Please enjoy, if you can call how depressingly unchanged the world is, this Josh Ruffin column from 2012.
In 1967, literary critic Al Alvarez interviewed maniac poet and Received Pronunciation enthusiast John Berryman in Dublin, during the latter’s Guggenheim-funded sabbatical there. Berryman was, incidentally, using the time to write the “His Toy, His Dream, His Rest” section of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Dream Songs.”
Amidst many cigarettes, drunken gesticulating and snuff-quality audio, Berryman gives probably my favorite quote ever, regarding poetry, socio-cultural interactions or anything else. Discussing a biography he’d written on Stephen Crane, Berryman had the following to say: “Crane’s irony and grotesquerie were forms of response to things so ghastly, that you cannot respond to them directly.”
For Berryman, the phrases “hopeless solitude” and “the world as it is” are equitable. Ours is an existence so slap-full of tension and — at the risk of courting melodrama — despair, that direct engagement with these forces is an exercise in futility. Meeting them head-on, we cast ourselves in the role of whetstone to their debilitating potency.
It’s why we tell jokes at funerals, and why we let “Saturday Night Live” make fun of our idiot politicians instead of burning them in effigy. We actually tried that a few times, I think, but Newt Gingrich’s effigy took weeks to burn out, Santorum’s smelled awful and everyone within a two-mile radius suffered from OxyContin withdrawals after Rush Limbaugh’s last ember smoldered.
Okay, serious face again.
With regards to that quote, I had a topic for this week all picked out: Mitt Romney’s safest and/or craziest potential vice presidential picks. I was going to point out the fact that, no matter which direction his campaign goes, it’s going to be totally predictable: the safe route (Pawlenty, Rubio, etc.) reinforces his sickeningly milquetoast image, while a hard left turn (Sarah Palin, Ken Jennings) would only lend credence to the assertion that the Romney campaign is discombobulated, reactionary and is on the level of Scientology with the whole making-shit-up-as-we-go theme.
That column was to serve a threefold purpose: 1) I actually planned for it, so it would get me in under deadline for once, 2) I would get a chance to have some fun after a week in which so many of humanity’s turds came bubbling to the surface and 3) I would, again as per the quote, get to lay into something that pisses me off to no end — the fact that Mitt Romney has an honest-to-Odin, albeit slim, shot at becoming our president — with laxity, humor and maybe even a bit of actual wit and insight. And stir-fry was for dinner. All in all, the weekend was looking up.
And then Sunday happened. I’m not going to go into details. It’s approaching midnight here on August 5, and by the time this goes to print, you’ll have read everything there is to read about the horrifying incident that took place in Oak Creek, Wisc., not two hours from where my fiancée and I live.
The timing presents a dilemma: either do the original column and risk minimizing the impact of the shooting-related installment when it runs in two weeks, or totally scrap the original plans and see where this — a cocktail of shock, numbness, depression and a little boxed malbec — takes me.
It has gotten past the point — actually, we’ve long since been past the point — of wondering how we are supposed to keep addressing things like this. I wrote briefly about this in a recent column (regarding the shooting during the “Dark Knight Rises” showing in Colorado), but it bears repeating: Nothing is going to be done about gun control unless someone, from either party, mans the f*ck up and takes some serious, probably controversial, action towards making it a hell of a lot harder for the average Joe to obtain firearms.
Yes, I’m aware that many criminals acquire firearms and other weapons through illegal channels and means. I’m aware that bad people exist and, were it not for the lackadaisical regulations supposedly curtailing the purchase of dangerous weapons, they would still exist. People, in general, suck. Some just suck graphically, cosmically harder than others.
But here’s the thing: after barely a day’s worth of investigation, both shooters — Aurora and Oak Creek — were found to have purchased their weapons legally. The NRA says that “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” but, in the words of one of our foremost social critics (I say that only a quarter-jokingly), Eddie Izzard: “I think the gun helps.” Truly, a dead-eyed, orange-haired lunatic walking into a theater and punching a bunch of people would still be a weirdly jarring, unsettling event, but it would scarcely crack the local headlines.
This incident, like so many others before it, raises an intimidating, inconvenient multitude of issues, of which gun control is only one. Preliminary reports tell us that the shooter was not only an active member of various white supremacist organizations, but that he was a former soldier, stationed at Fort Bragg, no less, and was in fact denied a third tour of duty — due to a noticeable degree of mental instability.
Where is the rigorous mental health care contingencies that should be provided free of charge for our veterans? Something turned up on this man’s last military-conducted psychological profile that didn’t quite add up. And he was simply cut loose. Just like that.
I mean… holy shrieking Jesus. Can we at least get a mandate for a follow-up or something? My dentist schedules me for my next checkup as soon as he’s done cleaning my teeth, and I haven’t had so much as a cavity, ever. Are our military doctors really that much more careless than a fluoride treatment?
Most disturbingly, this tragedy once again underscores our hulking desensitization towards these types of events. 9/11’s impact was tremendous, but mostly because it was a direct attack on our home soil from a foreign-based military body, something that had not happened in 60 years up to that point. And I think we may have used up our national empathy reserves on that one, because things like this — Columbine, Aurora and now Oak Creek — are happening on a fairly consistent basis, while our national dialogue goes through the motions of grief and outrage, all the while buying time until the controversy subsides.
Politically, I get it. It’s a tricky tightrope, and you don’t want to grossly alienate any one demographic. But my god… when is enough enough? When will we reach the point that mandates actual, difficult discussion on the topic at hand? A high-level political assassination? Another domestic terror attack?
Both sides love to crow about the infringement on our national, cultural rights perpetuated by the “other.” And how convenient. The fact of the matter is this: Tragedy in this country is an olive branch made of plastic and wax. It promises, symbolizes multitudes, but delivers nil. It is a symptom of our collective hubris overshadowing a sense of common decency, not to mention the self-evident right to not get shot in the face. We do not, we cannot, engage these things directly. For Berryman, it produced a tortured genius. For the rest of us: torture.