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Against the cult of personality, toward communitas

Against the cult of personality, toward communitas

by Joe Weil on November 13, 2013

Christopher Phelps said something interesting about Buber and the cult of personality. He tied it into the poetry scene, which makes it especially interesting to me (You could also tie it into a certain extent with why indie bands muted the role of the singer in the grunge era, still do to a certain extent by making the lyrics purposely subsumed into the overall mix, but this, to me leads only to fake humility–and inaudible lyrics–which is the height of arrogance).

Still, I had to go back to my Buber (which anyone who had me at Arts High knows I talked of incessantly): I equate his take on the cult of personality with insistence on a self as personage rather than as person–the self as set off apart from the dynamic of communion between I and thou, I and you, and I and it–the self as commodity, as product, as a sort of ongoing “value: the personality that says there is only I, me. This is in keeping with Kierkegaard’s despair which insists on the self, on “me, myself and I” (in Kierkegaard there are three despairs: the despair of being one’s self, the despair of not being one’s self, and the sickness unto death which is a despair so deep the person is not even aware of it as despair. This last was the despair particular to the Christian burgomasters of Denmark and, by extension, to all middle calls and proper materialists hiding under the sign of Christ).

When I read Buber speaking against the cult of personality, I immediately heard the voice of James from the Epistles, and understandably, because Buber is a great teacher, a rabbi in the truest sense, and the traditions of the reb is exactly the style James is written in–most especially the Rabbi as instructor on the relationship between shema and mitzvah–exactly the I/Thou relationship.

In Shema/mitzvah one is to love the Lord with all one’s heart, and mind, and strength, and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self–a love based not on personality, not on a cult of personages, a love based not even on family ties, but on an extension of the Shema to all sentient life as embodying the Torah–Isaiah’s dictum of “God does not require burnt offerings, but a contrite and loving heart, a broken spirit, (broken meaning as bread) and good deeds done for the poor, the widow and the orphan”.
Within this context, Buber joins a rich tradition of Jewish rabbinical teaching against the idol worship of personages, Buber and Soren and Simone Weil, and just about all mystics and deeply moral spiritual leaders teach against the cult of personality in this respect (the irony is how the rabbinical tradition often became in the diaspora exactly that: a cult of personality). Buber and James sound very much alike in this respect, qouting James:

My brothers, show no respect for personages as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Jesus Christ. For if a man with gold rings on his fingers and fine clothes comes into your assembly and a poor person n shabby clothes also comes in and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say: “Sit here, please, while you say to the poor one, “Stand there,” or “Sit by my feet”have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs?”

It was with this epistle in my heart, that I ran a poetry reading for 16 years. I always saw a poetry reading as a place where the field was evened, and personages would be dissolved into a communal act–a bread breaking, as what the slammers now call a third round, but which I called the open. A feature was not superior, but a presider with the host of the reading in a meaningful ceremony of honoring the “guest” among us, and that guest was, for that moment, a distillation of all we were enacting: a ceremony of presence, The guest should be one who could be present among us–a word among us, but he or she should not be above or better than or superior to us, although, while they were our guest, we should treat them with respect and dignity and attention. This guest should ideally rise up from among us, or be the “other” come to visit the community. The laws of Xenia applied to my idea of the poetry reading and both feature (guest presbyter with the MC of the reading) and the community who came out for the reading at obligations of hospitality that vanquished the cult of personality:

The reader was to be “present” among us–to preside as it were with the host in the meaningful enactment of this ceremony known as a reading.

The reader was never to over read, but to read just enough to establish a presence and to honor the dynamic between presbyter and community. The host was to make everyone feel welcomed, to show no partiality, to honor the guest by being generous. And so the guest received a gift (there should always be an honorarium, a giving from the community) and the guest in return gave his or her presence–not only by featuring, but by staying for the open and hearing the others, being among the others.

The community should be responsive to the guest. In the open, no one should be long winded or selfish or take the spot of the other. The host should be responsive to the poems as in an almost call and response. There should be either a break between the feature and open, or after the reading in which people are invited to break bread. There should be no respect for persons (the cult of personality), but there should be deep respect for self and other through communion and creation of a meaningful ceremony.

What I liked about poetry readings in the 70s and 80s was that it was the only place in the whole of my society where I saw rich and poor, old and young, ugly and sexy, mentally ill and normatives dissolved into an act of community–and without family or a wedding or a church being at the center of it. It was exactly the absence of the cult of personality that I admired and recognized a dimension of shema/mitzvah through. Features arose from the opens. Features stayed to hear the other poets. This is how I was heard and approached by Ruth Stone, Maxine Kumin, Charles Simic. These “personages” would stay and listen. They came over to me and gave me a kind word–for no other reason than that they recognized something in my poetry. I was treated with kindness, as it should be…

This has disappeared. In academia, opens are frowned upon and the featured poet becomes an act of conspicuous display–a temporary “idol” and in regular series, asshole features leave before the open as if they were too good to hear the others. Meanwhile people in the open over read (this was always a problem) or show up only after the feature has read (or leave after the open if the open comes first). Work shops are far more enmeshed in the cult of personality because everyone is there to have their work “seen” and to say they took a work shop “with.” Seen and with are deadly to community. Buber is right about that.

I have a vision for readings in which everyone is welcome–in which 80 year olds and teenagers, good poets and bad poets, normatives and crazies meet on equal footing because, in the ceremony of bread, in James and Buber, your “personage” is what you leave behind when you enter the temple. Slams blaspheme against this spirit with their own terrible enforcement of hierarchy. Slam grew out of the spoken word scene I came out of–bar readings, readings where anyone from a prof to a wino could sign up on the list and read. The “third round” is a pale ghost of this era. Slam is utterly caught up in the cult of personality, even with team poems. In this respect, Buber is apt.

When I ran the Baron Arts Center with Deborah Laveglia and Edie Eustace, we took money out of our own pockets to supplement readings. The same people showed up as regulars year after year. And sometimes there were thirty or more people going back to the diner after the reading. I came to love some of them, to be friends, and some died and I mourned. The features were both outside the regulars and from the regulars. Everyone who came each month eventually featured.

It was community in the way Buber intended it–beyond the cult of personality. Of course we knew certain poets were more talented than others, and, without snobbery, we appreciated them as such. We all loved Joe Salerno who came every month, but Joe loved people back, and could remember lines of people’s poems. I knew I was part of a meaningful ceremony, every time I put the key in the lock and hit the code to disable the alarm at the center. I knew it was the early May reading because the Lilacs would be in bloom outside the door.

After the reading, we often went to the diner, and sometimes we didn’t go home until almost dawn. I miss this. This made life a little more tolerable. It was what church was supposed to be and never was. Perhaps I am old and stupid, but without this, work shops and features and awards just seem maniacal, and sociopathic. I feel I am in some stupid brag factory where snobbery and “professionalism” are mass manufactured. Everyone is an award winning poet. Everyone is so and so at so and so. In our series, I used to make the bios up on the spot–in order to disrespect the gravitas of personality.

I once told the people at Baron the poet Adele Kenny was my ex wife (just for fun) and that we were working out our grudges and coming to an understanding. I responded to poems in the call and response tradition of my youth. I did not get involved in this to become famous. I got involved to have somewhere I could go where I felt welcomed and where I could practice my art. I find no place like this anymore.

I know a great deal about many aspects of poetry, but that’s not the point. I hate grade A student thinking which is always, always, always, about being a personality. I want to manifest the shema/mitzvah–the I/thou. That’s hard to do when everything is lost in “Studied with” “went to” and won such and such. Joe Weil–not the personality but the host who brought disparate things and people together, who believed in the motley is dead–replaced by who?

Christopher Phelps really got me thinking. It would be nice to feel that way again. I live with a wonderful poet, but this is not about intimacy (that’s based on personal affinity). I need communitas. Maybe because I’m extraverted? Who the hell knows.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

rickj December 8, 2013 at 6:46 pm

thank you for sharing your thoughts & feelings about poetry readings as i definitely resonate with them. i discovered the world of spoken word & poetry readings at a place called cafe lena here in portland, oregon back in the nineties. it saddens me now to see how intensely cliquish it is now. i know exactly who is & isn’t going to be at every reading i attend, and especially, how frequently it breaks down to age & class. i was initially excited about the slam movement, but find it sorely disappointing. i remember once hearing someone active in the local slam scene read and then a year later hearing someone from los angeles read at a different event and noticing how eerily similar they were, not only with their writing, but even their body language! how can the type of reading you describe above be created anew?

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