Friday, April 23, 2010

endgame; unfriending the prophets

Tuesday is the last full day of classes, so everything is more or less winding down around here. For some reason, it's been an exhausting semester, even moreso than usual. Maybe I'm just getting old? Or losing my patience?

Our Fair University scheduled its "Authors Reading Series" at the same time as my postwar American poetry grad seminar this Spring, so an ungodly proportion of class time got sacrificed to going to readings: first, a prize reading of MFA program students; then Forrest Gander; and last night, my colleague poet & translator Becka McKay (whose new book, A Meteorologist in the Promised Land, is well worth checking out). Now all of these were good readings, & well worth attending, but they played havoc with my syllabus. As I muttered grumpily to my department chair last night, "Do this to me again & I'm quitting."

I did plenty of gadding about: First a trip to Boise to talk about biography & LZ, then the Louisville Conference; next month it's San Francisco for the ALA, where I'll be on a panel about biographies of 20th-c. American poets. That should be fun, but I'm wishing I could be in Miami (OH) for post-moot right now, or that I could be at the Duncan symposium in Chicago. (Or that I had Hermione Granger's time-turner & could be at both...)

Anyway, I have a few days of breathing room before the final flood of papers, exams, & portfolios washes over me. Maybe I'll try to read a book. Or write some of one.
Unfriend. That was the "word of the year" last year, according to the Oxford people. (I found it not once but twice in my last read-thru of Lyrical Ballads, but I suppose Wordsworth's "unfriended" is rather different from "unfriending" someone on Facebook.) I'm not the most assiduous Facebooker, but I suppose I'm as addicted as the next socially-maladjusted academic; ie, checking FB no less than 10 or 15 times a day, commenting obsessively on the things I like or don't like, following links, checking out profiles, & so forth.

I haven't unfriended people very often. (For those who don't follow this business, to "unfriend" means to remove someone from your "friends list" – to sever the connection that has people showing up in each others "news feed" etc.) That's mainly because I only ask to become friends with people whom I know, or whose work I know, & tend to ignore friend requests from people I don't know anything about. (Or, for that matter, from old high school acquaintances with whom I obviously have less than nothing in common anymore.) I've never quite understood the logic of becoming "friends" with 1500 people, unless you've got something to sell – oh, okay, never mind.

Facebook, for all the bitching people do about it, is pretty user-friendly about these kinds of things; if I want to maintain a "friend" status with a high school acquaintance, but my blood pressure can't stand the barking lunacy of the tea-party posts he keeps putting up, I can set the controls so that his status updates are "hidden" from me. And if I go so far as to unfriend someone, they don't even receive a notice – I just don't show up in their news feeds anymore. (I've been unfriended a few times – gosh, I wondered a while back, why aren't I getting updates from that ├╝ber-hip UC Davis poet/cultural critic anymore? Well, he's been trimming his friends list, & I was dead wood.)

The other day, I found myself so exasperated by the latest series of posts in one chap's ongoing magnum opus of cultural history – posted in five or six daily installments, a relentless attack on contemporary poetry as symptomatic of the decline of Western values in the wake of some vaguely-defined "postmodernism," and "substantiated" with a series of cursory readings of 70s-era work by such up-t0-the-minute hipsters as Robert Bly, James Wright, & WS Merwin, & punctuated with snarky asides about the intellectual & moral vacuity of the contemporary academy – that I found myself engaged in a comment battle. "Elijah" (as I'll call this chap) is it turns out himself a fugitive from the academy, the editor of a fairly well-respected poet's posthumous collected works, & a fervent member of the Baha'i faith, in whose beliefs I suspect he grounds his prophetic calls for a renewal of "mimesis" in poetry in order to pave the way for the single-society world order towards which we're all evolving.

I have a soft spot for utopianism, but little patience with soft-headed utopianism, or with blanket condemnations of contemporary poetic & intellectual culture that seem to be grounded on little more than ideologically-saturated mantras. And heaven help me, but I told Elijah so, announced that my patience was at an end, & unfriended him. (He'll be okay – he's got an audience of some 1200 folks out there, or at least that many "friends.")

But it made me think. Elijah of Facebook has set himself up, not as a rational analyst of society & culture, but as a prophet, a voice crying in the wilderness. Stanley Fish, in How Milton Works, has a beautifully apposite description of Milton's method in the Apology:
almost everything in the world appears to be going in one direction, but a single just man (like Abdiel and the solitary heroes who periodically turn up in the otherwise bleak narrative of books XI and XII of Paradise Lost) knows better, and loudly proclaims his better knowledge – all the while refusing to defend or support it by the usual evidentiary standards, refusing to measure himself "by other mens measures."
That's Elijah right there, staunch in his own rightness, never conceding an ell or an inch to counter-argument, satisfied in his ignorance of the last 30 years of the poetry he rails against.

But it occurs to me, if a real-live prophet appeared among us, a thinker whose ideas were so radically against the grain of contemporary trends and common knowledge, wouldn't he similarly appear no better than a crank, a "lunatic of one idea" (Stevens's term)?

Of course, Elijah's not the man – it's all too easy to parse out his "radicalism" as a slightly gamey casserole of Baha'ism & 50s-style cultural conservatism: Jacques Barzun + mysticism. I love reading the Hebrew prophets, and I love reading latter-day prophetic types like Blake, Milton, Ruskin, etc. – but Ishtar help us, soi-disant prophets can be so boring.


Brian S said...

I feel for you on the lost classes thing. Those readings came for me at the end of my 12 hours on campus, so I'm surprised stayed upright for them.

And a part of me is sad that you unfriended the prophet. I enjoyed reading the back and forth in the comments. But there are certainly better uses of one's time--I've had to learn that lesson more than once. It never seems to stick.

Amy Letter said...

Thanks for the lols, Mark. :) I wasn't acquainted with the prophet, but Brian caught me up. (and by the by I also hope your dept chair heard you loud and clear -- those Thurs nights are brutal.)

Michael Peverett said...

"radically against the grain"

Mark, you have just been possessed by the passing shade of Donald Davie. In "With the Grain", he has a go at D.H Lawrence (if I remember correctly) as a "prophet", and makes your distinction between the crazed prophet and the rational critic of culture. For him the prophet wages a war on culture itself. Davie continues with something like this: The prophet is on society's expence account, he is what we can sometimes afford. But the (true poet) is a necessity, he is what we cannot do without. It must have seemed quite persuasive when it was written; I mean, persuasive to the consensual insiders of culture. But it's the simplicities that strike me now, as well as the male pronouns.

Sen McGlinn said...

I was sorry I couldn't locate your comments battle with Elijah. It might surprise you, and pain Elijah, to learn that there are postmodern Bahais, one of whom (yours truly) has characterised Baha'u'llah as the prophet of postmodernism.

However it must be said that "postmodern" here is used in the sociological sense rather than the literary criticism sense. Baha'u'llah, writing in the modern age of the rationalised, centralised sovereign nation-state, looks beyond it to a more organic, horizontal, networked society, in which state and politics is just one "project" among many