'Truth in the Body of Falsehood:' Ian Probstein interviews Charles Bernstein on 9/11, translation, and amorality

This interview was first published Gefter. in Russian, on Sept. 11, 2015. Arcade published the interview and an accomanying essay by Ian Probstein, on Nov. 12. 2015: the essay is linked here.  See also at Arcade “In Imploded Sentences: On Charles Bernstein’s Poetic Attentions” by Enikö Bollobásin (written for the Janua Pannonious Prize: linked here).  A one hour TV with Probstein and Bernstein is on PennSound: linked here

Ian Probstein: Besides a great shock and a great tragedy, 9/11 was kind of awakening: people for a time became more human more considerate to each other. What can you say today about that?

Charles Bernstein: I’d say people were shaken up, disoriented, vulnerable. It created an opening that was immediately exploited by the right. The focus on “the axis of evil” without was used to stoke the “axis of evil” within. I suppose that’s very human, but not in the good sense. 

I.P. Are Americans wiser and more human now than fourteen years ago?

CH. B: More human is not necessarily a good thing: the followers of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were plenty human. Wisdom is cheap in the New World.

I.P. There were a number of plot theories including the one proposed by the famous linguist Noam Chomsky. Do you believe there is half-truth in them?

None of those alleged plots was as bad as what happened on the public record: the lying about WMDs, the torture, the disregard for the consequence of invading Iraq and how that stoked Al Queda and now the Islamic State.

It is believed that the worst U.S. president ever was George W. Bush, yet the question is: why was he elected and re-elected?

George II was elected by Qaeda, that is, their actions aided Bush, and this was, I imagine, part of the plan, to “heighten the contradictions,” as the ultra-Leftists used to say. (Ultra-Leftists are to the left what red flags are to bulls, or lobotomies to poets.) But wait … George II wasn’t elected. It was a coup d’état lead by Anthony Scalia. 

[Author’s note: the 2000 U.S. presidential election was decided by the Supreme Court in a decision support from Scalia and his conservative fellow justices. Many felt the case was decided more on the outcome, to deny the presidency to Al Gore, who won the poplar vote, than on the legal argument.]

Was George W. Bush just the manager, or rather, spokesperson of the wealthy? Maybe it would have been better if he just painted pets and politicians?  What was Cheney’s role?

For “manager” read “instrument” for “instrument” read “living embodiment” for “living embodiment” read “spirit” for “spirit” read “running dog” for “running dog” read … well you get the idea. I think George II’s values organically mesh with the interest of some segments of the wealthy, let’s say the Saudis, let’s say the Koch Brothers [Charles and David Koch], let’s say “You give me shell-shock” [Sheldon] Adeleson; but the “wealthy” have competing interests, ones they are willing to sacrifice a lot of other people’s sons to pursue. (And while the wealthy have a lot of money they are often culturally anorexic.) I am not in a position to say who is the spokesperson of whom, or what of what or which of which … I think ideas speak through these people and George II was notable in being a fine medium for these ideas. Mr. and Mrs. Cheney and remind me of Lord and Lady Macbeth. I keep in mind that Lynne Cheney presided over the National Endowment for the Humanities, which is a bit like have Dracula running the blood bank.

On the other hand, many people now claim that President Obama destroyed America introducing elements of socialism and his foreign policy failed incredibly. 

Not enough socialism! If by socialism you mean a more appropriate distribution of wealth and a government that offers crucial public services. It’s worth noting here, with you, that what is meant by “left” in Brooklyn is not the same thing as in Budapest or St. Petersburg, and it’s not the same “right” in the U.S.A. and in the former Soviet bloc. Moreover, the right in Eastern Europe may be the most viscerally against Putin’s right (formally left: left/right right/left, sound off!, 1, 2, 3,4). It can make a directional dyslexic like me go into spin cycle. At one level, this seems obvious, but I feel the different orientations are pervasively repressed. That is, we feel the specter of totalitarianism is coming from different directions; the unconscious paranoias are different.

— Yes Obama seems to be failing to get us into more large-scale wars, including one with Iran. But the war industry is doing fine anyway. He never promised us a rose garden. 

Many people think that the deal with Iran will eventually endanger, if not destroy, Israel.

Many people think that the deal with Iran will eventually protect, if not save, Israel. Many people think that the policies of Netanyahu and the ultra-orthodox have already endangered Israel, possibly irreparably. Brooklyn and Chicago can be as much a home for Jews as Tel Aviv and more of a home than in the occupied territories.

To the question about a link between the so-called social reality and poetry. People talk a lot about social poetry these days. You are a proponent of trans-sense postmodernist poetry and at the same time — the author of Some of These Daze, “On Election Day,” “Strike” and the like. How much of sense and of so to speak, social reality there should be in poetry? 

The kind of poetry I want intensifies sense in its futile effort to negate social reality. 

Do you believe that language itself reveals lies of those who use it, as was in George Orwell’s 1984? Essentially, politicians were using the same vocabulary. Hitler, for instance, constantly struggled for peace (so does Putin).

“Language itself” reveals nothing; it responds to the demands of its users. Here’s the problem: the language of truth, of authenticity, is as liable to be commandeered by dark matter as much as the propagandistic manipulations and deceptions of Bush or Putin.

Should poetry be absurd to reflect the absurdity of the so-called reality?

Reality is absurd, often in a cruel or monstrous way. The kind of poetry I want negates the binary opposition of irony and sincerity.

How much of this absurd and this negation of “the binary of irony and sincerity” is revealed in such poems as, for instance, “Time Served,” “Dea%r Fr~ien%d,” or “Song Dynasty”?

As much as possible and, if I can be permitted this conceit, a little more than possible.  

Re: “Reality is absurd, often in a cruel or monstrous way. The kind of poetry I want negates the binary of irony and sincerity”:  I noticed that translation or rather imitation of poems from Catullus to Osip Mandelstam to Khlebnikov to Apollinaire and Paul Celan started to occupy more and more room in your books. What goals do you pursue? Once you wrote: “The translation of poetry is never more than an extension of the practice of poetry” (“How Empty Is My Bread Pudding”). On the other hand, there is an apocrypha attributed to Robert Frost: “Poetry is what is lost in translation.” What is your philosophy of translation?

I disagree with Robert Frost’s often quoted remark that poetry “is lost … in translation.” For me, poetry is always a kind of translation, transformation, transposition, and metamorphosis. There is nothing “outside” translation: no original poem or idea, nor one perfect translation. It’s a matter of choosing among versions. Translation is a form of reading or interpreting or thinking with the poem. In that sense, there can be no experiencing the poem, even in your own language, without translating. Without translation the poem remains just a text, a document, a series of inert words.

Poetry is what is found in translation. 

Can there be bad language poetry?

You could just as well ask can there be good language poetry? Or I could say it’s the bad that is really the good: but I am so very tired of that kind of remark. Most poetry of every kind isn’t all that good, after all; but maybe that is not the point. A “bad” poem can sometimes do the work of poetry as well as, maybe better than, a “good” poem: cheap liquor may pack more punch than an aged bottle of wine. Still, I’d rather drink the good stuff. (This is what the ultra-leftists will crucify me for.)

Is the politics implied or stated explicitly? You have written of “the politics of poetic form.”

So much depends upon what you mean by politics. What is stated implicitly in a poem is never what the poem is saying; what is implied is a nest of hornets (or bluebirds). As Blanche says in A Streetcar Named Desire, “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers.” The politics of the poem is just such a stranger. The trick is not to scare it away.

What about poetry as a moral force?

I left my moral compass at the office. In other words: the politics of a poem is not in its moral posture but its moral imposture, or, as Jerome McGann wrote, “Truth in the Body of Falsehood.”