All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace

“All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace” by Richard Brautigan
from Science Fact/Fiction, eds. Farrell, Gage, Pfordresher, Rodrigues
Scott, Foresman and Company, 1974
Originally published in the book All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
Communications Company, 1967
Price I paid: $6.56

When I was in college, circa the mid aughts, I had a bit of a crush on a lady whose favorite poet was Richard Brautigan. I bring this up to establish that only now, about fifteen years later, I am very slightly less of a liar.

Also, it’s been a hot minute since I’ve ever analyzed a poem! I think I did one earlier from the book of robot short stories, Nightmare Number Three by Stephen Vincent Benét. That was *checks notes* just over a year ago? Really? Last March, right as the pandemic was starting to become a real thing that I had to worry about? That’s wild. I know it’s cliché to say it but goldang does it seem like a lot longer than that.

Here’s a cool thing: Brautigan’s original publication of this collection contained a Copyleft notice, stating that

Permission is granted to reprint
any of these poems in magazines,
books and newspapers if they are
given away free. 

Now obviously he didn’t know that blogs were ever gonna be a thing, but I think it still applies, right? I’m not charging anybody anything to read this thing. So here it is:

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

It’s a shorty so I’m not sure exactly how much I’m gonna have to say about it, but lets do some breakdown, shall we?

It has come to my attention from an unsourced comment on the poem’s Wikipedia page that critics are divided in thinking that this poem is meant to be taken ironically or earnestly. I’ve been stewing on that for a few minutes now, trying to pick a side, and I think I’ve come to a conclusion. It’s a lame conclusion that everyone will hate me for, but it’s my conclusion, dammit, and nobody can take it away from me. It’s also likely not even a remotely original conclusion, although Wikipedia’s list of critical analyses doesn’t list anybody saying so, so maybe here I am making the first actual contribution to poetry criticism since The Monsters and the Critics. No harm in a little fanciful dreaming, right?

Let’s take a look at some arguments for either choice first.

One thing that’s definitely worth keeping in mind is the author himself. I’ve come to understand from just a little research that Brautigan was pretty keen on the black comedy and irony side of things, so jumping straight to a conclusion that this poem is about nature and humanity being taken over, controlled, or subjugated by machines is certainly valid. It was my first gut reaction to the poem, and that’s not something to be dismissed casually!

Literature education has taught us—or at least it taught me—a lot of misconceptions and bad habits when it comes to reading poetry. It gets treated like some kind of objective logic class, where bits have to be analyzed and considered piecemeal. Why does “The Raven” have that rhyme scheme? What does Gerard Manley Hopkins accomplish with his meter in “The Windhover?” Why does Virgil sing of arms and the man instead of the other way around? What is the significance of April in the Canterbury Tales? I could go on forever. Maybe I should. And it’s not just poetry, either.

I want to make it clear that I don’t think this kind of literary analysis holds no value. And even more importantly, I have to admit that I like doing it! But I also understand how for some people it sucks the life out of a work, and that’s valid too. And the problem I have is that it’s the only way many of us are taught to read literature, and for the people who find this kind of activity a slog, it’s really the opposite of an invitation to engage with it and learn to love it.

Another way of engaging with poetry and prose is to consider your own emotional reactions to it, either holistically or in part. I can pretty well see why this isn’t taught more broadly to students. For one, it’s kind of subjective and hard to put a number on, isn’t it! If I say “this poem makes me feel sad,” you can’t really argue about that. It’s just there, whereas if I say “this rhyme scheme makes the poem kind of hoppy like a bunny, which is appropriate because it’s about a bunny,” you can give me some points for that. But poetry is meant to engage the emotions. That’s one of the things it’s for! A useful project for teachers would be to have students read the poem exactly once, and then sit with their feelings for a moment, and then talk about them. For all I know there are teachers who do this, and I salute them for it.

Of course, the other problem with this kind of engagement is that it gets people to think and deal with their emotions, which is a sin under heteropatriarchy (men are allowed two emotions: angry and horny) so of course it’ll never reach wide usage in schools any time soon. Also, once people start thinking about the way words make them feel, they might start thinking about how their own words make other people feel, and that’s a no-no. Gotta keep people divided so we don’t go after the real enemy! Fuel the culture war so we don’t start sabotaging private spacecraft in the name of the working class!

I appear to have gotten off on a tangent!

Anyway, the whole point of that spiel was that my immediate emotional reaction to this poem was one of a sort of bleak irony. This is largely subjective to my own brain makeup and also the time and place I live in. We’re living in a pretty bleakly ironic period of time! Maybe all times are like that to people who pay attention, maybe I’m having it shoved down my throat.

On the flippity-flip side of all this, some of Brautigan’s language sure does feel sincere. He consistently uses his second line to talk about how he begs for the imminence of this immanence. The wording he uses to describe how the machines and nature work together is always that of cooperation, not control, not subjugation, not of power dynamics and coercion.

And of course there’s that final line, which is also the title of the story, and that’s really where we have to wonder if Brautigan is being ironic or not. It was that final line, which I interpreted as being sarcastic, that gave me the gut reaction to the poem. But is that fair? I read the line with a sneer, but did he mean it that way? Does it matter if he read it that way?

And to make things more complicated, there’s another emotional response floating around me that colors the poem. I want this. I want what is described here. I want technology to push us toward a post-scarcity society where we can just live and explore and not have to exploit nature and each other to thrive. I want it with every single fiber of my being. It’s what I live for. So yes, I want this poem to be earnest, and I want it to come true.

Is it scary to think of people as being “tended” by machines? Does that not evoke later science fiction, like The Matrix? Possibly. It’s worth thinking about. I don’t really see anything in the poem that says that it has to be that way, though. The idea of technological caretakers often ends up being sinister largely because of projection. Humans just can’t stop thinking about how they can put the boot down on other humans, so when we consider other entities having power or even just advisory roles, there just has to be at least a sinister streak to it. They’re going to take over! we always shout. Why? Because we would. Is that “just human nature?” I don’t think so. I’m gonna sound like a broken record with a lot of Cyrillic text on the front, but I’m pretty sure that’s just capitalism again! Humans are social creatures by nature, not competitive ones. We’re stronger when we work together, and certain people would not like it if other people worked together, so they stoke weird ideas about hyper-individualism and the war of All against All while they keep running to Panama to make another deposit.

I realize now that I haven’t gotten to my own interpretation of the poem. Do I think it’s earnest or ironic? Well, I’m gonna do the crap thing I promised and I’m gonna hop right here on this fence and sit here and not budge. I think the ambiguity is the point.

Coward! I hear you shout. And that’s fair.

I’m not necessarily saying it was Brautigan’s intention to do this, but I think that there’s a great deal of value in the fact that we don’t know whether this poem is ominous or utopian. It lets us sit here and consider the value of the theme, handing over our well-being to technology that we invented for that purpose, and its pros and cons. The fact that I look at it and dream of a better future is not in opposition to the fact that another person might dread a loss of freedom or think they’ll be the next bio-harvest. They work together. They force us to think about what is necessary for human happiness and at what risk do we seek it out.

Capitalists always threaten to automate our jobs and take them away, like it’s some kind of threat. It ought to be a blessing. I’d rather order my lunch from a mechano-kiosk than know somebody has been standing there taking orders for eight hours instead of enriching themselves or just having a grand old time existing with people who love them. And if it weren’t for artificial scarcity, that could be real. This poem shows us an example of that being real. And it’s great.

But before we jump whole hog into that idea, we have to make preparations. What can go wrong while we transition? It’s not just that the computers will go wild and put us in cyber-harvesters for our eyeball energy. That’s just an example to get us thinking. But there are of course risks of transitioning a society, even to a scientific utopia. The risk of counter-revolution. The risk of unintended consequences. The risk that maybe we were just plain wrong about something.

That doesn’t mean we stop trying! Heavens no! And it doesn’t mean we don’t push for a better future every chance we get, either! But there is no inherent contradiction between full-throated shouts for change and thoughtful consideration of what we’ll have to deal with when that change starts coming.

And that’s what this poem means to me!

One thought on “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace

  1. Of course we are all watched over by mostly benevolent machines, such as the components of our respective immune system(s).

    For me the poem has echoes of Greg Egan’s novel Diaspora, in which most of humanity long ago transitioned to software and the few million remaining ‘fleshers’ live in a mostly wild world.

    Liked by 1 person

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