Tuesday, July 17, 2007

"...your life really matters": Aesthetic Education

Sitting on big news, confronting the task ahead, trying not to fret about my dissertation defense a week from tomorrow. I am about to become a full-time teacher of creative writing—not solely creative writing, but it's a major part of my Lake Forest portfolio. What does that mean? What do I want to accomplish, and my students to accomplish? For a while now I've been meditating on the comments of G.C. Waldrep on that subject just a few months ago on this very blog, the relevant portion of which seems worth repeating here:
After four years of teaching undergraduates, I'm convinced that one reason they come to c.w. classes--one reason they "want to be writers" (so different from actually wanting to write!)--is a desire for "authenticity." They aren't sure what that is, but they are sure it's a problem in our culture, and they see poetry (rightly or wrongly) as one sphere in which "authenticity" (of a putative self) can be achieved and celebrated. Hence your first camp.

What I have tried to get across to my students, increasingly, is that if authenticity of (a) self can be achieved in language, then craft matters. The host culture has sufficiently colonized our brains with language--we are awash in media--that the seemingly simple act of stripping away cliche from one's writing can take years of self-conscious, often discouraging effort. That through solving problems of craft a writer is not distracting him- or herself from that authenticity, but rather finding ways to deepen that authenticity: of voice, of form, and yes, in the end, of self. I'm one of those characters who doesn't know what he means until he sees what he says, so for me the idea of a self coming into being even as the words unspool is a potent one, at least in theory.
I was reminded of G.C.'s theory (and of some of the comments made at the time by Reginald Shepherd and his readers) by the stance of Carol Bly, whose Beyond the Writer's Workshop I read some of yesterday as I was working on the syllabi for the Intro to Creative Writing and Advanced Nonfiction classes I'm teaching this fall. Bly, who has a lot of tart things to say about workshop culture and the "junk culture of the U.S.A." takes a very firm, moralizing stance (some would call it "shrill"—as she herself concedes) about writing: she believes its purpose is or ought to be to change the world, or at least to tell the truth about it. Ethics trumps aesthetics: or rather, following Schiller and Kierkegaard, the aesthetic stance is a phase to be passed through on the way toward realizing oneself as an ethically responsible agent in the world. Bly's voice is cranky and unsympathetic—she paints pop culture with a black, tarry brush like Adorno at his most undialectical—and she comes across as something of a Mrs. Grundy. But she assumes a profoundly countercultural stance when she demands of writing and the workshop that it provide a space in which people can take things seriously, think, and then act. She deplores the reflexive irony and "whatever" posture of American culture, one ideally suited to consumerism and the avoidance of hard choices, even arguably full participation in one's own life. It's a more polemical, harder-edged version of Richard Hugo's "A creative writing class may be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters," though Bly would probably deplore the narcissistic spin that statement is susceptible to being given. Though I find her personality hard to swallow, I think it's a position to be taken seriously, insofar as it suggests that the purpose of writing is the creation of meaning—not just on the page but in and for oneself and the community of readers that every writer hopes to find.

The gamble of this notion of aesthetic education—I really must read Schiller's Letters sooner than later—is that an aesthetic education will somehow ineluctably lead to an ethical education. And Bly's assertion that the aesthetic is simply a stage to be mastered and overcome strikes me as highly problematic. One of Bly's core claims in her book is that "content" is overwhelmingly more important than form—she takes a very dim view of formal experiment for formal experiment's sake, and not coincidentally shows very little patience for poetry (she likes Wallace Stevens' idea about the imagination's trumping what's perceived—for her this means a moral imagination that overcomes the lure of sensation, so it's Schiller again in miniature, which I'm not sure Stevens would agree with—but finds his poetry "fussy" and impenetrable). Me, I'd like to see an approach to writing in which neither "content" nor "form" is fetishized, but I appreciate Bly's position more if I translate her "content" into a word that means more for me: commitment. By which I don't necessarily mean "engaged writing" (I'm not against it by any means but I do believe there is a powerful ethical component to writing that denies the authority of the commonplace through displacement rather than naming names) but simply writing that you make part of your life, like one of your limbs, which suffers as you do and hopes as you do and isn't a device for concealing your character defects or projecting a glamorous image into the world. Politics is part of that, but part of the continuum of your life, not some kind of mantle of authority or finger-wagging you pull over your shoulders when you sit down to write (and put away again when you stand up).

The argument for education that moves from aesthetics to ethics is possible, but not rock solid. There's plenty of evidence that aestheticism in the sense of withdrawal from commitment to anything but one's own pleasure and cleverness is still alive and well. On the flip side of the coin is the regularly made assertion that formal innovation alone can have ethical and political force. To be fair, I think this assertion is less often made by avant-garde writers than it is attributed to them—the Language poets are often tarred with this brush, but at least some of them have displayed a thoroughgoing commitment to Marxist theory and praxis both and off the page; many of the attacks on their perceived avant-gardeism or elitism are actually veiled attacks on their Marxism. I don't believe there is any royal road from the appreciation of beauty to right action—the cliche of the Brahms-loving Nazi is evidence enough on that score (and incidentally, I cringed when watching the otherwise very watchable German film The Lives of Others when the novelist character, after playing a haunting piano piece, asked the tendentious and rhetorical question, "Could anyone who had heard such music—really heard it—really be a bad person?" Uh, yeah, they could. Next question). The connection, if it exists, between the aesthetic and the ethical is a tenuous and mysterious one, and too many of the people arguing for it, the conservatives and cultural heritage types, are actually arguing for conformity and the normative. But I am half-persuaded by Bly's notion that it is possible for aesthetic consciousness to be a stage prior to a fuller ethical consciousness, if only because such has been my own experience: my commitment to poetry and writing was a key part of the shift I underwent from uninformed liberal apoliticism in my twenties to the socialism and anarcho-syndicalism I espouse now. It was the critical capacity of writing—a capacity that, when fully and sympathetically engaged, does not spare the self from the scope of its critique, yet does not lay waste to that self—that has helped to activate my sense of commitment to, most fundamentally, myself. Not myself in any isolated or narcissistic way, but myself as part of my place, people, and time.

This concept of education is a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian drama of redemption, in which we take seriously the notion that God and the Devil are striving for the student's soul. Yet we should give the Devil his due: I don't think it's realistic or desirable to ask students or teachers to completely remove themselves from what Bly disparages as "U.S.A. junk culture." Among other things, you'd be depriving yourself of a major source of material: if that junk, our junk, can't in some way be redeemed through creative activity, there's really no hope for anyone outside a monastery (or the Iowa Writers Workshop). And the greater danger is to think that the aesthetic must be put aside like a childish thing to reach the sphere of ethical commitment: you may choose to do so, but I don't think there's much chance of your being much of a writer in that case. You can't write in anything but some sort of form. And to imagine form as a vehicle for content, rather than its transformer, is a sure path to hackdom.

The only question remaining for me here is whether it is in fact necessary for every creative writing student to remember the aesthetic: it's neither realistic nor particularly desirable to insist on every such student's becoming a professional writer. I want my students to take away from my classes a richer sense of the possibilities of commitment; I want them to risk earnestness; I want them to submit themselves to language and rattle their own cages. But they don't all have to become writers, except insofar as I sometimes conflate "writer" with "person" or "citizen"; that is, someone who takes a critical and creative stance toward their world rather than simply accepting its givens. I think aesthetic play is a path to such consciousness, but once it's achieved, I don't know if it continues to be important save as a source of pleasure—which, God knows, is important enough, and rare enough, if we speak of pleasure in one's own capacities for intelligent feeling and empathic thought ("think with the senses, feel with the mind," as the motto of the Venice Biennale has it). Imaginative pleasure, you might call it, as opposed to the sizzle of sensation that Bly is a little too quick to deplore.

Next I'd like to take up a question of mechanics: is it better to immediately immerse beginning students in the kind of paradigm-testing work that I've come to value most, or should one rather lead them through the garden of more conventional works so that they'll know what the rules are? I'll be thinking out loud about that soon.

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