I yam what I yam

He who exposed the ugly underbelly of British Imperialism, he who prophesied the future of totalitarianism with about 51% accuracy, he who articulated the urgent moral principles of democratic socialism in a way that I’ve never heard refuted, George Orwell was not much of a lyric poet.

His most famous poem is only famous because he included the whole text of it in his much more famous, routinely anthologized autobiographical essay, “Why I Write.” In it, Eric Blair (his real name) effectively calls the likes of me out on my own bullshit, this self-serving and culturally relative notion of which I still carry traces: that I wasn’t really made for political engagement and activism, that it is not my temperament or my aptitude, that I do better with other things. Let me teach people how to be silly and free with language while you pressure our representatives.

In some ways, it’s neurologically true, though. I am conflict-averse, telephone-averse, averse-to-eye-contact. Circuits overload too easily. A world-famous child neurologist spoke with me for about five minutes once, discussing  Asperger’s syndrome in regards to my child, when he casually waved my way and said, “You have it.”


Well, I don’t know what I have. I’m from the pre-diagnostic age. Something’s up, and brain science is real, but diagnostic categories slide with the currents of research funding. I yam what I yam. It doesn’t matter. The point is it is possible to be yourself and also something different and maybe bigger.

There’s a beautiful meta-fictive moment in Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory, a preemptory strike against his critics built right into the story. Powers is a novelist of big ideas in an age when the literary novel tends to be more about things you can see on the ground around you at the bus depot — for example, a flattened empty carton of chocolate milk floating in an oily puddle. And how it makes you feel.

Earlier in the book, one of his characters comments that most literary fiction seems to be about privileged people not getting along in exotic locales. Fair, but the passage that struck me enough to actually go dig it out was this: “Everyone imagines that fear and anger, violence and desire, rage laced with the surprise capacity to forgive — character — is all that matters in the world. It’s a child’s creed … to mistake life for something huge with two legs.”

I’m attempting to rouse myself from a life poetic slumber and be part of this pivotal moment in the history of justice. To surprise myself. Yeah, the hat is not exactly my size, but as George Orwell wrote, in pretty poor verse:

I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls,

And woke to find it true;

I wasn’t born for an age like this;

Was Smith? Was Jones? Were you?

(… In which I Intended to explore the “self” as a set of limitations we cleverly invent and justify and document in order to not have to do things we don’t want to do, in order to secure a little distance from the insatiable henpecking world. “I’m not good at this, I can’t do that, I’m like this instead,” a mix of truth and expedient fantasy, and it is absolutely a construct of privilege. As has been proven throughout history, you magically find you can do whatever a whip insists that you try — the truth of which the high-tech corporate world of the Nineties disguised and exploited with disgraceful metaphors about “unlocking human potential” and “unleashing productivity.” The whip: “unleashing human potential since the dawn of time .…”
But I didn’t get that far. These things, needless to say, are pretty from the hip.)

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.