Sunday, October 21, 2018

'Words, Morals, and Promises'

It’s a seasonal blight, these thickets of signs defacing lawns before Election Day. More toxic and less attractive than mushrooms after a spring rain, do they sway anyone’s vote? And why a dozen identical signs on a single lawn, all touting the same candidate? Are they analogous to Christmas lights or something more sinister? Politics for many has usurped the role once played by religion. Are the signs declarations of faith? Curses? Threats? James Matthew Wilson writes in “Autumn Road” (The Hanging God, Angelico Press, 2018):

“A few doors farther on, the lawn is spiked
With signs for candidates I’ve long disliked.
Just seeing their names induces in me fear
Less supernatural but much more near
At hand than those that haunt the children’s dreams.”

Even if I voted, I can’t imagine wanting to clutter my lawn with a candidate’s signs. There’s something tacky about it, and somehow it reminds me of the sort of driver who blasts bad music from his car with the windows rolled down. I’m not objecting to anyone exercising his First Amendment rights. My first objection is aesthetic. Then I reject what Joseph Epstein has called “dueling virtues.” In his notebooks, Michael Oakeshott has the definitive word: “Politics are an inferior form of human activity.” Today, they are the default mode for people looking for an excuse to get angry and believe in something.

“Autumn Road,” the final poem in Wilson’s new collection, is only incidentally concerned with politics. Eleven lines after the passage cited above, he returns to another sense of “signs”:   

“Where the ancient mind saw signs, ours now denies
To it all but the most material meaning.”

We’ve worked hard to drain the world of meaning. He follows the two lines just quoted with these:

“I’m not so sure. It seems that thoughts are leaning
Up against every fence post, and the earth,
Stared at, stares back and quietly brings to birth
Between us words, morals, and promises
Which we might overlook but can’t dismiss.”


Tim Guirl said...

One of the great ironies to me as a young man was that I was eligible to be conscripted and fight in the Vietnam War, yet was not allowed to vote. Since my return from a tour in Vietnam, I have voted at every opportunity.

I am not influenced by public political signs. I consider them a benign part of American life and much less tacky than much other yard ornamentation.

Don said...

Sadly, one cannot even express dismay over the pestilence of politics, much less abstain from the circus, without causing offense to the "informed voter." Such is the nature of our times.