On Declaring Oneself: Charles Simic's "Tattooed City"

You could say calling yourself "an incomprehensible / Bit of doodle" has nothing to do with the birth of 17th century rationalism.

On Declaring Oneself: Charles Simic's "Tattooed City"

Nightmare Job Hunts, Nazis, and Other Topics for Class Discussion

I never thought I would devote substantial classroom time to discussing current events. I used to feel talking about the news was tacky. Shouldn't we be discussing the rhetorical structure of De Anima? Or trying to figure out how people in 17th century England conceived of love? For a while, it just didn't make sense to me to focus on what was readily available. All people had to do was take the time to read past headlines and ask some questions, right? There are plenty of opportunities to be thoughtfully informed about the world, no?

Well, no. There aren't that many opportunities. There's a flood of information being thrown at people to manipulate them. Clickbait headlines, stories designed to stoke panic and anger, op-eds which revel in ignorant consensus. So I'm in the classroom reading the news with my students so they can think out loud and start the process of understanding this world. Two things we've talked about recently:

  • "Job interviews are a nightmare – and only getting worse" (Vox): A few of my students had positive stories about tough interviews. Tough interviews pushed them to think about what else they needed for the job, which they got anyway. Some talked about the need for companies to enforce stricter standards--isn't that part of meritocracy at work? Still, most everyone's jaw dropped at what can only be described as overt theft:

    "One of my former coworkers was asked to build out an entire content strategy for a popular financial newsletter and work with the team in the office. She was unemployed and scared, so she felt like she had no choice but to sign a waiver agreeing for her work to be used for free — work that was apparently good enough to be sent out to their readers but not to land her a position with the company."

    I don't doubt some refuse to believe employers can be this exploitative. It does seem reasonable to not be cynical about the job market before one is in it. Even though I've seen far worse from employers--I'd like to outright assert that, for many, the point of power is the arbitrary exercise of it--my job is to persuade students to do the thinking, not agree with me.
  • Inside a US Neo-Nazi Homeschool Network With Thousands of Members (Vice): My Engineering Ethics students need to know that extremists are real, numerous, and want access to the things they may end up working with. Weaponry, code that can be weaponized, plans for the power grid. A quick Google search for the terms "neo-nazi" and "dirty bomb" reveals an obsession with trying to create WMD. My Bioethics students need to consider the question of what constitutes health and welfare when people are raising children to worship Hitler. The Neo-Nazis are not subtle about their intentions. From a lesson plan of theirs on MLK: "He is the face of a movement which ethnically cleansed whites out of urban areas and precipitated the anti-white regime that we are now fighting to free ourselves from."

    A problem such as having thousands of children being raised to be Nazis really pushes against the simplistic myths propagated by our society. Those myths substitute for an understanding of history or political philosophy. If you try to situate the rhetoric of those who want overthrow of the government in order to perpetrate a genocide as a free speech issue, you're not thinking through the consequences of what you're advocating. And of course you wouldn't. The classically liberal instinct many of us have is to try to tolerate the intolerable, not quite realizing the intolerable has ways of distorting and hijacking the conversation and so much more.

Charles Simic, "Tattooed City"

How should we declare ourselves? Simic starts "Tattooed City" with a chuckle: "I, who am only an incomprehensible / Bit of doodle myself...". He's walking around the city, wondering about its marks and graffiti, counting himself among them. This is fine, but my mind races back to one of the most famous declarations of self, Descartes' "cogito ergo sum," "I think, therefore I am." Three Latin words from hundreds of years ago which everyone knows, including those decorating the city.

Tattooed City (from 26 Acts of Poetry)
Charles Simic 

I, who am only an incomprehensible
Bit of doodle myself,
On some tenement wall,
Some subway entrance.

Matchstick figure
Heart pierced by an arrow.
Scratch of a parking maid
On a parked hearse.

CRAZY CHARLIE in red spraypaint
Crowding for warmth
with unknown divinities
In an underpass, with rain falling.

You could say calling yourself "an incomprehensible / Bit of doodle" has nothing to do with the birth of 17th century rationalism. Descartes isn't interested in street art. He wants to break the power of Aristotlean physics. In his time, it dictates the cosmos, making science based on experimentation and observation more difficult than it should be. Aristotleanism grounds an education intent on telling you who you are and what exactly to believe. In contrast, "I think, therefore I am" wants its hearers to think through thinking. To dwell less on faith informed by reason and instead embrace the doubt which Descartes uses to situate himself and advance the sciences.

But all that having been said, there's something weirdly compelling about seeing yourself in a "[b]it of doodle" on a "tenement wall" or a "subway entrance." Something compelling and parallel to Descartes' rhetoric. You could say the search for the self has to be realized. Maybe that realization happens when attacking a metaphysical tradition which has governed for centuries. Maybe it happens when wondering what a neon orange graffiti tag means to say. How should we declare ourselves? First we have to resolve there is a self.


Why search for a self? I'm thinking about the "Matchstick figure / Heart pierced by an arrow." How the figure is an immortal bit of scratching. You could imagine it on the walls of caves, on trees covered with initials, and of course one sits right in front of you. As if someone understands exactly what you're going through. You're unreciprocated, infatuated, lonely. Seeing someone everywhere, needing an icon of a pierced figure to warn you.

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We've all been there. And only some time after the spell's worn off do you realize how needy you wanted to be. A stupid stick drawing proves prophetic. What did you think of your own life? What could someone else bring to make it that much better?


There is a real need to leave the house. To walk around and see other people. I've known many who never wanted to leave their room. I get it. The TV and radio sound like company. Company talking to you on your level about world events or the nature of grace. I get it. You don't find yourself buying a $4 cappuccino and sitting at a coffee bar for an hour, do you?

No, you don't always find yourself that way. But it's a step. A step into a city, a place filled with others, a place filled with potential other selves. Simic ends his lyric with a devastating homecoming. His name in graffiti over those struggling to survive:

CRAZY CHARLIE in red spraypaint
Crowding for warmth
With other unknown divinities
In an underpass with rain falling.

"Other unknown divinities" sheltering from the rain, "[c]rowding for warmth." Simic has arrived, but he does not witness a revelation. There is no epiphany. There's just the brutal fact of loss, loss so severe some never had a chance. They are "other unknown divinities." Their will to survive is the only truth of note in the city. The tattoos were ultimately pointing to them. How should we declare ourselves? One answer: start seeing others.