In Stevens’ poem “Anecdote of the Jar” we are given a figuration of the way mind creates order but further of the way mind allows the rules of order to imprison our perception and limit our ways of being.
Anecdote of the Jar
by Wallace Stevens
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
It is a sterile construction, gray and bare, giving no life and no other possibility to the minds constrained by it. We cannot think of anything but the jar and how we define everything else in relation to it.
I like to play games; but I don’t like to play games either.
What I mean to say is I don’t like to lose and that I even really don’t like to win. I just like to play.
I don’t like a contest that requires the outcome be one of victory and defeat. This is senseless to me and is surely a “mannerism” of a culture of war.
I think the “end” of a contested game creates the kind of and style of player who partakes in the game. When I play a card game, like Hearts for example–really the only game I know outside of Go Fish and Crazy Eights, I get somewhat nervous and uncomfortable. The deal predicts the victor more often than not. A good player (cunning player) may be able to mitigate the damage of a poor hand, but often, your fate is sealed as the cards come into your hands.
As a player, it requires a kind of resignation and a kind of freedom to confront this “fate” and play the hand. I know it’s a bad hand, what should I do? Play “safe?” Everyone knows that playing safe frequently leads to playing badly–playing with hesitation and without vision. Which is the less bad play is often the worst play.
Why do we play safe? Because we know we cannot win and “wish” or hope that in playing safe, playing “smart,” that we may surprise ourselves and play with such skill that we actually win. Playing safe though is hoping not to lose. This is a truly false hope.
Playing a game to win (and so not to lose) requires a particular outlook and requires choices based on that first rule–thou shalt win/lose.
If I am not afraid of bad hands, and so not afraid of losing (and in Hearts, not afraid of taking too many points) then I might play that hand with abandon and extravagance. The outcome is irrelevant to the way I want to play.
In fact, I would assert that to play with abandon and extravagance in the process of losing is to learn a great deal about how to play; learning that won’t occur when you are playing to mitigate the outcome of a bad hand within the parameters of the rules of “outcome-competition.” I would further assert that human creativity and collaboration require freedom from the very idea of detrimental loss. I am well aware that perhaps our greatest art comes out of the confrontation of grief and pain born of loss, but I think our very existence teaches that lesson, don’t you?
Emerson, as always, said it best (and seems to me always said it best in this particular essay) in “Circles.”
The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment. The great moments of history are the facilities of performance through the strength of ideas, as the works of genius and religion. “A man,” said Oliver Cromwell, “never rises so high as when he knows not whither he is going.” Dreams and drunkenness, the use of opium and alcohol are the semblance and counterfeit of this oracular genius, and hence their dangerous attraction for men. For the like reason, they ask the aid of wild passions, as in gaming and war, to ape in some manner these flames and generosities of the heart.
The limitation of competition is a limit on the freedom of action and the freedom of mind. Victory is always a losing proposition.
In Moby Dick (1851) Melville has his narrator and authorial conscience Ishmael mock his own insignificance regarding his whaling voyage and his own profundities upon reflection and conveyance of these depths of thinking. He places his experience between two large INANITIES which assert Providential importance in Western “civilization.”
And, doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this:
Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States
Whaling Voyage by one Ishmael
BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN
Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in farces…
As an example we can visit Chapter 4 of Typee, Melville’s first book (1846), a fictional account of his trip to the Marquesas and Polynesia (Micronesia) in 1842. It is of note that the first “Anglo-Afghan” War took place from 1839 to 1842.
The French, although they had gone through the ceremony of hoisting their colours for a few hours at all the principal places of the group, had not as yet visited the bay of Typee, anticipating a fierce resistance on the part of the savages there, which for the present at least they wished to avoid. Perhaps they were not a little influenced in the adoption of this unusual policy from a recollection of the warlike reception given by the Typees to the forces of Captain Porter, about the year 1814, when that brave and accomplished officer endeavoured to subjugate the clan merely to gratify the mortal hatred of his allies the Nukuhevas and Happars.
On that occasion I have been told that a considerable detachment of sailors and marines from the frigate Essex, accompanied by at least two thousand warriors of Happar and Nukuheva, landed in boats and canoes at the head of the bay, and after penetrating a little distance into the valley, met with the stoutest resistance from its inmates. Valiantly, although with much loss, the Typees disputed every inch of ground, and after some hard fighting obliged their assailants to retreat and abandon their design of conquest.
The invaders, on their march back to the sea, consoled themselves for their repulse by setting fire to every house and temple in their route; and a long line of smoking ruins defaced the once-smiling bosom of the valley, and proclaimed to its pagan inhabitants the spirit that reigned in the breasts of Christian soldiers. Who can wonder at the deadly hatred of the Typees to all foreigners after such unprovoked atrocities?
Thus it is that they whom we denominate ‘savages’ are made to deserve the title. When the inhabitants of some sequestered island first descry the ‘big canoe’ of the European rolling through the blue waters towards their shores, they rush down to the beach in crowds, and with open arms stand ready to embrace the strangers. Fatal embrace! They fold to their bosom the vipers whose sting is destined to poison all their joys; and the instinctive feeling of love within their breast is soon converted
into the bitterest hate.
The enormities perpetrated in the South Seas upon some of the inoffensive islanders will nigh pass belief. These things are seldom proclaimed at home; they happen at the very ends of the earth; they are done in a corner, and there are none to reveal them. But there is, nevertheless, many a petty trader that has navigated the Pacific whose course from island to island might be traced by a series of cold-blooded robberies, kidnappings, and murders, the iniquity of which might be considered almost sufficient to sink her guilty timbers to the bottom of the sea.
Sometimes vague accounts of such thing’s reach our firesides, and we coolly censure them as wrong, impolitic, needlessly severe, and dangerous to the crews of other vessels. How different is our tone when we read the highly-wrought description of the massacre of the crew of the Hobomak by the Feejees; how we sympathize for the unhappy victims, and with what horror do we regard the diabolical heathens, who, after all, have but avenged the unprovoked injuries which they have received. We breathe nothing but vengeance, and equip armed vessels to traverse thousands of miles of ocean in order to execute summary punishment upon the offenders. On arriving at their destination, they burn, slaughter, and destroy, according to the tenor of written instructions, and sailing away from the scene ofdevastation, call upon all Christendom to applaud their courage and their justice.
How often is the term ‘savages’ incorrectly applied! None really deserving of it were ever yet discovered by voyagers or by travellers. They have discovered heathens and barbarians whom by horrible cruelties they have exasperated into savages. It may be asserted without fear of contradictions that in all the cases of outrages committed by Polynesians, Europeans have at some time or other been the aggressors, and that the cruel and bloodthirsty disposition of some of the islanders is mainly to be ascribed to the influence of such examples.
Today we repeat the mistakes recorded in Typee, the mistaken idea that the White European (Americans) are civilized rather than violent brutalizers, as well as assigning particular importance and meaning to human farce converting triviality to tragedy. Today we require our population believe that competition is the highest form of “relation”–that money is the laurel of victors–that capital consumption yields the highest good. Today we cheer on sports teams (and bet on them) at all levels of human growth and maturation–from t-ball to the wealthy slaves of professional sports teams; today we cheer on drone strikes and mercenaries as long as they fly the flag of victory named America. But it seems to me that America is a construct all of us “pay into” that serves only the designs of one constituency.
In the second section of The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt argues that imperialism’s animating impulse is expansion for expansion’s sake. Against the claims of some Marxists, she insists that capitalism provides a model, not a motive, for the imperialist, who patterns the acquisition of power on the accumulation of capital. The capitalist sees money as a means to more money. The imperialist sees every conquest as a way station to the next. Cromer looked at Egypt and saw India, Rhodes looked at South Africa and saw the world. ‘I would annex the planets if I could,’ he said. So it is today: Afghanistan leads to Iraq leads to Iran leads to who knows where? ‘The famous domino-theory’, Arendt wrote, is ‘a new version of the old “Great Game”’. As Kipling said, the Great Game finishes only ‘when everyone is dead’. (Corey Robin, “Dragon-Slayers“)
Today we place a jar in Afghanistan, and Yemen, and Iraq, and Iran, and New Orleans, and Chicago…
Today we cannot think beyond nationalism.
Today we cannot think beyond competition.
Today we cannot think outside the “port in air” of individual self-regard.
Today the jar is our only way of thinking and so we are unthinking.
But the sad fact is that Today is Yesterday and Tomorrow.