The Demise of Greatness

The handful of artists who finished the circle of life in the ’60’s were the last great artists–ever.  I’m thinking of Hemingway, Faulkner, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot and perhaps a handful more.  I think that Thomas Pynchon just made the cut.  In art, Picasso, Matisse, Jackson Pollock and a few others, lesser known.  And in music, Aaron Copeland is about it in the US, and in England Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughn Williams, and the Russian Stravinsky –there are a few others I have left out.  In their day, Hemingway and Eliot were about as big as one could get.  Now, both of them are being reconsidered in academic circles.  From being as great as one could get, they’re now not so great.  Hemingway was too macho and I don’t know what the problem is with Eliot, but he’s on his way out, if he’s not out altogether.  Adulation may be one indicator of greatness, and both Hemingway and Eliot had it.  But are we prepared to say that Falco is great due to his adulation in the ’80’s, or that Smash Mouth in the ’90’s, or who knows who today?

Now, in academic circles, advocacy issues are becoming criteria for import.  I do not say for greatness, because that very category is dissolving.  So, for example, Clara Schumann in  music, Mary Shelley in literature, and others add their names to the important due to revisionist gender concerns.  Other names are emerging from other advocacy issues.  But the real problem with greatness is due to contemporary critical theory.  Contemporary critical theory is deconstructing the whole notion of greatness itself.  The idea that art can be great is attacked also for advocacy reasons.  Greatness implies elitism, and today it is passe to be elite or to be an elitist.  I remember a student in a class I was taking at Harvard saying that our professor was being elitist for asking us to read Baudelaire in French.  I pointed out the irony that she was saying this in Harvard University.  A friend on mine in another grad school, who was deeply steeped in post-modern critical theory, said that everyone in every walk of life is an artist.  I didn’t know what he meant.  But one night when I was drinking a beer I suggested to him that I was being an artist, drinking beer.  I believe that it was then he told me that one day he would kill me.  We lost touch and he never made good on his remark.

Today in universities, pop culture is a bona fide discipline.  On a flight recently, the scholar sitting next to me gave me a feminist critique of Friday the 13th.  Even in the theological school in which I work, Jesus and pop culture is a course offered.  Pop culture is fun and all.  I have been known to watch the Police Academy movies.  But I wouldn’t dream of paying money to an academic institution in which they would teach me about it.  (I’m not saying that there are or have been courses on Police Academy in universities.)  And although I have been known to watch Police Academy, I would never put it on a par with Richard the Third.  But if there is no greatness, and if contemporary critical theory places all art on a level plain, what are we left with?  We are left with the demise of the great.  I don’t see our way to identifying a great poet today.  Remember Run DMC?  Did that band create today’s great poetry?  Please do not take me the wrong way.  The great philosopher/sociologist Eric Michael Dyson elicits much meaning from the lyrics of Jay Z.  But as he himself says, his class at Georgetown on Jay Z is not just hearing “dope lyrics.”  He uses Jay Z to shed light on pressing issues of race in American history.  But even Dyson is not making an aesthetic judgment on Jay Z as a poet.

In fact, I’m not sure that critics can make aesthetic  judgments today at all.  Sure, publishers make decisions on what material they want to publish.  And governments appoint poet-laureates.  Philosophy has reasoned itself out of existence, and Rorty wouldn’t accept an endowed chair in the University of Virginia philosophy department for that reason.  And now I believe that art has criticized itself out of existence.  I suspect that there is no longer criteria for deciding greatness in art.  No word “great” at all in the lexicon of language.  So the likes of Hemingway and Eliot may be the last of the great writers.  And even they are losing their standing in university estimates about who we ought to read.  Are we at the point where Marvel Comics are leading authors of our day?  Will the next generation compare Iron Man to Prince Hamlet?  If the next generation will even know who Hamlet is.

Criticism: Wallace Stevens Wins the Day

Wallace Stevens, I believe, is the progenitor of contemporary verse.  Maybe Mallarme, before Stevens.  Mallarme’s poetry “evokes” meaning, rather than stating it.  His “Prelude a l’apres-midi d-un faune,” probably his most well-known poem made even more immortal due to Debussy’s musical setting of it, is a model example of his style.  Even in English translation, one can discern the flavor of his French evocations.  I put Wallace Stevens in his lineage as Stevens, also, evokes and does not declare in his poetry.

Contemporaries of Stevens–Eliot and Frost–differ in their treatment of language.  They make declarative sentences and they make points.  While they both employ the modern “objective correlative,” the imagery they employ is to make a point, or argument.  Their sentences connect subjects with objects.  When Robert Frost writes, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” we know that Frost is using a New England stone wall to reflect on division between humans.  Wallace Stevens criticized Frost for this, saying, “The trouble with you, Robert, is that you write about–subjects.”  To which Frost replied, “The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you write about bric-a-brac.”

When one approaches a Stevens poem, one doesn’t ask what Stevens is writing about.  He doesn’t write about subjects.  He writes “about” language and word juxtapositions.  Some say he writes about human subjectivity or the creative process.  But I won’t even give him that.  His word situations defy meaning.  One enjoys the words themselves, not what he’s talking “about.”  Contemporary verse follows the style of Stevens.  He doesn’t write about subjects, but I’ll not say it’s bric-a-brac.

My complaint about Stevens and much contemporary poetry is I find it wanting in depth.  Having fun with words is fun, as far as it goes, but ultimately one wants to come away from a poem with more than a bare feeling evoked by words.  Nietzsche turned philosophy into literature.  Though his literary works are as vapid as Stevens at his worst.  Frost is a true embodiment of Emerson’s philosophical poet.  Frost was a philosopher, maybe even a mystic (he said he was).  And Frost made philosophy in verse.  I fear that contemporary styles of poetry are but a fad.  Everybody is writing in the school of Stevens, just like a generation ago everybody was writing sestinas because Pound reintroduced them into modern poetry.  What will last into time we cannot say today.  But we can say that for today, Stevens wins the day.

 

A LITANY

The Keepers of intellectual trends hold apparent power

And to make it, some are slaves to the Keepers’ fashion

I am a free man to my own muse

I am a priest who intones the litany:

 

Blake was a free genius, self-published,

And died in literary obscurity

Until T. S. Eliot gave him a name

Shelley knew, “Nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure”

Whom all English students now study

Though F. Scott knew fame and wealth,

Gatsby didn’t even sell out its first printing

And F. Scott never knew the book as all high school students do

They suppressed Hemingway’s Pulitzer

They fiercely debated whether Frost were a poet, Wyeth a painter

The Impressionists showed in the Exhibition of Rejects

And Moreau, in the National Paris Salon

Pollock had his 10 years, before his suicide

Mozart died unknown, unsung

 

We can’t give our contentment to the Keepers

It rests in the beauty of our art manifesting,

In the pen of the writer alone with paper or laptop screen,

And a  happy finished project

In the living-room, study, or dorm room

With, or without, the blessing of the Keepers