"Take your goddamn class hatred and shove it up your ass": DN attacks Johan Jönson

by on May.10, 2012

It seems that the Swedish conservative press is increasingly assuming the culture-war tactics of US politics: going after artists and “the cultural elite” in order to smear the left as weirdos and fakers, and thus position themselves as the sensible middle ground. It happened before with this article accusing the art elite of being communists (just as the right is constantly attacking English Departments for being leftist), and it happened with the hysteria-mongering attacks on the anti-genital-mutilation cake performance. As in American instances, not only do these right-wing opinionators misread Art, they also misread history.

The other day, Dagens Nyheter (the equivalent of USA Today or something like that) published a really weird attack on Swedish poet Johan Jönson (whose book Collobert Orbital which I translated was published by Displaced Press a couple of years ago), accusing Johnson of re-igniting the “perverse temptations of massmurder.” It ends with the title of this post: “Take your goddamn class hatred and shove it up your ass.”

The occasion for the attack on Jönson is Jens Liljestrand’s review of Leon Larsson, an early 20th century anarchist poet whose work is apparently being recovered after – like much of US working class poetry – having fallen into obscurity (despite selling 29,000 copies) due to academic ideology (as is documented in Nelson’s “Repression and Recovery”). Liljestrand makes a point of this and how the poetry isn’t very good (it’s even in rhyme, and the depressing depictions of working class life are, well, too depressing, it’s not modernist, it’s tasteless, out of date etc).

To further overdetermine our views of Larsson, Liljestrand begins with the story of how Larsson apparently set fire to his own room to cover up the fact that he had skipped work. That is to say, he was a “pyromaniac” according to Liljestrand, who then implies that the heated, violent, revolutionary poetry Larsson wrote was in fact a kind of pathology, rather than a reaction to incredibly oppressive working class conditions.

Liljefors then moves on to Jönson, who gave a reading as part a May 1 event. His poems often deal with the humiliation and anger of working in working class jobs, and that’s apparently what the poems dealt with this evening. In the piece he read, he depicts working for upper class homes and being treated like shit. The speaker (it’s not obvious that it’s Jönson himself, though often his poems challenge easy distinctions between speaker/author) goes into the bathroom and fantasizes about jacking off in their laundry but instead decides to wipe his “herpes-bubbling cock on the family’s towels, also the children’s.” (The herpes here seems to echo the pyromaniac charge Liljestrand levels against Larson – ie there’s something pathological, physical about class hatred.)

I think this depiction is actually interesting pertaining to our discussion of masturbation and cocks yesterday – because so often the penis is just treated interchangeably with the “phallic” as a kind of sign of power, but, as I argued yesterday, that’s reductive. And here you can see that in the humiliated fantasies of an exploited worker – the grotesque “herpes-bubbling” suggests a self revulsion and castration of sorts. This guy is powerless, his becomes a medium for pathologies.

Liljestrand makes fun of the cultural elite audience who applauds his reading and then he goes out and gets Jönson’s latest book, med.bort.in, which Liljestrand makes sure we know is nominated for the Nordic Council’s fancy literary award (ie it’s backed by “the cultural elite,” so Jönson shouldn’t complain). In his one-paragraph review of the book, Liljestrand lists all the “hate” he finds in the book: hatred of famous people, a wish to see right-wing prime minister Reinfeldt shot on TV etc.

Liljestrand draws the following conclusion:

“This is what class-hatred looks like in the spring of 2012. But in difference from a hundred years ago, it’s not espoused by a troubled young man with pyromaniac tendencies who publishes his poems in small pamphlets, but the country’s maybe most celebrated poet right now, whose bricks are published by Sweden’s biggest press. He reads his hatred on a national stage and is applauded. His misanthropy is a chique left-wing pose.”

So it’s not just that it’s hatred, but that it’s a “pose” – it’s fakery (one of Liljestrand and the right’s favorite rhetorical tools – if all else fails, accuse them of being fake). Perhaps what Liljestrand object to most about Jönson is that he offers no solution; he doesn’t believe in progress; just expresses humiliation and hatred. He offers no way out of the trauma.

And that’s true; there’s “no future” in Jönson’s hatred and humiliation. And it’s true that there’s a lot of class hatred in Jönson’s work. But what’s wrong with class hatred? If you’re treated like shit and you want to write about and/or from that experience, then why should one censor oneself to make one’s feelings more palatable for a right-wing journalist who finds the conditions of workers too dull and too scary for literature? Are only certain experiences valid for literature?

Furthermore, there’s a lot of hatred of authority figures in Jönson’s work but there’s even more self-hatred, self-disgust and humiliation. I’m sorry that Liljestrand doesn’t think these feelings are becoming of literature, I’m sorry he doesn’t want to know that everyone’s not happy in this world!

But the article is perhaps even more troubling – bordering on character assassination – in its conclusion, which connects Jönson to everything from Nazism to the Tea Party, based on dangerously simplistic view of history:

“I see in [Leon Larsson’s poems] a prologue to all the catastrophes of the 1900s. It’a an aha-experience… Everything – the class hatred, the race hatred – comes from the same source, the dream of a purifying fire, the belief in a world that can be cured if the enemy is destroyed. The perverse temptation of mass murder, the chants of collectivism. Us against them.”

Liljestrand strangely brings together communism and nazism, arguing that the source of both is in this collective “hatred,” the “perverse temptation of mass murder.” There are of course lots of problems with this reductive reading. Communist/union workers fighting for reasonable living standards are heaped together with Nazism, whose goal was to get rid of these same communists. It is, in other words, not the un-literary, too-depressing experiences of working class that causes activism but a desire to kill the opposition. The rightwing – the non-collective (except when they vote together, when they form chambers of commerce together, when they form corporations together) – corporate leaders are not to blame; rather it was all those working class folks bonding together as “collectives” that caused all that murder in the 20th century. The groups is to blame, not the economic injustices that made them a group. Like in the US, it’s only “class warfare” when the working class speaks back.

Not surprisingly Liljestrand sees Jönson as part of an equally reductive view of the present:

“I see him [Larsson, and by implication Jönson] everywhere these days. The Songs of Hate are back in vogue. In France the presidential candidates are being squeezed between a right that hates muslims and a left that hates businessmen. In the US the Ayn-Rand right fights against the Occupy Wall Street left…”

So racist hatred of muslims is the same as wanting businessmen to pay higher taxes; the insanity of the Tea Party (whose hypocrisies and confusions are too fundamental to even discuss here) is the same as an Occupy movement which has been deeply democratic, and which has been physically assaulted by a police force representing the supposedly so calm and non-violent, non-tea-party right.

And Johan, who writes poetry about the experience of the exploitation and humiliation of the working class in an era of globalization and huge CEO salaries/bonuses, is acting out of line. Especially because his poetry doesn’t offer a rosy idea of how we will move forward as a society.

Ultimately, this argument is based on a very facetious piece of rhetoric: the poem is to blame for the feelings caused by an unjust class society; just as leftist attempts to revise that system is blamed for the genocidal suppression of such movements. Johan’s book is not a book but a “brick.” He’s not a poet, but as another class-blind detractor called him, “the hooligan of poetry.”

It seems I have avoided an important question here: What does Jönson’s work do then, if it doesn’t stoke genocidal hatred? I think it’s too easy, as some defenders have claimed, that we should take the views as spoken by a “speaker.” Ie the traditional new critical/Eliotic paradigm. I think that’s wrong, for certainly this is a work that troubles such easy distinctions; it is, so to speak, more like a brick than that.

I’ll return to this question in a later post, for now I’ll end with Johan’s line quoted at the end of Liljestrand’s article:

”nittonhundratalet är/inte över; kan/aldrig gå över”.

“The twentieth century has/not ended; can/never end.”

10 comments for this entry:
  1. Ji Yoon Lee

    I have read Collobert Orbital (too bad I don’t have the book with me at this moment; I have to rely on my memory) & I am re-reading Bartleby the Scrivener by Melville. This post prompts me to think about the oppressive presence of operative system(s) in these two works: the power of Conveyor’s Belt/Production Line.
    In Collobert Orbital, there are production lines that cannot be disobeyed, despite the fact that bodies are piling up in its production, filling up the space of the book. The production lines also embody themselves through the dash “—” which prompts the readers’ eyes to move along(along with the bodies, becoming part of the line-up); you can’t stop. you have to keep moving. to the future. to the production. What was really interesting about the dashes is that not only they are embodiment of the Conveyor’s Belt, the all-too-powerful production logic, they also seem to be NOISE that disrupts the smoothness of the poetry and language. (at this moment I also think of Juan Gelman’s slashes “/”, its physical presence on the page and the disruptive nature; Is it trauma that produces these un-readable, grammatical-system-defying-use of physical lines?)
    It is surreal how the rhetoric of Future and Progress is now very thinly veiled Logic of Production and Utility/usefulness, and that doesn’t bother many people! As the language of “acting out of line” reveals, it is unacceptable to reject the line-up. Many would prefer staying in “line”. The Conveyor’s belt. The Production Line.
    If Collobert Oribital can be read as resistance, conjuring of the Line, the System in the space of art and the voice of “the working class speaks back”, Bartleby can be read to be doing the similar thing– embodiment of the System (the narrative voice)–yet in the voice of the Conveyor/ the Operator, the voice of Liljestrand or Upperclass that condemns the “hatred” of working class.
    In Bartleby, Bartleby’s willful voice of “I prefer not to” — not to become useful, not to become part of the production line of which all the other characters(only referred by their nickname) take part– baffles the narrator. In his logic, Bartleby should at least cease to exist in the sphere of production line that is his office. Like Liljestrand the narrator (whose name is never disclosed. he is the lawyer, the operator of the office system, his position is his only identity) first uses the rhetoric of pathology: he tries to understand Bartleby’s unwillingness to be useful to be coming from sickness. When the pathology fails the narrator in identifying just what Bartleby is, he tries the rhetoric of “Oh Humanity!”, the safely assumed commonground,middle-ground morality; with this rhetorics he gets to keep his position as the controller, conveyor by being the one who bestows sympathy. Yet, being entrenched in the logic of the Production Line, the narrator is overwhelmed just by Bartleby’s presence. His physical presence in the office itself becomes a pose, unnecessary, un-useful glitch which disrupts the conveyor’s belt of his.
    It seems to me this anxiety of the narrator is similar to the anxiety of Liljestrand: the worker isn’t ceasing himself to become part of the Production line. Jönson isn’t just folding the towels obediently and invisibly like he should; Larsson isn’t obediently going to work and become part of the machine like he should. The extinguishment of the voice/presence is necessary in the system of Production. Like the dash of Jönson, Gelman’s /, Bartleby’s body,their art won’t extinguish itself.

  2. Johannes

    A very good link Jiyoon. In fact the things that seems to scare/unsettle a lot of lefties in Sweden, and even people who like his work, is the fact that it goes on and on repetitively (when Johan visited Notre Dame he repeatedly referred to his style as “repetition idiocy”) and doesn’t offer any kind of nice solution, any future, any progress. It just goes on for 1200 pages of “undead” writing, death drive writing.


  3. Joyelle McSweeney

    OMG, Jiyoon, this should be reposted as its own post. Johannes?

  4. Joyelle McSweeney

    Also I think it’s interesting how Johnson’s image of hte cock bubbling with herpes is its own pathology. The critic tries to pathologize Johnson but he’s already done it, already provided evidence of his own pathology. He’s already thinking so far around the horizon than what the critic can imagine. His own body is like a bomb, a bomb of exploitation and infection, as herpes exploits the body. Even if johnson depicts a ‘class hatred’, the ultimate arrival for this system will be to strew its infection everywhere, it’s hard to pick apart the bodies or regulate hte contact.

  5. Johannes

    Yes, absolutely. It’s one of those Eminem moments: you can’t call me pathological because that charges is already part of my poem.

    In regards to Jiyoon’s Bartleby comment and your comment: the body is combined with art to form a Bartleby effect. Art is the disease; you can’t clean the art. In fact art has made Johan sick – he writes in a basement that has caused him to develop allergies!


  6. Jared

    Montevidayo, how I have missed thee! Great post Johannes…

  7. kim

    For me the most puzzling aspect of the article, the DN article, is that it closes with what seems to be a call for a “reformist” poetry? A grateful and happy to be living in “one of the richest and gender equal countries” poetry? A “we built this country together” poetry?

    What the hell would that be?

    It all seems knotted in a moralistic view, which seems to tighten when the poet achieves some success, like being nominated for a prestigious award, or being more widely read, that somehow he loses his whining privileges, that it’s time to grow up. The whole article is full of disgust, and ironically, hatred of art as polymorphic. Also, in response to the writer/speaker paradigm: Why does it matter if it’s the speaker or the writer? How could it possibly be distinctly either? If Leon burns down his room and writes about fire, is he disqualified from the art race? If there has been any oppressive fascist (or communist) regimes that have favored a scattered and obsessed and uncomfortable art, I’d love to know!

    I find the use of “pose” interesting too. Not only pose but a chic pose, a double pose! Liljestrand must really want to make sure the distance is established. Interesting since “pose” seems to be attributable both to obsessive hyper-realism and artifice-heavy surrealism, gurlesque etc. I guess they share in being “too much”. Too much art? It’s a tough life for an art critic.


  8. kim

    One more thing. Sorry. But the most inspired part of the article, for me, and which might be of interest to non-swedish speaking readers, is the paragraph which begins “I’m not stupid” and goes on saying that he, Liljestrand, was once there, defending the SCUM-manifesto. That he’s not going to file any police charges against the theater which hosted the reading. That he’s not going to compare “the left’s rhetorical gestures with the evil of the fascistoid murderer now on trial in Norway.” That, on some level, he seems, momentarily, to be aware of how ridiculous his stand is, but he can’t help himself.

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