Stephanie Pope essay, Dis-Ease In Progress: A Poetry Essay,
myth and poetry

Day Log


Dis-Ease In Progress: A Poetic Essay by stephanie pope

pity this busy monster, manunkind,
not. Progress is a comfortable disease:
our victim (death and life safely beyond)
plays with the bigness of his littleness


It’s been a tough week this week. I’m trying to clean up my habits in lifestyle. I went to the dermatologist on Monday and had two growths frozen on my neck and chest and a birth mark that was growing on my face, removed. I have to go back to the dermatologist today and get a very large pilar cyst removed from the back of my head. Next Tuesday I’m having a colonoscopy. It’s just precautionary. None of this hurts very much, although it looks quite ugly and sounds quite ugly.

Poetry happens in this kind of moment. In this kind of moment I begin thinking about my psyche in its twisting expression.  Soulfulness naturally pathologizes. The ego can pretty well step aside. So at the age of 54 go I, and for the first time to the dermatologist, my death and life my victim; this progress is my comfortable disease. It is comforting because I know as best anybody can about the state of my health at 54.  

I’ve been so focused on all that this week I’d quite forgotten any bigger picture. But, other images are at work and folly in the world, too, and these seem related to my microcosm.  For all of it participates in the mythic imagination particular to the great American West. Yet, before I turn to images in the news, let me relay the mythic image and the soul-image involved.

Soul exists in an expression of its afflictions. “Out of psyché-pathos-logos came the meaning of suffering of the soul, or the soul’s suffering of meaning.” (Hillman, Re Visioning 70-71) It’s not about ego or self. It’s about this landscape in its soul-making. The American West rubs wound in very otherwise myth-logics; one cultured system belongs to a hunter mythology and the other to ways of seeding the earth. Both claim the land and know of its gods or don’t. The land claims them both, regardless. It is by twist and turns the story in telling makes it all up as everything progresses along. The soul’s suffering of meaning is always about being related to an experience in soul-making. To all my relations.

This contrasted and seething imaginary in flux en force performs the necessary hypermagical incantation. In the one over the other as preferring kind model of making, the white mythology will render visible a performance grim and grimer, but, soul-making nonetheless, insider-outsider an American and democratic monomyth. Historian Patricia Limerick gives a brief glimpse of the values and beliefs that make up this spirit of Manifest Destiny. For that is what this archetypal hypermagical memorium hence came to be stained.

Euro-American ways of thinking were dominated by the ideas of civilization and savagery. Carrying associations of both nobility and violence, savagery was mankind's childhood, a starting stage in which society drew its shape and order from nature. Savagery meant hunting and gathering, not agriculture; common ownership, not individual property owning; pagan superstition, not Christianity; spoken language, not literacy; emotion, not reason. Savagery had its charms but was fated to yield before the higher stage of civilization represented by white Americans. Indians possessed the land and...Euro-Americans wanted it. ...[Euro-Americans felt] that...Indians were not using the land properly. Relying on hunting and gathering, savagery neglected the land's true potential and kept out those who could put it to proper use. A sparse Indian population wasted the resources that could support a dense white population.   - Historian Patricia Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West

With the support of our ‘dense white population in mind,’ let’s consider some of the images in the news this week.

First, in the Washington Post on line Peter Baker opens his article, Ideals and Realities Clash In Bush 'Freedom Agenda' with a reminder about that agenda. President Bush says simply as he addresses the United Nations , "From Beirut to Baghdad, people are making the choice for freedom." Meanwhile, a military coup topples the democratically elected leader in Bangkok. The article further makes its point by quoting Thomas Carothers, head of the democracy project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  "The president's freedom agenda is inherently selective. We care very much about democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, but . . . Thailand's just not part of the story, so this falls off the map a bit." It appears the ‘Freedom Agenda’ is a convenient skin to freshen as well as slip.

This brings me to the second image for the week. This one is from the New York Times on line and David Leonhardt’s article in the Business section, Life Is Better; It Isn’t Better. Which Is It?  The title speaks for itself. Leonhardt points out how we do live better than our parents before us because of new technologies and drugs like Viagra and do not live better than our parents currently since the last few years’ income American Progress, John Gast, 1872increases have become miserly. What the first and second images share has to do with what settled the great American West.  They share a mythic image called Progress.

The idea of progress, progress as a concept, is really a modern notion. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, medieval thinkers aligned their thinking with the great thinkers of the past. Thinkers like Aristotle were given credit for saying something along the lines of what the medieval thinker now thought. It brought great prestige to one’s work where ever one accomplished this alignment. (even if one lied to accomplish it)

Eventually, the notion of ‘progress’ changed. No longer need it be in alignment with eternal truths. The change begins with Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and René Descartes(1596-1650). It culminates in Bernard de Fontenelle (1657-1757) who

American Progress
John Gast , 1872

(click link to view close up of images in painting)

suggests, biologically speaking, the first peoples and the current peoples are essentially equal. This begins a theory of Indefinite Progress. Science is in the heat and at the heart of this theory and so is white mythology, which includes god. It’s now the eighteenth century.

What’s going to happen amounts to an inverse of that earlier idea of ‘progress.’ Old thinking in mythos is not as good as new science in mythos. In fact, mythos in thinking is now a fiction and not really dealing in facts at all. The mythos in the logos of science will go on to distance itself from mythos altogether and set itself up as the sole speaker speaking truth and the true in behalf of reality. Gradually, ideologies begin to foreclose upon new ideas and dogma covers over and demystifies mystery.

This soul’s suffering of meaning transforms the mythic image in reversion. It lets us now reimagine a future always superior to our very present and real―but censored as merely―psycho-poetic experience. What one is now living can be made better because of what the poet e.e. cummings dubs ‘Manunkind’. You can conquer the past with the promises of Manunkind.  You can make everything well. And, because scientific knowledge works in a causal basin and ignores anomaly, you can count on the promise to deliver the goods with the certainty of a trusted god’s supreme blessing.

By this time historically speaking, we Americans are dreaming of westward expansion: Manifest Destiny, land grabs and the frontier of the West. The Frontier is our national creation myth; its legacy opens the frontiers in a new freedom available through conquest. (Now you know what’s in the heart of Manunkind.)

A fellow by the name of Condorcet (1743-1794) divides History into ten ages. The tenth and current one now ending (ours) is the age of science, rationalism and revolution. The story imagines how such a history centered in science will open the way to a new age of peace, prosperity and tolerance.

Our story continues to imagine its future as always somehow better than the past because of scientific thought, not to mention Christian zeal which gives rise to the busy monster-hero; but, here is a rule. You cannot undo his progress. Alas, Utopia is always already outside you. You lack it, like paradise.  There is that closed-out feeling Joyce talks about in Ulysses. Why so empty given so much? Try not to fret. A little faith and you can still have that promised salvation. (The spirit of American democracy looks a lot like the painting by John Gast.)  

Now for a little more discord.

The epic of progress narrating the story of our comfortable disease, like the poet suggests, isn’t indefinite. The evolutionary age that gave rise to it also announces the first reactions against it; in ups and downs, progress declines and gives way to something else. Whereas in the nineteenth and twentieth century its contagion finds expression in evolution, evolution, ironically, resurfaces today for some re-surfacing, too.

So that finally, ideas in all range of shape and size brush up against each other in strokes belonging-together but not so together in belonging. They are giving way to ever greater and greater freedoms in expression (some of these terrifying). And in greater degrees of complexity in the story dreaming America and America’s ‘Freedom’ Agenda we are once again asked to consider America’s freedoms. What are they to be? One thing seems sure. In the legacy of our spreading dis-ease we are counting on our land's promise. The way we earth walk, the earth already knows.

One more thing.

In the poem telling the story of the heroic Manunkind, the poet tells us he is a hopeless case. He already thinks with too little, even though he thinks big. That brings me to the third image catching my eye this week. The President and the First Lady revisited New Orleans Musicians Village sponsored by the Habitat for Humanity. I say revisited because the First Lady has been back fourteen times since Katrina. The President gave an interview and was asked about his legacy during his years in office. The President is quoted as saying, “The key for me is to keep expectations low.”(on-camera interview September 16, 2006 in New Orleans with NBC news)

What can I say. It really has been a tough week in progress.

Be sure and click on the last link, the quote by President Bush & scroll down to entry for September 16, 2006. It links you to a video interview with the president this week. You don't want to miss this!

essay archives

Related Poetry:

Perilous Image from Like a Woman Falling, Selected Poems © 2004

Related Links: 

THE LEGACY OF CONQUEST The Unbroken Past of the American West.By Patricia Nelson Limerick. Illustrated. 396 pp. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. $16.95.

book review of The Legacy of Conquest: THE CROWD IN THE WILDERNESS by Annette Kolodny

Extended Reading

The myth of progress in the evolution of Science -Manuel Alfonseca

James P. Beckwourth and the Mythology of the West, ed. T. D. Bonner

Texas & the Western Frontier

mythopoetics mythopoesis
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