Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Pleasure of What’s Difficult

Eric has weighed in in response to Josh’s recent thoughts on pleasure and difficulty with a series of posts, a couple of them responding to Norman Finkelstein and Mike Heller (y’all can follow the various links yourself, by’r’leave). My turn, speaking as someone very interested in this issue – but also as the least inherently “spiritual” person who every gargled (nobody ain’t never borrowed me for a minyan, & I ain’t nobody’s minion):

In re/ Bourdieu’s notion of how “art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfil a social function of legitimating social differences,” Eric notes “Michael Palmer's disdain for Carolyn Forche's The Country Between Us, and his preference for, say, Celan or Vallejo as models of political poetry, comes to mind as an example.” But what does one make of the fact that Forché herself, in The Angel of History, veers towards a Celan-Vallejo-Palmer model of the political poem? Does this make her a social climber, or does she perhaps find some auratic power in the more oblique mode that is more satisfying, or more long-lastingly satisfying, than in the more accessible? The Country Between Us, like the program Thirty-Something on which it was once mentioned, now seems like a relic of the eighties. (Not that I’m making any grand claims for The Angel of History, either.)

I’m afraid I’m more convinced by Norman’s reading of Mallarmé’s remark street vending than by Eric’s attack on the “extraordinary self-flattery” of Alain Badiou’s “USE” of the remark and its invocation of the “oh, so comforting ‘tension between artist and bourgeois philistine.” I’d prefer to stay away from the term “elite” as well, but a decade-and-a-half’s time of confronting students who automatically label anything they read that uses a word they have to look up or a syntactic structure that wouldn’t fit on a bumpersticker “elitist” has made me pretty impatient with blanket dismissals of the whole notion. Let’s face it: Those who make art seriously – who’ve taken the time to master harmony, orchestration, and musical notation, who have learned how to handle paints and brushes and complexly interacting visual media, who’ve handled words and phrases over and over so that they fit together in memorable ways – those folks belong to a different group (call it a class, call it an elite, call it fricking broccoli if you like) from the occasionally thoughtful people who sometimes listen, look at, or read the products those first groups make (but who, and perhaps here’s the point, mostly DON’T do any of those things – they’re too busy making money and buying things with it, “getting and spending”).

Poets aren’t a “spiritual elite,” certainly (and here I agree wholeheartedly with Eric) – one need only think of Auden discoursing to his Oxford High Table about the pleasures of booger-eating, or Pound passim – but that only suggests to me that poetry and spirituality are by no means coincident realms. Poets are a “word elite.” Period. Like TE Hulme, I myself am pretty tired of the whole romantic “spilt religion” business. It’s not what I go to poetry for, nor am I convinced that it’s one of the things that poetry does best – for my money, even the best religious poetry isn’t a patch on fine hymnody or the experience of communal worship for putting one in touch with the numinous. I think Alexander Pope or Louis Zukofsky would have found the notion of seeking the ineffable through poetry a very strange one indeed. (Okay, guys, go to town on me – you too, Peter.)

Bourdieu, like Eric, plays the class card on “the preference for poems which don't seem to do "work" in the world, including the work of pleasing us easily, but which rather wrap themselves in ‘aura’”: "working class people expect every image to explicitly perform a function, if only that of a sign, and their judgments make reference, often explicitly, to the norms of morality or agreeableness. [...] The denial of lower, coarse, vulgar, venal, servile--in a word, natural--enjoyment, which constitutes the sacred sphere of culture, implies an affirmation of those who can be satisfied with the subliminated, refined, disinterested, gratuitous, distinguished pleasures forever closed to the profane. That is why art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfil a social function of legitimating social differences" (Distinction, pp. 5-7).

Okay, but before we don our penitential sackcloth and ashes, throw away our CDs of Monk and the Bach cantatas and trade ‘em in for Alan Jackson and Brittney Spears, and run out to the Wal-Mart for some plastic junk, let’s think about that first sentence for a moment. Just because art (leaving aside “cultural consumption”) has historically fulfilled “a social function of legitimating social differences” doesn’t mean that art doesn’t also, as none or few of the signifying products offered by the culture industry (THAT culture industry, not THIS one) do, offer a window to utopian alternatives to the entire class-based society in which we live. (Cf. Norman’s first book.) To push that a bit further, and to risk sounding like Adorno (or Josh), isn’t it possible that the most obdurate poetry is obdurate precisely in its resistance to the kind of easy and endless exchange that characterizes an exchange-based society? (This amounts, I suppose, to a political reading of some of the same qualities in which Norman – at this point in his earthly journey – is disposed to read in terms of the spiritual.)

Mike quotes some lines from Oppen’s "Five Poems About Poetry”: "How does one hold something/ in the mind which he intends//to grasp and how does the salesman/Hold a bauble he intends//To sell? The question is/When will there not be a hundred//Poets who mistake that gesture//For a style." I’ve always read those lines in part as a round in Oppen’s longstanding disagreement with Zukofsky, whom Oppen felt was using obscurity as a device, as a “style” rather than a way of “grasping” the endlessly slippery issues Oppen himself grappled with. Here we’re at another matter: the difference between difficulties, between (to paint broadly) an Oppen trying to reason and feel his way through fiercely abstract problems of human life and meaning, and a Zukofsky constructing endlessly complex, painstaking referential formal mosaics. It’s the difference between Herakleitos and Kallimachos, one might phrase it. If I could quote Adorno on Wagner, for what it’s worth: “Alexandrinism is the principle of art that has attained self awareness.” Basta.

on the earbuds:
John Zorn, Elegy and Kristallnacht
Alfred Schnittke, Concerto Grosso #1


E. M. Selinger said...

Great post, Mark. I'll be getting back to you over at Say Something Wonderful later today or tomorrow. Your secular bent is a Godsend, so to speak, in this discussion. It's like having Christopher Hitchens drop by and puncture our pretensions. Maybe a word from you about what it's like, what it FEELS like, to read some of the obdurate stuff you like the most. What's going on in your head, your heart, your kishkes, when you take it on? Simply as a teaching tool, that kind of description would be very helpful indeed!

You mention that obdurate poems resist a culture of easy and endless exchange... I wonder whether some of my ambivalence about obdurate poems doesn't come from the whiff of Sobranie Black Russians around this "resistance"; that is, they smell like high school class warfare (or Shprockets, as you like to put it), which I'd like to think we're all a little too old for, finally.

Must run--more on this chez moi, inshallah.

Norman Finkelstein said...

Mark, let me second Eric and thank you for your input. My own "earthly journey" aside, I have to wonder (and this is linked to Eric's inquiry) what you do go to poetry for. Or to put it a little differently, as cultural production, what does poetry do best?

I sympathize with your being tired of the "spilt religion" business, and I too sometimes would like to think of poets as only a "word elite." But I don't think you can get away from some notion of the numinous or of transcendence, even when it's translated in political terms, as in (you got it) The Utopian Moment. That concept is still there even if we think of poetry merely as memorable language, or admirably structured form, or compelling rhetoric, or...

OK, the ball's back in your court.