May 5, 2004

He Attempts to Love His Neighbors

by Alden Nowlan

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Poems: "He Attempts to Love His Neighbours," by Alden Nowlan, from Selected Poems. © Anansi. Reprinted with permission.

He Attempts to Love His Neighbours

My neighbours do not wish to be loved.
They have made it clear that they prefer to go peacefully
about their business and want me to do the same.
This ought not to surprise me as it does;
I ought to know by now that most people have a hundred things
they would rather do than have me love them.

There is television, for instance; the truth is that almost everybody,
given the choice between being loved and watching TV,
would choose the latter. Love interrupts dinner,
interferes with mowing the lawn, washing the car,
or walking the dog. Love is a telephone ringing or a doorbell
waking you moments after you've finally succeeded in getting to sleep.

So we must be careful, those of us who were born with
the wrong number of fingers or the gift
of loving; we must do our best to behave
like normal members of society and not make nuisances
of ourselves; otherwise it could go hard with us.
It is better to bite back your tears, swallow your laughter,
and learn to fake the mildly self-deprecating titter
favoured by the bourgeoisie
than to be left entirely alone, as you will be,
if your disconformity embarrasses
your neighbours; I wish I didn't keep forgetting that.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Karl Marx, born in Trier, Germany (1818). Along with Frederich Engels, he wrote the Communist Manifesto (1848) and Das Kapital (1867). He saw history as a series of clashes between the rich and the poor. He wrote, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to each other."

Marx said that in capitalist societies, the means of production are owned by just a few people, the bourgeois, and they use the means of production to exert control over the working class, the proletarians. In his studies of history, Marx saw that European societies began under feudalism and progressed to capitalism. He argued that the next logical step was communism: the masses would become poorer and poorer, and the gap between the rich and the poor would gradually increase, until, finally, the working class would start a revolution and take control of the means of production.

Marxism has been made into a kind of philosophy, but Marx himself wanted to be a social scientist and an activist, not a philosopher. He said, "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it." Marx thought the best way to change the world was to learn lessons from history and apply them to present-day society.

At the time of Marx's death in 1883, no country had put his ideas for a communist revolution into practice. But in the next hundred years, communist governments were established in countries all across the world, most famously in China and Russia. Since the fall of the Soviet Union there haven't been very many political parties that are openly Marxist, but his name is still attached to a lot of revolutionary and anti-imperialist movements around the world, and many people still find his ideas useful for the study of history and social science.

Marx wrote, "Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries, unite!"

And, "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce."

It's the birthday of philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, born in Copenhagen, Denmark (1813). He thought about becoming a Lutheran minister but decided against it, and he ended up living on an inheritance and publishing philosophical books with his own money. He was almost unknown outside of Denmark in the nineteenth century, but in the early twentieth century he was rediscovered by European writers and philosophers, and he had a huge impact on writers like Henrik Ibsen, Franz Kafka, and Albert Camus.

Kierkegaard said, "Listen to the cry of a woman in labor at the hour of giving birth-look at the dying man's struggle at his last extremity, and then tell me whether something that begins and ends thus could be intended for enjoyment."

It's the birthday of novelist, essayist and poet Christopher Morley, born in Haverford, Pennsylvania (1890). He founded the Saturday Review of Literature in 1924, and helped to edit it until 1941. During that same period, he wrote a column called "The Bowling Green" for the New York Evening Post. His novels include Swiss Family Manhattan (1932), The Trojan Horse (1937) and Kitty Foyle (1939).

It's the birthday of political journalist Richard Rovere, born in Jersey City, New Jersey (1915). He specialized in profiles of politicians; he wrote over two hundred profiles for The New Yorker. His first book, Howe & Hummel (1947), was a collection of articles he had written about two corrupt lawyers at the turn of the century, and his most popular book was a biography of Senator Joseph McCarthy (1959). He said about biographies, "I know of no single genre—fiction and poetry apart—that tells us more about ourselves and our condition. . . . If one writes a biography, its subject becomes . . . a member of one's household, like children and parents."

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