Friday, May 13, 2005

From yesterday's notebook

Georg Lukacs, Theory of the Novel: "The novel is the epic of an age in which the extensive totality of life is no longer directly given, in which the immanence of meaning in life has become the problem, yet which still thinks in terms of totality." But do we still think in terms of totality? Those of us suspicious of totality and epic are cast upon fragments of the sheerly immanent. But what positive answer can postmodernism (or the "cultural creative") oppose to that of the fundamentalists of whatever stripe? The Enlightenment is dying or dead; the mode of production it enabled has outstripped and outlived it, and seems willing and able to wear any sort of irrelevant superstructure, even "communism," like a decoration to distract. If the conflict between political and economic liberty is as imaginary as it's come to seem, what force can oppose capitalism's march into the new dark ages? Technical know-how is the only knowledge it will preserve, and truth is re-packaged and marketed as a salad bar of beliefs founded upon arbitrary authority—the spiritual equivalent of Soylent Green.

Sometimes an intellectual understanding of historical forces only seems to encourage despair. Somehow I cordon off some valuable reserve of naivete or spirit that ventures out ev ery day trying to make sense or art in spite of long odds and the world's shortness of attention. There is yet the resilience of daily life. Love, affection, admiration, trust. You can still cook a meal or throw a ball for the dog. A line of poetry still tugs at the gut or opens possibility's path through the hazy, clotted mind. Are these things just distractions from the temperature of the water we're going to boil in? Or are they fundamentals of hope?

The real conflict between poetry partisans may not be between mainstream and post-avant but between those who see poetry as a preserve of individual spiritual autonomy and those who see it as an intervention into particular historical and political circumstances. Do you primarily address, do you primarily read as, an individual or a citizen? Perhaps a more useful and less invidious mode of distinction, as it does not judge the literary value of either sort of poetry: there are good and bad examples. And of course it's less a dichotomy than a matter of emphasis. Bad private poetry is ethically disgusting; bad public poetry aesthetically repellent. My own allegiances are split and confused; I'm caught up in what I suspect is a generational project to synthesize the public and private.

Cultural studies-type criticism denies the private, depth-model of poetry: it's the more or less unwitting product of cultural, economic, and political determinations: in a word, ideology. Which gives no credit to poets, obviously. Either a poet is capabale of interpreting and resisting ideology—coming to consciousness about it, awakening—or she is not. If she is, a private poem can have aesthetic and ethical value (Warheitgehalt, truth-content). If she isn't, her public poetry is also pure ideology, or a simple inversion of the dominant, and is likely to be aesthetically crude. You have to give poets some credit; but what fund are they drawing upon for that credit? The poet-intellectual's poems are positioned within a structure of argument. The poet of experience foregrounds their engagement with life: we trust them because we recognize their milieu. The visionary poet convinces us that she can see the invisible. The middlebrow poets with a passive relation to the structures that helped produce them are the ones whose credit is likely to be overdrawn.

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