Saturday, December 22, 2007

Have some "nuts" for the holidays!

A classy (excuse the pun) debate is going on at Harriet in a thread called "Everything is the Nuts" centering around whether Wallace Stevens was a philistine in complaining about a show he attended at the Museum of Modern Art in 1949, its heyday. Was Stevens was "a haute bourgeois," as Steve Burt remarks? Jane Dark asks "why the terms of class and social theory [...] seem suddenly so relevant, when the suggestion that class politics is a useful optic for the poetics of humans is in general so scrupulously avoided and even abjured" on Harriet.

I disagree that "class politics" as a "useful optic" has been abjured on Harriet, or really, any place else. If it's avoided, I suppose it's because it's been taken ubiquitously into consideration for ages now. You could turn it all around and explore (as Andrew Epstein does in his Beautiful Enemies, mentioned below) why it is that for the "avant"s, the "radical negation of the category of individual creation" is so important. As Harold Rosenberg explained it back in 1968, the a-g always have to be "subsuming individuals under movements..."

About the I-word: I suppose I have in mind a more nuanced understanding of "individual" than would be clear from my various remarks. I'm sure not valorizing some monolithic bourgeois self. Here's Epstein's caricature: "The word 'individualism' tends to conjure the image of a rugged American self, who sheds societal encumbrances and lights out for the Territory like Huck Finn to achieve a liberated, autonomous selfhood." This bit of mythology about the individual has been programmatically linked "with such negative qualities as acquisitive materialism or crypto-capitalist greed, and indifference to others, reactionary conservatism or quietism, elitism, and an anti-democratic selfishness." But surely by now we can all assume "individual" identity to mean something more complex and slippery; nobody would deny that there's a social character of the individual.

What Stevens said, in his letters, was this:

In painting, as in poetry, theory moves very rapidly and things that are revelations today are obsolete tomorrow, like the things on one’s plate at dinner. Then, too, I rather resent professional modernism the way one resents an excessively fashionable woman. At the Museum of Modern Art they cultivate the idea that everything is the nuts: the stairs, the windows, the arrangement of the walls. After about an hour of it you say the hell with it. Is all this really hard thinking, really high feeling or is it a lot of nobodies running after a few somebodies? … But on the whole New York was a lemon. Instead of staying for dinner, I took an early train and got as much out of the ride home as out of anything. It made a long pleasant evening and, as I was tired and satisfied to sit and look out, it was as agreeable as anything that had happened to me all summer. (September 9, 1949)

(And this, which I add for the holidays:

Let me wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year even though it is difficult under the heavy weight of contemporary politics to feel very merry or very happy about anything. But I suppose that what Christmas really means, morally, is that we have to take hold of ourselves when things are at their worst and at least pretend that they are as good as they are ever going to be which, after all, may be true. (December 15, 1950) )

The Harriet kerfuffle doesn't address the possibility that Stevens was just ahead of his time - being a truly unprogrammatical avant; as Epstein says in another context entirely, "even the once-liberating, marginal, and provocative creations of the avant-garde can quickly become constraining, especially in our speeded-up consumerist society, in which Dada is enshrined at MoMA and the radical energy of the avant-garde has been co-opted by mass culture."

At any rate, now that epithets like bourgeois are getting tossed into the mix, I thought I'd give you Ezra Pound's definition of the word:

"BOURGEOIS: A term of abuse applied by young writers to writers seven years older than themselves when the latter can afford seven francs more per day for their hotel bills."

1 comment:

Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Don,

I found the discussion thread on Angie Mlinko's Harriet blog that you pointed out very odd. I'm not sure how Stevens' very simple point that the pursuit of artistic novelty had become a species of fashion (I love his phrase "professional modernism"), which it seems Steve Evans was the only person to realize, became the occasion for a series of bizarre diatribes about class and whatnot (mostly "whatnot"). Why must people so often engage in free-association instead of reading?

And as shouldn't need to be pointed out, Stevens was not a bourgeois, haute or otherwise. The bourgeoisie are those who own the means of production, and a haute-bourgeois would be what used to be called a rentier, someone who lives off the income of his properties. Stevens had a job and a salary and an office he went to every day, though it's questionable how much actual work he did there, what with having his secretaries type up his poems. But even if he were an haunte-bourgeois, I'm not sure what that has to do with Mlinko's main point. But then, I'm not sure what her main point is. One thing I am sure of, though, is that Joshua Clover is incredibly annoying and self-righteous.

I do love Ezra Pound's definition of "bourgeois" that you quoted. When I was scooping ice cream in Boston, my roommates in the cooperative house in which I lived because I couldn't afford anything else, young people who'd told their parents to stop sending them their allowances so that they could live like real people, accused me of being "bourgeois" because I didn't want them to use my stereo when I wasn't home or to lend out my records and tapes to other people I didn't even know.

Take good care, stay warm, and have a great new years.

peace and poetry,