Essays

Instructive Formalities

The poetry of Laura Bush

Mary Barnett
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

I work out every week with a young man named Jason. He is passionately agnostic, the sort of person who calls up the guy on the religious billboards outside of New Haven (Ed Nadolny, 1-800-Get-Truth or something like that) and argues about religion with him. Jason really cares about not believing. He thinks religion is a lie destroying the world, and he passionately hopes that rooting it out will save us all from imminent disaster.

Often, I agree with him. A certain amount of apocalypticism seems appropriate these days. But because I’m also in the process to become an Episcopal priest, my position is qualified.

My religious faith is spare. It is an outline I walk into, rather than dogma that I profess. It’s not the outline of an idea or of a moral code or of a social justice protocol however, but of a person. And it’s not Jesus. At least, I don’t think it is. In any case, it is not the outline of Jesus as Jesus has been explained to me. Nonetheless, this faith I try to walk into is an outline of a flesh and blood reality, an empirical truth that remains frustratingly out of reach. My faith depends on this truth remaining out of reach. That I can’t explain it strikes me as a good thing, although, occasionally, I wish I could, particularly when I’m facing an ordination committee. In spite of the pending white collar, I’ve opted to keep my altars empty, so that something unexpected may still show up; so that what I seek is always larger than my point of view. In the meantime, I practice the formalities of my faith and find that they form me.

If I were to attempt to draw a picture of my not-Jesus, it might look like this: yellow police tape outlining the spot – a cave in the Middle East somewhere, maybe – where a body used to be. It’s a real body. But it’s gone now. I walk into the space where it used to be, and I listen.

I’m trying to explain all this to Jason. After about an hour of punching and pulling and lifting and listening, Jason looks at me, askance. “I think I may be more religious than you are,” he says. And I smile.

“But what is truth,” Pilate asks Jesus, sarcastically – Steve Bannon, 2000 years early.

Michiko Kakutani’s The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump takes the question, and those who ask it mockingly, seriously. From the flyleaf: “We live in a time when the very idea of objective truth is mocked and discounted by the occupants of the White House. Discredited conspiracy theories and ideologies have resurfaced, proven science is once more up for debate, and Russian propaganda floods our screens. The wisdom of the crowd has usurped research and expertise, and we are left clinging to the beliefs that best confirm our biases.”

This is not new territory, explains Chris Hayes, in The New York Times; Kakutani “grounds the current chaos in trends - originating on both the right and the left - that have combined to elevate subjectivity over factuality, science, and common values.” But by connecting the dots between these trends (in literary criticism, social media, psychology and politics), Kakutani has organized a swirling pointillist reality of unintended consequences that can feel overwhelming. The epistemological map she sketches locates us in the present moment. We are here, thinking this because of this. Many of these cultural developments are positive. Multiculturalism in the academy for example has paved the way for new points of view, ways to hear, finally, voices that have been routinely silenced. We still have a long, long way to go in this area. Meanwhile our cell phones ding updates of Trump’s most recent dangerous buffoonery. But what if the room we are in could momentarily still? What would we see? We can’t retrace our steps, but we can go forward with a better understanding of the grammar that got us here and with a better dictionary.

What is truth?

Early in the book, Kakutani begins the chapter, “Decline and Fall of Reason,” with the text from a CNN commercial, which is illustrated by a photograph of an apple.

This is an apple.

Some people might try to tell you that it’s a banana.

They might even scream “Banana, banana, banana,” over and over and over

again.

They might put BANANA in all caps.

You might even start to believe this is a banana.

But it’s not.

This is an apple.

Is a rose is a rose is a rose, as the poet Gertrude Stein suggested in “Sacred Emily?”

Whatever truth is, it’s bound up with language, and control.

Kakutani’s book recalls the prescient observations of Hannah Arendt and George Orwell, two eminent social critics who confronted another age’s totalitarianism. The language of these writers, while somber in tone, clarifies, rather than inciting to alarm. Their applicability to our current state of affairs validates the intense anxiety many of us are experiencing, but, because their language is so precise, this happens without further increasing our cortisol levels. This is the same. This is not the same. It gives us a way to investigate our fear, neither ignoring nor succumbing to it.

Here’s Arendt: “The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that, if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

In her turn, Kakutani concludes: “Without commonly agreed-upon facts - not Republican facts and Democratic facts; not the alternative facts of today’s silo world - there can be no rational debate over policies, no substantive means of evaluating candidates for political office, and no way to hold elected officials accountable to the people.”

Trump has not created this chaos alone. And neither has his base, nor the current crop of Republicans, nor immigration pressures, Roe v. Wade, Hillary, nor the U.S.’s whitewashed racism, although all these have played significant and interlocking parts. Let’s vote them all out, we say. Lock them all up. Tear it all down. Start from scratch. But all the while, what can we, who love language, do?

Laura Bush, considered neither a hothead, nor affiliated with my particular political silo, wrote, in an editorial in The Washington Post: “America should not be in the business of warehousing children in big box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso.” It gave me pause when I read it, and I keep returning to it, with an attention I generally reserve for poetry, admiring the probity of this sentence written by the former librarian. It is, arguably, fueled by outrage, but does not succumb to outrage, and the crux of that balance is in the specificity, the rhythm, the precision of the language. As I struggle to think and write and live through a time when the country I live in is separating immigrant families, these words continue to bubble up into my conscious thoughts at odd hours, and they give me something like…pleasure? A complex pleasure, to be sure. The way the sentence funnels down from the cognitive slipperiness of “America” and “business” and “warehousing,” to a perceivable, lived reality outside of El Paso, strikes a poetic register. The subjective and general, transformed into the universal, by way of the specific.

America

Should not be in the business

Of warehousing children

In big box stores

Or making plans

To place them

In tent cities

In the desert

Outside of

El Paso.

I am not suggesting that Laura Bush was consciously writing poetry, of course, but that her language contains a poetic transmission. She recruits sound and rhythm and metaphor to gesture beyond a form deemed unreliable (the newspaper editorial), to coherences that re-connect to something-like our common humanity. Jason and I don’t need to agree on The Truth in order to listen for it, or to know that it outlines a place where a real body used to be. The instructive formalities of language outline something larger than our point of view: a body, an apple, an abandoned child. An empty cave in the Middle East somewhere. The desert on the outskirts of El Paso.

Mary Barnett is an essayist whose work has appeared in Tin House, Commonweal, Christian Century, and Letters. A former choreographer and dancer, she is the director of In Good Company, Inc. and the performance series Dancing Out Loud.
Originally published:
August 13, 2018

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