Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Savior Machine

The group of poets that I write with has decided to do an event as part of the 1000 Inaugural Poets project -- an idea of Brett Axel's, I think. So I'm going to be writing a poem about Obama's inauguration.

This brings up a problem. What am I to make of it? The ceremony itself is just a ceremony. Auden is supposed to have said that "anyone who wished to call him or herself a poet should be able to write serviceable verses, on demand, about the queen's hat" (although the only place I've found that quote is here, so it may be apocryphal.) Well and good. But that requires an approach of some kind, and harsh cynicism would be almost as much of a cliche as hopeful congratulation. I mean, I know how to write harsh cynicism. So does every other contemporary political poet. Should we all go that way just because we're used to it? (This seems to be a common problem. Check out the hilarious Historic Election May Signal Death of Flarf.)

I decided to go for a procedural-poetry approach. I'd go to my favorite free-games site, Kongregate, go to a chat room, throw the question up to the assembled 14-year-olds, and write on the theme of whatever they came up with. Sadly, all I got back was some version of "Well, how do you feel about Obama becoming President?"

How do I feel about it? I expect Obama, personally, to be something of a Clinton figure, and to probably squander our chances. But, at the same time, we finally do have a chance to seriously change the U.S., and I don't want to write a poem blaming Obama for something he has yet to do.

I think that if I can write something that works at all, it's going to have something to do with David Bowie's early song, Saviour Machine, from his 1970 album The Man Who Sold the World. Musically, this song is nothing to write home about -- it has has a good deal more 60s noodling than it really should. But the lyrics have stuck in my imagination:

President Joe once had a dream
The world held his hand, gave their pledge
So he told them his scheme for a saviour machine

They called it the Prayer, its answer was law
Its logic stopped war, gave them food
How they adored till it cried in its boredom

'Please dont believe in me, please disagree with me
Life is too easy, a plague seems quite feasible now
Or maybe a war, or I may kill you all

Don't let me stay, don't let me stay
My logic says burn so send me away
Your minds are too green, I despise all Ive seen
You cant stake your lives on a saviour machine

I need you flying, and Ill show you that dying
Is living beyond reason, sacred dimension of time
I perceive every sign, I can steal every mind'

[repeat "Don't let me stay" verse]

Bowie did some great things with internal rhyme in this song, especially the way he hits adored / boredom. I've mined the song before for bits about, e.g., the forbidden dream of being able to find every interpretation of a text ("I perceive every sign, I can steal every mind"). But it works even better for this inauguration.

Note, first of all, that the poem at first appears to be one of the conservative ideas about Obama writ large -- the "socialist" who is going to try to (as they strain to remember little bits and pieces of Edmund Burke) rationalize everything and destroy society in the process. I'm not interested in that ludicrous fantasy. Still less in the Obama-as-Antichrist one, which this also could point to. More interestingly, the song is against technocracy, as a number of art works from the time may have been -- try the discussion around Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven at Acephalous -- but despite my own involvement in that, that's not the approach I'm looking for either.

What really works for me is that the song brings up a critique of drama itself. The Prayer, unlike so many shoddy SF computers, doesn't go bad because of innate evil, poor programming, or a twisted id-like desire for human experience that it can never have. It's just bored. Plagues and wars are more interesting to it than unending happiness and no one getting killed or going hungry. The Prayer goes on about the sacred dimension of time, and how dying is living beyond reason -- I could even imagine of sort of twisted I-want-to-inspire-you political sloganeering using I need you flying.

But the Prayer is, of course, wrong. What we need most of all right now is the courage to reject drama. To go ahead and make things better, even if that leaves some people with the nagging feeling that it means that our glory days are behind us. Remember that, up until very recently, the quote below passed for non-insane:

"But with public discussion dominated by accountants— 'there's the Republican Party tying itself into knots. Over what? Prescriptions for elderly people? Who gives a damn? I think it's disgusting that...presidential politics of the most important country in the world should revolve around prescriptions for elderly people. Future historians will find this very hard to believe. It's not Athens. It's not Rome. It's not anything.'"

That was Irving Kristol, the father of William Kristol. The supposedly respectable conservative intellectual, not the hack. Saying that it was disgusting that we should be concerned with healing people, and instead should be sending our sons and daughters out to fight and die, for no better reason than to give future historians something to write about -- to make things interesting for them.

There's been a critical failure of imagination in this country. People have forgotten how to even dream about a society in which there is not a desperate crisis of some kind going on, in which people don't have to continually watch out or else. They've forgotten how to even hope for one. One of the things that I'd like to see people writing about is how to imagine a society in which people wouldn't naturally smash utopia two seconds after making it because it's boring to do science, make art, raise children, and work, without having to kill somebody or, at least, crush them in a business deal. (There's a guy who went by CR who I used to argue with a lot, but who understood this. More people should.)

No one's really looking for a Savior Machine, of course. But metaphorically, if a version of it that wasn't bored existed -- a government that actually tried to solve problems -- it wouldn't be made by Obama alone. If it exists, it's going to be all of us, pushing Obama's administration to make the changes that need to be made so that our kids don't struggle with global warming, don't need to scramble for health care, don't lose their lives in endless wars. That means that we need the courage to push for that. To reject the subconscious idea that we need all that drama, or else society will have no reason to go on.

I don't know if I'm going to write a successful poem about Obama's inauguration, but if I do, that's what it's going to be about.

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