Sunday, August 30, 2009

`In This He is Profoundly Mistaken'

Among the great American poems of the last half-century is Anthony Hecht’s “Green: An Elegy,” published first in The New Yorker (1971) then in Millions of Strange Shadows (1977) and Collected Earlier Poems (1990). A reader in the Bay Area wrote asking about Hecht’s work (and L.E. Sissman’s) and I recommended “Green: An Epistle” as essential to understanding Hecht and knowing the best verse of our age. Its theme is the virus-like machinations of the self, and the ways in which pride masks itself as virtue even to its host. Hecht accomplishes this not with moral abstractions about self-delusion but through the conceit of watching life evolve beneath the lens of a microscope. The speaker is holed up in a “grubby little border town / With its one cheap hotel.”

At 151 lines, plus an epigraph from Theodore Roethke, “Green: An Epistle” is too long to transcribe in toto and it appears not to be available online. Let the opening passage suffice:

“I write at last of the one forbidden topic
We, by a truce, have never touched upon:
Resentment, malice, hatred so inwrought
With moral inhibitions, so at odds with
The home-movie of yourself as patience, kindness,
And Charlton Heston playing Socrates,
That almost all of us were taken in,
Yourself not least, as to a giant Roxy,
Where the lights dimmed and the famous allegory
Of Good and Evil, clearly identified
By the unshaven surliness of the Bad Guys,
The virginal meekness of the ingénue,
Seduced us straight into that perfect world
Of Justice under God.”

This is withering, especially in light of the poem’s final line – in fact, its final two words. In 2001, the English publisher Between the Lines put out a book-length interview, Anthony Hecht in Conversation with Philip Hoy. Hecht discusses “Green: A Epistle” at length, saying it

“…is about the disguises of Pride. It is about how attempts to suppress the ego in behalf of some idealism or the desire to appear kind and generous will quietly and all unbeknownst to someone convert that suppression into a corruption of the soul, a deformity of spirit, and the longer the suppression goes on the more martyred and selfless one feels, and the more monstrous the deformity…The speaker…who is admittedly partly me, has succeeded in deceiving himself into believing that his long-suffering patience and forbearance, his stoic endurance, have paid off in the form of a noble and selfless character, and in this he is profoundly mistaken.”

Every honest reader will recognize himself and others in this gloss. After all, we see it daily in blogs, politics and families. Call it clandestine slippage into self-centeredness. In the interview, Hecht cites a passage from an 1887 story by Chekhov, “Enemies,” to bolster his case:

“In both men the egotism of the unhappy was powerfully evident. Unhappy people are egotistical, mean, unjust, cruel and less capable than stupid people of understanding each other. Rather than bringing people together, unhappiness drives them further apart, and even where it would seem that people ought to be joined by a similar cause of sorrow, they make themselves much more injustice and cruelty than in an environment in which people are relatively contented.”

I would suggest that cause and effect here can be readily confused. Selfishness creates unhappiness and unhappiness exacerbates pre-existing selfishness, and sometimes the states feed happily off each other.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the introduction, Mr Kurp.

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

D.G. Myers has just written in his post on Wharton's The Age of Innocence, "Man is tragically trapped between duty and appetite."

Such mortifications can't help but to produce rebellion. And this from Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray: "...your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful."

Great post.