Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Little everyday fascisms

Some things, actually many things, are inevitable. The recent publication of the letters between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop has evoked yet another occasion for name-calling and label-gumming. As you would expect from some quarters, Lowell gets called a "quietist," whatever that means, and is said to have almost single-handedly occluded the accomplishments and stature (two different things) of great American poets like Zukofsky, Oppen, Olson, and others. Ideologues are naturally dualists, fighting for one imaginary extreme in order to oppose another: you need a dualist, after all, to invent and then battle the problem of evil. Yet our poetry-bloggo-axe grinders show themselves to be - far more than Lowell - fossils themselves; their rote pigeonholing is out of date by at least a century, or to be more precise, they ignore the thinking of a hundred years ago. All one has to do is flip through Flaubert's dictionary (which ought to have killed off such taxonomizing long ago) to find the dictum:

"Say about a great man: 'He is completely overrated.' All the great men are; besides there are no great men."

Yet I know of no bookshelf that can't simultaneously contain Lowell, Bishop, and the other poets mentioned above, along with Niedecker, Bunting, Pound, Eliot, Ashbery, the recently canonized Jack Spicer and dozens more. Just because the stock market has to go up and down, do valuations of poets? Inevitably, perhaps, they do. Why? Well, part of the reason must be the spirit (a mean spirit at that) of our narrow age. As Elisabeth Roudinesco characterizes it in her recently translated book, Philosophy in Turbulent Times: Canguilhem, Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, Derrida:

"Jean-Paul Sartre – for or against? Raymond Aron – for or against? . . . Should we take a blowtorch to May 1968 and its ideas . . . seen now as incomprehensible, elitist, dangerous and anti-democratic? Have the protagonists of that revolution . . . all become little bourgeois capitalist pleasure seekers without faith or principles, or haven’t they? . . .

The father has vanished, but why not the mother? Isn’t the mother really just a father, in the end, and the father a mother? Why do young people not think anything? Why are children so unbearable? Is it because of television, or pornography, or comic books? . . .

And women: are they capable of supervising male workers on the same basis as men are? Of thinking like men, of being philosophers? Do they have the same brain, the same neurons, the same emotions, the same criminal instincts? Was Christ the lover of Mary Magdalene, and if so, does that mean that the Christian religion is sexually split between a hidden feminine pole and a dominant masculine one?

Has France become decadent? Are you for Spinoza, Darwin, Galileo, or against? Are you partial to the United States? Wasn’t Heidegger a Nazi? Was Michel Foucault the precursor of Bin Laden, [and] Gilles Deleuze a drug addict . . . ? Was Napoleon really so different from Hitler?"

These questions, these shallow categorizations: do they not strike you as "the absolute nadir of contemporary interrogation?" Let's interrogate the interrogators. No, better: let's read and even cherish things that are supposed be outside our ken, and let's not engage in what the Marxians used to call reification. Politicizing poetry turns people and poets into things, which is (or ought to be) contrary to the spirit of poetry itself. Yes, I said spirit.

(Continued here.)

This peevish rant is much indebted to Elif Batuman's review of Roudinesco's book at the London Review of Books.


the unreliable narrator said...

Speaking of blowtorches, I think about the Brujo's weary summary of human narrowness as "running around with hatchets and flame-throwers."

Now I must procure and read Roudinesco to see if she's as whiny as Batuman avers; though if it's okay for Flaubert to write a polemic (or Paglia, or Allan Bloom, or for that matter Richard Rorty), then why not Roudinesco, who at least seems to have done so learnedly and adroitly?

THE NARROW SPIRIT OF OUR AGE, that's why. I'm fur the spirit, not agin it! (She said in her best imitation-maple Vermont accent.)

Michael Robbins said...

Amen. I've just been talking about these things with friends (& with Auggie Kleinzahler, truth be told).

But why not name names? I am less politic than yr own self: Ron Silliman.

Anonymous said...

Ah, Bravo.

Indeed, would the now-museumed avant-garde have come into being without the Institution Art? Would Language poetry and its "post-avant" offspring have come into being without their "Official Verse Culture" Others?

Now that the "post-avant" is quite thoroughly integrated into Officialdom *thanks largely to the academic lure of its now-empty agonistic theory*, it has become doubly imperative--as compensation, one could say, for the naked embarrassments of such rapid absorption (historically predictable as the process has been)--for its fin de siecle polemicists to keep pretending they are under siege.

Otherwise, what is there, really, to "defend"?

That's one hell of a tortured statement, but something like that...


Michael Robbins said...

I read "read Roudinesco to see if she's as whiny as Batuman avers" as "see if she's as whiny as Batman avers." Talk about agonistic! It's not enough for him to construct his either/or dualisms around the Joker & the others in his rogues' gallery, he has to take on French academics too?!

Don Share said...

Well, I needn't name names, bloggo-wise: there aren't bloggers, only kinds of blogs.

Don Share said...

Hey, Michael - what did A.K. say, if it's quotable?

You know the Spicer love-fest (and count me IN as a lover) shows that the a/g-post-a battle is over, if not exactly won, does it not?

Michael Robbins said...

Big Star! You like all my favorite bands. How about some Only Ones?

I was telling AK about how discovering his work in Sulfur(!) was important to my understanding that the binarisms I'd inherited from my reading & MFA indoctrination were useless to me as a writer & critic. He advanced the thesis that it is the soi-disant avant-garde that is the most egregious these days in its refusal of "quietism" or some such non-entity, & we agreed that to foreclose fully half of the tradition to impose a dispiriting, cramped view of poetry upon yourself. Revelation: AK is not fond of Lowell.

Don Share said...

Well, sheet, MR, I'm from Memphis, after all!!

Interesting about AK, thanks. I'm not surprised he isn't fond o' Lowell. But I bet he's actually read him!

Michael Robbins said...

Of course! He agreed with me that "Waking Early Sunday Morning" is Lowell's best poem; but he also excludes Imitations from his general distaste - which was intriguing, as I've never really spent much time with that book. I've been looking at it with freshened eyes, & lo: I still find it pretty annoying. He manages to make Rilke sound even more ridiculous than J. B. Leishman's version. But I find myself drawn to his Montale this time through:

A dense white cold of maddened moths
swaggers past parapet and lamp,
shaking a sheet upon the earth,
crackling like sugar underfoot.

Don Share said...

If someone like Chelsea Minnis (just as an example - not a knock on her work at all!) came up with Lowell's deformations/deconstructions/meta-translations today, that poet would be hailed as a remarkable, breathtakingly elliptical talent.

mgushuedc said...

I'd like to think that the well-deserved rising of Spicer shows that the a-g/post-a battle was never a battle in the first place, in spite of what participants thought.

Poetry listens to nobody.

Don Share said...

MG, once again you have put it better than I did. I agree completely!

the unreliable narrator said...

I've been thinking about all this all weekend.

Two tasty-morsel phrases which I pocket, squirrelling them away for future use: "now-empty agonistic theory" and "to foreclose fully half of the tradition."

How out of it (or how far in?) I am: I didn't know I wasn't supposed to like Lowell. Or, do I have it wrong still—are we supposed to like Lowell? Or, do I like Lowell? I don't even knowell anymore!

(I did have a pretty big crush on Adam West when I was a kid, though.)

Still thinking.

Don Share said...

I hear ya on Adam West, whom I just viewed in a couple of reruns of the pre-Batman show, 77 Sunset Strip this weekend. But I bet his sidekick had more fun.

michael robbins said...

Burt Ward is now involved in rescuing dogs: Who knew?

UN, the received wisdom on RL among the s-d a-g is indeed (still!) that he represents all that went wrong with Ampo (I'm exaggerating less than you'd think). Check K. Killian's review of the collected poems in Court Green if you can find it. Ugh.

I mean, OK, I get it: bourgeois red-baiting sexist cruel little man who helped inaugurate the still-burgeoning strain of daddy-did-bad-things-to-me verse. And he crashed sometimes, as great poets do. But when he was great he was very great. (This applies mutatis mutandis to Larkin too.)