Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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December 23, 2006
interpersonal cubism

Wallace Stevens established in 1917 that there exist Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.

However, Wallace's Roman numeraled summary overview/list fails to address certain key questions:

How to answer if some dim bulb should say, "Tell me the single way that is the most 'accurate' account of what you saw" or that "'best' describes how the blackbird looked"?

Does realization of the thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird cause one to become aware that one can look at everything else, i.e. non-blackbirds, in thirteen ways?

If so, what happens if your eyes develop the routine habit of uncontrollably flickering around among the various ways, almost all the time?

What to do if you wake up one morning wearing a pair of goggles that cause you to look at things in all thirteen ways simutaneously? What if you were unable to remove the goggles? How would you be able to leave the house?

What happens if you for too long stare persistently at the blackbird? Does the blackbird begin to stare back at you?*

What if you discovered the existence of a species of blackbird that not only looked back at you but itself had thirteen different ways of doing so?

Where on earth could you go to take lessons in how to speak, or at least understand, Blackbird? So as to make even minimal sense of its thirteen ways of looking at you, thus to find common ground or understanding of the shared situation or experience? Where to find a Blackbird-English/English-Blackbird dictionary?

Would it ever be possible to explain to some third person, i.e. "objectively," the character or nature of the situation of mutual looking between you and the blackbird? Could you do it in a way that would do justice to both of your perspectives? You have thirteen ways of looking. The blackbird has thirteen ways. If I have my math correctly, that makes for 132 or 169 different possible combinations of ways to describe the situation.

Even worse, to be fair and strictly accurate, my description of my looking at the member of this species of blackbird must necessarily encompass not only my thirteen different ways of looking at the bird itself but also my thirteen different ways of looking at its thirteen different ways of looking at me. This would suggest that there are 1314 or 3,937,376,385,699,289 different, possibile ways to summarize the situation.

Is the list of thirteen ways considered to be exhaustive? Or might there be even more ways? Then the trouble would be still worse.

Conclusion: Stevens' poem is too short.

Thanks to this thought-provoking review in the Boston Review by Susan Barba for reminding me of the existence of Stevens' "Thirteen Ways."

Barba's review's indirect invitation for me to think about birds for a few minutes came as merciful relief after completion of reading Nir Rosen's "Anatomy of a Civil War," which appears in the same issue. I feel like every American should read Rosen's article.

Those short on time should read Rosen's final eight paragraphs. These will make you want to jump out a window.**

Those with more time should read Rosen's every paragraph. These will make you want to jump out a higher window.

*[cf. B.J. Leggett]

** [and land on someone with the initials GWB?]