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This item is taken from PN Review 78, Volume 17 Number 4, March - April 1991.Letters from Grevel Lindop, David McDuff, James Keery, Donald Davie
Alan Massey's gentle remonstrance (P·N·R 77) only shows how difficult it is to avoid well-meant but unhelpful platitudes where the Rushdie affair is concerned. I was not defending Ayatolla Khomeini. I called him, borrowing Richard Webster's words, 'cruel and tyrannical', and would be quite happy with stronger language. Indeed, I find it odd that Mr Massie speaks of Rushdie's being 'sentenced to death'. A sentence is a penalty awarded after some process of law. As far as I am aware, Khomeini's demands for Rushdie's death had no status under Iranian law; under international law I suspect that public incitement to murder of a foreign national is itself a crime. To call such incitement 'a sentence' risks taking tyranny at its own valuation.
Mr Massey tells us that 'the right to free expression has taken centuries to win, and we should be resolute and uncompromising in its defence'. Part of the burden of my note was to point out that unqualified 'free expression' does not and could not exist. Among the things we cannot now legally publish with impunity are libels, racist opinions or argument, certain kinds of pornography, written material borrowed without acknowledgement from other living writers, our memoirs if we belong to certain categories of the Civil Service or blasphemies against the Christian religion - other religions not being so protected. What we have, therefore, is freedom of expression within limits. And the limits are debatable.
Richard Webster's practical suggestions, which I endorsed, were merely that The Satanic Verses should not appear in paperback, and that we might consider a law to protect all religions, not from criticism but from 'scurrilous abuse'. I should like to see Mr Massie respond to these points.
I was pleased to read John Pilling's review of Ice Around Our Lips on page 53 of P·N·R 76 (Volume 17 No. 2). I'd like to point out, however, that Snow Leopard is not by Solveig von Schoultz, but by Tua Forsström - my translation of it was published in December by Bloodaxe.
London SE10 8QN
My only regret on reading Roger Scruton's sour little fable was that I am no longer in a position to use it with my students for comparison with Orwell's Animal Farm.
One could find love and magnanimity in Orwell. I can find neither in Scruton.
I take it Donald Davie's tongue was in his cheek when he claimed to be 'pursuing his researches' into postmodernism ('Postmodernism and Allen Curnow', P·N·R 77; sequel to 'Post-modernism, Craft and the Market for Poetry', P·N·R 75). It's true that you don't need to eat the whole ox to know that the meat is tough, but dismissing a book by its index is hardly research.
Tactically, both articles are frankly eccentric. It was only on a bemused second reading of the first that I realized why Ralph Glasser kept popping up - it's actually a review of the third volume of his autobiography, graciously given its title in a footnote! The approach 'makes Ralph Glasser seem foolish', as Davie admits. One might have thought a denunciation of postmodernism would engage with Ashbery, Prynne and Fisher, perhaps with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, or even with Eagleton, Jameson and Lyotard, the villains of the ignominious index (or should that be Index?). Rather than with Ralph Glasser, Zygmunt Bauman and Professor Roy Lewis of Southampton University School of Law. Or with the hapless editor of Allen Curnow's Selected Poems, a book, we are told, 'too good to serve merely as a pretext', which is precisely its fate. Perhaps we may expect these curious items to appear unchanged in a 'History' of the nineties (see the recent altercation between Davie and Neil Powell, P·N·R 72/3).
Yet, in undertaking to speak for those who have 'failed to take the measure of what offers itself as "postmodernism"', Davie commands respect: the author of Purity of Diction in English Verse, Articulate Energy and Thomas Hardy and British Poetry is deservedly the most influential of living British critics. So it is, after all, dismaying as well as ridiculous to find him at the mercy of The London Review of Books: 'Paul Muldoon ... has been seen to epitomize the postmodern - for instance by Neil Corcoran, who takes "Muldoonian" as interchangeable with "postmodern"'!
Davie considers the term 'manifestly illogical', in the same sentence using 'modernist' to refer to work done seventy years ago. Pedantry satisfied, he proceeds to offer a perfectly fair definition: 'a manageable formula to cover texts which, taking for granted the liberties that the modernist writer had achieved, have sought to go on from there.' He has now, however, come to the conclusion that 'the postmodern can't be so easily contained; its alliance with consumerism makes the postmodern a phenomenon altogether more menacing': 'Belatedly, I arrive at a sense of it: it means the abrogation, the eclipse of historical memory', 'consumerism in another guise, packaged for upmarket consumers'; modernism meanwhile having come to signify 'that thing which postmodernism has conclusively superseded and discredited'.
In a sense it is gratuitous to answer Davie's bizarre indictment - 'Postmodernism would, it seems, homogenize us ... under the savoury steam of Macdonald's hamburgers or Colonel Sanders' Kentucky Fried Chicken' - for the simple truth is that he has taken the 'passing fad' for the authentic achievements and developments behind it. His indiscriminate assertions apply only crudely even to the fashionable Penguin-postmodernism of Morrison and Motion's anthology (Contemporary British Poetry, 1982); as regards the most exciting work in A Various Art or the new british poetry they are just irrelevant mistakes. Venturing nearer Kentucky, John Pilling's account of Ashbery's art criticism, elsewhere in P·N·R 75, is surely accurate: 'discourses that run very much counter to the present epoch's insatiable consumerism'.
Comparison might be made with a paragraph written in 1921: 'By this time psychoanalysis had become a public danger. The mob was on the alert. The Oedipus complex was a household word, the incest motive a commonplace of tea-table chat. Amateur analyses became the vogue. 'Wait till you've been analysed,' said one man to another, with varying intonation. A sinister look came into the eyes of the initiates - the famous, or infamous, Freud look. You could recognize it anywhere, wherever you went.'
The ridiculousness, even the malignity, of the 'fad' is not lost on Lawrence, and as a result his equally impressionistic evocation of the true impact of Freud's researches is all the more memorable.
And so, who could remain unmoved when Freud seemed suddenly to plunge towards the origins? Suddenly he stepped out of the conscious into the unconscious, out of the everywhere into the nowhere, like some supreme explorer. He walks straight through the wall of sleep, and we hear him rumbling in the cavern of dreams ... Walk bang into the wall, and behold the wall isn't there. (Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious).
Postmodernism is merely the name that has happened to become current for the most intriguing and beautiful poetry of our age: The Double Dream of Spring, Houseboat Days and As We Know; The White Stones; City; and so on - it is, of course, 'the currently acceptable ... "ism"'; meanwhile, the genuine poems are still being written. But I also love Larkin and Auden, Eliot and Pound - and Stevens - and see no inconsistency. According to Davie, 'allegiance' to Pound 'rules out any profound sympathy with Wallace Stevens': 'one may be a devotee of one of these modernist masters or of the other one, but not of both at once'. Are these the only incompatible masters, or must the same be said of Larkin and Ashbery? Or Lawrence and Eliot, Hopkins and Tennyson, perhaps even Pope and Blake or Milton and Shakespeare? Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (1974) was a brilliantly original book, still the only available common ground between Prynne, Fisher and Larkin, but, sadly, Davie's horizons would appear to be narrowing. In Under Briggflatts (subtitled A History of Poetry in Great Britain 1960-1988), Prynne and Fisher - to play the index game - are accorded equal status with Mandy Rice-Davis!
Donald Davie replies:
I am glad that I have earned golden opinions from James Keery in the past; and sorry, though not altogether surprised, to know that I have forfeited his good opinion by a couple of attempts I have lately made to understand what is meant in poetry by 'postmodernism'. He is right to think that I have my tongue in my cheek when I speak of pursuing my researches into this phenomenon. For research, certainly literary research, will never run to ground a creature that lives entirely by fad and fashion, whose spoor accordingly can be picked up only in and between the lines of smart fugitive journalism. Mr Keery thinks that responsible criticism should concern itself with less flimsy documents. And I agree with him - hence the tone of angry facetiousness which I find myself using when compelled (by the times, and my responsibility to them - for he agrees I am 'influential') to attend to ephemera which he and I alike could, if our culture were in a healthier state, leave to consume themselves and pass away. But after several years trying to apply this flattering unction to my critical conscience, I discovered some time ago that I had after all no confidence that the fatuities trading under the label 'postmodernism' would pass away of their own accord. Hence my attempts, which so understandably distress James Keery, to hunt down and scotch the stupid and unnecessary beast in its own haunts - which are certainly not the hunting-grounds of respectable literary scholarship. I go slumming with Ralph Glasser and Zygmunt Bauman and Southampton's Professor Roy Lewis, not because I like their company but because that is where the trail leads. And I have the right to ask James Keery: If I didn't indict Southampton University's English and Law faculties, who would? (From those quarters, he will notice, not a peep has been heard.)
Keery would have me engage with (rather than Glasser, Bauman and Lewis) John Ashbery, Jeremy Prynne and Roy Fisher - which would make me respectable, since these last three are names that a literary scholar can decently be concerned with, whereas it is indecent of him to pry into the affairs of sociologists and lawyers like Roy Lewis and Zygmunt Bauman and Ralph Glasser. Departments and disciplines make common cause, whatever their internal disagreements, against the interloper - who has been, the historical record shows, more often than not the literary man. Keery, without in the least intending it I believe, endorses that arrangement: let the literary man attend to poems and novels and plays, not to larger (or at all events waftier) issues that are not his concern. I would maintain, citing Coleridge and Southey, William Morris and Ruskin and D.H. Lawrence, that on the contrary the perceivable drifts or drives of human society in his time are very immediately the concern of the responsible artist, and therefore of the critic/commentator who undertakes to make that artist's insights more widely understood. Keery intriguingly and cleverly challenges me with Lawrence's treatment of Freudianism, claiming to find in Lawrence a clear and firm distinction between the mere modish 'ism' and the body of Freud's true and compelling insights. But, leaving aside the still disputed question whether Freud's insights are in any verifiable sense 'true', the parallel with postmodernism will not hold; for in the latter case there is not, nor do postmodernists pretend there is, any body or system of insights distinct from the rhetorical/polemical front that the spokesman for postmodernism collaborate in putting before us. That very concept, the 'true', is what they are concerned to rule out of court; for whatever is advanced as self-evident or necessary truth, the postmodernists will undertake to unmask as historically-determined or gender-determined. On this showing the truth about Aldo Moro's murder in 1983 is inaccessible; and Allen Curnow's account of it in verse carries no more authority than that of the merest paparazzo at the time, being at once discounted as soon as Curnow is 'exposed' as a male New Zealander. Along these lines any monstrosity can be explained, or explained away, or made into black comedy; and that is why I cannot, as James Keery wants, accept 'postmodern' as just a label or flag of convenience. Many no doubt do use the word in that innocently sloppy way, but there are other manipulators whose designs on and through the disputed words ('postmodern', 'postmodernist', 'postmodernity') are thoroughly precise and sinister. James Keery may have nerves of steel, but I admit that these operators scare me out of my wits.
Postmodernism's rhetoric - not its theory, for properly speaking it has none - exonerates and indeed promotes frivolity. It is, by design and on principle, intellectually irresponsible; and there are pundits, in Oxford and elsewhere, who will chuckle indulgently. Does F.R. Leavis's ghost still walk, that a leaden weight of 'responsibility' must once again be shackled on to reading and writing, such playful and sportive activities as those naturally are? This attitude is attractive, and the argument has some force. But the trouble with frivolity, at least in poetry, is not that it is irresponsible, but that it is unfeeling: what was inflicted on Aldo Moro was hurtful, so how can we countenance any artistic treatment of him that edits out the hurt? I've no reason to suppose that Prynne and John Ashbery are unfeeling persons, but they have adopted strategies of writing that make them seem so. This has to be true because, as every apologist for either poet assures us (and as we can see for ourselves), there is in their poetry nowhere - not in the voice that speaks the poems, nor in the persons that the voice fleetingly seems to talk about - any stable identity. At last - thus the claim is made for them - subjectivity has been ironed out of the art; for there cannot be the subjective, once the first-person or third-person subject has been dispensed with. Very well; and very welcome too, insofar as we have all suffered from the egotistical effusions of pint-sized Shelleys sharing with us their discoveries of sexual or political excitements. But the awkward truth is that by this programme we rule out of poetry, along with those who would impose on us, also those people who have been grievously hurt, whose hurts should surely be acknowledged in poetry even if poetry cannot soothe them.
Prynne, an honourable man, seems to draw the conclusion, rightly enough, that a case like Aldo Moro's is one that his poetry cannot cope with. Bryan Appleyard, who admires this poet as fervently as James Keery does - Prynne is, he declares, 'the most comprehensively gifted of living British poets' - sees this implication, and accepts it. Such poetry as Prynne's, he says (The Pleasures of Peace, 1990, p. 324), 'is not the language of crisis or of great, intense moments. It can happen at any time and include any content because it is a way of seeing rather than an excuse for statement'. And this must be so because in such writing 'There is no poetic "self" determining or limiting the operations of the language'. This is beguiling and just, but also illogical; for Prynne's poetry cannot 'include any content' if by Appleyard's own showing it must exclude any content that throws up 'great, intense moments' - any content that is characterized by atrocity and monstrosity, ignominy and hurt.
James Keery is not the first to notice that Jeremy Prynne and Roy Fisher are not noticed to any purpose in my Under Briggflatts whereas more than twenty years ago, in my Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, I was among the first to urge that they be given respectful attention. I hoped that those who noticed this would have drawn the obvious conclusion, without my having to spell it out: whereas their early collections in the 1960s earned my respect, their subsequent publications failed to hold my interest - though very lately Fisher has in my eyes redeemed himself rather gloriously, in overtly political poems like 'Our Own' and 'The Sidings at Drebkau'. Poems, whether 'political' or not, hold my attention when they incorporate 'a poetic "self" determining or limiting the operations of the language'; when they fail or refuse to do this, they bore me. And indeed boredom, rather than indignation or alarm, is what these postmodernist texts (if that is what they are) characteristically arouse in me. What may be called the tedium-quotient is plainly quite different for Keery or Appleyard or Peter Ackroyd; and, admitting that, one admits reluctantly that further argument is fruitless.
As for John Ashbery, whom Keery has championed before in a protest at Grevel Lindop's 'The Empty Telephone Boys' (P·N·R 68), I can only say that if he had read my Under Briggflatts rather than reviews of it, he would have found there (pp. 143-144) my reasons for not thinking so well of this American contemporary as he wants me to. My objection is there phrased very bluntly: 'Quite simply, it is usually impossible to say what an Ashbery poem is about.' That would be equally my objection to most if not all poems by Prynne. (And yet is Prynne merely a British Ashbery? Both Keery and Appleyard read him thus, yet I wonder if Prynne would agree.) As regards the anthology A Various Art, I refer Keery to my review of it in P·N·R 70: the art therein is indeed various, not much of it is like Prynne, and much of the best of it can't be called, on even the most permissive understanding, postmodernist.
I am not trying to score points off Keery, to whom on the contrary I am grateful for opening up questions that need to be aired. For instance, what I have been slow to understand (in this not alone, I think) is that the modernity or modernism which postmodernists claim to have put behind them is not solely nor even chiefly the 'modernism' that literary historians are happy to make play with. It is not Baudelaire nor Mallarmé, not Whitman nor Emily Dickinson, not G.M. Hopkins nor Eliot, not Pasternak nor Mandelstam, who move to exasperated yawns the pioneers of the postmodern, such as Jean-François Lyotard (The Postmodern Condition. A Report on Knowledge, Manchester 1984), or Jean Baudrillard (Simulations, in English 1983). Rousseau and Montesquieu, Jefferson and Crévecoeur and John Adams, Tom Paine and J.S. Mill and William Morris, Kant and Hegel and Marx - all these and many other erstwhile honoured figures from the 18th century and the 19th, are among the 'modernists' whom Baudrillard and Lyotard tell us we have surpassed and must cast aside. Lyotard was categorical, in an interview he gave in 1985. The postmodern is, he says,
based fundamentally upon the perception of the existence of a modern era that dates from the time of the Enlightenment and that has now run its course: and this modern era was predicated on the notion of progress in knowledge, in the arts, in technology, and in human freedom as well, all of which was thought of as leading to a truly emancipated society: a society emancipated from poverty, despotism and ignorance. But all of us can see that development continues to take place without leading to the realization of any of these dreams of emancipation.
This is gravely said; and not to be set aside lightly. But in this 'modern era ... that has now run its course', it is easy to see the lineaments of Marxism which, in virtually all its versions, would claim to be the heir (or the bequest) of the Enlightenment. Onetime Marxists, recognizing in 1968 or soon after the bankruptcy of their creed, have sought to soothe their smarts by involving all the rest of us in the same débâcle. If they are bankrupt, so must we be; and a lot of the time postmodernism seems to be quite simply rhetorical coercion to that point of view. The one-time Marxists in their youth had been dupes. They now admit that. But let not the rest of us think that we had been duped any less. If we resisted that view of the matter, thinking we'd been less fools than they were, they would point out that, if Marxism was a product of the Enlightenment, so were the various sorts of capitalism and parliamentary democracy that we might be thought to endorse.
At this point in the argument a person of my generation and persuasion finds his head whirling. He had been used to having the Enlightenment, though championed by some whom he recognized with respect as his enemies, castigated by those he took to be his natural friends: mostly, poetical persons and religious persons (two distinct categories). Now it appeared quite suddenly that the Enlightenment was under fire from all sides (excepting to be sure such as Michael Foot, whose persistent waving of an Enlightenment banner took on a sort of pathos). If the Englightenment turns out to have been 'a bad thing' for all of us, how are we to behave now, when - its numerous utopian programmes exploded one after another by history - the Enlightenment leaves us with nothing but 'the consumer society'? From the gurus of postmodernism comes the answer: 'Lie back and enjoy it! Since a consumer is all you can be - and you can't be even that unless you've been lucky - be a consumer in earnest, all the way! Forget about looking for truth or minimal good faith anywhere in society. Instead look for all you can get: "a piece of the action", a part in what you know to be a heartless masquerade. In particular, if you have cultural pretensions, stop thinking that there is any real or serviceable distinction between poems and advertising captions, or between movies that try to comprehend the Vietnam war and others that continue to relish its festival of carnage, on celluloid, as spectacle.' If Keery had cared to look, he would have found that in Under Briggflatts, without help from the gurus, I began to apprehend this logic when considering something so insular and unpretending as the poems of Gavin Ewart. And in that case he would have understood how impossible it is for me to concur in his emollient proposal that 'Postmodernism is merely the name that has happened to become current for the most intriguing and beautiful poetry of our age.'
Emollient isn't at all the tone aimed at by the French gurus and their Anglo-American epigones. As we have seen, Lyotard's anathema on modernism casts into outer darkness every intellectual or imaginative enterprise that can be seen as under the sign of 'the Enlightenment'; that is to say, virtually everything in poetry and philosophy in Western Europe since (shall we say?) 1700. And even this drastic holocaust of reputations is too modest for the really ambitious theorists. In Postmodernism: the Twilight of the Real (Pluto Press, 1990, p. 22), Neville Wakefield quotes Dick Hebdige, apparently a reputable authority, on 'the Great Stories which for thousands of years the cultures of the West have been telling themselves in order to keep the dread prospect of otherness at bay'; of which, says Wakefield, 'he goes on to list just a few':
... divine revelation, the unfolding Word, the shadowing of History by the Logos, the Enlightenment project, the belief in progress, the belief in Reason, the belief in Science, modernization, development, salvation, redemption, the perfectability of man, the transcendence of history through the class struggle, Utopia subtitled End of History ...
But in this strikingly heterogeneous list, it is obvious that the first three items, along with two later in the series ('salvation', 'redemption') are - whether right or wrong - much older than the Enlightenment. They date back indeed to the dawn of Christendom. Keery mocks me at one point for using 'modernist' to refer to work done seventy years ago. He should worry! By such as Dick Hebdige the disparaging label is applied to intellectual and imaginative work from 2000 years ago. We have been haplessly 'modern', it seems, ever since St. Paul wrote his epistles. And 'the Other', portentiously invoked by postmodernist theorists as a presence or more often an aching absence, must never be identified with that God whom Paul, and centuries earlier David the Psalmist, tried to grapple with. (Though what is more other to the human than the divine?)
It is certainly dismaying, and I agree it is even ridiculous, that for enlightenment on these matters I should have to fall back on a review of Paul Muldoon in The London Review of Books, or a review of Allen Curnow in the TLS. But between a permissive eclecticism on the one hand and on the other the closed world addressed by Neville Wakefield (whose book is of its kind the best I have come across), where do I go to find an arrogant romp through the centuries brought to bear on the experience of reading poems? James Keery might also reflect that I have spent my life writing, and writing about, sorts of verse composition that are now declared to be, or assumed to be, worthless.
This item is taken from PN Review 78, Volume 17 Number 4, March - April 1991.