I misremember the words of the Shakespeare Sonnet because my book is back at the office: “Those who have power to hurt and yet do none….” It’s something very much like that, and this is the gist of what I want to speak of in terms of mercy.
The power to hurt
It is said blessed are the merciful, they shall receive mercy and so mercy is a force that can only be matched by its return–which should tip us off that it is tied to highest powers. It is both a giving and a withholding. We give love and we withhold judgment. We also withhold pity, sentimentality, and, most especially, the sense of our own superiority. Then: it is the state of love opposite of courtship. In courtship we plight our troth. We adore. In the state of mercy, we do not bend to serve, nor rise to condescend, but find the exact height at which relationship is eye to eye. So to have mercy on another is to level with him or her–to see them face to face. This is why I always thought of Chekhov as the great writer of mercy–because he did not distort, yet he had the power if he wished to fully destroy the other. So mercy is strength that is dispensed in “seeing” the other. “You have seen me brother, you have not turned away.” Thus mercy is deep and abiding witness wrought not of weakness, nor servility, but of a sort of leveling Isaiah implies when he says, “the mountains shall be laid low and the valleys raised.” It is a leveling that is based on power and yet does not seek to defend, attack, or defeat the other. In mercy, seeing, witnessing is everything. And so this is the ground of mercy. And so I know that at the heart of mercy lies a contradiction: power, enormous power that seeks with its whole heart, and mind and soul the equanimity of witness. And there are other qualities:
Charity is that love mercy carries as its chief defining action. The action of mercy is charitas–which, unlike many gifts, is just the right gift at the right moment. This means it is grace derived good works–not merely good works. It is the work of the Holy Spirit inside someone who has power to hurt and yet chooses, instead to bear witness to the other– to truly “see” them. Again, it has ties to the highest form of what the Greeks call Xenia–the right treatment of the other, the stranger, the recognition of the other’s hidden majesty. This gift raises both the giver and receiver to an almost divine height. It elevates the relational scope of all being. Nabakov speaks of such charity when he says that while he would commend a man who saved a child from a burning building, he would take off his hat and bow in great reverence to that man who went into the fire a second time to retrieve the child’s favorite doll. Why? Because that man is the poet inside us–the one who sees the true heart of the other, who does not merely attend to the material, but goes the extra mile that Jesus speaks of in his preaching. I encountered an example of this aspect of mercy in an essay by the writer, Natalie Kusz. In her essay “Vital Signs” which details a long stay in the hospital, she gives a brief account of a nurse who “sees” an injured child in just the way I am speaking of. Consider this the example of mercy and its action:
And overseeing us all was janine, a pink woman, young even to seven year old eyes, with yellow, cloudy hair that I touched when I could. She kept it long, parted in the middle, or pulled back in a ponytail like mine before the accident. My hair had been blond then and I felt sensitive now about the course brown stubble under my bandages. Once, on a thinking day, I told janine that if I had hair like hers, I would braid it and loop the pigtails around my ears. She wore it like that the next day and every day after for a month.
Janine truly “sees” the little girl who has been in a devastating accident. She instinctively knows the little girl’s crush on her, and she has power to ignore or hurt the girl, yet, not only is she responsive, but, as if with the supernatural eye of a divine being, she sees that her cloudy yellow hair is also the little girl’s–that they share this between them. Her act is the charitas of true mercy–which is power to hurt converted into powerful witness, and an act of love beyond the call of duty. it is the right gift at the right time, with the effortless gesture of grace.
Mercy is always Unprecedented
Because mercy is always particular to an act of witness it can not have precedent, What constitutes mercy at one moment, constitutes mere good manners, or formality at another. mercy is in the moment, of the moment, for the moment, and without a future so to speak. there is a reason for this: acts of mercy are forms of prophecy; they teach us what true justice could be, what true equality, and love, and witness could be. Mercy is both mystery and pedagogy: a mitzvah that creates mitzvah consciousness. Empathy must be taught through stories of mercy. As a child, going to mass, I heard about the woman taken in adultery, the prodigal son, the woman at the well, the good thief recognizing Jesus on the cross, the love of the enemy–over and over and over again. Because stories were always beautiful to me, I took them to heart, saw them as real events. Mercy was everywhere, waiting to be enacted. It ennobled my being, made me want to be someone on the right side of an issue. I was also wild, intense, easily hurt, and I hoped with my whole heart God would forgive me my wildness if I showed mercy to others. I figured that was my only chance. My heart is a wildheart and I cannot do the yoga, serenity, soft-voiced thing people seem to do so well these days. I suspect this niceness has more to do with middle class manners than mercy. I have seen vegetarians show little or no mercy to anyone who does not share their life style. Perhaps I am a strange man, but I feel just as endangered among nice academics as I do among street kids. In point of fact, I always felt more at home with street kids. There, in a world where nothing is polite or well structured or “nice,” mercy visits on a regular basis. I think of Fariha, the kid from Bangladesh who befriended Kajah Jackson, a tough, black girl from the projects who had her mother’s brains splattered on her clothes by her father. He murdered her mother in front of her. Kajah was more than depressed; she was destroyed–talked to no one, played with no one, did the one thing in the ghetto you can’t do: dressed poorly and did not “wash yo ass.” She had “stank” as one kid called it. Farihah was impeccably dressed, brilliant, popular, and had two loving parents, and yet she risked her popularity,her reputation, everything to befriend Kajah. She helped me reach Kajah when I worked with children who had lost their lives–their childhoods. When I asked Farihah why, she said, “I was not always popular, Mr. Joe. Like when 9/11 happened, I was not in the Arab section of town and the kids threw stones at me. They called me names. I was in fifth grade, and I tried to kill myself. My mom cried, and I remembered I didn’t just belong to myself. I belonged to her, too, and I would break her heart. When I saw Kajah, I just knew I should be her friend, and that I was just like her under everything. I took her to my house and my mother called her a dirty little project girl. ‘Why do you hang with such people?’ My mother said. I told her, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself mommy. Kaja is just like me.” It took a long time to see it, but now my mother wants to do Kaja’s hair, and buy her clothes. She wants her to be her daughter.’
This leads me to my final observation on mercy: Mercy, unlike good manners or social nicety, can exist in hell. It can exist in the worst situations. it goes deeper than all wounds. It retrieves the dead from Hades. It barters for our souls when we would sell them out. It is violent in the best sense. It sees and refuses to be blind, Without it, all the welfare programs, and systems, and reforms are useless. Mercy is the majesty of vision, and it is the only true power we have, the one we seem all too often unwilling to exercise.
A prayer to be merciful
Remove the scales from my eyes, oh Lord,
and the scales from my hands.
Replace them with the ferocity of sight,
with the hands by which I wield
no weapon and all grace. Have mercy
on me who is so unmerciful. Give me your love
your eyes, your hands, so that I might see
the stranger, and know you–at once
forever, without hesitation,
in all places high and low.
When I was young, I wanted to stain the world with my permanence which is why, I suppose, I became a poet.
This is no longer the case. Old Four seasons songs from the early Sixties are more canonical than the vast majority of poems. In point of fact, a good poetry trivia question would be “name four poems from the 1960′s not written by Ginsberg, Bly, Merwin, Plath, Sexton, or Creeley.” Hell, most students could not name four poets prominent in the sixties other than these poets, much less poems. They probably could name five or six rock bands. I am as guilty as anyone. Although I can name perhaps thirty poets who became well-known in the sixties, and perhaps 20 poems (I know more, but have a terrible memory for titles). But I can name at least two hundred pop songs, dozens of televisions shows, and movies. Poetry is not even close in terms of having pride of place in my long term memory. It’s not as enjoyable as “Surfer Girl” for most people, and you can slow dance to “Surfer Girl.”
So what? What’s my point? I guess my point is there’s no point to writing poems except to write them. Being published, even winning major awards, are activities quickly swallowed up by the youth obsessed, pop culture obsessed amnesia of our so called “civilization.”
This past summer, I refused to write. I turned down three readings, none of which paid, because after thirty years of doing this shit, spending money, even gas money just to get in front of people’s faces (usually familiar) does not have the same glamor it once did. I understand poets who are just starting out wanting to read anywhere, even if they have to pay for the privilege. When I was 24 or 25, taking a thirty minute car ride, or hour train ride to read in an open (not feature, open) was something I enjoyed. First, gas was a lot cheaper. Second, the poetry scene seemed full of promise. It had that indefinable whiff of possibility–almost sexual. Now I don’t catch the scent and gas is always hovering near 4 bucks a gallon, and it seems every poet out there has taken the same fucking workshop, or is writing the same brand of spoken word. When I first got on the scene, I met poets who were avid readers–and they read some amazing poets, poets you would not consider par for the course of bar readings: Oppen, Olson, Reznikoff, Creeley, Ignatow, Paul Blackburn, Louis Zukovski, Levertov, Kathleen Frazier, Robert kelly, Larry Levis, Charles Wright, etc, etc, and we would go to diners after readings and actually talk poets and poems, and music, and art–not grants, not who is winning what or teaching where. I loved the poets I knew and they varied widely in age and background. This has vanished. This is how the scene now goes:
1. It’s all open readings, and one I heard about where the host begins and ends the open with a ten to fifteen minute recitation of his own work–which means he is the featured poet every month.
2. Slams where it’s as much about acting chops and looks as poetry and in which nothing truly different ever wins–just like academic poetry
3. Closed readings where the feature is not followed by an open and he or she has credentials that qualify him or her as a “noteworthy” poet.
- Features no longer stay for the open readers.
- Open readers show up late in order to miss the feature and read, or show up, do the open and split before the feature.
In my home state of Jersey, there are still a good amount of readings, but no one seems to go out to the diner anymore. It’s pretty business-like. I remember in 1991/92 I sometimes had as many as twenty poets go out the diner after a Poets Wednesday reading, and Edie Eustice, when she ran the series with Sofran Mcbride in the late 70s, early 80s had ten to twenty poets come back to her house. People would drink, eat, talk, play the piano and stay sometimes until the wee small hours–not anymore. There is less friendship on the poetry scene, and yet more scolding of me for not seeing it as a “social” event. Well, where the fuck is the social event if people don’t break bread together, eat, drink, flirt, fall in love, sit around a piano? Spare me. Social my ass. I was raised better than that. That’s what the Irish call a teetotaler’s orgy–six pieces of watercress, one cracker, and not a smile cracked to compete with the sticks up their arses. The aesthetic is BORING. Even when I helped the students run the Belmar reading here in Binghamton, we’d go to Kennedy Fried Chicken after a reading and get chicken and coco bread, or we’d do something. If no one is getting paid, then it ought to have a festive atmosphere. Someone ought to puke, or fall in love, or stare gloomily at the bushes and pee on the azaleas. Forget it. We are all so “functional” but is it functional to be this lacking in spirit? If so, why do it?
So now I do things to stain the world with my impermanence. Yesterday I made a fence completely out of tree limbs that had fallen in a storm. I used a potato peeler to take off the bark, and made one rule: no nails, or rope, everything done by the force of gravity and placement. The fence pleases me. It is about a hundred feet around, and rises and falls in height. I loved peeling the bark, fitting the limbs just so, knowing a really good wind storm or a drunk friend will send the whole thing crashing. I made mirror fish out of pieces of broken mirror. I did everything except write poems. My wife writes a poem everyday. I don’t want to write. Two years ago, it was all slammers at the Belmar, and I felt an ugliness I can’t explain. I paid people out of my own pocket at the Belmar (to the tune of about four thousand dollars over three years), helped the students, and, in the end, all it did was get me a bad reputation as a “drinker.” Hell, half the time I was not drinking–just having fun, but having fun in this modern bung hole we call the arts is deemed dysfunctional. In the end, no one was grateful for what I did. Instead, I had to listen to them act like Puritan Burgomeisters. I was thinking: Put all these snob ass, hypocritical purists on a cigar box!” Freedom and the arts? Horse shit. I know when its time to leave.
I am three and my father is about to take me up to bed. Everything about my father is suddenness and the rough, yet not unpleasant abrasion of fine grit sandpaper: his stubble, his hands, the flannel shirts he wears with a plumb line stencil, and a soft pack of Chesterfield Kings tucked into the pockets. His cigarettes are always slightly crooked. My parents, being born before people know better, throw me up in the air and carry me about with cigarettes dangling from their lips. I grow up in a strange, mystic fog of second hand smoke and lit cigarettes. It is the early sixties. People still use Brylcreem and the older, more “classy” types refuse to take their cue from Kennedy and give up their fedoras. My dad dresses like Jack Kerouac–or, rather, Jack Kerouac, and Jackson Pollack, and all those guys dress like my dad: working clothes, work boots. The difference is my father doesn’t write novels. he works 12 hour days in a paper factory, comes home to throw the ball around with me, is sometimes so tired that he falls asleep eating supper at the kitchen table.
I am burrowing my cheek, my face, the whole of my life in the smell of him–cigs, wood shavings, old spice, sweat. I will never know him again at this most basic of levels: sheer smell and touch. The flannel is red checkered, soft, and I like how I can rest myself against him. I know he won’t drop me. He would rather die than drop me. The television is on in the background because it is 1961 or 62, and the television is always on. I have fallen asleep on the living room floor, watching Bonanza with my family. At three or four I never make it through Bonanza. My father says: “Ok Kid, time to climb the mountain,” and we go up the stair. “Fee, fie, foe, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishmun.” I smell the beer on my dad’s breath, clasp my sweaty, child’s hands around his neck, pull closer to the smell of the beer, pretending I’m still asleep. When I am older I will smell like him, and have all sort of pencils with which to draw plumb lines across the kitchen wall.
The first time I read Roethke’s Waltz poem, my father has been dead for a year.
The whiskey on your breath
could make a small boy dizzy
but I hung on like death
such waltzing is not easy.
The much more suburban students in my class at Rutgers claim the poem is about abuse. I am stunned, full of anger at them. What sort of roughness do they understand? Are they so attached to nice behavior that they don't know who this father is? We are all abusive, and the world we try to create and the world we inhabit are so oddly disparate: even when everything goes our way, even when it seems the will does not fail us, there is a gap between who we are and who we intended, and love must be born there--in that gap, where the wind howls, and all the things we believed we were protected against squeeze through. That is where the love of my father, and my love lives--where there is no semblance of protection, even though I know he would rather die than drop me. I go into the bathroom. I am 19, and soon I will have to drop out of Rutgers. All those people who loved me with lit cigarettes dangling, who smelled most wonderfully of beer and cheap after shave, are dead.
I am dizzy, falling onto the bathroom tiles. I puke up my breakfast, catch my breath, wash up, towel myself dry, burrow my face into my own flannel shirt. I smell of something other than my father, but the flannel is enough to bring him back to me. If he was here, I would kiss him, the way no one kisses in my family. I would tell him "fee, fie, foe, fum." My crying is so strong it gives me hiccups. I do not go back to class because if I look at the end of the poem again "And Waltzed me off to bed/ still clinging to his shirt," I will lose it in front of all those nice children. I will bring death into the village, and I am sick of death. Outside, the urban Ginko trees do not look especially spectacular in their Autumn foliage, but there is one Sugar Maple, at a part of campus which few seem to trouble with their frisbees, and I go there. Half the leaves have fallen already--a deep rich orange. The bark of the sugar maple is shaggy in places--thick, light gray strips of bark. I lay my cheek there. It is rough and doesn't lie to me. It will not support the weight of the seasons for much longer, but why live in those sorts of truths? The bark is also a truth, and the deep mulch stench of fully advanced Autumn, and the ants crawling in the rising sap of the maple's wounds. The way the wind riffles my flannel. this is just as true. Inside my pocket, lies an eraser, a pencil nub, a ticket stub from the train. My flannel, blue plaid, feels so good around me. On my head is a ski cap--black. I look like I could be dressed for the docks. I sit under the tree and write:
The night cannot invade my pockets,
I believe there are lamps within
illuminating photos, flecks of
laundry lint, ancient ticket stubs.
I will dig deep into these caves
by some great epic of my hands.
Sometimes I no longer desire to teach the way I have been teaching–not because I am ungrateful, but because I wish to do a fair day’s work. I wish I could have nothing but independent studies, work from the morning until the late afternoon–9 conferences a day (One hour for lunch) five days a week. By the end of the week, I could see forty five students in an intensive, close hour where they would get far more from the experience, and so would I. Once a week, for another two hours, I could meet with them all together and we could break bread, have a reading and a party–maybe even a dance.
Everything about my life, all its pains and losses, its odd twists and almost impossible paths, has been a call to communion. I have something to teach, but not in this sad thing we call a “class room” where it is so hard to break down the wall between talking head and passive recepter. I would like my young men and women, and occasionally older men and women coming to my office to show me a poem or story, and I could truly respond to it–like a friend who is also an expert on this particular thing–and I could give them tea or coffee and pull books down from my shelf and loan them the books. And if the conference went over an hour, I’d have the next person come in anyway, and we’d all have a brief chat–and we’d look at this next poem or poems together.
First, I have true solitude so that I never really need to be alone. I always am. Second, I could do all my reading and editing right there–and the student would get my response immediately, and I would have my time away from the school truly free and so would they–in terms of my class. The other professors would hate this. It makes no sense for lecture classes, but for writing workshops–or creative writing students, this would be the best of worlds. I would be on campus from 9 until 6, with an hour lunch, or I could eat lunch in. If the weather was nice, the student and I could take a brisk walk and read the poem under the trees. Literature is learned through friendships–by building a rapport with another mind so that you know when it is hitting its stride or getting caught on a snag. If you leave me alone with all the free time I have , I never do any work, because I am always writing or thinking, except working on what I should be working on. For me, this “free time” is no good. I am not self-motivated. Left to myself, I can sit still all day and do nothing but stare, or walk for miles. I need a routine, a series of relationships that fill my day.
If I ran classes this way, I could take as many as forty five kids, and they would get a vast amount of attention, and still meet once a week for a reading, and a party (optional). They could workshop each other’s poems through e-mail, or get together for a cup of coffee.
My perfect life: I would “sit” in prayer five days a week–from 7 in the morning until 7 at night at my house, which would be my hermitage. Part of my prayers would include recieving visitors all day who could bring me a poem or poems to look at and work shop, or simply need me to listen or pray, or have a cup of tea. I would live on donations, and a small reading fee ($3 a poem). After 7 I would write my own work, or pray my rosary, and relax. On weekends, I would see friends or attend readings and exhibitions. I would be a “poetry monk.” I think I’d like to wear a robe–the color called “ashes of roses.” I want my life to be simple, and completely not my life at all.
Perhaps I would do this seven days a week–when I needed to journey, a novice would take my place until I returned. I love to go to the eucharistic adoration chapel at St. Patrick’s in Binghamton. It is silent, and I adore the eucharist for an hour. I don’t want “peace.” I want true engagement, the opportunity to give back whatever God has given me. I want this with all my heart, but the world is stubbornly in love with its gadgets of control. The world is always trying to complicate the simple, and make simplistic the complex. So my monk’s life is out the window, and I remain a “fuck up” in this system. I feel so bad. I want to be used, but I have to figure out where my handle is, so then I can convey to others: this is how I am most useful. This is how you pick me up and pour.
I became a teacher by accident. In 1995, I was asked to do a one day school visit in Paterson, New Jersey. I was phoned by Susan Amsterdam, one of the co-ordinators of The Passiac Community college Theatre and Poetry project. This is not the official name, I have never remembered the official name, but Maria Mazziotti Gillan founded and runs it, Susan co-ordinates it, and it is the only program of its kind in New Jersey, insofar as it serves strictly the urban population of Paterson and brings poets to the schools for one day visits. Susan works with the librarians of the various grade schools and high schools. Many noteworthy poets such as Lorna Decervantes, Gary Soto, and Sean Thomas Dougherty have participated.
Susan has one of the most affected mid-Atlantic accents of all time, fully as affected at Marie Dressler when she used to play the put-upon society lady in Marx Brothers movies. She is marvelous. Gillan’s entire staff is amazing, but Susan is the consumate professional, in the oldest, noblest tradition–organized, poised, with a voice somewhere between Winston Churchill, Ray Milland, and God knows who else. I sometimes call the number at three in the morning, just when I need a sense of majesty. I don’t leave a message and no one is there to be disturbed by it: “Hello… This is Susan Amsterdamn.” I am the only human being who has ever gotten the otherwise impeturbable Susan to shout. I have a gift for ruffling the utterly unruffable, but we will talk about this at a later time.
At any rate, I don’t know why I received a call to do a visit. I guess they considered me a poet. I ran a series, had published work, had read in the open at Maria Gillan’s Distinguished poet’s reading. Yes, I grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, so I’m urban, but I’ve never been street in the sense of having the cool. I am the anti-cool, Howdy Doody, El blanco. Yuppies from Long Island are way cooler than me. But the truth is I am arrogant–a wise ass, ballsy, without much shame, and I am a ham, and I like kids. I can talk to kids all day. They interest me. They will never pretend to like you. For that I am forever grateful. The moment a kid learns to pretend in that way, she or he is no longer a kid (usually, when they’ve learned to pretend to like you, they’re a “professional” in the worst sense–not like Susan, a woman I would go to war for). My first reaction to Susan’s voice was “This woman ain’t for real. No one sounds like that in real life. Maria made her up. (Gillan’s office is a Dickens novel–with Maria as the major character. All her staff can talk Maria speak. They know what she means even when she isn’t sure. It’s amazing.) So I met her, and she was real and had a kind heart as well as perfect and affected diction, and, every day, she was driving into the ghetto to do something good for kids who strangely enough, found her utterly affected voice, and inherrent dignity to be pleasing and comforting, just as I did. It was nice to know someone who spoke that well and was not a phony white bitch. Since then, I have played a sort of wayward Arthur to her Sir John Gilgud. (If you want to check out her voice call the center– but don’t you dare do it unless you agree not to leave a message. I’ll know and God will punish you). I think she is one of the ten rightous women of God, one of the holy forces standing between us and absolute destruction.
There’s another woman works for Maria called Arlene. Somehow, Maria Mazziotti Gillan ended up with 2 out of the 10 rightous women of God on her staff. Arlene is Armenian and once payed cash to get my car out of strorage when it had been towed from a street in Paterson. Arlene has been battling cancer for years now. Susan’s husband died, but they’re tough. Once, after a brutal break up (brutal for me, I got dumped), Arlene and Susan phoned me, without provocation, just to see how I was doing. At that time I was probably voted in Jersey as “most likely to commit suicide.” I am an opera, a sprawling mess. I admit it. Hello, I’m Joe Weil, and I am a sprawling mess. Thank God for those who are not.
So, I’m street in only one sense: if you ask me how I’m doing, and you seem to mean it, I will tell you my life story–like some lonely 80 year old neighbor (I am a lonely 80 year old neighbor). I will explain my love life, my lack thereof, my various aches and pains, the bios of my most interesting relatives, etc, etc. I will liberally extend reality or bend it to the shape of my tale, I may even tap dance, if it’s absolutely uneccessary. In short, I talk shit. While this is disastrous among middle class professionals who pretend to like you (You have done the one thing they can not abide–proffered a human exchange where none is called for), it is absolutely vital to entertaining, inspiring, and instructing kids. First law of any work with kids: “Don’t be boring. ” Boring is the job of parents and their regular teachers–to bore them all for the sake of a higher truth. My job is to offer temprary respite from boredom. I find the less kids have, the more easily entertained they tend to be. Honors students like being bored (Boredom in our culture is a sign of power and priviledge, and someone ought to do a study of boredom in relation to the class structure), and so I always cringe when teachers tell me I’m going to workshop with nothing but honors students. It isn’t that honors students are easily bored. That’s parents and teachers who kiss their little precious asses talking. It’s that honors students tend to be the “property” of certain teachers. It’s a sort of brain jock mentality, and they can be total introverts and assholes to the umpteenth degree. My favorite kids to teach are those who have been waiting for poetry all their lives, but didn’t know it: the smart kid who refuses to “work to her potential,” the wise ass who has been waiting to hear one thing on earth that doesn’t sound phony and then hears it in his own poem, those kids. I am also looking for kindness, and openess–the first criteria for whether or not a guest can be effective.
Wherever I have taught for an extended period of time, I may have bored someone. God forgive me, but the best teachers do not bore. They may terrify, insult, inspire, incite, confuse, or con the students, but they do not bore. A boring teacher is the death of learning. I am not to every student’s taste–especially for those students who need a touch of OCD and a rigid, predictable program of instruction. Hell, I would not want me as a teacher (Too much Irish chaos–the worst kind). Good, inspiring, life transforming teachers exist in every personality type, including introverted (I always preferred cool Alfred Hitchcock types with perfect lesson plans), but, in a 3 hour gig, where you do you hit and run, my style is probably best (except for those teachers who believe there is nothing worthwhile in life that hasn’t been planned down to the last syllable). I terrify the well-prepared. Hell, I terrify myself.
Anyway , I had no idea what to do, so I “talked shit” and the kids talked back and we enjoyed each other. Having read four books a week for twenty years and having memorized hundreds of poems and songs helped, but it still came out as a form of banter. I had some tough moments: once an angry kid called me “a gap toothed, no necked, red faced, bald headed white cracker,” and I wrote the phrase down on the board, and did a lesson on the two syllable put down. I was delighted by how he had said it. He was only in fifth grade, and already miserable for the rest of his life, but gifted in hate, a verbal wizard at making other people feel as bad as he did. I was truly in awe of his intelligence and saddened to the point of love by the utter damage and defiance it invoked. He couldn’t believe I was using his hatred as a lesson plan. Nor could the teacher, who hated the kid, had been the victim of his mouth, and wanted to send him to hell, but, being a coward like Hindley, let the kid run the class.
I gauged the situation. In any workshop situation in the inner city, you may have as many as four wannabe alpha apes: The teacher, the teacher’s aide, and the two or three kids who want to run the show. The teacher might be so anal, and burned out that you can’t even use the chalk, and she or he does her or his bills or study plans while you conduct your workshop. This isn’t “professional” distance. This is just bad manners. I have seen it done both in urban and suburban schools. It is the ultimate way of snubbing an unwanted guest. You are not a guest; you are a temporary intrusion at best. They go out of their way to pretend you don’t exist. Such teachers would be called “stuck ups” in my old neighborhood. Eventually, a kid or a parent would justifiably assault such a teacher. They have no place in our schools. If they think arts in the schools are a waste of time, they ought to speak up and make a fuss; otherwise, be courteous, at least. These are not always veteran teachers. By and large, they are snotty, fairly new teachers who are already smug and stupid. To treat a guest inhospitably in ancient Ireland was a crime punishable by death. Same in Italy and Greece, and in the Middle East. I think you should still be allowed to off the motherfuckers. But here, in corporate America, it is called “professionalism.” Spare me. There are two kinds of heroes: those who can fight, and those who can be generous. Sometimes they are combined. More often, they lean one way or the other. Look it up. A teacher like this can destroy hundreds of souls. I never minded nuns who hit me. I usually deserved it. I minded teachers who acted like prostitutes with a bad trick, who looked at their watches, who picked on and brutalized the same children the children picked on and brutalized. These people are scum. They destroy love. They dishonor Heaven. The best revenge is to realize how sad they must be to live with themselves 24/7.
When I first encountered such teachers, I tried to draw them in and found out they felt nothing but contempt. They were no different than this kid calling me a gap tooth, no-neck, red faced, white cracker, except that they weren’t as honest. They were just as hateful as that kid, but they would retire with pensions, and that kid would end up in jail. So I gauged the situation. This kid ran the class. I knew that. The other kids might not like him, but they obeyed him because he was smarter and meaner, more ruthless, and he spoke for their own anger, their own inner nastiness. They would abdicate the rights of hatred to him, in exchange for sitting idly by while he made sure no one learned anything except his contempt and meaness. I’m nuts enough to consider that his meaness and anger might have been useful, and if it was my school, I’d poll the kids. They could decide if he were elected teacher. I’d then put him on staff, give him a salary and benefits, with the proviso he make up an endless series of lesson plans, and fill out a ton of paper work. He’d be no better or worse than the asshole who was in front of the kids that day, but it ain’t my world, is it?
I had made a decision on the side of clever. I thought I could defuse the situation by turning his verbal insult into a lesson in rhythm and meter. This was a mistake. I hadn’t been honest about how pissed off and sad he had made me while at the same time he impressed me. His power over these kids was absolute. He was talented. I love talent even when it is aimed against me. I already felt inferior to this kid. When I first wrote his put down on the board, and started taling about syllable counts, he was shocked. I derailed him for a second, but I forgot a kid like this always has some side kick thug– aHimmler whose whole existence depends on sucking his master’s dick. This side kick threw a wet spit ball at me. It splattered on the board and the kids erupted in laughter. The teacher kept writing in her lesson planning book. So much for being one of these lame liberals who make excuses for meaness. There’s no excuse for being mean. This kid had been hurt in life, but he was an asshole, though a talented one, and he was going to ruin the day, so I said to the teacher, “What sort of teacher, sits there and acts as if a guest does not exist? You’re not doing your job, and I’m a taxpayer. Get up and take this behaviourly challenged person out of my sight. I got a job to do. I don’t need to take this.” Then I got on the phone and called the principal. I said this kid had to go and so did his best friend. The principal came up. There was the kid’s statement on the board. This kid spit on the principal.
The great “liberal” extreme is to let angry, ill-mannered children usurp the rights of other kids. I don’t believe in accomadating anger or meaness–in myself or others. I am also bone angry because of what has happened to me, but I know this anger is as much a liability and vice as it can be a virtue. I believe a person should run rough shod over others only when truly provoked. I won’t back down to anyone, but I also won’t be mean to anyone unless they are mean to me first. This is true street code. This is giving propers. Now you say this kid is only a fifth grader, but man, I know him–he’s older and sadder than Satan, and he needs massive help, and no one’s going to give it to him, especially his equally fucked up and mean hearted teacher. The kid spat on the principal, he was taken out of class along with his side kick (The teacher also should have been taken out of class), and I asked the principal if I could have an extra forty minutes with these kids since the next period was open. He said alright. I was able, eventually, to gain control, but I learned a lesson: you cannot con, compromise, or make peace with inpsired and intelligent, and sadistic hatred hell bent on denigrating you (This force shows up sometimes as a fifth grader, and sometimes as a contemptous teacher doing the lesson plan while you try to conduct a workshop). You must remove such evil from your presense, nuetralize it, or find someone who can.
Anyway, I was humbled and I learned the first sad, but pragmatic law of teaching: some kids are smarter and meaner than you are, and they don’t think you have anything to teach them, and they are probably right. You don’t, but if you want to teach at all, get them out of your class as soon as possible or be prepared to become that kid’s bitch.
Almost without exception, my experiences were good, because I was a neighborhood person talking to neighborhood kids–albeit, not the same ones I grew up with, but not that different. I enjoyed myself, something you should always try to remember as a teacher. I brought in my guitar and my harmonica or played a piano in the really old, crumbling schools that still had pianos in the classroom. I talked about my crazy relatives and then got the kids to write about theirs. They played my guitar, sang refrains, sometimes wrote poems that made them cry, that shocked them with their own beauty or truth. I had never even heard of a prompt. Honest. I would let the kids play my guitar, and when they thought I was a leprechaun, I didn’t take offence. Hell, I was short with a red beard, and I looked like one.
I learned the following rules of teaching, rules taught to me by my years as a shit talker, bar poet, and musician:
1. Don’t think your lesson plan is God. Leave some room for deviating, and for the flow of the moment. Teach in the moment, not in the system.
2. Kids want to be useful. Let them pass out the paper. Get them involved. Delegate authority–don’t cling to it. The truly pwerful give power away freely. Ask them questions. You’re not in a one day, one hour work shop to teach them poetry. You’re there to con them into thinking this poetry stuff just might be enjoyable. You’re an evangelist of the arts. Give stuff away. I gave a way books, drums, candy, once, I even gave away my guitar.
3. Teacher’s want “results” or the illusion of “constructive” work shops. Keep the joy, but learn to give the devil her or his due. Have a handy reason ready for everything you do–not for the kids, but for the teacher. Respect the teacher’s place. This is territory and many teachers, besides being control freaks, are also territorial. I sometimes bring my own paper and chalk. The less they have to do for me, the better. The less they feel their space is being violated, the better. Make them think you’re on their side.
4. Never read your own poetry until you are asked. I think it’s nice to read stuff that excites you (by others), but you aren’t the center of the universe. The kids are. You might change someone’s life. Be stupid and naive enough to believe that and realize, the first impediment to reaching someone is your own fat ass self. Get out of your own way.
5. If you are shy, use it. If you are anal, use it. If you are wild, use that, too. Anything used with good will, with true concern, can work. What does not work is contempt.
6. Know poetry well–not just the craft, but the joy. Trust that children are greedy for joy, that they are dying for lack of it. Don’t ever patronize them, even if they want you to.
Anyway, I went into my first gig with a guitar, a suit, and a purple ski cap. It was winter, but the cap was strange, and purple, and became an ice breaker. When the kids though my name was “Wild” rather than “Weil.” I didn’t correct them. I knew it was better to be “wild.” I let them play the guitar. I let them be the show. We performed the poems. Most teachers enjoyed it, and many wrote poems themselves (The best kind of teachers). After doing three of these gigs, I thought, “This is fun. I can do this.” I would work all night on the twelve to eight, take a quick shower in the locker room, put on a suit. When I first did this I showed my working class roots by wearing a three piece suit. This is how I was taught to give respect. You got dressed for weddings, funerals, and arts-in the-schools-programs. I had no idea how casual things had become in terms of school dress codes. Weirdly enough, this worked with the kids in Paterson who thought I might be a rich and famous poet because I was dressed like a funeral director.
I lived this double life for the next three years until, one day, I received an offer to work a steady gig at Arts High in Middlesex county, New Jersey. The job was only two days a week for six hours, but I could do it, as well as the Paterson gigs, and still keep my 12 to 8. I was building a rep. Maybe for the first time in my life I was doing something I loved as much as playing the piano or kissing a lover. I’d found my vocation. Like most such things, it followed the fate of my personality: I just stumbled into it while I was doing something else. It wasn’t planned. I am working class to the extent that, unlike most middle class people, I don’t think we really have all the choices we would like to believe we have. Fate enters. Grace enters. Shit happens.
So I was ready to evolve into a new life. It was the late nineties. The economy was booming. Even the American mold making industry was temporarily thriving. I had, in a sense , always been a teacher. For fifteen years, I had taught immigrants on the night shift to read and write English–just for the hell of it, because I liked them (not always, but most of the time). I had read my poetry. Many guys at work thought I was a nut job, but they were proud of me, too–especially when the Newspapers came to the shop to do a story on the “Poet as working stiff,” and I got a couple of them into the picture. I had no thought of ever leaving that world. It was a steady job. Work was always just work. I had no idea Bush and 9/11 were going to happen–that, one week after the Twin Towers went down, I would lose my job of 19 years forever. By that time, without any real effort, by the seat of my friggin pants, and certainly not the sweat of my scholarly brow, I was flying towards the sort of destiny I never dreamed of. What began with the perfect diction of Susan Amsterdam had grown into my full time occupation: free lance teacher, Dodge-Poet-In-The-Schools, Master Instructor in fiction and poetry at Middlesex County Arts High. Not even a bullshit artist like me could have made this shit up. Who said Proust doesn’t pay? Yes, I was all those things–and scared shitless, too. Without trying, without hunger or ambition, I was being forced by economic disaster, to be upwardly mobile. I had been failing to succeed all my life. I had no idea I was failing my way to the top.
Oh–my final rule of thumb: like kids, enjoy them or don’t do it because kids will kill you–and devour you–even if you love them, and especially if they love you. They have an inherrent sense of eucharist. Be sure you want to die for them. They will insist on it.
Some smart folks insist Nat King Cole doesn’t get enough credit for his vital and historical role in Jazz trio piano playing. Hell, I’ve often said it. In point of fact, it’s been said so often that it isn’t true. We should qualify as such: Nat King Cole gets plenty of credit as the revolutionary pianist who gets no credit. He’s like the underrated ball player who keeps getting called the underrated ball player and has his face plastered on Time as well as Sports Illustrated. We might even call such a ball player: “the most overrated underrated ball player.” As for Cole, he is not underrated, and he did far more than pave the way for Jazz trios and small forces (though paving the way for smaller ensembles is a good enough thing considering post-war music union strikes and the rise of the crooner which made big bands expensive and anachronistic). Cole, besides making the small jazz combo viable (then becoming a crooner in the post-big band era himself) presages as much of the bebop style as exemplified by Monk as Lester Young presages Charlie Parker and bebop. Here’s some tiddy biddies on the matter:
1. Unlike those who went before him (and after him), Cole did not seek to make his instrument or his voice imitative of the other. Satch sounds like his horn. Almost all the singers who were players have a sympatico between their voice and their instruments–not Cole. Cole’s piano style is surprisingly and beautifully abrasive–far more percussive than melodic, far more angular, lean, clean, and with hardly a rubato or damper pedal heavy romanticism to be had–the opposite of his voice. The closest his voice and piano style come is on “Route 66.” Otherwise, it’s like Cole the singer and Cole the pianist inhabit totally different spheres.
2. Though Cole knew stride and boogie techniques better than most, he does not play his solid percussive piano along those traditional lines, but has his own sort of “Swing.” His left on ” Somebody Loves me” with lester Young affords a good example of this: though he is playing stride with an occasional boogie passacaglia, he does something in right/left hand co-ordination that sounds a hell of a lot like Monk–odd but inevitable dissonances, quirky “allusions” to stride, stomp and boogie rather than actual adherence to them (Cole, like a good postmodernist, knows how to quote the tradition without getting trapped in it). Like Monk, he is referencing, tweaking, and parodying the entire jazz piano cannon (and blowing it up at the same time)–and in the space of a single number! After hearing him play with Lester and Buddy Rich, I went back to other Cole piano bits, and found out it wasn’t a fluke. His left hand work was already free from the limits of stride and boogie and swing (before the boppers and Parker), but it is also free of the chord clusters and chunks of future post-swing players, and he is doing intervals of 2nd’s at times–something Monk was given credit for innovating. Amazing. As for his right hand, it never tries to impress, but has what I call “bubbling bel-canto.” A sort of singing tone that bubbles, and perks, and moves like brook water–swift, effortless, and with neither loyalty nor slavishness to the melody. His right hand can be leggiero while his left is staccato–more water freedom, than breezy freedom. Cole can flow more than swing, and flow is the greater attribute. Amen.
So I have come full circle: Cole does not get enough credit for his piano playing, but then again, how do you give genius enough credit?
In the past I’ve discussed what I mean when I call myself a “Catholic Poet”, and I want to expand on that. This is an excerpt of a review that appeared in New Pages of my book, The Plumber’s Apprentice.
Joe Weil looks at beauty and sees the bloated underside where ugly makes a home; tells beauty to take a walk and falls in love with ugly. He examines his faith and everyone else’s to see it fail; tells faith to take a walk and revels in small depravities. He stares loss in its face and spits whatever was retained; Tells loss to take a walk and carry all the rest with it. Despite the darkness, Weil leaves us a kind of determined strength. In “Clap Out Love’s Syllables,” he writes, “Stocks fall, leaves fall, we fall, yet, falling, praise / the fields of lust on which our bodies graze.”
This is a book that invites bereavement to sit down, then fleeces it by cheating at poker. All the rules we thought written on stone have faded; the stone was wax. We were mistaken. I will surely wear this book out.
The review, like its claims for my work, is hard to cipher as positive or negative, though the end is an affirmation: “I will surely wear this book out.”
What the critic got at here is the chief thematic aspect of my work based on the Sermon on the Mount and Isaiah, the ontological source of all my poetry: reversal of values. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first, the mountains shall be leveled and the valleys raised, fair is foul and foul is fair, the transubstantiation of shit into God, and God’s saving power in shit, not the reality of semiotics or of success/failure, but that deeper reality of Eucharist which can only be gotten at when we have stripped ourselves of every piety and stand naked before the covenant—halt, lame, bawdy, incapable of redemption save through the violence of ontological grace—grace within mere being—being as the ferocity of value, the smallest, most discounted thing on earth as manifest in the creative force of God.
This is at the center of all my poems, even the dirty raunchy ones, even the poems in which I am cursing God, in which the voice of the poem is a scoundrel, even in those poems where I seem merely to be shouting blasphemies. I did not decide to have this as my theme. It had me. All my life I have been haunted by the dialectical reversal of values in Isaiah and in the words of Christ. Rank, privilege, even the rank of what is beautiful and what is ugly have always seemed to me the most suspect of human cognitions. How do we judge? How can fleabane–if seen at an odd hour and known at just the right moment and under certain situational coordinates–not outdo, not awe us as much as an alp? If this is not possible, then there is neither alp nor fleabane, but only our petty and smug constructs of values that go with them and we are imprisoned in a series of judgments which are final because they are without mercy. It is the lack of mercy and possibility in judgment, not judgment itself which I deplore. Always judgment is a necessary angel that is a good angel only if it carries in its arms the book of “but perhaps.”
In my poem Dandelions, the narrator kicks the old ladies at six o’clock mass who are compared to dandelions when they go to seed. He kicks them, lifts them up on his boot. He does so gleefully, and the old ladies do not protest but beg to be kicked, because, contrary to the violence of the act, it is the intimacy of celebration and love—the violence of all true contact.The poem ends
The things of this world
cry touch me. The things
of this world cry
The poem is meant both to exalt the reality and blaspheme against the pieties surrounding the value of the old, of the discounted, of those things we deem weeds. It insists on exalting, but at the same time, deconstructing and degrading, making a farce out of the cheap epiphanies and gentle smugness of sentimental attachment to the old. They have value not as sentimental tropes, but as the sacred and fierce text of mere being—that text Wallace Stevens insisted we approach. For in that text, fleabane is as likely beautiful and wonderous as a Swiss alp.
In another “review” I discovered on the internet, a student at Lafayette College wrote of my visit and reading at that school:
Weil believes we live in a world devoid of positives and negatives, a concept that often leaks out in his poetry, which can be simultaneously funny, depressing, sardonic, profound and “irrepressible” (to quote one of the event organizers, professor Lee Upton). One poem he read, entitled “Ethics for Huey O’Donnell,” was about a young friend of Weil’s whom everybody considered beautiful and charming before he died in his twenties of cancer. It is a deep and complex conflation of emotions that express the multiple layers of man.
Another poem he recited, “I Am What I Remember,” talks about personal identity and turtles before becoming a tiny treatise on life. Weil writes, “I am only what I remember: / the brief, peripheral touch / of a woman’s hand / on my lower back / as she squeezed past me / in seventh grade.” But truly most astonishing was the way he read, or perhaps more appropriately, performed. The man sung with outstretched arms and played piano while singing a song about virgins, a bright smile across his face while the crowd laughed at the undeniable humor.
Again, at the center of my work is contradiction, or rather I wish to reconcile contradiction if only for that moment, for, like all people with a high functioning case of Asperger’s, I do not get contradiction, am not gifted at nuance, and must take both sides of any issue with absolute conviction (sometimes all at once) in order to approximate nuance. Contradiction does not come from God claimed Thomas Aquinas, and I agree with the good saint. But the world, while God-created (parent), God redeemed (child), and God haunted/inspired (Holy Spirit), is certainly not God oriented: it is motley, hidden away from God behind a thousand conflicting tropes of willfulness and streben. The answer to this on the part of postmodernity is a rather too tepid, and, at the same time, too strident and absolutist embrace of uncertainty and the hyper-qualified, or, worse, the yawn of the fop, the grade z dadaist, the yawn that is thrice borrowed from Rimbaud via the French surrealists as sponsored by a hipster beer commercial in Brooklyn. No thanks.
I am a narrative poet, but my narratives go about sniffing the world. Dogs meander and crisscross on their path because they are keeping the scent of things at the center of their wandering. This is the large part of their reality, roughly in the center of a cone–a sort of core and focus by way of digression. Me and the dogs have a lot in common.
If I look at my poems, with the exception of a few that are merely for fun (well, a lot), I can see the theme of reversal of values, or confusion of values in all of them.
“Ode To Elizabeth” (see page 23): The poet speaks of “grimey Elizabeth,” goes to great lengths to depict a town where people keep plastic on the furniture and watch double features of Bruce Lee’s Fists of Fury with Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal And yet it is a poem of praise)
“Elegy for Sue Rapeezi”: Poem in which an ugly, girl considered a whore, a dyke, and a dick tease teaches the snob narrator the first things he learns about love
“Morning at The Elizabeth Arch”: “The winos rise as beautiful as deer.” Enough said.
“Fists”: Poem in which the broken and gnarled fists of a factory working father are given mythological value.
“Ethics for Huey O’Donnell”: A poem that tries to deal honestly with the contradictions at the heart of friendship and how one can be both true and false at once.
I can go on. My language is also motley and contradictory insofar as I move sometimes wildly between lyrical moments and blunt, even flat sentences, move between romantic imagery and cuss words. I believe in liveliness and exuberance as beauty. I believe the false gentleness and political correctness of our current progressives is as likely to get us killed as the pompous vulgarity and bloated bravado of our reactionaries because both are incapable of the true ferocity of which Christ and Isaiah before him spoke: the ferocity of love, the heaven that is taken by storm, by complete and ferocious belief in the value of all life. This is what is meant by Blake and by Jesus when he says “the violent bear it away.” Heaven is taken by storm. I am not interested in a new wrinkle on the early 20th century “Tango face.” I am not interested in the cult of the cool and the detached. If I want to kill someone, I’d prefer to feel my hands around his neck, not send a drone to do my dirty work. I can respect the hot and the cold. The lukewarm makes me vomit.
The other week I had a few dinner guests over and I was bringing up the subject of sainthood and pathology. One bright guest (he attended Harvard) said: “Oh no… I’m tired of all that Freudian analysis of sainthood.” I said: “me, too. I don’t mean it that way, but I think it is interesting that, just as the real flesh of Jesus and his blood appears under the signs of bread and wine, and this is a scandal many cannot accept or that they openly refute, so, too, the presence of sainthood under the ‘Signs’ of pathology and scandal is something I remain interested in. The saint’s unity with the sinner, with the one who is lost, broken, poor, diseased has to it the fullness of Christ’s unity with the sinner on the cross, and so the question is: Do we believe that Simone Weil was an anorexic in the sense of a disease, or do you believe she was a mystic, inspired by the spirit of God, and hidden under the signs of anorexia? Or was she both: anorexia plus? Furthermore, by my love of tri-partite registers of terms, I cannot resist seeing anorexia as the neutral expression for Simone’s own spiritual term “decreation.” We might lay it out as follows:
Laudatory: decreation into perfect unity with the suffering Christ and her fellow Jews.
Neutral: suffering from anorexia
Dyslogistic: mentally deranged and suicidal, as the factory workers saw her—a weird virgin.”
I once did a few chapters on Saint Joseph of Cupertino that I never finished. In many respects, he had all the symptoms of impaired mental faculties–perhaps autism, perhaps epilepsy, and, without doubt, a brain wracked with inexplicable fits of rage (which might imply some early brain trauma). Yet, it is documented that he had many of the gifts peculiar to the sainthood, most especially the discernment of hearts, and the ability to levitate and bi-locate. Somehow, his extremely limited intellectual faculties did not keep him from being one of the greatest confessors of the church, nor did his horrible rage issues enter into his perfect and placid obedience to the church when it forbade him from saying mass and, for all intents and purposes, locked him away. He was a living example of God revealing to the simple what he has withheld from the wise.
So, like my friend from Harvard, I think it tiresome to wash the saints in the bath of modern psychology and cleanse them of their strangeness by applying to them those terms which they seem to fit in our time of diagnosis, and yet I think, free from the standpoint of conformity to Christ, we must suspect and perhaps be wary of any saint who isn’t in some way, a scandal, and an aberration to the church—an example of perfect and passionate obedience, that most revolutionary and strangest, most terrifying of acts. Let’s look at some of Weil’s own words translated by Sian Miles:
We possess nothing in the world—a mere chance can strip us of everything—except the power to say, “I.” That is what we have to give to God—in other words—to destroy. There is absolutely no other free act that is given us to accomplish—only the destruction of the “I.” (From “The Self.”)
Weil goes on to elaborate that this destruction of the I from outside the self (Affliction, the oppression of workers, slavery, social injustice, abuse, etc, etc) is the worst thing that can happen to us “because then we cannot destroy it ourselves.” She expands on this by saying that such a destruction of the “I” from outside does not rid the afflicted one of egoism, but instead creates an “egoism without an I.” The resentment Nietzsche saw working among certain Christians, and also among the “humble” or slavish poor. This could be likened to the automaton, to the one incapable of true action (except to hate what it obeys). It could be compared to Buber’s I as it, mere motion rather than true action. This ability to choose to be “decreated” is the right exercise of free will, for Simone says in other writings: “The one gift God has given us that we must give back is our free will.”
To a culture glutted on a thousand self-help and self-esteem books, to a prosperity minded Christianity, this idea of destroying the “I” must seem ill phrased at the very least, and downright crazy at the worst, but let us quote Christ:
Anyone who becomes naught for my sake shall discover who he is.
All those who try to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for my sake shall live.
This decreation of the self might seem to contradict the very foundations of the Judaic value of “yacheim” (to life), the proverb, “better a live dog than a dead lion.” But Simone Weil, like Tolstoy, does not consider merely material existence to be life at all. One must destroy the self that insists on “I” above all else because this is the ultimate idol worship. She holds out this hope, even to those going through persecution, trials, in short, what she calls extreme affliction:
So long as we ourselves have begun the process of destroying the ‘I’ we can prevent any affliction from causing harm (I believe she means harm in the spiritual sense). For the I is not destroyed by external pressure without a violent revolt. If for the love of God we refuse to give ourselves over to this revolt, the destruction does not take place from without but from within.
And so the willed destruction of “I” is, to Simone Weil, the one act of perfect obedience. But she says something here that is a wonderful and nasty little paradox: one resists having the “I” destroyed from without by not revolting, by not resisting the “I’ being destroyed from without. One defeats the process of outer destruction by refusing to resist outer destruction. This is a mystical oxymoron, but one not at all rare in the realm of mystical tradition. It is one with what I said in an earlier essay on obedience: perfect obedience destroys the system that seeks to destroy it by being perfectly obedient unto the systems pre-systemic origin. Isaiah chapter 42:
Here is my servant in whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased
Upon him I have put my spirit;
He shall bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry out, nor shout
Nor make his voice heard in the street.
A bruised reed, he will not break.
This is the figure of the suffering servant, the one who does not resist, but obeys, and by obeying, is, in the words of Simone Weil, able to “destroy the ‘I” and its egoism from within.
Lest we think Simone Weil a Paulist Republican, she did not give up her sense of social justice for workers or oppressed people at all. As she insists this destruction of the “I” from without is the worst of spiritual calamities since it makes impossible the choice of willingly destroying the “I” from within. One must realize that for Simone Weil material social justice that did not alleviate the destruction of the “I” from without would be more than useless: it would be the greatest evil, and yet, without social justice, the vast majority of human kind was incapable of true action which is, in the mystical sense of living God, becoming “naught” for his sake.
And so what Weil offers is scandalous: total and willing annihilation into and for the love of God. She writes:
Redemptive suffering. If a human being who is in a state of perfection and who has, through grace, completely destroyed the ‘I’ in himself falls into that degree of affliction which corresponds for him to the destruction of the ‘I’ from the outside—we have the cross in its fullness. Affliction can no longer destroy the ‘I’ in him for the ‘I’ in him no longer exists, having completely disappeared and left the place to God. But affliction produces an effect which is equivalent, on the plane of perfection, to the exterior destruction of the ‘I.’ It produces the absence of God.
Once again, this is a strange statement, a stumbling block and a great scandal for those believers who want only the presence of God—not God’s absence, but the absence of God was considered by St. John of the Cross in his dark night of the soul, and by many other mystics, to be the ultimate crowning of one truly perfected into Christ. If we look at it bluntly, Weil is certainly no Joel Osteen, and this idea of redemptive suffering is impossible for many Christians to accept, especially evangelicals because they believe Christ did all the redeeming once and for all (But Paul himself claims that the mystical body of Christ—we, the followers of Christ—complete in our suffering what is “lacking” in the suffering of Christ. This means that redemption is not merely an historical act rounded off by Christ’s sacrifice, but is ongoing and that we, as the mystical body share in that reality).
Weil quotes Christ (who was quoting the psalms): “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
What is this absence of God produced by extreme affliction within the perfected soul? What is the value which is attached to it and which is known as redemptive suffering?
Now here comes her strangest gambit of all (or in the top ten of her strange gambits):
Redemptive suffering is that by which evil really has fullness of being to the utmost extent of its capacity.
And going further into this “fullness of being;”
By redemptive suffering, God is present in extreme evil. For the absence of God is the mode of divine presence which corresponds to evil—absence which is felt. He who has not God within himself cannot feel his presence.
Now it seems that she is contradicting Augustine who said evil is null, and has no being, yet, lest, we grow hasty, here, Our Beautiful Simone Weil comes in for a landing firmly on Augustine:
It is the purity, the perfection, the plenitude, the abyss of evil. Whereas hell is a false abyss (CF, Thibon). Hell is superficial. Hell is a nothingness which has the pretention and gives the illusion of being.
Simone Weil’s “hell” sounds like my concept of conformity: hell is an illusion of being–appearance, semiotics, that which conforms to a construct but without true obedience. It is the death within life of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, the people who are “eating and drinking, and buying and selling unto the last hour, and are caught unaware.” It is the true sickness unto death, a despair so total that one in the grips of it is not aware of it as despair. Simone continues:
Purely infernal destruction of the ‘I’ is quasi—infernal suffering. External destruction with which the soul associates itself through love is expiatory suffering. The bringing about the absence of God in a soul completely emptied of self through love is redemptive suffering.
The objection to this might be: how can you ever be sure what appears to be a choice is not really a compulsion? How can true obedience be differentiated from its exactitude and replication in conformity. This I believe: a hint that something is mere conformity rather than obedience is that it appears to cause no scandal, but is always “scandalized.” Satan does not smoke or drink or fornicate, and no one knows the law or holds others to the law more strictly than he (his name means the accuser, the prosecutor). What makes him Satan is that he cannot obey, cannot accept a God who would not be utterly subject to the law of condemnation and alive to mercy. Satan is quasi—incapable of being, not only of feeling the true presence of God, but of feeling God’s absence. Satan is twice fraudulent, at least if we follow Simone’s way of thinking.
Reading her words, we can well understand how she may have justified starving herself in solidarity with her suffering fellow Jews, how she may have seen her deliberate act of self-destruction not as a suicide but as a “Saving” of her life by losing it—by annihilating a self that was spared the catastrophic and total external destruction of ‘I’ by the Nazis. Yet this might be perceived as violating the law of Yacheim: life above all else.
Yet to this objection, one is left asking: what is life if it is merely motion without action? To choose willingly to be one with those suffering a complete loss of liberty and life is to act from within. Still, one might see in this act of self decreation, of willed destruction of the ‘I’ a latent and perhaps not so latent) sin of pride—as some have ventured with Cordelia, as with Emily Dickinson’s imperial despair, also, as with Othello’s insistence on falling on his own sword (which Eliot saw as exactly that—the deadly sin of pride, Othello unable to let anyone but himself punish him). We are left in the end with sainthood and true obedience as existing always under the mysterious signs of scandal and willfulness. This does not make much sense from a worldly stand point. In the traditions of mystics, no other way makes sense.
Here are some ways to explore these ideas more.
1. Consider how Ivan Illyich is dead while alive in his conformity, and is raised from the dead by dying into the affliction that takes his life. How from the standpoint of both Tolstoy and Simone Weil might destruction be salvation?
2. Considered what the misfit says about the Old Lady in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good man is Hard to Find”–“She would have been a good woman…if it had been there to shoot her every minute of her life.” How does this fit into the mystical schema of Simone Weil, of her sense of self-decreation. When the old lady calls the misfit “Son” and touches him, what sort of true union does she accomplish with “Evil” in the sense of Simone Weil and how can this be an act of salvation and grace?
3. Look at the poems of Emily Dickinson, especially those which speak of imperial despair, and of death within life, an ongoing cavalry. To what extent is Dickinson’s imperial affliction similar to Weil’s willed destruction of ‘I’? How do they differ?
4. How does Simone Weil’s concept of the absence of God fit into the transvaluation of all values in Christ’s teachings. In Emily Dickinson’s poems, in Tolstoy’s story, “The Three Hermits”
No system can endure perfection. All systems thrive on defining imperfections either by way of “sin,” “error” being inappropriate, being “unprofessional” or being “counter–revolutionary.” Such offenses are punished or censored when it is an “I,” reformed when it is a “we,” and revamped or improved upon when in relation to an “it.” The one act that cannot be forgiven by any system and must be punished either by death, exile, or expulsion is perfect and true obedience.
We would think all systems would welcome perfect obedience. I will qualify: perfect conformity to the outward tenets of the system will be tolerated, and even rewarded (though such perfection is frowned upon and often accused of arrogance, or meanness of spirit). Perfect obedience, both in an outward obedience to the tenets of the system, and to an inward perfection of obedience to the system must be punished or converted into the dyslogistic terms of blasphemy, scandal, or treason. Why?
The “first” of all systems is arbitrary power. The hidden being and agenda of all systems is the power of the arbitrary: because I, we, or it said so. This power must be hidden behind vast terministic screens or order, protocol, standards, traditions, ritual, ceremony, rhetoric and various mechanisms of defense for the system. The more arbitrary the power, the greater the need for an outward semblance of order. It’s essence is arbitrary, and its substance is the outward mechanisms of systemic order, of “normative” being–one of us part of it, in step. The essence of all systems is arbitrary power. The substance of all systems is expressed through two mechanisms: conformity and venality.
In terms of conformity, one’s actions and being fit the overall tenets of the system. One is a “team player,” a “pillar of the community,” a “member in good standing,” a “law abiding citizen.” Much of modern and post-modernist literature is an attack upon these conformists of systemic order. Why? Because the misbehavior, decadence, and transgression of most modernist and post-modernist writers and artists is a competing system. It, too, advocates a consistent disordering, a consistent non-conformity, and, by doing so, it falsifies itself as a non-system, and creates its own version of team player, model citizen, and “one of us.” The free love of late sixties hippies was fairly humorless. It lacked venality. It was “pure” or, rather, conformist in its non-conformity. Everyone was “loose” and “free” in the same uptight way. This counter-cultural movement has succeeded in being normalized in the form of the lifestyle leftist. One could discuss this creature in much detail when thinking about the Beats, but for now: Conformity substantiates the system, gives it the day to day character. promotes its laws, tenets and traditions. It is properly conformed both to what is pleased by and what it is scandalized by. Let us run this through the tri-partite registers:
Dyslogistic: uptight, prudish, moralistic, square, nerdy, stuck up, kiss ass.
Neutral: conformed, law abiding, faithful, reasonable, up to standard.
Laudatory: Normal, a good guy, a team player, one of the boys, popular, cool.
In order to escape the dyslogistic register of conformity, in order to reach the laudatory heights so to speak of being normal, a good guy, a team player, popular, cool, one must practice certain forms of venality–minor transgressions either of behavior, character, appearance, or attitude that deflect the charge of being uptight, too lofty, or a goody- two shoes, ass sucking dickwad. To this end, venality has great use in any system. This is the role the “Sarge” plays in all war movies. The commanding officer is a dickwad, a 90 day wonder, a by the book monster of conformity. The Sarge is a good soldier, but he is also a good guy–deep down inside. He’s tough, and all Marine, but he knows how to throw down a beer and get in the trenches with his men. His venality never compromises his duty. He is looked upon as maverick, a loner, but a maverick and a loner in true service to his God, his country, or his men. The greatest example of this creature is Henry V when he rallies the troops. This is the Elizabethan ideal: a truly great king must have a touch of “hal” of the gutter in him to rule his people. He must not be extreme either in vice or in virtue (Henry VI) but must be a balanced force that serves the highest ideals. He must have the common touch in order to represent God on earth. When God comes down to earth, he must be all things to all people: the king/beggar and the beggar/king. He must be faithful to the dignity of rule, and commanding when command is necessary, but he must also be able to tell a joke, dance a jig, and court the lady Katherine in a saucy and flirtatious manner. This is “venality” as virtue–not as habit, not as order of being, not as a pure form, but as useful exception to the status quo. If you ever listen to people praise a boss, you will hear echoes of this type in all their praise. “Tough but fair” is one those forms. Venality in this sense honors the spirit, while giving an occasional tweak to the letter of the law. This is what we usually mean by a natural born leader. He or she is not a hero in the truest sense, (heroes are grotesque to the degree that the norm cannot claim them) unless he or she is, at one point, cast out of the village and then returns reformed, and with a new strength to add to the system (in this sense Henry V is heroic) Often, he or she is the protector of heroes, the one the hero serves gladly, and also, oddly enough, the protector of lovable scoundrels (provided they are not too “pure” in their venality: see Falstaff).
Venality: Let’s run the register on this.
Dyslogistic: corrupt, disreputable, inferior, a fuck up, a loser, a slacker, a miscreant, a low life, a bum, .
Neutral: minor yet habitual offender, dysfunctional, non-conformist, inappropriate.
Laudatory: a great and lovable scoundrel, a courtly or admired outlaw, a gentleman thief, a lovable drunk, irrepressible, unique, lively, a force of nature, and larger than life.
Venality may either be punished or censored, but never without protest. When Falstaff was reported by Shakespeare to be dead in the opening of Henry V, it is said that the Queen insisted Sir John be raised from the dead and given his own play (not a very good one). Pure venality is one of the forms of disobedience both in the private and public realms. Because it is often comic, and often does the system a service by reflecting its laws by way of breaking them, and depicting a character who is full of vigor though inferior to the common man in moral stature (these scoundrels have charm instead of a conscience) it is far more tolerated than perfect obedience in the private and public realms. I terms of the perfectly disobedient, the system is often strengthened rather than weakened. It is a substantiation of the essential power of the first: the arbitrary, the wild, the power of life itself. I its laudatory aspect, depending on who is viewing their behavior the following figures fit the bill: The wife of Bath, Falstaff, the highwayman, WC. Fields, Bob Hope in his aspect as lovable coward, Larry David, George from Seinfeld.
The lovable scoundrel is best when alone. When he or she has a spouse or children, a tension grows and the effect can be bitter sweet such as the ineffectual, charming, but failed Irish fathers in both A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Angela’s Ashes.
The anti-hero is a fairly recent invention, though he or she is latent in the figures of Hamlet, of Milton’s Satan, as well as coming to full bloom in the Byronic hero: against the teeth of fate, self-sufficient, well aware that the system, all systems except his own council and code and sometimes, not even that, are worthy of his scorn, his cynicism, and, at best, he or she pays mere lip service to the conventions under which he or she comes into being: potent, not at all venial, and blessed with a certain dry or cynical wit. To a degree, the anti-hero does not fit the category of the purely venial. If he drinks, has loose sex, refuses to play by the straight and narrow, his protest has a certain moral force. Only his code keeps him from being an arbitrary power, and it is in the figure of this anti-hero that most modernist and post modernist figures are cast. The original hipster “knows what’s up.” He’s Philip Marlowe. He’s Neal Cassidy. He’s tough and tender, when on good behavior, but bad assed and not likely to stick around for kids and cookies. This is a strange figure who becomes dominant in literature as people start to question the hypocrisy and validity of the systems they are in. Batman is part of this tradition. The existentialist shares in this myth. In a manner of speaking he or she is the closest thing we have to the one who is perfectly obedient to a system both inwardly and outwardly–but it is his or her own system of self sufficiency. He has now achieved normative status and is imitated by the sort of “professionals” who pride themselves on coolness under pressure: unemotional, detached, competent, enemies of red tape–no bullshit. In war movies, this anti-hero is the only higher officer the “Sarge” is likely to respect, and he is very close to Henry V except he does not consider the power of state worth a damn. He, like Satan, is almost god-like in his talent and competency. And he is an accuser. His chief mode of accusation is a sort of “dropping out,” from whatever the system offers he finds the flaw in every system, yet keeps cool about it. You won’t find him at protest rallies. Dylan plays this anti-hero to the hilt, especially when he chooses to absent himself from the role of political folk singer, and takes on more of the Beat attitude of being “aware.” In a sense the anti-hero is a moralist who sees all of conventional reality as a scam. He or she has a strange charisma tied into both sex and death–a creature of the night, a wanderer. It should be remembered that Satan wanders the earth–a roaming, and discontented spirit. We are talking here of Satan in his aspect as fallen angel rather than demon. The anti-hero is not pure evil since his code makes him an enemy of malice for its own sake. He or she is not likely to be married except that loss is usually part of what creates the anti-hero: lost love, the death of wife or wife and children, the early loss of parents, a false loss of reputation so that he is exiled from the system even as he moves through it, and often saves it from being completely swallowed up by its own corruption and ineptitude. He does not believe, yet he is faithful to his code, even at the cost of his life. In more romantic form he is vulnerable to dark mates–wounded creatures like himself. At times he is yoked to the pure–the other side of the anima. He does not protect the weak so much as keep the powerful honest and in check.
Socrates, Jesus Christ, and Billy Budd are all figures of perfect obedience that destroys the system–the rarest of all types. Like the anti-hero, the one who is perfectly obedient he has some odd and inexplicable authority, a way of being, and very often is depicted as having authority even over the random forces of nature. He does not rebel against the system, but “purifies,” embodies, and destroys it by being obedient to its highest principles both inwardly and outwardly. Not out of scorn so much as conviction he forces the whole of the system to seem dyslogistic. He has power even over “the first”–the power of the arbitrary in so far as that arbitrary power which relies on being hidden, loses all its hiding places, and comes at him with the full force and brutality under the mask of the law. By doing so, it exposes itself for what it is, for law, put at the service of “because I, we or it said so,” is no match for a man who is law fulfilled, the law beyond law. When he is killed, all the rivers of the system are re-routed. Things “change” until we “same” the changes under the mechanisms of venality and conformity. This figure is a living rebuke to both conformity and venality. IN his presence, all that is not perfect reforms or seeks his death, and in his death, all is reconstituted. Conformity seeks to belong. Obedience seeks to love, to honor, to fulfill. A church member in good standing conforms, but a saint obeys. Figures we will study who completely destroy or re-route systems they are born into by their very being: Socrates, Jesus Christ, St. John of the cross, and the literary figure, Billy Budd.
I will amend my first statement: no system can endure perfect obedience, and no system can endure pure venality. I define pure venality in the figure of Falstaff. One could look at certain of the scenes in Henry the 4th, parts one and two which show the purity of Falstaff’s venality. Here, I do not mean venial sins in the usual sense, but rather, venial to the degree that the one committing them does not seek to overthrow or destroy the system. He merely seeks whatever advantages it affords. He is pure exception and must be censored if the state is not to lose all its gravitas. He, like the purely obedient, exposes the arbitrary power for what it is. Being a pure fool, he colors every scene in the motley garb of the fool. He is, himself, arbitrary–as feckless and uncontrolled as the wind, save for his cunning, and ability to charm. Looking at Falstaff, one sees that even a man who seeks to usurp the crown by bloody civil strife is more worthy of praise than one who thinks and proves life is a joke, and only the next opportunity to get drunk, have a wench, and steal a tasty capon. Falstaff’s counterfeit speech is one of the greatest prosecutions against nobility and gravitas ever concocted. It places life, raw life, life as it breathes and moves about the world as the highest value, and pitches its tent in the purely aleatory. This characters undoing is not truly his lack of gravitas (for this would make him only a fool, and useful as a defining principle of the gravitas within the system) His chief sin is that he stands naked and unashamed–not as innocence, but as cosmic fart joke. He loves, but love does not reform him. He sins, but never in the service of any power save his belly. His ambition is to remain fully alive. This creature cannot usually be killed, for to kill him would implicate us all as being, at ground zero, a cosmic fart joke. He must be silenced, exiled, divorced from the rule. If possible, we ridicule him, but he is beyond the power of ridicule for he cannot fathom gravitas or dignity as anything other than fabricated structures he will pay lip service to if those structures produce a good meal. His spirit is the only one who would neither kill Christ, nor convert to him. If we study the trickster archetype in its fullness, we may see the anti-hero, the perfectly obedient, and the perfectly disobedient as concrete manifestations of the limits of all systems: deconstructing wanderers among the odd boundaries between life/death. Neither Christ, the anti-hero, or Falstaff exist in the true realm of the tragic. They are comic, if we use all the connotations of that word.
Let us run the register once more:
Dyslogistic view of comedy: making a joke of even the most sacred things, a travesty.
Neutral: showing the incongruity and corruption of systems.
Laudatory: transcending all law and rising from death or some state close to death to the triumph of life.
The original meaning of comedy was eventual triumph even when triumph seemed impossible: an outcome that was happy or that did not result in the tragic fall of hubris because, at its heart, was the shameless, the full spirited. In this sense Dante called his epic poem the Comedy. In the figure of Christ, we see death, then Christ rising as a new body. In the figure of the anti-hero, some early trauma or loss becomes a figurative “death” from which the anti-hero is reborn and emerges into the anti-hero. In Falstaff, we see a literary character, who is “raised” from the dead to frolic once more and marry. In comedy, man becomes like the paper bag in Williams’ poem that is run over by a car only to continue its dance in the wind. Comedy in this sense is the critical deconstruction of all consequence. Comedy in this form is the rebuttal to the necessity and inevitability that drives all tragic systems. It is Beckett’s “I can’t go, I must go on.” It is the man falling in a cartoon who quickly draws himself a parachute, and lands safely. It is the bumbling idiot who somehow, by the purity of his ineptitude, ends up winning the day or the girl. It is, in this sense, dangerous to all systems, in so far as it exposes all laws as arbitrary It carries on in the midst of futility with a sort of absurd faith in its own process and routines. It is, in a sense, the fun house mirror to all systemic being. All comedy deals with the eternal duet between order and disorder. All comics speak for the poor even when they scorn and deride them for, at the bottom of most comedy is the comedy of the aleatory system: all men are one in the aleatory: they eat, they shit, they die, and death makes them hungry so that they rise to eat and shit and die again. I’ll leave you with this poem by Williams, and you decide whether the man in the hat at the end of the poem is foolish, pure of heart, or both:
It’s the anarchy of poverty
delights me, the old
yellow wooden house indented
among the new brick tenements
Or a cast iron balcony
with panels showing oak branches
in full leaf. It fits
the dress of the children.
reflecting every stage and
custom of necessity–
Chimneys, roofs, fences of
wood and metal in an unfenced
age and enclosing next to
nothing at all: the old man
in a sweater and soft black
hat who sweeps the sidewalk–
his own ten feet of it
in a wind that fitfully
turning his corner has
overwhelmed the entire city.
We may think the old man’s efforts are absurd, but, if we consider death, the inevitable event of every system’s collapse, we find common ground with him. In all this “anarchy” the longing to value, to maintain, to order is fierce, what Stevens called “a rage to order.” To step outside this rage, to order and examine it, is the beginning and the end of philosophy. After all, in standing outside the rage to order, and examining it, are we not also sweeping our ten feet of sidewalk in a raging maelstrom?
Here are a few ways you can further explore these ideas.
1. Read Christ’s teaching in the Gospels that add these qualifications to the commandments: “It is said thou shalt not murder, but I tell thee, if thou art even angry at your brother, you have already murdered him in your heart. And it is written: thou shalt not commit adultery, but I tell thee if you so much as look at another with lust, you have already committed adultery in your heart.” Write a story in which the main character thinks murderous and adulterous thoughts all day, while performing many acts of kindness and public good works. Have fun with it. Consider the difference between inner and outer man.
2. According to behavioralists, there is no inner man. Deed and process is everything, and motivation is not taken into account except in terms of basic drives.. Modified behavior is enough if the behavior is dysfunctional. What do you think? Is there such a thing as the private self. Can it be said to exist as a reality?
3. According to 12 step thinking addictions and pathologies can be healed only by first admitting that we have no control over these forces and they are making our lives unmanageable. The next step is “surrendering one’s will to a higher power as one knows it.” This higher power need not be God; it could be anything. To what extent do people gain normalcy by “surrendering” to a system? How do these concepts differ? How do they relate?
Conformity is motivated by a need for communal belonging or acceptance, or to deflect the worse pains and consequences of failing to be accepted by one’s desired group. Based on the anxiety of expulsion, punishment and ostracism, or disapproval and towards the enjoyment of privilege and status. When failing to conform, or when losing face, the resulting wounded pride or shame may lead to acts of disobedience, or to acts of slinking off for comfort in groups that suffer the same fate. May also lead to a temporary “mystical” epiphany that displays the hysterical shadow of the conformist self. A species of adolescent narcissism continued into one’s dotage, and, if, not so much willed as merely assumed: beyond the possibility of true action. Literary figures associated with true conformity as I define it: Ivan Illyich and the husband of Anna in Anna Karenina. George in A Doll’s House. Ivan’s final illness is an act of grace. He dies out of the conformist self, truly desires to be something more than an appearance.
True obedience is motivated by a genuine love and admiration and passion for the principles and traditions, and innovations beyond all hope of gain or status, and even to the point of appearing to be the opposite of what one is: disobedient, prideful, and contrary. The self in spiritual or moral crisis, beyond what others may think. Not so much non-conformist, but, rather searching for what Martin Buber called total self giving. In a sense any sincere attempt to live the Shema. Based on love and true integrity to the core values and source of one’s being. Figures in literature who fit this bill: Levin and Anna in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Cordelia in King Lear. Obedience does not rules out sin or error. It rules out the possibility of sin and error as utilitarian ends to acceptance. “Don’t get caught” does not exist for the obedient. It is the aphorism of the conformist.
In short: Conformity is preservation of appearances and reputation. Obedience is preservation of the spirit, and core values of the spirit beyond reputation or appearances.
Obedience is pre-moral to the degree that it seeks the origins of action based on principle and truth. Being pre-moral, it involves agon or birth pain. The obedient are capable of action in so far as they either test the moral fabric of their time not out of being contrary, but out of being passionate, or live its true spirit. They suffer, and what they suffer is detachment from the world of appearances and approval. Saints go through such persecution–very often from the church or faith that later perceives them as saints. It is not enough for the obedient to conform, and for this reason, they are capable of great mercy towards sinners, and those who are outcast. They are also the few who can challenge power without seeking to eat of the poisoned apple of power.
Even when conforming to “anti-establishment”-ism it is done with an agenda. If consciously “non-conformist” it revels in its “daring” and “evil.” If consciously conservative, it seeks always the “proper” image, and may be the first to persecute saints. Unlike the sinner, the conformist is not inept or even wounded–at least not visibly. Conformists are the gate keepers of both the establishment and anti-establishment orders. They are the successful bureaucrats of what is proper or properly improper. They are whores of the appropriate. Their goal is the power of the arbitrary, and for this very reason, that they allow no one (except themselves) to act in an arbitrary manner, but hold all accountable to whatever law serves their ends. Their shadow is strong and will often undo them. Terrified of scandal they will run from it until they run right into it. They hold the line. For them judgment is always paramount. They are incapable of true action, and are both somehow servile and untrustworthy at once. Of all the types Jesus Christ railed against, this is what he found reprehensible in the spiritual leaders of his age: this preference for conformity rather than obedience. He took a measure of them when he said: “Do what they say, for what they say comes from God, but do not do what they do, for they lay heavy burdens on others they, themselves, are unwilling to carry.”
Conformity is at all times visible. Obedience is seldom visible, but may be intuited by those who, like the obedient, wish to move beyond mere appearances.
My goals for teaching: to help students move from conformist, or conforming non-conformist to minds capable of true action within the realm of the obedient. To that end:
1. To know what mechanisms, and traditions, and limitations move them and make them creatures of mere motion, and to either test, amend, or move beyond these mechanisms to some fuller sense of true action.
2. To test all actions, all hope with a full knowledge of their imperfections, to show mercy and understanding for the imperfections of others, and to clearly delineate for themselves what they perceive to be the beautiful and the good.
3. To help my students be fearless about being troubled, uncertain, restless, and to make these states of being more than merely the hormonal or socially driven rites of youth. To make a lifelong commitment to what Martin Buber called answering relational being with one’s whole being.
4. To understand my own mechanisms and limitations and to amend, or improve where I can, and to be aware when amendment or improvement is not immediately possible.
There is no Western tradition. What we call the western tradition is actually the Mediterranean merge tradition–a precarious marriage of eastern and western influences which became the so called “western” tradition by way of the scholastics and, later, the scholars of the enlightenment. So I will be calling western thought “warrior thought.” The truth is that warrior cultures sprang up all over the earth–in Native American and steppe cultures, in just about all places where the horse or the wagon or superior roads allowed mobility. This includes the Christian cultures.The eternal equilibrium of warrior cultures can be distilled down to two terms: Arete (excellence, prowess, bravery, status) and Xenia (hopsitality, honesty in trade, alliances between strangers). Each of these two concepts can be further divided into three categories, two of which are of human agency, and the last of divine.
In terms of Arete:
Lowest form: mere brute strength and force of arms; often categorized by boasting and contests, but bereft of stealth, wisdom, or strategic and tactical ability
Middle form: strength augmented by bravery, gallantry, wisdom, but above all, stealth and craftiness in tactics as well as strategy
Highest form: war glory, the moment when the warrior is Mushin, pure power, beyond all strategy or bravery–the beserker, the actual physical transformations of battle fury into divine power, the appearance and strength of divinity; it is a species of grace, cannot be predicted or earned, and is tied to the possession by a god or the favor and divine afflatus of a God. Atheists might call it mystery or spirit. Jocks refer to it as being “in the zone.” By this form Diomedes routes immortals in the Iliad, even as far as wounding the god of war, Ares, in battle. Odysseus seldom has this version of Arete visited upon him, for he exemplifies the second, middle form, but it is definitely upon him when he slaughters the suitors.
Versions of all three types of Arete are in the Bible:
Lowest form: Saul, many of the judges, Goliath
Middle form: David, most especially Abram and Jacob (who is so much like Odysseus, a giver and taker in pain that he and Odysseus might be based on some proto-Middle Eastern hero of stealth).
Highest form: usually displayed by the Isrealites in communal form such as when they defeat an enemy against overwhelming odds, but also present when Elijah slaughters the prophets of Baal or when Samson brings down the pillars of the temple upon the Philistines.
Only this last form of Arete might be likened to grace. The one on whom it is bestowed stands in for the godhead, the divine. It is God as awe, and might, and fear. It is not as gender bound as the other two and has depicted women in the throes of it as well as men. It is a form of gratis–without needing to be earned, without payment.
Now let’s parse out the three species of Xenia:
Lowest form: social nicety, mere protocol, politeness, may even be feigned to do harm to the visitor or stranger. It is the origin of “all that glitters is not gold.”
Middle form: true hospitality, considered the highest virtue of warrior socieites worldwide–even more important that bravey or prowess. To greet the stranger and show hopsitality, to show the ability to make alliances and avoid unnecessary bloodshed is considered the first sign of civilization. It is the trait Homer attributes to Admetus and to many of his Greek heroes, most especially Odysseus. It is the spiting or mocking of this value that leads to the war, for Alexandros mocks the good hopsitality of Mileneus by stealing his wife, Helen (and his best furniture).
Highest form: to recognize God in the lowly and to serve the king in the beggar, to see what can not be seen with mortal eyes except that the gods or God allows it. For example, when Abraham greets the three strangers at Mamre, when the prophet Hannah proclaims the Christ child, when the dog in the Illiad recognized his master in the beggar, when Admetus is kind to Apollo in the lowliest of forms, when the good thief recognizes Christ on the cross, when Peter calls Jesus the Messiah, when even the stones praise.
The higher the forms of both Arete and Xenia the less they are determined by gender, or species. The one in the highest state of either is incarnate divine–in the grace of the Holy Spirit.
So let us apply this to recent events.
The fate of cultures that prize and emphasize only low rate Arete at the expence of Xenia
Although it is true that in their highest forms Arete and Xenia are not separate, in their lower forms they most certainly are, and Xenia is considered superior. It is better to be civilized and to know how to treat guests, visitors, and the stranger, exchange gifts and welcome than it is to fight well because this gift of Xenia–even in its middling forms–saves the many, costs less lives, and, in the long run, makes strong alliances. As far as Xenia in its middle forms, it is the proof of every great civilization. Without it, the people are looked upon as mere canibals and barbarians–inhuman monsters.
A culture based on Arete (brute force alone) invariably meets with total destruction (Troy had earlier mistreated the god Apollo when he came as a mortal stranger). It is the culture of monsters. So on this first note alone, our brute force is not our strength. Our strength lies in maintaining some form of middle range Arete coupled with middle range Xenia. In so far as 1 percent of the people control all the rest and show no responsibility of mercy toward the 99 percent, we have reached a point in our society where we are monstrous, uncivilized, and prime for destruction. In the animal kingdom, when the alpha is too dominant and brutal, the pack rises up and kills both him and all his progeny. True strength lies not in Arete alone (mere prowess and excellence) but in Xenia.
In the affective brain, caring and play, as well as certain forms of seeking involving caring and play and healthy grieving would fall under the category of Xenia–the cognitive structuring of the affective drives. Seeking as hunting or adventure, rage as in protecting, and lust as in procreating or desire would fall under the category of Arete. The healthy expression of both through the use of wisdom is or should be the desire of any people. When a people are rising, they almost always have middle tier Arete and Xenia. Mere plunderers have only one: brute force. And mere merchants have but the social nicieies of trade and bribery (think of the overly nice Simon Legree from Dickens).
We have reached this point in our civilization, and we will be destoryed if we do not find and maintain a balance between Arete and Xenia. We are, right now, inhabiting the lowest forms of both, and toward the weakest members of our society, we are showing no Xenia at all. Contrary to the Ayn Rand idiots, this is unwise.
The fate of cultures that practice only low rate Xenia
Political correctness, the social niceties and phony tolerance of the choice culture, the elbaborate parties, conspicuous displays of wealth, the vanity and decadence of fops and rich kids, the self conscious fashion obcession with semiotics peculiar to hipster culture…all this is a sign that we are living on the lowest level of Xenia. Correct or appropriate behavior is never a fit subsitute for genuine kindness towards the other.
While we pay lip service to being nice, we are bristling with weapons, enforce our lovely suburbs and gentrified cities with an increasingly brutal police force, jail the poor, persecute the strangers in our midst, and practice every form of politically correct intolerance. We project the shadow of our violence on to the poor and the underglass. We think our good manners, fashionable clothes, and yoga will save us, but it is phatic, and no wonder the world thinks us spoiled and decadent.
Remember: low level Arete is always in bed with low level Xenia. They are one with each other. In the most brutal regimes you will see eleborate shows of “hospitality,” but go beneath the surface and out comes the brute force of military and the law and every kind of bias.
Middle ground Arete and Xenia
At high points in every culture, middle ground Arete (strength coupled with wisdom, shrewdness and strategy) and Xenia (hospitality that is genuine but without too great a show of ostentation, and able to make strong alliances with strangers) are the hallmarks of that culture’s rising fortunes. Often, each culture developes a myth of the highest Arete and Xenia. Even here, Arete, in this highest form serves the highest form of Xenia. Even among the supposedly brutish mythos of Nordic peoples, Balder, the god of hospitality and peace, was eventually to be raised above Odin. Xenia, not Arete, wins Abraham the birth right. Highest Arete is one with highest level Xenia. This is exemplified in such stories as Heracles going down into Hades to retireve the wife of that most hospitable of Greeks, Ademetus. Heracles serves his friend.
The strength, might, and power of God are not separate from his profligate hospitality and mercy to those who are strangers, who are lost, who are pwerless. The one who would see Jesus Christ in the lowest form of men and women is the true Christian for he or she has staked themselves not to earthly or worldly vision but to the divine which insists that the last shall be first, that the stone rejected will become the corner stone. In every respect, the very culture Ayn Rand claimed to be a follower of (she claimed to be a disciple of Aristotle) would reject her love of the “powerful” and the “self-interested” as completely lacking in the grace of middle and high form Xenia. She would be looked upon as a monster.
Nothing in recent blue state or red state behavior, nothing in the heartless dismissal of good works among the Christian corporate right, or the blindness of the elitist left to how much of their “peacefulness” and “smarts” floats on the brute force of armed men shows me my nation is headed in a good direction. We have forgotten that warrior means not war and violence, but the valor, wisdom, and, yes, the great charity of the fully awakened consciousness. We have destroyed the kingdom of the Holy Spirit within us.
This Spirit is given to all sentient life by the Creator, and sometimes even given to non-sentient being (for even the stones may praise). Grace decides. Grace acts. But first we must show we want grace with all our hearts by being both strong and fearless and ferociously kind. We must protect the poor, the old, the weak. We must look after the veteran. We must respect the mentally ill for sometimes speaking, in their pain, the truth of God. A people who can bow to the poor shall rise to the heavens, but a people who kill the poor have killed the Holy Spirit. They will not be forgiven, and when the so called “weak” come to take down the greedy alpha, they will show no mercy. Mercy comes only to those willing to give it. We must pray for our country. We must do penance for how we have treated those who were broken and we must be sober and strong of heart. Every warrior culture carries Arete and Xenia at its core. To lose contact with either and to seek no balance is the way of self destruction.
Great art and a true, living (not institutionalized) culture arise not from a series of snobs and gatekeepers, but from the inner necessity and desire of people to express the 7 kinds of affectual brain: play, courtship, grief, seeking, anger (outrage, scandal, impiety), caring (tenderness, friendship, affection, affinity), and fear. In terms of fear, grief, anger, and courtship, the mode of expression is often highly ceremonial as in the cults of sacrifice or festivity, and may be said to act as a form of catharsis (Aristotle/ Dionysian). This might be likened to a controlled burn. In terms of seeking, care, and play Plato’s concept of being ever nearer to the perfect or archetypal form prevails. In such a case, wit, self-consciousness, parody, pastiche, and intelligence are the order of the day, and this may be seen as Apollonian, but the two forms of affective expression overlap, especially where courtship admits an element of play, and where grief admits an element of stoic acceptance. Language seeks to both hide and express the affective mechanisms, but, in terms of play and seeking, the comedy of manners and rules of engagement are far more toward the hiding end of the spectrum.
Redux sees these expressions of affective brain as the true basis for art beyond the logocentric and power-based dynamics of critics, gatekeepers, and academic institutions. Furthermore, we believe gatekeepers, academics, and critics are incapable of doing anything except impeding the flow of affective brain expression. At one point, such impedance channeled the expressions in more refined and artistic ways, but Redux believes this is no longer the case. With the break down between pop and so called high culture, academia often resembles an opera singer singing “play that funky music white boy.” Entire semesters devoted to applying Agamben to songs by Nirvana seem as absurd and pretentious as those long drawn out rock reviews one used to see during the heyday of gonzo journalism. Of course, this impedance is what passes for taste and “standards.”
Redux believes tastes and standards arise organically from the desires of those to whom expression is necessary (virtually everyone) and, if left the fuck alone, greater and more truthful art would emerge, but the institutions that now control presses, readings, publications, and awards have created a self-perpetuating cycle of corruption. No one may receive money or attention or respect without the mechanisms of the gatekeeper. In retrospect, and in the long run, history often provides a corrective to these assholes, but not often enough. John Clare was moldering in his grave for over 50 years before gatekeepers seeking to find their own scholastic niche decided to dig him up. So, core values:
1. Art is a free for all and should be practiced as such with presence and participation first. Standards and a knowledge of good and bad art will rise organically–without the prompting of enlightened beings. If not, well, a better time will be had by giving up the snob fests.
2. Rather than accepting money from institutions who control the arts, artists should be funding their own work by using the refuse materials of this throw away culture: instead of canvas, discarded wood, pizza boxes, etc.; instead of university lit mags, small, cheap broadsides and chaps that can be sold at readings. Instead of awards, consensus of peers. Instead of agreed upon standards, a continued and ongoing testing of and resistance to all standards. A hatred of the little glossy fucking boxes we call literary magazines. More imagination more oddness, more invention–less “Quality” in the sense of a standard mold set.
3. Writers should buy local–books by local poets, CDs by local musicians–creating art monads–pockets of living culture done in small rather than large frame works. Artists should start their own collective book stores, lending libraries. Painters and musicians ought to be doing quick, easy exhibitions and concerts. I blame artists seeking to be validated. By who? Fuck ‘em.
5. Self publishing should not be discouraged but accepted as viable. Let’s stop the con. Most presses for poetry are now cooperatives. I would rather create a new chap for every reading rather than have some press say whether I was any good or not. I don’t believe them. Books are published for many reasons other than quality, and some writers are denied publication because they don’t fit a niche. I will never sell one of my official books again.
6. More generosity among artists, more true attempts to support each other locally. I no longer will give my support to institutions that reject me as an artist, but want my money. Fuck them.
Redux is Latin for return, and to be Redux is to believe in the mythos of return within the scope of the materials at hand: repetition, obsessive motion, the turning of wheels (but always with a slightly different wobble), the loss that is in–not of– the loss in things.
There can be no “loss” of materials. All materials are permanent within the laws of transformation of matter into energy and back again, and yet all materiality carries loss within it, is made ontologically relevant, becomes a form of being via the loss that inspirits it–through the stop action of decay, through the incremental, minute changes of a thing as it is exists within the realm of the visible, the auditory, the tactile, the olfactory, and the seeming “stability” of its structures and mechanisms.
Redux advocates the intrinsic need to work with one’s stupidity as well as intelligence when concerning the realm of art–one must be stupid with awe, with wonder, with intent, with bafflement. One must be “Stupere”–knocked out of one’s senses.
All things, especially the smallest details, the fractional and fractal banalities of form must be perceived as a blooming forth of the stupendous, a word directly related to stupidity.
Redux is about being amazed and uncool, a fucking ontological cheerleader, but not in the tawdry sense of positive thinking. Rather, one is cheering on decay as well as health. One is saying yes to the maw of the ugly as well as the beautiful. Paint on boards, and if there are nails in the boards, leave them in. Invite the asymmetrical, not as a binary to the symmetrical, but as a possibility of releasing vital energies.
Redux believes above all in pont-consciousness, the leaping between disparate things, ideas, sensory moments so that new arcs and dynamics of relationship (and disrelationship) may form.
Above all, Redux encourages art dynamics that “almost” cohere–close to unity, but not exactly, a craftiness that just resists craft, a knowing that dissipates.
I grew up in a neighborhood where most of the parents worked in factories or trades. The closest anyone came to a professional occupation was Ann Boyle next door who worked as an executive secretary for Bell telephone and, through the great benefits of that monopoly, was able to retire at age 55. Anne never married, but she had companions and an ample glass of scotch at the ready on the front porch. She lived with her mother and brother, did not have to pay rent, and became rich through stocks. She was my first “student” in so far as I helped her write papers when she decided to return to school and procure a college degree. I can still remember getting slowly sloshed on scotch while helping her structure a ten page paper on Martin Luther King.
Anyway, professionalism which I see as a way of life, almost a religion, never laid a glove on me. Neighborhood aesthetics, especially in that industrial/post-industrial world, were very different. Springsteen, writing of Jungle land, sang: “and the poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all/they just stand back and let it all be.” This ain’t exactly true. It is true they don’t write it down, but the poets in “jungle land” are like signifying monkey, or the Irish barroom philosopher, or the folk story teller. They talk shit. They keep things lively on the corner. They are known for being “characters.” They often survived the factories and , earlier, the chain gangs, by being the tricksters–the comics, and poets, and, occasionally, the scapegoats, of the neighborhood. I was one of these people. I was the guy who told whacky stories on the front porches, or on car hoods, or in back yards on my block. I was known for being crazy. I was known for being smart. One of my many knick names was “Wild man Weil.” Another was “Mr. Encyclopedia” A third, due to my always mildly disheveled appearance, was “Scurvy Joe.” I was known as someone who could talk shit. I also played songs and wrote my own. When I was 18, on my birthday cake they wrote: “future songwriter.” This is how art is expressed where I came from:
1. You are one among others, and you assume the role of poet only by their general proclamation–not by awards, not by standards, not by credentials, but by popular acclamation from the people around you.
2. This does not give you special privileges. You serve a valuable role, but, sometimes, you are the big mouth who gets clobbered, or the nut job who is singled out and mocked. This is the double face of the trickster–half god, half animal, and very rarely allowed to be fully human. You are coyote, signifying monkey, the prophets who says the truth, even at the wrong time, the one who does not “fit” perfectly.
You are rewarded in the following ways:
1. People will keep you around even when you are not very good at your job, or very strong, or even when you are a bit of a scoundrel. They will keep you around because you provide a cathartic safety valve to blow off the steam for their frustrations, their sufferings, and their sense of drudgery. You make life a little more than it is in opposition to those forces which make life far less than what it should be.
2. You are holy. You are marked with a sign. You are holy in the sense that you are ground set apart–again, not by “achievements” (the way of the professional and the middle class) but by your role in the life of your community. The hero leaves the village to bring back fire. Unlike the hero, the neighborhood poet never leaves. You are the trespass that stays behind, that affirms but also confronts the community by being an “affront,” a difference within it, an aporia within it. To an industrial and post-industrial rust belt city, this character is on every loading dock, in every barroom, on the street corner. He or she keeps things lively and also keeps things real, and this bears absolutely no relationship to the tenets of professional art or poetry–and that includes slam. Slam will never take the place of the trickster because it has already become too coded, too fixed, and too much a part of the professional commodity machine. It is as immured in the slick and the packaged as academic work. It will never speak for those who have no real voice. It will never be the barbaric yawp. It has destroyed spoken word which had such promise, but all that has promise is constantly destroyed that it might be born again.
And so, my final, and truest distinction between the aesthetics of neighborhood and those of the professional: the professional is incapable of sacrifice in the sense of dying and rising from the dead. He does not share in mythos. His sense of success is not about glory after death; it is also not about being “present” to his community. It is about prosperity and achievement now. All is meant to be measured towards a sort of prosperity. The “Event” of death, and, more so, the event of resurrection are to be avoided at all costs. These are tacky to the professional. The professional is post-mythos, post-seasonal. It can never die and it can never be re-born. It is established. It has a process. That process recognizes “excellence” and achievement in an utterly different way. There are gatekeepers and they decide who is and who is not “good enough.” They act as a priesthood. They are the intermediaries between the professional poet and his
professional audience–most of whom, if not all of whom are fellow practitioners. There is no life here, but there is process. Occasionally, this process takes on the intimacy of the neighborhood and a certain true communitas is possible. This is rare. It is even frowned upon. To “profess” in the ancient sense was to be one who was paid for his rhetoric–his professing. He evolved from the neighborhood poet and rhetorician, but, with the rise of printing, rhetoric and form were downplayed and speechifying became frowned upon.
I am a speechifying, rhetorical, neighborhood poet. I am not a professional. Professionalism seems morally wrong to me–spiritually sinful, not because I think professionals are wrong, or sinful, but because I believe I was called to bear witness to something other than professionalism. This witness may now be only to some extinct community of factory workers and the children of factory workers, but I don’t think so. I believe I served this function for my students. I also served it for my factory workers. I cannot serve this function in the realm of professional poetry because it is exactly this function they detest. Professionalism is based on a standard, on a decorum, on a series of measures. It is based on “Schools” and patterns of networking and schmoozing. It is Ivan Ilyich over and over again. It is making me sick. It is killing my soul. I am very grateful for a job. I am grateful to support myself, but I wish it did not come at the price of being who I am. It is very different than the raucous form of being that made me love poetry. I never confined poetry to poems. Poesis exists in how you talk, how you move, what you say when you teach. My whole being was poesis, but in both the professional academic realm, and the faux- populist realm of slam, I am not allowed to exist. In these realms, the
poets have no season, no earth, no wind, no element. When these things appear, and threaten to make a perhaps event (in the sense Derrida used “perhaps” and “event”) this perhaps and this event are immediately framed in such a way as to convert them to the purpose and use of the very professionalism to which they attempted to act as exception.
Post-industrial poesis, neighborhood aesthetics
Poetry is real value labor. It does not see itself as set apart from the life and work of the community from which it arises. The poet has other jobs, most of which he usually performs indifferently because his or her true job is to express and bear witness to the community in which he or she suffers and lives.
This real value labor does not accept perceived value aesthetics. There are no gate keepers deciding who and who is not worthwhile. The poet of the neighborhood rises from the open reading. If he or she is singled out, he or she is singled out not by experts, but by those among whom they have lived. It is a word of mouth kind of thing.. It is what is sought in the midst of seasons and in the weather and the truly local–not by national presses, or awards, or credentials, but by a local sense of that poet’s inner necessity. That poet was created by his or her community. He or she can only be destroyed by that community, and he or she can only live if he or she remains in contact with the principle of that locality, that membrane of being.. This locality is rooted in purpose–in, as I said, real value labor. As such it is far more malleable, complex, and shifting than the typical definitions of poetry. It may be the right word at the right time in a crisis. It may be the perfectly apt joke, the comeback, the story told at the right time to the right person. Unlike poetry proper, it is far more situational. It fits the occasion of its utterance, but remains pure in a sense by “talking shit”–talking and speechifying, and inventing verbal worlds for the sheer hell of it, beyond the immediate purpose. It is born of purpose, but deviant from purpose in so far as it seeks life, joy, energy beyond the merely functional. It tends to be flamboyant and hyperbolic rather than understated. It tends to be rhetorical and mythic rather than factually informative and understated. It tends toward the ecstatic, the brutal, the ferocious, the beautiful, the sentimental. It is more invested in brio than in nuance. It does not trust the flawless because its chief moral purpose is to expose the falsely perfect.
This is the closest I can come to explaining the world I grew up in. I do not flourish on the professional poetry scene.. I can’t get by on my “talk” because only Irishmen from Ireland are allowed by professionals to get away with that, and even then, the Irish poets they admire are most often somber. What can I say? I feel lost. To exist in the kudos section of the universe is, for me, a construct of hell. There are no street corners, no barber shops, no factories, no true places to bear witness. The professional has triumphed. God fucking help us.
Photo Credit: Marco Muñoz
I have found that all work, including the so called professional and creative work of teaching at a university, boils down to certain false indicators which we must endure. In point of fact, the factory may be a little more accurate: you can’t fake a spec. Doing a plate within two tenths of a thousandth run out over eight feet of stainless steel edge cannot be faked. It’s a spec. It is not wholly accurate but it’s within a range of accuracy far more precise than any sort of academic measure. But even with the finest technology, there is no such thing as zero tolerance. There is ever closer proximity to zero run out, but no complete absence of deviation. All measurement is approximate. As my teacher, the great tool maker, Joe Pilot, told me, “It’s just as easy to say everything is wrong as it is to say nothing is perfect. Error is the only reality we know, and the one thing we are least likely to forgive or admit.”
When universities only brag about their award winning students, they show themselves to be the same sort of collective idiot who preferred the operas of Meyerbeer over Wagner, or Rosini over Mozart. The measure of greatness is awards. By this measure, Pearl Buck was a far greater writer than Eudora Welty, and equal to Faulkner because, hey, she won the Nobel prize. The measurement of greatness is: 1. Awards 2. The word of mouth of one’s peers. 3. Posterity and duration. If one wins big enough awards, one’s peers side whisper that one has have gone down the crapper (awards seem to raise envy and lower estimates of talent). If one wins no awards, one is consigned to career hell. If one is still known after death, so what? You’re dead. I don’t think Mozart enjoyed his fame after death. Wagner was lucky enough to be embraced in his later life, but for a good 20 years, he was in the shadow of Meyerbeer who was considered Europe’s top opera composer. Wagner spent most of his time running from his creditors (literally). In a writing world controlled by academics, only awards matter, because it is the pathology of measurement known since the first grade. After all, these are A student types. I would define an A student as fitting the standard idea of a good mold almost perfectly. Originality, true originality, is not what A students are about. A students uphold the standard. In short, when university people say they want great writers, they are lying. What they want are writers who fit the mean of the highest standard mold.
Greatness is a an error that becomes the new standard. As my teacher, Joe Pilot told me, “you can’t see anything new that comes down the pike because your eyes have no frame of reference for it. You can only see it when it first starts to get turned into a standard mold, when its newness has already begun to wear off. You can only see it when it resembles something you have already seen. A truly original piece has got to resemble something in the past, or people can’t see it. The Greeks accidently invented the steam engine in 400 BC, but had no frame of reference for it, made a couple toys powered by it, and then forgot it. We didn’t see a steam engine again for over a thousand years–when the age of mechanics and Newton made that kind of thing imaginable. All genius, all originality is an error, kid. The world does not progress by excellence or correctness. An error that has an advantage to it is how the world goes forward. An error with an advantage, a fortunate sin, is how we always get to the next base. We move by a series of errors. We call them truth, or perfection after the fact. We are full of shit. It’s like a guy who trips on a stair, but is smart in his error, and turns it into a new dance step.”
I made an argument against award pathology. I brought up students who were not award winners, but who were making a true living in the arts (or almost a living) ten years after they were my students. I brought up those who are doing excellent work, who may not be winning the big prizes. I said a university must not base its reputation on award winners alone. It ought to rest more importantly on building a population of students and alumni who have the ability to see what is not readily visible, and who can create a milieu in which true greatness is likely to transpire–the holy accident which confounds all professional expectation because it is, after all, outside the schema of awards.
Universities should serve the fortunate accident, the judicious error, the mutation. They should do this by teaching students how to achieve the standard without believing it is a true measure. They should instigate and agitate for the “perhaps.” Creativity is founded on the perhaps. Perhaps this pratfall is not a stumbling, but a new form of ballet. Let us see what we can do. It is impossible to explain this to functionaries. For them the proof is always in the pudding. They never think that the pudding was some sort of deviation from the norm that the cook turned into a favorite dish.