07 November 2010

Tapestry



 It hangs from heaven to earth.
There are trees in it, cities, rivers,
small pigs and moons.  In one corner
the snow falling over a charging cavalry,
in another women are planting rice.

You can also see:
a chicken carried off by a fox,
a naked couple on their wedding night,
a column of smoke,
an evil-eyed woman spitting into a pail of milk.

What is behind it?
--Space, plenty of empty space.
And who is talking now?
--A man asleep under his hat.

What happens when he wakes up?
--He'll go into the barbershop.
They'll shave his beard, nose, ears, and hair
To make him look like everyone else.

Charles Simic
(1999)

I love the sequence of disparate scenes opening this poem.  It reminds me of the numerous worlds we enter everyday - the worlds in books, in the newspaper, on the internet, the radio, and then our own physical world, of our hands, the things we smell and eat, the space we create.  Modern technology and media seem to be pulling and twisting us into places that are often difficult to define, and sometimes it feels a bit like this poem, like we're flashing through disconnected spaces without stopping to consider the consequences of our participation.    In an introduction to a collection of Wendell Berry's essays, Norman Wirzba writes:

What the purveyors of conventional wisdom often fail to ask, however, is whether the social and economic transformations they facilitate lead to an improper or inauthentic sense of human identity and vocation.

Although Wirzba in this passage refers to the mass migration of farmers to urban centers, similar effects can be observed from the mass migration of human minds to social media outlets.  While there are obvious benefits to the ease of communication created by these outlets, the result he describes - the inauthentic sense of human identity - echoes with an eerie familiarity to a generation whose friends include scores of people they have never shared a meal with, much less even met in person. 

"What is behind it?" "Who is talking?"  Simic asks us.  In a society where we are encouraged to communicate with just about anyone anywhere at any time, these things might be worth asking.  Sure, it may be gratifying on some level to know that we can instantly connect from anywhere, but that connection seems awfully tenuous when placed beside a physical one.   There are trees in it, cities, rivers, small pigs and moons.  What does your tapestry look like?

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