Monday, February 23, 2015

What I Did Over My Lost Weekend

One of the resolutions I once made and never kept was to read Finnegan's Wake, the notoriously obscure book by James Joyce.  I have read long passages from the book, if "read" means silently and mentally translating letters on a page into a mental sound track because discerning meaning from what I've read of it isn't what happened.  Finnegan's Wake is one of those rare iconic works of which a number of brave academic writers and critics have admitted suspecting to be either a hoax, meaningless or proof of mental incapacity.  In the end, I doubt I'll ever get the book or try to get through it.  I suspect it is a book written for one person to comprehend, James Joyce, and I wouldn't be surprised if he wasn't as at sea writing it as readers of it have been.   On the other hand, I got through Ulysses and liked it enough to go back on occasion and read passages, other than the longest "yes" in literature.

Another infamously hard book I've never read, mostly because I never heard of it till last week, was e.e. cumming's poetic-travel book Eimi: A Journey Through Soviet Russia which, through the nonmiracle of Google Books what I find there begins:

SHUT seems to be The Verb:gent of lower (" ça ne vous fait rien si je me déshabille?")whose baggage strangles a sickly neatness of deuxième coffin Shut the window(don't you think we'll have too much smoke?) and tactfully funeral director,upon glimpsing milord today drowsing after cakes & ale by mister mome,Shut our door(this morning I was throughly amazed:met,en route to breakfast,Fresh Air! - in a troisième common grave)

You might not be surprised to find that at the time it was published in 1933 it was commonly deemed to be unreadable.  By comparison the famous beginning of Finnegan's wake is relatively straight forward.

Riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

I mean,  you can identify a subject whereas I can't find the subject of the predicate in Cummings' passage.   I'm assuming that predicate is "strangles" in which case the direct object is "a sickly neatness of deuxième coffin"  though it's possible that Cummings was dispensing with those grammatical categories.   Though Joyce might have the chronological precedent if it's true he'd begun Finnegan's Wake in the late 1920s,  Cummings got Eimi into print six years earlier and lacking the romantic continental associations of Joyce he didn't have the advantage of that weird prejudice of the American scribbling class against Americans and the bias for of anything from across the Atlantic.   Even Cummings French didn't inoculate it against bad reviews.

The most informative and fun to read of the ones I did read was by his fellow poet and sometimes publisher,  Marianne Moore.  She proves in it that she can discern meaning from the words that I think would largely elude me.  Though she also identified another reason why the book not only met with incomprehension but hostility, it was one of the very early critiques of the Soviet Union in the early years of Stalin, accurately identifying it as a total disaster even as it was fashionable to pretend otherwise.

Out of "plain downright honest curiosity: that very greatest of all the virtues", a penguin-Dante visits Moscow—"panacea Negation haven of all (in life's name) Deathworshippers"—and has written a droll book. In his "enormous dream" about the proletarian fable, the main proficiency is the spry-slow suave quaintly-toddling selfsufficient imperviousness to weather.

Everything I've read about this says that when he went to see what all excitement about what was happening in the Communist paradise was all about, Cummings was entirely apolitical and extremely naive, a product of Harvard and the Boston area Unitarian - Brahmin - Harvard establishment in its decadent phase, the class who had, in its most notable political act,  railroaded and electrocuted Sacco and Vanzetti four years earlier.  Though Cummings Greenwich Village life and career was a rebellion against the personal confines of that milieu, I don't think he was ever anything like a real opponent of it in any kind of moral sense.  From what I've read about his horrified reaction to seeing the Soviet Union was to move to the political far-right, a Republican, an opponent of FDR and the New Deal and, eventually, a supporter of Joseph McCarthy, though it's hard to discern, online.  While wrong, domestically, in the over-reaction that was typical of the anti-communists and Republicans here, he was far more right about the Soviet Union than was fashionable.  He wrote one of the angrier poems about the Soviet crackdown in Hungary in 1956*.

If I had time to do the background I'd look and compare the more informed reaction of Max Eastman to later events in the Soviet Union which led him to the far right, in a similar kind of over-reaction.  Interestingly, one of Max Eastman's obcessions was in proving that Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty of the murder they were convicted of,  though I don't know how anyone can possibly make anything out of the morass of claims after the fact about the case.  Though one thing is clear, the judge, Webster Thayer, was so obviously and publicly biased, his decisions during the case, in court and outside of it, is a guarantee that the trial was invalid and it couldn't possibly have yielded a reliable verdict.  The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, as well, were guilty of upholding the interests in killing Sacco and Vanzetti as well as protecting the members of the establishment from the justified accusation of its committing a clear injustice in the case.  And, considering the various members of committees, including the presidents of Harvard and MIT, Abbott Lawrence Lowell and Samuel Wesley Stratton, the entire Harvard - Ivy - WASP establishment had a deeply embedded and clear interest in upholding the actions of that establishment, then and up till today.  Though it's the American right that has largely taken up that cause.  And I'm not at all convinced that the two were innocent, just that the trial was clearly illegitimate.  Both were advocates of the insanely immoral and politically disastrous anarchist cult of "propaganda of the deed" which would have advocated and justified exactly the kind of act they were convicted of committing.  Threats of revenge of that kind were issued from them and their colleagues in the aftermath of them being railroaded, nothing that would have made their defense by responsible people any easier.


One of the things I've thought about in reading through all of this stuff as I've been laid up with sciatica has been the relationship of modernism in the arts and literature with the political right,  including fascism, something which I'm more and more convinced isn't a mere coincidence but a necessary consequence of the rejection of morality.   I think, also, that it's not unrelated to the fact that the materialist left of that time and today will justify acts as terrible as those of the far right and, even among the very best, muddle their thinking and actions.  What Marianne Moore identified as Cummings conclusions about why Stalinism was bad was just that kind of thing

Yes, "the tragedy of life always hasn't been and . . . isn't that some people are poor and others rich, some hungry and others not hungry, some weak and others strong. The tragedy is and always will be that most people are unable to express themselves."

Which is a self-absorbed modernist idea that is quite compatible with fascism and even with American Republicanism, assuming the modernist has an elite status or one that can be attached to an elite, why so many affluent modernists were able to admire fascism if not adopt it, themselves, leaving the warrioring and toiling and struggling to others as they enjoyed the life they wouldn't be deprived of by it.  Ezra Pound was another of those who found Eimi congenial, even as others in the literary and publishing establishment were angered by its criticism of the Soviet Union which was in vogue in those circles.   Cummings had trouble getting published in the years after the book came out,  a sort of leftist blacklisting which might be interesting to consider as the baggage of the 20th century can be looked at more for what we can learn from it than as an aspect of current struggle.   Needless to say, if those literary and publishing lights were living under the Soviet government they championed instead of the corrupt American capitalism of the Hoover years, they might have found their style a bit cramped as well.  At least the naive and rather foolish Cummings saw that much of it.

Though in some cases, when the leftist holds some values higher than style and their own, personal liberty and privilege, they can overcome that.  I wish I could go into more detail, and might, but this piece is getting to be very long and complicated as it is and I'm going to start sounding like Eimi if I don't conclude it.

But, reading about this, I remembered a piece that I. F. Stone wrote The Legacy of Stalin, **a hard hitting critique of Stalin and the Soviet Union which lost him about 400 subscribers to his Weekly.   No doubt those 400, stalwart opponents of blacklists, depending.  And Stone would have been able to anticipate that significant loss to his income in a period when $2,000 was real money to someone in his position.

Since I. F. Stone is one of my enduring heroes, though one who made some enormous mistakes in his career and who I think was wrong about some extremely important things, I was fascinated by his piece which was written as a result of his trip to the Soviet Union.  Stone published several pieces about that trip in the spring of 1956, well before the attempted Hungarian revolt against Soviet domination and the brutal suppression of that in the fall.  Well before that event that made many leftists a "no more since Hungary" communist, Stone told the truth about what he saw with far more sophistication and insight than the naive Cummings did - though Cummings told the truth even as the younger Stone was still buying the propaganda.    In the piece he committed heresy against the prevailing leftist establishment by noting the crimes and lies of the communists in the Soviet Union, pointing out that they weren't aberrations but the result of Marxism.

In that piece I think I see Stone liberating himself from the confines of the official left in order to tell the truth about something he saw, first hand.  I think his decades as a journalist REPORTER prepared him to come out of that encounter better than the Harvard literary guy did, though you have to admit he wasn't willing to buy a convenient lie that would have probably gotten Cummings farther in American belles-lettres than he got by telling the truth, however opaquely.  I suspect if I. F. Stone hadn't been a totally independent journalist, his own boss at what was the greatest and earliest blog, he'd have found it harder to tell the truth as freely as he did.  I doubt he'd have gotten it published in a leftist magazine of the left published by someone else in 1956 or in the 1930s.

I will probably be writing more about these things when I've had more time to read more and think about them.

a monstering horror swallows
this unworld me by you
as the god of our fathers' father bows
to a which that walks like a who

but the voice-with-a-smile of democracy
announces night & day
"all poor little peoples that want to be free
just trust in the u s a"

suddenly uprose hungary
and she gave a terrible cry
"no slave's unlife shall murder me
for i will freely die"

she cried so high thermopylae
heard her and marathon
and all prehuman history
and finally The UN

"be quiet little hungary
and do as you are bid
a good kind bear is angary
we fear for the quo pro quid"

uncle sam shrugs his pretty
pink shoulders you know how
and he twitches a liberal titty
and lisps "i'm busy right now"

so rah-rah-rah democracy
let's all be as thankful as hell
and bury the statue of liberty
(because it begins to smell)

Just what he expected the United States to do about it wasn't clear.   The prospect of World War III with atomic and nuclear weapons pretty much ruled out any military response.  Not to mention that the United States and Europe were still paying for the enormous effort of the last war that had proven to be such an opportunity for the Soviet Union, in the end.

**  You can find the piece and many others in this memorial book  generously provided online by the official I. F. Stone website.  Stone was one of the giants of journalism of any kind and one of the greatest and most admirable of leftists, though I would certainly not endorse everything he said or thought.  For example, his reaction to the early months of FDR's administration was similar to Cummings, including accusations that Roosevelt was trying to establish himself as a fascist ruler, parroting the lines of the Communist Party's perennial presidential candidate William Foster, which was bizarre, in itself, because at the time Stone was a member of the Trotskyite Socialist Party, not the Stalinist Communist Party.  The four months when Stone flirted with Communism as "Abelard Stone" written about at the last link is fascinating in that it, as the entire muddled and sordid history of American communism-socialism-anarchism, was as damaging to the American left as anything the capitalist establishment did to it.  While there's little question as to which side produced more heroes and the right which produced more villains, both sides are most useful to us now as examples of what not to do than as icons to emulate.  There were others on the left who avoided those materialist cults who are far more useful in that regard.

Update:  The charge that I. F. Stone was a Soviet Agent, other than being ridiculous for the content of what Stone wrote in the period when he had any influence to attract spies, is discredited by the nature of the  sources of the accusation.

Update 2:  I just noticed that in 1956 the yearly subscription price for Stone's Weekly was $4 and not 5 as it was later, which would make the loss of 400 subscribers still significant in 1956 incomes and dollars.

No comments:

Post a Comment