Post Number: 101
|Posted on Monday, September 27, 2010 - 03:11 pm: ||
1. SOME THOUGHTS FOR MY FRIEND MARK ON WAR AND PEACE AND ON G.W.F. HEGEL’S NOTION OF “THESIS-ANTITHESIS-SYNTHESIS”
Here are two examples from Visions & Affiliations, my forthcoming time line book, that show how war can be not just a physical fact but a way of structuring thinking. Even though one may not be “in” a war, one thinks and operates as if one were. This internalized sense of “war” is—to use the apt term coined by George Orwell in 1945—necessarily a “Cold War.”
In the first example I talk about Norman Mailer. In 1957 Mailer published what was to become a famous essay, “The White Negro”:
Certain aspects of Mailer’s “White Negro” become much clearer if we remember that Mailer is writing soon after World War II—and that he participated in World War II: “we might still be doomed to die as a cipher in some vast statistical operation”; “these [are] the years of conformity”; “the only courage…has been the isolated courage of isolated people”; “to live with death as immediate danger.”
All of the qualities Mailer is naming are characteristic of the experience of being in a war. “Conformity” is an issue for the soldier who must “obey orders,” as is courage, the constant possibility of death, and a tendency to conceive of things in terms of polarization (the “enemy”). In the midst of a deadening “peacetime,” Mailer is re-imagining the conditions of war; he is inventing his own “Cold War.” It is a testimony to the depth at which World War II had entered his psyche, and not only his psyche. Many of the artists living at this time were vehemently opposed to war but, at the same time, they were expressing war’s conditions: its need of a constant awareness of the possibility of death, its demand for courage, its necessary polarization, its sense that nothing will last and so all we have is the moment—spontaneity.
The second example deals with the poet Bob Kaufman and repeats some of what I said about Mailer. Though hardly a “white Negro,” Bob Kaufman was literally the product of—in Mailer’s phrase—the “wedding of the white and the black”: a German-Jewish father and a black Roman Catholic mother.
As I suggested earlier, all of the qualities Mailer is naming are characteristic of the experience of being in a war. “Conformity” is an issue for the soldier who must “obey orders,” as is courage, the constant possibility of death, and a tendency to conceive of things in terms of polarization (the “enemy”). In the midst of a deadening “peacetime,” Mailer is re-imagining the conditions of war; he is inventing his own “Cold War.” It is a testimony to the depth at which World War II had entered his psyche, and not only his psyche. Many of these artists were vehemently opposed to war but, at the same time, they were expressing war’s conditions: its need of a constant awareness of the possibility of death, its demand for courage, its necessary polarization, its sense that nothing will last and so all we have is the moment—spontaneity. In 1957 Kenneth Rexroth wrote, “I believe that most of an entire generation will go to ruin–the ruin of Céline, Artaud, Rimbaud, voluntarily, even enthusiastically.” In 2010 one can add the name of Bob Kaufman to the list. In this, as in so much else, he seems typical of Beat sensibility. Kaufman appears here, like Antonin Artaud, as a casualty of society’s imagination of war, war not as a physical fact but as a way of structuring consciousness—an imagination which permeates even activities which seem to have nothing to do with war. (Michael McClure tells me that practically everyone he knew was fascinated by guns; everyone was playing at being a soldier!)…
War haunts Kaufman’s work. Sometimes its presence is subtle: “Marks, all over inside, / Traces of explosions” (“Query,” The Ancient Rain). Sometimes it is explicit:
THE AMERICAN SUN IS A
SUN OF WAR. THE DAYS OF
PEACE ARE DRAWING
TO AN END.
(“The American Sun,” The Ancient Rain)
But it is always there—an aspect of “THE AMERICAN SUN.” It remains, as well, an important aspect of Beat sensibility.
My friend Mark applies Hegel’s notion of thesis-antithesis-synthesis to various historical events and even to personal ones. I believe that there are times when Hegel’s dialectic explains experience, but there are other times when it falsifies experience. To Mark:
Hegel’s notion of thesis-antithesis-synthesis is based on war. Thesis (one army) / Antithesis (another army attacks) / Synthesis (Peace treaty) which becomes the basis of a new thesis. And on and on. It assumes aggression as a central factor in all behavior. I realize that you are for peace. But the construct you are using to explain things is based on war. You’re aware of how Marx used thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Freud's Oedipus complex is based on it as well: son's desire for mother (thesis); father's threat to castrate son (antithesis); son goes on to desire other women (synthesis). But the cycle repeats metaphorically in future relationships. Can it be avoided? Can we make a construct which assumes love and benevolence (by etymology wishing good) rather than aggression as a central factor in all behavior? Or which at least factors in love and benevolence along with aggression, as thesis/antithesis/synthesis does not? Can we redefine Hegel so that we understand “peace” not as the mere absence of war but as a positive, motivating factor in human behavior—an active factor that stands against the possibility of war and which is equally influential? If we can’t do that, then our desire for peace is constantly at odds with the very structure we use to explain the world. Contradiction.
2. PUBLISHING A BOOK OF POETRY
I honestly don’t think that the point of publishing a book of poetry is to sell the book.
They rarely sell in any case.
But it’s good to have copies to a/ give to friends b/ send to reviewers.
If you buy a bunch of your books, it’s more a gift to the future—something for the future to treasure—than it is a product to be sold and made money from.
As my wife Adelle said about my book, O Powerful Western Star, “We’ll lose a little on each copy, but we'll make it up on volume.”
3. YOU’VE BEEN MARRIED FOR NEARLY FIFTY YEARS? WHAT AN ACCOMPLISHMENT. HOW DID YOU DO IT?
I think I did it by not thinking of it as an accomplishment.
Writing a poem, painting a painting, cooking a wonderful dinner—these are accomplishments. Being married isn’t like that. Accepting a person into your life as a permanent part of it—like an interest in sports—isn’t an accomplishment. I think that the moment you think of it as an accomplishment—as something you do, something you work on—moves you away from its actuality. It becomes something you have to decide about constantly, something that is always in question. In our consumer culture, in which we are constantly asked to choose one product rather than another—which brand of toothpaste do you use?—we tend to think of choice (our blessed “freedom of choice”!) as always a good thing.
No doubt choice is a good thing in many instances, but is it always a good thing? Are there instances in which choice is a bad thing? Accepting another person into your life as a permanent part of it necessarily involves a moment of choice—that moment of acceptance—but it is only a moment. Acceptance means precisely not choosing. It means living with something. It means “letting it be.” It means not constantly having to make a judgment about it.
We do make judgments about the things we do, which is why they may become so problematical. Is this the right word? The right shade of paint? The right ingredient? The notion of “inspiration”—in which we no longer believe so much—is an attempt to bring a feeling of acceptance into a situation which is rife with choice. Yeats wrote about a friend, “I thought him half a lunatic, half knave, / But friendship never ends.” Do we think of a long friendship as an “accomplishment”? I have written previously that Puritans love choosing. Milton’s Paradise Lost is a poem about a wrong choice, and Milton wrote, in addition to Paradise Lost, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. The notion of divorce is an attempt to bring the idea of choosing into a situation which had previously been understood to have been one of acceptance. It is a Puritan notion. No doubt it has its virtue. But the notion of acceptance has its virtue too, and isn’t part of that virtue the capacity to sustain a long-term “relationship”? Is what we call “loving someone” the willing abandonment of choice in that instance? We may say, Oh, I choose to love that person every moment of every day—I am constantly in a state of choosing. But we are not} constantly in a state of choosing. We may be in the supermarket for part of the day but not for the whole day. To say such a thing, it seems to me, is a falsifying of our actual experience of daily living, and behind it is the assumption that choosing is always a good thing, always something in which a proper person should be engaged. And if constant choosing is always a good thing, then acceptance must be at least a dubious thing. A long marriage must be an “accomplishment,” a triumph of choosing. And yet: a long marriage may involve an abandonment of choosing; it may involve acceptance.
Post Number: 210
|Posted on Wednesday, September 29, 2010 - 12:32 am: ||
“The winds of despair”, the Ancient of Days wrote, “are, alas, blowing from every direction, and the strife that divides and afflicts the human race is daily increasing. The signs of impending convulsions and chaos can now be discerned, inasmuch as the prevailing order appears to be lamentably defective.” This prophetic judgement has been amply confirmed by the common experience of humanity. Flaws in the prevailing order are conspicuous in the inability of sovereign states organized as United Nations to exorcize the spectre of war, the threatened collapse of the international economic order, the spread of anarchy and terrorism, and the intense suffering which these and other afflictions are causing to increasing millions. Indeed, so much have aggression and conflict come to characterize our social, economic and religious systems, that many have succumbed to the view that such behaviour is intrinsic to human nature and therefore ineradicable.
With the entrenchment of this view, a paralyzing contradiction has developed in human affairs. On the one hand, people of all nations proclaim not only their readiness but their longing for peace and harmony, for an end to the harrowing apprehensions tormenting their daily lives. On the other, uncritical assent is given to the proposition that human beings are incorrigibly selfish and aggressive and thus incapable of erecting a social system at once progressive and peaceful, dynamic and harmonious, a system giving free play to individual creativity and initiative but based on co-operation and reciprocity.
As the need for peace becomes more urgent, this fundamental contradiction, which hinders its realization, demands a reassessment of the assumptions upon which the commonly held view of humankind’s historical predicament is based. Dispassionately examined, the evidence reveals that such conduct, far from expressing the true self of human beings, represents a distortion of the human spirit. Satisfaction on this point will enable all people to set in motion constructive social forces which, because they are consistent with human nature, will encourage harmony and co-operation instead of war and conflict.
--Universal House of Justice
"Be patient with the unresolved in your heart."
Post Number: 102
|Posted on Wednesday, September 29, 2010 - 12:17 pm: ||
Thank you to Billy Howard-Sinnard for that eloquent statement.
Here is a fourth Musing:
New Directions has recently published War & Love Love & War by the Israeli poet Aharon Shabtai (translated by Peter Cole). In a prose piece at the end of the book, Shabtai writes, "When I read a poem I look first of all for what is being claimed, for the logos. What is asked of us is that we become obedient, that we take up what is acceptable, that we stop thinking, which is to say, that we not argue." One can feel Bertolt Brecht turning over in his grave over that one. It is one thing to say that we wish the reader to be focused. It is quite another to say that we wish the reader to be "obedient." Welcome to totalitarian thinking! No wonder the Israelis do the things they do!
(Message edited by foley on September 29, 2010)
Post Number: 211
|Posted on Thursday, September 30, 2010 - 01:54 am: ||
“It is through the clash of opinions that the spark of truth comes forth."
"Be patient with the unresolved in your heart."
Post Number: 3
|Posted on Thursday, September 30, 2010 - 01:30 pm: ||
Peter Cole replies:
Just to clarify for readers who might want to look into this on their own: Aharon Shabtai's prose afterword to "War & Love, Love & War: New and Selected Poems" (New Directions) says precisely the opposite of what Jack Foley seems to have him saying in this post. For the record, Shabtai argues in these "notes for a talk" that in the context of mainstream Israeli literature--the product of a society that craves a certain respectability in its own eyes and also among the nations--readers are lulled into a dangerous passivity in which they prefer the "acceptable" to that which challenges them. In the face of that passivity, the poet who matters will present the Logos in order to rouse them from their stupor. To disturb their rest. He will provoke and pester. All this is abundantly clear from the very first paragraph of this afterword. In the paragraph that Foley quotes, Shabtai is summarizing his argument: There is the general demand that we be obedient; and there is the opportunity of the poem and its claim to our time and attention. The poet must choose. Which will guide him--the readership's expectations or the call of conscience and a desire for what is vital and true? So Brecht would not "turn over in his grave over that one." On the contrary, he would be delighted with the way in which Shabtai (who has also translated Brecht into Hebrew) has risen to the occasion and responded unflinchingly with some of the most potent political poetry being written in the world today.
Post Number: 103
|Posted on Thursday, September 30, 2010 - 02:23 pm: ||
Thanks to Katherine Hastings and to Peter Cole for responding to my remarks.
You will notice that I actually quote Shabtai's words, whereas Mr. Cole quotes nothing of his own translation. He relies instead on what used to be called "the heresy of paraphrase." Here is Shabtai's entire paragraph:
"It's possible to sum up what I've tried to say with this point: As I see it, the most important characteristic in poetry is the utterance, the argument. When I read a poem I look first of all for what is being claimed, for the logos. What is asked of us is that we become obedient, that we take up what is acceptable, that we stop thinking, which is to say, that we not argue. This, after all, is the subject of Socrates' apology. He too would certainly agree that the poet is he or she who possesses the logos."
Do you see anything there about choosing? ("The poet must choose," writes Mr. Cole.)
It is true that in the previous paragraph, Shabtai insists that "a poet has to possess a good understanding of the links between things, between facts--emotional and ethical facts, the facts around him and in the world. Therefore he has to have the ability to judge, to form an opinion, to think, to argue and articulate a position. If you're obedient, you won't understand a thing; you'll understand only what you're supposed to understand...In order to understand and argue (to compose things, to draw conclusions), one has to have the ability to dismantle definitions--the walls and categories that have been constructed, and are being constructed, all around us as obstacles...."
Here Shabtai is clearly and eloquently asserting the necessity of thought, of disagreement, of thinking. But note that he is asserting that necessity only in the context of becoming a poet: "a poet has to...."
In the concluding paragraph, he is not speaking of what the poet must do; he is speaking of what the poet's reader must do. The poet indeed "thinks and changes," as Shabtai says, and by that process he becomes the possessor of the logos: "the poet is he or she who possesses the logos."
And what is our relationship--we who are not "poets" or possessors of the logos--to the utterance of the logos? "What is asked of us is that we become obedient, that we take up what is acceptable, that we stop thinking, which is to say, that we not argue."
Brecht on occasion (as in Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny) would actually assert the opposite of what he believed in order to rouse his audience to assert itself. He did not present himself as the possessor of the almighty logos--the word.
Here, in Mr. Cole's translation, is some logos from Shabtai. (I can't help noting here Cole's assertion that Shabtai "has risen to the occasion.")
I'm a widower
for a new woman
She should be good
I can make her
stuffed Cornish game hens
and we'll eat while watching a movie
At night we'll talk in the dark
I have a soft, sand-colored bathrobe
My dick always gets stiff