Politics Is The Art Of Possible Essay Questions

Reading Arts of the Possible will convince you (if you weren’t
already convinced) that Adrienne Rich is the kind of thinker who has
long term relationships with her ideas.  Written over a span of three
decades, the essays in this collection return again and again to a
common set of questions and motifs that Rich has been grappling with
for much of her writing life.  The interdependence between poetry and
politics, art and community, the self and the outside
world — these make up the strands in a years-long arc of
conversation that coheres amazingly well.

What comes across
most immediately, though, is the fact that Rich is first and foremost
a poet — one who puts her poetic stamp on every paragraph.  As
early as the Foreward, you can hear the music of her prose:

Our senses are currently whip-driven by a feverish new pace of
technological change.  The activities that mark us as human, though,
don’t begin, exist in, or end by such a calculus.  They pulse,
fade out, and pulse again in human tissue, human nerves, and in the
elemental humus of memory, dreams, and art, where there are no bygone
eras.  They are in us, they can speak to us, they can teach us if we
desire it.

Rich says she wants writing to be “out there on the edge of
meaning” but at the same time able to generate
“lip-to-lip, spark-to-spark pleasure.”  So at the same
time that she juxtaposes the rapidity of technology and the dormancy
of human flesh, she also juxtaposes the clipped, assonant compound
“whip-driven” with the slow, deliberate repetitions of
languid “p” and “f” sounds (“pulse, fade
out, and pulse again”), and the slide between the soft word
“human” into the softer “hummus.”

From essay to essay, Rich plays around with other ways to
simultaneously push at the edges of the poetic and conceptual.  For
instance, in “Notes Toward a Politics of Location,” she
wants to understand what it means to “experience the meaning of
North America as a location.”  Her description of a journey to
Nicaragua is both intellectually challenging and beautiful:

. . . in a tiny, impoverished country . . . under the hills of the
Nicaragua-Honduras border, I could physically feel the weight of the
United States of North America, its military forces, its vast
appropriations of money, its mass media, at my back;  I could feel
what it means, disident or not, to be part of that raised boot of
power, the cold shadow we cast everywhere to the south.

Rich not only uses poetic language to describe political issues, she
also makes explicit her belief that art and politics are inherently
linked.  Art has “social power,” she says, and so it
shapes, responds to, and questions all social systems.  This means
that her book is politically assertive, sometimes subtly and
sometimes very directly.  Rich often foregrounds the fact that she
writes as a feminist and a lesbian, but much of her politicism in this
book centers on paradigms of economy and power.  In the title essay,
for instance, she interrogates capitalism:

I have been thinking about the self-congratulatory self-promotion of
capitalism as a global, transnational order, superseding governments
and the very meaning of free elections.  I have especially been noting
the corruptions of language employed to manage our perceptions of all
this. . . . Where capitalism invokes freedom, it means the freedom of
capital.  Where, in any mainstream public discourse, is this
self-referential monologue put to the question?

Here and elsewhere she expresses her concern with things like poverty,
racism, sexism, and the fact that art has a relationship, whether
acknowledged or not, to these things.  She’s dismayed over the
prevalence of contemporary poetry to be “personal to the point of
suffocation” and unconcerned with the social fabric of which it is a
part.  She’s discouraged to see the culture “eviscerating language of
meaning” at the same time that young writers seem to be steadfastly
clinging to trite and unchallenging poetic strategies.

Of course, tackling such heavy themes usually risks heavy-handedness,
but these writings manage to remain unoppressive.  Along with their
artistic integrity, the essays are engaging because they seem to
invite you into a conversation.  Aiming for dialogue instead of
monologue, Rich is constantly sharing her questions:  “Why do we feel
slightly crazy when we realize we have been lied to in a
relationship?”  “What is this thing called freedom or liberty–is it
like love, a feeling?”  “What kind of voice is breaking silence, and
what kind of silence is being broken?”

It’s especially remarkable that she sustains this conversation
across the broad spectrum of time and place out of which these essays
were written.  Some of them are speeches, given for teenagers at graduation
ceremonies or for PhD’s at academic conferences; one, “Why
I Refused the Medal for the Arts” is a letter to the president
of the National Endowment for the Arts and was published in the Los
Angeles Times; others are introductions, like that of The Best
American Poetry
in 1996.  But at the same time that she tunes her writing
to the ears of these particular audiences, she also always seems aware
of other listeners — us — and includes them in her exchange.

In a recent reading, Adrienne Rich said that as she was putting this
collection together she felt some of her earlier writings sounded
archaic.  It’s true that the later essays are more sophisticated
evolutions of the earlier ones.  But I like this.  Instead of
presenting whole packaged ideas, Arts of the Possible lets you peer
into the process of how ideas stew and develop and change over time. 
And from the very beginning, it’s clear this is what she’s after.  The
first essay of the collection, written in 1971, proposes that
“Re-vision [is] the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of
entering an old text from a new critical direction . . . ”  Arts of
the Possible
does just that.

Source: St. Petersburgische Zeitung

Author: Prince Otto von Bismarck

"Politics is the art of the possible."

Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable...the art of the next best. (In German: Die Politik ist die Lehre vom Möglichen.)

PatriotismGovernmentSocietyHistorical DocumentsPowerPoliticsArtHistorical FiguresPrince Otto von Bismarck


This sentence was printed in the newspaper St. Petersburgische Zeitung, on August 11, 1867. Reprinted in Fürst Bismarck: neue Tischgespräche und Interviews, Vol. 1, p. 248, (1895).

Prince Otto von Bismarck was an ultra-conservative German empire builder and master manipulator. In saying "Politics is the art of the possible," he is reaching out from the 19th century to address our Congress. And after showing no sympathy for the bedeviled, he tells the Rolling Stones, "You can't always get what you want," which they turn into a big hit because everybody has felt that pain.

For instance, we'd like world peace and unlimited cookies. The universe offers some peace and cookies on special occasions. We want the cookies to be calorie free. The universe says no way. So, we settle for peace somewhere sometime and occasional low-calorie cookies.

We don't exactly get what we want, but it's better than constant war and no cookies ever, so we deal with it. While Prince Otto is exasperated with Congress, he's very proud of us.

Where you've heard it

Two kids are sitting in a sandbox, grumpy from the grit in their diapers. One bonks the other on the head with her plastic shovel. Crying erupts. Mom rushes over and tells her precious that if he stops crying she'll give him a candy. Imagine the kid's dilemma—stubbornly showing his indignation or giving it up for something sweet. He'll be grappling with that predicament for the rest of his life.

Additional Notable References:

  • A song from the musical Evita bears this line as its title.
  • A brief history of Bismarck.

Pretentious Factor

If you were to drop this quote at a dinner party, would you get an in-unison "awww" or would everyone roll their eyes and never invite you back? Here it is, on a scale of 1-10.

Sipping on your Pellegrino, this slithery guy with a lisp says to you, "Hey Baby, if you give me a little kissss, I'll take you for a ride in my Porch." Suppressing your disdain, you respond in a sultry voice, "It's Porsche. If you give me the keys, I'll take you for a ride." Keys in hand, you leave while he's in the bathroom.

He's pretentious; you just understand the art of the possible.

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