The Ethics of Language
February 1, 2005
Feb 1, 2005
7 Min read time
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely
Graywolf Press, $14 (paper)
Can death ever serve as a metaphor? How can a state that exceeds language and cognition reach beyond itself? In fact, death may be the terminal point on metaphor’s chain of associations. In media-saturated societies, death may seem to function less as a finality and more as a brief interruption of the ceaseless simulacra; yet for all the distance individuals and entire cultures endeavor to put between themselves and death, its power over the imagination never weakens. This is one reason the success or failure of the war in Iraq is being measured not by how long it takes to establish a democratic government there, nor by how long it took to overthrow and capture Saddam Hussein, but by the number of American soldiers killed. (The fact that the number of Iraqi casualties could never serve as this measure is a sign of how distorted our relationship with death can be.)
“The language of description competes with the dead in the air,” writes Claudia Rankine in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, a multi-genre poetry-prose hybrid that includes photographs, illustrations, and an extensive set of annotative endnotes. There aren’t all that many metaphors in Rankine’s text, but there is plenty of death, beginning on the first page with the loss of a sibling at birth and concluding on the penultimate page with a citation taken from the work of the famed poet-suicide Paul Celan (who himself seemed less interested in turning death into a metaphor than in turning metaphors into severe embodiments of mourning). Within the exigencies of the contemporary political and historical conditions that Rankine’s book sketches, how should one understand its insistent focus on death? Don’t Let Me Be Lonely’s lack of narrative structure and immersion in loss make literal readings difficult. Thus, the most frequently recurring visual image in the book is of a television screen’s static, indicating not an ending but a disruption.Rankine’s fraught project—the desire to be literal despite recognizing the impossibility of doing so—propels her text. Death may not be a metaphor, but it is the ultimate mediation. Because death cannot be depicted literally, Rankine clusters a set of themes around it: cancer, television, pharmaceuticals, loneliness. Each points to a life experienced elsewhere and an encounter with foreign bodies. In other words, each functions as metaphor does. At the same time, these mediating themes are cut by Rankine’s need to bear direct witness, a task for which metaphor may not be sufficiently explicit and urgent. Starting at least with Plato, it has frequently been felt that figurative language’s displacements of meaning make it a bit frivolous and potentially suspect. Rankine’s book grapples with this issue of how poetry can be taken seriously.
The question of art’s use value in a historical period that begs for humane and reasoned intervention informs the entirety of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Photographs, illustrations, and even endnotes are generally considered more immediately useful than poetry, which is partly why they feature prominently in Rankine’s book. (The ratio of endnotes to main text easily matches or exceeds scholarly proportions.) An indirect answer to the question of poetry’s usefulness might be found in the decision by Rankine, the author of three previous collections of poetry, to write this book primarily in prose—albeit a prose very close to poetry (the dust jacket categorizes it as “lyric essay/poetry”). But as the advertisements, debates, and commentary surrounding last fall’s battle for the presidency proved, useful language and imagery can quickly shade into tools of manipulation. Rankine understands this tendency for language to turn into propaganda. But despite her critical engagements with and refusals of its “news,” television remains the primary transmitter of knowledge in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely.
* * *
It is no wonder that a sense of loneliness, which Rankine eventually equates with “a feeling of uselessness,” is the book’s dominant mood. But loneliness and hopelessness can be employed—however cynically—as tactical responses: “I don’t know, I just find when the news comes on I switch the channel. This new tendency might be indicative of a deepening personality flaw: IMH, The Inability to Maintain Hope, which translates into no innate trust in the supreme laws that govern us.” This notion of “laws” should be read broadly to include the authority invested in language and image, as well as the social and economic systems that perpetuate inequality in the United States. It is no coincidence that Rankine’s waning hope is expressed at the end of a section describing then-governor George W. Bush’s callous reaction to the dragging death in Jasper, Texas, of James Byrd Jr. by three white men. Reduced to helplessly telling Bush’s television visage, “You don’t know because you don’t care,” the narrator implicitly asks, Where is there room for hope? And what happened to participatory democracy?
Are there more than a small handful of books of poetry and experimental prose being published right now that address these questions? This is the challenge Don’t Let Me Be Lonely proffers, despite being riven by its own doubts, hesitations, and contradictions. For instance, its attempt to outline an ethics of personal and social responsibility is never reconciled—regardless of the book’s imperative title—with the narrator’s feelings of isolation, admitted emotional aloofness, and sometimes painful self-regard:
My grandmother is in a nursing home. It’s not bad. It doesn’t smell like pee. It doesn’t smell like anything. When I go to see her, as I walk through the hall past the common room and the nurses’ station, old person after old person puts out his or her hand to me. Steven, one says. Ann, another calls. It’s like being in a third-world country, but instead of food or money you are what is wanted, your company. In third-world countries I have felt overwhelmingly American, calcium-rich, privileged, and white. Here, I feel young, lucky, and sad. Sad is one of those words that has given up its life for our country, it’s been a martyr for the American dream, it’s been neutralized, co-opted by our culture to suggest a tinge of discomfort that lasts the time it takes for this to happen and then for that to happen, the time it takes to change a channel. But sadness is real because once it meant something real. It meant dignified, grave; it meant trustworthy; it meant exceptionally bad, deplorable, shameful; it meant massive, weighty, forming a compact body; it meant falling heavily; and it meant of a color: dark. It meant dark in color, to darken. It meant me. I felt sad.
There is a danger in reading too literally here, a hazard Rankine’s text—and the accompanying images and endnotes—both invite and deflect. Of course, all experience is mediated, and the most direct representations and most literal language do nothing to change this. They only create a different set of meditations. In this sense, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely imagines not a solitary individual but a fractured nation alienated from its better possibilities.
* * *
There is one metaphor that figures conspicuously in Rankine’s text. In two separate passages, Rankine imagines herself writing a book on the liver. Her reasons? The incorporation of the word “live” in its name, its relation to thinking (indirectly posited through a quotation from Cèsar Vallejo), its failure from toxic shock due to drug use (pharmaceutical or not), and “the fact that it’s the largest internal organ next to the soul.” Rankine’s complex metaphor depicts the body of the writer and the body of the text as receptive to impurities but resistant to that which seeks to destroy them. These bodies, like the liver, are meant to process what is harmful not only to the individual, but also—extending metaphor’s chain—to the body politic (a diagram in her text helps elucidate this). The process of engaging with impurities leaves its mark—literally and metaphorically—on physical bodies, thereby rendering explicit the body’s connection to writing. Subtly and overtly, Rankine reminds the reader that this body is deeply inscribed by gender and race, even as it eludes fixed categories.
As the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has written, an ethical relationship with the other can never be rooted in use value, because usefulness ultimately transforms the other into an object, a process that destroys the ethical relationship—first and foremost because it may authorize the murder or enslavement of the other. One of the longer quotations in Rankine’s book is a passage from Levinas in which he states that “the first fact of existence is neither being in itself nor being for itself but being for the other.” According to Levinas, this “being for the other” must not in turn be made useful for fear of compromising the ethical relationship. For Rankine, ethics does have a use value: “Why are we here if not for each other?” A language rooted in ethics and social responsibility can indeed be useful without being manipulative and without making the other into an object. This ethics of language begins to be enacted when it understands that every I is multiple, every voice various, and every subject plural.
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February 01, 2005
7 Min read time