Reports from the Plague Ground: The Gothic Threat of Art (Surrealism, Kitsch, Blake Butler, Aase Berg, Delillo, Tranströmer)
As readers of this blog know, I’m really interested in the critical frameworks critics/writers (usually in positions of institutional power) use to dismiss some artworks and canonize others. As I’ve pointed out in the past, an incredibly prevalent framework – perhaps *the* framework for judgements in US lit – involves the greatness of the individual who goes against the masses. The authentic genius goes against the zeitgeist, the masses of other poets.
This frameworks is often expressed as some version of an anti-kitsch rhetoric: Ron Silliman’s dismissals of “soft surrealism” or Tony Hoagland’s dismissals of “skittery poets of the moment” are of course prime examples. The kitschy, usually un-named masses of poets tend to be associated with “surrealism” or “postmodernism.” And they tend to be associated with the counterfeit, the fake (“soft surrealism” being a fake, soft version of surrealism), and indeed a softness which Hoagland in his screed against Fence associates with a poisoned form of writing – overly “influenced”, not strong in their own right.
As Hoagland says, they are “degenerate.” That is to say, this is an anti-anachronistic poetics we see in both the Hoaglands and the Sillimans of the world. Both poets who call themselves “innovative” and poets who call themselves traditional afterall depend on an idea of time and linage. The counterfeit pets are those that don’t fit into the future-lineage of “innovative” writing, or the historical lineage of “traditional” poets. They are degenerate poets.
Increasingly, it seems to me that this is all about an idea of being human.
In his screed against Fence, Hoagland won’t name the Fence poets, while he names Matthew Zapruder, whose work he calls “adult.” He’s a more human poet. And how human a writer is is bound up to “proper influence.” Surrealism is anachronistic, tasteless, violent, threatening, tasteless. Literature must be protected against this lowbrow disease/poison.
In one blurb I read the other day on a book of poetry (which I liked), the famous writer praised a younger writer for standing up against the sea of surrealism: she’s the heroic individual (the kind you bring into lineage, canon), while surrealism represents a nameless mass of people, possible inhuman like the sea.
Poetry’s present tense rejects the future in favour of an inflorating and decaying omnipresence, festive and overblown as a funeral garland, flimsy and odiforous, generating excess without the orderliness of generations. It rejects genre. It rejects “a” language. Rejects form for formlessness. It doesn’t exist in one state, but is always making corrupt copies of itself. “Too many books are being written, too many books are being published by ‘inconsequential’ presses, there’s no way to know what to read anymore, people are publishing too young, it’s immature, it’s unmemorable, the Internet is run amok with bad writing and half formed opinions, there’s no way to get a comprehensive picture”. Exactly. You just have to wade through the plague ground of the present, give up and lie down in it, as the floodwaters rise from the reversed drains, sewage-riven, bearing tissue and garbage, the present tense resembles you in all its spumey and spectacolor 3-D.
Critics need to establish a hierarchy, a canon, a lineage that will take them out of the plague ground, to safe land, to personhoods (individuals) with critical distance. Literature has to be redeemed by becoming “Literature,” a hierarchy with proper influences and lineages. Certainly not “open idea files”. Lineage creates a future for art, makes it “innovative” and “traditional,” redeems it.
It seems to me in the fiction world, the term “postmodern” seems to have a similar function as “surreal” does in poetry. To judge from many book reviews, American literature is overrun by clever postmodernist “ironists” who don’t dare to be sincere, by which is meant “real.” These statements tend to come in reviews precisely of the “sincere” writers, and the ironic writers need not be mentioned. These “ironic” or postmodern writers are icons of a kind of “Romantic Irony” – they are not what they seem. They are fake. Counterfeit.
(But let me remind you: ART is COUNTERFEIT!!)
And the people praised for their sincerity are praised for heroically standing up against this tide of irony. These sincere writers are the few and true; the rest are the many counterfeits. The few are brave, the ironic writers are somehow cowardly. It’s the same paradigm as in Hoagland’s anti-Fence piece. It’s the HUMAN against the TIDE of COUNTERFEITS.
It’s the HUMAN against unredeemed ART.
But sometimes the reviews are about these icons of fakeness, these postmodernists. For example, I remember a book forum review of Don Delilo’s latest, where Alexander Hemon wrote:
It is a fascinating spectacle indeed, if for no other reason than its rarity. But in the end, I’d rather eat a strawberry, smell my daughter’s hair, or read a book that, against all postmodern odds, conjures up the intense experience of human life.
Ie Delillo is inhuman, unreal in his postmodern “oddness”, while Hemon prefers the real “human life” experience of touching his daughter’s hair. And: reproductive futurism. He’s human and “adult” (to go back to Hoagland’s article) because he has offspring.
In his review of Blake Butler’s “There is No Year,” David Haglund (my mother’s maiden name!) gives a different take on this. Here Haglund criticizes Blake for not being “transparent.” But this isn’t exactly tying into the old Langpo pro-opacity, foregrounding the signifer over the signfied (a model that produces, as I’ve noted, its own heap of kitsch), what Haglund means by transparent melds style and character. The characters are not “real” or authentic – they are “stock characters.” They do not have psychological complexity, interiority: they are not “HUMAN.”
The story is “half-realized” (or “degenerate” to go back to Hoagland’s evolutionary view of lineage):
The problem is that the names just sit there: After Butler lists them, the book simply moves on. Together, the names do suggest a mood and milieu: suburban, slightly comic, supernatural, macabre. That mood unquestionably comes across, but once it’s conveyed all that’s left to sustain our interest—in the absence, more or less, of character and story—are the shape and sound of Butler’s prose.
And: “There is too much of this.”
And: “The house of There Is No Year may, in some sense, be haunted, but the souls inside it remain frustratingly opaque.”
So many of the tropes I’m talking about comes through here: it’s surreal, its theatrical, it doesn’t give us a pay off, it’s thus stunted, childish, anachronistic; it evokes the “haunted houses” of Poe and like the common view of these kinds of gothic tales, the “souls” are “opaque.” They are perhaps ghosts. And it’s interesting how the style melds with the souls of the characters: the characters, like the prose, are too gothic, too theatrical, not real or “human” enough, not authentic.
I’m beginning to feel that this charge – as with the charge against the supposed proliferation of surrealists and Fence writers/readers – displays a fundamental discomfort with art itself – counterfeit, affective, proliferative, influenced/influencing. The sincere text reveals itself through epiphanies; it does not keep secrets. These surreal/postmodern/gothic texts are counterfeit, ie too much art (kitsch is not, as Daniel Tiffany writes, about a lack of beauty but “excessive beauty”), ie NOT HUMAN.
The Art has to be redeemed.
I’m thinking a lot about HP Lovecraft these days and will give some analyzes of his work in the days go come. For right now, I want to leave you with a quote from a manifesto written by Lovecraft-translator Aase Berg and Matthias Forshage, when both were members of the notorious group The Stockholm Surrealists in the mid-90s:
Surrealism on the outer edge of time: irrational, compromising, conspiratorial, confused, monotonous, bloodthirsty. Find it with the lemurs, on the bloodstained backstreets or in the parks that are still ugly
[Also, Joyelle and I quoted this in our manifesto on “soft surrealism” a while back.]
Oh, one more thing, about Aase Berg calling Transtromer “kitsch”: I think this makes sense in terms of this discussion. On the day he wins the Big Award, becomes most Human, when most people discuss the humanity and accessibility of his poetry, Berg wants to make him kitschy, or, to bring in my initial reaction to the news of his award, turn him into orthoceras, something anachronistic, inhuman, but also something that, like kitsch, has ability to infect and be infected by contemporeity.
Not “watertight.” Not wellwrought urn. Or, yes, wellwrought urn, that tacky thing, that trilobite (ie bad translation).