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essay by

Arthur Mortensen

Copyright © 2001 by Arthur Mortensen
& Expansive Poetry & Music Online

A local reporter, and the last President of the Flat Earth Society, decided one day that the only proof of the Society's hypothesis would be to go downstairs from her office at 30 Rockefeller Center and walk to the edge of the Earth.  And it was her duty as President and her right as a free individual to pursue this proof.  She thought to go east, despite the presence of New York harbor and the Atlantic Ocean.  A fine distance swimmer who had once interviewed Diana Nyad on the Today show, she easily passed under the Verrazano Narrows bridge in less than twelve hours.  But, as she reached her personal best distance at twenty-five hours, she looked back and saw that the skyline of Manhattan had sunk so far that only the tops of the World Trade Center and the antenna on the top of the Empire State Building were still visible beyond what was clearly a curving, slightly convex ocean surface.   Her last words, reported by a Coast Guard officer enroute to interdict a shipment of two kilos of marijuana, were "just my luck.  I find out that the world really is round, and I'm going to drown."  Five seconds later, she vanished and was never seen again.  (It was later said that had she hired a researcher to swim for her, she could have revealed her discovery and won an Emmy for original reporting.)

The Society, on hearing of this, decided that their own President had been an agent of the enemy, disavowed her, burned her personal belongings and files, and welded her office door shut.   A press release denied that she had ever been a member of the Society.  But, if truth be told, none of the remaining members could bring themselves to vote for a replacement.  One, a Daniel X., spoke for all at the election meeting in saying that "our President found out that the world is round; she died in this discovery, giving her life to show that we have no need of a new president nor any further reason for being."  No one dared to disagree with so obvious a point.  But they liked their offices (and had a twenty year lease at a good price), the nice bistro across the street, their neighbors in 4751 (the Velikovsky Catastrophe Association, always good for a weekly "comet" party), not to mention the paycheck every month.   But, without a president to give direction, and with no reason for being, they wandered back and forth in the offices until one day, the utility bills and the rent unpaid for months, a marshall arrived to evict them.   What she found were two hundred and fifty-five people, most of whom hadn't changed clothes or bathed in months, standing, sitting and lying down in offices that were thick with crumpled paper, overturned furniture, spilled files, and water running from overflowing toilets in both bathrooms.  "The perps clearly didn't have a clue as to what they were doing," she typed in her later report; "there was no authority to answer the eviction notices."  The office, after fumigation and reconstruction, reopened several months later as headquarters for the University of UFO Studies.

It is not so great a stretch as you might imagine to say that a fine art is like that.  Whether the prosody of Frost and Millay, the color theory and perspective of Renaissance painters, or the diatonic scale employed by both Beethoven and Duke Ellington, a particular fine art is comprised of a set of fictions that create illusions, whether the stories, epiphanies and passions in poetry, the depictions of the world of light in paint, or a sense of theme, development, variation and resolution in music.  But, declare that an art's underlying ideas and structures are nothing but elitist fictions, then spread the word to every student, practitioner and appreciator of that art, and in time students will study nothing but hostile criticism, practitioners will apologize for everything they do (often in the work itself), and appreciators will begin to look for something else to do besides trying to enjoy what they know are patent frauds.  But, unlike the Flat Earth Society, which denies the obvious truth in a mad search of an alternate and unavailable proof, a fine art's only reason for being is as the product of its fictions. That is its only delight, even in poetry about revolution.  And the underlying structures developed and derived by artists are indeed artificial.  People don't talk like poets write; the world of light never looks the same as a painting; most of what we hear resembles no music. But these underlying formal elements are still no less than the genes of the art, its most decisive actors, and the embodiment of its reason for being.  Poetry without meter and trope does not sound like poetry;  painting that avoids light is invisible; music that is not ordered by theme, development, variation and resolution sounds like street traffic.

Take away the genes of a human being and all that's left is a puddle of water and salts, a high price to pay for escaping the "bonds of biology."   Take away the genes of an art, and the freedom to express in the language of that art is sacrificed for the illusive liberty of chaos.  The difference is between an educated adult and an unsupervised child,  a distinction that we Americans too often refuse, marked by our preference in politics for attractive and infantile bandits and in our standard of living by the production of mountains of trash.  While children must learn the artifice of adulthood, and while doing so may make as much of a mess in the playground as they make in their pants, the refusal to distinguish between orderly freedom and libertine chaos in adulthood is barbaric and nihilistic.   It is also death-seeking, as a person wishing to escape the restraints of living is when he blows out his brains with a .45.  It has wrenched the public sense of what a poet and poetry is (just as it has trashed our perceptions of political action); it has produced generations of poets who can barely express a coherent idea, nevermind employ what far more generations developed as a means for doing so.  Awash in Maoist self-criticism and as desperate as Moll Flanders for approval from students and readers they're afraid to challenge with the demands of learning the art, they have decomposed both art and themselves into metaphorical  puddles of water and salts, imprisoned by a senseless gravity, unable to resist evaporation in the heat of the moment, and poisoning the soil they propose to fertilize with deconstructed seeds.  Only a character in an Orwell novel would describe this as "freedom;" any sensible person would describe such a process as suicidal, the end product of a tyrannical idea.

At its peak, about twenty years ago, such a demolition ethic told its story as much in its "heroes" as in its villains.   An art whose high priests declared a string of suicides, psychopaths and junkies as its heroes had abandoned all of its predecessors' fictions about author, art and audience in favor of self-absorbed novelty.  Should it be any surprise that the residue of this suicidal movement can be found among the screamers and moaners at the extremes of politics and art, more locked in prison than any convict for an ordinary crime?  The guy doing 5-15 at San Quentin still has the freedom to open a book, learn the means of its author, and try to write something of his own.  But when thinking itself is undone, and all the fictive bases of civilization anatomized, what can the ambition to be a poet produce but a two-year-old's sincerely irrational scream?  And yet, the more intriguing question is this:  why is that teachers of such poets-to-be would inflict them with the idea that destruction is creation, that chaos allows freedom of action, and that empty-headed sincerity is to be preferred to intelligent, historically aware and considered artifice?

We could wrap ourselves around such questions until we turn blue, but they are nothing more than twists in a Gordion knot, subject to a simple, decisive cut.  To remain an infant, whether in politics, or in art, is easier than becoming an adult.  It is also immensely profitable for those who prefer infantile subjects to adult competitors.  But how cleverly they've rationalized this.  Think of their talking points:

    1) Aggressive, competitive behavior, the kind you might see in a young Charlie Parker challenging the staid assumptions of swing music, is bad.
    2) Being strong, as in having the knowledge to speak on equal terms not only with your peers but with the past, as a young Robert Frost attained in studying the possibilities of moving the ancient traditions of poetry into the modern world, may cause inequality. Many people will be weak, and that could hurt.
    3) All writing in the past reflected the cultural assumptions of authors, many of them unconscious, as most of us are unconscious of the motivations of greedy politicians and aggressive thugs today, whether in a tyrant's army or in a university faculty.  Therefore, we must burn all writing from the past, and all of its underlying techniques and supporting fictions, so that our writing may be a sincere reflection of only one opinion -- ours!  And what other opinion can any of us be surer of?   Telling a story of other people presumes that we can know them as well as ourselves.  A Shakespeare today, writing such fictions of so many people, would be subject of therapy.  Each person must speak for themselves (sic).

Countering these assumptions isn't hard.  Just look.  Biological orders are extraordinarily aggressive and competitive, as well as powerfully bound to cooperative enterprise by both their genetic history and commonality and by their immediate desire to live.  It is impossible for a living thing to be passive, uncooperative and alone, outside of its evolutionary and historical past.   And what but an intelligent living thing can "contradict" the driven entropy of senseless physical systems?  And how else than by the imposition of intelligent, contravening structures that in a sense reverse the flow of time?   Without what even the Catholic Church is content to regard as the hand of God, the billions of evolutionary variations on structure that have made us other than a fish or an amoeba, our genetic tradition in its varied yet constant flow, could Tom Paine have spoken about independence, Douglass about ending slavery, or ten thousand technological geniuses who propose to direct human evolution away from physical labor?   And while we can't yet read a single human thought, though some claim we are close, we can measure collective and individual needs and desires through the market, through cultural and social changes, and through politics.  It is no great leap from that back to Shakespeare's invention of plausible imitations of people other than himself.  We know that someone else is out there.   Even without computers and elections, we can assess other persons; if we couldn't, we could neither compete nor cooperate with them, whether in struggling for excellence in an art or in developing and maintaining a means of distributing food and shelter.

For over a century, the devotees of chaos-as-liberty have assaulted art, society, civilization itself.   They claim to be on the side of liberation, but whose?  Did Duke Ellington demolish a thousand years of musical tradition in order to create his charts and lead his orchestra?  Did Countee Cullen turn on poetic prosody and write arbitrarily lineated, chaotic screeds to prove that he was a free black man?  Did Ralph Ellison become a junkie and write stream-of-consciousness pornography to show that he was his own man?  All three of these black men created art that they felt belonged, however uncomfortable the old mainstream felt in the presence of "Black, Brown and Tan," "The Black Christ," or "The Invisible Man."    Ellington's employment of a swinging version of theme, development, variation and resolution wasn't Beethoven, but then Beethoven wasn't Bach.  Cullen's fierce employment of rhyme in meter in writing a new Christian story wasn't Thomas Hardy, but then Thomas Hardy wasn't John Donne.   And Ellison's exploration of a black man's life in the 1940's wasn't Herman Melville, but then Melville wasn't Austen.  But they all communicated through a common tradition and language; that was the point.  The translation of the tradition, in music, poetry and novel driven by an entirely different folkloric background, is hardly surprising, nor is it proof of the meaninglessness of the idea of an ongoing cultural history.   The brutal division of American apartheid was not to be celebrated, as at a black-only table encouraged by the administration at Columbia, but breached.   And in opening that breach, Ellington, Cullen and Ellison redirected the river of tradition to include them.  Employing elements of an order used by people who had enslaved them once, and still hated them, they engaged in that most meaningful of free expression, which talks directly to anyone who shares the language.  The alternative was the permanent ghetto and cultural death.  And who but ambassadors from chaos and hell want that?

The other illusion they shattered in their free expression was that the tradition belonged to anyone.  It doesn't, anymore than the human genome does.  And to anyone who proposes to create art with freedom, order is as inescapable to the work as it is to the hand that wields a keyboard.

                                    Arthur Mortensen