The Value of Man
In a museum in London there is an exhibit called “The Value of Man”: a long coffinlike box with lots of compartments where they’ve put starch—phosphorus—flour—bottles of water and alcohol—and big pieces of gelatin. I am a man like that.
—Stephane Mallarmé, letter dated May 17, 1867
One man feels lifted up.
One man is frightened:
Our emptiness is so real.
One man takes comfort:
So our emptiness is real.
One man marvels.
Another can’t stand that
Our vision rises up just
To give us…this—
Indignant, one man
Thinks this is in bad faith.
Thinks this is in bad taste.
One man does the math,
Works it out: about
Three pounds and change.
One man wants to know
What is the value of woman?
Is it the same?
One man decides to marry.
Another, to leave his wife.
One man feels angelic.
One man thinks he’ll run amok.
One man wants to know exactly
What phosphorus and gelatin are.
One man decides Christ
Was lucky to have been
Butchered—at least that way
He felt right up to the end
That he had a soul.
Looking at his reflection
In the case’s glass, one man
Sucks in his cheeks a bit.
Another brushes his hair.
Aghast, one man thinks it is too ugly.
Another wonders if it’s too aesthetic,
If the neatly arranged boxes
And the crystal decanters might
Give someone the wrong idea.
One man thinks, Just as I thought.
One man thinks science instills
An appreciation of design.
Another thinks, Evolution.
Another, The Fall—
One man thinks of a grocer’s shelf.
Another of a cold crucible
To purify the mind.
One man thinks it is too antiseptic.
Another wants to know, What’s that smell?
One man thinks, I could do this.
Another wants to purchase one of his own.
One man begins to imagine equality,
A Brotherhood of Man.
Another thinks, Mixed right, this
Material could make a bomb.
One man looks up quizzically at another man.
One man thinks, I am a man like that.
One man finds the experience educational.
Another feels quite simply he has paid
Too much for his admission.
A student could acquire a considerable amount of literary knowledge by saying the opposite of what the poets of this century have said. He would replace their affirmations with negations.
Blake: A thing seen correctly reveals infinity.
Bataille: A thing seen correctly reveals that it need not have been . . . and, through that hole, infinity.
The world is a strange mixture of mystery and circularity.
So we live in a post-rational age . . . who cares? There will be more thinking now than ever before. Nothing needs to be more precise than hypnosis.
One fears in the merely avant-garde that the whole gist of the spirit is schism.
Meaning is inevitable. But that inevitability? Madness!
The skeptics know more than they claim to know. The dogmatists know less than they claim to know. This is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
—Is this a skeptical or a dogmatic claim?
Anything said about The Moment must, like all fairy tales, begin, Once upon a time . . .
We live by the truth. We die by the truth. There is no other way.
When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus came up with the brilliant, Love the Lord your God with all your heart . . . But what if he had been asked what the worst sin was? Would he have been as good a theorist as René Girard to respond, Mimetic rivalry?
Vision has become a version.
Still, angels and demons are symbols you need guts to call symbols.
Do I contradict myself? Fine, then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain platitudes.
To be a saint: suffer appropriately.
Second thoughts are tinder for the flames of Hell.
The infinite distance between the passengers and the pilgrims.
The spirit is willing, but it is not real.
A tension is the natural piety of the soul.
Mysticism: my consolation for writer’s block.
Canetti said, That man interprets death. One might add, That death—interpreted, translated, transfigured—still confounds and sustains man.
Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must scream, laugh, grunt, cry.
I loathe, and incite my soul.
Let’s begin by admitting the big bang was a subtle thing, for, as no one was around to hear it, it was silent, and, as no one was around to compare it to anything, it could not have been big. Ultimately, the term, big bang, seems like special effects, a self-congratulatory assertion of science’s authority, a celebration of its ideas with fireworks.
Cold comfort: God is not forgetful; He is omnipatient.
On the Small Difference between Simplicity and Complexity
The rain that gives the roofers work sends the roofers home.
Appearances must be weightier than Being. Appearances must be supported by the mighty Being while Being requires only the support of a few mere Appearances.
Frost 2000: Good gates make good communities.
Our decisions are big though our lives are small.
After the French Revolution, Byron referred to humans as fiery dust. Now, after the Industrial Revolution and its assembly line, humans are more properly referred to as processed particles.
The modern search for truth too often seems like a search for some loophole in the jargon.
All around the world, the mighty ocean musters all its strength to cry pssst! and shhh . . .
The nature of self-awareness is misunderstood. It is not calm. It is vertiginous, a maelstrom. It happens to calm in times of trouble only because waves occasionally cancel each other out.
The project is not to destroy happiness but to make happiness possible, to humanize it. This, of course, requires discovering what the human is—an unhappy venture, indeed!
Love’s impossibility may be its only hope.
According to Joseph Campbell, the main lesson of the myths through the ages and across cultures is that one might actually, deep within, be sovereign, that one’s true self is majestic. Does anyone believe this anymore? Now, if you want people to go on quests, to change their lives, it might be better to tell them, You were not born to reign, but neither were they . . .
If only I had wished for a young man’s life of mistakes and repentances, long stretches of shame illuminated by moments of inspiration, then I would have everything I wanted.
On the Supposed Unity of Self
Just try explaining your friends to your friends.
Either the world is as I perceive it to be, or else I have been making constant perceptual misjudgments of the world in which case the world would not be the world, but at least it would be mine.
Into how many rivers have I stepped once?
Yesterday is only a day away.
The truth is not an answer but what is answered to.
—after Edmond Jabès
Beneath the streetlamp, snow sweeps
From dark to dark. To speak of facts
Is to go beyond the world.
To speak of the world is to go
Beyond facts. The godless night,
But still the search for a certain word—
A stack of books with spines like strata.
Arguments settled like dust.
Where the world ends, does the darkness?
No one could say.
The Book of Night opens with and contains
Each longing. The archangels
Protect those who seek the truth.
They make the truth
Impossible to find.
The rustling of a page is the rustling of a wing.
Try To Change the Mutilated World
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Try to change the mutilated world.
Of course, you feel powerless.
Of course, you wonder how far
Your voice will go. Of course, you despair.
Nothing changes until it does.
You must change the mutilated world.
Of course, you want to live in peace.
Of course, good yourself, you believe
The world is our spotless source, but
Ask those profiled, tortured, cleansed, slain,
And they will tell you: It is not.
You should change the mutilated world.
Of course, you are not blameless.
Of course, you are privileged.
Of course, you are too proud.
Of course, you like to sing, not demonstrate.
But you must change the mutilated world.
You have no choice: you must
Love and suffer and prophesize and act
Or else mutilate.
Michael Theune studied creative writing at the University of Iowa and the University of Houston. His poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in various journals, including Alaska Quarterly Review, The Iowa Review, The New Republic, Pindeldyboz, and Verse. Michael is a regular contributor to Pleiades, where he is a contributing editor. Michael also is the editor of Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns (Teachers & Writers, 2007), the first poetry writing guide to focus on the turn as a significant component in poems. He teaches English at Illinois Wesleyan University, in Bloomington, Illinois.
© 2008 Michael Theune