Friday, July 07, 2006

Literature without Roots

(I've sweated and slept alongside the straits of the Detroit River. For years I lived and worked near that dark waterway of the darkest of North American cities, so that the fast-rushing river still runs through my veins and my soul.)

I'm trying to figure out what's happening to establishment literature-- why, for instance, a promising new journal like n+1 is so intellectually sterile. Surely it's one piece of a larger process. Understanding it is close to impossible. I make the attempt regardless.

Why the stark difference between n+1 and a literary journal from the 1960's, Ted Solotaroff's New American Review, which wasn't monotone monochrome but an explosion of energy and color?

It's not just that the writers back then were better-- Norman Mailer, Ralph Ellison of "Cadillac Flambe," and company. It's that the writers back then, for all their intelligence and learning, had roots. Their subject was the ground they stood on: America; that diverse mad inferno of a country raging on all sides around them. The writers expressed their direct observation of the country while drinking from the living model of the Beats. The subject of the Beat masterpieces "Howl" and "On the Road" is America. They're a vast loud confused love-and-hate cultural expression of America. A visitor from another planet could ask, "What is America?"-- you would point him to that poem, that novel, and say, "There!"

The writers and editors of New American Review had roots. Of course. Culture without roots is an oxymoron; an impossibility.

Yet this is exactly the kind of literature one finds with n+1. It's as if in forty years the planet has undergone a fumigatory transformation so that we now live in a sterilized future of steel walls, omnipresent air-conditioning, and plastic capsules. Conversation between the floating pod people remains at a sanitized murmur.

Instead of hearing Motown's "Sound of Young America" blaring from the streets, or Chuck Berry, or Elvis Presley (in his voice the multi-cultural blending of all organic strands of American music as his person blended Scoth-Irish American-Indian African Jewish bloodlines), suddenly we're given a soundtrack of the techno-airless electronic notes of "Forbidden Planet." There are no streets: no life, no earth, no populace.

I can only guess that the four n+1 editors were placed into isolation booths during college. Talk about torture! These fellows were forced to read the mind-destroying convolutions of Marcuse Agamben Foucault Lacan Heidegger Derrida Habermas Jameson Cioran Lyotard Eagleton Baudrillard etc etc etc for eight years, until their eyes bled. Extreme sensory deprivation: Jerry Mander's worst nightmare. The person couldn't possibly come out of the experience sane and whole.

I have no idea really what these university isolation chambers are like. I'm speculating. I envision a series of brains in jars, labelled "Foucault"; "Heidegger"; and so on, the students connecting their own minds with the jars through electrical cables. This is the only plausible explantion for the depth of the brainwashing shown in the pages of n+1 through the non-stop name-dropping of approved intellectual icons; no original throughts anywhere to be found. They ingested all of it; lingusitic complexities layered upon complexities so that all truth is lost; everything said means itself and its opposite. One can call it profound or one can call it nonsense.

The n+1 editors left the most esteemed Temples of Academe, Harvard, Yale, Oxford, with hi-tech helmets fitted onto their heads; screens on every side filtering experience so the individual never directly senses the actual world. Between him and the world are intermediaries; green-lettered names scrolling on virtual-reality screens; "Adorno," "Agamben," and the like. (You can't see the helmets, but they're there.)

Any scattered glimpses of America in n+1 are accidental. There's more depiction of Armenia. American culture has vanished, been wiped out.

Solzhenitsyn, when discussing the Russian Empire, argued that the first victim of the Soviet system was Russia itself. The first victim of the multi-national conglomerate globalization of culture is America. This is true of American literature at its highest levels, which is being replaced by an "International Style" of lit as devoid of personality, of roots and place, as the blank International Style of architecture. n+1's sterile intellectualism is well fit for a conglomerate-based international empire. Am I being unfair? n+1 opposes empire in its pages while they behave and sound like members of an empire expanding across the planet. They belong to the world: the world belongs to them. Their own land isn't a specter in their heads. They've left it behind them.

More important than what they say is how they say it, and more, what's left unsaid, unfelt. How can they oppose empire when they embody it?

Deny us our authentic culture and you'll soon be denying other people's theirs.

The ULA is the real American literature of today. Our two legendary icons, Jack Saunders and Bill Blackolive, are American folk writers. In their words you'll find the rhythmns and experiences of America. This is our foundation-- the wellspring of cultural renewal. We hope to build on this to give the reader the voices of young America; America reborn. (We hope from our Canadian members also a sense of place, of the tangible Canadian nation I experienced while living across a narrow waterway from it for so long.)

(Upcoming: A Review of James Wood.)

No comments: