For my last semester in college, in an effort to be practical, I signed up for a graduate humanities course called “How to Live.” On the first day, the professor discussed the syllabus at length, then asked us to introduce ourselves. The air had drained from the room, and as I waited for my turn I could already tell there was a problem.
The artists I know are perfectionists, heartlessly so, because that is required. They will paint right over a failed canvas; they will rip out every stitch and start anew. The artist comes to her material with an mix of control and surrender, and her success seems to rely on her ability to grasp a material’s specific demands, while reconciling those with her own vision. There is something there, in the material, that works against you—which requires rigor, but might bring relief.
A few years ago, a woman in Spain attempted to restore a nineteenth-century church fresco, but in doing so ruined it completely. The result is less Savior than surreal simian, the delicate portrait painted over with a crude, monstrous “face.” Since the election it has been hard to shake the feeling that reality has been made worse, unrecognizable, in precisely this way.
At least when the monster exists in the world, we don’t need all this tiresome self-reflection. In politics, in Stranger Things, we know what we’re protecting, what we love (the townspeople! our way of life!) and we analyze the external enemy simply in order to defeat it. With any luck this upcoming election will be as cathartic as a T.V. plot line: the monster vanquished, security regained. No such luck with the inward haunting, which remains always unfinished, a wellspring of overthinking.
Adrienne Rich once said that poetry is “liberative language, connecting the fragments within us, connecting us to others like and unlike ourselves,” and whether or not that’s true, I’ve found that her work does have something to tell us about the fragmented individual and the collective whole—not just historically, but in the context of today’s muted urgencies, within the mutual ruin of the Anthropocene.