Hibernation announcement

Back soon. Sooner than you or I imagine — with any luck.

3 Comments

Filed under Housekeeping

Bravo! for the new arbiters of art: us … and a commenters’ strike at The Guardian

Shawn Yu's Teaton Series

'Cavalier-Servant' -- Shawn Yu

Hello-and-goodbye, … unless, against long odds, you read on. Why so pessimistic? Though this is said to be the age of the image, people measuring attention spans have found that in ten seconds flat, an online video loses a fifth of its audience. How much less hope must there be for the seductive power of a mere text?

This new painting by Shawn Yu was still brightening my day on a part of my screen when I saw the report on video watching. It led me to marvel at how fast aesthetic attraction, not just dismissal, works on the net. Of how quickly we can recognise a certain je ne sais quoi in an artist’s work impossible to explain, even to ourselves, which guarantees that we will find that painter’s oeuvre consistently engaging – at the very least. As I’ve explained (see the second footnote here), it was a drawing Shawn made from a photograph of Bruce Chatwin that originally caught my eye as I was speed-skimming my way through images of that writer served up by search engines.

Every visit to Shawn’s site since has been rewarding. Lately, going there has been like popping into a magical gallery in which a wizard keeps putting up new paintings on the walls for an exhibition by a single artist, and on the same theme – in this case, kettles, teapots, jugs and coffee pots, of all things; some with and some without human companions. As someone who has always had trouble with collections of short stories, anthologies of poems, group shows by artists – or even a single artist displaying pieces on several themes in more than one style – the staggered presentation has felt so right that it might have been designed for me. Finding my way to it without any intermediary or other people’s interpretations of the pictures has only heightened the pleasure of looking at them.

I think Shawn is still a student but close to being hatched by his art school. There’s no saying whether he will or won’t stick with Surrealism. He does seem to me to have a very special feeling for that style. Some of his pictures have taken me back to standing in the Dali museum in Figuerres a few years ago, enjoying the expressions on the faces of other visitors as much as examining the exhibits. Like the great moustachioed one, Shawn’s blog shows that he can also be a fine realistic painter – impeccably accurate as an anatomist, just as Dali was. … But scrolling down his online exhibition, it has also occurred to me that Surrealism remains the only approach to depicting our world that captures the grain, the scent, the unending, stomach-churning topsy-turvyness of contemporary life.

Last week I was surprised to find – in another context – that Herbert Pothorn, a German architectural historian, thought that Surrealism had a precedent in a style that defined another age of uncertainty and chronic disruption:

The final phase of the Renaissance is known as Mannerism. In art history the term implies a highly personal mode of expression; it also indicates the adoption of the specific idiom or manner of a certain artist by others, or by a whole school. … [I]t also entails a love of exaggeration and artificiality, obtained by any means possible. Mannerism tends towards excess, towards distortion of perspective …It was the product of a spiritually uncertain age – an age caught between the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, seeking for new certainties, and attempting to guide itself through all this insecurity with the help of fantasy […] Mannerist painting was … a forerunner of Surrealism, i.e. that trend or movement of ideas that aimed to re-establish the unconscious, freeing it from the tools and formulae of reason.

… Something paradoxical about the way we deal with people’s posts in the Blogosphere is that we’re as apt to dismiss some prematurely as we are to relentlessly monitor others for signs of behaviour we don’t approve of – scrutinising these post-writers’ beliefs and inconsistencies more often and minutely, from thousands of miles away, than we could have done from right next door in the past. Then there’s the fun of comparing our reactions with those of others – comparisons all the more exciting for our having no ties or obligations to our fellow blog watchers.

It seems as if lots of other visitors to the Guardian‘s site have been put off by that paper’s barbaric censorship policies; in particular, by its victimisation of Desmond Swords/Kevin Desmond (or HerMajesty here). You might imagine that the dramatic drop in the comments count for a weekly poetry blog there in recent weeks would have registered with the managers of that site as a protest against its suppression of free expression – and that they might have tried to make amends, or at least offer some form of apology. You might imagine that they’d have noticed that for several years, now, that blogger who refuses to accept being banned has been responsible for more lively debates and click count-boosting posts than anyone else. … You might imagine that they’d have noticed that without him, there is only word for the threads in that section: dull.

But no, they appear to be have decided to sit out what is virtually a commenters’ strike, and do nothing at all.

The reasons why so many of us are supporting Des are: (i) The Guardian’s site managers’ failure to understand that it is commenters, not their ‘above-the-line’ bloggers, who have made that spot on the web worth visiting – a fact that makes their obtuse and draconian censorship utterly counter-productive. (ii) He can be wonderfully witty and inventive in the way he undermines the stodgy, misguidedly technical and needlessly jargon-ridden introductions to the Poem-of-the-Week – by an author who has shown, when she posts in comments sections, that she is capable of being funny and lively, on occasion. [(iii) See addendum, below, which contains the most important part of the explanation.]

Yet above the line, week after week, she holds forth in her droning Voice of Authority – in a style of criticism I expect will come to be known as Early Debased – or Very Early and remarkably Debased (as someone said about a bell tower in a church in an English university town in the late nineteenth century that was referred to as the Meat Safe).

Why don’t people like her see what is happening to the presumption of literary authority? In my last post I mentioned keeping tabs on the staggering – and widening – gap between paid and unpaid critics’ assessments of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. On a trip to the Amazon.com page a few hours ago, I noticed that 579 of 660 readers of an exemplary review by ‘zashibis’ — who awarded the book a one-star rating — had marked it as helpful. Its opening establishes that zashibis is objective, and nurses no personal grudge against the much-fêted author:

Negative reviews get no love on Amazon, but, having been thoroughly taken in by the glowing reviews in the NYT, Time, the Economist, etc., I feel compelled to add a voice of dissent and caution.

I read and enjoyed The Corrections, so was looking forward to seeing what Franzen had been up to for the past 10 years …

My impressions of the book from reading its first twenty five-odd pages have been confirmed, to the letter, by dozens of detailed descriptions of the rest of the mega-tome by lay assessors. ‘Taken in’ is exactly how I would have felt fifteen years ago, before there was an Amazon.com publishing extracts from new novels on its site – or offering instant access to hundreds of uncredentialled but obviously astute zashibises. I wouldn’t have been able to get a refund for the hefty price I’d have had to pay for Freedom, and I’d have had felt miserably and furiously isolated in my bafflement by the laurels the literary establishment had heaped on it.

Censors like the Guardian’s will have to take over the world to reverse the flood tide against pontificators who specialise in king- and queen-making in the arts. All hail, Canute!

…………………………………………………………………………………

Late addendum:

(iii) As Scott Adams recently said about his brilliant satirisation of corporate idiocy,

Humor likes danger. If you are cautious by nature, writing humor probably isn’t for you. Humor works best when you sense that the writer is putting himself in jeopardy.
[…]
In the early days of my cartooning career, as the creator of “Dilbert,” part of the strip’s appeal was that I was holding a day job while mocking the very sort of company I worked for. If you knew my backstory, and many people did, you could sense my personal danger in every strip. (My manager eventually asked me to leave. He said it was a budget thing.)

22 Comments

Filed under Book publishing, Censorship, Criticism, Poetry, The blogosphere, The Guardian

Get poetry out of the ivory tower and give it back to poets

Elephant from a 15th c. bestiary (The Royal Library of Denmark)

Speculative representation of an elephant from clues in 15th century England … or … Academic interpretation of modern poetry in English, c. 2010

… ‘But, censorship aside — why does the academic infestation and degradation of poetry bother you so much?’ I haven’t yet replied to the friend who asked me that after reading the last three posts on this blog.

I could answer in two parts: first, that I suppose the fault lies partly with me. I’ve never given up a childhood glimmer of intuition in close sympathy with Mme. de Staël’s definition of poetry, c.1800, as ‘a momentary possession of all that is sought by our soul’. … Alright, I was a geeky, old-fashioned child who should have known better, having been born post-modern like you, readers – known that Modernism was about irreversible repudiation, disenchantment and disillusion, with no room for exaltation through the sublime.

For the second part, I might say: for the same reason I’d put the Kama Sutra near the top of my list of the dullest books ever printed.

What? that hallowed sex bible of the ancient Indians? is what I expect my friend to shriek. Yes, that one, which has never lived up to its billing, for me. (Or possibly the Indologist A.L. Basham, who said that ‘The Indian passion for classification [...] led to the development of rather pedantic schools on [...] sexual relations.’) I’ve found instructions for fiddling with the innards of personal computers a bigger turn-on than the venerable do-it-yourselves manual for the inculcation of lust that presumes mechanical contortions and not emotional and mental electrification to be the erotic gift that keeps on giving.

To see what that has to do with modern poetry, just close your eyes and imagine: your limbs are sweetly intertwined with your amour‘s, lips fine-tuned to the secret harmonies of lips. Suddenly, a voice that belongs to neither of you speaks. ‘Dopamine level’s rising nicely in both male and female subjects,’ it says. You look over your shoulder to see a large pair of tortoiseshell spectacles angled in your direction at first, then at the screen of a small computer, and then at another screen with a tangle of wires – with eek! …two of them ending in you and your partner.

‘Don’t pay any attention to me,’ a someone perched on the edge of your bed says in precise, forensic tones. ‘I’m just validating your trajectory from pre-consummation to full-on orgasmic attainment. So pleased your pheromones were gaining altitude fast enough that you didn’t notice me inserting my hormone calibrators into you!’ … If, defying all conceivable odds, you and your dear one do manage the uh, … usual culmination, … the all-knowing voice intones through heavy breathing a helpful summing-up with forward spin. ‘Excellent! Oxytocin and prolactin attaining high averages in both subjects. If you want my advice, kids, try and keep a lid on the prolactin – good for bonding initially, but you don’t want it getting too high as the rate of congress rises over the medium to long term. Can be a causative element in feelings of entrapment.’

… Perfectly ‘orrible, yes?
– except for those of you who surely depend on recipes for every meal you cook, and need food and wine critics to tell you what your own taste buds should, or could, if you would only let them. … What I’m saying is, I see reading poetry or experiencing any artistic creation as an intimate, highly personal exchange between an artist and every member of an audience. No intermediaries, thank you. Certainly not for poetry in English from roughly John Donne’s time.

I can think of nothing worse than having to digest the evisceration and explanation of a poem before I’ve had a chance to read it on my own — like many an unfortunate student of literature. Well, actually, I can. Infinitely more frightful would be the literary equivalent of a research sexologist straining to persuade me that if I would only consider this other position – I mean, interpretive possibility, I’d get over my instinctive aversion to those pinhead eyes too close together, … I mean of course, that shopping list for athlete’s foot remedies rearranged as an experimental Poem, and attain nirvana.

Literary assessments by a critic who is also a sensitive writer do not read like sexology. When Frank Kermode died a few weeks ago, the elegant NYT editorial writer Verlyn Klinkenborg had this to say:

In my years in academia, I had watched the study of literature go down any number of rabbit holes — chasing after theory and ideology and system. The very point of reading and talking about what we read seemed to have been lost in a kind of strangulating self-seriousness and alienation. That’s where Kermode came in.

He was drawn to the entanglements of the text and its rational mysteries rather than some scaffold of theory. In his many books and essays, he protected the reader’s freedom to be interested in whatever was interesting. That meant writing a prose that was never wholly academic and over the years became more and more open to the intersection of literature and the lives we’re actually living.

Could Kermode’s approach serve as the gold standard and guide to writing about poetry in the future? Can we ask academics to restrict their interpreting and grinding down to verse written in obscure, archaic forms of the language? Could they be persuaded to refrain from telling us what is and isn’t good poetry – or indeed a poem at all?

Asking those questions could be whistling in the wind, today. Poetry has been getting more and not less entangled with academia, as the lawyer-poet and critic David Orr has wickedly pointed out:

Partly as a result of the art form’s academic attachment, poets are increasingly knit together in complicated patterns based on mentorship, instruction or just basic university proximity. […] In “Laureates and Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry,” for example, the critic Robert Archambeau smartly traces poets including Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass through their connection to Yvor Winters at Stanford. It’s a project that wouldn’t work (or at least, not quite so well) with Eliot or Frost or Williams, simply because times have changed.

That said, some of the inter­dependence in today’s poetry world isn’t a function of modernity but of insecurity, which is why you’ll occasionally find writers claiming to be “fourth-generation New York School poets,” as if latching on to your great-grandfather’s avant-garde were something to be proud of, rather than sheepish about. Presumably it feels better to be a poet carrying on the tradition of “X” than just a plain old poet talking to the void.

… But then there’s this internet, through which change – if enough people demand it – can come as unexpectedly as a sneeze. Nearly every publication of note in the old print world has been frantic to outdo the others, lauding Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom to the stratosphere and beyond. I’ve been monitoring the many very different reports on the book at Amazon.com – a few of them finely considered and beautifully written – by actual readers. Freedom’s standing with these reactors has fallen steadily over the weeks since its launch near the start of the month, bringing its average rating down by half a star to just three.

This was precisely what I wanted to see happen four years ago, after twice being misled by professional critics infecting each other with hype fever — steadily improving, credible, independent literary criticism.

So I’m optimistic about the net helping those of us who care to reclaim poetry for true poets, who want it left alone. I suspect that we’ll get the sexologists — no, I mean surely, poexologists, out of the way soon enough. ; )

21 Comments

Filed under Criticism, Poetry

On a Guardian poetry blog, scenes from the crumbling old order

The Clash - Jakub Julian Ziolkowski

Much that is rotten about the social order collapsing in the dying age of print is obvious from what was cut when censors ran amok on – of all things – a supposedly liberal newspaper’s poetry blog, the subject of the last entry here. Readers who never saw the comments hacked out of that discussion have been curious about what they said, so I’m putting up a selection in another part of this site.

The Guardian purge is well worth revisiting, for connoisseurs of pattern recognition. Censorship itself started with religious authorities who had glimpsed the beginning of their end in Gutenberg’s printing press. As hard as it was for their 15th-century ancestors to keep up with the subversive literature of their day, the toil of today’s online censors is even more quixotic. Yet they bash on, against the popular will, the masters that they serve as hopelessly misguided as hierarchs of the past were in insisting on their entitlement to authority – banding together for reinforcement in much the way they did, and deploying similar tactics.

It was the very smallness and insignificance of the group of actors associated with the poetry blog that made watching old patterns play out in the bloodbath so entertaining – not merely horrifying.

Here are seven parallels that stood out:

1. The use of propaganda. After a hundred-odd comments were slashed – by the reckoning of several readers – a supporter of Carol Rumens, the lecturer and Poem-of-the-Week blogger enraged by attacks on academia’s effects on poetry, tried to justify the silencing of her opponents with this nonsensical post:

SCFMH
3 September 2010 3:47PM

An elegantly pruned blog, all excess foliage to the compost. These words of wisdom say it all: […]’Pruning grape vines is a basic principle that any grower, regardless of experience, must understand. Whenever you leave a vine unpruned, the first year you’ll have a massive big crop. Novice growers can feel delighted with their success and wonder what all the pruning fuss is about. […But …] when you actually prune a vine correctly, you remove as much as 95 to 98% of the previous season’s growth. […] The vine can’t produce enough energy to ripen an unregulated crop, and it’ll be poor quality.’

Propaganda is a branch of the art of persuasion. It nearly always relies on specious logic, like other kinds of communication that insult readers’ intelligence. Pruning a grapevine has absolutely nothing in common with suppressing free speech. Snipping leaves and branches serves a single, consistent aim – producing wine of a particular type. Not a bit like the right to free expression, which can serve as many aims as there are people expressing themselves, whose opinions can be diametrically opposed.

2. Defenders of the status quo are uniquely protected from criticism or reprisals – and on the public purse. SCFMH – whose posts are usually more intelligent — has revealed himself elsewhere on the net as Simon M. Hunter. Like Rumens, he appears to teach at a university. There is irony unbound in the reason why SCFMH can support a Rumens capable of calling her employers ‘you bastards’ without producing a single birth certificate blank where a father’s name should be – yet lecturing commenters not sitting in her classroom about their behaviour, and getting a few of them banned from the Guardian‘s site for no more than bracing, playful criticism. (I would place a large bet on no reader of or commenter on her blog’s ever having addressed an employer as she did, in full public view.)

That reason is called ‘tenure’. It was invented, as the Wikipedia says, ‘to guarantee the right to academic freedom: it protects teachers and researchers when they dissent from prevailing opinion, openly disagree with authorities of any sort, …’

Who pays the salaries of most university lecturers? Ah, in Britain and the US, that would be us, the unwashed public. Shouldn’t we be entitled to as least as much freedom as they have to speak out?

3. Blatant hypocrisy goes unchallenged. Like feudal serfs, most readers of the Rumens blog were stopped from objecting to her treatment of dissenting commenters by the censors’ threat: ‘This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted.’ (And indeed, all attempts to support Rumens’ critics disappeared.)

4. Defunct, repressive authorities have collaborators, enablers and appeasers. . . among those who should know better, but fear that they stand to lose more than they gain from a revolution. Look at the posts left in place after the grand cull on the morning of September the 3rd and you’ll find fine samples of smug support for the triumphant status quo.

5. No right of appeal for those muzzled and expelled. ….The Guardian’s censors and moderators will only discuss deletions in private, by email. As anyone who can see why transparency is essential to justice knows, that amounts to, ‘We’ll brook no challenges and will suppress all evidence of our repression and mistakes’.

6. The powerful never stoop to an apology. Rumens showed that she understood that something of the kind was required of her when she said vaguely, the following week, ‘Milton may be above criticism, ATF, but , alas, I don’t think I am…’. .. A whole-hearted apology clearly linked to the censorfest might have won her some points. Most of all, she owed – still owes – her critics a respectful discussion of what academia has done to modern poetry; of the wider implications of both her and her featured poet being academics. … And she and the Guardian could have won the undying loyalty of many a reader by conceding that the censorship went too far, and above all, by restoring the censored posts.

7. Futile attempts to carry privileges from the old order into the new. Noting cracks in the joists and foundations of their fortresses, some members of the old guard are naively trying to set the rules for the new order. Anxious to be seen as egalitarian in spite of the mountain of evidence to the contrary, Rumens said in the cull’s aftermath that her ‘blog has to have comments – that’s the admirable nature of the beast. It’s not about soloists.’ … Ah, but that’s the beauty of online media: there are no such rules. There are no externally imposed‘ has to have’s, shoulds, or musts. Millions of wonderful blogs on the net have no comments at all, year after year; millions of others have huge and lively comments sections that read like transcripts of beer busts.

… Indeed, the old order changeth … And yet, as an old friend put it, ‘These dictators never learn, do they? They can’t help themselves.’

22 Comments

Filed under Censorship, Criticism, Editors and editing, Poetry, Social trends, The blogosphere, The Guardian

Mysteries of modern poetry: are poets still free spirits?

Off with their heads!

Drawing by John Tenniel

Continuing our inspection of censorship at the Guardian, here’s a surprising suppressor of free speech — that is, if you are used to thinking of poets and other artists as passionate believers in unfettered communication.

Could that honestly be said of Carol Rumens, a published poet, university lecturer and Poem-of-the-Week blogger for that newspaper? Her electronic column — when written by her predecessor in that space — was a quick, open-ended introduction to a poem chosen for discussion by all comers. Under Rumens, the blog has taken on a directive and teacherly tone that some of her readers enjoy.

This week, an extended argument with commenters keen to lift the dead hand of academic analysis from modern poetry – affecting not just its criticism but writing – grew intense. Guardian moderators slashed comments by Rumens’ opponents so wildly and in such quantities that at least one onlooker wondered about the possibility of unhinged combat rage (think My Lai and Green Berets.)

The butchery was justified on the grounds that commenters had been attacking a living poet – the author of this week’s poem, Vona Groarke. Actually – as is clear from careful inspection of the unexpurgated record, there were no personal attacks on the poet, with the exception of a childish remark about her name by someone notoriously infantile. It was the opinions and judgment of Rumens herself that came under fire and, in a scant few posts, the poem itself.

At the end of the cull, Rumens made an ominous announcement in her comments section:

[…] I have emailed the mods via Sarah […] and they will watching the blog extra carefully.

@Einsloth, a delightfully whimsical commenter known to be an accomplished poet himself, was singled out for a special rap on the knuckles. Why? Because he had begun his critique by referring to ‘this precious pearl of a poem’. Comparisons with other samples of acid wit in the annals of literary criticism would reveal that to be mild – as intended.

But Rumens said,

He begins with a sneer. That is NOT doing what we should all do here. [her caps.]

Should. Shouldn’t. … Hmm … Now, this particular Guardian blogger has been a teacher for decades. We must allow her the tics of the more dictatorial members of her profession. But what was a newspaper doing, denying its commenters their right to disagree with her?

This post on acciaccatura is aimed at those moderators and constructed to honour the old maxim, ‘Do as you would be done by.’ I would like to see the Guardian simply highlight all comments it finds questionable – except for libel – and let readers reflect on them and draw their own conclusions. How? Just as I’m setting out these excerpts from the blogs and comments-section remarks of Carol Rumens – neutrally, and in a spirit of enquiry.

LITERARY STYLE

Can a prose style like this, introducing poems, earn poetry more readers – and stimulate new interest in the most graceful literary form?

It’s a strong poem that inhabits a slightly uncharacteristic lyric angle, off-road to the central preoccupations of this septuagenarian poet’s spacious, modernist imagination. Yet I feel it reveals the emotional forces implicit in those preoccupations.

… when the same ideas could have been stated like this:

It’s a strong poem, with an uncharacteristic touch of lyricism, a departure from the usual preoccupations of this septuagenarian modernist. Yet, to me, it reveals the passion behind those preoccupations.

APPROACH TO CRITICISM

Is this a helpful interpretation of a cheerful short poem? Lines that describe an athletic woman diving into the sea?

In an understated way (provided we allow that the poet is the protagonist of her own poem) “Pier” seems a feminist work. Exposed in bathing-togs as she “flip-flops” past the fishermen, the woman here is untroubled about body-image. There’s no shrinking from either visibility or danger. Next time, in fact, she’ll claim even more visibility, and take a bigger risk: she’ll dive from the pier head-first, and she’ll shout. While not as blissfully at one with the environment as her project at first suggested, the speaker embraces the growing sense of power and liberation her risk-taking gains her. We might also infer that, where Church and state attempt to control women’s bodies, rebellious leaps and shouts may be fun but are also more significant politically than they may first appear.

N.B. A controller critical of controlling?

SELF-EXPRESSION

Should a blogger cooperating with censors of free speech be calling her own employers at her university ‘you bastards’ in public – on a Guardian blog? Carol Rumens was gently reprimanded by a kind commenter: shouldn’t she extend the same kind consideration to the impassioned comments of others?

CarolRumens
Comment No. 1200270
July 2 18:41

To my Employers (the National Institute for Excellence in the Creative Industries, University of Bangor)

Nasty
Idiotic
Emetic
Crap
Innit

Sorry but they are trying to get me to do some extra teaching that forces a younger colleague out of a job. Hope you’re reading this, you bastards.

stoneofsilence
Comment No. 1203154
July 4 8:57

Never slag off an employer on
Impulse, especially in forums
Everyone can be a voyeur on
Carol Rumens, Oh Carol Rumens
Ire will misfire- its – hire or fire

Seriously, Carol I think it is best that these matters be resolved using the appropriate channels. If you believe there is a case, then take it to the union or whoever represents you, and take it up with the boards. If it is a Dean or Director who has made this decision then go to the head of the college. If you have already exhausted those channels then you can use this blog to vent off your anger, but not until then. I do not personally think it is useful to make fun of your employer’s strategy which is one that is typical of all those humanities departments that had to reinvent themselves in the 1990′s so as to be more attractive to business. …

Readers, I’ll let you decide …

29 Comments

Filed under Censorship, Editors and editing, Poetry, The Guardian

Does comment moderation on newspaper sites make sense when no one is being libelled?

An early moderator: Savonarola (1452-1498) was known for book-burning and his hostility to the Renaissance

Readers of this blog are invited to consider three comments recently rescued from oblivion – to which they were consigned by censors at The Guardian. They are reproduced below. I hold no brief for or against the sentiments expressed in them, but would suggest weighing them against this question:

Censorship was invented with the printed book: does the death of print mean that it’s time for it, too, to disappear?

It was in Germany, where printing was pioneered, that censorship was first introduced. In 1475 the University of Cologne, jealous of the freelance expression of ideas, obtained from the Pope the right to grant licences for the publication of books and to punish those who published or read unauthorized ones.
[…]
By [1515] the flood of books and the realization that a new, less instructed and more excitable audience for them was being reached, moved a number of European secular authorities to insist on manuscripts being submitted to them before printing.
[…]
[By the late 1500s] books had come to be seen as potential threats to political and moral as well as to doctrinal values. So Machiavelli, as well as Luther, became a totally banned author. Bawdy books jostled occultist ones on the list …
[…]
[I]n spite of growing repression it was possible for determined readers with money and some courage to secure much of what they wanted […] There were never enough censors to deal thoroughly with manuscripts submitted for publication.
[...]
Inquisitors – another overworked corps of repressors – rarely showed more interest in convincing unimportant suspects of their doctrinal errors than in swiftly and if necessary cruelly extorting blanket vows of obedience …

from The Civilisation of Europe in the Renaissance, John Hale, 1994

Comments deleted by Guardian moderators in a single fortnight earlier this month, with links to the blogs where they were published fleetingly (… their gist is easy to grasp, so do not be distracted by references that will seem arcane to anyone who does not visit that site very often…):

This wickedly entertaining scrap of satire was written, like many of the commenter’s contributions, in the spirit of charivari. Those were once officially sanctioned ‘rites of excess’ all over Europe – so noisy that the Latin root for the word is caribaria, meaning ‘headache’. I’m quoting from the same book on Renaissance Europe with which this post begins. It mentions anarchic leaders of celebrations that released ‘the volatility which civility feared, even if some of its representatives enjoyed its licence’. Their names, ‘Abbot of Misrule’, ‘Bishop Meany’ ,‘Duke Kick-Ass’ and so on, could be screen names for the censored blogger, known elsewhere as Desmond Swords or Kevin Desmond.

His comments on the poem capture what many of us readers found regrettable – that although it is elegant, named for a famous piece of classical music and apparently written in its honour, it lacks any musicality. . . . Now, isn’t that a far less engaging way of saying what the censors snipped from here?

DesmondSwords19

2 Aug 2010, 12:22PM

EXPERIMENTAL RESPONSE.

Reading it aloud, one is struck by the lack of ..I mean abundence of rhythm and melody. Sweet cadence of a song singing softly, some sweet sibliant odour of it; roses on a tongue, oh sheer raw the passion one found on a playground in asphalt-city Islington, gang-turf where there be, to-be the poets of yesteryear moesying o’er thine ears like sweet the sound of lilacs and lavender lillies, breathing oh liddle foldero fee, bright spark Fiontan of moon-hawk, soon in June the losses felt what o’er thine seer like deep note of cherry, sits at table in Betterton Street, Forward Prize contendor in no way run bcuz of thine dayjob, liddle Fion, satyr and faun sporting in the water park at Brockley, Crouch End lido, Hampstead pond, dipping in prose the tenor of lemon and oranges, thine own banana in the spume blent, oh bright star no shoo-in, on talent alone thine ears and eyes make filidh trumpet of the goats at Syrius: stall not thine brilliance in this embodying essence of Schubert and his tinkly winkly music.
~
I really love this poem, because it captures the delicacy of Schubert’s String Quintet in C, D956, in such a way as to make thick pple want to go out and buy it because it in no way perpetuates the idea that poets are frosty keepers-out of culture or owt like that, Ms.

I am going to buy the book immediately and demand Fiona is awarded the prize that will broadcast tot he world what a democratic, open, warm, welcoming space British Intelligensia Poetry is to pple like me, an unpublished dabbler networking online, making the right noises and wanting only to be myself; a bitter begrudging hater of all things not to do with me, as per erm, I dunno.

The next deleted post supplies an instance of woeful inconsistency by moderators. Even those who consider moderation essential surely see that the fastest way to lose respect is by not sticking to your own rules – deduced partly from precedent. Yet after a string of posts in the identical tone from the same commenter, the moderators gave this one the chop. Why?

For any student of human behaviour, the spontaneous remarks we all make in the Blogosphere give us an incomparable laboratory – for studying, for instance, the legitimacy of old and new ideas about temperament. This particular blogger, @ artfarmer — or, as he insists elsewhere, Mishari al Adwani — often supplies illustrations of the sort of temperament once described as splenetic, about which the Wikipedia says, in part: ‘The connection between spleen (the organ) and melancholy (the temperament) comes from the humoral medicine of the ancient Greeks. One of the humours (body fluid) was the black bile, secreted by the spleen organ and associated with melancholy. […]. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England, women in bad humour were said to be afflicted by the spleen, or the vapours of the spleen.’

artfarmer

14 Aug 2010, 10:28PM

Yeah, right: falling on your knees and asking favours of an invisible friend is an unmistakable sign of spirituality and ivariably leads to good art.

Actually, it’s a sign of cowardice and gullibility, a gullibility encouraged by shrill, screeching hysterics who love the human race but hate people.

Crap poem, by the way. I’ll bet you went to Sri Lanka and pontificated on their misery, self-righteous bourgeois voyeur that you are. Pinter wrote this kind of rubbish, too, but least he was a good playwright.

Unlike those other two samples of deletions by Guardian moderators, this egregiously repetitious one can hardly be said to have been written in the most literate voice.

But isn’t its contribution to the debate on the burkha question exactly what you’d want to see on a forum The Guardian named Comment is free? Doesn’t the commenter’s case for reaching beyond our prejudices and cultural conditioning deserve airing? Elsewhere on the net, others are making closely similar points – on blogcritics.org, for instance, where one poster reasonably suggests, ‘Maybe they can make the pope stop wearing that ridiculous hat.’?

MassSpectrometer

16 Aug 2010, 8:55AM

@minervahere, @Parisa, criticisin Dawkins fanaticism don’t mean havin a strong opinion bout burkqas one way or another. I mean, havin a personal opinion meself.

I suspect from the listenin I been doin that yeah, if lotsa Muslim gals sez n really means it they love the privacy the garment gives em and the thrill o’ sharin their undraped selves only with their old man and this is kinda thrillin for em (I read some Orthodox Jewish gal explain all that someplace bout coverin up *their* selves), then why not jest believe em?

I mean look at India n Pakistan. Benazeeer Bhutto n Indeara Ganndi wuz real powerful. Powerful enuff to make some suicidil fanatic mad enuff to snuff em. Yet they opted to wrap themselves every — or many a — mornin, in a whole nine yards o’ drapes never givin any indication o’ hatin saris which I know would give me ma and jest about any gal I know a conniption fit and a half if I or anyone no matter how much they lurved us had the gall to insist on em wearin em. Would think I was advocatin foot bindin.

Theres Hindu n Muslim Indian gals today with 3 degrees from places like Harvard n Cambridge runnin multinational corporations who sometimes or always dresses in their trad dress. Yer only have to look at em to know yer caint walk as freely as a western gal can in a saree leave alone run for a cab in Podunk or Manhattin. So whos to say millions o’ Muslim gals don’t consider the constrictin of their black nun-ny garment like lockin em in the county jail but instead, kinda sexy – or purifyin in a way they wanna be pure? Why not jest believe em?

Different o’course if theres intelligence says theres a real n present risk o’ terrorists secretin ‘emselves inside a burqa so if I wuz Sarko or Carla whichever of em’s really runnin France Id wanna make sure I also included nuns habits n muu-muus pinned out with detachable supersized hoodies the same law thats outlawin them boorkqas. I mean wouldn’t you in the interests of equity n all.

Has it bin passed yet? That law? Probably an academick question unless yer real quick cos the thread’s closin and this has to be so long until the next time.

Bisses.

If anything proves the pointlessness of repressive moderation on the net, surely it’s that anyone can so easily rescue victims of censorship?

8 Comments

Filed under Censorship, Editors and editing, The blogosphere, The Guardian

Deconstructing Ian McEwan-envy, the UK and US versions

Beard said, ‘It’s all crap, Toby. Don’t listen. This is the queen’s birthday honours list. She doesn’t choose it, she knows fuck-all about it, and they all scramble to be on it, every booby and arriviste from science and the arts and the civil service who wants to strut about the place hoping to be taken for a member of the minor aristocracy.’

Solar, 2010

Reasons for the widespread hatred of Ian McEwan fall into three categories, as far as I can tell. While I can’t relate to the people positively bludgeoning him for the first of these, I’ve been as irritated as they are by the hyper-inflation of his reputation by marketing gnomes dedicated to generating mountains of cash for his publishers. We must blame these worthies for the McEwan novels that read like superb short stories glued together with monstrous padding, with an eye to profit — because collections of short stories do not sell as well as long-form fiction does.

In the second category, an exclusively British phenomenon, he is accused repeatedly – often by those who have never read a page of his words – of being a member of the ‘middle-class’ only interested in writing about that social segment for other people in it. Presumably, these critics believe that a prominent writer committing this sin is conspiring with others like him – and middle-class publishing executives – to perpetuate their economic advantages at the expense of those further down the social scale. They do make it plain that they consider the suffering of the poor and disadvantaged to be the only legitimate subject for a serious writer of fiction. Why, in other words, doesn’t silly old McEwan see that it’s his job to serve as the Dickens, Victor Hugo, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Pinter or Jean Genet of the 21st century?

I have a question for these critics: why can’t they understand that there can be no one more devastatingly subversive than a perceptive writer concentrating on the privileged, their beliefs and biases?

Simply by choosing a scientist as his protagonist, and doing science today as his focus — as McEwan has in his latest novel, Solar — a writer in Britain is lobbing a small but deadly grenade at one of the most vicious, deeply rooted prejudices of upper-class England. Reviewing Never Pure, a book about the history of science for the New York Times last month, Katherine Bouton observed:

In the essay titled “The Scientific Person,” the professor shows how science gained from the upper classes’ disdain for learning and the learned. The Royal Society, Britain’s national academy of science, made up of gentlemen one and all, attempted to garner respect for science. But it failed: scientists continued to be seen, as Professor [Steven] Shapin puts it, as “swilling around in human urine,” eliciting a “polite retch reflex.” This left the field open to the rising class of those industrializing Britain.

So science has, in fact, been a critical social leveller – as far as possible from a tool for entrenching middle- and upper-class privilege..

Reviewers have on the whole missed McEwan’s impish commentary in Solar on the war between lovers of science and the humanities – the subject of C. P. Snow’s famous ‘two cultures’ debate. He gives Michael Beard, his book’s lovingly mocked anti-hero — an obese, Nobel prize-winning physicist — a transformative experience at Oxford, where he has arrived as a scholarship boy. To impress Maisie Farmer, the beautiful literature student who has until then resisted all his attempts to persuade her to go out with him – he turns himself into an expert on Milton by buying a one-hour tutorial on the subject from a fellow-student, and then speed-reading for a week. The plan works and, McEwan writes,

… was a turning point in his development, for he knew that no third-year arts person, however bright, could have passed himself off after a week’s study among the under-graduate mathematicians and physicists who were Beard’s colleagues. The traffic was one-way. [. . .] The reading was a slog, but he encountered nothing that could remotely be construed as an intellectual challenge, nothing on the scale of difficulty he encountered daily in his course. [ … ] He and his lot were at lectures and lab work nine till five every day, attempting to come to terms with some of the hardest things ever thought. The arts people fell out of bed at midday for their two tutorials a week. He suspected there was nothing they talked about there that anyone with half a brain could fail to understand. He had read four of the best essays on Milton. He knew. And yet they passed themselves off as his superiors, these lie-a-beds, and he had let them intimidate him.

There’s a sly joke buried there, sinc McEwan himself – though he was never a science student or scientist – is showing off as a rare literary artist proving that the traffic is not necessarily all one-way. He writes so accurately about complex theories in science and medicine that reading some highly technical passages of Solar is about as thrilling as munching on sisal carpeting.

As he never attended Oxford or any other elite university, the charge of smug obliviousness to social discrimination constantly levelled at him is even more baffling.

But bigots will be bigots, as the third category of complaints about him also illustrates. This one is largely an American phenomenon. An online search will show no shortage of his countrymen congratulating Walter Kirn on his crude and atrociously written attack on Solar, extensively quoted on this blog a few weeks ago. Yet any lit-lover who took the time to study last week’s comparison of paragraphs by Kirn and McEwan writing on closely similar subjects would surely agree with Moristotle, a wise, dissenting American who diagnosed ‘a serious case of jealousy’ as the explanation for Kirn’s hatchet-job on a novelist who, I believe, could out-write him sedated and fast asleep.

The gist of Kirn’s complaint was that McEwan writes too well, and is guilty of over-the-top over-writing. Yet in the puff piece he lavished on another novel, the excruciatingly un-funny, cliché-ridden Absurdistan, a review that put it on the NYT’s ten-best-books-of-2006 list, he made elaborate excuses for the same aspiration and flaw, respectively, in a novelist who did not make him feel quite so insecure. About Gary Shteyngart’s collaboration with his own protagonist-narrator, Kirn said:

Shteyngart and Misha, exuberant depressives, don’t stint on the syntax or the verbiage when objects huge and rotten hulk into view. Their thick, overloaded style is what happens, though, when socialist realism decays into black comedy. This is the prose of heroic disappointment, faintly labored at moments but fitted to the task of shoveling up mountains of cultural debris. Hemingway’s clean sentences wouldn’t do here. A man needs commas, semicolons, adjectives. He requires linguistic heavy machinery.

He does, does he? …And yet Kirn would, if he could, forbid McEwan — a sentence-by-sentence master of English prose — the use of any such machinery. Reviewing Shteyngart’s new novel, the NYT’s redoubtable Michiko Kakutani said earlier this week that it ‘avoids the pretensions and grandiosity of Mr. Shteyngart’s last book, “Absurdistan,” … ‘. Well said, Ms. Kakutani.

Jealousy aside, why is Kirn so much more indulgent of Shteyngart’s literary showmanship than McEwan’s? There might have been a clue in this paragraph of an article by Judith Warner in the NYT earlier this month:

A tendency toward anti-intellectualism isn’t new in our country … [I]n his 1962 classic, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” Richard Hofstadter wrote of our culture’s longtime devaluation of the head in favor of the heart and a historic tendency to prefer people and phenomena — educational approaches, types of religious experience — motivated by passion or gut rather than intellect or reason. “Intellect is pitted against feeling, on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion,” he wrote. “It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or the diabolical. It is pitted against practicality, since theory is held to be opposed to practice, and the ‘purely’ theoretical mind is so much disesteemed. It is pitted against democracy, since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction that defies egalitarianism.”

The emotional excessiveness of Shteyngart’s ‘exuberant depressives’ makes him a more sympathetic chronicler of the human condition for a Walter Kirn than someone like McEwan, who cares just as much, but chooses a cooler and more detached stance towards his characters.

The British alternative is neatly encapsulated in a protest against overflowing sentimentality getting in the way of good sense by a prison doctor, Theodore Dalrymple, in the Telegraph earlier this week: ‘Sentimentalists try to make up for a lack of feeling by emotional exhibitionism.’

Wit – black humour – is much preferred in Blighty to Shteyngart’s style of histrionic Russian-American lamentation, extended tantrums and breast-beating.

I wouldn’t ordinarily be wasting time on such odious comparisons. It’s just that putting Kirn’s obtuse butchering of Solar on the front page of the NYT‘s Sunday books section did look a bit too much like an aggressive attempt to bring McEwan to heel, and to impose the American approach to fiction-writing on the world as the model against which all other styles must be judged.

It’s not unlike the persistent attempts by Americans to rewrite the rules for football – not simply re-name a game they don’t know how to win any version of without padding themselves to look like blank, faceless, Egyptian mummies in motion. P.J. Rourke was only half-joking when he whinged in the Wall Street Journal near the end of the World Cup:

“Nil-nil” is not a sports score, “nil-nil” is a foreign policy. Judging by the many successes of the United Nations, it’s a foreign policy favored by the majority of the world’s foreign countries. Of course nil-nil is not an American foreign policy, or wasn’t until we got a president with a suspiciously foreign name. Americans like to win. And, come on global sports fans, you like to win too. In this one respect you’re all Americans at heart. So knock it off with the whole “everybody’s a loser” soccer thing.

No thanks, P.J., go away – we don’t want any… Solar is, by the way, one of the funniest contemporary novels I’ve read for a very long time. One sequence in it could make a short story brilliant enough to make Woody Allen turn chartreuse and weep. It has just two male characters travelling on a train together, and a bag of salt-and-vinegar crisps.

4 Comments

Filed under Class and literature, Criticism, Psychology, Social trends