Friday, April 24, 2009

Beauty Arouses

My new home's previous owner once planted a ring of daffodils (Family: Amaryllidaceae, Genus: Narcissus) around the base of the crabapple tree out front (a dark pruneria that produces deep pink rather than pure white blossoms), that have now opened their yellow narcissus eyes onto the world. Since the four days of continuous gentle rain earlier this week, all my plants have emerged, at last, or have taken on sudden growth spurts. Many will flower in the next few weeks. Today's a day that anticipates summer: very hot and sunny, but also humid, intimating thunderstorms in the near future. It's still too early in the year for the summer storm cycle to kick in, but it's not too early for storms to spawn under these conditions. Windows are open all over town, to let the fresh air pass through.

I spent time this morning reading Matthew Fox's book Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Lessons for transforming evil in soul and society. If I had been asked what the book was about, as I sat there waiting for the mechanics to finish changing my truck's oil, I would have replied, it's a book on the theology of embodiment. (Ignoring for the moment the raised eyebrows one sometimes gets reading such a book in such a place.) That's a dire oversimplification, of course, as everything Fox writes is multi-layered, multi-viewpoint, and pulls in a lot of thought from many different wisdom traditions in a kind of Deep Ecumenism. He has a knack as a writer for reviving the mystical viewpoint in the modern era, and showing how needful it is, more now than ever.

Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh is a deeply corrective book. Fox's message is that what we think sin is, or was, has become so corrupt as a concept that it has been reversed: what we thought was up has become down. This is a book about sin—but sin is not what we thought it was. As Fox writes:

Getting the context right is very important for dealing with sin. Too many theologians have derided our goodness in favor of railing about our evil. In doing so, they paint an inaccurate picture of who we are and what we are. And they pull us totally out of context, oblivious to where we came from, forgetting the creation story that in the Bible itself begins with praise. (Psalm 104 is all about the praise of creation, while Genesis itself begins with the stories of the goodness of creation and culminates in the very goodness of it.) My experience reading about the goodness of the body and its marvelous organs and capacities, then reading theologians about sin, confirms the methodology of this book. Consider, in light of reflecting on sin, the words of the poet Rilke: "Walk your walk of lament on a path of praise." The lament we rightly feel for our transgressions as individuals, as groups, and as a species must itself be contextualized by a deep meditation on our goodness. Praise what is good about us, then work on how to heal the imbalance. (p. 92)

Fox writes a little bit later, in a chapter on the fires of our human spirit:

To bring blessing back to our awareness of body is to bring power back—healthy power, not power-over or power-under but power-with. Because each chakra is about power—getting it right and taking it back—chakra work is very political. We are all meant to share in the power that chakras are about—we all have bodies with spirit-energy yearning to be unleashed in them. There is something democratic about this common unfolding of common power. (p. 98)

Some recent conversations have bounced between the poles of desire and rejection, appreciation and disdain, the distance between the poses of the aesthete and the hip ironic cynic, and the question of whether beauty is what we seek or if it's what arouses us to seek.

I rather think beauty arouses. I think it also makes us seek out more of it.

As an artist, I don't set out to self-consciously create beauty, I set out to say something true. I don't write to intentionally make beauty, but I often write in response to an experience of beauty. Beauty can be a trigger for contemplation. What turns me on and makes me feel fully alive: these experiences live to be shared. Poets praise because they want others to see what they have seen, and also be moved towards praise.

I rather think that the chic ironic bitterness, the elegant misery, so commonly on display in literary criticism makes this same mistake of railing about the negative and ignoring the positive. It's as though criticism is supposed to only be critical, rather than to critique, to tear down rather than be constructive, creating a context in which the beginning critic assumes that accentuating the negative is the one true road to acceptable critical writing. The entire milieu thereafter decomposes.

Some literary critics and reviewers have intimated that they find it hard to write in praise of those books they appreciate, even love. I don't find that difficult at all; I find it easy to praise. (Perhaps as a critic I remain a poet, having taken Rilke's advice, to praise, to heart.) I regularly write appreciations of books and writers that have given me deep life-lessons, deep experiences of embodiment, and more. Why should being honestly enthusiastic about what one likes cripple one as a critic? Why should harsh judgment be seen as more objective, while liking something is seen as purely subjective? These attitudes infest contemporary reviewing and criticism. They're the underlying assumptions behind most literary criticism, the elephant in the room no-one talks about it. What was up has become down.

Any writer who has been through a good writer's critique group, who has learned how to honestly and accurately critique writing, both their own and others, will be able to speak as clearly about what works as what doesn't, in a given piece of writing. Anyone who has graduated from such a critique group will understand that objectivity lies in clearly seeing all the elements of writing in play, without being filtered through an a priori ideology.

I think a lot of critics think they're supposed to be negative, even mean: as though rage were more honest than love, no matter how watered down those two principles are, with ironic distance thought to be more honest than sentimentality. In truth, both are false. Chic ironic bitterness is a corrosive pose. Yet so is sentimental nostalgia. Both the ironic hipster postmodernist and the nostalgic sentimental conservative literary critics do literature no good whatsoever; because their poses are ultimately passionless, detached for all the wrong reasons, and rarely say anything meaningful enough to risk being thought wrong. The sin here is disengagement, of whatever variety; the cure is to embrace.

This sin of criticism furthermore expresses itself in how we give awards to books (and movies) we think are more honest in their depiction of our world—because they are more violent, more negative, more alienated, more brutal. We praise what shatters us over what heals and rejoins. We give awards to books that promote the pornography of despair, the minute analysis of the unthinkable, the piping of apocalypse. (And of whatever apocalypse is fashionable at the moment: the legacy of puritanism expresses itself as harsh critiques of beauty if making that beauty is seen as exploitative. The environmental preservation movement contains as many fulminating puritans as does the religious right; they even find common ground on occasion, mutually shaking their fingers in condemnation of the rest of us, those more fallen then they.) Many of these award-winning books (and movies) are crap. Well-made crap, perhaps, but crap. We sneer at books which don't try to make us feel worse than we already do. We give even more contempt to books that try to uplift. That Cormac McCarthy's deeply sado-masochistic novels are given more honor than Matthew Fox's creation-centered books whose purpose is to redeem theology gone astray is surely a sign that what was up has become down. (Of course, apocalyptic doom-saying has always sold better than praise-saying: it's more titillating.)

And this is why post-modernism doesn't really exist, because it's still Modernism that's being dealt addressed, not anything that might have come after. We've had just over a century of Modernism, and whatever we claim to be doing, artistically, that's still what we're responding to. The ironic distancing, the alienation, the isolation even in the midst of the crowd: that's the Modern condition, first recognized in and by the arts over a century ago, now, and still regarded as the core truth of life, still accepted as the new creation story, the myth of separation amongst the fallen. Even in cosmological astrophysics, where entropy is oft regarded as an ultimately unbeatable foe. We're still stuck in the poetic truth of World War I, that Wilfred Owen, poet fated to die in that war, stated as, "All a poet can do today is warn." I say post-Modernism doesn't really exist because it's a rebellion against Modernism—to be blunt it's often more anti- than pro- any given position—but Modernism remains its central focus and idea. If post-modernism were truly to be something after Modernism, it wouldn't use that "M" word in its very label. If anything, post-modern critical theory tends to push the questions raised by modernism to their ultimate extremes, highlighting and accentuating them, making more of them than modernism ever chose to, to probe without restraint into all the dead-end alleyways of alienation and totalitarianism.

There's something rather repellant about this project. Wilfred Owen told the truth of his time, of his life and death. But to continue the exchange of the context of uncreation for the context of creation is perhaps modernism's and post-modernism's defining sin: the substitution of praise with not lament, but annihilation. (A word I can never spell correctly without looking it up; perhaps some part of me doesn't want that word to invade my vocabulary.) Ironic detachment was never meant to become a permanent lifestyle, a totalizing filter through which to view all art and living. No more so was narcissism. Yet narcissistic self-regard is the flip side of ironic distancing: it reveals both a fear of getting hurt by becoming too attached, and a solipsistic tendency towards regarding oneself as more real than any Other.

And the answer is not to roll the culture back, reverse the clock, pine for a golden pre-modern age that never was, that never existed except in the dreams of conservative nostalgia. The answer is to back out of the dead-end alleys where we find ourselves, find that road that leads towards the omega point of un-alienation, and get back on it. Not looking back to see where we've been, but taking those lessons with us as we fly forwards. Literary conservatism is at its finest when it works towards conserving what is good, in the sense of "conservation," of preserving what tradition gives us that is of enduring value; it is at its worst when it becomes regressive and unfeeling towards the bodies and lives of its critics.

Back in confirmation class in the Lutheran church my family attended, I heard our insightful pastor state that the key part of the word "sin" is the letter "I" in the middle of everything. If writers suffer from an overabundance of personality-ego, of narcissistic self-regard, so also do their critics. Literary criticism is at its least convincing when the critic strives to raise his own self-esteem by tearing down the artist's work under review. The symptoms of narcissistic self-regard in literary criticism are fairly easy to spot: The need to always have the last, definitive word, on any subject; the defensiveness aroused when a critical assessment is disagreed with, which often leads not to dialogue intended to probe closer to the truth but to argumentative restatements of fixed opinions; and, the escalation of attack, from critiquing an interlocutor's logical inconsistencies, to ad hominem bullying. I read many critics who seem to have this near-pathological need to have the last say in every sort of discussion, even outside their admitted expertise; that I don't share this need to have the last word seems to be regarded as a sign of weakness (as though pit-bull aggression were the only acceptable style of discourse), or of myself being a lesser writer therefore. So be it.

I've had to laugh more than once when some fulminating moralist of a neo-conservative neo-formalist poet pointed in pulpit-pounding horror at one of my more experimental writings and proclaimed, That isn't poetry! I use the analogy to fundamentalist religious rhetoric quite deliberately here: the attitudes, and the theology of lament, are identical. To be sure, I have myself speculated at times if those experimental "new" poetries often lumped together taxonomically as "post-avant," notably Language Poetry and its affiliates, don't suffer from the sin of foregrounding the means more than the ends, creating a de facto theology of grammar and syntax while ignoring what grammar and syntax were born to praise; in other words, the sin of being surface-oriented and attracted most to shiny reflections, rather like magpies. If you were to look at the techniques used in some of my more exploratory poems, such as broken syntax, dream-grammar and dream-association, or the parataxis involved in unitary visionary states of consciousness, you'd probably ally those poems with the most current avant-garde poetries; yet I'm rejected by those camps for the sin, in their eyes, of violating their theology of grammar in favor of using words to convey actual meaning, to embody experience, rather than purely surface sensation. (Or sensationalism.) What was once up has become down, again. Critical vertigo is perhaps understandable.

In the eyes of fashionable, chic critical cynicism, and equally in the eyes of regressive neo-conservative criticism, I am guilty of the sin they define as caring about what I'm saying deeply enough to want to say it well. The neo-formalist attacks on my more experimental writings have never been able to decimate my program on technical grounds, so their attacks have been largely moral and definitional. They un-define the work as non-poetry. Likewise, I am not ironically distanced enough from life and its embodiment, rather I embrace it. I practically wallow in it, to be blunt.

But beauty continues to arouse. My ardor responds to beauty with art-making. I sing to praise the chants of other singers.

The true sin is not to praise. If a critic is ashamed to praise, has taken on the attitude that praise is amateurish and unseemly, not to be taken seriously, or has become so indoctrinated with this attitude that holds praise in low regard—that is the world fallen into its own egotistical self-regard, that is the Fall.

To authentically praise is not to ignore the flaws, the little toolmarks left over from the crafting and shaping, or the ways in which a book fails to engulf the reader. To authentically praise, as poets praise, is not blind sentiment, not nostalgia for some mythic time when literature meant Something More than it does now and authors were both more gifted and brilliant.

To authentically praise, as poets praise, is to see everything in the clearest sunlight available, as flowers turn to follow the sun, and neither disguise what fails nor dismiss what succeeds. There is no pose, no distancing, no chic turn of phrase, merely an unveiled eye staring steadily at what it sees.

And being allowed to praise what beauty we find is to bring blessing back, to bring original blessing back to a context that has veered too far towards seeing only original sin. And that is why it's not difficult to write about what we love, and why.

With thanks to Lee Lowe for the instigation.

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