The reframing here is about figuring aspects of reason – skepticism, the questioning process – as part of imagination.   How can we use our reason, considering our tendency to ignite ourselves with it?  Excessively, with absurdity – modestly, with humility – not for control, but for pleasure, and for political practice in imagining new futures.  Learning to hear what’s silent and to read the unreadable. A subjectivity that isn’t about glory, a reason that isn’t about empire, a tender satire?  Rewrite the journey, rewrite the child, rewrite the sun, rewrite the sum

 

 

 

 

 

One of the hallmarks of problem solving in our market age is a pile-up of “solutions,” each of which begets further problems. Suffering from a layoff, the anxiety of precarity?  Try SSRIs, or for information onslaught, Adderall – then other drugs to manage the side effects of the first.  Resource problems? There’s always Newt Gingrich’s moon colony.  Rather than examine root causes, we sell cures for side effects and beget marketable results.  These feats of engineering may be logical – in the sense of proceeding step by step from a premise – but the premises in question are false.  If we strip-mine our planet, there won’t be another, cleaner, better one on the moon.  “Logic” that tells us otherwise is sleight-of-hand, misdirection cloaking the operations of a brutal system. These operations desperately need unmasking.  And for that reason among others, I’m intensely grateful for Brent Cunningham’s satire and critique of reason, Journey to the Sun.     

 

The book opens with a quote from Charles Peirce, which proposes that logical investigation “carried sufficiently far” must ultimately uncover the truth, even if that truth only comes to light when the human race is dead and gone:  “if, after the extinction of our race, another should arise with faculties and disposition for investigation, that true opinion must be the one which they would ultimately come to.”    This lofty argument sets up Journey to the Sun’s satire in miniature.  Reason, if allowed to journey on and on, will arrive at truth.  But this is a truth without human witness, divorced from what it means to live on earth.  In the book’s action, Cunningham explores this proposition to the hilt – what would happen if an individual could really leave earth behind and live in solitary splendor?  The results are investigated through multiple types of ego:  poetic, academic, scientific, corporate – and they look much like our frightening world of driveways, coal and “the business of business.”

 

A versification of a boy’s rocket-ship expedition to the sun (“wherein the Author recounts his travels, at the tender age of Thirteen, to the Source of All Life”), Journey’s travel narrative is a perfect structure for this content:  reason’s steps toward truth are made physical, actual, and playful.  In deft parody, several types of travel story are rendered in exuberant, almost “berserk” language.  The fireworks start in the first poem, which itself contains more exclamation points (10!) than you’d find in many books.  Also in the first poem:  all-caps SHOUTING, interjections in Spanish, rhetorical repetitions, asides to the reader, italics, and a math problem, 4 x 4 x 4.   Anatomy of Melancholy is cited as a source text, which fits Journey to the Sun’s witty rhetorical paradoxes and parodies of Thomistic reasoning.  In general, Renaissance narratives (the utopian and/or colonialist voyage to the New World; the grab-bag of knowledge in Rabelais) shadow the book’s proliferation of techniques and tropes.  With good reason, since Journey to the Sun reflects a renaissance criticism of sophistry in service of empire.

 

Much of the satire in Journey to the Sun resides in its language.  Its manic exuberance recalls unhinged corporate growth, the inflating of a speculative bubble - “come on ! / the farce will never stop !”  It’s a flood of self-justification, the commercial tenor of our time as it maniacally babbles to itself.  Yet, as I’ll examine in the rest of this essay, the language, and the book itself, are double-edged.  The wild rhetoric of Journey to the Sun provides humor and pleasure; it brings along something extra and excessive that takes it out of pure satire and into something wilder, the realm of the child’s subversive restlessness and mess. Sharp, funny, and fascinating as a satire of reason and reason’s desire to conquer space, the book’s strength is also in its ambivalence, its excess, and its refusal to settle into a unity of purpose.

 

Alongside its future-past of renaissance and Russian Futurist voices, another generative source for Journey to the Sun is the gee-whiz boy explorer tale.  The hero’s journey by way of Jules Verne (and the Cold War ‘space race’) is unmasked here as the male child’s apprenticeship to capitalist reason, in the form of George Westinghouse, the corporate embodiment (and father’s employer) who accompanies the narrator on the expedition to the sun.  He appears in Division 2, Section 2, touching down in his ship “with his pilots and etchers”, immediately after the narrator’s list of a boy’s accoutrements:  “1 plastic magician coin-bank / 1 coverlet / 1 Redline bicycle / 1 catalog of bras.”

 

In this child’s formulation, the nostalgia is commercial: magic is a piggy bank; first bike is a brand name; and sexual awakening is a catalog.  The impulse to own, to count is conjoined with associations of childhood innocence and so domesticated and naturalized.   And after Westinghouse’s appearance, the ‘childish things’ give way to a crescendo of consumption:

 

“single exterior golden scale value three thousand U.S. tender !

brass faucets in every bathroom value two thousand U.S. tender !

copper star emblazoned per hull value sixteen thousand U.S. tender !”

 

—culminating with the explicit point – in nursery rhyme form – that the stories children are fed lead to violence and division—

 

“the workers rowed

& the pilots rode

 

& violence ran

on toast and jam”

 

Here you grow up to succeed or fail at the corporate game, and the hero’s spaceship becomes the galleys where, if you can’t ride, you have to row.

 

 

*

 

Division 2, Section 2 also contains one of Journey to the Sun’s recurring refrains (“MY THOUGHT WILL MAKE / EVERY-THING”), which speaks to what can make the poet-child-scientist ego so vulnerable to capitalist seduction in the first place:  the tremendous anxiety behind ego; its brittle intolerance of others – its need to fill all the space between the earth and the sun.   The ego puffs up due to fear: fear of the knowledge that it’s only one of many:  “you are not the FIRST !  you are not even the TRILLIONTH !” (p. 41). And reason evolves to help thought hide its origins: “SO THAT the mind beholding the circle would not see its own derivation whether from gorillas, orangutans, chimps…”

           

The political satire in Journey to the Sun doubles-down on this logic of narcissistic anxiety to reveal its deadly subtext: Why stop at feeling distant from or superior to the rest?  Why not eliminate them altogether?   Our awareness of other humans, other forms of life, is a weight on us, a debt.  Others can outdo us, vex us, and hurt us.  The only way to be the most successful is to be completely alone – so why not get rid of the rest of life? 

 

“GOODBYE, GOODBYE

you deadly weights

tamarins, guenons, rhesus

uakari, colobuses, guenons

turkeys, dolphins, grit-grits

ferns, pigeons, & et al.s

 

yes ! to be RID !

to SHED !

of ALL who have surpassed me !

in LIFE !” (59 – 60)

 

The turkeys and tamarins, the losers back on earth, elicit the narrator’s rage – calling to mind Keats’ melancholy envy of the happy nightingale, with an injection of Dr. Strangelove.

 

That the narrator is portrayed as a child adds another dimension to the critique of capitalism.  If the vanity that drives ego is a child’s vanity, the corporate edifice (though monstrously destructive) is built on a petty foundation – overweening ambition as child’s tantrum.  The figure of the child also allows Cunningham to portray and critique a boy’s training in gender roles – how the young explorer is father to the captain of industry.  Yet the narrating child has other dimensions – vulnerability, rebelliousness, curiosity. Gradually, a portrayal of the child as rebel, as “Thought-Tester” comes to merge with the figure of the poet, and to deepen and complicate the book’s satire.

 

So far I’ve described the journey to the sun as one that would end with standing at an imagined summit, looking back at earth in superiority.  This version of the voyage works as a metaphor for reason’s worst traits:  elitism, life lived in a bubble, a drive toward immortality that becomes a death-in-life when it sloughs off all that’s earthly. However, many moments of vulnerability and connection also thread through the voyage, changing its character, and acting as a counter-argument to the voice of the corporate apologist.

 

I’ve cited the recurring bit of language “MY THOUGHT MAKES EVERY-THING.” By the first poem, it already appears in ambivalent context:

 

“MY THOUGHT MAKES EVERY-THING

            IT MAKES

    SUNS AND

                                    PLANETS

                  IT MAKES EARTHLY

                               CURRENTS

                   SO WHY DOES IT PAIN

            TO LEAVE”

 

You can tell yourself as much as you want that you’re in control, but it still hurts to leave earth – to hold oneself apart from other people and beings.  And that’s a key crack in the rationalist’s armor. In Journey to the Sun, the logical detachment of corporate reason may be sought, but it isn’t achieved.  Once the journey is actually underway, the presence of the sun (“it is a FURNACE”) cuts through all defenses:

“from on that ship/we heard a sound/unshielded & hurt/& tried to refuse it, yes/but flects of sun/informed our nerves/& those in turn/our eyes.”  Though the child-narrator’s fearful attempt to retreat to The Three Musketeers is poignant, heroic narratives can’t shelter him anymore than can rational platitudes: “92 hours I hid in my quarters / re-reading the 3 musketeers / & crying at every sound.” This vulnerability is crucial to the political counter-narrative of the book.  One role for its children and poets is simply to be losers:  to be vulnerable enough to be useless. The poet stands outside of productivity as one of “the losers & neurotics—/you Closers of Earth—”

 

As such, poets become the incorrigible opponents of Urizen and his legions, reason’s shining bullies. And, they leave their artistic solitude to make common cause with other failures, including “taxi drivers, criminals, and nightingales,” as “the common enemies of day.”   Vulnerability, openness to feeling, is also crucial to the vision of poets and children as excessive, messy:  embracing, not disavowing, connection. 

 

“what is the task of children?

what are they provided to do

that is not crying & a nuisance?...

 

fretted & agitated

they feel in their minds

like nothing ever made

this is their Rarity, their Protection & Gift

partying on chairs or on tables

Every-day, Every-week”

 

The restlessness of children and poets leaves them open to new possibilities, “like nothing ever made.”  In the following quote, Cunningham begins with an indictment of emotional license from Anatomy of Melancholy.  He then defends this “flaw” as a kind of revolutionary spontaneity:

 

for want of government, and out of indiscretion and ignorance, they suffer themselves wholly to be led by sense, and are so far from repressing rebellious inclinations, that they give all encouragement unto them, leaving the reins, and using all provocations to further them

 

yes ! our Rarity ! our Flaw !

our sole & one ADVANTAGE !”

 

The willingness to be lead by rebellious inclination is in fact the ability to see, to feel:  to accept the evidence of one’s senses.  This transformation refigures the expedition to the sun.  It’s no longer the mind’s voyage to the cold light of reason, but the journey of one speck of life to the fire at life’s source, mysterious and vital.  The recuperative hope at the heart of the satire adds depth and strength to the book.  That hope extends finally to re-working reason itself.  I would argue that Journey to the Sun tries to imagine (ambiguously, tentatively) a different kind of reason: a search that’s linked to the child as outsider, demonic energy, and eternal question.   In this iteration, the purpose of the outside vantage point – the standing on the sun – is to see the vagaries and cruelties of earth in order to re-imagine them: 

 

no more calculating & happy-acting !

no more imperfect corruption of the Earth !

 

 

*

 

I’ll close my discussion by looking at the last poem, an “appendix” titled “Some Facts About the Sun,” which revamps the book’s use of logical propositions.  This piece is structured by means of “if-then” movement from statement to statement, each building on the next. But it’s tonally different from the mad logic in other sections:  the propositions here are stripped of ego, and come across as intense and quiet.   I find “Some Facts About the Sun” particularly moving because of its attempt to use logical process to push beyond the self’s limits.  Instead of harnessing reason to ego, it wants to imagine a counterfactual, a sun that could be heard instead of seen, which pushes at the limits of perception:

 

If there existed a column of air between earth and the sun, we would be able to listen to its bell-burning sound.

 

This column would be like a solar stethoscope.

 

But the sun would ignite our air-column, as well as anything else we used to hear the sun.

 

This may explain why the sun is surrounded by nothing.

 

When sound doesn’t need a thing to travel through, it is actually light.

 

This is what radiowaves are, a type of light.

 

The sun produces radiowaves even when it is calm.

 

If our ears had been constructed to hear radiowaves we would hear the sun almost everywhere.

 

Radiowaves are difficult to block, but they can be blocked.

 

To our radiowave-ears, the blocked places would be like shadows are to us now.

 

They would be shadows in a world with extremely few shadows.

 

Maybe then we would consider silence a thing.

 

Maybe then we could admire its great frozen monosyllable

 

The reframing here is about figuring aspects of reason – skepticism, the questioning process – as part of imagination.   How can we use our reason, considering our tendency to ignite ourselves with it?  Excessively, with absurdity – modestly, with humility – not for control, but for pleasure, and for political practice in imagining new futures.  Learning to hear what’s silent and to read the unreadable. A subjectivity that isn’t about glory, a reason that isn’t about empire, a tender satire?  Rewrite the journey, rewrite the child, rewrite the sun, rewrite the sum: 

 

mark well my words; they have travelled through space

 

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