Friday, April 30, 2010

The Opposite of a Mine Disaster

When you take your pill
it's like a mine disaster.
I think of all the people
     lost inside of you.

Richard Brautigan, "The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster"

The above is the title poem from The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, a book by the strange American poet and author Richard Brautigan. I find this poem oddly compelling; Brautigan is one of my favorite poets. It lodged itself into my mind upon first reading, back when I was an undergraduate. It is a strange poem, a weak poem in many ways, but it contains a kernel of something important.

Sentimentality and Possible People

The most salient way in which this is a weak poem is that it is sentimental. The poem pretends to emotional truth, but in fact it carefully subverts it. Anthromorphization is a common means of sentimental truth-evasion; here, Brautigan anthropomorphizes ova.

A more common tactic is to impute human characteristics to blastocysts, fetuses, and even former fetuses. A widely-read email chain letter often called "Dear Mommy" uses this literary device:
Dear Mommy,

I am in Heaven now, sitting on Jesus’ lap. He loves me and
cries with me; for my heart has been broken. I so wanted to be
your little girl....

One day you cried almost all of the day. I hurt for you. I
couldn’t imagine why you were so unhappy. That same day,
the most horrible thing happened. A very mean monster came
into that warm, comfortable place I was in. I was so scared, I
began screaming, but you never once tried to help me. Maybe
you never heard me. The monster got closer and closer as I
was screaming and screaming, "Mommy, Mommy, help me
please; Mommy, help me."

Complete terror is all I felt. I screamed and screamed until I
thought I couldn’t anymore.Then the monster started ripping
my arm off. It hurt so bad; the pain I can never explain. It
didn’t stop. Oh, how I begged it to stop. I screamed in horror
as it ripped my leg off. Though I was in such complete pain, I
was dying. I knew I would never see your face or hear you
say how much you love me.

It is tempting to mock such literary efforts, but elitism does not help ordinary people get any closer to ethical truth. And such literary efforts are as influential as they are common.

What is the central untruth of the Brautigan poem and of the folk-literature letter? It is that suffering is falsely imputed to those who cannot experience it. And, in falsely imputing such suffering, the infliction of suffering on actual people is encouraged.[1]

Actually, the use of contraception in Brautigan's situation, and the abortion described in the folk-literature letter, are calculated to avoid the infliction of suffering on sentient beings. No one is "lost inside of" Brautigan's speaker's lover. The fetus in "Dear Mommy" does not actually "want" to be anybody's "little girl," nor did she experience terror. Only people brought into existence can do that. Avoiding bringing people into existence avoids suffering.

Things That Are Actually Like a Mine Disaster

1. An Actual Mine Disaster

The Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, beginning on April 5, 2010, killed 29 people. Eventually. It is not clear whether any of the miners actually wandered around "lost," or if they died too quickly to perceive anything. The families of those who died, though, certainly suffered.

2. A Nursing Home

My grandmother is dying. About a year and a half ago, she contracted a nerve disease that leaves her in pain so constant and intense that she spends a large portion of each day crying. On two occasions, her pain has been so intense, and has been complicated by weight loss, falls, and other problems, that she has had to enter a nursing home temporarily. The first time I visited her in the nursing home, I accidentally went to the wrong wing. I asked for my grandmother; they didn't recognize the name.

"Is she going to go home eventually?" a nurse asked me.

"Yes," I said.

"Then she's in the other wing," the nurse replied. I was in the wing where people stay for the rest of their lives.

I had already poked my head into a couple of the rooms looking for my grandmother. Some of them were awake. I was the only visitor.

3. A Megaslum

From BBC News, Africa: "Nairobi slum life: Kibera's children," by Andrew Harding:

It's 0600 and 11-year-old Eric Omondi is waking up. He's usually the first. Some of the others have sniffed solvent the night before, to try to take the edge off the cold. Eric doesn't like the solvent - it makes his chest hurt.

There are four boys in all, huddled under their cardboard blankets on the edge of Africa's largest slum.

. . .

The boys are laughing now - kicking a stone instead of their punctured football. And it makes me smile to think that these four dirty, hungry, lonely humans are still children at heart - still able to have fun.

Nairobi is full of street-kids who have lost that instinct. The dead-eyed zombies who patrol the roundabouts down town.

Ten-year-olds with plastic solvent bottles wedged between their teeth, brandishing balls of human excrement - ready to thrust them into an open car window - to force the driver to pay up.

A little later, Eric and his friends stop to pick up scraps of cardboard and coal sacks - tonight's sleeping bags. Later, when it's dark, they'll return to their usual spot on the pavement.

1. Brautigan, in particular, should know better; he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head at the age of 49. Had his mother used hormones to prevent herself from ovulating, he would never have had to suffer whatever personal horrors made him pull the trigger. There would have been no one "lost inside of" his mother. There would have been no Richard Brautigan "lost inside of" the world, either. It would have been better. I love Brautigan's novels and his poetry, but it is morally hideous, in my opinion, to imply that his suffering was "worth it" so that I could read A Confederate General from Big Sur.

We are not each other's instruments to do with as we choose. Babies are not our instruments to do with as we choose. But when we bring them into the world, we treat them that way.
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