by Johannes Goransson on Nov.11, 2014
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a response to Gregory Orr’s essay in the Writer’s Chronicle, in which he argues that Wordsworth is fundamentally democratic in his preface to the Lyrical Ballads because he argues for a non-flowery, non-poetic language that Orr sees as “open” to the lower classes.
But as I pointed out, this rejection of the “gaudy and inane phraseology” is anti-kitsch rhetoric. Further, Wordsworth was definitely not lower class, though he both used the ballad form (a fake lower class form) for an elite audience.
But I wanted to point out another element of Orr’s essay and that’s his use of a soldier-poet as an example for how poetry should be “emotion recollected in tranquility” (rather than say poems written in the state of disaster). Orr writes that he had read a manuscript by an un-named contemporary US poet about his time as a soldier in Vietnam, and how the two poems he wrote while in Vietnam stuck out from the manuscript, not only as bad poems but as unreal poems (I can’t quite remember the exact word Orr uses). The poet-soldier needed distance to achieve a tranquility in order to really process the poetry.
Orr also gives a moving account of accidentally killing his own brother and how it took him years to process this violence.
As I’ve written before, violence is everwhere. And poetry is not difference. The artistic experience is often a violent one. But contemporary American poetry critics still seems obsessed with distancing poetry from the violence of art and the violence of the world at large. It’s the dangers/fears of “aestheticizing violence” (which according to Benjamin is what the Nazis did, more about the Nazi-art connection some other time). And yet, violence is constantly brought in as a way of understanding poetry. Orr has to bring the war into his essay in order to remove poetry from it.
The thing that interests me about bringing it in is the way he joins the “gaudy and inane phraseology” of flowery language – of poetic language, of kitsch – to violence. Kitsch is violence. The poetic is inhuman.
In Orr’s article, it’s a way to show the importance of achieving distance. I sometimes think about a post I remember reading on John Gallaher’s blog a long time ago, in which he referenced an essay by Hank Lazer about a panel on poetry in the mid 80s. The crux of the discussion between different poets (some language poets and some not) was the prevalence of feeling:
Louis Simpson: I think I’m beginning to see a basic reason we’re disagreeing here. You approach the world as a construct which humanity has made, and therefore language is a construct, so you approach experience through language. I would argue that for poets experience occurs as a primary thing, without language in between. I quoted Dante yesterday to you about visions. We have visions, we have experiences for which there is not language, and our job is to create that into a poem. And that seems to me a radically different point of view.
Gregory Jay: O, yeah, yeah. We do disagree fundamentally because I don’t think that there is any such thing as uninterpreted experience and I don’t think we ever have an experience of anything that isn’t an interpretation when it arrives to our knowledge.
Louis Simpson: I don’t believe that for one second. If you had been in an automobile accident, or I could give you even worse examples – if you’ve ever had somebody shooting at you in a battlefield, where the heck is interpretation coming in there?
Gregory Jay: Well, I have to decide whether the bullet’s going to hit me or not, Louis.
Louis Simpson: But what has that got to do with interpretation?
Denise Levertov: If a child dying of cancer is suffering excruciating pain just as if it were a grown-up person who is able to reflect upon its pain, does that mean that it is not experiencing that excruciating pain? Bullshit!
Again soldiers are brought in to stand in for aesthetic experience. This is what I’ve called ATROCITY KITSCH – this seemingly constant interaction between art and extreme violence. Why is it important to bring in the feelings of the soldier? It seems that we have to invoke this poor guy getting shot at in order to explain art.
Orr does it too, though for different reasons. Simpson brings it in to suggest that Language poetry is decadent, is kitsch, because it is all artifice, not real, all Kublai Kahn’s pleasure dome. Orr brings in the soldier to show that he has to achieve distance from the real in order to be human. Ie not become kitsch. In both cases, the extreme is treated as kitsch.
Perhaps the most interesting discussion of atrocity kitsch (though he doesn’t call it that) is Saul Friedlander’s book Reflection on Nazism. I wrote this about his book a year ago:
According to Friedlander, this sensibility survives Nazism and precedes it: Kitsch is a “return to a debased inspiration,” to an undead Romanticism that anachronistically survives through and against modernism, a decadence that endures with its poisonous flowers inside a modern world, to a “pre- and antimodern ambience.” It is an aesthetic that characterizes not just the Nazi sensibility but which survives in novelists and film-makers since:
“Here is the essence of the frisson: an overload of symbols; a baroque setting; an evocation of a mysterious atmosphere, of the myth and of religiosity enveloping a vision of death announced as a revelation opening out into nothing – nothing but frightfulness and the night. Unless… Unless the revelation is that of a mysterious force leading man toward irresistible destruction.”
There is an excess of the art-ness of the art in other words: words repeat over and over (snow, blood, flowers, poison, corpses, soil etc). Or in Swedish, there is too much “konst-igheter” (strangenesses) in the “konst” (art). The art is thickly atmospheric, thickly artish; there is not the proper “religiosity” (or “critique” if you’re a leftist) to redeem the artfulness of this dense baroque atmosphere.
I return to Daniel Tiffany’s recent work on kitsch, and his argument that kitsch is always about “excessive beauty.” Beauty that does not show the proper restraint, beauty that intoxicates. Kitsch is more than anything about a kind of “poeticism,” a kind of Romanticism.
As Martin summarizes, the goal of Brock’s treatment of Owen and others was “[to force] the patients to actively and metrically order their mental chaos in new contexts of time (the five-beat line of a poem, a first person narrative or short-story, a play) and space(a diagram of the city, a lecture, a description of local museums.)”
Against this regime/n of form and genre, Brock “warned against the dangers of ‘art for art’s sake,’ where art become a kind of drug that separates the patient from the social world, an extreme form of outrance.”. Here is a literalization of Derrida’s modeling of Art as the pharmikon, the drug, the supplement; for Brock, ‘art for art’s Sake’ entailed a counter-therapy, a counter-regime to the ordinating regime of form and genre whose goal was to turn the shell-shocked patients into functioning soldiers and integrate them back into body of civilized temporality—or, actually, the War.
Brock’s prescription of form and genre, his proscription of Art-for-Art’s-Sake as an anti-social drug, prompts me to reassess the thrust of Nazi Literatures in the Americas. These fake authors are not just evil because they are Nazis; they’re evil because they are Artists. Their Nazidom is a kind of metonym for the extremity of their commitment. People who’ve gone off ‘the grid’ actually make their own grid. When you get to the point in which you are so caught up in your frame narrative about Art that you stop making Art, you could also say that everything you make is Art, your whole life is Art, unwholesome Art, out of wack with Society’s temporality, Art for Art’s Sake.
This in turn makes me think of Joseph Beuys, whose personal charisma and motto ‘Every person an artist” is to this day held up by critics as evidence of his inexpungeable Nazi instincts. Viewing this through Bolaño’s Nazi authors and Brock’s notion of Art as both drug and anti-drug, then we can start to see that Beuys’s critics perceived something very apt about him. His charisma is his Art. Art is charisma—a charism, a charm. It is contagious, antisocial, occult. If it begins to leak, unregulated, from diverse cites and bodies, rather than in carefully cultivated forms and doses in approved precincts, it entails a whole new evil regime.
Of course the idea that “every person is an artist” is a horrible idea to a literary culture that is still incredibly invested in creating “true” and “fake” artists, in order to maintain a nice, hierarchical order.