Monday, April 19, 2010

Frost At His Frostiest

The wise people who appoint themselves the guardians of the American soul have been telling us since the publication of Walden by Thoreau over 150 years ago, that materialism and mass production have doomed us. Like Thoreau they bring us the antidote of the spiritual Asian--Thoreau's Hindu meditator or today's idealized Tibetan Buddhists. Not to mention that the publishing industry often mass produces books called the Zen of this or the Zen of that.

Our most prominent American poet, Robert Frost dealt deftly and devilishly with the idea of Asian spiritual exceptionalism and American sin in an almost unknown poem from a 1947 collection. Some people have trouble grasping it, though it seems simple. First the poem, then my notes in case Frost is not clear.

An Importer

Mrs. Someone’s been to Asia,
What she brought back would amaze ye.
Bamboos, ivories, jades, and lacquers,
Devil-scaring firecrackers,
Recipes for tea with butter,
Sacred rigmaroles to mutter,
Subterfuge for saving faces,
A developed taste in vases,
Arguments too stale to mention
‘Gainst American intervention;
Most of all the mass production
Destined to prove our destruction.
What are telephones, skyscrapers,
Safety razors, Sunday papers,
But the silliest evasion
Of the truths we owe an Asian?
But the best of her exhibit
Was a prayer machine from Tibet
That by brook power in the garden
Kept repeating Pardon, pardon;
And as picturesque machinery
Beat a sundial in the scenery –
The most primitive of engines
Mass producing with a vengeance.
Teach those Asians mass production?
Teach your grandmother egg suction.


If that was clear, read no farther because my notes are unnecessary prose.

The poem is easy enough to understand if you summarize the story:

--Back from Asia comes Mrs. Someone (not important enough to name, and like many unimportant thinkers)

--She has lots of "art" and a new criticism of America

--America, she says, has lost its soul to mass production while Asians express their souls in artful and personal handwork.

--Our spectacular displays of technology, from gadgets to skyscrapers are our way of avoiding the spiritual truths of Asia (sound somewhat like all the aficionados of Tibetan culture?)

--America has doomed its soul with such impersonal and material stuff

--to show Asian spirituality she has brought home a prayer wheel powered by the flow in her brook

--it uses a primitive engine to mass produce what--prayers!

--we have nothing to teach the Asians about mass production; they are ahead of us, having extended mechanical mass production to spirtual matters

Frost foresaw the Asian ability long before the Asians really got started in mass production for Nike and Walmart.

One might also note that while the decadent Americans were creating national parks and forests and preserving farmland, the more spiritual Asians of the Mongolian steppe and Tibetan highlands had devastated their environment by overgrazing and a classic demonstration of the 'tragedy of the commons'.