Seven points in search of an argument

Friday’s photo-essay about windows got me thinking about self-effacement, and how dangerous it can be. Think of guerrillas lying in ambush, or the CIA operative in deep cover. Then, too, privacy issues have been in the air lately with all the discussion about nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court. I don’t know whether the Constitution contains an implicit right to privacy or not, but I’m pretty sure than any government that denies the existence of such a right for its citizens, while multiplying arguments for higher and higher levels of government secrecy, is one badly in need of being overthrown.

I’ve also been following an exchange about blog privacy on a listserve I belong to, and feeling more and more baffled as one blogger after another talks about his or her fear of being read by the wrong person. They talk longingly about anonymous blogs where they would have complete freedom to say what they want.

What’s wrong with me that I don’t feel thwarted by my inability to say what cannot be said? I’d always thought that near the core of every relationship there lay a little bundle of forbidden things – those terrible words that, once uttered, can never be retracted. One’s consciousness of this (or any) taboo creates a kind of tension that is ultimately creative. For me, the challenge is to find the words behind or beyond those terrible ones, which in a certain sense are only fuel for the spark that enlivens and illuminates every authentic, I-Thou encounter. But maybe for others this just sounds like an argument for self-censorship.

I’m wondering whether poetry might not serve as an outlet without which I, too, would feel terribly constrained. Growing up, I had the benefit of a stable and supportive family, where every creative effort, no matter how minor, received praise from one or both parents. But at the same time, we were (and are), like many WASPs, not much given to talking about our feelings. That’s not to say I didn’t emote much; far from it – I was a rage and self-pity junkie. I threw tantrums almost constantly up until the age of twelve, when I began to get good enough at writing poems that I could start channeling my affective energy into that instead.

And what is a poem, after all, if not an attempt to say what is otherwise unsayable? To pick a well-known example: if you want to tell someone you like them, but are afraid of making yourself too vulnerable by baldly saying so, what do you do but write a poem in their praise? Poetry allows us to elevate ordinary discourse, to turn our words into a gift. Writing at that level leads one to focus on something outside oneself. For me, writing is not and has never been about self-expression; I’m not even sure I know what that would entail. Even when I write in prose, my main motivation is to try and share my insights with other people. I’m not interested in anonymous publishing because I don’t think that my words have any value beyond whatever connections they help me forge with a reader.

I must admit, the idea of writing in different, assumed personas or “heteronyms,” Fernando Pessoa-style, has some real attraction, adding another dimension to the game-like back-and-forth between author and audience. But otherwise, apart from the need to elude criticism-intolerant employers or censorious family members, I don’t understand why one would ever need a disguise more impenetrable than one’s given name. I’ve always had this sense that “Dave Bonta” was a completely arbitrary place-marker, and I guess that’s the primary reason why I don’t mind the thought of anyone finding the stuff I put up on the web. I honestly don’t think of it as mine in any essential way; a good poem belongs to itself. If someone tries to assert their own authorship of it, of course I’ll object. But if they tease me about writing it, I’m happy to join in. And if they want to lob brickbats, so much the better: there’s no writing so flawless that it wouldn’t benefit from a strong critique.

I know the kinds of uncharitable things people say about each other behind their backs, and I assume that I must come in for a certain amount of that. On the other hand, I also assume that people have better things to do than to think or talk about me – and 98 percent of the time, I’m sure I’m right. Then I remember that, from 7th through 12th grade, I was more or less the class pariah, and it occurs to me that my outlook on being self-conscious may not be very helpful to anyone else. Basically, I just don’t give a shit whether anyone likes me or not. As long as I can keep churning out poems that please me, as long as I can keep finding excuses to immerse myself almost daily in the bliss of creation, I’m happier than I feel I have any legitimate right to be.

I guess I’ve been influenced enough by my Christian heritage to believe that self-disclosure, confession, and vulnerability are valid, perhaps essential routes to spiritual understanding. To put it another way, it seems to me that whenever we buy into the modern materialist notion of the self as unique, independent, ideally impenetrable interior space, we are much more likely to forget the fragility of the rest of Creation and thereby participate in its abuse. In Christian terms, we go from the imitation of Christ to the imitation of Pilate. In Jewish terms, we resemble the smooth talker Aaron, ready to build a golden calf if our friends want us to, rather than the hesitant, tongue-tied Moses or the inspired Miriam. I very much fear that my shamelessness, thick skin and too-fluid words condemn me to ignorance of something I have little business even speculating about. My friends who, at first blush, strike me as being excessively wary of self-exposure, may in reality be close to some implausible quarry, some unicorn or behemoth, which I, through my heedless whistling and stomping about, have inadvertently frightened deep into cover.

But poetry has taught me that disclosing one thing always entails concealing something else. To find is to lose, and vice versa; the eye remains invisible to itself. No single identity can encompass the mystery of who we are, whether as individuals or as nodes in social, political and ecological webs. Protecting privacy means, above all, preserving the freedom to become whoever we want. And a government that tries to assert the power to know every aspect of its citizens’ lives is one that, as we’ve seen, will stop at nothing to extract ultimately worthless confessions.

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