August 2014

Nicholas Vajifdar

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

On Selected Poems by Robinson Jeffers

I doubt I’m alone in finding “human” puzzling as a term of approbation. “He came across as very human,” for example. Human beings have, no doubt, produced some admirable things, like the music of Bach and, well, I can’t really think of anything else at the moment. But whenever human beings behave in undeniably human ways, by engaging in mob violence or inventing wildly elaborate ideas to justify any sort of petty, mean act, we are told that these people are acting like -- animals. Apparently all that’s necessary to earn the epithet “human” is to have the placidity of a cow or a whale.

Misanthropy and poetry have a long, glorious history together. In the contemporary United States, the word Christian, rightly or wrongly, connotes a kind of smugness, the cheerful contempt of the saved toward the damned. But for older writers like Swift and Rochester and La Rochefoucauld, religiosity was about self-criticism, bordering on a self-flagellation in which they seemed to take an almost sexual pleasure. Pascal associated loving God with hating yourself; it’s hard to imagine a contemporary cleric being quite so direct in one of our air-conditioned, safety-inspected rooms.

This is what’s so bracing about discovering the poetry of Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962): the purity and the unaffectedness of the hate. His poems are notable for their clarity (not always a virtue in poetry but here indispensable to his music), their Biblical or Whitman-esque rhythm, and the vast contempt of an exile for his former homeland, in this case, the company of his species. Jeffers lived most of his life on the California coast, in a stone house that he built himself.

“Environmental” seems to be the wrong word for his outlook -- that word, environment, with its implications of surrounding something, seems to draw attention back to the human visitor. To the environmentalist, despite the radical connotations of that word in our parlance, the woods and beaches and mountains gain importance because they contain us; they are a stage for our stories and dramas; they can also inspire us and, in a bourgeois way, improve us. Jeffers would have considered this view sentimental nonsense.

For example, examine his chilling and unexpectedly hilarious poem “Science”:

Man, introverted man, having crossed
In passage and but a little with the nature of things this latter century
Has begot giants; but being taken up
Like a maniac with self-love and inward conflicts cannot manage his hybrids.
Being used to deal with edgeless dreams,
Now he’s bred knives on nature turns them also inward: they have thirsty points though.

What wonderfully bracing slap, to hear the fashionable term “introverted” used as an insult. To be introverted, according to Jeffers, is to miss the point of being alive. Even our supposed human sociability is really only introversion multiplied, because it ignores the inhuman infinity around us.

The poem concludes:

A little knowledge, a pebble from the shingle,
A drop from the oceans: who would have dreamed this infinitely little too much?

There are backhanded compliments -- but these lines are something like backhanded criticism. The usual line against nuclear weapons goes something like this: “You defied the gods, you foolish mortals, you did the unthinkable! Now Nemesis will exact her awful revenge in proportion to the enormity of your transgression.” For all its harshness, the receiver of such a rant can’t help feeling a bit pleased, at least from the attention -- remember than Oppenheimer famously compared himself to Shiva.

Jeffers’s version would be more like: “Humanity, you didn’t do much -- basically, you did the metaphysical equivalent of jaywalking, in the grand scheme of things. But unfortunately, you’re still all going to die. Sorry. Thanks for playing.” To Jeffers, the Manhattan Project savors less of the Bhagavad Gita and more of a Three Stooges routine, a stepped on rake that wipes out billions, a genocidal banana peel.

I had mentioned previously a slightly reckless theory that there is a sexually masochistic element to the misanthropy of writers. Surely this theory gains support from a poem where Jeffers dreams lovingly of being eaten by a vulture?

To be eaten by that beak and become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes—
What a sublime end of one’s body, what an enskyment; what a life
after death.

Enskyment! Though Jeffers’s view of life is certainly arresting, this isn’t to say that Jeffers’s views are without their flaws. First of all, Jeffers set his poems mostly in the place where he lived, the California coast. Though not a totally benign landscape, there’s a reason why the transnational wealthy swarm there and not, say, in the humid forests of Dixie. In a cloud of mosquitos your reverence for nature turns pretty goddamn unrequited pretty quickly.

Second, considered by itself, his creed is fairly undeniable: human civilization, compared to the real length of the universe, will last about as long as the ding of a bell; eventually all our buildings and artifacts will vanish and the earth will be sucked into the sun; our boastfulness about landing on the moon or detonating nuclear weapons is ultimately laughable; and so on.

This is all true, but it seems to ignore the other half of the truth, namely, that even though we’ll all vanish totally and will have no one to remember us, for the moment we are here, and our experience of the present moment is as solid and majestic as any huge snow-strewn mountain backed by an infinity of blue. To say that the vastness of the universe is inseparable from our experience of it isn’t narcissism so much as the only logical conclusion to draw based on the evidence we have.

But in some ways this criticism misses the point -- Jeffers is very much a hedgehog writer, who knows one thing, and you don’t read him to get a balanced view of world -- you read him out of craving for disequilibrium, the wish for Nemesis to rain down on unpunished hubris. “When man stinks,” he wrote, “turn to God.” For anyone who has ever wondered how to tolerate living in a society where an idiotic TV host (to take a random example) is considered a prettier ornament of nature than a red fox, Jeffers is the bitter remedy.

But for all his bitterness, Jeffers was a poet, and not a systematic thinker, although his clarity and steadfast tone may suggest the reverse at first glance. For example, consider whether Jeffers would agree that the universe, creation itself, is basically good. At first, the answer seems to be obviously yes -- he has such contempt for mechanical civilization that the reader automatically fills in his admiration for nature, much like the eye completes an optical illusion. But the Jeffers contempt extends too toward nature, most often on behalf of suffering animals. The ambivalence always remains, like a calm sea beneath the foam of his hectoring. In one of his greatest poems, “Birds and Fishes,” he even glimpses that his beloved animals are not immune to the same greed that he imputes to mankind. Here, he glimpses a flock of gulls descending on a school of fish, utterly destroying them:

What hysterical greed!
What a filling of pouches! the mob
Hysteria is nearly human—these decent birds!—as if they were finding
Gold in the street. It is better than gold,
It can be eaten: and which one in all this fury of wild-fowl pities the fish?
No one certainly. Justice and mercy
Are human dreams, they do not concern the birds nor the fish nor eternal God.

If you know how worshipful Jeffers has been toward the animals of California, you can grasp how painful his realization here is. (And you admire the perspicacity and honesty; a fanatic would have averted his gaze.) It would not be an exaggeration to say that it breaks his heart. If humanity is cruel, and nature and animals are cruel too, what’s left to revere and admire? He concludes:

However—look again before you go.
The wings and wild hungers, the wave-worn skerries, the bright quick minnows
Living in terror to die in torment—
Man’s fate and theirs—and the island rocks and immense ocean beyond, and Lobos
Darkening above the bay: they are beautiful?
That is their quality: not mercy, not mind, not goodness, but the beauty of God.