EP&M Online:  Response, Salemi to Darling, II

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 Puritan."
     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 judgment.
     "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:

          Poetry can be good or bad, mundane or sublime,
          discursive or concentrated, wise or wrongheaded,
          moral or immoral, religious or blasphemous, or
          any combination of these or other properties.  The
          one quality defining a work as poetry is that it
          must be written in verse.

      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 that?
     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 Stewart cocoon.
     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, as 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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