No 3 - Autumn/Winter 1995
In Praise of Invective
...the tongue we use
When we don’t want nuance
To get in the way.
- Cornelius Eady
At the end of a murderous century, let’s curse the enemies of the individual.
Every modem ideologue and thought-policeman continues to say that the private is political, that there is no such thing as an autonomous self, and if there is, for the sake of the common good it is not desirable to have one. He or she who refuses to accept the idea that the self is socially constructed and that it can be manipulated to fit the latest theory of human improvement is everywhere the enemy. In the academy of lies where new enthusiasms and hatreds are being concocted, where “only children and madmen speak the truth”, as Goebbels said, the unrepentant individual is the one standing in the corner with his face to the wall. Orthodoxy, group-think, virtue by decree are the ideals of every religion and every utopian model of society. The only intellectual problem the philosophers of such systems have is how to make conformism attractive. Ideologies from Nationalism to Racism are not really about ideas; they’re revivalists’ tents offering a chance to the righteous to enjoy their sense of superiority. “We will find eternal happiness and harmony by sacrificing the individual”, every congregation of the faithful continues to rhapsodize.
Historical experience has taught me to be wary of any manifestation of collectivism. Even literary historians and critics when they generalize make me suspicious. Of course, young poets
and painters do associate and influence each other and partake of the same Zeitgeist, but despite these obvious truths, what literature worth anything is written by a group? Has any genuine artist ever thought of himself or herself exclusively as a part of a movement? Is anyone seriously a Post-Modernist, whatever that is?
I don’t find systems congenial. My aesthetic says that the poet is true because she cannot be labelled. It is the irreducible uniqueness of each life that is worth honouring and defending. If at times one has to fall back on the vocabulary of abuse to keep those in the gumming business away, so be it.
The first and never-to-be-forgotten pleasure language gave me was the discovery of “bad words”. I must’ve been three or four years old when I overheard my mother and another woman use the word cunt. When I repeated it to myself, when I said it aloud for all to hear and admire, I was slapped by my mother and told never to use that word again. Aba, I thought, there are words so delicious they must not be said aloud! This is not quite true. I had a great-aunt who used to use such language every time she opened her mouth. My mother would beg her, when she came to visit, not to speak like that in front of the children, but she paid her no mind. To have a temper and a foul mouth like that was a serious liability in a communist country. “We’ll all end up in jail because of her”, my mother said.
There are moments in life when true invective is called for, when there comes an absolute necessity, out of a deep sense of justice, to denounce, mock, vituperate, lash out, rail at in the strongest possible language. “I do not wish to be weaned from this error”, Robert Burton wrote long ago in his Anatomy of Melancholy. I agree. If anything I want to enlarge and perfect my stock of maledictions.
This is what I learned from Twentieth-Century History: only dumb ideas get recycled. The dream of many a social reformer is to be the brains of an enlightened, soul-reforming penitentiary. Everyone vain, dull, peevish, and sexually frustrated dreams of legislating his impotence. Mao’s uniforms: a billion people dressing the same and shouting from his little red book continues to be the secret hope of new visionaries.
Once one comes to understand that much of what one sees and hears serves to make fraud sound respectable, one is in trouble. For instance, long before Parisian intellectuals did so, my great-aunt had figured out that the Soviet Union and the so-called People’s Democracies were a scam and a lie from the bottom up. She was one of these women who sees through appearances instantly. To begin with, she did not have a good opinion of humanity. Not because she was a sourpuss, a viper’s nest of imaginary resentments. Far from it. She liked eating, drinking, a good laugh and quick roll in the hay, behind her elderly husband’s back. It’s just that she had an unusually uncluttered and clear head. She would tell you that our revolutionary regime, which regarded loose tongues and levity as political crimes and those unfortunates caught in the act as unhealthy elements, was a huge pile of shit and that included Marshall Tito himself. Her outbursts were caused by what she regarded as other people’s gullibility. As far as she was concerned, she was surrounded by cowards and dunces. The daily papers and the radio drove her into verbal fury. “Admit it”, she’d yell at my mother and grandmother. “Doesn’t it turn your stomach to hear them talk like that?”
If they agreed, and confided in a whisper, that yes, indeed, these Commies are nothing but a bunch of murderous illiterate yokels, Stalinist stooges and what not, she still wasn’t happy. There was something about the human as a species that worried her no end. It’s not like they were different yesterday and the day before yesterday. This frenzy of vileness and stupidity started on day one. She’d throw her hands up in the air in despair again and again. She couldn’t get over it. It was like she had an incurable allergy to everything false and slimy. It didn’t lessen her zest for life, because she had a way of exorcising these evil spirits, but it was a full-time job. Cursing them, I imagine, gave her royal pleasure, and unknown to her, to me, too, listening behind the closed door with a shameless grin.
In a book entitled Paradoxes of Gender, Judith Lorber gives us a feminist version of this recurring madness:
In a world of scrupulous gender equality, equal numbers of girls and boys would be educated for the liberal arts and for the sciences, for clerical and manual labour and for all professions. Among those with equal credentials, women and men would be hired in an alternating fashion for the same type of jobs - or only men would be hired to do women’s type of jobs and only women would be hired to do men’s types of jobs until half of every workplace was made of men and half, women.
Very nice, one thinks, but what about the cops, the jailers, and the informers needed to enforce all this? Will they be organized in units composed with strict gender equality? We hope so. Note, as is typical of all pious hypocrites and prophets of universal happiness, there’s no mention of the individual.
How are we to defend ourselves against these monsters dividing the members of society into useful and useless? For them, the ideal citizen is a voluntary slave! America, or any other place on earth, must be a school of virtue where even the political meaning of a sunset in a poem will be carefully examined for unauthorized views!
I knew a thirteen-year-old who wrote a letter telling off President Johnson about the conduct of the Vietnam War. It was some letter. Our President was an idiot and a murderer who deserved to be napalmed himself, and worse. One evening as the boy, and his mother and sister, who told me the story, were sitting around the kitchen table slurping their soup, the doors and the windows leading to the fire escape opened at the same time and men with drawn guns surrounded the table. We are the FBI they announced, and wanted to know who was Anthony Palermo? The two women pointed at the boy with thick glasses and crossed eyes. Well, it took a while to convince them that he was the one who wrote the letter. They were expecting a full-grown Commie assassin with long hair and an arsenal of weapons and bombs by his side.
“What do you want from me, blood?” I heard an old woman shout once in a welfare office. She kept cussing them for another five minutes, not because she had any expectation that the wrongs done to her would be righted, but simply in order to make herself feel good and clean for one brief moment.
Cut the Comedy
“The cow that goes to heaven must take its body for not
having enough brain to remember itself in spirit.
It’s an unhappy time of struggle. The cow mooning.
It is no less dillicult than a breech birth.
But if a cow should die it must be raised toward heaven, lest it perish in forgetfulness, the sleep of pastures.
The farmer is trying to get the cow into the hayloft,
“nearer, my God, to Thee”, pulling the cow with ropes; the
cow trying to get a footing over the tractor and bales of hay
piled for the ascension...
-- The cow mooning, the fanner praying, and his wife
crying, scandal, scandal, scandal!”
(Russell Edson, ‘The Ascension of the Cow’)
If it’s funny, then, obviously, it can’t be serious, people will tell you.
I disagree. Comedy says as much about the world as does tragedy. In fact, if you seek true seriousness, you must make room for both comic and tragic vision. Still, almost everybody prefers to be pitied than to be laughed at. For every million poems lamenting the cruel fate of a much-misunderstood and endlessly suffering soul, we get one funny Russell Edson or Kenneth Koch poem.
The dirtiest little secret around is that there are as many people without a sense of humour as there are people with no aesthetic sense. How do you convey to someone that something is funny or that something is beautiful? Well, you can’t. It’s not often that one hears people confess that they don’t understand jokes. Humourless folk regard the rest of us as being merely silly. Our verbal acrobatics and our faces distorted by laughter are annoying and childish. Only if they are vastly outnumbered do they plead to have the joke explained. Everyone has, at one time or another, witnessed or participated in such a hopeless attempt. It can’t be done. You are better off telling a blind man about the glory of the sunset, and deaf man about a Charlie Parker solo.
Aesthetic sense can be cultivated or developed, but what of the comic? Is one born with a sense of humour, or can it be acquired?
I suppose so, but it’s not easy. If you love yourself too much, your chances are poor. The vainglorious want the world to tiptoe around them and draw near only to gaze at them in wordless admiration. The whole notion of hierarchy and its various supporting institutions depends on the absence of humour. The ridiculousness of authority must not be mentioned. The church, the state and the academy are in complete accord about that. The Emperor who has no clothes always strolls past silent courtiers. All that is spiritual, lofty and abstract regards the comic as profane and blasphemous.
It is impossible to imagine a Christian or a Fascist theory of humour. Like poetry, human is subversive. The only remedy, the ideologues of all stripes will tell you, is complete prohibition. Moral uplift is a grim business and the dictatorship of virtue, as we know, has the air of funeral home and graveyard about it. Irony and cutting wit are reserved solely for the superior classes and their closest flunkies. The servants of the mighty and their dogs are allowed to show their teeth and bite when necessary.
We ordinarily anticipate good literature to be solemn, boring and therefore edifying. I attended, for example, one of the first performances of Beckett’s Krapp ‘s Last Tape in New York. The audience in the small theatre was made up of intellectual types of both sexes. Early on in the play, the old guy on the stage is trying to open the drawer of the desk he’s sitting at. It’s stuck. He’s got to pull hard and rest between attempts. Finally, it comes loose. He opens the drawer halfway, looks at us, gropes inside and finds what he’s looking for. We can’t see it, of course, but he can, and he’s very happy with his find. Slowly, he brings into view an ordinary banana. After a pause for dramatic effect, he begins to peel it. At that point, a man sitting behind me began to cackle loudly. To my astonishment people started hissing pssst, some even turning round to shake their fists angrily in his face. “Stupid, stupid man”, said the beautiful woman sitting next to me. She meant: no side-splitting hilarity allowed in the presence of high art. Like an obedient concertgoer snoozing through a Mahler symphony and coming awake at the end to applaud vigorously, we are expected to submit to art and literature joylessly as to a foul-tasting but beneficial medicine.
Serious literature, supposedly, has an important message to impart and the problem with the comic is that it does not. In any case, if it has a “message”, it’s not the one we are comfortable with. The philosophy of laughter reminds us that we live in the midst of contradictions, pulled this way by the head, pulled that way by the heart, and still another way by our sex organs.
Don’t forget the eternal shouts of the flesh: Oh! Ah! and Haha!
If humour ever became extinct, human beings would be left without souls.
Philosophically, we must start with the idea of laughter. I cannot imagine anything more horrible than a society where laughter and poetry are prohibited, where the morbid self-absorption of the rich and the powerful and the hypocrisies of our clergymen and politicians go unchecked. Protecting from ridicule those who proclaim eternal truths is where most intellectual energy is expended in our world.
The Greeks, on the other hand, were able to poke fin at their gods.
I ask you, is there anything more healthy than that?
I would consider any society near-perfect where the arts of highest irreverence were practised and Russell Edson was a Poet Laureate.
- 10th Muse
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- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
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- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
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- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
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- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
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- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
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- Poetry Salzburg Review
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- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
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- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
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