An Image of the book cover, Claire Schwartz Civil Service

Civil Service — Claire Schwartz

by Parag Desai

In this nation, do we suffer the same? Or, do we suffer differently? Everything that is reified, everything we “know,” is the result of a cultural process. For instance, those with power can say: “That is the law,” and no one can question it because it’s an utterance split by syntax—a command and a declaration. Is that “knowing” fundamental to the outcome of who ends up in the town square or who ends up in a jail cell? Claire Schwartz asks us to look at nation-building as an exercise in verbal anchoring.

For Civil Service, language, then, operates as a tax: “The townspeople collected their best language  / to offer the Empathetic Dictator” (“Death Revises Badly”). What we know becomes a reflex, a tax—what V. N. Vološinov says is a passive understanding, “the kind of understanding,” the kind of “knowing,” “of a word that excludes active response in advance and on principle.” This is the genius of nationhood, ultimately. Those at the center of hegemony become subsidized philologists. Language is collected and then weaponized against the townspeople in the form of ritual, ceremony, spectacle—epideictic rhetorics that are meant to conceal the violent development of history inside the fog of culture.

As long as we have houses to feed our nostalgia, we no longer need to make sense, because sense is made for us in memory, just as Schwartz’s characters hide behind the thick shawl of comfort—they hide behind childhood and memory even if it must be manufactured (“At Night, the Censor Watches His Wife Tuck Their Son into Bed”), or intuitively tucks a penny under their tongues for safe measure (“Sense and Sensibility”), or stuffs their mouth with canapés and champagne because, in this psychosomatic configuration, our own self-enrichment is represented through a negation of society (“I Love My Body More Than Other Bodies”). Our independence is forced to develop internally; our commitment to the nation is exercised via spectacle.

If culture is a misrepresentation, how do we marry our experiences to repel the violence that rains from above? How does one locate interiority amidst a society that negates society?

In The Body in Pain (1985), author Elaine Scarry also deals with the relation between language and nationhood. She writes:

Like the language of strategy, alliance, and history, the language of daily conversation is not necessarily false, for that would mean it had more clarity than it has … each verbal utterance has all times the explosive duality of being at once very possibly true and very possibly false … in which the accuracy will determine whether one lives or dies.

Fictitious language fills the space between the “very possibly true” and the “very possibly false.” This verbal unanchordness calls into question whether once we exit this string of questioning that’s peppered throughout Civil Service—this interrogation—if we’d even recognize an interiority. Scarry says that the nation builds a mound of substantiation through the “extreme deconstruction” of the body (torture). What we swear is there, and hold so dear to our chest as individuals—be it pain or suffering or memory—becomes a point of leverage for the state. Our interiority is absorbed into the same apparatus that instructs us to mourn for our dead leaders in a street parade.

How often do we all deny liberation to survive the day? One is tempted to consider sacrificing interiority for the sake of history.

While I do believe each “person has a story / Each story is a tragedy” just as Schwartz does (“Lecture On Time”), the looming threat of my personal experience being recontextualized for the regime’s “reality” is dependent on how close I am to those that allow for that narrative appropriation. If you and I are trapped in the periphery, we are subject to the state’s violence. If we are met with this violence, we’re suspended from the truth. And if we’re not met with violence, then, what that means is, you and I are an extension of the state’s grace.

Civil Service proposes that since the psyche and the soma (the “body”) are separated, there’s a third, more mysterious element to consider. This element could help put in perspective the more nuanced, more central patterns of our behavior. History itself is an alienated force, because culture, the edicts of “a Dictator,” (for instance, an ideology, a common sensibility) does not reflect the language that is stored in the body (“Lecture on Loneliness”). The clash of the language of the self and the language of the nation bloats the body with a cacophony of dis-jointed subjectivities. Offering an alternative to these two languages, Schwartz advocates for the role of poetry, a mechanism in which we can articulate pain or suffering, which is folded into a tool for messianism.

For social or political change to be possible, it would first come from those laying down bricks to the unknown, those going where no person has gone before, those who arrive at an understanding based on a fundamental crisis of essence. Presumably, one who must have a hold on this poetic thread of the “unknown”—a sentiment so acutely understood that it only makes sense when the sporadic conditions are in place for it to make sense, a condition that evades theory, what Schwartz calls the “known” (“Lecture on the History of the House”). And, perhaps, one reason we haven’t come to that conclusion sooner is that that desire is buried beneath a false-prophet’s language.

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain. Oxford UP, 1985.

Schwartz, Claire. Civil Service: Poems. Graywolf, 2022.

Vološinov, V. N. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Harvard UP, 1973.

PARAG DESAI reviewer

Parag Desai is the son of immigrants, a first-year writing adjunct instructor for Coastal Carolina University, and he holds a CELTA in ESL/EFL instruction. His writing and research interests include revolutionary and subaltern politics; nationhood, ideology and language; the surrealities of violence and nonviolence; and the philosophy of education. His writing can be found in Terse. Journal9 to 5 Magazine, and as a previous editor for Waccamaw. You can follow him on Twitter: @prizmnotebooks or Instagram: @ph_desai.

An Image of the book cover, Claire Schwartz Civil Service

Schwartz, Claire. Civil Service. Graywolf Press, 2022.