Letters at 3am: The World That Calls Itself "the World"

We're capable of so much – and look what we've settled for

Letters at 3am: The World 
That Calls Itself the World
Illustration by Jason Stout

The most significant sentence of the 20th century was written in 1950 by James Baldwin:

"The world is white no longer, and it will never be white again."

Baldwin knew most of this planet never was white. His declaration was for the world that calls itself "the world" – emphasis on "the." It was a world that called most of the planet the "Third World." There was no second. Only a world that called itself "the world" and a lesser world that came in third.

The world that calls itself "the world" is far more diverse now, because, as Baldwin knew, it wasn't strong enough to have its way, so it had to change.

But it's still the world that calls itself "the world" – that world reported in media 24/7 by reporters who cover only what their employers permit and only what their news culture recognizes as newsworthy. Most of them – not all of them – see only what their training allows them to see.

That leaves lots out. Unnoticed or denied by officialdom.

Wars, celebrities, disasters, stock markets, gruesomeness of all kinds, cat videos, terrorism (often unsubstantiated), Nobel prizes, political theatrics – the world that calls itself "the world" presents that stuff as foreground.

No. No. No. No.

A woman at the supermarket with two kids in the shopping cart and two straggling behind: That's the foreground.

Without them, nothing else happens.

Foreground is the happiest couples I've ever seen:

Boston, 1972: two brave and very "out" young lesbians boarding a trolley, on fire with delight.

Austin, 1975: two blind parents holding an infant, cane-crossing from UT to Dobie Mall (not at the crosswalk!), shining love all over everything.

Without what those people radiated, what's the point?

And the Joe stuck in traffic driving to his second job. He does shitwork. If shitwork doesn't get done, you can't have a bourgeoisie or a 1%.

And the weeping next door, heard through the wall: She was the very young mother of a little girl; they'd be evicted in the morning.

They're the fucking foreground. All of them, by the millions.

The Polish poet Tadeusz Rózewicz fought Nazis and was a lifelong enemy of the world that calls itself "the world":

"I sat in the doorway of my house/ that old woman who/ is leading a goat by a rope/ is more necessary/ and more precious/ than the seven wonders of the world/ anyone who thinks and feels/ that she is not necessary/ is a mass murderer."

Rózewicz stands for what Pablo Neruda called "the world that is ours," where we actually live and where there is always vitality, possibility, immediate danger, and what Caroline Casey calls "dire beauty."

But it is hard to distinguish the world that calls itself "the world" from the world that is ours when most data comes from the world that calls itself "the world," which insists, as its first principle, that it is the only world, the world that counts, because it finds this and that reason to go to war, or this and that reason to save banks, or declares this book postmodern and that "avant-pop." Important because it invents the atomic bomb, jargon, and computers.

Noël Coward: "We've invented a few small things that make noises, but we haven't invented one large thing that creates quiet."

Willa Cather: "Give the people a new word, and they think they have a new fact."

The real news is that the world that calls itself "the world" calibrates importance by two qualities only: violence and money, which are one and the same. Violence enforces the ways of money; money supports violence.

That is the alpha and omega of economics and politics.

(As for culture: Beauty has a way of finding its way – some of the time.)

The masses are working stiffs (white-collar professionals included), helpless to resist what surrounds them daily with so much force and noise. They go the way of the force and the noise, but they go troubled, uneasy, aware that this is not what they really desire, not how they want to be living.

If only they'd learn not to want what "the world" goads them to want.

When one learns not to, things get easier, looser, freer.

But here's Jan Kott (roughly remembered): "Shakespeare had no illusions. Not even the illusion that one can live without illusions."

So I wonder what new illusion I'm cooking up for myself here.

Having a stroke isn't good for much, but it helps with one's illusions.

After my stroke, I had an understanding. Wrote it down. Didn't want it to disappear. (Understandings do disappear, you know – and you don't even feel it as they go).

The note: "This [the stroke] is about cherishing."

After a stroke, you are quietly and/or loudly terrified.

You are suddenly and scarily surrounded 24/7 by the world that calls itself "the world" – diagnostic devices, bills, and the massive paraphernalia of linear thinking. Also, it's noisy. Nothing is noisier, or seems to take longer, than an MRI brain scan.

But when you look at that from "I am one who cherishes," the medical hoo-hah shifts into slo-mo to be seen for what it is: an earnest, primitive, insanely expensive, stab-in-the-dark attempt to understand.

A stab-in-the-dark attempt to understand – that's what I've done for a living. So, suddenly, the procedures are not alien. Cherishing reveals.

The worst moments these days aren't about me. The worst moments are when I look around at the world that calls itself "the world" and this hits:

We're capable of so much – and look what we've settled for.

(Mayer just came back from the dead and said, "If that doesn't break your heart, I don't want to be in the same room with you.")

Then I want a cigarette. Then I remember I don't smoke anymore.

The best thing about smoking was the mixed taste of American Spirit Blues and Bushmills Irish whiskey, when, as the lyric has it, you "just watch the smoke rings rise in the air."

Haven't missed the cigarettes, and the doctors say whiskey is good for me (they really do), but I missed smoke trails curling in the half-light.

Then I remembered a thing George said: "You don't need a river to just sit and watch the river." You don't need to light a cigarette to watch the smoke curls rise. You just kind of go to where that happens inside you and let the moments take care of the rest.

Finally got George's old riddle. (He just came back from the dead laughing: "It took a stroke for you to figure that one out!?")

Stillness. Stillness. Without it, we pass ourselves by.

Nothing is more rare than stillness in the world that calls itself "the world" – for it is a vast machine that attacks stillness and instigates fear.

And does so for profit.

In its grip, this happenstance does not happen – a note written pre-stroke, when I still smoked:

"Hey, about 2am this morning, after a long day's work, 10 hours, WAY straining myself, probably just to prove I still could, I sat here alone in the half-light listening to wistful music composed by Charles Chaplin, sipping my whiskey, and smoking a couple of cigarettes, while one thought led to another until I found myself sort of standing outside myself and laughing, laughing as hard as ever I've laughed – at myself. For no particular reason. Just laughing at myself, as though I'd just gotten the punch line of a joke heard long ago."  

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