Of Cruelty and Calamity

We're all broken into eveningwear and skull.

Of Cruelty and Calamity

"...those instincts of wild, free, prowling man turned backward against man himself. Hostility, cruelty, joy in persecuting, in attacking, in change, in destruction—all this turned against the possessors of such instincts..."

—Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, 2nd Essay

Kyla Houbolt dares to describe a night on the town. Dinner, a show, drinks, dancing, accompanied by big city lights and a crush of taxis. "I put on my evening dress," the poem says, "pick up my skull"—wait, what?—"I'm good to go." A late night has the unmistakable odor of late empire. Mounds of skulls fund the decadence and opulence, but violence does not stay confined to the colonies or the nakedly oppressed. We're all broken into eveningwear and skull.

who speaks there
Kyla Houbolt

words and actions
louder and louder
I put on my evening dress
pick up my skull
I'm good to go

Houbolt's opening lines cement this picture. "Words and actions," generic but various, are "louder and louder." A flood approaches. From where? We're filled with panic. The vaguest words and actions feel more pressing, insistent; there's increasing volume but no corresponding increase in sense. The title, "who speaks there," I treat as a nod to Yeats. Who speaks of the "blood-dimmed tide" which drowns the "ceremony of innocence?" A witness? A victim? A participant.


In "who speaks there," two images implying cruelty, the skull and the loudness, speak calamity. That calamity and cruelty go together—well, that is expected. More unexpected is the mention of an "evening dress," a hint of elegance and dignity. A more gruesome reality seems to be the only thing finery serves.

I find myself confused. Fine occasions also involve fine words. Must all assumptions of dignity be thrown away in order to describe horror? Charles Simic, in "Among My Late Visitors," produces an indelible image of the catastrophe of war. War affronts the merest possibility of living:

Among My Late Visitors
Charles Simic

There is also a cow
Whose eyes the soldiers
Took out with a knife
And lit straw under its tail
So it would run blind
Over a minefield
And thereafter into my head
From time to time

Nothing about this is dignified. Simic's soldiers carve out a cow's eyes and provoke it to run blind into a minefield. It is sickening to think about, let alone write about. The poem is an escalation. Not just the killing of innocent life, not just the sadistic torture and killing of innocent life, but the derangement of reveling in as much suffering and death as possible. We know this, yet will endorse wars concerned with less than defending ourselves or freeing others. What good is winning if you've lost your mind? If your only response to pain is to inflict more of it?

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I am still grappling with the problem posed by Houbolt's image of an "evening dress." It is the case that elegance and class can be a vicious lie in vicious times. But that raises the issue of the truth of dignity in general. Do dignified words simply cover up cruelty? Do those affecting dignity turn their eyes from the calamities others face? You may need a brutal honesty about horror, one that treats dignity as a mere invention, to build or reason about anything. The trouble with such an honesty is that Simic's sadist soldiers exemplify it.


Yeats' "When Helen Lived" presents another sort of soldier. This one obliquely mentions calamity. "We have cried in our despair" is the first line, and the only line like the first line. Cruel imagery is explicitly missing. The words of this soldier are almost absurdly lyrical.

When Helen Lived
William Butler Yeats

We have cried in our despair
That men desert,
For some trivial affair
Or noisy, insolent sport,
Beauty that we have won
From bitterest hours;
Yet we, had we walked within
Those topless towers
Where Helen walked with her boy,
Had given but as the rest
Of the men and women of Troy,
A word and a jest.

It is inescapable that 1) you have to fight for reasonableness and 2) reasonable people can identify things worth fighting for. There are reasons to fight. "Beauty that we have won / From bitterest hours" points to them. "Beauty" doesn't sound like martial glory, a warrior's triumphant roar. The only "beauty" which could prompt this poem, this extended sigh, is a just peace.

I'm curious about the poem's tone. What sort of person worries about desertion for "some trivial affair / Or noisy, insolent sport?" Or casually references the decadence of the Trojans—how they joked about a massive injustice—and finds it relatable? Whoever speaks does not want to bash heads in. But their thoughtfulness does seem to be at odds with the deranging nature of the enterprise of war. We don't need to imagine cows on fire with their eyes carved out. US policy has led to dozens, if not hundreds, of drone-bombed weddings.

Famously, Montaigne has an essay titled "Of Cruelty." It does not take him long to speak of virtue. The question is already in play: does any assertion of virtue, of excellence, entail cruelty? If humans are rational animals, are they of necessity cruel? I guess we have to put on eveningwear and pick up our skulls to discover whether we only exist on a spectrum of derangement.