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On "Denouement"


Rita Barnard

In [Muriel Rukeyser’s] "Movie," as we have seen, the silver screen finale gives ostensible "truth" of revolutionary history, with the people sweeping away the facade culture of the movie sets. In Fearing's poem, however, the opposite possibility is indicated: the apocalyptically real revolutionary moment (when the "clock . . . point[s] to the decisive hour," "murder fades," and "the world grows new") is metaphorically transformed into a movie finale. The legitimate and potentially revolutionary hopes mentioned at the beginning of the poem - that the "desire of millions" become real, that the rent be paid, and that the forgotten and lost be given a place - seem by the end of this opening movement to have receded into an ironic distance, with exotic dreams of "South Sea music" or hyperbolically happy endings: "a dynamite triumph, a rainbow peace, a thunderbolt kiss." Fearing confronts us, in short, with the potential merger of the utopian dreams of revolution and social transformation with the corny "perfect denouement[s]" of a "million mile" silver screen. Unlike Rukeyser, he seems concerned with the possibility that the revolution itself may be "televised" (if I may anachronistically apply the phrase from the sixties). In a world of spectacles, the representations of revolution, too, can readily be turned into an institution: an experience provided for the passengers of the last express but not effected by them. Fearing suggests, in other words, that in a context where commercial mass culture has become such a powerful force, it may no longer be possible to avail ourselves of notions like "the people" or any such holdout of cultural authenticity.

Compared with that of his contemporaries, Fearing's cultural politics, then, appears strikingly postmodern. His acute interest in the technologies of communication (3-D movies, radios, recording devices, information systems, even jukeboxes) underscores this connection with things to come. In 1938, for instance, Fearing already refers to television, and its endless store of images, to epitomize the culture of the twentieth century:

Electric razors;
I am the law, said Mayor Hague;
The lynching was televised, we saw the whole thing from beginning to end, we heard the screams and the crackle of flames in a soundproof room,
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY COMES BUT ONCE.

Though lynchings have since been replaced by other violent spectacles, this fragmentary sequence of advertising commodities, politicians-turned-media-figures, and sensational crimes are not that different from the images that flash across today's news broadcasts.

. . . .

"Denouement," reveals and summarizes both Fearing's interpretation of the nature and function of mass culture and the possibilities of political resistance to it through a kind of negative dialectic. It is a move that only Charles Humboldt, in a retrospective appreciation, has described with precision: "In Fearing, the alien implies its opposite and the yearning for a better world is imbedded in the hard dark of the present like a seed in rock."'

The first part of "Denouement," which I compared earlier to Muriel Rukeyser's poem "Movie," indicates Fearing's wariness of any direct expression of this yearning. Such expression can assume, or so he seems to fear, an uncomfortable resemblance to the empty imperatives of "American Rhapsody" - especially in an economy intent on the production of desire and dreams. Genuinely utopian impulses can easily be commodified, institutionalized, and transmuted into the passive magical thinking he associates with advertising and Hollywood:

Sky, be blue, and more than blue; wind, be flesh and blood; flesh and blood, be deathless;
walls, streets, be home;
desire of millions, become more real than warmth and breath and strength and bread;
clock, point to the decisive hour and, hour without name when stacked and waiting murder fades, dissolves, stay forever as the world grows new;
Truth, be known, be kept forever, let the letters, letters, souvenirs, documents, snapshots, bills be found at last, be torn away from a world of lies, be kept as final evidence, transformed forever into more than truth.

The imagery of this opening section suggests how the potentially revolutionary hope that the social "desire of millions" may for once become real can change into the contrived and all too "perfect denouements" of the silver screen: into "South Sea music" and "a thunderbolt kiss." On closer reading, however, it appears that one cannot blame this failure entirely on the evasions of the dominant culture, but also in some measure on the kind of oppositional dreaming the poem imitates. If one looks carefully at the list of fiats with which, the poem opens, it seems that they already lean toward the dangerous ground of an impossible technicolor hyperreality: the demand is not that the sky be blue, but "more than blue," not that the "desire of millions" become real, but "more real than warmth and breath and strength and bread." Even more important, the desire for a kind of messianic revolutionary moment partakes of the self-same impulse (albeit in the hope of social amelioration) to deny mortality and halt the flux of time, which Fearing's work associates with mass culture: the poem asks that "flesh and blood" be "deathless," that the "decisive hour when murder fades" stay forever, and that "the world grow[] new." No wonder, then, that for Fearing these desires appear to dissolve into the benumbed realm of the spectacle - of that "million mile screen."

The second section of "Denouement" immediately presents a challenge to the optimistic, technicolor fantasies of the opening movement. Even from the first line it is made brutally clear that flesh and blood are not and could never be deathless:

But here is the body found lying face down in a burlap sack, strangled in the noose jerked shut by these trussed and twisted and frantic arms.

We might see Fearing's project in this part of the poem as an attempt to rewrite and complicate the cartoon-like postmortem of "Obituary." Here, too, the agents of the state come to deal with the pathetic effects of the deceased - the bed, in this case, and the vase holding saved-up cigar store coupons - and the poem takes the form of an official investigation into the victim's life and death." But whereas in "Obituary" only the smug and efficient voice of the officer in charge is heard (leaving the reader to salvage, from telling details and silence, a sense of the painful truths that escape the officer's neat rhetorical wrap-up of the case), "Denouement" presents this voice in a debate of sorts with another voice. It is a voice that reveals some of the answers to the crucial question of which we spoke earlier: "how much has been lost, denied, what are all the things destroyed / Question mark, question mark, question mark, question mark." While the poem provides no hard and fast indication of which lines belong to which of these two disembodied debaters, the sequence of statements, objections, and contradictions, and especially the political interests of each speaker, permit a fairly safe identification. In "Denouement" the voice of the powers that be, which I shall call (applying Fearing's own terminology) the voice of evasion, is explicitly identified with the mass media. It blandly denies any conflict of interest and, like the speaker in "Obituary," smugly and self-servingly refers to all parties as "friends." For a contemporary readership this voice must surely have been reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt's reassuring fireside addresses: "'My friends . . . my friends,' issues from the radio and thunders 'My friends' in newsreel close-ups, explodes across headlines, 'Both rich and poor, my friends, must sacrifice. . .’" As the postmortem proceeds, it appears that the string of questions fired by the voice of evasion constitutes an attempt to defuse the implications of the death by identifying the deceased as a media institution, or at least as a recognizable American type. Are you not, the voice asks, that Depression exemplar of enduring determination, the man "who started life again with three dependents and a pack of cigarettes?" Or at least "the senator's son," or "the beef king's daughter, married in a storm of perfume," or perhaps "the clubman who waves and nods and vanishes to Rio in a special plane?"

The other voice, which we may call the voice of exposition, counters the attempts to turn the victim into a safe "institution" by simply pointing to his scarred lungs and rickety bones: this is clearly no debonair clubman. It constantly draws our attention to the grim realities of the present, describing in clinical detail the corpse in the postmortem room, "the lips taped shut and the blue eyes cold, wide, still, blind, fixed beyond the steady glare of electric lights." It reminds us, furthermore, in some of the most moving and unironic lines Fearing ever wrote, of those who have died; those who are lost, forgotten, and poor; those, in short, who are not treated as "friends" though they may be addressed as such, who do not exist in the media and will never be recognized by a culture of evasion:

but how will you know us, attentive, strained, before the director's desk, or crowded in line in front of factory gates
but how will you know us through ringed machinegun sights as we run and fall in gasmask, steel helmet, flame-tunic, uniform, bayonet, pack,
but how will you know us, crumbled into ashes, lost in air and water and fire and stone,
how will you know us, now or any time, who will ever know that we have lived or died?

The voice of evasion at first protests against this unavoidable testimony, exchanging for the pleasing tones of a Roosevelt the accusations of a red-baiter and revealing in the process its true partisanship: "The witness is lying, lying, an enemy, my friends, of Union Gas and the home." But the section ends with the tenuous realization that the grim truths revealed by this postmortem might endanger such cherished and timeless ideals as "deathless hope" or "pride that was made of iron" or "the faith that nothing could destroy," a realization that nevertheless seems to fade into a drugged stupor, the final retreat of evasion: "Morphine. Veronal. Veronal. Morphine. Morphine. Morphine. Morphine."

In the third section of "Denouement" the scene shifts from the terrain of this allegorical postmortem to the realistically depicted headquarters of a strike committee:

Leaflets, scraps, dust, match-stubs strew the linoleum that leads upstairs to the union hall, the walls of the basement workers' club are dim and cracked and above the speaker's stand Vanzetti's face shows green, behind the closed doors the committeeroom is a fog of smoke.

Exposition, it would seem, now takes precedence, although the descriptions of the struggle are still met with (and partly revealed through) the uncomprehending voice of reaction: "Who are these people and what do they want, can't they be decent, can't they at least be calm and polite, besides the time is not yet ripe. . . ."

The issues probed, however, remain the same; in fact, one could say that the final section of the poem presents a dialectical resolution of the problems posed in the earlier sections. "Denouement" starts out with fantasies of a timeless utopia, which then are challenged and negated by the unavoidable reality of death. Bearing in mind Charles Humboldt's remark about Fearing's oblique method, we should note that the very fact that the corpse of the second section does not conveniently arise - is not resurrected as a Hearst cartoon, for instance - already represents a political advance in its very negativity. The full implications of this moment of negation are still being explored in the third section. Fearing here starkly emphasizes the fact that in the real and very imperfect world of political struggle (evoked by such details as the messy committee room, scabs arriving in trucks, squabbling among the union members), the contrived solutions of mass culture simply do not apply: the victims of real struggles cannot, the poem explicitly points out, be resurrected:

  ... they sink in clouds of poison gas and fall beneath clubs,
  hooves, rifles, fall and do not arise, arise, unite,
never again these faces, arms, eyes, lips.

But for once Fearing does not leave us without a solution, a dialectical synthesis. Resurrection is indeed impossible, unless

. . .we live, and live again,
return, everywhere alive in the issue that returns, clear as light that still descends from a star long cold, again alive and everywhere visible through and through the scene that comes again, as light on moving water breaks and returns, heard only in the words, as millions of voices become one voice, seen only in millions of hands that move as one.

Impossible unless, in other words, we translate all hope of resurrection from the level of wishes to that of collective political commitment. The suggestion that issues and struggles may be transcendent and enduring is reinforced by the various political slogans cited in the poem, which all express a fight for survival, for life over death: "Bread not Bullets, "Red Front," "Arise," "Your party lives," and finally the motto reminding us of the fight for the lives of the Scottsboro Boys (and those of Sacco and Vanzetti before them): "They Shall Not Die." The poem thus posits that a resurrection of sorts is enacted in political struggle, in a struggle fully cognizant of the negative, of those who have died, and of the opposing bayonets of the troopers, which, as the final line reminds us, remain ever drawn and ready.

One further point must be made in conclusion. I have argued that Fearing, like Benjamin and the other members of the Frankfurt school I have referred to in this chapter, views the experience of the ordinary citizen as being shaped in identical ways by the organization of work and the structures of mass-produced leisure. Both spheres are characterized by a logic of fragmentation and repetition, which permits no development over time, no uniqueness, and no completion. But "Denouement" suggests an important difference between Fearing's position and that of the Frankfurt school, and even that of his onetime colleagues at the Partisan Review: high culture as a repository of ideals, or of an oppositional negativity, is not for him, finally, a privileged category. For Fearing the remedy for problems of society and subjectivity is not to be found in culture, but in struggle; the locus of the negative is not in art, but in the violent realities of life. The poem "Denouement," for all its ironies, is not a solution, but describes one: that of political action, of "liv[ing] again . . . in the issue that returns." It is at such moments that Fearing reveals the difference between himself and the pessimistic postwar theorists he often seems to resemble. Despite his recurrent fears of manipulation, of a one-dimensional culture of evasion, his work preserves that emphasis on politics and on historical agency that was still so alive in the culture of the thirties.

From The Great Depression and the Culture of Abundance: Kenneth Fearing, Nathanael West, and Mass Culture in the 1930s. Copyright 1995 by Cambridge University Press.


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