Against Intellectual Biblioclasm II

I wrote my first manifesto “Against Intellectual Biblioclasm” over a year ago. I concluded it was time for an update when I read this earlier today:

Yet I am more persuaded by a former jihadi named Shahid Butt, who now spends his time deradicalising misguided souls in Birmingham. To him, another rioter from 1989, Rushdie is simply “a dickhead”. He says: “What kind of literary writer, academic, are you that the only way that you can get any fame is by being derogatory and by insulting billions of people. Is that the best you can do?”

Rushdie’s silly, childish book should be banned under today’s anti-hate legislation. It’s no better than racist graffiti on a bus stop. I wouldn’t have it in my house, out of respect to Muslim people and contempt for Rushdie, and because it sounds quite boring. I’d be quite inclined to burn it, in fact. It’s a free country, after all.

This may or may not be “a modest proposal” on the author’s part—Poe’s Law applies. Yet his logic, the eliminationist-totalitarian logic of #cancellation now rampant within the left-liberal literary world, is impeccable. As I wrote in my review of Albert Murray’s The Hero and the Blues last year:

[T]his [is the] time of the left-liberal literati’s retrenchment, its increasingly shrill insistence, enforced by regular social media mob actions against wreckers and traitors, on a Marxist-derived reductionist approach to human identity and a moralistic attitude toward the nature and purpose of art, the latter coupled with impatient defenses of inquisitorial censoriousness. They want to pull books from the shelves and pictures from the walls; who could possibly doubt that if, say, the Rushdie affair happened today, all of literate Brooklyn would high-mindedly excuse those calling for the “racist” novelist’s head?

When I was a teenager, I joined the political left because I understood it, in that era of the religious right’s now-almost-forgotten hegemony, to be the side that stood for freedom of thought and speech. I was warned by several older people that this was not the case, but with the certitude that can only come from youthful inexperience, I did not listen. 15 years ago, depressed and afraid, I wrote all day on Livejournal (remember that?) about how George W. Bush was going to put us in prison camps and had done 9/11 and would start a nuclear war, about how both climate change and peak oil (remember that?) would end the world within the decade, and about how only proletarian and Third-World revolution would save us.

It only took a year or two, and professional acquaintance with some fellow travelers of this creed, to show me how wrong I was about its reliability as a guide to both facts and ethics. Apocalypticism is always a racket; dystopia is an abuse of the speculative intellect, a genre fit for children, and perhaps not even for them. And if the world ends, you can’t do anything about it anyway. Chekhov said that artists should only participate in politics only enough to keep themselves safe from politics. We need to cultivate our gardens, after we secure our right to them in the first place. The autonomy of art is not incidental to secular freedom but its bedrock. It is logically, because politically, prior to almost every other right. The enslaved were not permitted to read; freedom of speech, thought, and art grounds and founds every other freedom. 

The totalitarian left as a metaphysical entity is, in contrast to secular freedom, an only very slight development of the theocratic imagination, with its anathemas, its iconoclasms, and its eschatologies. In the platonically sterile air of its cultural dominance, laughter itself, laughter per se, becomes a confession of unrighteous thought, hence the perennial necessity of purging jesters like Rushdie or, before him, Joyce. 

How did this happen? How did we, the heirs to Joyce and contemporaries of Rushdie,  become thrall to these latter-day Savonarolas, Matherses, and Zhdanovs? Ours was a literary century inaugurated by the martyrdom of Oscar Wilde, who would be #canceled today if only the present-day literati lifted their heads from whatever children’s books have not yet been pulped for insensitivity long enough to know of his pederasty, his anti-Semitism, or his Confederate sympathies, none of which justify the juridical destruction of his person nor corrupt the spirit of imaginative freedom that respires from his perfumed prose.

Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people’s lives alone, not interfering with them. Selfishness always aims at creating around it an absolute uniformity of type. Unselfishness recognizes infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it. It is not selfish to think for oneself. A man who does not think for himself does not think at all. It is grossly selfish to require of one’s neighbor that he should think in the same way, and hold the same opinions. Why should he? If he can think, he will probably think differently. If he cannot think, it is monstrous to require thought of any kind from him. (“The Soul of Man Under Socialism”)

And this inquisition has nothing whatsoever to do with “anti-racism,” which is just another in a long line of noble causes corrupted into an alibi for tyranny by opportunists who begin to feel insane if they go one second without controlling other people. Albert Murray would be the first to tell you. But also: Toni Morrison stood with Rushdie, Ralph Ellison mocked the Marxists, and Zora Neale Hurston knew the score 90 years ago:

Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more of less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife. (“How It Feels to Be Colored Me”)

As for “social justice,” it is practiced just as you would expect a political concept developed in the 19th-century Catholic Church to be practiced: with less respect than is presently desirable for freedom, individuality, and the imagination.

I was raised Catholic and educated in Catholic schools, so I will say what I want about the abuses within the institutions of that faith, if not about the faith itself, which is often salvific and beautiful (Wilde would agree). Perhaps many forms of feminism would make somewhat more emotional sense to me if I hadn’t heard three generations’ worth of stories, and witnessed an example or two with my own eyes, of adult women dressed all in black beating small children with rulers bound into fasces or stabbing them in the chest with ballpoint pens for their sins. My parents were married by a priest now known to be a predatory pedophile, and in my youth a different priest now known to be a predatory pedophile was frequently entertained at my family’s dinner table. So much for holiness, holy women, holy men, and holy causes. In Catholic school, long before I knew about any priest’s private predilections, long before I read Wilde (or Nietzsche), I learned that avowed morality is usually a cover for domination and brutality.

Anyone who speaks of morality while controlling or harming others does the devil’s work. It might even be true, sometimes I suspect it is, that anyone who speaks of morality ever, at all, instead of silently doing all the good that can be managed in this crooked world, is the devil’s assistant. In any case, “morality,” “justice,” and all the rest of “those big words that make us so unhappy,” make me want to vomit. These are abstractions susceptible of being twisted into this shape and that by totalitarians. Those who want to ban and burn the books of authors of color are “anti-racists” in the same way that many communist states were “democratic republics.”

By contrast, the élan vital of literature is specificity, concretion, and singularity. That is not because all writers are moral, or all works are; the very question of the morality of art is—not a childish one, because children blessedly don’t care, but precisely one motivated by all the insecurity of adults who don’t feel they have command of themselves unless they are commanding others. As one good Catholic, Simon Leys, once wrote,

It is not a scandal if novelists of genius prove to be wretched fellows; it is a comforting miracle that wretched fellows prove to be novelists of genius.

Now I write the foregoing because I know how many people agree with me. They are just unwilling to say so in public; in public, they melt into puddles if someone cries, “Think of the children!” or if some opportunist, with transparent phoniness, claims to be the single voice of a race, a gender, a class, or a sexuality, even though doing so is a form of dehumanizing essentialism in its own right because it traduces the complexity of all communities and individuals.

It has to stop. We all have to seize our courage in the face of the all-out assault on artistic freedom that is coming from within the very institutions (the press, academia, publishing) we have appointed custodians of art. There is no excuse. The time for freedom of speech and art is now and forever. Against the book banners and the book burners—against them while we’re allowed to be.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Why Speech Is Not Violence

Psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett has written an article for the New York Times entitled “When Speech Is Violence.” It begins:

Imagine that a bully threatens to punch you in the face. A week later, he walks up to you and breaks your nose with his fist. Which is more harmful: the punch or the threat?

Barrett’s goal is to use findings in biology and medicine about the effects, supposedly tantamount to violence, of certain kind of language on the body to “provide empirical guidance for which kinds of controversial speech should and shouldn’t be acceptable on campus and in civil society.” Her conclusion is that “abusive” language should be unacceptable, while merely “offensive” language should be accepted and refuted rather than being somehow proscribed. Bracketing for the moment that there are no clear ways of differentiating between the two (and that the social justice movement in fact refuses such a distinction outright, which I will discuss below), her argument rests on the idea that abusive speech causes bodily harm by setting in motion stress reactions in the body:

Your body’s immune system includes little proteins called proinflammatory cytokines that cause inflammation when you’re physically injured. Under certain conditions, however, these cytokines themselves can cause physical illness. What are those conditions? One of them is chronic stress.

Your body also contains little packets of genetic material that sit on the ends of your chromosomes. They’re called telomeres. Each time your cells divide, their telomeres get a little shorter, and when they become too short, you die. This is normal aging. But guess what else shrinks your telomeres? Chronic stress.

If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech — at least certain types of speech — can be a form of violence.

The chain of reasoning here is as follows: stress shortens life; certain forms of speech cause stress and so shorten life; therefore certain forms of speech should be impermissible in the university and civil society; abusive speech, such as identity-based hate speech, is such impermissible language.

You may notice two problems with this.

First, Barrett has smuggled into her thesis the unstated and unargued assumption that one mission of the university is the protection of students from medically-defined stressors. This theory has far-reaching implications I will discuss below, but suffice to say for now that any project of social formation, which university education is, will involve numerous stressors that are not extricable from the process of strengthening individuals by testing them.

Second, in an atmosphere where there is no common understanding of what constitutes hate speech, abusive speech, or offensive speech, Barrett has left the definition of a crucial term far too open—in practice, it will be seized upon by political actors of all sorts to claim that the speech they object to is an abusive life-shortening stressor and so in need of curtailment. This is not a negligible point. It is no longer 2014: Obama’s DOE is not the one making monitory recommendations to college and university administrators, and the cultural right in all its varieties has grown expert in repurposing leftish rhetoric against its devisers. Barrett shows an awareness of this problem when she tries to differentiate between “a campaign of abuse” (typified by Milo Yiannopoulos, whose speech should be proscribed as “a danger to a civil society (and to our health)”) and mistaken, offensive arguments couched in academic rhetoric (typified by Charles Murray, whose speech should be entertained and then refuted, and which entertainment and refutation is “the lifeblood of democracy”), but even here there are problems.

For one thing, Barrett must be very inexperienced in the realm of social justice activism if she thinks that its partisans will be willing to make this distinction. For them, an academic article or an online art installation are as capable of “literal violence” as explicitly abusive or insulting rhetoric, as the cases of Rebecca Tuvel and Vanessa Place, to name only two, should prove. And why not?—aren’t overt epithets lobbed by a flamboyant insult-artist actually much easier to brush off than the deeper and longer-lasting stress of a respectable and respected argument against one’s deepest convictions? If some speech is more stressful than a punch in the face, then perhaps the verbal equivalent of a punch in the face is less stressful than the slow erosion over time of one’s self-definition. So, using her own assumptions, I have reversed her argument with implications for her own academic identity and methodology, which she took great care to protect from social justice activism in the guise of supporting its cause. That is what the dreaded “SJW” will do with the ammunition she provides.

(Never mind that the application of Barrett’s anti-stress ideal to the arts is nightmarish to contemplate. What will the theater departments of the world do once we have defended our quaking telomeres against King Lear or—forget dead white men—feminist drama like Blasted, black drama like Joe Turner’s Come and Gone?)

At this late hour—after a spate of disciplinary actions or investigations against academics for their liberal or left “abusive speech,” some of which really is abusive by Barrett’s broad definition (e.g., Steven Salaita, George Ciccariello-Maher, Johnny Eric Williams, Tommy Curry, Dana Cloud, Lisa Durden)—Barrett should also be aware by now what the political right will do with her ideas. The right may claim that for Christian students to read the incendiary rhetoric of Nietzsche or perhaps even the calmly-stated claims of Darwin is an intolerable, insulting stressor that they should be protected from; the right may claim likewise that Jewish students should not subjected to the stressful speech of anti-Zionists, an abusive insult to their suffering European ancestors and their threatened Middle Eastern co-religionists; the right may repurpose feminist rhetoric, as they have been doing for a very long time, to object that certain “obscene” artworks are too stressful for students to endure; the right may even claim that the language of Frantz Fanon or Karl Marx are, in their threat or implication or incitement of physical violence toward European people or middle class people, abusive stressors that ought not to be tolerated while universities are publicly funded. (Don’t miss the last five words—they are important!)

Please remember that nothing in the above paragraph is ruled out by Barrett’s premises, which only include the arguments that some forms of speech cause stress and are therefore equivalent to violence, and that in conclusion such speech ought to be proscribed.

In contrast to Barrett, I contend that universities cannot be in the business of protecting people from stressors of all sorts. The traditional mission of the university—to produce a well-informed, well-rounded, and cultivated citizenry, especially one capable and competitive in labor—cannot survive such a definition. Especially in so far as a university education no longer guarantees accession to middle-class professions, it may be more urgent for students to become resilient toward the entire universe of non-respectable or -respectful speech they will encounter in the working and living world, much of which remains unpoliced by bureaucracies schooled in progressive thought as modified by psychiatry.

Finally, a word on the meanings of “violence.” Social and even natural scientists often use terms borrowed from the humanities without, understandably, always elaborating on their provenance or implications. The idea of “discursive violence” or “epistemic violence,” which quietly underlies Barrett’s use of “speech is violence,” is one such term. It has its origins in a Marxist-inflected post-structuralism: figures such as Derrida, Foucault, and Spivak claimed that violence was done in the discursive realm when the dominant discourses or languages of any given moment excluded certain other discourses or languages from being heard or, more importantly, from being intelligible if heard. (See here for a useful gloss on Spivak’s use of the term.) This epistemic violence was often enough accompanied by physical violence, from that of colonial occupation to that of incarceration in mental institutions, and that is what gives it force. It does not obviously follow that middle-class students at pricey institutions guarded by police forces and destined for positions of relative social power meet the description of the victims Foucault or Spivak had in mind—and I have to imagine that Spivak, at least, would be quite hostile to the appropriation of this sort of rhetoric by her students at Columbia; part of the point of her famous essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” was to inquire whether she, as a privileged and educated bourgeois cosmopolite, could understand or interpret the subaltern (those Indian women who had died by sati), not that she was one. In fact, I could go even further and say that the dominance of psychology or sociology as disciplines discrediting other ways of understanding psyche and society on models other than rationalization is closer to what post-structuralists meant by “epistemic violence” than something like hate speech as such—a theory that will probably stress out psychology professors!

I would not, however, suggest that we stop analogizing speech and violence totally. So many of our metaphors for non-bodily experience are drawn from bodily experience that it would be hard to do so. Even if I described Barrett’s article as an “irritating” one, that would be a bodily metaphor—as if sandpaper were abrading my skin. Some sentences really will land like blows to the face, even if they are less likely to be ones encountered in university classrooms and more like the following: “You’re fired,” “You have cancer,” “I no longer love you, I’m leaving,” “We did everything we could to save her.” But we should always remember that the metaphor is a metaphor, that the whole concept of education is premised upon the notion that we are not utterly exhausted by biological explanation (what, really, do I learn about myself as a subject and not as a body from contemplating telomeres?), and that we will become prey not only to well-meaning if ill-advised do-gooders but also to positively malign opportunists if we prioritize intellectual comfort over learning. And let us not forget moreover that we will become subjects of universal mockery should we, perched at the top of a world system of power and inequality maintained by very real material agencies, confuse emotional discomfort with physical devastation.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Derek Walcott, Omeros

OmerosOmeros by Derek Walcott

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nothing like the literal—rather than the theoretical—death of the author to inspire one to read his masterpiece. As I wondered about Hart Crane, whom Walcott loved, what does it mean to read a poem, as opposed to a story or novel? What does it mean to read this poem, of 325 pages and some 8,500 lines, some of which is as narratively clear as Hemingway—or Homer—but which is at other times as dense and cryptically visionary as a Crane lyric? A few pages from the end of this self-consciously epic and anti-epic Caribbean poem of 1990, the poet laments, “So much left unspoken / by my chirping nib!” So it will be here with my clacking keyboard—I would have to read Omeros five or ten more times to do it any justice, but I present below some insights gleaned and impressions derived from a first perusal.

Omeros refers, of course, to Homer: “‘That’s what we call him in Greek,'” says the poet’s lover early on in the narrative, stroking a bust of the blind bard that will, at the poem’s climax, wash ashore on St. Lucia and lead said poet through a humbling visionary tour of his nation’s hells and purgatories and paradises. The traditional epic invocations to the precursors are clear not only in Walcott’s story but in his form: he composes tercets (his tribute to Dante) in hexameters (his tribute to Homer); his meter is generally (albeit variably) iambic, in deference to traditional English heroic measure, while his rhyme scheme is as intricate yet free as that of those modernist poets who learned from jazz, whether mandarin Eliot or man-of-the-people Hughes.

Walcott himself is far more the mandarin, which complicates an otherwise moving belief in his people; this tension provides Omeros its lyric drama—lyric poetry is made, as Yeats said, from the argument with ourselves—while its “epic” conflicts—of Greek-named fishermen Achille and Hector quarreling Trojan-War-wise over a woman named Helen—can sometimes feel a bit forced and merely notional, at least until Walcott enters his personae’s heads enough to generate lyric out of their own consciousness.

The poem’s first half is devoted to its working-class St. Lucian characters: not only Achille, Hector, and Helen, but also Ma Kilman, who runs a rum shop; a blind man named Seven Seas; and Philoctete, whose leg—wounded by ship’s debris in the ocean—signifies the wound of the island itself or perhaps of the black diaspora at large left by the legacy of slavery and imperialism. The other characters on the island are an old white couple, the World-War-II-wounded Englishman Major Plunkett and his Irish wife Maud; Plunkett is writing a history of the island, as Walcott is writing its poem, both texts organized around each man’s erotic obsession with Helen.

Midway through the poem, Achille, suffering sunstroke, has a visionary experience of a return to Africa, an encounter with his ancestors, and an experience of slavery. While his eventual recovery and return to shore with an albacore under his heel signify the potential to triumph over history, the poem switches to a long, forlorn first-person narrative of Walcott’s own wandering through the U.S. and Europe. Unlucky in love and oppressed by the violence that the west has done to peoples from the Native Americans to the Irish, the West Africans to the Indians, he broods on the identity, famously proclaimed by Walter Benjamin, of culture and barbarism:

The honeyed twilight cupped in long, shadowed squares,
the dripping dungeons, the idiot dukes, were all
redeemed by the creamy strokes of a Veláquez,

like the scraping cellos in concentration camps,
with art next door to the ovens, the fluting veil
of smoke soaring with Schubert? The cracked glass of Duchamp’s

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, did Dada
foresee the future of Celan and Max Jacob
as part of the cosmic midden? What my father

spiritedly spoke of was that other Europe
of mausoleum museums, the barber’s shelf
of The World’s Great Classics, with a vanity whose

spires and bells punctually pardoned itself
in the absolution of fountains and statues,
in writhing, astonishing tritons; their cold noise

brimming the basin’s rim, repeating that power
and art were the same, from some Ceasar’s eaten nose
to spires at sunset in the swift’s half-hour.

Tell that to a slave from the outer regions
of their fraying empires, what power lay in the work
of forgiving fountains with naiads and lions.

But just as Homer, who might have been expected to side with Greek over Trojan, displayed sympathy to both sides, Walcott—with more painful postmodern self-consciousness—not only extends his sympathy to Plunkett, a man with whom by education and literary bent he has more in common than he has with illiterate working-men (and to whom he feels a filial relation), but he also implicates himself in the cycle of exploitation. He fears that his poetry is, like the old sugar industry and the contemporary tourist trade, just another form of extracting value from a poor and captive populace, that he is a comprador intellectual who has slotted himself into the colonizer’s role:

I watched the afternoon sea. Didn’t I want the poor
to stay in the same light so that I could transfix
them in amber, the afterglow of an empire,

preferring a shed of palm-thatch with tilted sticks
to that blue bus-stop? Didn’t I prefer a road
from which tracks climbed into the thickening syntax

of colonial travellers, the measured prose I read
as a schoolboy?

Such lyric ambivalence contrasts with the poem’s epic elements, as when Ma Kilman sheds her Christian piety to become an obeah-woman discovering the true names of the island flora so that she can heal Philoctete’s wound with authentic African magic. The poetry is splendid—

One wound gibbers in the weeping

mouth of the sibyl, the obeah-woman, in the swell
of the huge white satin belly, the dark gust that bent her
limbs till she was a tree of snakes, the spidery sibyl

hanging in a sack from the cave at Cumae, the obeah
that possessed her that the priests considered evil
in their white satin frocks, because ants had lent her

their language, the flower that withered on the floor
of moss smelt sweet and spread its antipodal odor
from the seed of the swift; now through a hot meadow

of unnamed flowers, a large woman in a red-berried
hat is walking.

—but is the plot in keeping with the poet’s skepticism? All this seemingly unironic ancient magic seems to stray from Walcott’s intention, as expressed in his beautiful 1992 Nobel lecture, “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory,” to reassemble the shards of world culture scattered by violence throughout the Antilles, a project seemingly more akin to something like Edward Said’s “secular criticism” and “contrapuntal reading” than to celebrations of occulted racial essences:

Deprived of their original language, the captured and indentured tribes create their own, accreting and secreting fragments of an old, an epic vocabulary, from Asia and from Africa, but to an ancestral, an ecstatic rhythm in the blood that cannot be subdued by slavery or indenture, while nouns are renamed and the given names of places accepted like Felicity village or Choiseul. The original language dissolves from the exhaustion of distance like fog trying to cross an ocean, but this process of renaming, of finding new metaphors, is the same process that the poet faces every morning of his working day, making his own tools like Crusoe, assembling nouns from necessity, from Felicity, even renaming himself. The stripped man is driven back to that self-astonishing, elemental force, his mind. That is the basis of the Antillean experience, this shipwreck of fragments, these echoes, these shards of a huge tribal vocabulary, these partially remembered customs, and they are not decayed but strong. They survived the Middle Passage and the Fatel Rozack, the ship that carried the first indentured Indians from the port of Madras to the cane fields of Felicity, that carried the chained Cromwellian convict and the Sephardic Jew, the Chinese grocer and the Lebanese merchant selling cloth samples on his bicycle.

But the tensions of Omeros are in the above passage too: between blood and mind, between ancestry and invention. Are the poet and the people on opposite sides of this line? The poet as collage artist, without access to holistic truth but trying to keep awake lest he lapse back into history’s nightmare, his knowledge of culture as necessarily historical and fragmented granting him a high comic vision on the tragedy of his people—this is Joyce, not Yeats. Joyce accordingly appears in Omeros, singing, “his voice like sun-drizzled Howth,” though the volkish magus silently rears his head whenever Walcott seems to wish to restore St. Lucia, as Yeats wished to restore Ireland, to its “proper dark.”

Following the contemporary critic’s political itinerary from race and class to gender: Hector and Achille fight over a woman. The Homeric parallel is inexact, as Achilles’s combat with Hector was motivated by the loss of Patroclus, the Greek warrior’s male friend (a word you can take as queerly as you like), while Achilles’s quarrel with Agamemnon was, un-poetically—and horrifyingly—enough to the contemporary eye, over a sex-slave named Briseis. Walcott puts Helen between them, just as his own literary project rivals Plunkett’s over the terrain of the feminized island. Femininity is praised from afar, but is rarely articulate in this poem. The poet laments his dying mother, but takes his mission from his dead father, and his dead poetic fathers moreover. Helen is figurehead and symbol, but not a consciousness:

Change burns at the beach’s end. She has to decide
to enter the smoke or to skirt it. In that pause
that divides the smoke with a sword, white Helen died;

in that space between the lines of two lifted oars,
her shadow ambles, filly of Menelaus,
while black piglets root the midden of Gros Îlet,

but smoke leaves no signature on its pages of sand.
“Yesterday, all my troubles seem so far away,”
she croons, her clear plastic sandals swung by one hand.

The absence of a woman equal to poet and protagonist—except in the form of the obeah-woman, too mythical and too maternal to rival the modern poet—is marked in the poem by Walcott’s self-interrogating voice as he allows that both he and Plunkett neglect Helen’s individuality and turn her into an idealized metaphor: “Why not see Helen / as the sun saw her, with no Homeric shadow…?” But the postmodern poet’s tragedy is that ironizing one’s acts makes them no less active. This brings me to my concluding question: how might we criticize Omeros? It is a hard poem to criticize. Its proficiency and invention are unsurpassed in my experience; Walcott, on a technical level, must quite simply be the best Anglophone poet of his century, with the possible exception of the aforementioned Yeats (on this topic, see here for a more learned and sensitive commentary than I can offer).

But poetry is vision as well as technique. Ryu Spaeth does not so much contest Walcott’s vision as upbraid the man for failing the live up to it. Fair enough: hypocrisy is always a legitimate target of the moralist. Walcott spoke, says Spaeth, for the oppressed and dispossessed, and was canonized under the reign of multiculturalism less for his formal mastery—which the multiculturalist distrusts as the potential corollary of imperial mastery—than “because he was giving voice to people who had been ignored and exploited and enslaved by a dominant culture.” Leaving aside the misgivings about this “giving voice” expressed in Omeros itself, Spaeth arraigns Walcott for decrying oppression while enacting it himself—on the bodies and minds of the women he allegedly sexually harassed as a university instructor. Spaeth organizes his argument by contrasting Walcott with his fellow Antillean, Jean Rhys, whom he construes, along with the students Walcott harassed, as “the victims of a literary patriarchy that stretches back centuries.” Walcott’s alleged behavior was a reprehensible betrayal of pedagogical trust and a sinisterly bathetic enactment of male entitlement, which is, honestly, not so surprising when you consider Omeros‘s women. What does this mean for the work?

Spaeth’s criticism is of the “your fave is problematic” school, which is itself problematic, as our favorite artists’ problems are not wholly avoidable by any human being. To wit: Jean Rhys makes as poor a PC hero as Walcott does to anyone who pays attention to such criticism. It has been a generation since she appeared in John Carey’s Intellectuals and the Masses as yet another cooly aloof modernist elitist and, more damningly in the context of Spaeth’s essay, in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” where her anti-canonical masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea, is shown by the postcolonial critic to offer a narrative no less consecrated to white imperial feminism than the Victorian bildungsroman it purports to redact, as, in short, “a novel which rewrites a canonical English text within the European novelistic tradition in the interest of the white Creole rather than the native.” So much for the literature of social justice.

The arts will never offer a port in history’s storm, nor do we have any right to ask that of them. As long as the worm of hierarchy wriggles in the human heart, impelling one person or one class to rule over another, then we can never live in an egalitarian utopia, cleansed of such pests. The calamitous career of the political left in the twentieth century reveals that forced efforts at cleansing usually kill the host as well as the parasite, which is why the resurgence in our time of an essentially Maoist or Stalinist criticism would be a broadly worrying trend if only the crimes of the left were well-known enough to worry people as much as those of the right (quite rightly) do. But let’s entertain—in a leftist’s equivalent of Pascal’s wager—the thought that we might someday inhabit a world without violence or domination. The only way such a hope could ever be realized without extermination—which is to say peacefully—involves our overcoming through reason the flaws in our own character, and we will only overcome them if we can know them. How else to know them but through the testimony of the poets? As Northrop Frye writes in Anatomy of Criticism,

The corruption out of which human art has been constructed will always remain in the art, but the imaginative quality of the art preserves it in its corruption, like the corpse of a saint.

And why would we even attend to such art if not to recognize both our ideals and also the corruptions of those ideals, in the probably—but uncertainly—vain hope of transcending them to become a better person in a better world tomorrow? We like our poets scarred and wounded, but perhaps we should learn to appreciate them no less—strictly as poets, not as people (as people, they are and should be subject to ethical and juridical law)—when they are wounding and scarring, unless we think we are always and only the victims in our own stories and never the perpetrators. If we claim to be unmarred by the so-far endemic evils of human nature, why should anyone believe us? Your fave is problematic; you wouldn’t want it any other way.

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Published: “White Girl”

My short story, “White Girl,” which I had thought too controversial to be published even before it took on a new and ghastly relevance this summer, appears in the first issue of the brand-new (and especially beautiful) Amaranth Review. You can read the inaugural issue in its entirety here; my story starts on page 70. Its first sentence:

My father was a cop. That’s why I had to shoot him.

“White Girl” is a short story in the form of a confession about the political assassination of a police officer by his own daughter. While I wrote it about two years ago out of a sense of looming civil strife, I did not imagine that it would be published in a summer when something like the violence it describes is actually occuring. Just to be on the safe side, let me be clear that I am in no way endorsing such violence (my own belief is that so-called revolutionary or radical violence usually either reinforces whatever authority it presumes to oppose or turns its perpetrators into just the kind of people they set out to resist).

My purpose was to investigate through fiction what it might look like if some of the merely verbal radicalism that circulates today were to be taken with absolute seriousness; and to portray with fictional vividness (and a certain defamiliarization) a new social type, so far inadequately labelled as “the social justice warrior,” a fascinating Internet-age amalgam of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s or Charles Dickens’s sentimental, domestic, middle-class woman and the Dostoevskean-Conradian-DeLilloesque male gnostic terrorist.

So please read it if you like, and share it if you enjoy it!