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.
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
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.
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.
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
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).
of the radioactive isotopic variety is more like it.
I write this manifesto, General Abezaide warns the rogue states of the world
that they don’t want to tangle with the
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
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
today we seem to be working overtime to ignore the past. A new blind confidence
has rewritten the lessons of
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
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,
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.
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?
in his speech at the United Nations concerning the then-impending invasion of
we can do is sigh. Does anyone in the
we suffer under the representatives we have ‘elected’ and their
appointees,” quoth I.
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).
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
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
Donald Rumsfeld must see through his wire-rim glasses that there is very, very
poor visibility in that fog of war.
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.
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.
maybe just to find a new beautiful lie.
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.
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
is also important to stay connected to whatever fountains of Innocence Nature
still provides even at the darkest times. Whether at Channukah or
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.
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.
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:
a fine invention
For gentlemen who see;
But a microscope is prudent
In an emergency.”
(Complete Works, )