In the summer of 2012, I was finishing up my job coordinating an after-school arts program for children living in public housing, after a year of working with the world’s most cynical boss (“Most of these people,” this person once said to me, “are lazy scum”), while also housesitting for a friend who was in Greece with his family, watching his two dogs, two cats, and his daughter’s Chinese water dragon. Despite the lack of air conditioning in the house, there were perks: he had the nicest kitchen you could imagine, and one of the biggest vinyl collections I had ever seen. One afternoon after coming home from work, I sat in the den and poked through one of the stacks of records: Kate Bush, Paul Simon, Men At Work—I had found his 80s section. But I settled on one, Document by REM, because I had heard only one song of theirs up to that point, “Losing My Religion,” and because I wasn’t in a Kate Bush kind of mood.
Sometimes I jokingly tell friends that my goal in life is to live comfortably in contingency. If I believe in any sort of agency at all, in any kind of control we can claim over the world’s waves, I believe we find it only when we acknowledge how little of it we truly have. And listening for the first time to “Exhuming McCarthy”—I loved it for its disconcerting poppy-ness, its sharp irony, its explicit criticism of the burgeoning sense of American exceptionalism during the Reagan Administration (Peter Buck, who felt the country under The Great Communicator had turned into an amusement park, had suggested an alternate title for the album: Last Train To Disneyland. While I’m taken by the sentiment, I think we can all be glad the title suggestion was vetoed. )—I could only think of my boss one morning telling me that Bill O’Reilly “spoke the God’s truth on his show,” and that government interventions like public housing and food stamps only served to imprison folks and overtax the people who really made this country tick.
I’m sure we all know the old arguments: welfare either equals the playing field, or it acts as a debilitating crutch; that big government is working to protect this country’s most vulnerable, which is the bedrock of any democracy, or it’s an insult to the principles of self-governance upon which America was founded—but when talking about poverty, I don’t think the question posed is about Republican vs. Democratic values (though I think it’s clear at this point where I stand between the two poles). When talking about poverty, I think we’re talking about agency: what do we have to do, what do we need, to be able to live most freely?
The turn in Document, to my ears at least, occurs on “Fireplace,” where the unbridled, seemingly blind optimism of the first half of the album gives way to something a little heavier, a little more unsettling: the song opens with Michael Stipe rather bluntly chanting, “Crazy, crazy world / crazy, crazy times.” And it’s true, in 2015 as it was in 1987, when the album was first released: we’re living in a crazy, crazy world, in crazy, crazy times. Instead of the Iran-Contra Affair, we have ISIS; instead of the Berlin Wall, we have Bobby Jindal’s (fabricated) “no-go” zones. Last month, writing to a mentor about how dismal everything had seemed recently, he responded: “I find myself fighting depression over the state of the world, despite also feeling tremendously lucky. But there are moments when things fall together and meaning and hope preside.” I sent off a quick response, taken from one of George Oppen’s letters that my mentor had reminded me of: “I think there is no light in the world but the world, and I think there is light. My happiness is the knowledge of all the things we do not know.”
There are no all-encompassing answers to the questions I’ve raised—and I suppose if I were serious about living in contingency, I wouldn’t aspire to any. But there’s a distinct difference between rejecting all-encompassing answers and rejecting answers in general. Says W.S. DiPiero on John Keats, whose Negative Capability George Oppen is surely alluding to:
We travesty Keats’s inquiring, sensuous intelligence, however, if we cite him as an endorsement of the unwillingness to pass judgment, to evaluate, to assert or deny. Negative Capability is no counsel for failed nerve. Keats was advising himself to be patient in the quest for definitiveness. It is counsel of patience of the imagination.
Coming to a close with the album, on what must be my 50th or so listen in the past couple weeks, the lyrics seem more and more prescient, despite—or perhaps because of—Michael Stipe’s typical, obfuscating style:
Oddfellows local 151 behind the firehouse
Where Peewee sits to prove a sage to teach
Peewee gathered up his proof
Reached up and scratched his head
Fell down and hit the ground again
Pewee the sage is left scratching his head; Peewee the sage finds himself ultimately deposed and grounded. Rilke might say he’s been forced to “live the questions”; and much as I’ve repeated that little quote like a balm against my own confusion, I’m reminded now that, despite how comforting Rilke means to be, living the questions is at the end of the day uncomfortable. Agency, contingency, Negative Capability, questions: no, no, no. Or, maybe, maybe, maybe.
You see, at the end of the day, in whatever psychic or existential discomfort I find myself in, I rest assured for some reason knowing that I can say “end of the day.” End of the day, at least Peewee can fall down and hit his head on the ground. End of the day, I’m thankful and, like my mentor, feel tremendously lucky knowing that at least there’s a ground for Peewee to hit. I’ve got no answers—how do we live most freely?—but if any virtue is forced onto us, it’s patience, and I guess I’ve got some time.