The Iniquitous Agony of Literature

The Iniquitous Agony of Literature

Adriana Díaz Enciso

Part Two

In part one of these reflections, I discussed some of the most obvious evils that undermine literary creation nowadays: the urge to turn authors into pawns of celebrity culture (often with their own consent, because vanity is a credulous, loose maiden); a literary milieu increasingly subjugated to the laws of both market and greed, and the zeal for making all literature uniform—supported by endless creative writing courses competitions—through the props of a dominant discourse which, it has been proved, sells well.

I didn’t go far enough. I forgot to mention, for instance, that in the publishing industry contracts for a novel are signed with the film already in mind, even if not a single filmmaker has read the book yet, and nobody has any authentic creative impulse to make a movie inspired by it. The film industry, in turn, and in shameful shack-up with the great publishing consortiums, produces non-stop technically impeccable “adaptations” of best-sellers (old and new), propped up with all the visual, acting and sonic clichés of the new commercial cinema that tries to pass as cultured. The voracity doesn’t end with books. The lives of authors are also exploited this way, so that the audience is gradually less capable of distinguishing literature from entertainment. As if, for instance, watching an alleged Virginia Woolf come at the hands (literally) of an also alleged Vita Sackville-West on screen offered a path parallel to that of reading, recognisable, safe, and devoid of thorns: that of fiction, not in its literary sense, but in the sense of a lie adorned with the most sophisticated technical tricks. It’s not surprising that, carpet-bombed with the products of that other equally lucrative, equally incontinent industry, novels written as if they were already their own film abound—a litany of clichés, both in content and form, to which the reading public reacts like a Pavlovian dog.

Nor did I discuss the proliferation of labels that promptly suffocate and systematize any passing idea, whether inspired or not, that may come out of an author’s pen or keyboard: flash fiction, visual poem, any form of exploration of poetic language, however ancient or however avant-garde its origin may have been, is now little more than the description of a product, accompanied by well-known ads: “Learn to write flash fiction”, “Everything you need to know to make visual poems”, etc. The cognitive processes that this kind of publicity sets off are no different from those that make us look up a recipe in Google, or how to unblock pipes, do your nails or whatever on YouTube, but that doesn’t seem to alarm anybody. Another thing I failed to mention is the practice of some publishers and literary agencies who, just as they reject an author, announce their “editorial services”, with the implicit promise that, once she’s passed through the magic crucible of their wise advice—that doesn’t come cheap—said author will have become one that is accepted and published, on her way to glory and fortune, her work now duly pasteurised.

I could fill up many pages with more examples of the brazen prostitution and cheapening of literature in our confounded century, but in this second instalment I want to go deeper into those traps that aren’t so brazen; those hidden (albeit in steady collusion with the market) and perhaps more dangerous ones that define a new totalitarian and sanctimonious ideology.

I had already mentioned Amanda Gorman and the absurdity of young poet laureates. Now it’s our turn to talk about what Gorman writes. Let’s start by acknowledging that she has all the attributes to represent the new discourse: black, daughter of a single mother, she seemingly suffers from an auditory processing disorder and as a child had a speech impediment. All those personal and social challenges feed her activism, something that, at first sight, is no doubt laudable—and I’m not being ironic. However, things take on another dimension when we realise that this young woman’s trajectory as an activist and presumed poet is practically undistinguishable from her trajectory as a celebrity. Represented by the model agency IMG, she receives (and accepts) commissions such as writing for the Superbowl, and she will be the new face of an Estée Lauder “ethical” campaign. Gorman has talked with great seriousness about the relationship between fashion and poetry, and her image in a plethora of pictures as a professional model is no doubt captivating—she’s very beautiful. Recently she appeared at the Met Gala embodying her ideal image of the Statue of Liberty, her own laurels on her head included. And we all know that the climax of her campaign has been, so far, her reading of “The Hill We Climb” at the inauguration of Joe Biden in January this year.

Needless to say, reading your work as a poet at the inauguration of a president is a terribly risky business. For the soul, I hasten to clarify. No doubt it was much more pleasant to see a passionate, intelligent and beautiful young woman declaiming her thoughts than watching the Trump re-election we were fearing so much, during a long apocalyptic lockdown winter. Furthermore, perhaps Gorman will indeed become president in 2036, as is her ambition, and she may even be a good one, whatever that means. Her political aspirations are not in doubt. However, what concerns us here is a very simple question: is she a poet?

The answer is equally clear. No, she’s not. Perhaps she could have become one, one day. Impossible to know, but I fear that her ambition has closed the door of that path for her forever. What this young woman is instead is, virtually, a brand, something I find horrifying. “The Hill We Climb” opens with a few lines that might point at something like a poem, only to tumble down at once into a heap of thoughts that are as pretty as they are hackneyed about union, fraternity, hope, justice and peace. Poetry is nowhere to be seen. It would have made more sense if they had announced she’d read a speech, but how could they do that, if she’s the young poet laureate! As a poet she was therefore announced, and whereas her text fails utterly to become poetry, it does secure the victory of being a well intentioned and nationalist speech at the same time. Read during the inauguration of the president of the United States, it doesn’t seem as innocent anymore, nor as hopeful.

The show might have ended there, if not for the fact that Gorman was immediately hailed all over the world as a great poet, with not a whit of critical questioning visible in these praises. To dare to say that what she writes isn’t poetry from whatever angle you may look at it has become since, in the eyes of many, equal to racism, ignominy, the stigma of not being woke.

Is it really so difficult to understand that mistaking a pile of pretty words about social problems and history’s wounds that propose desirable solutions, trivialises and insults not only poetry, but the very victims of brutality and injustice, preventing us from seeing beyond our immediate circumstances? Poetry is not a matter of making yourself comfortable and being sentimental. It is rather all the opposite, as Paul Celan, for example, knew all too well. But imagine the reactions that reading a poem such as “Death Fugue” on a president’s inauguration would provoke. That would be the end of the party, right? What would the press talk about then, in that silence…

Biden’s inauguration was followed by the rather futile discussion about who had the right to translate the precocious star and who didn’t. I say futile because the debate has been around identity politics, driving even more attention toward Gorman, but it says nothing about literature. How could a mediocre text, which isn’t a poem in any way, spark such a fierce international debate? Looking toward the mirage of what is supposedly right and fair, the discussion seemed to be blind to that other form of power at play—the power of publicity and celebrity culture to the detriment of the literature that is purportedly being defended. It is a well-known fact that because of the polemic the translators Víctor Obiols (Cataluña) and Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (Netherlands) were left out of the project of translating The Hill We Climb, Obiols by force, Rijneveld standing down voluntarily. I won’t repeat here what has already been said from every possible perspective. I recommend John McWhorter’s piece published last March in It Bears Mentioning as one of the most sensible considerations I’ve read about this issue. However, I still haven’t found anywhere in this debate the fundamental question: how can we fight so much over a literary translation, when there is no literary work to translate?

All this is relevant because Amanda Gorman is the clearest recent example of what literature, and all the arts, mean for the new good consciences. It’s all about pushing up onto the podium self-appointed authors and artists that come from underrepresented minorities, paying no attention whatsoever to the merits of their work, to their talent or lack thereof; it’s all about strengthening political positions out of a supine ignorance about the nature of art.

If that were all, the problem would be serious enough, but the implications of these trends reach much farther.

The history of humanity is littered with atrocities, some of them perpetuated for centuries. I am not blind to the centenary oppression and dehumanisation of human groups at the hands of other humans, and the movements aiming at redressing all this that we are witnessing now, their rage even, aren’t only comprehensible, but necessary. The arrogance and ignorance in considering a culture, a race or gender superior to another has cost innumerable lives, destroyed many others, and has impoverished us all in abysmal ways. However, the ignominy of inequality and injustice cannot be solved through a simplification of history, encouraging a revanchist position, and far less by trampling on the foundations of some of the highest manifestations of, precisely, our humanity. A great poet’s merits can’t be assayed in terms of her race, her social status, her disabilities, or lack of them. They are assayed through her work. Nothing more. Of course, access to education and opportunities must be universal, and of course it hasn’t been. In that sense, I celebrate that the times are changing, and can only lament that they aren’t changing fast enough. But if what we’re defending is our common humanity, we cannot leave the dignity of what’s human outside the door.

Haven’t the most vociferous woke consciences, bent on turning art and literature’s scene into a social action parade, realised that their crusade is one of institutionalisation, coercion and persecutory spirit, all of them deadly weapons against artistic creation?  What is more, don’t they realise how patronising and, in fact, discriminatory this settling of scores really is? Which poet who has at least the slightest bit of dignity, let alone talent, will be happy with being published because she’s black or belongs to any other underrepresented race, or because she has some disability, and not because of the objective appreciation of the quality of her work? Shouldn’t she feel insulted instead?

Mexican poet Malva Flores expresses this superbly in her interview for Confabulario in July this year. She states that this attitude, reflection of a futile and lazy sense of guilt, “has perverted reality”, and I agree completely. Literature, in its creation as much as in the act of reading, is an experience of reality transformed by our inner being —our sensitivity, our intelligence and our imagination. That experience has never been, never will be, coercive, because we’re talking about human freedom, the freedom of thought, of speech and words, with their infinite paradoxes and mystery.

The problem of injustice, the horror of the atrocities that we humans are capable of, aren’t fixed through complying with statistics of representation in the arts. They aren’t fixed either by decree about which subjects are acceptable or not in literature, or through drawing up a diagram of available subjects to determine who has a right to write about them and who doesn’t. Which human creation would ever survive such restrictions? In order to create, and read, literature, the necessary resources are quite different. They start with the ability to perceive, appreciate and represent the subtlety and ambiguity that are inseparable from the experience of being alive; with being willing to discover, nurture and value a world of one’s own, unique and inimitable. Sharing that infinity of worlds through language is the true richness of literature, before which no manifesto can prevail.

The good consciences are relentlessly trying to tear off that richness and trample on its ruins in the name of “a better world”. In a perverse circle, their victories go back directly to the publishing market, that backs the appropriate themes and authors, whatever the literary quality of their work may be. Then these works are announced as “radical” books, magnificent, revolutionary and any other superlative, even if most are the repetitions of a mould, ceaselessly saturating a stagnant milieu where no discovery or subversion seem possible anymore.

It is just a trend, you may say. It will pass. Perhaps. But at what cost? When we see in Canada Asterix and Tintin comics being burnt, don’t we wonder what follows? For it is very clear to me that what comes next is literature, and that when the witch-hunt starts, there is no work that is not guilty in the eyes of the judges. It would be wise of us to think right now on what follows the burning of books, an action that is always atrocious. If the prohibition of music in Afghanistan with the Taliban’s return horrifies us, and with good reason, shouldn’t we be horrified too by the burning of comics, and the arbitrary moral rod with which the sanctimonious hordes try to measure books and authors?

There is in the language of this new moral an expression, used pejoratively, which troubles me deeply: “dead white men”. And woe betide those who dare to count many of these dead white men among their favourite authors! It is the scorn, or hatred, rather, with which they are mentioned what disturbs me. I understand of course where it comes from; needless to say I agree that the life and work of notable men and women of any race, living or dead, should be known and appreciated equally, and I of course know that that hasn’t been the case. But I do find sickening the cognitive leap from the acknowledgment of the injustice to hatred for what is no more than an abstract category. Has no one noticed that the dehumanising impulse that underlies such language is equal to the irrational hatred responsible for the many historical atrocities that we pretend to condemn? If these white men weren’t dead, and if the good consciences could, would they shoot them?, would they be all sent to a concentration camp to be negated, to be cancelled out, thus depriving humanity of an infinitude of particular, unique and inimitable worlds, which is always the objective of dehumanisation?

Let us imagine that concentration camp full of undesirables, dead white men degraded for the mere fact of being men, being white and being dead. There we would find, undoubtedly, William Shakespeare. Arthur Rimbaud, whom we already mentioned in the first part of these reflections, would be there too, not far from Paul Verlaine. James Joyce would be there, and Octavio Paz. And Pablo Neruda. Fyodor Dostoevsky. Marcel Proust. Seamus Heaney. Charles Dickens. Albert Camus. Hans Christian Andersen. William Blake. Francesco Petrarch. Friedrich Hölderlin. Mark Twain. Pier Paolo Pasolini. Charles Baudelaire. Salvador Elizondo. Dante. Eça de Queiroz. Günter Grass. Homer. Luis de Góngora. Laurence Sterne. Gérard de Nerval. Antonio Machado. Mircea Eliade. Lewis Carroll. Honoré de Balzac. Xavier Villaurrutia. T.S. Eliot. Geoffrey Chaucer. Anton Chekhov. Edgard Allan Poe. Gustav Meyrink. Molière. John Keats (and Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron). Alfonso Reyes. Andre Gide. Thomas Mann. Dylan Thomas. W.B. Yeats. Ernesto Sábato. Hermann Hesse. Rainer Maria Rilke. Henrik Ibsen. Arthur Machen. Henry James. Ludwig Tieck. Luis Cernuda. John Milton. William Faulkner. Vasko Popa. Eugène Ionesco. Constantine Cavafy. Czeslaw Milosz. Juan Ramón Jiménez. Jonathan Swift. Walt Whitman. Friedrich Schiller. Jorge Luis Borges. E.T.A. Hoffmann. Stéphan Mallarmé. Italo Calvino. Miguel de Cervantes! Césare Pavese. Victor Hugo. Vladimir Nabokov. Eliseo Diego. Tristan Tzara. Fernando Pessoa. August Strindberg. Virgil. Roberto Artl. Tomas Tranströmer. José Gorostiza. Stefan Zweig. Erasmo de Rotterdam. Bohumil Hrabal. Julio Cortázar. Boris Pasternak. Johann Wolfgang Goethe. And Paul Celan, of course, condemned again. Shall I go on?

Those, we are told, along with countless others, are the enemy. Are we supposed to imagine a world without them? To me, that world is unbearable.

Luckily, literature isn’t annihilated so easily. What has been written can’t be erased (or burnt) so easily, and there are authors of all genders and identities, of all races, who continue to be faithful to their quest and their voice. What is hostile is the environment, what we seem to consider now the “literary world”. We ought to resist, writing, reading. If we are to be truly radical, we cannot give in, handing over to others our conscience and discernment. And in the times we’re living, I do think that the most radical thing of all is beauty.

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