Giotto's Virtues and Vices
52 Authors: Week 16 - Madeleine L'Engle

"Notoriously dismal"

James Dickey (poet, 1923-1997, and author of the novel Deliverance): "The history of poets pronouncing on public issues is notoriously dismal."

Dickey is quoted by Neo-neocon in a post on the topic of poets, celebrities, and politics. I agree entirely with Dickey, and it's slightly painful to say so, because I've always been inclined to credit artists with some sort of special insight into cultural and political affairs, and decades of exposure to demonstrated idiocy have not completely rid me of the impulse. Besides, I'm an occasional poet and constant reader given to making my own quite definite political statements, which of course I believe to be more insightful than most.

And if it's mistaken with respect to poets, who generally are (or were?) at least men of letters capable of reflection, it's completely off the wall with respect to celebrities, entertainers, and in general those involved in the performing arts. I think the latter are not only, as Dickey says, no more qualified than anyone else to make political pronouncements, but perhaps less, because they tend to see everything as an occasion for dramatic passion.

The elevation of artists and intellectuals to some sort of prophetic status in a spurious religion seems pretty clearly related to the decline of Christianity's role in our culture. Neo-neocon focuses on Shelley, who was among the first artists to assume this status. I credit myself with having disliked Shelley as a personality almost as soon as I knew anything about him. He seems now an early entrant in what has become a long line of radicals of privileged background who preach universal benevolence and tear an unrepentantly destructive path through life. I left this comment at Neo's:

Looking back now, it occurs to me that my early dislike of Shelley presaged my conservative cultural and political turn.

For me, Shelley’s most telling legacy was a remark made by Mary Shelley years after the tumult and the shouting had died. The person who claimed to have heard it relayed it to Matthew Arnold, who preserved it. Mrs. Shelley was looking for a suitable school for her son and asked the advice of a friend, who said “Oh, send him somewhere where they will teach him to think for himself.” Mrs. Shelley answered, “Teach him to think for himself? Oh, my God, teach him rather to think like other people!”

It also strikes me as the legacy of many revolutionary movements, such as the one of the 1960s.

The story about Mrs. Shelley is found in The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, a wonderful book.


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"I think the latter are not only, as Dickey says, no more qualified than anyone else to make political pronouncements, but perhaps less, because they tend to see everything as an occasion for dramatic passion."

Stop me if you've heard this before. My firm opinion is that actors/entertainers ought never be permitted to open their mouths in public without a script.

"The story about Mrs. Shelley is found in The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, a wonderful book."

Sounds good.

I wouldn't go so far as not permitted. But as a rule not listened to.

I've had the book for decades and have yet to read every anecdote in it. I pick it up now and then and find some great little bit and think "I really ought to do a bloc post about this book."

Well, as much as I've said it's my "firm opinion" it is slightly tongue-in-cheek!

My favourite thing, when reading celebrity moral pronouncements is to recall the title of an article from a few years back:

"When Shrimps Learn To Whistle: Elton John as Cultural Philosopher."

Two comments unrelated to each other, but both related to this post: I recall my disappointment in 2001 after 911 when the then U.S. poet laureate, Billy Collins, was asked to write a poem about that tragic event and responded that he could not - it was too big (other poets, however were able to speak to the tragedy - but if one accepts the title of poet laureate, that implies some responsibility to speak to and for the country, especially in times of great joy or great sorrow).

The other comment has to do with celebrities speaking on public issues. The late James Garner, whom I greatly admire, made your point precisely when he said that he did not like being expected to comment on political or social issues when he had no more authority to speak than anyone else on the street, but because he was a celebrity people somehow thought his views would be more valid. I am paraphrasing, of course, from memory, but that was the gist of a comment I heard him make during an interview.

Now see, that would make me more willing to hear what he had to say.


When we read the Odyssey with Professor Louise Cowan there's a bit at the end where there's a singing/harper guy in Odysseus' house back on Ithaca, and he's singing and harping for the Suitors and then after Odysseus drives them out he's still standing in the corner, singing and harping for Odysseus. Professor Cowan said that that means 'the poet has no political responsibility'.

That's a strong view, but I do agree with it. She was thinking of old arguments, from her youth, when Ezra Pound was refused some award because he had supported Mussolini during the War. She felt that this did not reflect on his poetry.

That's a strong view, but I think one can take it so long as one also things that the poet should not *take* any political responsibility. He should not generally take sides politically and he should not be taken seriously when he does take sides politically. The political sides the poet takes are not to be taken seriously.

Crimson flames tied through my ears and all that, folks.

Maybe I'm simply a knuckle-dragger, but I have a very hard time separating the beliefs and actions of artists from their work. With Ezra Pound, for instance, it became impossible for me to read his poetry after I read about his radio broadcasts from Italy during World War II. Here's an excerpt from one given in 1943:

You [America] have got to learn a little, at least a little about the history of your allies. About Jew-ruin'd England. About the wreckage of France, wrecked under yidd control. Lousy with kikes. Blum, Zay, and the rest of 'em pushed France into war, when it was dead certain France would get beaten. Preparing ANOTHER. Oh, yes. ANOTHER ten or twenty years war between the U.S. and Slavic Russia to start just as soon as this one shows signs of relaxin'. Don't think the kike WANTS to stop wars as long as nonkikes will go on killin' and drowning each other, in order to provide dividends for loan capital. And SOME capital. A part of loan capital is, mebbe you have heard this before, some part of loan capital IS really in chewish hands. Mebbe you haven't yet heard that. And some of the American dollars that went for gold, went OUT of America to buy gold, well some of that went out to KIKERY. And Heinrick ben Sloman, ben Soloman, ben Isaac, ben Morgenthau, son of his father, was the sheeny that sent it right out.

Heh. Perfect Dylan application.

I agree with Dr. Cowan in general, though I'm not sure where I would have come down in Pound's case. I wouldn't have said "let's not read him anymore," but if some of the stuff he did and said was as odious as has been reported, I might not have said "let's give him this award," either.

Louise, that title was so intriguing that I had to go find the article: here.

When someone says, as people not infrequently people do, that "throughout history organized religion has been the cause of most wars" or something similar, you know he doesn't have any idea what he's talking about.

I cross-posted with Marianne.

Me, too, Janet. And Charles, I hadn't thought about it but I think you're right about the laureate. I certainly don't blame Collins for not wanting to do it, but it's, like, in the job description.

Funny you mention James Garner: I was talking to a friend about The Rockford Files the other day--neither of us had watched it more than a time or two back in its day, but both have recently heard good things about it and were planning to take a look at it.

I agree with Prof Cowan but never liked Pound much anyway. What we see in Marianne's quotation is not really political stupidity. Looks kinda nutz and evil.

You're right, Grumphy, it is nutz and evil, but not quite as bad as having Mexican food at an interglactic party.


Well I'm glad you checked out the article. :)

"When someone says, as people not infrequently people do, that "throughout history organized religion has been the cause of most wars" or something similar, you know he doesn't have any idea what he's talking about."

Yes. It seems to me that since most human beings have been religious in most times and places that any war could be described as "religious" even though it were merely a matter of politics etc.

"Now see, that would make me more willing to hear what he had to say."

Right, because there's nothing like a little bit of humility.

I feel another Giotto painting coming on...

"You're right, Grumphy, it is nutz and evil, but not quite as bad as having Mexican food at an interglactic party."

Right. I feeeeeeel that a new bench mark has been set.


"nutz"--I've never read a whole lot about Pound's life, but if I'm not mistaken he was found to be insane in the ordinary everyday and clinical sense of the term when he was arrested by the Allies at the end of the war.

I think there's some question about whether Pound was actually certifiably "nutz" or whether it was an act. This 1981 article mentions two books that came out after official documents about his case became available under the Freedom of Information Act, and says this about it:

Pound himself chose to be regarded as irrational, and put on a good ''act'' for psychiatrists so that he would not be imprisoned, the historian [author of one of the books] said. Professor Kutler said that Pound, whom he described as an American Fascist, anti-Semite and traitor - with the help of a sympathetic hospital superintendent at St. Elizabeth's - ''fooled'' Government officials who wanted to prosecute him for aiding the enemy in wartime.

I think Pound and his prize was some kind of conservative cause celebre back in the day, and Prof Cowan was reflecting Allen Tate's view. They could have been wrong about that. But I still agree with their basic principle, that the side a poet takes in politics is not to be taken seriously by himself or by others. This is different, Marianne, from separating the artist and the man - or it's not the same. Separating the poet and his politics is not identical to separating the poet and his personal moral choices.

Now, when it comes to supporting the Nazis - you will see this is cheating, but I don't think that's a political choice. After the Night of the Long Knives, the National Socialists in Germany were simply gangsters. They were off the charts. A political decision by definition (in my books) is some kind of effort to seek the common good - whether a failed one or a successful one. The Nazis had left politics by 1936, if they were ever in it at all.

It would be an evil personal choice to support Mussolini during WWII. In the 1920s or early 1930s I am not so sure, but certainly by the late 1930s it would be so. In the earlier 1930s Mussolini could have been just a 'hard man general'. Various factors led him into an alliance with Hitler which he may have wanted to avoid, earlier on (I was moved toward this conclusion by reading Dietrich von Hildebrnd's Memoir of life in Austria in the early 1930s - it seems as if Mussolini really wanted to help Dollfuss in his effort to avoid 'Anschluss' with Germany.

Here I am throwing in a few guesses about Pound. In the 1920s he was a typical 'Action Francaise' conservative of the time. Remember that at that time TS Eliot described himself as a supporter of Action Francaise and of Maurras. But Eliot lived in a saner place, England. Pound lived in Italy, ruled by Mussolini by 1922. And he gradually just got more and more rigid in his political opinions, continuing to hold them in the time when it had become personally morally evil to do so.

I recall there are disputed opinions about whether he was 'mad' or not. If you know any crazy people, you know that it's not always easy to say. They can be totally functional, and yet there's a streak that *goes all the way down* which is absolutely out of touch with reality. And it was Eliot was who said that we 'cannot bear very much reality'. Crazy people cannot bear reality at all.

This is tentative, like everything else I've said about this, because what little I've read about it was a long time ago. But I believe there was a genuine disagreement about whether Pound was faking, and that Eliot visited him and believed he was not.

I agree, I've read different reports on that story. A certain kind of crankiness can turn into real insanity if you keep 'doing that voice' for too long

"I recall there are disputed opinions about whether he was 'mad' or not. If you know any crazy people, you know that it's not always easy to say."

Yes. I was just about to say something very like this.

It's a bit like being in a room that is somewhere in between a normal room and the objective room. Things seem quite normal and then you notice progressively more things are out of whack.

Louise 'the objective room' is one of CS Lewis' greatest inventions

That's true.


When I read about it at 20, it seemed far-fetched. I miss those days.


I think you're right, Grumpy.

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