EP&M Online: Response, Salemi to Darling,
The L-Word and Other Matters:
A Second Reply to Robert Darling
Dr. Joseph S. Salemi
Department of Classics, Hunter College, CUNY
Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand
Prince de Benévént
One of the rhetorical successes of leftists in
the 1950s was the invention of the phrase "Red-baiting." It
was used as a convenient whip whenever anyone brought up the question
of Communist influence in American society. If you asked about
someone's political loyalties, or raised legitimate security concerns,
a platoon of enragés from the editorial staff of The
Nation to the executive board of the ACLU screamed "Red-baiter!"
at you. Here in New York, the late Bella Abzug used it against
anyone who brought up her Stalinist past.
Well, the phrase "Red-baiting" has died with
the Reds, but liberals still employ a variant of it in debate.
They now complain about "the L-word" or "the liberal card."
The procedure is as follows: If anyone mentions the fact that you
are a liberal, don't confirm or deny the charge. Just huff and puff
indignantly about "the L-word," and hope that everyone will forget
that you haven't admitted anything.
Since Robert Darling makes such a big issue
of my references to liberals and liberalism, it's time to clear the
matter up. Is Darling a liberal or not? And if he is, why in
his lengthy essay did he not acknowledge the fact? Is he ashamed
of his politics? It would seem that, just as those in the 1950s who
screamed "Red-baiter!" would never say whether or not they were Reds, so
also people who fulminate against "the L-word" never admit whether
or not they are liberals. So how about it, Bob? Enlighten
us, just for the record. After all, you're an "Enlightenment
The issue is not a trivial one, for the only
serious charge Darling brings against me in his essay is that I made
an "ad-hominem" attack on him by suggesting that he is a liberal.
Well, let's look at this logically. If Darling is a liberal,
then why should he consider the suggestion damaging? Perhaps Darling
does not know the precise meaning of the phrase ad hominem.
It means "to the person," and refers to arguments which are directed
not to the issue at hand, but against the individual defects of one's
opponent. Does Darling believe that liberalism is a defect?
Consider the forensic possibilities.
Darling could have replied "Yes, I'm a liberal and proud of it!"
Or he could have said "I'm a liberal in this or that respect, while
I'm not a liberal in some other respect." Darling does neither.
He just talks derisively about "the L-word." That's merely a way
to strum the chords of centrist orthodoxy.
In my last essay here I stated my political
views forthrightly, making no bones about the fact that I'm fiercely
proud of my rightist views. But Darling apparently thinks that
just being called a liberal is to suffer a grievous ad hominem
attack. Why should that be, if he honestly believes in his opinions?
Is it that he's trying to straddle the fence on this issue? There's
some real evidence for this, as I'll show a little further down.
Moreover, while we are on the subject of personal
attacks, Darling has a few things to answer for. He refers
to me as a "fundamentalist," a term of abuse long flung by lazy thinkers
at anyone who has a more coherent worldview than they do. I
wouldn't mind that, but Darling knows quite well that in the superheated
atmosphere of America today, the term "fundamentalist" now also conjures
up images of murderous Islamic terrorists who kill helpless civilians.
This is like screaming Collaborateur! at a Frenchman in 1946.
It's a very dangerous and threatening charge to make in a post-9/l1 context.
Was this just accidental on his part, or is Darling trying to connect me
with Al Qaeda? If so, let him spit it out plainly.
In addition, Darling's bush-league prejudices
are showing when he refers to my mention of my Roman Catholicism
as a "confession of his condition" and "his predicament." My
Roman Catholicism is not a "condition" or a "predicament," no matter
what snotty American Protestants might think. I have willingly chosen
my faith, and I don't need to be patronized by any psalm-singing
Quaker. Got that, Bob?
OK--now that we've cleared the air let's
turn to some serious demolition work.
Darling must be unaware of the reception
that Tennyson got in his own day, and immediately afterward, if he
thinks that my low opinion of In Memoriam is that of "a critic
trapped in his own time." Tennyson was savaged by many nineteenth-century
commentators. Despite his popularity with the British bourgeoisie
(the perfect audience for that sentimental, wheezing, hurdy-gurdy of
a poem, In Memoriam), quite a number of Tennyson's contemporaries
shared my viewpoint of his work. Carlyle called his poetry
"the inward perfection of vacancy." Alfred Austin dismissed
it as "the poetry of the drawing room." Gerard Manley Hopkins characterized
his work as "Parnassian" in the derogatory sense. Swinburne
(a master of the skewering put-down) referred to Idylls of the
King as "Morte d'Albert, or Idylls of the Prince Consort"--a cruel
but apt reference to Tennyson's toadying complicity in Queen Victoria's
morbidly prolonged mourning for Prince Albert. But best of
all was the opinion of one reviewer of In Memoriam, who guessed
that the anonymously published poem was an emotional effusion from
the "full heart of the widow of a military man." What an appropriate
judgment, and a lot more devastating than the one I quoted from Whittaker
Chambers. So I ask Darling: Are all these people "modern critics,"
trapped in a twentieth-century viewpoint?
The main issue of contention between Darling
and myself is the question of didacticism in poetry. Darling
says "I may have a certain religious or philosophical point of view,
but that doesn't mean I'm trying to convert everyone to it.
However, I could inform people of that view without earnestly attempting
to save their souls."
Well, Good God, isn't that precisely the point
I made in my essay "The Curse of Didactic Verse," when I distinguished
between informative-didactic and manipulative-didactic poetry?
Darling's response to that first essay was to reject the distinction
out of hand. Now all of a sudden he's backpedalling on his
original dismissal of my point. It seems that Darling realizes he
has gotten onto shaky ground, and is now trying to retrace his steps.
Moreover, I never said that manipulative-didactic verse was "proselytizing"
in the literal sense. The fact that a procedure is manipulative
is exactly why it cannot overtly proselytize. It must disguise
its goals. As I said in my original essay, manipulative-didactic
poetry generally tries to cover its tracks.
In regard to liberal schoolteachers, Darling
asks "If one's learned nothing, what is there to forget?" Alas,
he missed my reference to Talleyrand, the source of that famous quotation
on the restored Bourbons. The quote alludes to that royal family's
pigheaded insistence on seeing matters in the old feudal way, despite
all the revolutionary turmoil of Napoleonic Europe. I used it as
a parallel to the attitudes of liberal schoolteachers--and believe
me, there's no one more invincibly ignorant than a unionized civil-service
liberal schoolteacher. Are there conservatives as well as liberals
who suffer from this sort of myopia? Sure. But conservatives
don't control the network of education in this country. Liberals
do. I think Darling knows that, but it's something he'd rather not
discuss. It might blow his cover as a faux conservative.
When it comes to the question of ethics in
poetry, Darling betrays that gaseous Emersonian vagueness for which
Americans are rightly ridiculed throughout the rest of the world.
Just look at the basic outline of our dispute. Darling starts by
claiming that the ethics of a poem "matter." I then retort
that different poets have very different sets of ethics, some of them
irreconcilable. I mention specific instances of excellent poems that
might be seen as unethical from certain points of view. And
all Darling can reply is "I am speaking of an ethical approach, not
the application of one's own personal guesses at the ethical."
This is exactly the sort of statement that sounds wonderfully nuanced
and measured, but which on analysis proves to be utterly meaningless.
How in logic's name can you take "an ethical approach" to anything
without following the specific set of ethics to which you are personally
committed? Darling is saying, in effect, "I am not guided by specific
ethical principles when composing a poem, nor do I consult them when
criticizing other poems, but nevertheless I approach the whole matter
ethically." This is what happens when you read too much In
Memoriam--haziness and imprecision become a kind of mental tic.
Ethics refers to a set of guidelines for behavior.
They may be negative, in the form of strictures; or positive, in
the form of exhortations; or a mix of both. But a code of
ethics is always specific. It's not some vague atmosphere
of good intentions. Here Darling's core liberalism is as apparent
as the Rock of Gibraltar. For him, ethics is "an approach."
This is the typical liberal fog--directionless feeling groping towards
an undefined hope, a "waiting for the Light." Historically,
it's Kant's categorical imperative filtered through the lens of Emerson's
idealism and Feuerbach's pipedreams, and finally issuing forth in
the saccharine placidity of Norman Vincent Peale. It would be a bore
if it weren't such a menace to rational thought.
When you have a mentality shaped by such influences,
you really can't be a good literary critic. Your commentary
is hopelessly hobbled by the vagueness of an unstated belief-system,
which you are "approaching," to use Darling's term. Everything you
say will be tentative and provisional and based on dreamy wishes
rather than ascertainable facts. In short, your scholarship will
approximate that critical mass of lethal vapidity for which In
Memoriam is the perfect symbol.
On the other hand, if you treat poems like
coal seams (which is just a metaphor for the principle of l'art
pour l'art), you are free to compose and criticize without worrying
about "ethical" concerns. You can have the strongest personal
set of ethics in the world, and it need not affect your literary work at
all, if you don't let it. You have complete aesthetic carte blanche
to produce the very best verbal creations that your talent allows.
This is called freedom, Bob--and without it poetry starves.
And no boring Emersonian vagueness or Puritanical do-goodery or "ethical
approaches" can substitute for it.
That's what poetry is--a licensed zone of
hyperreality in which one can speak and imagine anything one pleases.
This is why I can write a poem like "The Missionary's Position,"
taking a specifically non-Christian view of evangelization. Darling,
of course, can't deal with that: "Gee, if Salemi is a conservative Roman
Catholic, how come he writes a poem with ideas that conservative Catholics
reject?" Well, DUH!!! I can write whatever I please as a poet,
if I think that it's good poetry. And so can Sylvia Plath.
Does Darling realize how asinine he makes himself by criticizing
the brilliant rant-poem "Daddy" on a moral basis? He sounds
like Mrs. Grundy tut-tutting about a social faux pas as he
pompously intones that Plath's poem "clearly fails on ethical grounds."
It does? Well, Golly Gee, Bob--it's great to know that.
I'm sure Sylvia Plath would really be troubled to hear of your adverse
"Daddy" succeeds as a poem because it works,
the same way that an engine succeeds if it turns over or an airplane
succeeds if it flies safely. This is why it is truly absurd
for Darling to assert that the most frequent target of my criticism
"seems to be the cultural relativists." I can't think of a more obtuse
reading of my literary allegiances. I welcome any kind of poetry,
on any subject and from any viewpoint, as long as it works and is
excellent. A poet's skill and ability to create new things
out of language are what I value above all else.
Here is the crux of Robert Darling's problem,
and the real explanation of why he was so angry about my attack on
didactic verse. Darling is essentially a moralist, not a literary
critic. I am open to any well-crafted poem, but Darling can't
be, because of his "ethical approaches." He has a moral hangover
from the nineteenth century. I don't. So for Darling
to suggest that I'm fighting "cultural relativists" is more than
obtuse--it's bizarre. If poetry is a licensed zone of hyperreality,
then the issue of moral relativism (which may be important in a real-world
situation) is simply irrelevant in poetry or the critique of poems.
A good illustration of what I mean is Darling's
reiterated question about a poem celebrating Nazi atrocities in World
War II. It's the height (or nadir) of absurdity for Darling
to ask me to pass judgment on a hypothetical poem before it has even
been written. Here again, we see the ingrained pietistic liberalism
of Darling's approach to literature: he seriously imagines that literary
judgment can be given on a work that does not yet exist, purely on
preconceived political and ethical grounds. Sight unseen, a
certain type of poem has to be "bad." It must be comforting
to be that clairvoyant.
Nevertheless, since Darling is so insistent
on knowing whether a good poem could be written in praise of Nazi
atrocities, I'll let him answer the question himself. Here
is Robert Darling on what can constitute poetry, from his essay "The
Loaded Terminology of the Poetry Wars," contained in the EP&M archives:
be good or bad, mundane or sublime,
or concentrated, wise or wrongheaded,
immoral, religious or blasphemous, or
of these or other properties. The
defining a work as poetry is that it
must be written
It seems to me that anyone writing something
like that would have to believe that a good poem praising Nazi atrocities
is possible. Or has Darling changed his mind since the publication
of that essay? I guess that's the convenient thing about being
an "Enlightenment Puritan"--you can talk out of both sides of your
mouth on the same website.
This is what I meant when I said earlier that
Darling is trying to straddle the fence. The above quote is
as l'art pour l'art as you can get--extremely so, since it
defines poetry strictly in terms of verse structure. And yet Darling
has the cheek to attack me for "extreme privileging of form over
content," and for taking a position similar to that of the 1890s
Decadents. Who the hell does he think he's kidding? The
quote given above from Darling's essay is simon-pure aestheticism,
and could have been written by Theophile Gautier. No--Darling's
positions (like those of all fence-straddlers) are merely tactical and
designed to keep him "in the middle."
This is why Darling is so anxious to triangulate
himself between Diane Wakoski and Joseph Salemi--as if she and I
were dangerous extremists who have to be pushed aside in favor of
that broad band of open-minded, even-handed, moderate, balanced,
thoughtful types like... well, like Robert Darling. lt's a
quintessentially liberal tactic: Disavow anyone with forthright opinions,
and position yourself in the middle of the road, wrapped in a fog
of bien-pensant benevolence. This way you can stand
up to the Wakoskis and pretend that you're a big brave defender of
tradition; and stand up to the Salemis and get kudos from your colleagues
for being "enlightened." It's a pleasant little game, as long
as no one asks you the specific questions that I've asked Darling here.
Darling's silliest contention is that I'm
trying to banish "meaning and human intention" from poetry.
He knows very well that I said nothing of the sort. Disliking didacticism
doesn't imply that one hates all meaning or rational statement.
The plain fact is that if one writes in a human language, using accepted
grammar, syntax, and inherited vocabulary, meaning will be inextricably
part of one's poem. Such a traditionally composed poem can be a self-referential
work of art and still present coherent meaning to its readers. Darling
is trying--unsuccessfully--to change the terms of this debate by
confusing ethics with meaning--once again, because
he knows he's on shaky ground. If a poet says "The dawn breaks
grey over the horizon" he is presenting meaning. If he says
"We should all vote for Al Gore" he is being didactic. Got
Darling complains that I left "unanswered"
his assertion that the middle class dislikes satire because they
consider it non-serious, and not because it is violent. Well,
my experience tells me otherwise. The middle classes are a
gutless bunch, and are terrified of anything shocking or extreme.
That's why they flock to malls, theme parks, and gated suburban communities.
It may be true that as a group they prefer what they call "serious"
poetry, since they are still in thrall to the Arnoldian mindset.
But I know this: satire scares the wits out of them. They are
frightened by anything that disturbs their perfect little Martha
While we are on this subject, let me say the
following. If Darling thinks that "middle class" is purely
an economic description, then he knows nothing about the sociology
of the United States, or even the developed world as a whole. Middle
class means an outlook, an attitude, an approach, an entire Weltanschauung,
the Germans say. The whole drive of bourgeois life is not primarily
towards the accumulation of money (though that is one symptom of
such a life), but the development of a certain kind of self-image.
And that image is totally different from the self-image cultivated
by, say, an old-fashioned aristocrat, or a tough ghetto street kid,
or a Hasidic Jew, or a professional soldier. It has nothing
to do with money. The British royal family is immensely rich, but
the whole brood has been totally and hopelessly middle class since
the accession of Victoria in 1837. As for there being a distinction
between bourgeois and middle class, well, that's the
kind of distinction you grasp at when you're losing an argument.
Is this the best Darling can do?
I've saved for last a brief comment on Robert
Darling's rhetorical approach. He prides himself on being a
very careful user of language, and on eschewing "propaganda" and
"loaded terminology." OK--so let's take a look at a sample
of the sort of language Darling uses when replying to my last essay: hysterical,
rigid, narrow, propagandized, raving, overkill, decibel levels, extremes,
bogeymen, black and white, all-or-nothing, simple-minded.
You would think I had delivered a harangue
at the Nuremberg rally of 1935. Let any disinterested person
read my three contributions to this debate on EP&M, and then
judge if those words are applicable to my prose.
I've been a teacher of rhetoric and a polemicist
for over thirty years. It's characteristic of liberals to use rhetoric
that paints their enemies as dangerous and noisy, and themselves
(by implication) as sweetly reasonable. You might even say it's the
only rhetorical approach they know.
Joseph S. Salemi
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