Sunday, April 27, 2014

Literature, War, and Abstract Language

From May 5th through the 11th, I will be in the gorgeous lakeside town of Bled, Slovenia, participating in a P.E.N. conference.  P.E.N. champions the abolition of censorship and the freeing of literary-political prisoners, of which there are twenty-eight in Cuba, say, and an uncountable number in China. Most of the proceedings, then, involve political strategizing.

There is always, however, another dimension of this conference. This year marks the 100th anniversary of WWI, and our theme will be “The Great War and Modern Literature.” As the American representative, I’m urged to speak of our own nation’s response to that calamity.

I’ll copy a version of my comments, but first the lucky back story of why I’m a participant.

In 2001, I was teaching in Lugano, Switzerland. A diplomat friend our family had known ten years before in Hungary. where I'd held a Fulbright fellowship invited us to stay at their Budapest home over Easter break and I’d give a tenth anniversary reading. The stay was delightful, and afterwards, our host said he’d spread the word to fellow diplomats that I would happily lecture or read elsewhere. I did visit several cities, including Ljubljana, the Slovene capital.

I joke that Slovenia is where right-acting poets go after death. I was in Slovenia’s national press, on its national TV, and most gratifying, on its public radio’s daily poetry program.

After the show, I had lunch with my interviewer, Marjan Strojan, when I learned he was not only an eminent poet himself but also the foremost Slovene translator of English poetry, having managed such modest projects as The Canterbury Tales, Paradise Lost, and Beowulf. But he claimed his greatest challenge had been the work of Robert Frost: Marjan always seeks form-true translation, but Slovenian is a language devoid of Frost’s signature iambic foot. For all that, he had managed fifty poems in half as many years, and they’d soon be published.

Marjan and I stayed in touch, and I soon got a sad note from him. His publisher had failed rightly to secure international rights to Frost’s canon, and Frost’s American publisher, Henry Holt, would exact a prohibitive permissions fee for any print run that exceeded 200. By pure chance, Frost’s literary executor is Peter Gilbert, a friend and former student, now director of the Vermont Humanities Council. So I forwarded Marjan’s email to him, along with my opinion that every single living Slovenian could buy Marjan’s book of translations without the least effect on Holt’s bottom line. Peter arranged the permission for a song.

For me this involved a quick email; for Marjan it redeemed a quarter-century’s work. In gratitude, he began to invite me back to all manner of literary events. Each time, he’d translate some of my poems, and in 2006 a selection of them appeared in print over there. Best of all, over time the translator has become one of my dearest friends. (Autumn Hill Press in Iowa, an excellent house specializing in eastern European authors, will soon publish a selection of his work here. Should you want to see a sample, go to

Now my remarks, abridged, for the P.E.N. conference.

The Great War and the Death of Abstract Language

Ten decades ago, U.S. president Woodrow Wilson argued to a doubtful American populace that the country’s entry into war would “make the world safe for democracy.” Such idealistic rhetoric soon measured itself against brute fact: hundreds of thousands of war casualties and maimings.

The following, written by e.e. cummings after his Great War experience as an ambulance driver, makes much of such dissonance. It ironically echoes “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” , which nearly became our national anthem. The song begins, “My country, ‘tis of Thee,/Sweet land of liberty,” and goes on to salute the “Land where my fathers died,/Land of the pilgrims’ pride....”

“next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?”

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water.

Artists have always been suspicious of conventional pieties, but the Great War deeply enhanced that suspicion. Cummings’s own anti-war suspicions were vocal enough to earn him a military incarceration and, eventually, to prompt a compelling novel, The Enormous Room. In the poem above, the clash of pietistic slogan with grim factuality is patent, and its demagogic protagonist seems to know it: he races through his address, reluctant to use his own jingoistic shibboleths. Unlike the hymn he quotes in part, the speaker avoids mentioning pride, for instance, and even if he makes an obligatory reference to God, as American politicians still seem obliged to do, he’s disinclined to say that his “country ‘tis of Thee.” At the end, we read, “He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water,” as though to wash the formulaic blather out of his mouth.

Cummings won’t ennoble rhetorical convention as a mark of patriotism, any more than he will consider poetic convention like the sonnet, which he at once adopts and mockingly subverts in this poem, as one of art. Even conventions of grammar and punctuation seem to offend him. No bromide, no propriety whatever– right, left, center, religious, atheistic– is simply to be accepted at face value.

There are examples of such skepticism and resistance throughout the work of American artists of the Great War. Given time constraints, I’ll refer only to Ernest Hemingway, another ambulance driver. He raises themes akin to Cummings’s, most famously in The Sun Also Rises, but really throughout his earlier work. One of his stories, “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio,” written in the lull between WWI and WWII, is exemplary.

The plot unfolds in a Catholic hospital, and involves a Mexican gambler, Cayetano, who has been shot in a small Montana town; a nun who aspires to be a saint; and Mr. Frazer, a writer recovering from a horseback accident, who constantly listens to his radio.

The nun invites three Mexican musicians to perform for Cayetano. One of them suggests that religion is the opium of the people, dulling them to their ignorance. After Frazer hears that opinion, he reflects as follows:

Religion is the opium of the people. He believed that, that dyspeptic little joint-keeper. Yes, and music is the opium of the people. Old mount-to-the-head hadn’t thought of that. And now economics is the opium of the people; along with patriotism the opium of the people in Italy and Germany. What about sexual intercourse; was that an opium of the people? Of some of the people. Of some of the best of the people. But drink was a sovereign opium of the people, oh, an excellent opium. Although some prefer the radio, another opium of the people, a cheap one he had just been using. Along with these went gambling, an opium of the people if there ever was one, one of the oldest. Ambition was another, an opium of the people, along with a belief in any new form of government. What you wanted was the minimum of government, always less government. Liberty, what we believed in, now the name of a MacFadden publication (i.e. a tabloid).

Though Frazer makes no direct reference to the Great War, its effects show themselves here: like Cummings, he stresses

the emptiness of abstractions like Liberty. And yet, half-addled by drugs and drink and pain, he

speaks as follows:

“Listen,” Mr. Frazer said to the nurse when she came. “Get that little thin Mexican in here, will you, please?”

“How do you like it?” the Mexican said at the door.

“Very much.”

“It is a historic tune,” the Mexican said. “It is the tune of the real revolution.”

“Listen,” said Mr. Frazer. “Why should the people be operated on without an an√¶sthetic?”

“I do not understand.”

“Why are not all the opiums of the people good? What do you want to do with the people?”

“They should be rescued from ignorance.”

“Don’t talk nonsense. Education is an opium of the people. You ought to know that. You’ve had a little.”

“You do not believe in education?”

“No,” said Mr. Frazer. “In knowledge, yes.

In distinguishing education from knowledge, I believe Hemingway smells danger in thought removed from tangible, empirical reference. Such thought is, so to speak, disembodied speech; it’s abstract in the Latin sense, “a drawing away.” The wounded and dying are unlikely to recite dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. The anodynes we propose to soothe us in a world as cruel as late history has proven– perhaps all are empty; but the broad political ones, which have so deceived and wounded “the people,” are downright disastrous. We all may deceive ourselves; but let us at least be modest in our self-deceptions.

The constitutional skepticism that I mentioned at the outset, has by our time solidified itself among American artists; but, tragically, it has not spread among the truly powerful. I can think of no U.S. poet, for instance, who endorsed George W. Bush’s unconscionable 2003 misadventure, code-named– what else?– Iraqi Freedom. And yet that murderous and foolish campaign went forward. Bush spoke of an “axis of evil.” He had not, one assumes, ever encountered the counsel of Ezra Pound (before Pound himself went politically insane): Go in fear of abstractions.

Yes, I wince in my own time to hear billowy, abstract rhetoric in the mouths of politicians. Iraqi Freedom indeed. I can read the news and see what that freedom amounts to even now. I wish, however, that the problem were a partisan one. Today, however, with a supposedly liberal administration in office, one often hears from high places terms like human dignity– even as our drones wipe out untold hundreds of invisible lives.

That last example is germane. Our abstractions, our disembodiments, can so easily lead us to dehumanization,, especially, I believe, in a virtual world. Assisted by technology, our power-brokers can all too easily divorce themselves from Hemingway’s brand of “knowledge,” even to the point of forgetting that the enemy dead, civilian and “terrorist” alike, were ever living, breathing people.

Let me here make a leap to consider some ramifications of all this for the writer. Since the advent of deconstruction in literary study, a parallel danger emerges, at least in my opinion. That so-called literary theory should have stressed the inevitable disjunction between what we always thought was signification and its intended object; that it should have found language to be an unavoidable artifice: these were perhaps important propositions, and surely ratified those suspicions that artists have always held of official language. Theory may have helped discredit propaganda. But if we follow many of its premises to their furthest conclusions, every ideal becomes at worst a lie and at best a distortion. If that be the case, then there can be no solid reason for honorable thought or activity. “It is easy to be brilliant if you do not believe in anything,” as Goethe said. If there is no such thing as truth, how may we censure students who go on to join America’s corporate elite?

Mark Edmundsen, a maverick professor at my own alma mater, Yale, puts the matter thus:

If the business of education as de-idealization had ended with the revelations     about de Man’s wartime anti-Semitism  or Derrida’s death, then all this would be semi-ancient history. But it’s not over. Universities made a turn toward  the de-Bunkers, and they’ve not turned back. Scholars don’t take ideals too seriously; academics remain pretty much in the de-divinization business, which is the business of deflating or attacking ideals. Few professors in my field, literature, believe that they can distinguish rigorously between pop-culture flotsam and the works of Milton. Few of them know how to mount an argument that values Wyatt’s poetry over a video game. Few believe that reading the best that has been thought and said can give a young person something to live for and teach him or her how to live.

So where, as humanists, can we stand? Have we no choice beside empty, even ruinous, Wilsonian idealism on the one hand and a skepticism so deep on the other as to amount, essentially, to mere cynicism? As so often, I think, it is the practitioners of our art rather than its critics and scholars who may show us a way. Let me close with a poem by Robert Hass, a former poet laureate of my country:

                       Meditation at Lagunitas

              All the new thinking is about loss.

              In this it resembles all the old thinking.

              The idea, for example, that each particular erases

              the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-

              faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk

              of that black birch is, by his presence,

              some tragic falling off from a first world

              of undivided light. Or the other notion that,

              because there is in this world no one thing

              to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,

              a word is elegy to what it signifies.

              We talked about it late last night and in the voice

              of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone

              almost querulous. After a while I understood that,

              talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,

              pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman

              I made love to and I remembered how, holding

              her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,

              I felt a violent wonder at her presence

              like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river

              with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,

              muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish

              called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.

              Longing, we say, because desire is full

              of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.

              But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,

              the thing her father said that hurt her, what

              she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous

              as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.

              Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,

                   saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

I believe that, as writers and thinkers and simple citizens, we must hold the feet of our powerful to the fire. We must demand that their abstractions be tethered to what Eliot called their objective correlatives, that they be grounded in the flesh-and-blood realities not only of their own constituencies but also of the world’s citizenry, that they be founded on a Hemingwayesque “knowledge.”

As Hass’s poem implies, there may be no way for language to get at ultimate truths. But let us speak of what we can know; let us speak of provisional truths. The slipperiness of language, so ably demonstrated by the deconstructionists and their successors, ought not lead us to nihilism. Hass’s poem is instructive, urging us, rather, to humility– which, as I’m fond of repeating, never hurt anyone.

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