The Poem and the Apocalypse, Part 2: Children of Men and Frank O’Hara’s Personism

(x-posted to The Valve)

This is a continuation of my first post, from yesterday, on art and the apocalypse. (Note: K-Punk has also just published a very good analysis of Children of Men, that both overlaps with and differs from mine. You can find it here.)

The best thing about Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men is that we never know what causes the plague.

This brings us immediately into the realm of allegory; the causeless plague of sterility is standing for something else, something omnipresent in film’s imaginary United Kingdom.

Yesterday, I described that something as “ideological thin-slicing”: the tendency to conceive of the world as limited to a very small set of significant facts and allied persons, with the rest of the material world consigned to darkened chaos, and the rest of humanity understood to be lost or antagonistic. I noted that this kind of ideological thinking is often repetitive and “cult-like” in nature, and works by conversion rather than progressive rational argument.

In the world of Children of Men, there isn’t only one synthesis or identity of the personal and the political. There are many, and many of these are ultimately destructive. It achieves the remarkable feat of persuading us that its heroes are on a different sort of quest from the various factions they encounter, one that leads back to a habitable world, and one that upholds a diversity of artistic modes. It does so by transcending itself towards its opposite, which we might call “Personism” after Frank O’Hara.

This post does contain some spoilers. Now on with the show!


I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours.
-Bob Dylan, “Talkin’ World War III Blues”

In the Britain of the future, the government maintains order and security by closing its borders, flooding public places with propaganda, and keeping watch over its citizens. The ban on immigration is the first reason, allegorically speaking, for the plague of sterility. The only pregnant woman in the world is an illegal immigrant in Britain. She risks being imprisoned in a refugee camp and killed. “Britain Stands Alone,” proclaim the public service announcements, echoing the paranoid logic of cult ideology, and the policy of paranoid states like Myanmar and North Korea.

Public life is rent by unstable allegiances to different projects, all absurd. Like a customer who keeps returning to the store, to exchange one purchase for another, the citizens move from religious belief, to allegiance to their work and government, to terrorist resistance, and no such re-alignment is surprising to anyone else. There is simply no way to exist, in the world of the film, except by identifying oneself with a sect, and these too are at odds. There are a variety of different penitential religions. There is dissension within the “resistance.” Theo’s cousin Nigel is curator of the public treasury of art. He oversees Guernica and Michelangelo’s David. When Theo asks Nigel why he is willing to work at preserving art that soon nobody will be around to appreciate, Nigel responds, “I try not to think about it.”

What Theo asks Nigel is the unanswerable question: Why go on? As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in Human All-Too-Human, the “for what?” is lacking. What are all the government employees doing bothering to show up for their jobs? All of the characters have the option of killing themselves legally, with the help of a “Quietus” pill from the government. Here, at the point where the entire country verges on suicidal collapse, we find the starkest illustration of Slavoj Zizek’s thesis, from The Ticklish Subject, that the Freudian “death drive” is identical with an excessive “unruliness” of human nature outside the natural order.

This “unruliness” is founded in the free capacity of the human imagination to dismember things, favoring the part over the causally bound, imprisoning whole. Zizek calls this the “violence of imagination, of its ‘empty freedom’ which dissolves every objective link” (31). This initially takes the form of an anarchic carnival of dismembered phantasms, and is inspired by Hegel’s “night of the world.” Then, in Zizek’s critique of Hegel’s writing on sexuality, he reveals how the imagination can also foster fixed ideas:

cultural ‘sublation’ not only changes the form of satisfying natural needs, but somehow affects their very substance: in a sexual obsession like courtly love, the ultimate aim, satisfaction itself, is disconnected from its natural ground: it changes into a lethal passion that persists beyond the natural cycle of need and its satisfaction. (84)

This leads, through a discussion of Tristan and Isolde, to Zizek’s identification of the death drive with idealism in the ordinary sense of the term, what I have called ideology:

The death drive is not merely a direct nihilistic opposition to any life-asserting attachment; rather, it is the very formal structure of the reference to Nothingness that enables us to overcome the stupid self-contended life-rhythm, in order to become ‘passionately attached’ to some Cause – be it love, art, knowledge, or politics – for which we are ready to risk everything. (108)

Returning to the film, one finds passionate attachment everywhere: religious belief, the zealous performance of duty, the commitment to libertarian resistance, even the cause of ‘Art for Art’s sake’ in Nigel’s case. However, the effect of this overweening stance is death: death to immigrants, death to government soldiers, death to resistance fighters. The plague of sterility thus stands for the total devaluation of life implied by the heroic call to “risk everything,” in addition to the hermetic self-enclosure of man, partisan, and country in a world shaped by zero-sum allegiances.

Even the love of new life, the fundamental loss of which leads to the apocalypse of the film, is transformed into death when a human being who happens to be the youngest person on the planet is abstracted and magnified into a celebrity figure of Remaining Youth. This is “Baby Diego,” and just as the film begins, newsreels announce that Baby Diego has been killed by a fan who did not receive an autograph.

The difference between Kee, the only known pregnant woman on Earth, and Baby Diego, is that Kee has the help of a succession of people who know her and want nothing besides her safety. Kee is brought into a network of personal (rather than solely ideological) relationships when Theo’s ex-wife Julien entrusts her to Theo. The relationship between Julien and Theo helps persuade Theo to return, Achilles-like, to the fray. The ghost of Theo and Julien’s child makes Kee’s plight more sympathetic as well. Theo is able to call on his cousin Nigel for the visas he and Kee will need. They stay with Theo’s friend Jasper, who puts them in touch with Syd in the Army, who directs them to a group of sympathetic Eastern European refugees who later will get personally involved.

This chain of personal relationships is politically effective, and at every junction it follows the Kantian dictum of treating other people as ends rather than means. Kee is instrumentalized by the film’s antagonists: the resistance wants to make her a symbol, Jaspar’s friend Syd eventually wants to make money off her, and we can only imagine what the totalitarian government would do. Even celebrity is a form of instrumentalization; Baby Diego is the unwilling vessel of a people’s reverence for symbols of Life, and it kills him.

This is the qualitative difference between work like Children of Men, and work like the Left Behind series. In the Left Behind books, there is a community of believers that must come together to resist the Antichrist. In Children of Men, there is a fractious but real network of people with the capacity to work for political ends. The network is constituted richly, in ways going far beyond the exigencies of the plague. At one point we see Theo and Julien playing a flirtatious game from happier times. We learn that Jaspar is fond of bad jokes, and that Theo tolerates his bad jokes.

(These non-instrumental relationships, which survive and help end the crisis, also lay bare the poisonous folly of films like Armageddon and Signs, in which the apocalyptic crisis is required to restore a minister’s faith, or to convince a father to approve of his daughter’s beau. As with the Left Behind series, but on an interpersonal rather than ideological level, this is completely backwards.)

At no point are these personal relationships in Children of Men completely apolitical or non-ideological. Jaspar’s relationship with Syd is mediated by the black market for marijuana. Jaspar, Theo, and Julien all share a common political outlook. Kee’s baby does hold significance for the entire world. It is simply that totalizing ideological commitments are never the whole truth of the bond. The relationships cannot be sliced thinly.

The particularity of these relationships points toward a rich universalism. There is no limit of heritage or allegiance that such relationships obey. Kee is dark-skinned, an immigrant, and not a member of the resistance. The Eastern European refugees who help Kee and Theo don’t even have a language in common with them. The universalist vision takes place not all at once, but rather moment by moment; it happens through the absence of arbitrary, prejudicial limits on the concern we feel for others.


This concept of “richly constituted” relationships leads us to poet Frank O’Hara. In his manifesto on “Personism,” O’Hara writes that the semi-serious movement

…was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.

The poem arises out of the relationship – in particular, the love relationship – and brings it one step further along; when it is published, it still carries the traces of that afternoon and feeling. After his death, O’Hara’s poems had to be “collected” from the letters he sent to friends.

We might say that they epitomize a kind of relationship based on acquaintance, gratitude, anticipation, mockery, sympathy, curiosity, fellowship, desire – all things we see in Children of Men between the principals, all affective rather than ideological modes. Furthermore, these things are mixed up with each other, with the intrusions of the broader culture (a newspaper, a street sign), and even with the recognizable footprints of aesthetic and ethical thought.

There is no system here, however. O’Hara writes, in a manner directly foreshadowing Zizek:

But how then can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them. Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along? Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears).

There is also nothing about the reality to which the poem cozily refers that will stop when the poem ends. There is no way to answer the question: “Should O’Hara have written one poem more or less about Jane?” When O’Hara writes that he is after “the death of literature as we know it,” he means that he is putting a stop to the phony aesthetic universalism of Frederic Schiller’s dictum, “A book should be written for everyone and no-one.” With that, of course, Schiller has beautifully described the impersonal urgency of the polemic.

O’Hara’s Personism puts the reader in the position of producer, rather than consumer, since it is awkward to apply or imitate the content of his moment with another. One applies the form, instead. O’Hara, by defining his art in this fashion, is the willful destroyer of any celebrity based on a theory of his singularity, which would be no different from the alienating singularity of Baby Diego.

One of the appealing features of the apocalyptic fantasy is surely that a dire crisis narrows the gap between oneself, and one’s ideals. Instead of the sickening back-and-forth of idleness and rationalization, one has the efficacy of thought become action, and this is presumably the reason behind Cuaron’s winking reference to Hamlet (calling the suicide pills “Quietus”). A crisis makes heroes.

O’Hara offers us that same kind of exaltation. He defines what Martin Heidegger might call the “resoluteness” that organizes thought and puts craft to the test:

I’m not saying that I don’t have practically the most lofty ideas of anyone writing today, but what difference does that make? They’re just ideas. The only good thing about it is that when I get lofty enough I’ve stopped thinking and that’s when refreshment arrives…. As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There’s nothing metaphysical about it.

I’m not suggesting that in all circumstances one could do without polemic, and I’m certain that nobody, O’Hara included, was getting by without ideology.

All the same, we can get something out of O’Hara, and out of Cuaron’s film. In a comment to the first post, Bill Benzon noted that “thin-slicing” is the process behind most Big Ideas that emerge within the humanities. The price of this is a form of “cherry-picking,” to use Rich and Scott’s phrase, that instrumentalizes every work of art it touches along the way. We can probably imagine a different method, one which might suggest itself to us after we had a read a small group of works dozens of times, and which would be dense rather than broad in its readings. This careful attention would, of course, exclude that fashionable spinelessness — masquerading as pragmatic tolerance — which gobbles up any piece of dogmatism that is “funny” or “smart” or “genuine,” no matter what contradictions ensue.


I will end with a brief anecdote. That seems like the best way to work within O’Hara’s design. Before I wrote this post, I went back to O’Hara’s most famous poems, particularly “The Day Lady Died,” because that was the one a friend made me read, when I knew nothing about him.

For the first time (and this is totally unforgivable) I realized, by reading the footnote, that “Lady” referred to Billie Holiday. So, before I sat down to write, I listened to some of her records.

I cannot think of a better way to describe the feeling I had in between the last beat of “Without Your Love,” and the first note of “Strange Fruit,” then what O’Hara said:

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldon and everyone and I stopped breathing

Of course: “Strange Fruit” is one of the most affecting “message songs” ever recorded. We do not know what song O’Hara had in mind, though. “Without Your Love” and “Strange Fruit,” undecidably together. That is the point.