in the cell blocks to recount their sexual histories, and those of their mothers and fathers. Visit a hospital, and see the faces of women who have determined to violate their inmost natures as the givers of life. Visit a neighborhood—if you can find one; for your paradise has placed transience and infidelity at the heart of the most intimate of human relations. You with your quaint erudite use of obscenity! The streets of your nation and the sullen youth who roam them make you look like a monocled Edwardian with a taste for French novels.

And this is the world we must protect, even at the cost of our Constitution and our civil liberties?
To be fair, this Christianity remains unnamed. Yet Esolen unmistakably parrots standard talking points out of Christian conservatism. By doing so, he tries to distance himself and his political values from the world he blithely criticizes. This world is yours, too, Esolen: your prisons, your hospitals, your neighborhoods, your streets, your sullen youth. Your paradise is a fiction, and your promises of paradise are exhausted. For centuries, you or someone in your chair has sold a certain combine harvester by lamenting the decline of the world and the imminent redemption of the pure. The outdated combine harvester of Christianity offers no nourishment and no happiness today, even as a converted slide.

I don't say this lightly, or to be controversial, or to be confrontational. I say it because it seems so, and because "High Windows" explains why.

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