Chris Nealon Responds to Rachel Levitsky’s “Love Everyone”

tsomaio_covRachel Levitsky’s The Story of Our Accident is Ours is an interesting book. It feels at once like the product of a very specific moment, the economic downturn of 2008, and the activism the downturn inspired, but it is also written in such deliberately general language that it would be hard to say it documents that moment. The desire the book feels around generality culminates in the book’s second-to-last poem, called “Love Everyone.” Actually it might be the “last” poem in the book; the one that follows, called OUTSIDE, is set off from the body text by a blank page and a new title page, as though it were a coda. So maybe “Love Everyone” is the climax of the book, or its logical conclusion.

The book struggles with generality, and with being in the thick of things. It struggles with the meaning of being the “middle,” as when the poet writes in “We, by Ourselves,” that “There is nothing overtly abject about our material circumstance since we have been supplied the instruction and means for acting out a socially coherent notion of living as though we are Middle Class.” I think the poet wants to understand this – how living in the interstices of the idea of middle-classness can nonetheless open out onto catastrophe. Certainly many “middle-class” homeowners have experienced this puzzlement in recent years, to the point of despair – the foreclosed-upon, the employed homeless. And while those are not the material circumstances the book describes, it is clear that the poet and her cohort – the book is also very deliberate about maintaining a “we” – have come to experience middle-classness as a myth.

I think I can get behind this – not in the sense that nobody’s in the middle of some pyramid of income, but that catastrophe can make even the largely-safe feel precarious. The question is, what’s the catastrophe? What’s the “Accident”?

I think if I understand correctly, Levistsky wants “accident” to have a specifically philosophical overtone, as in, accident of circumstance: it is not the logical outcome a syllogism or series of events. Once the accident has happened, though, it is irreversible. This lends pathos to the book, which lightly touches down on the locution “my accident” to preserve in it the sense that the poet was, say, hit by a car – but only to loop back around to make that personal sense of “accident“ add impact, so to speak, to the way she primarily means it: as the givenness, the painful givenness, of who we are and where we end up. I want to say, “Where we end up in history,” though the zeitgeist-air of the book is, as I say, built on surprisingly few particulars. This is an achievement.

I should turn to the poem “Love Everyone,” since it was what triggered my response to the book. Indeed it’s the last paragraph of the poem that triggered it (the poems here are largely in prose paragraphs). The phrase “Love Everyone” has just been uttered; the poet continues:

The implication of this phrase is most significant to us who involuntarily though loudly resist its totality just as it is becoming so total we take great risk with who and what we are quickly coming to care most about when we argue amongst ourselves about whom, what and how this now common aphoristic and blithe use of language, love everyone, serves. For us, love, especially love, held a unique position despite the dearth of our experience as the one uninhibited extreme we might legitimately hope would enable us to exceed our limitation. Holding onto this idea, that Love was nuanced and potentially meaningful, made us look angry and marginal, for if we were not so, we argued, what did we have against it, against loving everyone.

The passages leading up to this paragraph have been concerned with what it might mean to have tried to “love” one’s oppressors – to have adopted a helpful attitude toward power in the name of safety or peace. The poet is repelled by the possibility that she and her cohort might have behaved this way toward the powerful, and she is wary of what it might mean, then, to love “everyone.” That last complex sentence, with its beautiful cadence, gets at the problem: “ … for if we were not so [angry and marginal], we argued, what did we have against it, against loving everyone.” It’s as though the poet worries that, despite having every reason not to love everyone, the refusal to do so might make her “angry and marginal.” I think what’s being described is a moment of realization in which the ability to resist oppression is being weighed against the cost of being devoured by anger.

I imagine any activist, not to mention any revolutionary, has had to confront this problem. I think this book was written for them.

 

 

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