Truth, Poetry, and the American Wall

Many may recognize this quote from Adam McKay’s movie The Big Short. My basic personality has a high tolerance and craving for repetition, and coupled with my love of cinema, I happily re-watch movies many times. I have watched The Big Short more times than I can recall. It is indeed a fine movie, in no small part because it was based on an excellent book by Michael Lewis.

This particular quote can be taken so many ways. Pregnant with cynicism and deeply contrarian, it leaves the audience with options. Dismissal of the negativity and condescension. Affirmation of a felt resonance. Perhaps a political snarl at the city of origin. And if you are one who savors poetry (I am), you may clutch something more literal from this observation. I probably feel each of those things, depending on the year and month I happen to be re-watching the film.

But this aphorism deserves an objective lens as well. One could take the flat view of what it is trying to say: most people hate truth. But if that was all that was intended, why invoke poetry, of all things? I agree that most people really don’t like poetry, and for several reasons, it seems like an apt choice.

Poetry is harder than it seems. Our expectations for poetry are formed during childhood, and when it becomes more complex later, it can make us feel stupid. A childish push-back occurs. Poetry takes work, takes learning, and takes investment. In the mean time, you can be made to feel dumb.

Poetry can be gotten wrong, both by the writer and the reader. I think of the poem Do not go Gentle into that Good Night, which I had understood wrongly for some time. But the stanzas stayed with me, and in digging into its history and context, I came to revise my understanding.

What poetry has to offer often proves painful. Poetry can capture the profound, the poignant, and the feelings that are otherwise difficult to say in words. That which often lies “too deep for tears” is anything but saccharine [ref]. Rather than going down easy, it catches in the chest.

Sometimes those who profess to like poetry actually spend their time treating it as a mere canvas for their own feelings. This human habit of hijacking one thing to be a proxy for ourselves is neither original nor isolated. The world, after all, is littered with the remnants of many failed romances, where someone’s love of their own feelings had been confused with love of the other person.

So the comparison between truth and poetry bears out on several levels. Like poetry, truth is hard. It demands maturity. It can make us feel dumb. It can be understood wrongly. It can be painful. It isn’t whatever we want it to be.

 

America today seems to struggle with truth. We even have tribes that fail to comprehend the basic construct of fact. Several warring banners seem to be accumulating their droves of followers. Partisan opinion and loyalties seem to have taken on fundamentalist fervor. Polarized wings of ideology each claim a sort of truth. And in the disillusioned middle, others seem to be nearly as fervent in expressing deep cynicism – or worse, nihilism.

In all of these areas, I see laziness of thought. Partisan fervor invariably orbits overly simple ideas, not nuanced and robust solutions. The kind of ideas that fit into 140 characters. Or perhaps on a post card. And as with any brand of fundamentalism, they like to claim certainty. The only real cure for our polarization is more humility, less certainty, and a rejection of simple-minded fundamentalist fervor. And that is where we hit an American wall:

The truth is not simple. And most people fucking hate what isn’t simple.

 

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