Learning to Fight

‘Untitled,’ circa 1964; photograph by Ralph Eugene Meatyard
‘Untitled,’ circa 1964; photograph by Ralph Eugene Meatyard

What is a museum guard to do, I thought to myself; what, really, is a museum guard? On the one hand you are a member of a security force charged with protecting priceless materials from the crazed or kids or the slow erosive force of camera flashes; on the other hand you are a dweller among supposed triumphs of the spirit and if your position has any prestige it derives precisely from the belief that such triumphs could legitimately move a man to tears.


If people were in fact moved, convincing themselves they discovered whatever they projected into the hackneyed poem, or better yet, if people felt the pressure to perform absorption in the face of what they knew was an embarrassing placeholder for an art no longer practicable for whatever reasons, a dead medium whose former power could be felt only as a loss—these scenarios did for me involve a pathos the actual poems did not, a pathos in fact increased in proportion to their failure, as the more abysmal the experience of the actual the greater the implied heights of the virtual.


These images of art address only the sick, the patients. It would be absurd to imagine a doctor lingering over one of these images between appointments, being interested in it or somehow attached to it, having his day inflected by it or whatever. Apart from their depressing flatness, their interchangeability, what I’m saying is: we can’t look at them together. They help establish, deepen, the gulf between us, because they address only the sick, face only the diagnosed.

What kinds of characters would say such things, and why? Ben Lerner is the author of three novels, three books of poetry, and numerous critical essays, including the book-length monograph The Hatred of Poetry. The more books of prose he writes, the more clearly a kind of common persona, singular yet plural, emerges across his work: his narrators, whether fictional or not, share some facts of their background with one another, while also writing Lerner’s poems and thinking lines from Lerner’s essays. Together, they—or the plural he, a poet and reluctant novelist, born in Kansas and housed in Brooklyn—sprawl easily across the fiction-nonfiction divide.

One of this composite narrator’s most notable and appealing qualities is his tendency to launch into hyper-articulate, often indignant, flights of literary-critical or theoretical fluency, like the ones in the passages above. To the question of when or why a character would have such bouts of fluency, Lerner’s usual answer is: under duress. The first passage is from Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011). The narrator, Adam Gordon, is a young American in Madrid on a poetry fellowship. But Adam doubts that he really qualifies as a poet…

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