Earle Birney Poems
The Critique of Modernity in “Anglosaxon Street” and Obasan
Earle Birney’s poem “Anglosaxon Street” and Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan both present a powerful critique of modern life, though the former is delivered through sarcastic humor while the latter is portrayed through poignant emotions. Modernity in “Anglosaxon Street” is depicted through paralyzed human passivity and emotional sterility. Against the backdrop of modern spiritual bankruptcy portrayed in “Anglosaxon Street,” modernity fully exposes its devastating destructiveness in Obasan. Although modernity favors the improvement of human welfare through increasing productivity and efficiency, it also possesses a darker, more sinister aspect behind its outward façade of human progress. The dark side of modernity is reflected through its standardized living in dreary uniformity, the blind deference of its citizens to state authority, the destructive capacity of the state to indoctrinate mass beliefs through the modern communication system, and its people’s psychological vulnerability to the blandishment of modern propaganda. In both texts, the instruments of modernity become notoriously employed for racial persecution and human alienation; in both texts, the modern communication system produces mass hatred through the systematic dissemination of its nefarious propaganda. In response, the modern citizens in both texts behave like robots, unconsciously absorbing the venomous mass propaganda and becoming victimized under modernity’s technological manipulation of feelings, which proves destructive to their individuality and emotional spontaneity. The comparative examination of these two texts helps to produce a comprehensive image of a supposedly progressive modernity that has actually become regressive. The spiritual bankruptcy and human alienation of modern existence is vividly portrayed in the short poetic form of “Anglosaxon Street,” which delivers a condensed portrait of modernity’s banality, and in the long prose form of Obasan, which fully reveals the destructiveness of modernity through concrete details and poignant emotions. “Anglosaxon Street” delivers a powerful portrait of modernity’s robotized existence and its spiritual emptiness. Living at the height of modernity in 1942, the people of the poem exist in a standardized life of mundane banality. Its inhabitants are portrayed as uninspiring dwellers of a modern slum, depicted through the unappealing figures of “flatarched… saxonwives” (Birney 115) who are languishing away in a stagnant backwater. Their life is absorbed in the trivial details of a typically monotonous modern existence, which consists of the banal activities of working, eating, entertaining themselves, and sleeping. Every day consists of the same repetition of activities, which begins at sunrise, ends at “sunslope” (115) and resumes again at the time of “worldrise” (116). Rather than behaving like autonomous individuals capable of independent feelings, its inhabitants resemble mechanical robots who behave like a mere part of the standardized system of modern existence. Such an existence constitutes a perpetual reproduction of the inhabitants’ present identities, which entails little innovation and uniqueness and a near-total absence of individual expression and pursuit. The destructiveness of modern living is such that its inhabitants behave like hypnotized sleepwalkers who unconsciously perform their everyday activities as if living in a state of “slumber” (116), without much mental reflection and emotional outpouring. Their lethargic movements of “lop[ing]” (115) and “skittl[ing]” (115) betray a passive resignation to their poverty without the manifestation of any subversive revolutionary spirit seeking to overthrow the very modern system that inflicts this abject destitution upon them. Its inhabitants betray no feelings of bitterness toward their backward social conditions, and instead remain contented through their trivial pleasures of “beer” (115), “movies” (115), and rough play, manifesting a total insensitivity to their backward situation as they contentedly take refuge in their “hotbox[es]” (116). Although the inhabitants of Anglosaxon Street present themselves as productive members of modern society who are active from morning to night, their streamlined modern existence exposes a languid apathy underneath this seeming vibrancy. The slumbering numbness of its people is best reflected in the decaying street itself, which physically rots away amid the decaying “reeks” (115) of “cellarrot” (115) and “catcorpse” (115) that manifests a powerful image of spiritual degradation. The numb insensitivity of its inhabitants makes them incapable of apprehending the psychological destructiveness of their existence. Life on Anglosaxon Street is not a meaningful teleological process that unfolds toward an ambitious end, but a spectacle of chaotic juxtaposition where everything “spew[s]” (115) out simultaneously in a “leprous” (115) condition, from “leaping” (115) children to rough laborers against the “shrieking” (115) sounds of “hydrants” (115) and “whistle” (115), in a spectacle of great disorientation that betrays modernity’s chaotic existence. Even love itself becomes sterile and emotionally apathetic, as the act of lovemaking becomes a mere act of physical exertion that is performed with “careless[ness]” (116) and “haste” (116). The passionate act of kissing becomes likened to the sound of “caterwaul” (116), which signifies the absence of affection in these traditionally emotional acts. The overwhelming emotional numbness of “Anglosaxon Street” shows that the standardized modern existence has made people spiritually bankrupt and emotionally unresponsive; the once-beneficial feelings of love and compassion have been subsumed by the modern age. The structural form of this poem further satirizes the modern existence. “Anglosaxon Street” is written in heroic verse (Aichinger 57), which is traditionally reserved for the glorification of heroic deeds (57). By using the heroic poetic form to portray the banality of modern life, Birney seeks to denounce the supposedly progressive modernity that has become regressive. Although modernity is devoted to humanity’s progress, it also possesses a powerful regressive capacity through its ability to inflict a brainwashed numbness upon its people. One of the most regressive potentials of modernity is the capacity of mass indoctrination through modern media. In the poem, the prominent wartime slogans “there’ll always be an England” (Birney 115) and “V’s for Victory” (115) reveal the heavy extent of nationalistic indoctrination in society through the modern medium of communication. These state-propagated nationalistic doctrines exert such power that they almost serve as the unifying force to “weld” (115) together the “cracks” (115) of chaotic and fragmented modern living. In this way, the indoctrinated nationalism serves almost as a secular religion that provides the community with an overriding sense of purpose. The power of modern communication is most prominent in wartime through its capacity to mass-produce hatred and prejudice through the dissemination of heavily biased propaganda. The spiritual numbness of modernity makes its people even more susceptible to the sinister influence of mass indoctrination, which renders them more vulnerable to the impact of its psychological onslaught. “Anglosaxon Street” vividly portrays its inhabitants’ narrow-minded mentality that is shaped through modern state indoctrination. Its people have succumbed to the power of state propaganda and have jumped onto the nationalistic bandwagon without much deliberation or insight. Under the bombardment of patriotic communications, its inhabitants have lost their capacity for independent reasoning and have lapsed into blind prejudice toward the national and racial outsiders in the beings of “niggers” (115), “kikes” (115), and the warring “Huns” (115). They adopt the policy of apartheid through the rigid construction of demarcated boundaries to “denude” (115) their “ghetto” (115) of unwanted and undesirable outsiders, forming a “haven” (115) against such contamination. Their constant swearing of “hatedeeds” (115) against these outsiders reflects the deformation of their minds under indoctrination, which transforms them into xenophobes frozen in hatred and incapable of the beneficial feelings of compassion and empathy. The abuse of modern communication has made these already emotionally numb inhabitants even more complacent and hollow. The deep social strains depicted in “Anglosaxon Street” reveal the destructiveness of modernity that is capable of producing this human alienation and disconnection. Birney sarcastically mocks the banality of the indoctrinated modern nationalism by claiming that its grand wartime propaganda slogan “V’s for Victory” (115), which traditionally symbolizes absolute victory against the nation’s enemies, is only capable of vanquishing the trivial and powerless “housefly” (115). The critique of modernity in “Anglosaxon Street” helps to expose modernity’s ultimate destructiveness in Obasan. In the shortness of its form, “Anglosaxon Street” captures the very essence of modernity’s spiritual bankruptcy, which lays a solid foundation for understanding the novel. Obasan develops upon this condensed poetic critique and proceeds to reveal modernity’s profound cruelty in the form of long prose, developing in more concrete detail modernity’s true destructiveness. In contrast to the banal modern existence in “Anglosaxon Street,” where petty nationalistic superiority prevails, the destructive power of modernity reaches its zenith in Obasan through its depiction of vehement nationalism and media indoctrination. “Anglosaxon Street” and Obasan both take place at the height of WWII, during which the indoctrination of mass propaganda reaches an unprecedented peak in its vehemence. The citizens in Obasan are drowned in a sea of malicious state propaganda, which deliberately sought to disparage and vilify the Japanese-Canadians through its systematic feeding of misinformation. In Obasan, modernity’s communication instruments (such as newspapers and radio stations) are actively employed as the medium to mass-produce antagonistic hatred toward the Japanese-Canadian population, and they have achieved a total success in the brainwashing of its citizens. The incorporation of many primary newspaper clippings and official state reports in the literary structure of Obasan provides its audience with a firsthand impression of the aggressiveness of wartime communication. The modern media becomes an intentional liar that slights truth and circulates deliberate fabrications of facts. It unblushingly disseminates “outright lies” (Kogawa 79) by accusing the Japanese-Canadians of being “saboteurs” (78), “spies” (77) who seek to sabotage the Canadian war effort by acting as fifth columns for Japan; the Japanese-Canadians therefore must be rounded up in the name of national security. The fury of its media is such that it virtually “scream[s]” (78) at its citizens, which reflects the authority’s ruthless determination to impose its xenophobic doctrines upon its people in its attempt to turn them into blind followers of its doctrines. The communication of modern mass media produces a poisonous atmosphere and an “utter sanity” (78) in a society “overflowing with hatred” (84) and charged with a social tension that far surpasses even that of Birney’s intolerant Anglosaxon Street. The indoctrination of modern communication whips up such furious rage against the Japanese-Canadians that they are relegated from their honorable status as Canadian citizens into the derogatory ranks of “enemy aliens” (85) and “a lower order people” (78), who are then forcefully expulsed from the national community like infectious vermin. Obasan fully reveals the demagogic potentials of modern communication. In Obasan, the destructiveness of modern communication is such that it literally destroys the modern people’s souls by projecting the belief system of the state authority into them in a destructive process of forceful ideological conversion, one that ends in total human alienation. Like the slumbering sleepwalkers of “Anglosaxon Street,” who have succumbed to modernity’s robotized existence and its forceful ideological indoctrination, the white Canadians in Obasan have also become the robotized and passive adherents of state authority under the vehement influence of its propaganda. Similar to the inhabitants of “Anglosaxon Street,” the white Canadians in Obasan have been fully hypnotized under the indoctrination of standardized modern nationalism and have become “ignorant and indifferent” (81) as they have lost their independent reasoning and human compassion. In both texts, the modern citizens act like a mere part of the state organ, possessing little power to unleash the individual expression within them. They unconsciously absorb its vehement propaganda as they succumb to modernity’s technological manipulation of human feelings. The modern communication system reorients their thinking, stifles their best human instincts, and reduces its people into standardized robots who bow toward authority with deference and obedience. Thus, these modern people become shrouded by an overwhelming “blindness” (82) as they lose their intelligence, reason, and insight (75) to the dictates of the modern state authority. In Obasan, the instruments of modernity are fully employed as the means of a systematic racial persecution. Its communication system is used in the production of racial hatred and intolerance, its transportation system is devoted to racial segregation by transporting the Japanese-Canadians away from the white community, and its police apparatus is used in the outright oppression of these same people. Rather than using the instruments of modernity for humanity’s progress and betterment, modernity in both texts has become associated with human alienation, emotional numbness, and spiritual regression. The white Canadians in Obasan have themselves become the true victims of modernity’s insensitive numbness and passive uniformity in an even more tragic manner than the emotionally apathetic inhabitants of “Anglosaxon Street.”In the face of this grim image of modernity, it is important for people to counteract some of modernity’s destructive power. Aunt Emily in Obasan is someone who refuses to become modernity’s victim and turns modernity against itself through the positive use of modernity’s communication system. In an attempt to counteract the venomous dissemination of state propaganda, Emily produces and disseminates her own writings and reports through the same modern communication system in an effort to expose the brutality of official racism during WWII and the unshakable loyalty of Japanese-Canadians (41). In this way, Emily seeks to counteract “the power of print” (37) by challenging the brutality of the hegemonic discourse. She seeks to awaken people’s consciences and empathy, both of which have been numbed by their robotized modern existence. Emily uses the modern instrument of a “typewriter” (41), that which has been used to propagate racial hatred, to expose the injustice of the government’s wartime proceedings. Emily “aim[s] for the heart” (41) in an attempt to arouse compassionate human instincts that have been destroyed by modern propaganda. Thus, Emily transforms modernity’s instruments of oppression into the progressive instruments of liberation and social justice. The critique of modernity is delivered differently in the two texts: “Anglosaxon Street” satirizes the banality of modern living through a tone of playful humor, while Obasan presents the ultimate savagery of a modern society through the vehement depiction of its cruelty. “Anglosaxon Street” is a piece of social satire that aims to poke fun and provoke wry laughter at modernity’s mediocrity, while Obasan is an unadulterated tragedy that seeks to evoke human sympathy toward those who suffer under modernity’s plight. The society in Obasan is an extreme representation of that in “Anglosaxon Street,” which shows that the fictional Anglosaxon Street could itself turn into a fiendish society as monstrous as the xenophobic world in Obasan. What truly distinguishes these two texts is the spirit of hope in Obasan that is depicted through Emily’s unbending efforts to employ modernity’s instruments toward a positive end. Emily’s efforts introduce a fresh ray of hope and optimism into the grim picture of Obasan, in contrast to the intellectual sterility of “Anglosaxon Street,” where no intellectual resistance appears in sight. However, the spirit of hope in Obasan shows that even Birney’s Anglosaxon Street is not beyond redemption: it, too, could be redeemed through active human resistance against the abusive employment of modernity. Works CitedAichinger, Peter. Earle Birney. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979.Birney, Earle. “Anglosaxon Street.” Canadian Literature in English: Texts and Context, Volume II. Ed. Laura Moss and Cynthia Sugars. Toronto: Pearson Education Canada, 2009. 114-116.Kogawa, Joy. Obasan. Toronto: Penguin Group, 2003.