Monday, February 20, 2012

Living in the Margins

    A recent journalist reports the laments of Wall Street bankers in the face of limitations on their annual bonuses. That average of $250K the bankers' family is spending annually for their home mortgage, taxes, and upkeep, combined with another $200K for their second home, $50K per youngster per year in private schools, plus another annual $150K for household staff, not to mention $50K for vacations, means they need at least $700,000 per year just to keep their heads above water. And with their bonuses now limited to $60K, as many are, they have to cut back. Pity the 1%. "They say, 'I deserve this and I deserve to live in this house and send my children to that school and maintain this standard of living,'" but they know they're going to have to get by with fewer vacations, a smaller household staff, and maybe some other changes. ("Wall Street Lament: They Shrunk My Bonus," Wall St. Journal, Feb. 18-19, 2012.). What they are really afraid of, according to another article in the same paper, is being pushed away from a life of wealth, influence, and power--being pushed to the margins. The margins, the article goes on to say, is where the unimportant people live, the ones who don't count, who don't make a difference. Of course, the article continues, there are some who choose to live in the margins--artists and poets and college professors are listed as examples--but these folks are powerless, and their activities don't matter.
    Really? We artists and poets and college professors must be deluding ourselves, then, that those young men and women whom we encourage to learn, and those who are touched by art, are unmoved--even those children of the rich who are attending those $50K per year private schools (as, for instance, Brown University, where I teach). We must be mistaken in our belief that changes in worldview, revolutions in public consciousness, such as, well, environmentalism or Christianity or the idea that citizens are entitled to liberty instead of being subject to kings and dictators, come from the margins. Hmm? But where else can they originate? in the establishment?? Not likely.
    And many who live in the margins don't choose to live there. It is a luxury for artists and poets and professors if they do have a choice (and some do not--it is our calling; we are compelled). On this island are some professors and artists. We have chosen, as Sherman Paul wrote, to "free ourselves from the luxury economy and thereby pursue . . . creative ends"; but he also acknowledged that "Life in the woods is not an end in itself: you must have a life and want to live it there." This is more than a little arrogant and self-serving, but it characterizes "the leisure of the theory class," as one post-structuralist wag put it years ago.
    At best, some who deliberately live in the margins, whether in the woods or in the cities, are endowed with a kind of "marginal possibility," Paul wrote, a "marginal way of thinking--until now a sort of counter-theme in our history, so far always subordinate to the theme of exploitation, but unbroken and still alive. This is the theme of . . . nurture. Yes, American [cultural and literary] criticism . . . speaks from the margins and is a marginal way of thought. It talks at the boundaries between Nature and Culture, Wildness and Civilization. And it reminds us that not in wildness alone but in margins is the preservation of the world" (For Love of The World, University of Iowa Press, 1992, pp. 10-12). 
   Paul might have considered others who live in the margins: the criminal world is filled with them. So are the prisons. And it was Woody Guthrie who wrote (in his song about the outlaw "Pretty Boy Floyd"), "Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen." The margins are a lot closer than many think.

No comments:

Post a Comment