Maybe it is human nature to want to solve problems. There is a sense of the dialectic working in history, however, that suggests our good intentions often are misdirected somehow. We contribute to some transformation unknowingly that is called history and that does not usually have the intended good result we desire. Somehow the forces-that-be refuse to acknowledge our intent, and so the result of the mess is offered for our ongoing instruction. At least this is my feeling of something Hegel may have said. I don’t claim to even half understand anything he writes, but I do like this sense of history. Or perhaps this is closer to Walter Benjamin’s perceptions of how words and symbols operate in the world, and you can feel this tension in Adorno’s Minima Moralia, where our own compromise in modernity is made through the failed agency of the self to adequately feel its own displacement even as its arguments are asserted. The genetic urgency of preservation comes into conflict with the ameliorating social values to which we are to pay lip service. The lovely old Enlightenment notions have been flushed now, and Iraq is the symbolic registration of the sewage that remains. Katrina, too, instructed its television audience on the ways of the future.
Gloria Frym’s newest book of prose and broken line poetry, Solution Simulacra, looks at the problem of how we live now that our Enlightenment past has begun a recession into memory. Her work offers unflinching examinations of the problems we inhabit and the internal pressures they exert on our lives. These are more than works of protest, though they do surely denounce ‘George the Lesser’ and the employment of ‘Air-conditioned tanks’ in Iraq. These poems look, more importantly, at the staggering conflicts of self-interests that have extended over the post-9-11 world. There is a kind of hierarchy of delusive, self-intrusion onto the social order. However bad ‘George the Lesser’ and his policies be, there is also a street level meanness and duplicity at work. In ‘Next,’ Frym writes:
A new emotion called Backwards
All words mean the reverse
Hello inflicts a physical wound Goodbye says we’re coming to get you
No one can safely observe the American present from a distance and comment on it without sensing the kind of inner contradictions that are active socially. Our very language is helping us cannibalize one another by sending out distorted signals and violent understatements that are reinforced with a kind of blood lust. To hold a job and drive a car puts the individual into a compromising situation, because to do these things (or to heat the house, whatever), means we are taking resources that we cannot replenish. Someone somewhere suffers for our velocity and our warmth. There are social and psychic versions of this too.
Frym asks hard questions, and tries to burrow into the mounting social issues of our day, as they are perceived at the level of individual praxis. ‘Why do people get the face they deserve,’ she asks. ‘Why not another face that someone else deserves? One’s face could be mistakenly placed on a body that didn’t belong with it. After a facial, the surface is red, inflamed from the fussing. Perhaps the eyes reveal the soul perhaps not, perhaps the soul is under construction. Countries engage in face-offs. One goes about one’s business without a face.’ The central metaphor of masks and the ‘face-offs’ going down geopolitically are rooted in the personal too. With the soul ‘under construction,’ Frym has the human decency to think quickly and challengingly about the day-to-day engagements we make in the world — a world beyond our control in one sense, though in another, it is also the very fabric of our personal will.
Frym’s work examines the macro-micro connections of people and place to apprehend the dull ache of geopolitical fallout in the psyche of a craven people. In the title poem, ‘Solution Simulacra,’ she observes the ‘many award winners present, each kissing a cheek and [how] one bought the drinks so they could argue about solution.’ Frym notes how the ‘revolutionary shows no surprise,’ and she connects the events of daily life to the war in Iraq. ‘First,’ she says, ‘suck all the money out of the house to fashion the haute couture weapons,’ suggesting that our lives are simulated expressions of some larger thing, some urgency that speaks through the desperate social present we inhabit. Our emotions and gestures mask some other more sinister registration of the present. ‘Prophecy,’ she says, ‘worked previous centuries but now / Nobody from then knows the trouble we’ve seen.’ Even if a prophet arrived on the scene, who would listen? The ghostly landscape of Frym’s America is void of a more complex body of feeling — souls capable of reception of the news that we have entered a kind of collective degeneration — a sure sign of ultimate failure.
Robert Musil’s keen apprehension of the approach of barbarism in Europe reminds me of some of the cautions Frym brings to her book:
What people refer to as intellectualism in the negative sense, the fashionable intellectual haste of our time, the withering of thoughts before they ripen, is caused in part by the fact that we seek depth with our thoughts and truth with our feelings without noticing that we have it backwards, and are often disappointed at not getting anywhere. Sweeping ideological attempts like Spengler’s are quite beautiful, but they suffer today from the fact that far too few of the inner possibilities have had the ground prepared for them. One simply explains the World War or our collapse first by this, then by that cluster of causes; but this is deceptive. Just as fraudulent as explaining a simple physical event by a chain of causes. In reality, even in the first links of the chain of causality the causes have already flowed and dissolved beyond the scope of our vision. In the physical realm we have found an accommodation (the concept of function). In the spiritual realm we are completely helpless. Intellectuality leaves us in the lurch. But not because intellect is shallow (as if everything else had not left us in the lurch as well!) but because we have not worked at it.
Frym, evaluating her own situation as a thinker, does the kind of work Musil suggests here. She looks for a way to see the present without the illusion of causality to distort the deeper impact of human agency on events. In ‘Not You,’ the ironically titled creation story in this collection, Frym notes the contradictory design of human feeling and burrows with care in her words to turn up the conflicting evidence of psychic composition. ‘Once the earth was a lonesome ball with no inhabitants,’ she writes. ‘Then came well-defined heads. Active feeding and predatory behavior followed immediately. A hydra appeared, a net of nerve cells at the mouth of an organism, surrounded by a ring of tentacles that numbed and poisoned its prey. Heads evolved from mouths — the I and the You are primitive, for their mouths are what drew them together. High density of neurons. The front of the animal most efficiently meets its prey. Some are always actively feeding others. Heads became a driving force in evolution.’ ‘Heads,’ like the ‘faces’ of the earlier poem, are metaphors for the ugly striving after solutions that create even greater problems. The head and mouth are the great failures of evolution in Frym’s mythos. The predatory instinct is represented in these figures and through the ironic gesture of the title — ‘Not You’ — we are forced to identify with the metonymic figures and through them to see our history and our fate.
Solution Simulacra offers a penetrating vision of human failing, but it also brings relief through that knowledge. In its relentless attempt to implicate individual powers in the ongoing degeneration of the world of Enlightenment, the book condemns the blame-someone-else notion of causality that infests Americans with notions of superiority and perceived self-innocence. Rhetorically shrewd, Frym designs her poems to make hermeneutic connections between things and their simulated values. To this end her poems pursue a distinction between image and vision.