Aesthetics are not Empathy

April 6, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: Elizabeth Barnett on “Training Course” by Amit Majmudar

It’s comforting to think bad politics makes bad language and so bad art. That was the balm of the Bush era Daily Show: if we’re smart enough, we will also be good. Amit Majmudar’s “Training Course” might be read as the Obama-era answer to that optimism, revealing how sophisticated and aesthetic our brutality can be.

“Training Course” is a formal poem—its eight stanzas correspond to the days of the how-to-torture course, culminating in “Trainee” killing “Monkey” and graduating to bigger game.* Day One emphasizes the poem’s status as an instruction manual, with language that appears totally utilitarian, dropping articles and rendering action in institutional passive voice.

Day One. Monkey is strapped into chair.
Trainee tonsures monkey and affixes electrodes.
Introductory lecture regarding alternating and direct current,
Trainee and Monkey at desks, side by side.

We see that the course is designed to short circuit empathy, and we see how language suffers as a consequence. It’s just as we suspected! But then a cruel playfulness sneaks into the poem.

The second stanza describes sodium thiopental and potassium chloride “cocktails,” concluding with the punning “Mint sprig optional.” This dark wit peaks on Day Four, which celebrates bondage with linguistic flourish.

Day Four. Trainee is to familiarize himself with pertinent knots:
Falconer’s knot, grief knot, hunter’s bend.
Killick hitch, axle hitch, slip knot, monkey’s fist.
Pity not. Noose.

The stanza is as seductive as it is violent, the evocative list of knots becoming an imperative to “Pity not” becoming the plain and terrifying “Noose.” Here we have something very close to beauty within the ugliness of the Trainee’s mission. And that’s where this poem really got me, as it refused to give sacred space to “poetry” or “aesthetics,” the things we wish could save us from becoming the Trainee. Majmudar seems to speak to the ideal of art as antithetical to the abuse of power by embedding such art into the course itself, which harnesses this intellectual play to its own brutal end. The seventh day further connects creativity and cruelty in its “historical” list of whimsical suffering.

Day Seven. Historical overview:
Asps hooked onto the breasts of empresses,
Peasants sagging down wooden pikes, pistols handed to soviet generals.
Crucifixion. The arithmetic of quartering.

As nice as it would be to associate institutionalized violence with ugliness, the poem shows us a perverse beauty in torture and its representations, illustrating that aesthetics are not empathy, and poetry that seeks to serve only itself, ignoring structures of power, may directly or inadvertently support them. In “Training Course,” the march toward torture is shepherded both by the expected institutional order—metonymized in the bureaucratic language of the “interactive online tutorial” and “Self-assessment module”—that would claim to protect us from violent chaos and the aestheticized language with which we try to escape that numbing bureaucratic order. Unlike the Trainee, with whom we’ve weathered the course, the reader does not finish the poem with her hand on the “switch,” but her hand still shakes.

* I read the capitalized “Trainee” and “Monkey” as indicating the interchangeable yet totalizing nature of these roles. My students thought something more insidious—that Monkey is capitalized because “it” is really a person.

Elizabeth Barnett teaches at Berea College and edits the digital broadside quarterly Rove. Her poems have recently appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, and Sixth Finch.

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