Friday, December 30, 2005

The Trouble with Ron

Back from Philadelphia, where I spent Christmas, and now in deep convalescence from a cold I picked up from my nephew (I don't know what the deal is, exactly, but every time I'm in close proximity to children I get sick). But undeterred by illness I blog doggedly on from behind my half-empty bottle of Nyquil (the only cold medicine to come with its own shot-glass) and an ever-growing haystack of used kleenex.

Today's act of bloggery is prompted by Josh Corey's meditation on Ron Silliman's blog. Silliman has an odd status: since he was the first poet of standing to start blogging, since he does it regularly, and since he plays a kind of manichean game (in which you are invited to feel like one of Ron's heroic good guys, or to feel the equal but opposite pleasure of raging against the Orthodoxies of Ron), he's ubiquitous in the poetry blogosphere. In this little world, he is a condition of discourse, a kind of hegemon (as Jim Behrle has stated, not in words, but in a whole line of "obey Ron" merchandise), but he still works the rhetoric of the aggrieved outsider. Maybe it is this dissonance between his objectively central status and his subjective experience of marginality that mars his model of the shape of the contemporary poetic field. I mean, some of what he says about the way we map poetry makes a lot of sense, but there's a narrowness to it that, in the end, is deeply ironic. Check it out.

One of Ron's big ideas is that those who occupy positions of power tend to think of themselves as normal, and others as deviant. Nothing new to this, really: whenever I tell my students that they all have accents, the majority of them object, since they think only those from American English's linguistic minorities (people from the south, or old school Brooklynites, or rural Wisconsin cheeseheads, or whatever) have accents. They think they speak unnaccented English, because their accent is the dominant one. As it goes with accents, so it goes with poetry, and Ron quite rightly wants to see this come to an end. He is angered by a world in which people act "as if Robert Pinsky and John Hollander wrote poetry, but Kasey Mohammad wrote post-modern or New Brutalist poetry, Geof Huth wrote vispo, Erica Hunt & Harryette Mullen wrote langpo." I owe the discovery of this passage of Ron's to Josh Corey, who goes on to comment on it in a way that nails both the virtues and the vices of Ron's way of thinking about poetry. Ron, says Josh,

wants the word "poetry" always to carry an appropriate socio-historico-communitarian modifier, and if he took the time to distinguish more closely the various differences and strains within what he too often lumps together as a School of Quietude he might encounter a little less resistance to his project. (Not that such resistance seems to faze him even slightly.)

There it is: Ron's got a very worthy desire to see all poetry described precisely, and a desire for everyone to be aware that what they write isn't simply "poetry" but a particular kind of poetry, with a history behind it, with a series of implicit aesthetic decisions always already made. This is the good Ron. But the bad Ron is the guy who is willing to lump everything he doesn't like together in one big mass and give it a kind of derogatory name. This is bad because it is unsubtle, because it masks real differences, and because it is dismissive. I suppose this is where the self-image as aggrieved outsider comes into play: it's okay to dismiss all that stuff, you can tell yourself, because they are powerful and they dismiss you. The irony of this (you're narrow-minded and ignorant of us and think we're all the same, so I'll combat it by being conversely narrow-minded) is so clear it is amazing that a guy as smart as Ron doesn't see through it.

One reason I keep harping on David Kellogg's model of the poetic field (with all its limitations and its need for refinement) is that it could lead us toward two things we need: A) a more subtle system of understanding the varieties of contemporary poetry and B) terms for describing poetry that are not already charged with positive or negative value. That "School of Quietude" is always a negative term is clear enough, the proof being that, like so many other negatively charged terms for groups of people, the people it describes never use it to describe themselves.

In the end, I suppose I want one of the things that Ron wants: a poetry world in which everyone consciously understands something about their own aesthetic position and the sociology that goes with it. I just wish he'd be more fair to people from other traditions than they are to him.

One could make a case that there is more reason to rant against the people who give out the big prizes than there is to rant against Silliman. They are just as dismissive, after all, and they tend to have a bigger immediate impact on the lives of poets. But there are two reasons why it is more important and worthwhile to rant against Silliman than to rant against, say, Helen Vendler:

1. There is an actual chance that someone like Silliman would listen. I peg the odds of Helen Vendler responding to a blog-based critique of her aesthetics about even with the odds of the Green Party winning a seat in congress. (Oddly enough, though, I do get a lot of hits from Harvard whenever I mention her name).

2. Silliman, I think, is actually in a position to give out the bigger, more meaningful prizes. I mean, those who seem powerful are rarely as powerful as we think they are, and I think that is the case in the poetry world now. I'll bet that time will show us that the real reputation makers aren't going to be the Vendlers of the world, but the Sillimans. The Vendler view is dominant for the moment, but the Silliman view is the emergent power, with scads of younger people taking their cues about literary history from him. Some of this surely has to do with the fact that most of the people Ron would call "Quietude" types don't actually write a lot of criticism, for all kinds of complicated reasons. There's more to say here, but for now I'll just assert my conviction that Ron's blog will probably turn out to be the major canon-machine of early Twenty-first Century American poetry, so what he occludes or elides will become the excluded orders that the future will have to find ways to reclaim. The poets who get neither Ron-credit (from the emergent power) nor Helen-credit (from the now dominant, eventually residual power) will be the most excluded of all, and our sense of literature will be the poorer for it.

Of course my crystal ball is no clearer about the future than is yours. If we hit the treadmill to work off the last week's diet of fruitcake, sugarplums, and double-scotches, we may just live long enough to see how things pan out.

*** *** *** ***

Much more movement in blogland during my Philadelphia hiatus, including an interesting post by Eric Selinger, who riffs a bit on the whole business of aesthetic disinterest.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Cato! No!

I staggered free of the five-blog pile-on (see post below) and limped back up the stairs to my office. Closing the door and leaning against it panting and sweating, I thought I was safe at last. But no! Like a modern-day Inspector Clouseau returning from a world of danger to his Paris apartment only to be bushwhacked by his butler Cato, I found myself assailed even in my sanctum sanctorum. Yes indeed! A hand shot out from under my desk, hauled me down, and drubbed me soundly with an accusation (true, all too true!) of inadequate materialism.

As I dusted myself off and helped my assailant up from behind the desk, I saw that it was none other than Joshua Clover. He explained his position thusly:

There's something frustrating about Samizdat's acccount, even as it seems smart and useful. The frustration lies in the way history is narrated, so that the cause for a bunch of powerful, potentially useful and destructive ideas turns out to be another idea. Locating the appearance of this separation of thought we're calling "disinterest" is useful. But history simply can't be told in such a way that thoughts always come from other thoughts; this approach is literally non-sensical (albeit occasionally convivial to folks who think for a living); effects without causes.

Good point! Indeed, deliberation about taste and disinterest in the eighteenth century come about, in no small measure, as a product of social change. It is a cornerstone, for example, of discourse in The Tatler and The Spectator, journals that play a role in the forming of a new, hybrid elite of landowners and the newly powerful mercantile class. The ideas come out of and feed back into a social movement.

You know, when I typed out more than 2,000 words on disinterest, I thought that A) no one would want to read it and B)no one would wish it longer. But given the level of interest, and the general desire for a subtler account than I was able to give in that space, I'm beginning to think there's a book in this. Which is good news, since I've spent about eight months laying the ground work for something along these lines.

Since everyone else who commented on the disinterest post had their photo posted, here's a shot of Joshua looking pretty badass for an English professor:

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Much Interest in Disinterest

So there I was, a few days back, basking in the warm glow of Josh Corey’s kind words about my post on "Good Taste, Disinterest, and the Divided Self, with a Peroration Concerning the Doom of Iraqi Democracy" as I strolled out the door of my office on my way to lunch. Imagine my surprise when five figures lept out from behind an arbor vitae and wrestled me to the ground. What could it be? Had the Lake Forest rugby team turned against me? Was I to be mugged and have my wallet (contents: sixteen bucks and a Johnny Thunders Fan Club card) taken from me? No! As I wriggled around at the bottom of the scrum I recognized my assailants: Mark Scroggins, Dave Park, Henry Gould, Eric Selinger, and Jeffrey Bahr. They didn’t want my precious Johnny Thunders card, either: they wanted me to know they took issue with my post. Between elbow-jabs and ear-tugs, they explained the nature of their critique. As I understood it from deep inside the scrum, they had two areas of criticism.

1. The Split Self of the West

Eric Selinger maintained that I had taken a political stance against the Enlightenment (and the West in general) when I quoted Lawrence Rosen on the existence of a split in Western self that isn’t present in the Arab self. Rosen maintains that the disinterested self of the Enlightenment west, which divides the professional role from the individual’s values, isn’t strongly present in Arab societies, where the self, lacking this split, is “whole.” Mark Scroggins agreed with Selinger on all this, or so I gathered from their synchonized jabs to the Archambaldian breadbasket.

Since both of these guys came away from the piece with the same impression, I’m going to take responsibility for a lack of clarity, even though I don’t think I did take a political stance for or against this kind of Enlightenment subjectivity. Rosen means his words for the two different kinds of subjectivity (“split” and “whole”) to be merely descriptive and not laden with values, but in the end they are loaded words, and we do tend to equate “wholeness” with “goodness,” so I can see where the trouble started. And I did give only one example of Enlightenment subjectivity, in which it was shown as making some unpalatable behavior impossible. But I don’t think I said that Enlightenment subjectivity was always bad, or that it’s alternatives were always good.

Anyway, Eric was soon willing to acknowledge that the problem may have been with clarity more than with content, saying “Maybe Mark and I did pile up on you, Bob, but my sense is that disinterested aesthetic pleasure, like so many other products of the Enlightenment, is in fact under attack these days, if not necessarily by you.” And right he is about that! I just finished teaching a course on the Enlightenment with my historian colleague Dan LeMahieu, and remember his closing remarks about the continuing radicalism of the Enlightenment, under attack by fundamentalists at home and abroad. (For the record, I’m too much of a Frankfurt School guy to be unaware of some very real and powerful critiques of the Enlightenment, and spent too much time teaching Romanticism not to feel the truth of some of these critiques, but on the whole I think you’ve got to see most of the Enlightenment legacy as tremendously positive).

A different form of critique of these notions of selfhood came from Jeffrey Bahr, Henry Gould, and Dave Park, all of whom made versions of the following point: the Western self/Arab self dichotomy is too simple because both selves are hybrid. This I grant immediately, and not merely because of the head-lock in which Park held me at the bottom of the pile, nor due to the powerful noogies administered by Bahr, nor the savage half-nelson into which Henry repeatedly put me.

Bahr pointed out that Western subjectivity is hybrid, combining elements of the “disinterested”/gesselschaft-oriented Enlightenment self with a more “interested”/gemeinschaft self. He put it this way:

I like Robert's characterization of "separation" that many Americans exhibit in their beliefs and behavior. I wonder, though, if western civilization is really so far along the ethical curve. It hasn't been that long since most police forces had large numbers of the force getting free drinks at bars or accepting a $10 bill in exchange for overlooking a traffic violation. Political machines, patronage, and municipal deals that would be labeled as "corrupt" were also prevalent for most of American history.

Right! I mean, I live in Chicago. You shouldn’t have to tell me how the world of Enlightenment disinterest is mitigated by a very different version of ethics. I’ve even read Mike Royko's excellent biography of the first Mayor Daley, so I’ve got no excuse for missing this point. Noogies merited!

Henry pointed out that all cultures have their different splits in subjectivity (“The divisions & splits between (ethical) self and (social) role seem inherent to moral dilemmas of every kind, in every culture”) and he’s got a point. I (and Rosen) contrasted a Western split in subjectivity with an Arab self that lacked that split. But while there may be no exact counterpart to the post-Enlightenment Western fissure in subjectivity in the Arab world, any culture is sure to be full of its own various splits and fissures. So I’ll wriggle out of Henry’s half-nelson by acknowledging that I threw too many unqualified asserions into the initial post.

Dave Park makes much the same point in greater detail, saying:

You begin with the contention that "modernity is disinterest." Great. I like it. Just the kind of top-heavy and profound statement we readers of Samizdat blog have come to expect from our troubador Bob. You offer a discussion of Randy Cohen's suggestion that someone keep their personal opinions away from their occupational function. You move from this to a ... broader set of assertions, concerning the roots of modernity, and the difficulties that face anyone hoping to introduce democracy in Iraq. Fine. But you say that this notion of disinterest leads one to become a "very split self". Well, maybe. You presume that the interested/non-modern self is somehow more 'whole' than the modern disinterested one. This ignores the tremendous amount of 'splitting' that can occur in the self that exists in a society that does not buy into disinterest. Are Iraqis really so un-split? Do they not interact differently in different situations? This does not wipe you out, but you must concede that, if modernity is to be understood in terms of the introduction (and spread) of the splitting of the self, this splitting is not the only kind of splitting there is.

Let...(gasp)...go...(ow!)...of my...(yow! owie!)...head, Parksie! Damn! Okay, that’s better, man. Whew. Yeah. I get it already. Hey, when are you going to add that blog to your website, anyway?

2. Aesthetic Theory and the Origin of Enlightenment Subjectivity

Okay, I know this subject heading looks like a parody of the kind of paper I used to write in grad school, but it is the best short phrase I can think of to describe the second part of the criticisms leveled at my initial post. These come from Mark Scroggins and Dave Park, mostly (with Eric on board as well).

Mark puts the point in concentrated form, saying that the claim that the Enlightenment subject has its origins in aesthetic theory is unconvincing because

the splitting-up of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment Western subject is entirely overdetermined, entertwined and inter-influenced in so many directions that it seems patently reductive to point to this one aspect of division of psychic labor (yes, it all does come down to capitalism, somewhere) and premise another aspect upon it. A disinterested aesthetics is no doubt part and parcel of the ambivalent project of enlightenment ... but I can’t buy it as somehow a “triggering” element.

On the “part and parcel” business Mark and I can agree. And it was both hasty and quite probably inaccurate to make early aesthetic theory out as strictly causal. So Mark’s probably right there. I do think, though, that eighteenth-century aesthetic theory comes early in kind of thinking that forms the basis of the Enlightenment self — a point not too distant (as
Mark points out) from what Terry Eagleton has to say in The Ideology of the Aesthetic.

So, as I crawl from beneath the pile, shaking hands with my worthy assailants, I conclude that there’s still a lot of thinking that needs to be done here.


And in Other News...

Responses to another recent long post, on the varieties of self in contemporary poetry, have been more generally positive, including one by Kevin Andre Elliot that takes the whole notion and runs with it in a two-part post up here and here. Well worth a look!

Sunday, December 18, 2005

In the Beginning Without Any Mother the Girl Was Born a Machine

"Working Progress, Working Title," John Matthias' poem about Hedy Lamarr, the invention of wireless and midi technology, Anthiel's Ballet Mécanique, Hollywood, and the French avant-garde is back up online at alt-x. Rejoice, all ye fans of contingent poetry!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Poundian Indirection, Archambaldian Indiscretion

Alex Davis (whom I haven't seen since the MSA conference in Philadelphia in '99 — too long!) writes in from Cork about the war poetry conversation, with this learned note on the influence of Pound on David Jones:

I'm enjoying the Blog-exchange with Mark Scroggins. To chip in my penny's-worth, there is in fact no direct influence of Pound on In Parenthesis. As late as the composition of The Wedding Poems and the beginnings of The Anathemata, Jones had still to read The Cantos. The Possum, yes, of course-The Waste Land is a clear precursor to In Parenthesis, but not Pound.

So it seems that any Poundian influence on this stage of Jones' work comes indirectly, via the savage blue-penciling Pound gave to Eliot's Waste Land. I'm beginning to think that, despite some reservations about it in erudite places, I may have to read Keith Alldritt’s biography of Jones, David Jones: Writer and Artist, which has been glaring down at me, unread and resentful, from my bookshelf for close to two years. This may, at least, save me from further indiscrete remarks.

Monday, December 12, 2005

David Jones vs Anonymity

Mark Scroggins makes some interesting contributions/corrections/refinements to the ongoing discussion of war poetry prompted by Kevin Prufer's "Army Tales." Firstly, he points out that the tomb of the unknown soldier works through synechdoche not metonymy (right! And in the most literal way possible!). Secondly, he draws an interesting distinction between what Prufer's up to and what David Jones was doing in In Parentheses:

First of all, I don’t particularly read what’s going on in David Jones’s In Parenthesis – the superposition of previous wars over the Great War – so much to be a matter of the contemporary soldier’s “anonymity” ... as simply a matter of precisely superposition. That is, the Anglo-Welsh Great War soldier does not lose his contemporary identity when he recognizes that he’s standing in the same shoes as one of King Harry’s invaders of France, but rather finds his contemporary situation enriched (a dreadful word, given the horrors described in the poem, but I can’t come up with a better at the moment) and deepened.... [I]t’s a matter of “getting at the shared life beyond the individual life,” but I don’t think it necessarily involves the loss of individual identity, as in the anonymity imposed by the state apparatuses of Jarrell and Auden.

This makes sense to me. I was trying to get at the sense, shared in Prufer and Jones, of the identity of all soldiers, or at any rate of their shared participation in a larger identity. This seems to me to be one of the great tropes of war poetry — you even see it, in a way, in Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth," where the "anthem" is not for any national group, but for the soldiers of all sides, in their sharing of an identity stronger than any mere national identity. But there is a real distinction, as Mark points out, between shared identity via anonymity and shared identity via a felt participation in the lives of those who have preceded you (and, for Jones, geography counts: the shared identity is largely for those who have preceded you in this place).

I suppose the use of anonymity does connect, for Prufer, with the humanistic critique of bureaucratic life, putting him in the Auden-Jarrell camp. For Jones, though, the key is Christianity, with a big dose of Poundian modernism, rather than an anti-bureaucratic humanism, so he'll approach the work from a different angle. In Jones' work, the identity of self and other doesn't come from an erasing of individuality by the state. Rather, that self/other identity can exist even while individuality is retained. I suppose what we're dealing with in Jones, then, is a kind of aesthetics of mystery (you know, like the trinity), in the theological sense of that word.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Good Taste, Disinterest, and the Divided Self, with a Peroration Concerning the Doom of Iraqi Democracy

So there I was, leafing through the New York Times Magazine, having scurried out early into the snow to get it before the lovely and talented Valerie woke up and took possession of it for the morning (the pre-nup specified that I’d get the first shot at the book reviews if she got first shot at the magazine, an agreement about which I’ve been ambivalent ever since). As I ruminated over Randy Cohen’s Ethicist column, it hit me: modernity is disinterest. What, you say? What could this mean? And how does it connect to Randy Cohen (or, for that matter, to good taste, disinterest, and the failure of democracy in Iraq)? Good questions, all! And, fuelled as I am by Intelligentsia’s powerful Sumatran coffee beans, I’ll endeavor an answer.

Randy Cohen’s weekly column, “The Ethicist,” sets forth to answer, in practical terms, the ethical questions that arise in the daily lives of the readers of the New York Times. In this week’s installment, the redoubtable Randy begins with a question from a guy in Cambridge, Mass, who reads books and magazines aloud in order to make tapes for blind people. While engaged in this worthy endeavor, the guy — a good lefty such as one finds in Cambridge — was asked to read some right wing screeds put out by the despicable John Birch Society. What to do? Read on, or act on one’s personal conviction that this stuff is immoral? Randy Cohen has no problem providing an answer for our Cambridge worrier. “Your function is akin to a librarian’s,” he writes, “to provide requested material, not to judge it.”

In effect, Cohen is saying that our social function must be kept separate from our private convictions. We are to be disinterested professionals at work, setting aside personal ethics for professional ones. So a doctor, loyal to medicine and the Hippocratic Oath, would be obliged to treat anyone who came for help – even a Hitler or a Stalin. So a lawyer, assigned to protect a person he believes to be guilty, is obliged to make that person’s case to the best of his or her ability. The ethic here is one of disinterest and gessellschaft — of setting aside personal interests and convictions in a society of abstract, contractual relations. It makes for a very split self (the part of me with real convictions, and the part of me that performs a social role according to ethics determined by that role alone). This is interesting, in that while it is entirely ordinary for our society to take Cohen’s view, the view is quite rare historically and in many other cultures.

I want to say two things about all this: first, that this ethic is a product of the Enlightenment and a property of Western Civ (broadly conceived, and incorporated to varying degrees in other cultures); and second, that the idea comes, ultimately, out of 18th century theorizing about (of all things) good taste. Yes indeed. I really do think I can make the connection.

To see how thoroughly Western this idea is, we could turn to all sorts of sources, but the one I have in mind is an article in the latest issue of The American Scholar, which I was thumbing through in the Lake Forest train station Thursday morning, waiting for the Metra after an “I’m getting too old for this shit” all night end-of-semester shindig thrown by a colleague (a colleague whose guest-bed mattress seems, I might somewhat petulantly add, to have been designed and built by Torquemada). One of the main articles in the current issue, Lawrence Rosen’s “What We Got Wrong: How Arabs Look at the Self, their Society, and their Political Institutions” makes a grim but convincing case about the poor prospects for Western-style democracy in Iraq (problems that would persist even if the current attempt at setting up an oil-vending democracy hadn’t been implemented at the end of a gun by a nation that had killed untold thousands of Iraqis — a particularly unpropitious proposition).

Rosen (a sharp guy, and an anthropologist at Princeton) lays down a number of factors that mitigate against the success of democracy in Iraq, but I’d like to focus on two of them. In the first, Rosen argues that, in contrast to the West,

in the Arab world the self is never seen as divided. Whereas in the West we imagine ourselves able to take on multiple, even contradictory roles — as when an official gives support to a law with which he personally disagrees — to Arabs this self-segmentation runs contrary to the idea of a person as a unified whole.

So, while it seems clear to a guy like Randy Cohen to advise someone to separate his ethical convictions from his social role, this sort of separation doesn’t make sense to cultures operating with different logics. It is a deeply Western idea — and, as the letter to Cohen makes clear, one that isn’t always obvious even in the West, where some people feel ambivalent enough about it to turn to an professional ethicist for help.

Another point of Rosen’s carries this idea of an Arab resistance to democracy outward from the self to the social world. In the Arab world. Rosen says,

political institutions have never been separated from the individuals connected to them. Indeed, personal attachments — whether to a political leader, spiritual guide, or close relative — focus not on the settled expectations of position but on the constantly shifting network of obligation through which each actor seeks to negotiate an advantageous connection.

So, while in the West there is this notion of the separation of person and office or role (you may not like the John Birch Society, but damn it your professional ethics demand that you read it onto tape for the blind man who wants to stoke his ignorance and rage with the contents of those pages), this just doesn’t pertain elsewhere. While a Western official is (ideally, though not always in practice) impartial, looking after everyone impartially and with a kind of disinterestedness, this sort of division is not available in the Arab world, where gemeinschaft networks of contact and obligation are the norm. We’d see many Arab officials as corrupt and nepotistic (and, described in terms of the logic of our system, they would indeed be corrupt). In their own estimation, though, they’d just be remaining true to themselves and looking after their peeps.

Of course, this divorcing of personal ethical conviction from institutional activity that we see in the West doesn’t always manifest itself in positive ways. One example of creepy shit connected to this that comes to mind involves the advertising industry. One of the most chilling parts of the generally excellent documentary about capitalist social organization,The Corporation, shows us how an otherwise decent human being can do bad things because of the kind of dissociation of private ethics from institutional life that we’ve come to expect in the West. In one scene, a very chipper and apparently quite bright woman from the advertising industry (who doesn’t seem to know just what kind of documentary she’s in) goes on about how marketing research has shown that it just isn’t effective to market children’s toys to parents. You’ve got to market directly to the kids, crafting ads aimed at their level of cognitive development, with the goal of getting them to nag their parents into submission. Empirical studies, she says, show that parents hate this, and other studies indicate how much pressure of what kind one has to put on kids to get them to nag their parents the right way. Parents then buy the kid the product in order to get some peace back in the house. When the filmmakers asked the marketing executive how she felt about the ethics of deliberately introducing misery into households, she didn’t seem phased. “That’s the best way to do our job,” she said (or words to that effect — I returned the DVD to the library the other day, dreading any addition to the mammoth late fees I’d already racked up by hanging onto the 4-CD history of Jamaican music that’s been overdue for the past two weeks or so — excellent music for grooving around the kitchen with a cocktail while cooking, I might add, and quite possibly the source for a poem. But I digress). So here’s a dark side to the Western system: perfectly decent people who love their own children can step into the office and do some seriously evil shit without batting an eye.

Okay. So disinterest is one of the defining characteristics of the contemporary West ("disinterest is modernity," one might say, hoping to make an impression). But if this system of disinterest and the separation of self from role is indeed a Western thing, and only recently so (I mean, doesn’t the world of obligation-networks Rosen describe sound a lot like the Elizabethan England Stephen Greenblatt writes about in Renaissance Self-Fashioning) how did it come into being in the first place? Here, I think, is where the idea of good taste comes into play. Check it out.

The idea of the beautiful (and of taste in things beautiful) is deeply tied to the idea of disinterest in the main line of Western aesthetics from the 18th century on through the 20th century, and even in our time, for some die-hards. Here’s my favorite chunk of text for explaining the idea of a disinterested appreciation of beauty. This imaginary dialogue comes from Coleridge’s On the Principles of Genial Criticism, and serves (according to the students in my theory of lit seminar last semester) as a better example of Kant’s ideas than any examples Kant came up with:

Let us suppose Milton in company with some stern and prejudiced Puritan, contemplating the front of York Cathedral, and at length expressing his admiration for its beauty. We will suppose it too at that time of his life, when his religious opinions most nearly coincided with those of the rigid antiprelatists. P[uritan]: Beauty, I am sure, it is not the beauty of holiness. M[ilton]: True, but yet it is beautiful. P:It delights not me. What is it good for? Is it of any use but to be stared at? M: Perhaps not! But still it is beautiful. P: But call to mind the pride and wanton vanity of those cruel shavelings, that wasted the labor and sbstance of so many thousand poor creatures in the erection of this haughty pile. M: I do. But still it is very beautiful. P: Think how many score places of worship, incomparably better suited both for prayer and preaching, and how many faithful ministers might have been maintained, to the blessing of tens of thousands, to them and their children’s children, with the treasures so lavished on this worthless mass of stone and cement. M: too true! But nevertheless it is very beautiful. P: And it is not merely useless, but it feeds the pride of the prelates, and keeps alive popish and carnal spirit among the people. M: Even so!

It goes on, but the text is too obscure to be available anywhere online except one site that isn’t responding right now, and I tire of typing. Also, I imagine you get it: matters of taste in the beautiful, in the view of Coleridge’s Milton (who speaks, somewhat anachronistically for a whole 18th and 19th century tradition in aesthetics) is to be judged without reference to our sense of utility or morality. In this view, we are separate from parts of ourselves when we make an aesthetic judgment. We set aside such things as personal connections (“that painting is beautiful because my daughter painted it/is in it/bought it for me”) and ethical reservations (“Leni Riefenstahl is a lousy filmmaker because she supported the Nazis”). We become divided selves, compartmentalized in exactly the way Rosen tells us the Arabs, with their refusal of “self-segmentation,” are not. And once we become divided from parts of ourselves at the level of aesthetics (where the stakes seem so low to so many people), we’re ready to become divided from other parts of ourselves, like ethics. We’re ready to treat people with the same disinterest Coleridge’s Milton treated the Cathedral, without bias regarding our personal prejudices. We’re ready to treat our own actions that way, too, without reference our own ethics (“business is business,” we tautologically opine, while doing things we wouldn’t countenance if we weren’t enabled in the divorcing of individual ethics from professional ethics).

(Caffeine-fuelled sidebar: Pierre Bourdieu has convincingly argued that this self-segmentation is a class marker — specifically a bourgeois and upper-class class marker. The working classes in his survey of French taste didn’t make these kinds of distinctions between the good or useful or personally-connected and the beautiful. In effect, they’re with Coleridge’s Puritan, not his Milton. And John Berger’s work bears this out too, but that’s another blog entry, one I’ll probably never get round to).

Anyway. The interesting thing to me is this: the idea of disinterest in the West begins to come into being in the 18th century, and it begins in discussions of taste. It travels into the realms of politics, institutions, corporations, and professional ethics (the stuff Randy Cohen supports and the makers of The Corporation find creepy), but it begins with taste and aesthetics. You don’t really get it as a part of ethics until after you get it as a part of aesthetics, unless you count the Third Earl of Shaftesbury’s 18th century Characteristicks, in which aesthetic disinterest and ethical disinterest are sort of united (trust me, I spent the first half of last summer up to my tweedy academic elbows in Shaftesbury's works).

The reasons for this early theorizing about disinterest as vital to aesthetics are themselves quite fascinating. So are the paths disinterest takes on the way from being an aesthetic idea to being a key element of gessellschaft social organization, and of modernity itself. I could go on. But I rather imagine that anyone who’s made it this far into this entry is thinking it is high time for Archambeau to settle down, so I’ll let all that wait for another Sumatra-bean fuelled trip to the outer blogosphere.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

War Poetry and the Aesthetics of Anonymity

A few days ago John Peck dropped me an email about my last post on Kevin Prufer's "Army Tales." He raises some interesting issues about the anonymity of the soldiers in Prufer's poem, and in other poems about war: I read thje poem for the third time, my ear took me not to the ambiance of WWI for literary comparison but to WWII and Jarrell's Pacific Theatre poems — specifically their tone. That association, if valid, raises an interesting question for me: do the ways in which these poems by a non-combatant at some distance and a combatant fairly close-up seem similar (enlisting feeling through generic detail, and then through their pungent round-offs) have to do with the anonymity to which people are reduced by modern warfare? That was already David Jones's major theme (as former combatant) in his In Parnethesis.

Though Peck's got Jarrell in the wrong place (Jarrell spent the war working at an Army Air Corps training center in the southwest), he's dead-on about the anonymity shared by the soldiers in Prufer's poem and in, say, Jarrell's famous "Death of the Ball Turret Gunner":

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Both Prufer and Jarrell give us soldiers reduced to nameless figures performing in unspecified environments. But there's an important difference, I think: Jarrell's poem is part of a broad, midcentury humanist critique (think The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit) of the dehumanizing nature of bureaucratic, administered, gesselschraft-based society — Prufer's poem makes a gesture of this kind at the end, but for most of its length it is up to something else.

Right from the beginning of Jarrell's poem, when the ominous "State" substitutes for the mother, we get a strong sense of this humanist critique. C.D. Wright nailed it, I think, when she wrote:

[I]n war poem heaped upon war poem, beginning with "The Ball Turret Gunner," and never again with such dexterous compassion and plain eloquence, Jarrell blames the villainy of the world not on Germans (whose literature he would wholly adopt), nor on Japanese, but on the one neutrally destructive force, the State.(Field 35, 1986)

This puts Jarrell's poem closer to, say, Auden's "Unknown Citizen" than it is to Prufer's "Army Tales."

The soldierly anonymity in Prufer's poem has, I think, more in common with the anonymity of soldiers in the works of another poet mentioned by Peck, David Jones. David Jones's war poetry uses that great Modernist trope of juxtaposing past and present. But unlike an Eliot or a Pound, who'd often see the present as an ironic or sterile or debased version of the past, Jones (ever the Blakean visionary) saw a kind of eternity, in which things we think of a seperate are fused into one. Michael Anania set this straight for me, once, in an interview for Samizdat, where he said:

...for Jones the significant past is not the source of an irony about the present: it is a part of the synchronistic present. This sense of synchrony is part of Jones’ Christianity, in which all time is present in the eyes of God. So when Jones, a Welshman, goes to war in France (the experience behind In Parentheses) the event is religiously and ethnologically significant, and the events he experiences take on a larger resonance. For example, when a soldier falls in Jones, and his helmet falls down over his face, Jones associates that with the vision of visor the worn by knights at war over the same ground long ago.(Samizdat 9, 2002)

This synchronistic/Modernist anonymity seems to me to be what's at work in Prufer. Rather than offering a humanistic critique of bureaucratic social organization, such a poetry seeks to show the common life shared by all people (even those in combat against one another). So "the boy" in Prufer's army tales is both many different boys and a single boy at the same time. Like Jones, Prufer is a visionary poet, and tries to see with the eyes of eternity. (The technique is consistent with that of his book Fallen from a Chariot, which I see, more and more, as a single poem. If you want to hear me go on about it for a few pages, check out the next issue of the Notre Dame Review).

Anonymity in a poem like Jarrell's "Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner" (or Auden's "Unknown Citizen") is presented as a bad thing, thrust on to real people by an uncaring state that is perfectly willing to erase the individuality of people. But in Jones or Prufer, something quite different is at work. Anonymity here is a way of getting at the shared life beyond the individual life. Anonymity becomes a way of representing the common humanity of soldiers in different wars, or fighting on different sides in the same war.

Anonymity plays a number of roles in the art that comes out of war: the humanism of Jarrell and the visionary poetics of Prufer and Jones are just two. Consider, for example, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: there, the anonymity allows the remains within to serve as a metonym for all of the unknown dead.

This is not to say that an onomastic (name-based) aesthetic for the pity of war can't be moving, though. John Matthias works in this way in his poetry, as (most famously) does Maya Lin in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial where, as Wilfred Owen would put it, the poetry is surely in the pity.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Home Front War Poetry

Am I violating any copyright laws by reposting this poem from Poetry Daily? I'm not sure. But Kevin Prufer is a poet I admire, and this new poem seems particularly timely. Prufer's last book, Fallen from a Chariot, is powerfully elegiac. I'd assumed from the intensity of that book's grief that the death he'd described there came from some event in his personal experience, and I still think that is must have. But here he shows that his ear for elegy is every bit as sound when he deals with events he's unlikely to have experienced first hand.

Army Tales

Kevin Prufer

The boy who drowned in the bog, the boy caught in the rotors, the boy who laughed too loud —

The boy who swallowed the bee that stung the throat —

The rip cord worked, but the parachute fluttered weakly above him and would not bloom —

He put his foot down in the foreign grass and heard a click, as of metal on metal. When he lifted that foot —

Sometimes it is a cold day and the clouds rain toxin over the boys on the base —

Sometimes, they don't know they're being watched, leaning against their packs, asleep like that —

One more, one more, he said. One more all around — And the assembled clapped for him, they clapped, he put his money down and smiled because they loved him —

Sometimes a boy thinks he is unloved, so he retires to a dark tent where he will not be disturbed —

Then, the cells wink out like lights on a tall office building in a strange city at dusk —

His friends said it was a sad day, it was very sad. They thought he'd been kidding, they told him not to laugh like that —

You pull the string and out it blooms —

And what was he doing off the base late at night? What was he doing on the open water, in the plane, driving so fast down unfamiliar roads? His mother —

Someone would tell her. Someone would write her a letter, thank god. There's a template for that —

A guy who puts your name on the hard drive, a distant office, a simple program and printer —

You punch in the name and out it comes.

I taught some poems by the great World War One poet Wilfred Owen the other day, as I do most semesters in my 19th/early 20th century literature survey course. This semester my students were remarkably engaged by the poems, for reasons we can guess. That engagement, along with this new poem by Prufer, have me thinking with sorrow that we may soon find ourselves in another period of powerful poetry about war — poetry that will inevitably resemble Owen's work more than it will that of someone gung-ho and innocent like Rupert Brooke. There will be soldiers' poems, I'm sure, and probably a large body of work by those of us who only see the war on television and need to do something with the frustration and the grief. Prufer's poem shows just how good this latter kind of work can be.