by JP Grasser
Poets are, by nature, unreliable. Or so goes the stereotypic vision: we’re a clattering of penniless loafers. Mercurial, if winsome. Far from the pragmatists professionalization might’ve whittled us into, we’re more interested in taking stock than in taking stock options. We’ve got our heads in the clouds and cotton balls in our ears.
(Note: I do have my head in the clouds right now. Specifically, clouds of smog—the winter inversion in Salt Lake City—the worst air quality in the country. On bad air days, my friend wears a gasmask to ride his bicycle.)
In the weeks immediately following the election, I thought there was a great irony to the road that had led us here. How ironic, I thought, that embracing radical subjectivity, self-reliance, & individualism—you can be anything when you grow up (even a poet!)—had seemingly spiraled into a dark state of post-truth. How ironic, I thought, that the same worldview that nurtured my creativity likewise served as catalyst to the alt-fact landscape, a place where the anecdotal supersedes the verifiable, where everyone’s opinion is equally valid, if unequally true.
On the first day of class, I often ask my creative writing students to list their favorite novels. Invariably, someone throws out The Great Gatsby. Invariably, I ask if they can differentiate reliable narrator from unreliable narrator. Same difference, they say.
My mentor in college, Wyatt Prunty, once relayed the phrase “the mutual dependency of apparent opposites” with regards to Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.” What happens, he asked, if we are unreliable narrators of our own lives? What’s true fiction, false truth? This is, of course, always the case; it’s not exactly breaking news that memory distorts reality. Same difference?
(Note: after some quick digging, I’ve determined this quotation appears in Dr. Prunty’s book Fallen from the Symboled World: Precedents for the New Formalism, which is listed under—prescient, eh?— Political Science on Google Books.)
The writers I know are incredibly reliable. When my dog tore off his dewclaw during a particularly rowdy round of fetch, a poet-friend dropped everything (uh, job interview prep) to drive him, bleeding in the back seat, to the puppy-ER. She & her husband also let me sleep on their futon for a week. Maybe this is just what friends do. But, take a quick tour of the pop-culture sphere, and the unreliable friend seems a sturdy trope of the millennial generation—they flaked on drinks, they flaked on the movies, they flaked on the birthday party, ad infinitum. These flake-friends sound like a box of Idahoan Instant Spuds.
Apparent, bolded in the quotation above, suggests multiplicity over binary structures. Love and Hate are not true opposites, but perhaps points on an ideological spectrum. Perhaps this spectrum exists in four dimensions, like life. Perhaps this is finally the best operational definition of Keats’s “Negative Capability.”
The etymology of “reliable” comes, in part, from the Latin “ligare”: to bind. See ligament, the OED says. I like this. I like to think reliability might be as integral to the architecture of one’s being as fascia and sinew.
Perhaps an unintended consequence of the New Criticism’s desire to discount authorial intentionality is a supreme ambivalence toward truth. The syllogism works like this:
- The text is a self-sustaining entity; all that matters is the text.
- Any reasonable explication of the text is a valid reading.
- Any reading is merely an opinion.
∴ Unbound Opinion = Truth.
This is a faulty syllogism to be sure. But hey, same difference, right?
Intentionality matters now more than ever. Subjectivity might only be the apparent opposite of objectivity; there is, per force, a Utilitarianism to the writing life: we tell the small lie to expose the big truth. Perhaps the rules have changed though, perhaps we must now tell the big truth to expose the big truth.
All narration is unreliable. All memory is unreliable. Truth can, perhaps, only be approached asymptotically. Still, we must try to reach it.
I used to think that radical subjectivity led us here, to this place, where “post-truth” deserves a dictionary entry. I thought that my artful deceit wasn’t all that different from deceit in general. But that was before I understood that absolute self-reliance is pure myth.
Even the doomsday-preppers, the hardline self-reliers, (who are looking smarter by the minute), relied on others to grow, harvest, and can their corn, to parboil their rice, to dehydrate their boxed potatoes.
It’s a deleterious strain of narcissism which tricks us into believing we’ve done something alone, based purely on merit, hard work, sweat and blood and tears, etc. (Of course, ligaments don’t figure into that cliché.)
These days, I’m reminded often of the scene from the Odyssey in which, as their craft approaches the Sirens, Odysseus fills the ears of his crew with wax. In which they lash him to the mast. In which they bind him.
(Note: in legalese, a Ulysses Pact designates a freely made decision, which binds one in future action, as in an advance directive.)
If the ship is sinking, it must, I think, be our intention to navigate toward the fundamental veracity of humanity: different sameness, to rely on the spectrum of possibility. The act of creation is still an act of love. Pursuits of the creative imagination, by their very nature, are pursuits of happiness, even if tinged with pain and sadness. And joy must be the truest thing around, even the small joy I see in my students, as they recount Gatsby’s green light, across an expanse of water, symboled as it may be, dimmer now than it was before.
J.P. Grasser currently lives in Salt Lake City, where he is a PhD candidate in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Utah, and where he serves as Managing Editor of Quarterly West. J.P. will begin a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Poetry in September 2017. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.