June 27, 2016

We’ve all become Davids: The strange intersection of poetry and politics

David MacKenzieRebel Columnist

As poet Al Purdy asserted in 1974, an entire “generation” of Canadians, whether in high school or university English courses, read and analyzed the poem “David” by Earle Birney.

I was one of them. And, I must state from the outset that I liked the poem. To this very day, it is terribly interesting. With its generous use of vivid linguistic imagery, its Rocky Mountain setting appealing to our collective Canadian psyche, and its willing exploration of a horrifying ethical issue, “David” is a poem worth reading.

So, here comes the confession. I’m a David. But I didn’t like the poem’s David. True, he wasn’t without his redeeming qualities. The reader learns that David is bright, learned, courageous, energetic. He clearly has a passion for life.

But I didn’t like him — even when I first read about him. And the reason, I suggest, is because he is “his own man” in the worst sense of the phrase.  

The poem, I suppose, could have been called “Treacherous Rockies”. But it is aptly titled, instead. It is about David. And David is master. This much seems obvious, especially when he’s face-to-face with brokenness. He kills a robin with a broken wing without any hesitation. He not only makes the call, he executes the judgement. Bob, his climbing partner, has no real say. Why would he? It is David who is sovereign, and David’s disparaging utilitarian sympathies are all that matter.

To his credit, at least David is consistent, however.

When David, in the process of steadying Bob’s foothold on a mountainside, falls downslope and breaks his own back, the “robin” comes home to roost, as it were, and the ethical scenarios take on a human dimension. David is alive, but paralyzed. And David wants Bob to push him over the next, more lethal, ledge, and finish the job the first plunge started.

This is where David’s character annoyed me the most. We all have freedom to speak our minds and even our fears and despair, of course, but the question that has not stopped recurring for me since the first time I read, David, is this: does a possibly dying man have the right to expect others to execute his own personal despair?   

David has a private will, for certain; the reader, however, needn’t ask Bob whether David has a public expectation. He does. And he really doesn’t mind putting Bob in a horrendous ethical position. When David reminds his friend, “I’d do it for you, Bob”, we may perceive evidence of an appeal to compassion, but we could, just as easily, discern a form of emotional manipulation.   

And Canadian art has now anticipated the real world.   

After the Senate’s final passage of C-14 on June 17, the sovereign presumption of David carries the coercive force of law in this land. In the name of compassion, we have taken private despair and made it lord over public policy. Bob, we have argued, was right to kick David down the cliff.

Personal autonomy is now so ideologically sacrosanct that it has been allowed to utterly triumph over the common good.  And, shockingly, neither the Commons nor the Senate had even the courage to build conscientious protections into this pretentious piece of poetic polity.  

It is not enough to suggest that compassion is at stake. Compassion is actually more manifest in a palliative care home than it is in a cold, dripping needle. And the poetic question remains: what right has David to treat all the Bobs (and Bettys) of this nation as political chattel— a mere means to an egocentric and nihilistic end?

Yet, this kind of public policy, I would argue, is what logically happens when enough of us assume that sovereign human will is all that matters— or, even worse, all that is. Truly, “it is not good for man to be alone”. When we act as though there is none higher, our personal despair becomes world-consuming. For who can rescue us from our “divine” selves?

I do not know how much of Earle Birney’s Marxism shines through in this poem, nor do I know how much atheism is, thus, inherent in Birney’s personal sympathies. “David” is not an overtly political or theological piece. Yet, I do observe that David is the sophisticate in the poem. For David, there is none higher than David. Sadly, this is precisely the worldview that leaves him hopeless on that mountain.  

I believe it ironic that David in his pain, should actually shout to Bob, “for Christ’s sake, push me over!”  It provokes the question of faith. Where is it? Indeed, the lack of it seems central to the entire crisis. David, truly, takes the Lord’s name in vain, because David really has no Lord.  

David is Lord. Bob knew it with David’s all too swift damnation of the robin.  

I feel sorry for Bob. I feel sorry for us. Bob succumbed to that monstrous will, not once but twice. And now we have as well.

From June 17 onward, we have fully agreed to publicly subsidize private despair.  And, like Bob, our legislators have voted with their own hands— setting bodies in motion— and causing stones in the mountains to cry out.           

Out of our collective poverty of spirit, the government — our judges and lords — have spoken.

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commented 2016-06-27 16:28:51 -0400
Everyone should have the freedom to end their own life if they insist on doing so, but no one should have the legal right to force anyone else to do the job for them. Remember, that individual has to continue living, and live with the fact that they ended a life. If one insists on dying, they should either do it themselves, or solicit the assistance of someone who doesn’t mind killing people.
commented 2016-06-27 14:32:32 -0400
Mark: my response would be this… If this is your PRIVATE decision, why must it go public? Why must the public subsidize your decision with lab coats, experts, hypodermic needles, and tax-supported health care? Many arguments masquerading as libertarian are actually more Statist than is admitted— they use the coercive force of law to publicly justify (and taxably subsidize) a death that need not be. Why must all citizens subsidize private despair, for a “common good” that is neither “good” nor held in “common”?
commented 2016-06-27 13:30:00 -0400
We are all the masters of our own domain. Why then cannot one choose to go out on his own terms? When I am not able to carry on, what I consider an acceptable “quality of life”, why am I not allowed to make this call? Your belief of some divine being and his plan for you has no bearing on my decision.