Poetics of Turks, Jews and Honesty
Today I will present the poem before the essay.
I never knew the title of this poem; I memorized it from the preface page to Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness.
A note on words: E’er is an old poetic word meaning ever; spew is an informal word that today means vomit.
By William Blake
The only man I e’er knew
Who did not make me almost spew
Was Fuseli; and he was both a Turk and a Jew
And so good Christian friends how do you do?
Obviously this poem is about NOT being prejudiced against other people… and I am just too tired to point out the poem’s relevance in our violent century. Too tired.
Instead I will note the problem poets and other artists have —William Blake, by the way, both painted and wrote poems. Their problem is they deny themselves the comfort of dishonesty. William Shakespeare and his pals, when they staged The Merchant of Venice, an anti-anti-Semitic play, wouldn’t pretend the Jews were inferior. Vincent Van Gogh, painting in the Pacific, wouldn’t pretend the natives were beneath him. Folks in Hollywood, at their parties and bar-b-ques, back before Gays were allowed by police to have freedom of assembly, wouldn’t pretend that being homosexual was a choice. (When did you choose to be heterosexual?)
Richard Mason, back when Europeans were justifying having colonies all over the world, wrote a scene where an Englishman in India is lying in bed with a hollow heart. He is depressed, thinking something like, “I can’t even kid myself, “I’m White, so I’m great.”” This while he knew that other Europeans could lie to themselves. The scene is early in the novel The Wind Cannot Read, about a romance in wartime with a dirty little enemy alien. (I exaggerate: She was quite a clean alien—but short…trust an artist to imagine such a scandalous liaison)
An artist’s problem is that her role is to see. No wonder those people who would blindfold, hoodwink, and cover men’s minds have always hated artists. In my youth “those people” were the communists; today they are the Islamics. Truly, dishonesty is associated with shadows and darkness.
In my youth I had a reputation for being a “nice guy” …partly because I was unable to be dishonest. During my schooldays I could never join with one or two others to generate a “reality distortion field” so we could taunt and bully a victim. No, I believed that lying about other kids, just so I could feel important, was too undignified. Maybe as a schoolboy I didn’t exactly have the word “dignity” in my vocabulary, but I knew that when it came to the joy of dishonesty, my choice was to let it go, even if this meant being frozen out of things. I never wanted to be popular anyway.
Leaving the sheltered palace of school, I went away to the icy tower. Away from a busy village of unknowing people, I discovered one of the benefits of higher education is that dishonesty, as in willful reality avoidance, does not stand the light of day. Except, perhaps, for poor blinkered party horses, university can be one long exciting culture shock. Freshmen gape as students organize to Take Back the Night and have Black History Week. Students mingle. Leftist meets Buddhist, native meets foreigner, and trailer park meets terribly posh.
A year or two ago there was a newspaper report of a male student who wanted to avoid learning about whether women could be equal, so he asked his professor to be excused from any small group projects that included women. As I recall, the student tried to claim a religious exemption, but his timing was off: Never try to be anti-women during a War on Terror. The story went national. Or as the younger generation would say, “it went viral.”
Offline, here in the real world, I know a famous poet, Sheri-D Wilson. She’s awesome. With another poet my age, Mary, I regularly meet in Sheri-D’s living room for her to help us with our poems. It’s scary like learning to ride a bike—white knuckles, don’t dare stop pedaling. I don’t mind at all being edited, as I came up through journalism, but I sure find it hard to dare to see and “go deeper.” How queer to sit on the sofa, with long underwear arms visible in my T-shirt, and silently reflect that I can be an artist too.
Afterthought: It’s strange to realize that Robert Heinlein, who wrote about practical, realistic math-loving heroes, was surely an artist himself.
I flashed to a scene in his novel Starman Jones one evening on campus, as I was slowly motoring to an event, in a car driven by a substitute teacher, when a parking control guy waved us away from parking on the grass. Keep going. “They shouldn’t have parking control!” said the teacher.
There’s a scene where young Jones is talking to the old ship’s doctor. Jones has just come clean about a lie. Was it wrong to have lied? “It was undignified!” says the doctor. The doctor reflects: It hasn’t harmed him, and it’s good that he dropped the lie, because getting away with it could have turned him into a permanent adolescent, always wanting his own way. It was when the teacher spoke so petulantly that I flashed on Jones and the doctor.
By the way, on the last page Jones is shown making amends for his lie, like a man.