pity this busy monster…

Here I thought I would be slightly self-indulgent and talk about one of my favourite poems, if not the favourite; Pity this busy monster, manunkind by e.e. cummings. Here it is –

pity this busy monster,manunkind,

not.  Progress is a comfortable disease: 
your victim (death and life safely beyond)

plays with the bigness of his littleness 
–electrons deify one razorblade 
into a mountainrange;lenses extend

unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish 
returns on its unself. 
                                A world of made 
is not a world of born–pity poor flesh

and trees, poor stars and stones,but never this 
fine specimen of hypermagical

ultraomnipotence.  We doctors know

a hopeless case if–listen:there’s a hell 
of a good universe next door;let’s go 

Firstly, the word ‘manunkind‘ alone deserves much attention. Although it is essentially quite simple, this simplicity merely adds to its genius. The fact that the addition to the word from our dictionary, mankind, is so slight makes it very easy to say, although it does not feel natural due to the repetition of the ‘n’ sounds. This perhaps reflects that although mankind today is “unkind“, we have developed a tolerance for it. The word kind also has two meanings; one being that of gentleness and thoughtfulness, combined with the ‘un’ drawing attention to how callous the world can be. The word ‘kind’ is so much more gentle than other words that mean the same thing such as caring or nice… I am searching for a reason why but perhaps it is due to the other meaning of the word. Kind, especially used referring to humankind, also means a collective unit, bound together by some likeness. This is perhaps used to show how disjointed we have become, with each other as well as the world around us. Later on in the poem, cummings describes the victim as “playing with the bigness of his littleness“. I see this as a reference to masturbation, showing how selfish and self-centered we have become. It is also a quite sneering and derogatory way to describe it, emphasising that although it seems big, this is only in comparison to how small it actually is. Considering men’s insecurity concerning this, it seems to be a very direct attack on society. The isoloation that masturbating requires (in general) also contrasts with the final lines; “Listen, there’s a hell of a universe next door” as not only does the sense of listening contrast with  looking (at porn), it begs the reader to leave their room and explore.

These last two lines seem to make the poem for me as they offer hope. The interjection causes you to really hear how the poem is meant to be spoken, the mocking tone of “pity poor flesh” and the frank impatience in “listen“. The interruption of “we doctors know a hopeless case if” reminds the reader that there is an escape, there is hope. The colloquialism of “there’s a hell of a good universe out there” is also interesting. Not only does it, as previously mentioned, show the impatience of the speaker, that there is no time to put on the airs and graces that “we doctors” seem to show. There is another aspect, however, that someone else pointed out to me. The use of the word ‘hell’ could also mean that the world we live in is hellish, and without hope. This, however, may not be entirely negative. By calling the rest of the world hell, it almost enables us to abandon all responsibility, to keep dancing while the world is crumbling. It is only by accepting the reality of the situation that you can ignore it’s limits. The word “good” ,however, suggests that it is not hell, that there are still the “poor stars and stones” to be found and valued.

Another idea present in this poem that I keep being reminded of is that “progress is a comfortable disease“.   The parallel between moving on and moving back is striking, alongside the almost oxymoronic phrase “a comfortable disease“. It shows the self-destructive nature of mankind. It also reminds me of the arms race during the cold war, despite it having been written before this took place, as the more bombs were developed, the safer we were, but it was a disease in effect. It is almost easier to continue producing more and more things that deal with the existing problems, whence why it is ultimately a disease. The use of the word ‘comfortable’ has a biter tinge, as the last two lines bid people to be adventurous and daring, anything but comfortable.

Although cummings does critisise in part mankind’s progress there is no doubt an awe present in this poem. The image of “electrons deify one razor blade” turns an everyday object into a godly feat. Mankind has created a “fine, specimen of hypermagical omnipotence” and although it may serve as a ‘disease’, there seems to be an inevitability present. As voices of authority “we doctors know a hopeless case” and it is perhaps showing that it is futile to attempt to stop it. The narrator, however, almost can’t bear to hear it because it is at that moment he tells us “let’s go“. Therefore, despite the pointlessness of it all, that the world is a burning hell and we are trapped, there is still reason to have fun and live your life, enjoy your “poor flesh“.

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4 thoughts on “pity this busy monster…

  1. john says:

    masturbation? You’re a dumbass

  2. Zac says:

    I think it means that mankind has an excessive sense of self-worth, believing himself to be big (great and superior). When in fact he is little (not as important as he assumes) in the grande scheme of things.

    • madtoread says:

      Exactly, don’t you think that the very idea of masturbation encompasses those ideas. Cummings is particularly scathing of humanity throughout his poems (that I have read) so by implying masturbation and using the pedanticness of ‘playing’ , he is revealing man at his weakest. I agree with what you think the wider implication of this line, but you have ignored the immediate effect.

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