Behind the Facades

Perhaps symbols have some meaning after all; otherwise, why bother trying to erase them? But if the symbol is a mask for a truth, why can’t the truth speak for itself? We all have a particular picture of ourselves, seldom the same picture others have of us. This seems true even with intimate relationships, long married couples, for example. We might come, after much experimenting, to value the simple and functional over the ornate and symbolic. But every creation of the human seems to suggest some facade, some outer covering or wrap behind which one might find origins, occasions, old arguments, claims, proposals – opposing viewpoints.

In Richard Ellmann’s “Yeats: The Man and the Masks” (1948), we may conclude the mask for Yeats was not necessarily a cover for something else (personality, argument, belief) but was the essence of being human. One is born with a mask:

“To start with its simplest meaning, the mask is the social self. Browning had spoken of two ‘soul-sides, one to face the world with,’ and one to show the beloved. But Yeats’s doctrine assumes that we face with a mask both the world and the beloved. A closely related meaning is that the mask includes all the differences between one’s own and other people’s conception of one’s personality. To be conscious of the discrepancy which makes a mask of this sort is to look at oneself as if one were somebody else. In addition, the mask is defensive armor: we wear it, like the light lover, to keep from being hurt. So protected, we are only slightly involved no matter what happens. This theory seems to assume that we can be detached from experience like actors from a play. Finally, the mask is a weapon of attack; we put it on to keep up a noble conception of ourselves; it is a heroic ideal which we try to live up to. As a character in The Player Queen affirms, ‘To be great we must seem so. Seeming that goes on for a lifetime is no different from reality.’ Yeats used to complain that English poets had no ‘presence,’ because they insisted upon looking too much like everyone else; a poet should be instantly recognizable by his demeanor. The poet looks the poet, the hero looks the hero; both may be deceiving others and they may even be practicing a form of deception upon themselves” (172-3).

Nations and communities, too, wear masks. We see them at holidays, parades, celebrations. Sometimes ideas are codified in by-laws, rules, expectations official and informal. I’ve never been much of a fan of fireworks, or for the 4th of July. The flag covers the coffin of the soldier coming home. Independence Day, though of course not independence for everyone. I used to look forward to the 4th because it was an extra day off work, and the block picnic, if there was some guitar busking going on, beer and potato salad – beans, burgers, and dogs grilled to a crisp, sure, why not? But the fireworks, dangerously loud, the dogs and cats howling and scurrying for cover, the smoke and the intersection filling up with the burnt cardboard shells. And all of it, as celebration, such a facade, a mask. Well, but comes the opposing viewpoint, maybe not. Maybe what we see on the 4th is not a facade, but the truth of things. Irreverent and irrelevant, bombastic. Or, as the poet Robert Creeley put it: “Ritual removed from its place of origin is devoid of meaning.”

 

Poem for Ones Who Know One When They See One

What W. H. Auden said
“In Memory of W. B. Yeats,”
not modified in the “guts”
or on the blog:
“For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives”
so there it is,
no one need worry.

“Encore! Encore! More! More!”
OK, ok, settle down;
this is no time for pathos, but,
“Wild nights – Wild Nights!”
Emily Dickinson reasoned,
racked with want on the windy,
open sea of her dainty,

daunting room of gloom,
and who knew better even
than the audible Auden
how poetry makes nothing
happen, again and again,
like seizures,
and so I give you this, this wildcalm night:

Poem for Ones
Who Know One
When
They See One:

Poem for Ones

On Downgrades and Grades; or, Dude, Score Thyself

Yesterday, in a post on her New Yorker blog, Close Read, titled “Rioting Markets,” Amy Davidson, commenting on a surreal week in our markets and cities, a week when one wondered, like Yeats wondered, if the center can hold, said, “We lost our credit rating, after all, in large part because of a riot by ostensible grownups in Congress.” What Amy is saying is that the reason for the downgrade was S&P’s feeling that Congress was unable to lower debt by increasing revenue (i.e. raising taxes), and based on what S&P’s David Beers said following, that the Bush tax-cuts should be repealed, we agree with Amy’s comment, but, and while Yeats could not afford to quibble, the gyre widening as he wrote, quibble we must with Amy’s saying “we lost our credit rating,” for we did not lose our credit rating. We were “downgraded” from AAA to AA+. And even to call this change a downgrade, while accurate, misses an opportunity to talk about the incredible and arcane chicanery of the rating system. It’s like school grades, only worse.

Here are the possible ratings that Standard & Poor’s might assign to an organization: AAA, AA+, AA, AA-, A+, AA-, BBB+, BBB, BBB-, BB+, BB, BB-, B+, B, B-, CCC to C. Was there ever a school report card this complicated?

In the recent S&P downgrade, the US was rescored from a grade of AAA to a grade of AA+. For comparison, think of student grades, think A-. Still a good score, excellent, in fact, right? But the general reaction to the S&P downgrade bears some similarity to the grade inflation in US schools, for an A-, as Louis Menand has pointed out, means failure where “American colleges notoriously inflate grades, but they can never inflate them enough, because education in the United States has become hypercompetitive and every little difference matters.” Thus, students who receive a grade of A- may react as if they’ve just been given an F.

But what does AA+ mean in S&P’s widening gyre? Basically, the score is a stress test. The scores indicate what economic stress level an organization ought to be able to bear and still withstand default. So what is economic stress, and how is that measured? S&P’s explanation for a score of AA includes the ability to withstand a 70% decline in the stock market. That’s like saying you ought to be able to chugalug a 5th of Southern Comfort and still sing the alphabet song backwards.

Switch to an imagined conversation between Bill and Ted. “What’d you get on the big math test, Dude?” “BB, Dude.” “Most excellent, Dude! Rock on!” An S&P score of BB indicates the ability to withstand a 25% drop in the stock market. Dude, score thyself.