"Excessive Beauty": The Dangers of Influence

by on Jul.08, 2011

I want to go back to Joyelle’s post about influence. In this post she rejects a dominant idea of lineage and influence:

I want to begin by suggesting my discomfort with the conventions of discussing literary influence. I want to suggest that influence need not come from literary forebears, elders, teachers, or even people. For me this notion of influence, regardless of the gender of the participants, is too close to patrilineage, which bothers me for three reasons: its method of conserving property and wealth, ownership of originality; its copying over of heterosexist, male dominated bloodlines and the reproductive futurism that goes with it; and its commitment to linear notions of temporality—that what comes before causes what comes after, and that the most important thing is to move forward in time. I find all these structures suffocating and confining. I think we’re all conceptually limited by the unexamined assumptions about temporality, property, gender, sexuality, wealth and inheritance implicit in most discussions of literary influence, regardless of the gender of the writers under discussion.

But she doesn’t just reject “influence,” she find in influence a more radical, turbulent idea:

It seems to me that a discussion of literary influence would benefit from an effort to think outside these structures and strictures. I’m for thinking of influence in terms of the dead metaphors of flow, flux, fluidity, and fluctuation, saturation and supparation, inherent in the term ‘influence’ itself, influence as total innundation with Art, innundation with a fluctuating, oscillating, unbearable, sublime, inconsistent and forceful fluid.

This jives in many ways with Danielle’s post about “bad influence“:

You’re lucky because when it turns out that art isn’t something you do but something that does you, when it turns out that humans are strategic sites for art, when it turns out influence blooms rotten in your gut and saps all your nutrients trying to dig its way out, you know you’re going to be okay. You’re used to being occupied. You know who the brassier demon is.

In the recent discussions about “Surrealism in America,” Ian has argued in favor of a more Breton-centered view of Surrealism, arguing that Mark and Michael’s project is just some kind of frivolous “branding” that parasites off the traditional surrealists. Parasites/disease/infection and “brand” are of course standard tropes of the kind of anti-kitsch rhetoric I’ve been analyzing on this blog for many months. This charge suggests cheapness, a connection to the shallowness of mass culture and something unhealthy. In a recent facebook discussion on Bob Archambeau’s profile page, surrealism (and/or “gothic” writing) was dismissed as “smack[ing] of privilege.” (Not by Bob who had some other objection.) Surrealism seems inherently counterfeit, inherently immoral. It must be policed.

Of course the most obvious example of this is Ron Silliman’s screeds against “soft surrealism” – undisciplined, counterfeit and not truly avant-garde. Ian quoted Ron as saying: “what is it about surrealism that permits [some] to uproot it from its avant-garde heritage?” Leaving aside the pretty obvious point that Ron Silliman could himself be accused of “uprooting” avant-garde practices for his own poetry, I think the key here is that Silliman wants something more than the practices to provide lineage. He needs lineage, not influence. He basically wants an idea of lineage akin to the one Joyelle rejects in her post: a social coherence that maintains hierarchies, reproductive futurism. Art should be made into something more stable than it is.

Influence is actually something quite radical. Influence “uproots” lineages.

And that is why influence always has to be policed policed policed. To make sure that the next generation read the right texts, the right way. Never to allow Art to move in its infectious way, never allow to eat your face.


Brief interlude: The other day in NY Times, Cathy Horyn wrote an interesting piece about fashion designer Karl Lagerfeldt, “A Vision in Melancholy”:

Karl Lagerfeld always maintained that his childhood was different from other little boys’. He read “Buddenbrooks,” all 243,000 words of it, when he was 8 and told his mother he should have a valet. She told little Karl he talked too much.

As the title of the article suggests, Horyn encounters the seemingly contradictory notions of kitsch (both too much beauty and also supposedly a lack of beauty), but here I want to focus on influence: Little Karl didn’t learn the supposedly central theme of Buddenbrooks, but took something else from it: its sheer excess – of words, of luxury. And this supposedly lead to his career as a designer. He counterfeited the Great Work with kitsch, and counterfeited himself in a female form. Art as drag (as Daniel Tiffany has pointed out, kitsch is poetry as “the poetic doll”). Rather than the true Great Art, he became a fashion designer through counterfeiture. Misreading. Reading from the “outside.” (We see the words as a count, we see the luxury of Art). When I first fell in love with Ginsberg’s “Howl” I literally didn’t understand the language (When I went back and reread it later I was shocked at how sexual it was….)

Another instance: Alexander McQueen’s “appropriation” of Hans Bellmer’s Surrealist dolls.

Another instance: David Lynch, who claims that the vision of Dorothy walking shuddering naked down the street in Blue Velvet recounts a childhood memory, a memory that serves as a kind of myth of origin for Lynch’s work: the hysterical woman.

Another instance: Breton watching hysterical women, listening to shellshocked soldiers, going to the movies. And then writing like an automata (a female robot) his automatic writing.

To answer Silliman: there might be even at the heart of Surrealism a kind of appropriation, not origin, a kind of counterfeiture, a kind of Romanticism, an outside, a performance. And that might be what makes it dangerous, a possibly infective influence. Definitely always a “bad influence.”


Over the past couple of years I’ve noticed a great proliferation of reviews in which the writers while focusing on some book or another, not only analyzes that book but uses it as a warning against some unknown other writing, a threat and a danger. Often these critiques are against Surrealism or the grotesque. Often they are treated as “fashion” or manneristic as well as unhealthy and counterfeit. Almost never are we given the actual poets or poems we are being warned against. It’s always some indistinct poetic “trend” out there that we need to protect poetry against: it’s immoral, it’s shallow, it’s “bad,” but it somehow threatens with its ability to fool the young. It’s the “too much” of contemporary poetry. Whether it comes from Official Verse Culture or Official Experimental Verse Culture, it seems to pick up on Clement Greenberg’s famous denouncement of “kitsch”: visceral and lowly – and therefore dangerous.

One prime example is Tony Hoagland who cannot write a review without issuing a warning of some sort (against the “skittery poetry of the moment,” against Dean Young’s students etc). John Gallaher has an analysis of Tony Hoagland’s latest screed:

The manners of the day are more disposed to obliquity than testimony, and the straight-forward urge toward wisdom is considered a rather unsophisticated undertaking for poetry. Most poets under forty are more comfortable telling it slant, with a twist, than speaking directly of faith.

It seems to me that, as I wrote recently in another post, what these folks need to defend poetry against is not some specific poet or influence but the idea of counterfeit influence, the idea poetry which involves unhierarchized masses of poets not following official lineages (“too much” poetry might destabilize hierarchies, which his why neither Hoagland nor Poetry Magazine has any problem with famous language poets or “Conceptual poetry” – they are already established, official):

Despite various changes, it seems translation still is kept at the margins of American poetry. Translation is inherently a challenge to the dominant idea of “lineage” (perhaps lineage is inherently “dominant”) in US poetry: poetry is authentic, to write real poetry you have to know the true version of US literary history. Poetry has to be defended against the fake, against kitsch (“hipster poetry” or “soft surrealism” or whatever). You have to have a “good ear” to write poetry – it must come to you naturally.

It’s interesting that tropes like the Gothic, the Grotesque, Surrealism seem associated with this foreign, counterfeit influence – not just because they are foreign or associated with mass culture or immorality, but because their influence do not seem lineage based, allowing all kinds of “band influence,” all kinds of mutation and infection. And I think if there’s a real key to this all it’s Daniel Tiffany’s finding that kitsch is very much involved with poetry, but as the poetic “effect,” a poetics based on “effect,” a poetics of “too much,” of “excessive beauty.”

Tiffany: “… kitsch involves not merely the purification of beauty (i.e. the suppression of all qualities other than beauty), butexaggerated and even delusional regard for beauty. The banality of kitsch must therefore be reconciled with excessive beauty…

12 comments for this entry:
  1. Joyelle McSweeney

    Hey, I really love the Barney image that comes at the end of this post. On the one hand, all the bodies are arranged around the white male body, but in another sense, the picture has an MC Esher kind of reversibility to it– influence could be running upwards through the nymphs through teh doves through the ribbons through the male body and then out into this total herbacious non-human overfloration– and that overfloration and the nymph bodies are hyperprolific and wash around the white male body which looks inert and maybe made of marble. so one kind of flow and hyperfloration overwhelms another model– the directionality spasms and reverses from the conventional downward direction of influence.

    The gender aspect of this is interesting too- the alternative reproduction of the nymphs and the plants–bodies that copy and overcopy themselves outside the prerogatives of heterosexual couplings or patrilineage ideas of heritability. I wonder how to counterpose this to the constant generation of female avatars by auteurs like Lagerfeld and Lynch. In both cases the auteur recasts himself and recasts himself as a female protagonist who walks a runway or is subjected to a plot, then disassembled and reconfigured in a subsequent season or film and reanimated again to walk a runway or endure/make visible a plot… How does this kind of unconventional reproduction compare to what’s visible in the Barney photo?


  2. Nathan Hoks

    I love this, Johannes. No time right now to articulate more, but going to try later.

  3. Archambeau

    Interesting stuff!

    But for the record, I had no objection to surrealism or the gothic in that FB thread.

    What I did was to put up a quote from Henri Lefebvre, who was saying that he thought the rise of the gothic and grotesque in the 19th century, and of Surrealism in the 20th, was a rebellion against a world that had come to seem disenchanted and overly rational and utilitarian. I did say that Lefebvre thought that the rebellion didn’t go far enough: he wanted a Marxist revolution and was very involved with the French Communist Party when he wrote the piece in the 1940s. He thought that gothic writing, exoticism, the grotesque, were a “critique of everyday life,” but he wanted to go from critique to political change. That was his thing.

    But me, I didn’t object to Surrealism in that thread: I’m pretty fond of it, have translated a bunch of Surrealist poetry, ran a special issue of Samizdat on Belgian Surrealism, etc. You were kind enough to publish some of it a while back.



  4. Johannes

    Bob, that was my sloppy prose.


  5. Archambeau

    Oh — okay! I was afraid I’d be beaten up by the ghost of Andre Breton. I mean, I probably have it coming anyway, but not for that FB thread!



  6. Ian Keenan

    Johannes, Didn’t see this til now. You are putting words in my mouth, adding associations that aren’t mine. Whether corporate takeovers are “cheap” or “posh,” I was mostly referring to the tendency in contemporary US culture to mimic the way such corporate and legal models are commonly constructed.

    The guy on Archambeau’s facebook page is at least clever enough to keep his dumb-ass statements on facebook which is an Ian-free zone, along with the Buffalo list and Twitter.

    If that guy is important don’t tell him I called him a dumb-ass.

  7. Johannes

    Ian, you did write those things. You wrote that Joyelle and I were parasiting the original Surrealism and that Mark and Michael were “branding.” I know that you mean to draw an analogy to the corporate culture etc, but I was merely noting that this is a trend in these critiques of Surrealism, even if they, as in your instance, come from someone who is obviously into surrealism.

    Along the same line, I am far from in love with all things loosely Surrealistic. What I’m noting is a trend of the way it’s talked about and how it overlaps with other warnings and criticisms.


  8. Ian Keenan

    nor am I implying your statement was dumb-ass

  9. Ian Keenan

    Johannes, Yes, I thought you had said “We merely suggest replacing one regime with another” instead of “We merely reject replacing one regime with another.” Can you take that out of the original post? So I’m not comparing you two to parasites.

    It’s accurate to say that I meant “that Mark and Michael were “branding”” and that they “were parasiting the original Surrealism.” Just stating the obvious there.

    Sorry about that mix-up, you two. Would you like a candy corn? Ian

  10. Ian Keenan

    To get to the other point of your essay: I have thought of visual schema of the relation of Surrealism and Romanticism. There is what looks like a thread that looks like Romanticism, and then another identical thread that is either a second thread or the first in a mirror. The thread moves through the eye of the needle, Surrealism during the “event” of its occurences from ’24 to World War II.

    Geometric reference and language shouldn’t get in the way, though, of perceiving artistic phenomenon as accurately as possible. Literature is a series of trees moving out of the root of the reader. The tree that goes into the future looks like a reflection of the others but it’s not; when it is writing, is usually is better off thinking it is a branch and finding out later that it is a tree. The tree that goes into the past is the reader finding a writer that influences them, and then finding out who influenced that writer, and so on. Then the other stuff buzzing around the tree in the ‘forest of symbols.’ That differs from the ways in which the Surrealists charted, named, and revised their influences. Rivera’s The Communicating Vessels is a good snapshot from this forest.


    The metaphors are limited in their functions because the humans make them that way.

    Without question, one of the assemblage of tactics used against the actual Surrealists is to feign being a Surrealist and then construct elaborate rationalizations for ignoring or negating the actual Surrealists. The intent of the rationalization can almost always be detected. Looking for the rationalizations and their intent is more illuminating than getting the visual metaphor just right. What wills to contradict the manifestos in spirit is no longer Surrealism. It would be a simpler taxonomy if there were no Surrealists at all outside the actual movement, and the words should always attempt to be as descriptive and honest as possible. The interpretation of the actual Surrealists is always the crucial issue. Where they are negated, the people who use words for a living should get another word. It’s like when people say “abortion is murder,” because of their opinion of abortions, they are making words less specific, descriptive, and evocative. Saying you are a Surrealist that doesn’t care for the manifestos is using words in a less descriptive fashion for the purpose of propaganda and confusion, when they would be more helpful to find a word to describe specifically what they are.

    Silliman was at the beginnings of his own movement so if indeed he was “uprooting’ avant-garde practices for his own poetry” he was planting a new poetics from a soil filled with influences, if you like that, or the influences are the air or whatever. He is also vey clear and specific about lineages, and the Language poets often react to how they’re interpreted.

    Silliman’s question: “what is it about surrealism that permits [some] to uproot it from its avant-garde heritage?” is correct in its assumptions, but a little coy in the sense that he knows he knows the answer: the Surrealists died is why. The intention to compare Langpo favorably to Surrealism is easily detected. A term other than Surrealism is needed to describe Tate and Simic, as well as Kelly and Eshelman. He uses soft surrealism (to describe the first two et al), the metaphor of “soft” that he extends into other pejoratives, and you say it’s gendered and I say Lydia Lunch used it to describe newer punk bands, and, yes, “soft surrealism” may not be the most fortunate word/metaphor. But the word choice isn’t as important as the fact that he is describing an actual phenomenon in a fashion that anticipates scrutiny, however it mixes primary emotional observation with some sort of latent intentions. If intentions or an agenda can be detected, providing a “key” to the phrase, then the game is up to some extent. The reason why pejorative terms are so enduring in art is not just that the disrespectful tend to generalize about people, but that people perceive others more clearly in opposition.

    The police in this metaphor should remain the actual police. Artaud called the police on the others once. People express themselves, and you can relate that to will and taxonomy.

  11. Michael Leong

    Some good stuff here, Johannes.

    Bloom’s THE ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE, which Danielle mentions in her “Bad Influence” post, can be critiqued for many reasons, but he was right on this point: “Influence is Influenza — an astral disease.”

    That’s interesting about the Hoagland style of reviewing. The hope seems to be — to stick with the metaphorics of infection — that the “good” text under review will act as a proper antidote to the amorphous “bad.”

    And speaking of the opposition between Hoagland’s “wisdom poets” and the “too much” — this is a passage from a Mary Oliver review (via poets.org):

    “Mary Oliver’s poetry is an excellent antidote for the excesses of civilization, for too much flurry and inattention, and the baroque conventions of our social and professional lives.”

  12. adam strauss

    Could Oliver’s poems, in its unswerving devotion to woods etc, be seen as totally excessive because so unbalanced in terms of its subject? “You do not have to be good” is, I think, an amazing line. I wish she wld write the overtly erotic as I think she cld do an amazing job.