Friday, November 28, 2008

This Busy Monster

When I read about the trampling death that took place at a Wal-Mart this morning, I remembered this poem:
pity this busy monster, manunkind,

not. Progress is a comfortable disease:
your victim (death and life safely beyond)

plays with the bigness of his littleness
--- electrons deify one razorblade
into a mountainrange; lenses extend
unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish
returns on its unself.
A world of made
is not a world of born --- pity poor flesh

and trees, poor stars and stones, but never this
fine specimen of hypermagical

ultraomnipotence. We doctors know

a hopeless case if --- listen: there's a hell
of a good universe next door; let's go

E. E. Cummings
I've always liked this particular Cummings poem; my sister read it to me a long time ago, and the cadence of it was interesting even though I hadn't thought to tease out the meaning of it then.

I know that people can argue a great deal about the meaning of poetry, and I don't claim to be able to prove what Cummings meant. But to me, the poem speaks of the tragedy of the materialist, who in his focused attempt to break the world into its components, to tame and control everything in it, and even, perhaps, to conquer the powers of life and death, fails to see how he is destroying everything that made his humanity something greater than its mere fleshiness, or his existence more meaningful than the existence of a merely material being. I think the progress that is a "comfortable disease" is a progress that kills the soul, and that at his most ironic point in the poem Cummings uses the phrase "fine specimen of hypermagical ultraomnipotence" to hint at what man is losing, in his quest to prove that he already knows, or soon will grasp, everything that can be known.

This morning at the local branch of a store which, despite the fact that like most Americans I patronize on occasion, I see as a hulking symptom of exactly what's wrong with us ("New Lower Price! Smiley Face! And you don't see the fifteen-year-old factory girls in China who are coughing blood from breathing all the toxic dust from the paint the FDA will tell you next year isn't safe!"), a man who had a temp job opened the door to a surging throng of desperately greedy people and was trampled to death as they raced to be one of the first to get a ticket or be in line for the Cheapest Gadgets Ever.

They didn't even stop when the paramedics got there--they just shoved past them and headed in to shop, shop, shop, already suffering serious withdrawal over the fact that they had to sit around shopless all day yesterday. A whole day, and if they had that twitch to go spend money all they could do was pop in at a handful of grocery or convenience stores that stayed open in case people ran out of poultry seasoning or lip balm or toilet paper--but other than that, no shopping, no real shopping, no shopping of the sort that counts, the sort when your credit card melts in your hands and you stagger home to announce, triumphantly, under a mound of trinkets and trash that you saved money, really, you did. So by five a.m. on Black Friday they were eager, restless, lining up in rows outside of department stores and discount stores and other stores, coupons in hand that promised a whole fifty dollars off of something they didn't need and couldn't really afford and shouldn't be wasting money on in the first place.

So when the poor temp worker opened the door, they crushed him in their hurry, hurry, hurry to win the prize and get the savings and bring home the loot. Because when you are only a material creature, it really is every man for himself; when all you are is a temporarily animated carcass, what does it matter if a man dies so that you can get an MP3 player? He would have died sooner or later, and your pleasure is the only good you know: it is the supreme value, and nothing ought to stand in the way of it.

After all, you have to spend a great deal of time not having any fun. You have to work and you have to shop and you have to eat and you have to wash clothes and do at least some cleaning; you have to pay bills and change the oil in your car and mow your lawn and on and on, boring things and dull things and things you'd rather not be doing. None of it makes any sense, and the only way you can blunt your sensibilities about it all is to buy things and have things and own things, good things that you like to have and that you like for others to know that you have whether you can really pay for them or not.

So on Black Friday you assemble outside the Temple of Materialism of your choice and prepare to worship your god, in blood sacrifice if necessary--because time is short, short, short, and the grave is looming and incoherent in the face of what you know, which is that this is all there is, and nothing, nothing lies beyond, not a pale gray nothing of unconsciousness, but a terrifying empty black cold nothing that even that MP3 player almost can't banish to the outer edges of your random thoughts.

Because even though you are a busy monster you still aren't busy enough to forget the ancient words which haunt your idle moments: remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.

Until you crush a man to dust, and are still human enough to know regret, as some were. But the busiest of all don't even pause in their shopping to consider whether a man's life ought to be worth more than the golden allure of that rarest of all rare things, a sale, in the land of Everyday Low Prices.

4 comments:

matthew archbold said...

brilliant. Incredibly disturbing but brilliant.

freddy said...

Excellent brilliantly lyric and passionate post!

As we Catholics this time of year turn our thoughts to the End of Days, this really should be read at all Masses.

And for the poor man who died: Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and all the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace. Heavenly Father, grant comfort to his greiving family and mercy upon those who, in the blindness of sin, caused his death. Amen.

LarryD said...

A blistering indictment of our culture if I ever read one. Excellent!

Anonymous said...

It's a wonder that this incensed and articulate indictment doesn't put some of us off the insensibility of the disparity between this death and the meaning of the season. And, yet, no individual will be charged.

Is is perhaps only a tell-tale wisp of the national events that tipped the scales a few weeks back of ethics and fiscal responsibility?

May G_d rest his soul and bring him family to peace.