A place for the perplexed: Part two


by Emilio DeGrazia, 8/25/08 • Whitman, poet of democracy, urged us to be tolerant and large, to contain multitudes, to connect and make passages to all parts of the globe. So it’s tempting to think boyishly big again—to be stirred by the democratic idealism of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism and to cheer on the new globalism. The technology to do so is at hand, literally. In the techno-moment of our current now how can I not be lured into cyberspace and the globalism it empowers? I feel the urge to sign on, until I lie down and the feeling passes with the nap my body requires. Where in my dreams is cyberspace? I see millions of fingers circling away billions of hours each day on mouse pads, pointing and clicking their way through a maze so staggeringly dimensionless that I can only be, when I turn the machine off, well, mazed, and fairly certain I’ve caught the flu. As websites distance my eyes into more websites, all the windows in the house close in on the ones inside the machine. Where am I there? At a desk in a room lost in noplace. I’m reminded of how my efforts to think my way through the Milky Way burns black holes into my mind. If space is too spacy for me to think comfortably about unless I shrink it to a sentiment about stardust love, cyberspace takes the romance out of being far out. Yes, I now am required to go about the business of business, research, and even entertainment there, but every one of my mouse movements loses me in a screen cluttered with ads so much like the little doors mice have to open in order to get at a real piece of cheese.

Emilio DeGrazia (edegrazia@winona.edu) has authored four books of fiction, including Seventeen Grams of Soul, winner of a Minnesota Book Award, and Enemy Country, winner of a Writer’s Choice Award. A founding editor of Great River Review, he has co-edited (with his wife Monica) 26 Minnesota Writers and 33 Minnesota Poets. His most recent book is a collection of essays entitled Burying the Tree, from which “A Place for the Perplexed” is taken. He lives downstream in Winona.

Conjure the paralysis that struck the centipede who was asked which leg it first moved. As the planet gets more crowded with people and machines, and as I have more and more to remotely control, I pinch myself into assurance that my body is also a place I don’t want going senseless. Those who are religiously contemptuous of life on earth may find solace in living on-line. Everyone else still needs to walk, swim, hoe gardens, party and snooze.

I find it wearying to fight our common doom, the boundaries of biological inheritance. For millennia my ancestors have managed to survive by wandering in and around villages, where wrangling with kinfolk was the main interruption of the ordinary rhythms tuned to the making of babies and bread. This species, and its small redundant labors, survived until now even the brutal attacks by warlord Others. “The human brain evidently evolved,” we’re told by a scientific American,

to commit itself emotionally only to a small piece of geography,
a limited band of kinsmen, and two or three generations into the future.
To look neither far ahead nor far afield is elemental in a Darwinian sense.
We are innately inclined to ignore any distant possibility not yet
requiring examination. It is, people say, just good common sense.
(Edward O. Wilson, Scientific American, Feb. 2002)

If the village is to be suddenly global, I’ll have to evolve new genes making me fit to survive in it, while developing a taste for every new Wonderbread some Dr. Frankenstein has in store for me. Once wired into full global citizenship I’ll also have to learn how to make much larger rounds within countless complex systems I can never hope to understand or control. I’ll have to achieve pure Process, my fate and faith tied to an alien Progress so fast-moving it can only leave the routines of ordinary village life in its wake. I need time to think about all this. Will the new complexities give me enough time to fathom the shallownesses that no doubt will run even more deeply in me? Will the centralization of complexities create vulnerability of the whole rather than of wide-spread parts? Will I have to defend everything or have only my self to defend? Given the pace of change, how will I ever stabilize myself? As my brilliant mind expands to meet each new challenge, will I lose my common sense? Will I have enough time to have pasta on the porch, talk a walk, then kiss my lovely wife Monica?

I suppose I could try getting away from it all, taking my lead from Odysseus or Kerouac, both of whom set precedents for the hit-and-run as a way of life. I rather enjoy the kind of distanced learning that gives me a chance to gawk at a Chartres or Roman ruin. But as tourist I’ve also seen the eyes that say “Yankee Go Home.” Those eyes tell me that I’m rich and they’re poor and it’s just not fair and mainly my fault. They also accuse me, indiscriminately, of being an invading grave-robber trying to expropriate, in swift sightseeing swipes, the authenticity and authority of hard-earned cultural shrines. I don’t belong here, the accusing eyes say, have no property rights, because I never lived here and have no feel for the place. Worse, I am ruining the runes, despoiling them as any conquering army would. Little wonder that I leave big tips and tire so easily on these tours, nagged by a sense that there’s an important letter in the mailbox at home that I have to get to immediately.

I return from my tourisms sobered by a feeling that people in faraway lands have a sense of the sacred about their places that I have yet to find or earn in mine. The value I desire is often vaguely out there, luring me somewhere else. I’m tempted to crank up the Ford and gorge it with Mobil oil so I can drive westward into a sunset too beautiful to shed light on the messes along the way, my exhaustion hovering over cityscapes invisible in a rear-view mirror small above a windshield that widens into a vista of virgin forests and fields. Let me hit at this virginity and run, for I can’t go home again—certainly not there, Dearborn, where I was so dearly born and would feel especially homeless now. For me, like most good Americans, a birthplace is the first episode in unsettling odysseys that dismember families over hundreds and thousands of miles. A home town is often neither home nor town so much as waystation to the next workstation, usually away from a town. No thank you again: Place as disposable commodity will not do.

Divorce comes to mind, along with taxes and death, as I try to conjure my home and address, both as field of force and real estate. Where can I have a long-term relationship, be engaged, married, finally settled, and defined? I’m wary of how property lines are drawn, especially since Ambrose Bierce explained boundaries to me in his remarkable dictionary as no more than “imaginary lines separating the imaginary rights of one…from the imaginary rights of another.” In the murky waters of Old Man River near my Winona home I’ve never seen the line requiring me to pay taxes on the Minnesota side, or the border some four hundred miles due north that forbids my pledging allegiance to Canada, a place not unlike my own. I wonder: To what flag should I pledge allegiance? Dante Alighieri’s conclusion troubles the mind, his damning Brutus and Cassius to the deepest circle of hell for betraying Caesar rather than the Roman state. E.M. Forster, capable of only two cheers for democracy, says he’d betray England before he’d betray a friend. I pass through alien neighborhoods, conjure the absences there of the hundred million unknown soldiers (give or take a few million) who in the past century alone saluted their various flags mainly because of accident of birth, all the unknowns lying dead in the mud, their complaints about taxes and death frozen in open-mouthed silences. More than a few separations and divorces lie there still.