by Carlo Parcelli

The Washington Post Vs.
the 'Ineluctable Modality of the Visible'

   For decades my local newspaper, The Washington Post, and I have voiced our diametrically opposed positions vis a vis the nature and intent of U.S. foreign policy. The Post's stated position is that U.S. corporate and political policy is fundamentally benign and has the best interests of the people at heart in all the countries that are made subject to its tenets, contracts, dogmas and provisos. Since U.S. power is now globally ubiquitous, the entire world is affected in one degree or another by policies emanating from Washington after formulation in the board rooms of transnational corporations. My position is that the obvious fact of such ubiquitous power and control, expressed through market jihad and the genocidal mechanical methods of killing, whether by economic sanctions or military technology , points to a global empire, the maintenance of which requires incalculable and utterly intentional murderous and felonious behavior on the part of all departments of the U.S. government and in every corporate suite that has money in the game.

   For decades I have kept score, tallying the Washington Post's position in a column on the right and mine in a column on the left. As decades pass documents begin to emerge, participants tell their stories, forensic scientists present objective conclusions, suits are filed, economies collapse etc. and one is able to construct with considerable accuracy the true historical nature of events. It's then, when history has overwhelmed journalism, truth has overwhelmed self-interest, that I compare my position say on Chile, Argentina, Peru, Uruguay, Brazil, Indonesia, East Timor, Guatemala, Cuba, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Haiti, Venezuela, the Congo, Angola, Lebanon, Egypt, Namibia, Mozambique, Somalia, South Africa, Indo-china, the former Soviet Union, Italy, Australia, Bangladesh, et al, with that of the Washington Post, always with an eye to U.S. involvement. So far the tally stands at 346 correct historical interpretations for the "irresponsible" yet informed, conspiracy conscious, and seemingly clairvoyant radical poet, e.g. myself, and 0 for the well-financed, world renowned paper of record, the Washington Post, headquartered in the so-called most powerful city in the world. In other words, the Washington Post fails 100% of the time to accurately communicate events when they report on foreign policy issues where intelligence, military and/or economic violence and rapine are visited on other peoples by the U.S. Only after an amnesiac buffer of decades do they then entertain a few of the facts surrounding some of the murderous behavior of the government perpetrators 'hiding out' just blocks from their offices in Washington or now scattered in board rooms, think tanks, and university presidencies around the country.

   Getting it wrong as much as the Washington Post does means, of course, that from their perspective, they are getting it right. That is the Post covers up the murderous intent of U.S. foreign policy because it is that policy that allows them to maintain the levels of affluence and comfort they intend to enjoy in perpetuity. The rest of the world be damned. This also provides sanctions for the rationalist xenophobia that is the Post's core operative and conforming delusion. At the Post this fundamentalism is pervasive, unquestioned and unquestioning. And it is analogous to the Post's treatment of works of literature.

   In 1998, Modern Library published a list of the "100 Best Novels"-- a list of English language novels published in the 20th Century. Topping the list at Number One was James Joyce's Ulysses, a book which without caveat or qualification stands in the pantheon of world literature. Of course, Ulysses is not the greatest novel in English in the 20th Century Finnegans Wake is. Perhaps not enough members of the board of judges at Random House had read Finnegans Wake. Or, fearing a backlash and howls of elitism, the board safely relegated the Wake to Number 77 between less demanding literary monuments, e.g. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark and Kim by Rudyard Kipling. Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was ranked Number Three leaving only the Ur-Portrait Stephen Hero alone among Joyce's novels not to make the list.

   If the judges at Modern Library thought that the choice of Joyce's Ulysses was a natural and uncontroversial choice, they were proven wrong. The small percentage of the general public who reads novels was mortally offended by the choice of the "obscure" and "intentionally difficult" Mr. Joyce. Their reading tastes are considerably more narcissistic, self-serving, xenophobic, banal, twit-like and market controlled. Witness the Modern Library sponsored Reader's List wherein 217,520 readers voted for their favorite novels. Ayn Rand had 4 of the top ten nominees, and L. Ron Hubbard had 2 in the top ten, demonstrating that literature on the order of Joyce's novels may be a natural and non-overt antagonist to self-interest, consumption and capital. The miracle is not that Ulysses made it to Number 11 on the Reader's List, but that given the obvious schism in sensibilities between Hubbard and Rand and their admirers as opposed to 'Jaysus James' and his, that Joyce made the 'Reader's' list at all. Portrait of the Artist was Number 57 on the 'Reader's' List. Finnegans Wake blissfully floated above it all, light years beyond the simple-minded demands of self-pampering and its novelistic catechisms. (I am not treating obvious exceptions to my pronouncements above but do invite the reader to apply my assessments to other works and authors on both Modern Library Lists. Further, the limitations as well as the marketing intentions of such a list have been mentally noted by this author, and should be obvious to anyone who has lived under the yoke of capital for 8 or 9 nanoseconds.)

   As would be expected some of the most virulent attacks on Ulysses as the Number One novel in English for the 20 th Century came from the media.. The simple answer to this open hostility on the part of the pseudo-intellectual elite that comprises the media is the now discarded notion that there is something fundamentally antagonistic about a novel such as Ulysses that makes demands on the reader instead of stroking his commodified assumptions about himself. Novels should be more like T.V. e.g. Rand-like or Hubbard-like. Novels should serve the reader; not engage him. Besides when most of your daily input is utterly banal what's left but to be threatened by a work that challenges the reader with dialectic.

   But the media is too coy and/or cunning to step up to this legitimate line of reasoning. That would make them look like the anti-intellectual materialist fools that they are. No the media must couch their disappointment and outrage in terms that seem to reaffirm their superiority over the Modern Library judges and even Joyce himself. In short, their sub-text is that their protestations of the value of Joyce's Ulysses have more 'literary' merit than Joyce's work itself. On the face of it this sounds like a desperate enterprise, but it was the only path left to the media in their attempt to dislodge the anti-capital, anti-consumer bogey of the journey through one day, June 16, 1904, in Dublin by a young self-absorbed aesthete (with pretensions toward journalism), a generous and humane cuckolded Jew, and his fading, earthy and spontaneous wife.

   The hostility toward the choice of Joyce's Ulysses was no more evident than in the pages of my hometown newspaper, The Washington Post. Almost immediately David Streitfield and Jonathan Yardley waded in with their condemnations of the novel. According to them the book wasn't any good because they couldn't understand it. And being representative of what readers want in a book, presumably because they have a forum, it followed that Ulysses was overrated, admired only by undemocratic literary types who liked to lord it over the rest of the population who just didn't feel obligated to exert themselves on Joyce's behalf---thank you very much. The insecurity and desperation in the tone of their articles was palpable.

   Then there was Richard Cohen who in an op-ed piece suggested that his inability to understand Ulysses may be at least partially due to some unidentified personal deficiency. He insisted that he was not stupid, but couldn't get through Ulysses. One is reminded of Fredo in The Godfather Part II who, pleading with Michael for a greater role in the family business, blurts out, "I'm Smaaht." But, like Yardley and Streitfield, he felt he was among that intelligent elite that should not have their high state in the world threatened, and certainly not by a mere work of literature.

   Michael Dirda took a somewhat different tack. Dirda had read Ulysses and at some level understood it. But ultimately Ulysses was not Dirda's kind of novel. Dirda prefers simpering, more cloying work, with an inclination toward the British, and with a strong nod toward the imperialist tone that informs, say, the 11th Britannica and makes it such a hit among reactionaries, literary and otherwise. Dirda then proceeded to sell his own list to the tea and doily crowd that already makes up his readership.

   And Ulysses is still making the Post uncomfortable. In August 2001, over 2 years after Modern Library picked Ulysses as Numero Uno, the Post in all of its diffidence is still trying to come up with a convincing argument; one that will diminish Joyce and his work in the eyes of their readers and ensure that fewer and fewer readers will consider Joyce in the future. The most recent hack to attack Joyce at the Post is Tim Page. Tim's plan of action is to take the broad view and diminish all of modernism in a gassy 750 word article in the Post's Style section. (This section is variously known as the Stale or Stool Section to the newspapers readers, though 'Stool' could apply to the paper's entire content. If Bloom would have had the Post around, he wouldn't have reached for a racing sheet.) Page begins by backhandedly affirming his admiration of Joyce's work. But, a la Dirda, he then comes down in favor of what he calls the 'ease' of the Modern Librarys' best novels choice Number Two, The Great Gatsby.

   Tim wants to make the argument that somehow Gatsby is more fluid in its depiction of human exchange. When his article begins to founder, it seems apparent that he hasn't read Ulysses with much understanding. He states that the novel is cold and dispatches humanity in favor of modernist experimentation. But what could be more humane than Bloom's affection for Daedalus spurred by the loss of his own son. And Molly! My god, Molly! You can taste her. You can smell her; you can smell her bedcovers, her bedroom! And the change of language, tone, coloratura when Bloom averts his eyes from the young woman's shapely rump he is following down the sidewalk and makes a right turn into the chop house.

   Again one doubts Page has read Ulysses when he calls Gatsby an 'archetypal' novel whereas he considers Ulysses, because of its experimentation, simply a modernist 'period piece.' According to Page, experimentation in and of itself disqualifies Ulysses as a durable work of art. According to Tim, a novel that connects experience over millennia, Greek myth to 'modern' Dublin, is not archetypal while one that focuses on a commodified and ephemeral social elite is. What nonsense! And to really set open the lie, the nature of real jazz, the jazz that would in a few short years defy the commercial establishment isn't even in Fitzgerald's consciousness any more than it was in the consciousness of the characters of his novel. So when Bud Powell comes along later and rescues Rodgers and Hart from their own bathos, Powell like Joyce should be relegated to the modernist dustbin according to Tim Page. Just more cold experimentation according to the Tim Page's of the world.

   Further, Tim insists that He's not referring to "easiness"' when he's talking about his 'theory' of "ease." But, he then goes on to make other comparisons of artistic works; Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire compared to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring; and the poetry of Wallace Stevens compared to Philip Larkin. Tim comes down solidly in the Fitzgerald, Stravinsky, Larkin camp. Page seems to equate the 'accessibility' of these works as the quality that gives them an endurance beyond the immortality that Joyce, Schoenberg and Stevens can expect from the commodification commissars. The latter will fade because they make Tim work to understand them. This sounds like Tim's "ease" really is "easiness." It's simple-minded and biased. If you just accept that you are Tim Page when you are the reader or listener; if you simply accept the linguistic, aural and emotional assumptions that make up Tim Page then it 'stands to reason' that the Rite of Spring, The Great Gatsby and Philip Larkin's poetry are not only on a par with Joyce et al but superior. But the sampling is too narrow and the assumptions too broad. Never mind that Stravinsky's musical vocabulary in the Rite of Spring was based on a naive and chauvinistic 'anthropology' of the 'primitive', a chauvinism harmonious with commodification akin to Hollywood's perpetual commercial bigotries. What does this have to do with Tim Page, the universal man? Where's the audience for Schoenberg's Verklaerte Nacht's overwrought European orchestral harmony. That's right Tim, the listeners choose Richard Strauss, usually. But how many of them compared to pop music's latest confection? May the ghost of Ted Adorno hound you to the Sports Pages.

   Never mind that the emotion and sentiment that inform Larkin's verse has its foundations in a xenophobia, a hostility and fear of the 'other' that borders on the pathological. Not that the pathological in poets cannot be the driving force in their work, but it was the risk taking, the experimentation in form and content that distinguished the work of great 20th century authors. Those who did not take risks fall into the camp of the second ranks and below, the Larkins certainly, possibly Fitzgerald, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Stevens but never Joyce. Experiments, at least those with depth and conviction, made 20th century literature what it is. A resistance to this spirit, if not a resistance through an uncritical acceptance of the spirit of all the great works of the 20th century, suggests that literature, music and poetry should be held as lesser forms than the sciences, history, politics, economics etc. To defend Fitzgerald over Joyce, or Larkin over Stevens is to invite this diminished role for the arts. Stevens didn't overcome his prejudices in his poetry; he overwhelmed them with his ideas. Larkin, on the other hand, was a crabbed weasel whose conservatism reinforced his limitations as a discoverer. Often he seems primarily afraid of something in himself, some potential; the poet in denial who possesses a bit of craft. Do Dirda, Yardley or Page see themselves like that? Do they see Larkin's limited and limiting engagement as all that is attainable for them; that even Larkin is beyond them? An admission of this sort would go along way to resolving questions of literary as well as ethical value. Otherwise those of us who admire Joyce or Pound or Olson or Tolson or Zukofsky remain truly mystified by all of this journalistic flailing.

   Do we believe that the phenomenological world operates only at the level of addition and subtraction or does even our lay vocabulary begin with assumptions derived from 'the Calculus' and beyond? Why does our literature with its interests in the 'other', be it another culture, individual quasi -mathematical entity etc. have to be limited to the easily comprehended when it is so apparent how loaded and biased and insufficient that immediacy, that accessibility, usually is. This is why so many modernists of my generation identify with the dispossessed while the Washington Post remains openly hostile to the poor. Finnegans Wake just might be on the same hermeneutic level as string theory. Why squander that literary heritage?

   The only thing tangible about the Post's panic attacks over Ulysses are its biases. Though they are dismissive of the connection, the Post's hatred and fear of Ulysses is reflective of their support of corporate and institutional power and their hatred and fear of the poor. Their bias against Ulysses reflects their uncritical support for capital even as that capital dispossesses. This is why for all of their protestations institutions like the Post remain bigoted and racist. If as a reader of literature you are unwilling to meet the author halfway or more if necessary, where does that put you in relation to the world?