I’m a fan of L.M. Sacasas’s substack, The Convivial Society, but his recent post on “Pity, Power, and Presence” has become a minor obsession for me.
In it, Sacasas argues that physical presence imposes a particular intensity of experience — which can make us think less of personal power and more about others, empathetically, with “pity” — “pity” here is meant not in a dismissive or degrading way, as people sometimes use it, but in a heartfelt way, a way that can humble us, and change our actions from selfish to generous.
He acknowledges that cruelty has a long and sordid in-person history, but argues persuasively that the “disembodied” interactions we experience online simulate the experience of brute dominance: we say what we want, we cannot be harmed, we are in control of what we do / do not admit… we exert our will through frictionless space, no other physical presences are there to evoke our pity. This means that the online interaction space can cultivate in us — in people presumably inclined towards more ethical behavior — the habitus of tyrants: selfish, cruel, uncaring, without pity.
Sacacas’s essay makes its points through reason but also example — examples taken from Homer and Tolkien in particular. And then, at the end, he includes in a final footnote an excerpt from W. H. Auden’s “Shield of Achilles”:
A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who'd never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.
At the end of Sacacas’s essay I commented, writing the only thing I could think after reading this, which was: “That bit of Auden in the footnotes will be chilling my soul for the foreseeable future…!”
But as the ideas in the essay rolled around in my mind for the next few days, I found myself coming back and back again to the feeling that something was missing. There was something important — at least important to me — being addressed in this essay that went unsaid, unacknowledged, unfleshed.
Finally I realized what it was: the fragment of poetry that chilled my soul. But not just that: also, the story of Priam coming to Achilles to beg for his son’s body, to beg for his dead son’s dignity, and them embracing, enemies weeping together in shared grief. And the story of Frodo’s fear expressed as a wishing-dead, and a wishing-he’d-killed, and Gandalf’s warning that it is much harder to harm someone when you’re in his presence, that in the moment, instead of being driven by fear to kill, you may feel pity.
The arguments of this essay ring absolutely true to me: yes, when we interact in online spaces, our frictionless, disembodied experience can make us tyrannical, terrible. And yes, physical presence can change everything.
This is something that matters to me a lot as a teacher who had to move much of my teaching online because of the pandemic. Teaching and learning require a relationship of trust that must be built, and that is something we do much better in person, in each other’s presence, where our bodily selves, in their vulnerability, evoke sympathy, pity, kindness, patience, confidence that we meet one another in good faith, that we are accomplishing something together that is good for us both.
This is also important to me as someone who is skeptical of social media, who quit facebook in August 2018 after 10 years of use, because I felt it was doing bad things to me and to others I cared about: to be specific, it was making us less kind to one another.
But then there is the third way this is important to me: as a writer. And this is the part that shimmers at the margins, unsaid.
Yes, this essay speaks of the humanizing power of embodied presence and the potential depravity of the “frictionless” disembodied experience, but it does so in “disembodied” essay made of words, communicated in a frictionless online space. When I left his essay, with those last lines of Auden lingering in my mind, my soul absolutely chilled by the image of the pitiless child who treats the world as it has treated him, paying forward its unthinking cruelty, I felt more human and more sympathetic and more vulnerable than usual, not less.
The medium is not, it seems, the whole of the message.
Some words make us feel, and what we feel when we read them is akin to what we feel in the presence of other humans.
In writing we talk of “fleshing out” our scenes and characters — there may be more to this metaphor than it seems: when we “flesh” our writing, we are also making it more “bodily” in the reader’s mind — in the sense that Sacacas means when he talks of “presence.”
So what makes some words poetry, and some other words just words? It’s not necessarily the medium. A substack essay could have a footnote that reads “Karen you are the QUEEN of Halloween!” (to select a random tweet that popped up for me just now) rather than the vivid image of the boy throwing a stone at a bird, and it would feel entirely different. The medium isn’t controlling this part of the message.
Maybe it’s obvious to state that the meaning of words matter, that the way words are arranged, their sound, and the web of connotations they carry, when it all arrives to our reading mind, that we make meaning not pre-determined by the medium that delivered them to us. Yes, it might feel a little different to read poetry on a webpage as opposed to a page in a book, but poetry that resonates with meaning can reach us by both of these channels, and in many other ways too.
And when I say “poetry,” I don’t necessarily mean verse, or a poem, I mean art. Art in the sense of the transcendent yet grounding, that which puts us in mind of our “soul” by making us feel with our bodies. Art, which does what Sacacas explains presence also does: it puts us face-to-face with the reality of others; vulnerable, human, we feel.
When “the made thing” is a thing that speaks to us, its voice is not dependent on being embodied, and in fact, most of the beautiful and awful and terrible things that have meant a lot to me in my life were composed by people who are dead, whose bodily selves are long gone. Willa Cather. Felix Mendelssohn. Salvador Dali. Dead, dead, dead. Yet these dead have made me feel through things they made that I experience bodily, even when they arrive via webpage. How do they do that?
I’m a writer and sometimes I write essays and sometimes poetry and sometimes stories, and sometimes I’m writing to friends and sometimes I’m making a grocery list and I’ve blogged and tweeted and posted on facebook, and when I teach I write syllabuses and assignments, and responses to student writing, and yearly reviews of my “performance,” and even to me it’s not really clear what makes some formulations of language art and other formulations non-art and other formulations insulting trash.
It’s not just high grammar and “literary” word choice. Consider this poem by Philip Larkin:
This Be The Verse
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
I love this poem. I have it memorized and recite it occasionally for students. While I didn’t follow the closing lines’ advice, and I don’t particularly blame my parents for fucking me up, I recognize the truth of this poem, and it makes me laugh while it also reminds me that the people whose actions affect us the most are still just people, who themselves were once helpless children in the care of yet other just people — just faulty, frail, imperfect, people, who maybe do the best they can and maybe their best isn’t good enough. The second word in the poem is “fuck,” and the poem’s rhymes and images are humorous enough to almost call it silly, and yet it means something to me. It resonates. There’s something humanizing in it, there’s something that makes me feel present to it, and feel the presences and humanity of not just the speaker and his “sloppy-stern” parents, but even those “fools in old-style hats and coats,” and of everyone who could read this and see something familiar in it, and find some humor and some grace there.
As I came to the end of Sacacas’s essay, I found my mind going from rational interest in the meaning of what he was saying to being absolutely gutted by a fragment of poetry. But when that happened, I realized it wasn’t the first time in the course of this reading that I’d felt something — I also was drawn into feeling the hurtful embrace of Priam and Achilles, and I was drawn into Frodo’s fear, the fear that makes him wish for harm, and the distinction Gandalf seems to draw between the fear we feel alone in our minds and the fear we will feel in the moment when we confront the person we wish was dead and killed, when we must contend with his living breathing being, his reality, his presence.
What is it that makes these formulations of words, stories and poetry, evoke in us something like being there? It is as though the “magic” of literature, the thing that makes mere phrasing into art, what makes it resonate, is connected to its ability to simulate embodiment — to transport us, so that words don’t feel like “just” words, and so the experience of reading doesn’t feel like frictionless mastery of a cruel, pitiless space, or fear alone in the mind that wishes for another’s death, or rage that drives us to drag the dead body of our enemy behind our chariot — the experience of reading sets us down in that place, whether real or not, whether now or long ago, whether nothing but a significant image in the author’s imagination, and makes us vulnerable there.
The effect is easy to feel — but what is the cause?
What makes Larkin’s poem art, while “My parents fucked me up — THREAD:” on Twitter is more than likely not?
I don’t know, but I have a theory.
One of the most essential but poorly understood aspects of writing has to do with the imagined reader in the author’s head as they write. We really can’t write without thinking of our audience: even if our audience is ourselves, and we’re imagining ourselves in the future reading what we’re writing. Our imagined reader and our relationship to them influence the shape and path of the words we work together on a page. Maybe it blatantly affects word choice and narrative movement because of our sense of their vocabulary and their interests — are they kindergartners or college students? Are they fans of a genre who don’t need genre conventions explained for them, or are they genre-novices who will benefit from more detail?
If we write poetry or fiction, we may eventually hear from our readers, but the culture of literary writing is slow, so it might be a while, and what they have to say will likely be something they mulled over a bit. And so when we write, we often imagine a slow, careful, thoughtful reader, and that affects how we write. We write slower, more thoughtfully, we anticipate intelligent analysis and reasonable questions. We write to those expectations. It’s a collaboration with an imagined reader who may never exist.
Many if not most online spaces are more social than literary, even if they are based in words. So in those spaces, when we picture our readers (not reader, but many readers), we are probably not thinking collaboratively; we are thinking in terms of social status and competition. In addition, things happen faster: we might expect the dopamine-hit of a “like” just seconds after tapping “post,” and then immediately crave another. We picture our readers as high-speed, harried, half-reading, attention-seeking, reaction-machines. We are thinking less about their thinking and more about what they will do: we want them to “engage” — click a response icon, comment, retweet, share… our audience online is less human than a collection of widgets whose utility lies in their ability to spread our message to more widgets.
This combination of 1) status competition, 2) instant extrinsic reward (social approval), 3) imagined frenzy of readers and 4) action-utility / instrumentalism (the audience is an instrument for getting more audience) stands in contrast to 1) collaboration, 2) slow intrinsic reward, 3) an imagined slow, thoughtful reader, and that 4) connecting with the reader in a deeper emotional, intellectual, ethical, just-all-around-humane way is the end goal. Not shares and likes, not upvotes and retweets. Not fame, not fortune, not followers: just invisible, unacknowledged, maybe-imaginary human connection.
In other words, the way we write when we write “literary” is different not because it’s elitist or high-falutin or so-deemed by some authority, it’s because the way we are thinking when we write slower and for individual human connection (as opposed to mass attention) is different. We think different, we write different, and the reader reads different, and even if it happens to be presented in the noise of a digital social space, that difference can persist, and can connect writer and reader in a collaborative act of language and imagination, that evokes human presence and humane feeling.
Just as cruelty can come to us both in the frictionless online, and IRL (for example when we are absorbed into an angry mob seeking blood vengeance), “friction” that connects us to our humanity can come in both embodied and disembodied forms, through physical presence, or through presence communicated in words.