restricted access News of the Culture or News of the Universe? (1988)
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News ofthe Culture or News ofthe Universe? My subject is the state of American culture viewed within the larger context of Western culture. My method will be to weave a concatenation of voices together with the strands of five major themes that characterize for me the present, allpervasive cultural and societal atmosphere blanketing America and the West, an atmosphere that has produced in the arts particularly-but not limited to the arts-qualities and characteristics fascinating and appealing to some but repellent and disturbing to others. These voices-aside from my own, which will come in the form of entries from my journal-are those of composers, poets, painters, sculptors, writers, critics , and journalists who have said something I feel illuminates some aspect of the cultural scene and, in most cases, resonates with my own view of things. By letting these voices speak in their own way I hope the picture I have in mind will begin to emerge and take shape around the follOWing major themes: - the loss of psychic and intellectual immunity to Bad Art, best characterized by calling it cultural AIDS; - the century-long slide into vulgarity, tawdriness, and sleaziness-qualities that have turned America into what I think of at times as the Land of Entertainment, other times as the Disneyland of Culture; - the detritus of modernism and postmodernism compounded of the loss of standards and criteria of taste and judgment, the constant revision and redefinition of what constitutes art, and the resulting pluralism and ambiguities of relativism; - the loss of innocence accompanied by the corrosion and corruption of human values; and - the loss ofseriousness and the riseofsentimentalityand kitsch initsplace. I begin with the opening lines of Robinson Jeffers's poem "Shine, Perishing Republic ," which he wrote sometime between 1917 or 1918 and 1925: While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire, And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens, 166 THE AESTHETICS OF SURVNAL I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth. Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother. You make haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains : shine, perishing republic.! In his introduction to the volume of poetry that established his reputation as a major American poet, Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems, from which Ihavejust quoted, Jeffers recounts a crucial experience in his inner life as poet. He refers to "a bitter meditation" that took place while walking in the woods not far from his home in Carmel, California. He was, as he says, "still quite young at 27" and still uncertain about the value of his work and the direction it should take. His "bitter meditation" was on the problem of modernism, which was then still in its heroic stage-urgent, expanding, gathering energy in all directions, and unrelentingly on the march. The year was 1914. I shall let Jeffers speak: This originality, without which a writer of verses is only a verse-writer, is there any way to attain it? The more advanced contemporary poets were attaining it by going farther and farther along the way that perhaps Mallarme 's aging dream had shown them, divorcing poetry from reason and ideas, bringing it nearer to music, finally to astonish the world with what would look like pure nonsense and would be pure poetry. No doubt these lucky writers were imitating each other, instead of imitating Shelley and Milton as I had done.... But now, as I smelled the wild honey ... and meditated the direction of modern poetry, my discouragement blackened . It seemed to me that Mallarme and his followers, renouncing intelligibility in order to concentrate the music of poetry, had turned off the road into a narrowing lane. Their successors could only make further renunciations ; ideas had gone, now meter had gone, imagery would have to go; then recognizable emotions would have to go; perhaps at last even words might have to go or give up their meaning, nothing be left but musical syllables. Every advance required the elimination of some aspect of reality, and what could it profit me to know the direction of modern poetry if I did not like the direction? It was too much like putting out your eyes to cultivate the sense of hearing, or...


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