A Pre-Posthumous Manifesto

          A writer in the third millennium A.D. must regard any completed work--even a “published” work--as posthumous. Any judgments made during a writer’s lifetime are simply absurd given the multitude of changes that have overwhelmed humanity and the environment we share—and compete in--on this planet.

          It’s true that writing these days may be published, in the sense that Walt Whitman used the word, just by having it “issued” by the author, or “posted” on the Internet. Granted, just a few years ago, towards the end of the last millennium, publication still implied something tangible “on the printed page,” with preference given to prestigious journals and presses of limited or “selective” circulation. And there is an undeniable value in leafing through a thoughtfully-prepared volume, no matter how obscure the press. (Thus, the wonders of Rare Book Rooms at university libraries.) But with multi-media industries controlling major publishing houses and even university presses subject to corporate donations, subtle and not-so-subtle censorship, and mixed priorities always favoring the bottom line in big sales, the likelihood of dependable critical evaluation seems increasingly capricious at best.

Acclaim and/or rejection these days really mean nothing at all in the long run. Basic survival is much more important. What every writer will need, whether he or she is aware of them or not, are some basic creature comforts in this world so that creative work may proceed as long as possible with or without awards, teaching positions, and accumulating pension funds.  It will also help to have found a few kindred spirits who connect, either through reading itself and/or some other means of dialogue. But much of the needed dialogue, as always, needs to be left to long, long intervals with one’s solitary self.

          Things were different just a few years ago. Books survived on shelves in libraries and, at least in theory, were sometimes read. The Internet bubble promised immortality in a new way: one might achieve transfiguration and apotheosis into hyperspace, one’s work becoming a “constellation,” a “virtual Orion”—whatever that might mean. Instant communication seemed to usher in Walt Whitman’s prophetic statement in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: “Distance availeth not!” Poetry loves Poetry, and Art should love Art. Beauty should recognize Truth and Truth Beauty! That was all we ever really knew on earth and all we needed to be reminded of.

          Unfortunately, imperfect writers, like the imperfect people around them, need to tell a convincing lie in order to perceive a greater Beauty, or a greater Truth. Reality never lives up to the promising fictional illusion; yet life becomes chaotic without it. Anna Karenina, for instance, is a monstrous lie from its very first premise in its very first sentence. Happy marriages may all be the same if, and only if, one is blessed for some duration of time with the same illusory state of mind.

More power to the creators of such illusions, but of course, it is unhappiness in all its intricate differences that makes material for long, intricate novels, such as seem impossible to write today. And it was that all-encompassing shaky premise that set loose all those excruciatingly delicious sorrows of the Dolly-Oblanski marriage, then Anna-Karenin, and their spiritual antithesis, Kitty-Levin--details which burn fervently for over nine hundred pages. And that is only one example of a single long Russian novel from the nineteenth century. The only minor suggestion I have for any readers wishing to indulge in the wonders of those artifacts is, with apologies to my wife, Susan, for thinking of it first, not to read Oblomov in bed!

As the English Romantic poet P.B. Shelley put it, inspiration is a “fading coal,” but some nineteenth-century people in some “otherwhere” had the time and fortitude to burn with gemlike flames far longer than any of their twentieth-century counterparts. It is not just a matter of continuous pages of writing. Writers like Proust excepted—and explainable because the twentieth century really only became tangible after the outbreak of World War One—Modernism could only produce length by means of patchwork and redundancy. No wonder Moby Dick finally found admirers in the century that produced Joyce, Barth, Pynchon, and Rushtie. But the recherches of those writers were not into the same kind of temps perdu; they meant to expand and diffuse intelligence, not to focus and heighten it in the way Tolstoy and the Romantics did.

          But if the nineteenth century may now seem like a Golden Age, and the twentieth a Silver one, the new millennium promising us Bronze at its advent, so far has been serving up metals of a lower order than Lead (which might at least be used as a shield against radiation).

Plutonium of the radioactive isotopic variety is more like it.

As I write this manifesto, General Abezaide warns the rogue states of the world that they don’t want to tangle with the United States of America when it comes to nuclear warfare, suggesting that our patience is wearing thin in Iraq and with other “Axes of Evil.” It seems to be time for the king of the hill to do a little more saber rattling. Or maybe Pat Buchanan is right: we are really seeing a last gasp from an American Empire that world affairs must soon find ways of containing for its own good.

          It sometimes seems to me that so much good might still be done with a little intelligent help from valued writers and their unifying visions. Of course, practical policies need to be designed to make those visions possible, but as self-interest shrinks from enlightenment, one sees the consequences of narrow ideological solutions to complex problems.

During the Cold War that prolonged a perilous balance in the world for so many years, cooler heads prevailed because everyone was aware of Mutually Assured Destruction. Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth did as much to tear down the Berlin Wall as any loud pronouncements from U.S. Presidents or major conversions among members of the Politburo in Russia . It might be pointed out that what happened during the ‘60s in America and Western Europe (and including, briefly, the Prague Spring) didn’t spread, say, to Spain until the late ‘70s after Franco died—events I witnessed in Seville in ’78-’79—and, then to Eastern Europe and Russia in the late ‘80s (partially as a reaction to the slaughter in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union’s Vietnam).

But today we seem to be working overtime to ignore the past. A new blind confidence has rewritten the lessons of Vietnam at the Pentagon and in the Oval Office of the White House. We humbler folk by necessity have stuffed our old poems away or let them scatter as “embers and sparks” on web pages far from the eyes of the likes of Bill O’Reilly and company.

          Remember the Y2K problem? All those computers were supposed to die on us because no one had thought about what would happen when two-digit-dating internal clocks ran into the need for at least four digits to count years into the new millennium. What delectably sentimental naivete all that worry seems now! What wonderful Clintonian nostalgia one could indulge in for the ‘90s in general--that brief sense that there really was something called a “peace dividend” and that America didn’t need to invade countries preemptively to spread a love/fear for “freedom” and “democratic ideals.”  There was a time when such abstractions didn’t need to be trumpeted constantly into everyone else’s ears.

But the Y2K problem turned out to be another beautiful lie. We only thought it was the problem. What was really waiting for us was a jetty toward a frozen future, a bridge that got its construction budget slashed just as it began setting down rocks on only one side of the river. Instead, intensified by an Al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center, a dumbed-down politics reversed efforts toward a Kyoto Treaty, cut Planned Parenthood funding (leading to an increase in the number of abortions performed in India!), and, though it was promised that “no child” would be “left behind,” intelligent readers and critical thinkers more or less were. As I write, the underpinnings of scientific thought are under attack: federal dollars for sex education distort scientific studies to enforce the foregone conclusion that abstinence is the only thing that should be taught about sex in schools. Similarly, Darwin ’s contributions to science are challenged as “only a theory,” without very much understanding about the body of knowledge that constitutes the Western Tradition or what is required to “prove” anything scientifically to advance that tradition.

It’s a natural enough impulse: exploit the technology scientific thought provided without learning about the habits of mind that such thought is based on and which might yield further discoveries—but, in any case, has been mostly responsible for the liberation of the human mind from social tyrannies.

Will the United States lead in science and technology, or turn rigidly to the kind of fundamentalist, authoritarian views that a few centuries ago affirmed Papal infallibility and forced Galileo to recant his heresies regarding the moons of Jupiter and the solar system?  Rejection of current science may well send creative minds to Europe and Asia , where such nonsense seems to be more intelligently constrained.

Elections, here and elsewhere, still happen, but what example of democracy have they brought for the rest of the world to admire? After hundreds of millions of dollars and endless months of the kind of campaigning that pretty much ignored the convictions of the majority of voters in  “blue states,” it all came down to voter turn-out and computer voting machines that left no paper record in Ohio. Is it any wonder the only meaningful articulation left over from this election year is Howard Dean’s scream?

As in his speech at the United Nations concerning the then-impending invasion of Iraq , President Bush announced well ahead of the important dates what the results would be: “I’m going to win this election!”  Here is a man who really loves power and wants to remind you constantly that “advice and consent” and even Locke and Jefferson ’s essential “social contract” are mostly a song and a dance to be manipulated as a means to an end. When asked why he didn’t bring in an example of a family in the highest bracket to the press conference at the announcement of his tax-cut package, George W. Bush said he didn’t need to because he was that example.

All we can do is sigh. Does anyone in the United States really want to discuss politics anymore? Let Donald Rumsfeld shrug his shoulders when asked why some of the 87 billion dollars in emergency funding, which the Congress had granted the Administration when things turned from bad to worse in Iraq , hadn’t been spent as a first priority on protective armor for the troops on the ground there. “You fight wars with the military you’ve got,” quoth he!

“Whereas we suffer under the representatives we have ‘elected’ and their appointees,” quoth I.

One’s opposition, no matter how loyal, no matter how well informed, falls on deaf ears. The Medals of Freedom have been diminished by political cronyism.  We have witnessed the triumph of the Know-Nothing Wing of the Republican Party underpinned by what remains of the Dixiecrats. “Moderate” might as well join “Liberal” in the dictionary of Media put downs; the real battle has now shifted to a civil war between the conservatives (of the Barry Goldwater variety) and the neo-conservatives, who are in the ascendance temporarily (and don’t look like real “republicans” at all to me—but then I know too much about the transformation of the Roman Republic into an Empire).

Having read Machiavelli, I have to admit that there is some twisted logic to threatening massive nuclear retaliation if any group or state dares even think of using nuclear material in a terrorist attack. The genie is out of the bottle. But saber rattling is meaningless to desperate people in foreign lands, who also need to see positive moves toward a relaxation of fear and hatred. Machiavelli longed for the unification of Italy and uttered some odious truths as a means to that end.

Machiavelli, however, was not rewarded for his honesty, and it took four centuries for his dream to be realized, but not in the way he might have imagined. In fact, it was Mussolini, whose methods he might have approved of for consolidating a new empire, who drove Italy over a precipice and backwards into dissolution. Perhaps the Bush Administration really believes it can turn Iraq into a model for democracy— Texas style—in the Middle East . But the more-and-more-likely failure of that policy means the next moves may become even riskier. If conventional “shock and awe” had too short a half-life, plutonium has a much longer one.

Even Donald Rumsfeld must see through his wire-rim glasses that there is very, very poor visibility in that fog of war.

But to return to the situation of the writer. In this climate, posthumous work—work completed before 2001--now has given way to pre-posthumous work because, in a sense, the hour glass has been turned upside down, and the sands are dropping backwards in time rather than forwards. We may attempt to mark out new decades, but they have become years of subtraction rather than addition.

Let us welcome each other to the equivalent of a new Dark Age where the best writers find themselves isolated, ignored, and scorned. And they don’t really even complain about their condition since there is no better proof that they are on the right track. Old tales about the honest poverty of artists from the past become laughable and can only lead today to homelessness and soup kitchen lines. Certainly not to writing. So, “get thee to a nunnery, go!” or cling to some other medieval institution (such as a university teaching job). The alternative is to suffer madness with Ophelia.

Or maybe just to find a new beautiful lie.

As I have stated, all posthumous work came to an end some time in 2000 or 2001, but it still exists in its entirety as a future language as vibrant and expressive as any ancient tongue.Again I find I need to make apologies—this time to Christopher Spranger’s brilliant aphorisms in The Effort to Fall (Green Integer Press.) Perhaps survivors at some future pinnacle of civilization will rediscover these artifacts.

Anything appearing after 2001, however, must be pre-posthumous, a pale anticipation of the rediscovery of lost sacred texts from an unbenighted past. The New Dark Age that has befallen us privileges Popular Culture media events. All we can really do any more is to engage in trace and copy work. Thus, the attraction of the New Formalism. (Anyone for a Shakespearean sonnet, even a Dickinsonian ballad stanza with quirky punctuation?)  Oh for the once-and-future receptive audience living in the great Liberal tradition that honored writers of genius and expected them to imagine another “government” for us to replace the failed promises of the everyday Populist state.

          So it is time for my own “Pre-posthumous Manifesto”: Writers of the World, shake your chains!  Power needs nothing from you and offers you nothing but obscurity. Get used to living with illiterate believers in quite different “truths” that mock and minimalize yours beyond endurance. These people are not monsters. They are your loved ones even. It is you they find monstrous but have learned to tolerate. They may help you yet with your creature comforts, but don’t expect to rearrange their convictions overnight.

          Meanwhile, it is also important to stay connected to whatever fountains of Innocence Nature still provides even at the darkest times. Whether at Channukah or St. Lucy’s Day or at any church any day, there are candles to be lit in darkness and songs to be sung.

By shaking your chains, though, you will find the great advantage of regarding all work as pre-posthumous. Values must exist at some other place, at some other time. Daily life is too distracting. The half-life of a poem read at a reading lingers quite a while, but the effects are subtle and subject to the overwhelming and uninterrupted accumulations of “information,” which sidelines art in all areas almost immediately. A poet ain’t much to look at when stage lights are turned up and the focus is on wowing an audience.

  But a pre-posthumous writer can take heart. Recently, while googling myself, I found out that John Unterecker’s papers at Columbia University contain early drafts of poems that were to become Searchings for Modesto. (Jack died twenty years ago, whereas those poems were finally published just a little over ten years later.) Of course, it was a vanity find, but somehow reassuring. The posthumous stuff is still out there somewhere.

Emily Dickinson scribbled stanzas on papers and stuck them in drawers in her bedroom, but what difference would it have made if she could have launched them on a website and people could have found them by virtual links? We might have been able to google say “science” and “faith” together and hone in on a poem that still shakes the foundations of the current reactionary paradigm:          

“Faith’s a fine invention

                   For gentlemen who see;

                    But a microscope is prudent

                    In an emergency.”   (Complete Works, )