Monday, August 21, 2017

Sherman Alexie has a Hymn that ... exists. Some thoughts about the oxymoronic nature of atheistic "grace" and a "sacred" collective of humans known for what they oppose

Even someone who didn't vote for Trump and regards him as a propagandist populist agitator of a depressingly predictable sort can, nonetheless, regard a recently published poem by Sherman Alexie as literary tripe.  To be sure, if you haven't read the poem then you should be able to read it over here.

Last time we looked at stuff to do with a poem and Sherman Alexie was a couple of years ago when there was a controversy involving a white author passing himself as Asian so as to have better odds of having a poem published, which decision was made by Alexie.
Particularly memorable was Alexie's comments:

Rule #9: I don't want to fill the damn book with poetry professors. I really want to choose some poets who work outside of academia. But I also don't want to bias myself against any poems because they happen to be written by poetry professors, so I will not read any biographies or contributor notes about any poets.
So, okay, as a result of these rules, what did I do with Best American Poetry 2015?
        Approximately 60% of the poets are female.
        Approximately 40% of the poets are people of color.
        Approximately 20% of the poems employ strong to moderate formal elements.
        Approximately 15% of the poems were first published on the Internet.
        Approximately 99% of the poets are professors.

At the risk of just straight up making Alexie's poetic career a class issue rather than a race issue, that's stuff to keep in mind about the nature of his consumption and production.  Alexie's work can be considered, let's just be willing to stoke a fire here, flamboyantly middle-brow.  Middle-brow isn't even bad a lot of the time but the thing is that I think Alexie is one of the best short-story writers I've read in the last twenty years while his poetry is considerably less amazing even at its best.  That poem he wrote that directly addresses Trump is, unfortunately, the sort of blundering, bloated bloviating doggerel that satisfies those college-educated sorts who view both Trump and any and all who may have voted for Trump with contempt.  My intense dislike of Trump and disagreement with Trump voters doesn't need to be rehearsed much.  I'm not going to tell my black friend who cheerfully voted for Trump that he somehow shouldn't have because he told me exactly why he did vote for Trump and it's not something to just rehearse at length here at a blog.

Alexie's poem is a piece of junk, the sort of shrill sanctimonious self-congratulatory rant you might expect from an egotistical teenage boy submitting an ostensibly powerful poetic statement to a high school literary magazine.  Coming from a celebrated author it seems shabby and smug--we might want to ask whether writing a poem that even names and addresses Trump isn't giving him a credit he might not entirely deserve.  This could be okay if we were talking about Stevie Wonder writing songs against Richard Nixon but Alexie's poem is more like Stevie Wonder lyrics stripped of every musical possibility.

It's not impossible to imagine this ...

I am one more citizen marching against hatred.
Alone, we are defenseless. Collected, we are sacred.

in a Stevie Wonder lyric, for instance.  But the question of why a collective would be sacred to someone who confesses to atheism seems patently absurd on its face and the more sincerely the bromide is meant to be and the more seriously it is meant to be taken the more absurd it becomes. 

Something else stuck out:

I'm an atheist who believes in grace if not in God.
I'm a humanist who thinks that we’re all not
Humane enough.  ...
While the poem is, overall, basically too junky to discuss in much detail that's an interesting claim.  Now decades ago Alexie gave an interview where he claimed to be Spokane Indian Catholic.  Maybe he still is, maybe he's an atheist now.  In any event, the sincerity of Alexie's belief or unbelief shouldn't automatically matter for the poem in question.  There's a question that can be asked regardless of sincerity or intent about the nature of the rhetorical flourish. Why an atheist should believe in grace would be the sort of thing that might be a fascinating question to answer rather than merely assert.   In a poem that explicitly addresses Trump and "hate" in pretty generic terms the possible answers to this question seem more open-ended than the poem and the poet might want them to be.  If the axiom to show rather than tell were the measure of a poem this poem is all telling rather than showing; and if art is thought to constitute asking questions rather than making statements then Alexie's poem isn't even really art in the end. 

And if brevity is truly the soul of wit this recent poem by Alexie is witless.  Comparing Trump to a caveman is as witty as British satirical cartoonists depicting George W. Bush as a chimpanzee.  The process of dehumanizing hasn't changed, Alexie has just opted to regard Trump as someone from the proverbial Stone Age.  A more humane humanist might even be able to get some dim idea of why somebody might have voted for Trump that has something to do with a more clearly defined hate than a nebulous and presumed white supremacist ideology.  I don't happen to agree with my black friend who cheerfully voted for Trump but I heard him out about his distrust of the banking regime we have and how the Clintons seem too cozy with it, or how he said that if Sanders had actually gotten the nomination he would have totally won.  It's impossible to know if Sherman Alexie really can be humane enough to imagine that not everyone who voted for someone he wishes weren't in office did so because of a particular ideology. 

Now the question of what "grace" is to an atheist is a question, indeed.  Does Alexie mean poise or elegance?  No, probably not. What is probably meant in a pandering and rambling poem is something vaguely like a religious concept of grace that conventionally means unmerited favor.

There could be a problem with believing in unmerited favor in strictly materialistic and atheistic terms.  In more traditional Marxist polemics wouldn't these people be considered ruling classes?  In our particular moment of combating hate, couldn't the simplest way to describe extravagant and unmerited favor be what many college students and professors have called it, white privilege?  After all, that's what "grace" can be in a material world where some people have benefited from generations of unmerited favor.  Does Sherman Alexie believe in that kind of grace?

There's no reason to think he does but any group can decide that though individually they are helpess that together they are sacred.  White supremacists view their collectivity as sacred, too, don't they?  Why should Sherman Alexie's numinous notion of the sacred collective mean anything as an opposition to the self-selected sacred community of white nationalists as they regard themselves?  If the community against hate is sacred then the atheist in Alexie's poem has just lapsed back into "our god is more holy and righteous than your god" and has done so apparently without the slightest trace of self-awareness or irony.  The poem is an ostentatious exercise in bad faith if Alexie is really an atheist, because the poem is a shambolic and cynical appropriation of religious ideals and idioms he doesn't believe in. There's some passage in one of the apostolic epistles about how there's a form of godliness that denies the power thereof ... .  

Hymns are, on the whole, far more concise and more memorable whether or not you agree with the religious dogmas articulated in those hymns.  All in all this Hymn was a long rambling hymn in praise of people who, as best can be discerned, simply didn't vote for Trump and are angry that white nationalists still exist.  Okay, then, amen. 

But if Alexie wants to sing the praise of those who aren't like him he could start with Trump voters and it looks from the spleen of the poem that he won't.   So the poet asserts that together "we" are sacred.  Big deal.  Even Nazis can do that. 

Without a plausible explanation as to why "we" are more sacred than "they" are the whole poem is a waste of time.  It will also fail because to the extent that an atheist traffics in religious imagery and themes the whole thing is self-attesting its bad faith.  Are we afraid of the virulent ideas of white supremacists and fascists gaining more public currency and access to institutional powers?  We have reason to be and yet ... can somebody answer the question as to what powers Trump has now that Obama didn't have a year ago? 

There's a problem in this poem, which is a problem of belief.  Alexie's poet tells us he's an atheist who believes in grace but not in god.  There's a reason this should be creepy to anything thinking reader.  If you believe in the "grace" but not in a god who could grant it then you're explicitly admitting to bad faith.  The scary thing is that the white nationalists most certainly mean it.  Alexie's atheist who believes in grace is automatically poetizing in bad faith as if he is in solidarity with a group of people who are against hate but on what basis does this mean anything?  As asked earlier, can't white supremacists regard their collective as sacred?  What counter-sacred does Alexie's poet have to appeal to?

That's the problem. That's not just a losing argument, to the extent that it's even an argument, it's an implicitly self-defeating argument.  There's nothing an atheist can appeal to as being sacred that won't need a defense of the sacred itself, and the idea that an atheist could regard something as sacred is paradoxical in a way that might call for a better poet than Sherman Alexie can possibly be.  He's basically blathered a poem in which he doesn't believe in gods but he believes in grace, even though we've considered the possibility here that "grace" in secular material and economic terms might be explicable as "white privilege".  White supremacists can believe in that kind of grace and they damned well want to hold on to it.  Appealing to the sum total of humanity as "we're better than this" seems to fly in the face of a history of humanity that suggests we're not, in fact, better than "this". 

Whatever Alexie hopes could possibly be "sacred" in his hymn to loving the stranger, it is parasitically dependent upon the ethical teaching inherent in ancient near eastern religions that extolled hospitality to strangers.  Alexie, who once identified as Spokane Indian Catholic when he did an interview with The Door decades ago, can't be so uneducated as to forget that loving the person you consider not only not your neighbor but your mortal enemy is just boiler-plate application of Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan.  Leveraging the ethical import of an ethical lesson preserved as the teaching of Christ as though it were something an atheist can invoke asks for something like an approximation that could have been given in the sprawling morass of the hymn but isn't. 

Alexie may still be regarded as one of the nation's great writers and poets, and if you were to stake that claim on his short stories I'd still say "yes, he's a brilliant short-story teller."  But if as a poet this recent poem is what he has to say at our current moment of crisis, then we might as well concede the poets have failed in the most miserable way possible.  If great poetry didn't stop Hitler from rising to power (and who in their right mind would have thought that it could?) then there's no way cut-rate boilerplate self-congratulatory doggerel is going to change things here and now, is there?

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