Departments

The Year of Temptation

Somewhere I read how a Teutonic Knight, to prove his chastity, chose a beautiful woman and lay beside her every night for a year without touching her.

I

The night she lay beside him first was dark;
But now the moon slips through the arrow loop.
The blade of moonlight finds no fatal mark
Only her hair that has shed its raveling loop.
A child will watch the clouds before the storm
And thrill to thunder's rattle in his bones
While strength and wisdom huddle safe from harm.
Her hair uncoils. He watches back to stone.
Her hair is silvered wire where each strand is loose,
The sheets as white and hot as steel in coals:
All winter's breath and summer's clouds reduce
To floating, knotted waves and shallow shoals.
       The knight has never touched the lady's hair;
       But he is wound and bound and sheltered there.


II

He left to fight for Christ with sword and lance.
In her door he saw her shadow stand demure,
As still as soldiers await the hostile advance
As hoodless hawks await the order to soar.
Behind him sun, before her blinded gaze.
He watched her stare and hope all down the file
A scrim that furled before the morning haze.
The heat of her eyes on his back did not fade with the miles.
He felt no fear before the howling rush,
No fury when he swung his sword to kill,
No pain to bear a pagan's lucky touch.
Half-through the door of death his heart was still.
       If he put out his hand in the dark and pulled her close beside
       Her flesh could not heal the wound of the love in her eyes.


III

Her breath is like the fall of steady rain;
Now hard, now soft, while clouds conceal the sky.
Rain is the prayer of farmers' life and gain;
But rain brings mud where knights must walk and die
In the wooded valley twilight. The path is lost,
The pagan voices speak the tongue of rain
The pagan wailing echoes over frost
The wordless speech of rage and rain and pain.
The ancient sacred words of monks and priests,
The patters counted over knots and beads,
The ranging howling passed from beast to beast,
The wind a breath that moans among the reeds:
       Her breath is like some strange and secret speech
       Which none shall learn when none remains to teach.


IV

She swore, before the priest would give his leave,
Never to touch and never a touch to allow.
Sometimes she pulls her arms in through her sleeves
And sleeping winds herself inside a shroud.
The narrow cell is narrower every night.
He sleeps in belt and boots and wrapped in wool.
He flees the bed once the sky is gray with light,
To storm the field like the heavy, heedless bull.
How could the knight who always won before
By heart and strength, the first to leave the castle,
Have known that he already lost the war
Only by choosing to give a needless battle?
       They were no friends who led him to this oath:
       "A year to prove you bravest and purest both."


V

Her skin is still as smooth as banner silk
Shimmering over the tents of Tartar kings,
Still pale as ice when rivers turn to milk,
Still somehow like all rare and precious things.
The knight has learned with steel that skin is lie,
The lie of life that covers death within.
The strongest knights, the oaks so broad and high
May rot and fall from the smallest gap of skin.
He knows how soon her skin will fail the lady.
The priests have taught him all that age can do.
He knows the painting already is fading
And only memory is always new.
       His blood had yearned for the touch of painted saints:
       But he turns from the taint of blood beneath the paint.

Gender neutrality

When I took up writing essays I learned that writing is best when it is gender-neutral. Tradition told me that he is an adequate contraction for he or she. Languages where gender is obligatory have no problem with it. But as soon as I tried it, I saw that tradition was wrong. In English at least, gender neutrality is simply better than gender conflation, for three reasons.

1. You cannot be gender-specific when you want to be unless you are first gender-neutral. There is no way to gracefully modulate from equating male and human to discussing men and women separately. If he is male… If he is a she… The man who, as a male… The man who, as a woman…

Of course confusing men and human beings may be evil, when it hides women; but even when it is not evil, it is still silly, because it will not let you say anything about the difference.

2. Gender-neutral writing is more forcible. True, formulas like he or she and men and women are tiresome. Interpolating a piece of gender-conflating writing into gender neutrality neuters it. But expressions originally conceived in gender neutrality are more direct and vivid than those that conflate genders.

Some people find men and women or human beings or people intolerably awkward expressions; they would rather say men. Now I like human beings—it asserts biological solidarity without anthropocentrism. But if you want to concern the human condition, why not say we?

For the most part, gender neutrality is only a problem because English overloads the third person. Balance the load and you avoid the problem. Are you talking about yourself? Stand up; say I. Are you addressing your readers directly? Look me in the eye; say you.

Not all gender-neutral expressions are more forcible; but those that are gain so much that they justify the rest.

3. Gender-neutral writing is underdeveloped. Someone who becomes a writer in admiration of great but gender-conflating works of literature will understandably suspect gender neutrality as a subtle form of philistinism. So it can be. So gender-conflation can be a subtle form of misogyny. But the strongest argument for gender neutrality is literary.

It was a favorite technique of the twentieth century to escape the weight of literary history by subjecting writing to constraints. Someone wrote a book without the letter e; which is remarkable, but trivial. Gender neutrality is a nontrivial constraint. Literature is desperately overcrowded, hopelessly competitive. Everything has been done before and done better. But gender neutrality opens a new world, with space, horizons, elbow room.

Designism

This needs naming. The ists are easy to recognize: designists are to designers as jocks are to athletes. Most athletes are not jocks; most jocks are not athletes; but jocks worship athletes. Likewise designists worship designers. The ism is also simple: its creed being that design is necessary and sufficient.

This ism is accusable on three grounds. It is irresponsible: the designist holds the designer to no responsibilities, even to design—what would it would even mean for a designer to sell out? It is amoral: designists respond shamelessly to good design in the service of Soviet propaganda, and the response is more convincing than the shame where Nazi hardware is concerned. It is brutal: good design is like good aim. To praise the shot without asking who got shot and why defines brutality.

Designism is dogmatic mediocrity.

Designers must be dogmatic, because they are responsible for just the part of a thing with the least, or without any, constraints. It is the job of a designer to deflate possibility with orthodoxy, to halve the possible into the good and the gauche, and halve it again, until it contracts to the practicable. (Water cannot boil in a perfectly clean pot; some grain must be present for the bubbles to coalesce around. Likewise, without grains of dogma, there is no inspiration.)

Designers must be mediocre, because design targets the masses—in possession or in aspiration. Designers must be able to trust that their own reactions represent the average reaction. Skilled as they may become, designers cannot design unless they remain mediocre in their souls.

Designers are dogmatic and mediocre, but they are not therefore dogmatic about mediocrity. That is the extra step that makes the ism. Review the creed. If design is necessary, then what does is not deduced from the dogmas of design cannot be good. If design is sufficient, then what does not appeal to mediocrity must be a mistake.

Nobody defends bad design; not even I do. But I do not trust design. Bad design vellicates, but good design sedates. Influence, manipulation, and persuasion can deviate our intentions, but not deflect them. They affect, but they do not take. Design harmonizes the things that are intruded into our lives with the patterns of our perception and attention, makes them blend in or fit in. Design camouflauges; design encysts.

Of course it is the intrusion, not the design, that is good or bad. Design is analgesic. Analgesics make life better, they give us control over pain; but when the leech injects them, we are fatted on without noticing the loss. Designism confuses the mechanism with the thing that uses the mechanism, and applies more leeches for a deeper cure.