Commentaries - September 2007

When Tom Devaney interviewed Carl Rakosi, he asked this question: "I wanted to ask about the effect Stevens had upon your writing. In your poem 'Homage to Wallace Stevens' (later renamed in the Collected as the 'Domination of Wallace Stevens'), there is both a music of the language and direct use of musical terms and language. You write:

These are privacies behind the mask
but they are not the manners of a boy
who blows his French horn, smiles at twelve o’clock
and sips the old port from the hostess’s shoe."

Laughing, Rakosi, answered this way: "You know, there I almost translated Stevens, it’s so close. Well, it was a catastrophe when I started to read Stevens because he just enveloped me, he was a seducer. I didn’t at first object to that, but then I thought it was going to put an end to me. So it took me a long time to finally shake him off. He greatly influenced my early work, but then my own poem is also a bit of a parody of Stevens. You notice the character in the poem is Levy, not an Anglo-Saxon."

Tom described the scene of the interview this way: "What most strikes you in Mr. Rakosi’s living room, where we recorded the interview and listened to music at length on both days, is a large three-paneled front window, which fills the room with a clean, generous light (in the aptly named Inner Sunset district). The front window faces west toward the Pacific ocean, which can be felt more than seen. The window looks out upon the sloping 17th Avenue, where telephone wires criss-cross with a uniform sag between the area’s signature staggered and stacked duplexes. In the living room, you also cannot miss the impressive twin four-feet-tall black Polk audio speakers and high-end stereo system. Carl is well known to sit for hours enjoying his extensive collection of classical and modern CDs and records."

This interview was published in Jacket in February 2004.

When I reviewed Gerald Graff's book on "teaching the conflicts," I had as much space as I needed (I was writing for Review and its editor Jay Hoge gave me no limit). In part because Graff's idea had already received a great deal of attention, I decided to set his argument in the context of the Cold War-era political correctness debates. It was an odd gesture, because nowhere in the book does Graff refer to anticommunism or to pedagogy in the 1950s.

Here are the first two paragraphs of my piece:

Saul Bellow was surely right when in May of 1994 he noted for a New Yorker writer that the culture wars of the nineties have their rhetorical and logical origins in the fifties — in the "super-charged battles between anti-Communists and anti-anti-Communists." I take this cue (though little else, I'm afraid) from Mr. Bellow. He is right to imply that while so much has been said and written about political correctness in the eighties and nineties, little has been done to put the debates in the context of anticommunism. Though Bellow believes anti-anticommunists were largely influenced by Stalinism — here's where, unsurprisingly, he parts with the left — he does concede that what little anti-anticommunist resistance there was in the 1950s arose because some liberals didn't enjoy "being forced to line up" in the rush to consensus. To Bellow those who in the late forties and fifties fashioned liberal anticommunism (those who did "line up" — Bellow scornfully says many indulged in "opinion- consumerism") had earlier been the not-altogether happy participants in the Popular Front, New Deal Democrats among them. More interesting is Bellow's notion that those who formed anti- anticommunism had been either outright communists earlier, or liberals whose liberalism became "liberal fanaticism" when in the 1950s they refused to participate in McCarthyism. These anti- anticommunists, Bellow suggests, are the principal forerunners of advocates of "political correctness" forty years later. Bellow sees in contemporary liberalism a radicalism of people stuck on slogans, labels and rigidified positions ("mindless ... medallion-wearing ... placard-bearing" folks), and evidently he deems this group more properly the inheritors of anti-anticommunist Stalinism than of anticommunist liberalism — as if the latter ideology did not have an ideology, had no slogans, bore no placards. This PC genealogy is the key, I think, to discerning the positions taken in the newest outbreak of culture wars. PC bashers inherit from the fifties the anticommunists' assumption that the most powerful anti-anticommunists are Stalinists-become-"liberal fanatics," while anti-PC bashers inherit from the fifties the anti-anticommunists' assumption that the most powerful anticommunists are liberals become more truly themselves. At issue, primarily, is which group gets to claim as its rightful heritage from the cold-war era the notion that intellectual and social culture benefit from radical dissensus, disagreement, and difference. Yet in the fifties almost every anticommunist at one point or other argued *against* dissensus for the sake of the necessarily greater disagreement with Soviet (or "world") communism (e.g. limits on the right of American communists to teach in the universities, for the sake of national security), while, even if only for strategic reasons, the anti-anticommunists were the ones incessantly arguing for the right (indeed the usefulness) of radical dissent, including that of communists.

Although Gerald Graff, as he wrote Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education, was surely aware of a cold-war context for his contention that, for instance, intellectual extreme opposites "need" each other to make their positions meaningful, it was never his purpose to make his argument depend on such awareness. Yet Beyond the Culture Wars would benefit from this focus, and since, moreover, so much has been written about Graff's book since its publication in 1992 in relation to the political correctness, canon revision and multiculturalism controversies, I intend here to concentrate on restoring what I take to be the crucial though perhaps necessarily unspoken cold-war background to Graff's proposal. The 1950s' relevance to what Graff nicely calls "teaching the conflicts" reveals both the value of Graff's insights about the cultural resistance to intellectual many-sidedness and the limitations of a liberal pedagogical idealism that is trying too hard to avoid the old communist-anticommunist contest. Despite what I take to be implicitly his acuity about the effects of cold-war consensus on the universities, and of red-baiting on intellectual culture at large, his promotion of an argument-counterargument structure to literary education too often neglects the fact that equal-time liberalism has a cultural precondition rendering free and open colloquy not so easily made free and open. Graff would say (rightly, I think) that the precondition must itself be taught, but the resulting meta-pedagogical involution, however boldly self-conscious, is not without its own politics.

Here is the text of the whole review.

"We cannot bear to face our knowledge that the satisfaction of our desire for justice, which we confuse with our desire for vengeance, is impossible. And so we invent as a victim the most comprehensive image which our reason, however deranged, will permit us: the whole of a people and the descendants of that people; and count ourselves incomparably their superior because we stop short of the idea of annihilation."

This was James Agee, on American public reaction to Nazi atrocity films (May 19, 1945, in the Nation magazine).

Yes, that's Bill Gates at right, tossing a floppy disk into the air.

On Tuesday, September 18, at 7:30 PM, the Writers House will feature film-maker Sarah J. Christman and her film Dear Bill Gates.

The 16 mm film is 17 minutes long and was made in 2006. It's described this way: "A simple correspondence evolves into a poetic visual essay exploring the ownership of our visual history and culture. Combining original and archival film, video and images from the internet, Dear Bill Gates draws unexpected connections among mining, memory and Microsoft." More here.

Sarah Christman is a Philadelphia based independent media producer whose films have screened internationally. She has edited for both television and independent film, including the High Definition media arts channel Moovlab. Sarah received her MFA in Film & Media Arts at Temple University. She is the co-founder of Memory Bank Media, a post-production studio that specializes in the digital preservation of home movies and photographs.

My interview/conversation with John Ashbery, which took place on March 26, 2002, is available as a RealVideo recording. It was delightful — utterly — lthough I wouldn't say that J.A. answered my questions about his poems with any sort of directness. Not that I was expecting that.

"When one goes at ideas directly," he once said, "with hammer and tongs as it were, ideas tend to elude one in a poem. I think they only come back in when one pretends not to be paying any attention to them, like a cat that will rub against your leg." There he's circling around, but I'll note that (a) his topic is the circling-around of good writing, and (b) it's about as precise a way of describing his poem's relation to ideas as he could give.

Someone once said to him, "I remember having writing teachers insist, 'Write what you know!'" Ashbery's response: "But one doesn't know anything! That's the problem." What does it mean to know something? Still more tentatively: What does it mean to learn something?

As he put it once in a poem, in school all the thought gets combed out. In "What Is Poetry" — the title is not a question but the phrasal description of a category (and categorical problem) — he wonders if poetry is

Trying to avoid

Ideas, as in this poem? But we
Go back to them as to a wife, leaving

The mistress we desire? Now they
Will have to believe it

As we believed it. In school
All the thought got combed out:

What was left was like a field.