By Reginald D. Abergavenny III, D.D., Ph.D., L.L.D.Hon., R.A., C.G.C. – Special to The Scope
As was the sonnet for Shakespeare and the ode for Shelley, the internet comment is the great literary form of our time. One year ago, in an effort to elevate this art form, The Scope launched its own bastion of anonymous pornographic ravings and confessions of mild-stalking: I Saw You.
To celebrate the anniversary of what has become the most popular section of our website, we have commissioned a famed literary critic to take a closer look at a few of the more popular I Saw Yous.
I saw you
drive up on the curb
and hit me
with your car.
Even though you
sped off quickly,
I found your car
in the parking lot
and kicked off
“Revenge is a kind of wild justice,” wrote Francis Bacon. And this Lex talionis—an eye for an eye, a muffler for a bruise—I Saw You is a classic example of revenge literature. A hero, wronged by a villain—be it a bad driver, the government, or the fates—-journeys—literally, or figuratively—to the ends of the earth, or a nearby parking lot, to find justice through retribution.
The Newtonian Laws of Revenge dictate that to every act of violation, there is an equal corresponding act of vengeance—an eye for an eye. The first act unbalances the violatee’s sense of fairness—“that so-and-so just hit me with their car and drove away”—which cannot be restored until vengeance is meted out—kicking off their muffler—and the violatee is vindicated.
The persistence of revenge, or what scholars call altruistic punishment—punishment meted out by me upon you for your own good—gives justice its substance and sense of balance. As Old Testament God said unto Moses: “anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.” The pairing of violation and revenge is often treated as though it were a metaphysical law of the universe that constitutes justice, and thus civilization, in the first place.
However, unspoken in this insistence is what comes next. The violatee achieves vindication but the original violator is newly violated. This person who drove their car up on the curb, upon seeing their muffler detached from their vehicle and laying on the ground, will thirst for vengeance. Rather than constitutive of justice, this endless cycle creates a condition of escalating violence and mutually assured destruction.
As Ghandi said, “an eye for an eye can make the whole world blind.” Or, a muffler for a bruise can make the whole world uncomfortably loud. To escape the cycle of violence that revenge perpetuates one must, at some point, forgive, let go, pass over, or turn the other cheek, as Jesus amended his Father’s eye-for-an-eye law. As Bacon put it, “certainly, in taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior; for it is a prince’s part to pardon.”
1. Not to be confused with the painter, or the popular breakfast meat. Sir Francis Bacon, “Of Revenge,” Essayes: Religious Meditations. Places of Perswasion and Disswasion. Seene and Allowed, (1597).
2. de Quervain, et al., “The Neural Basis of Altruistic Punishment,” Science 27 August 2004.
3. Leviticus 24:19-20
4. Eisikovits, Nir, “Transitional Justice”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
5. Bacon, “Of Revenge.”
I saw me lure you
to my bed
with a grilled cheese sandwich.
I don’t know
what the f***
is going on between us,
but it’s pretty good.
This, in fact, it is not an I Saw You at all. The author turns the conventions of the medium on its ear, making it an “I Saw Me,” thrusting the reader into a metaphysical state of uncertainty and anxiety. The disembodied author, the “me,” is addressing the reader, the unknown “you,” directly. No longer the bystander, the voyeur, or the seen, the reader is thrust into the action, becoming the lured in this greasy scene.
The author’s subsequent admission, and glorification of luring the unknown “you” into their bed further unsettles the reader. This “me” did not seduce a lover, they lured a victim, like a mouse to a trap. But instead of cheese placed on a trap on its own, it is a grilled cheese sandwich, made on white bread, with processed cheese, and nutritionally-invalid, cheap margarine, no doubt. Empty calories, filling an empty bed, for an empty affair (“it’s pretty good” the narrator states).
The titillation—physical arousal devoid of emotional attachment—is increased by the harshness and vividness aroused by the use of the F-word. It is obvious to the reader that love is not being made in this bed, but greasy, perverted, cheese-stained pornography is. The sound overheard by roommates would not be moans of ecstasy, but clumsy Neanderthal slaps and grunts.
The author’s seemingly straightforward double entendre—“I don’t know/what the f***/is going on between us,/but it’s pretty good”—admits to some sort of relationship uncertainty, while pointing to some sort of sordid affair. However, the straightforwardness of this double entendre is upended—what could be called an “entendre double” perhaps—when juxtaposed with the talk of grilled cheese in the previous sentence. Leaving the reader not with a vivid image of two people making love, but rather an image of two people squishing a lump of melted cheese between them.
I saw you Jiffy Cab driver,
stop to let a pigeon
cross the road.
The set-up for a joke that isn’t funny (“Why did the pigeon cross the road?”), a social commentary on class and power dynamics in urban space shared between the human and non-human, a meditation on the city as a narrative phenomenon, this I Saw You plumbs complex depths.
Ubiquitous fixtures in the urban landscape, the cab driver and the pigeon are as indispensable as the office tower and the tree-lined boulevard in the concept of city-ness. Both are semiotic shorthands for urbanity. Yet this is not all they share.
Despite their mutual iconicisim, both taxi cab and pigeon have a tormented relationship with the cities they define and create.The taxi cab, while functional—couriering people from place to place through the labyrinth of city streets, is often taken for granted and viewed with suspicion and disdain by other city dwellers. There is never a cab nearby when you need one, when there is they don’t stop, when you finally get one they might take you the long way. As a pedestrian, or motorist, cabs can present a grave threat. Cab drivers, who live and breathe city streets, navigate according to a tacit connection to the arterial roadways, and not always the rule of the road. While the pigeons—one-time war heroes couriering secret plans to and fro the front lines—are today sneered at, dismissed as pests, as carriers of disease, as rats with wings.
Taxi cabs and pigeons are kindred urban spirits, indispensable vertebrae of a city’s backbone, but both sharing a low wrung in the social ladder. Both sit on the margins, waiting, on statues and stoops, on taxi stands, and airport parking lots, waiting for their scraps of whatever is left over, on whoever doesn’t have a ride, to scrabble together a hard won living.
Dr. Abergavenny is a professor emeritus of English Literature and Criticism at Apocryphal College, Oxford.