“And joy suddenly stirred in his soul, and he even stopped for a minute to take breath. “The past,” he thought, “is linked with the present by an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of another.” And it seemed to him that he had just seen both ends of that chain; that when he touched one end the other quivered.”
— Anton Chekov
— The Student
It’s not as if stupidity or ignorance (two different qualities and a distinction of no small importance) is a new development.
Writing some years ago, the historian Lucien Febvre, in his magisterial reconstruction of the late Middle Ages, noted that while the first caveman to rub two sticks together to start a fire was undoubtedly a genius, that doesn’t mean they were responsible for the electric stove. To which we add that while said caveman*(1) was indeed a genius of some kind, surely there were a host of others who weren’t and for whom not only was the one with the two sticks some sort of miracle, they were quite probably trying their luck at knocking a stone against the ground and being frustrated as the temperature dropped and they shivered.
We mention this, and highlight these distinctions because we were treated today to a profile in The Guardian, of a “poet” named Hera Lindsay Bird. Ms. Bird is one of a small group somewhat officially known as insta-poets – a group of mostly young women who use Instagram to self-publish their work and who have garnered large followings of fans and fat contracts for books.
We have nothing against the use of the technology, as such, nor do we have anything against bypassing the gatekeepers because, as we have detailed in several other posts, the system of publishing, as an adjunct to the wider entertainment empires, is quite obviously a corrupt set of incestuous relationships and assorted scams dominated by tribal affiliations, class and tribal blood feuds and the general banalities and byzantine habits of lazy courtiers.
However, what irritates about the instagram gang that can’t think straight is the total absence of anything approaching any evidence of intelligence.
While the history of literature has a small and not insignificant number of individuals who burst onto their scene at a young age the fact is it’s exceptionally rare for someone in their 20’s*(2) to posses intelligence, talent (by which we mean the ability to translate will into a distinct style) and knowledge.
Take for example, Scott Fitzgerald. His first novel, This Side of Paradise, was a blazing success that showed promise but succeeded mostly because both he and it were marketable and mass marketing had just arrived in a form that we would recognize as the grandparent of today’s around the clock media blitz. Which is not to say the book was bad but it is also not to say it was great. It was neither and the genuine talent would come later with of course Gatsby – a book more flawed than most are willing to admit but is so good in so many ways that the flaws tend to either be ignored or rolled into its character (style) and the mythology of the author so that they become benefits rather than failures.
But, despite all the nonsense to come later, Hemingway was correct when he said that Fitzgerald never learned how to think.
Critics of Hemingway (and by critics we mean detractors with private animosities masquerading as criticism), failed to realize that what he meant was that Fitzgerald was Keatsian in his faith – that a well written line no matter how shallow it was upon reflection or analysis, was by definition good precisely and only because, it was beautiful.
That Fitzgerald could when pressed, provide thoughtful portraits of people and places is not at issue either here or for Hemingway who thought that Gatsby was essentially flawless. What he meant was that Tender is the Night was a failure because Fitzgerald had never learned how to think things through as a modern man but instead remained a prisoner of a world that had faded away into out of date habits that were either silly or reactionary.
Thus, in Tender is the Night, the novel contains on the one hand a Modernist circular structure in which the opening tells us the beach looked like a tan prayer rug and the end contains Diver making the sign of the cross over the beach where his then ex-wife is at rest.
But, while that is where the novel should have ended, Fitzgerald, stuck in the past of the premodern 19th century novel, adds a coda that is attached to the rest of the book like a second nose. As a result we get an awkward intrusion of the authorial voice telling us what happened to everyone after the end of the story.
Years before this, while going over the manuscript to one of Hemingway’s earlier novels (A Farewell to Arms, if memory serves)*(3) Fitzgerald had suggested a similar device and Hemingway had scoffed and said no fucking way. Thus, we get the devastating and completely Modernist ending of a reversed pagan ritual (the death of the Saint Catherine of the Wheel and the child) and the narrator walking home in the rain – to an undisclosed future that is outside of time and our awareness yet co-exists along side us in every moment of the perpetual now.
For Fitzgerald the 19th century novel with its linear progressions and moral certainties arriving with the dull clack of a train on schedule and never late, made perfect sense because, he had never learned how to think his way through to the present.
One can be critical of Hemingway for any number of stylistic reasons but in a sense it comes down to the fact that he handled his booze better than Fitzgerald and was more thoughtful and more studious.
We mention all of this for two reasons. First, to illustrate that even in the case of an actual genius (Fitzgerald) a failure to study one’s craft and to develop a sense of a functioning aesthetic is a great liability that no amount of raw talent can overcome and secondly because, in our time, the tautological narcissism of the i-generation has promulgated the mantra that, art is subjective.
Art is not subjective.
Art like any other discipline rests on traditions (which can be overturned) and a deep knowledge of how things work and why they work the way that they do.
On the one hand, it is true that Charlie Bird Parker was correct when he said: Learn the changes, then forget them.
And on the other, study your ass off or you’ll be thought a fool – except by the other fools.
Parker of course had the advantage of being a genius while most people are not only not that smart they are in fact the one’s who bang rocks on the ground and shiver.
And so, Ms. Bird who tells us that:
“…I don’t know what being a romantic really entails, apart from in the Lord Byron sense of sitting around a lake in jodhpurs playing with miniature boats and fucking your sister…”
What seems appropriate here is to take her at her word: she does not know what it entails because she is glib, and young and ignorant and catastrophically rock on the ground in the cold stupid.
Needless to say, one is not required to like Byron or even spend much time thinking about him or his half-sister anymore than one is required to like, say, Jackson Pollock, Chinese opera or Westerns. However only fools confuse personal dislike with cultural importance (or a lack of the same) and only amateurs not only refuse to learn but actually shoot their mouths off about their profession and announce with a flag of pride and much bunting, that they are ignorant.
It is worth noting that of course at the other end of the spectrum the world is full of PhD’s who know so much about so little they are neither worth contradicting nor silencing because like gravity there is precious little one can do about them.
But here we have a “poet” who not only knows nothing about poetry, but proclaims her ignorance with pride and the glib, smug condescension of the lotto-winner who thinks going from minimum wage to millions confers a sense of taste. And no, it doesn’t mean that the money confers taste as heaven knows there are plenty of rich people with all the taste of a fungal growth, but it does mean fame by itself means nothing. After all (to borrow phrase) you could follow a fine Bordeaux with a Ding-Dong but, why would you want to*(4)
We do not give a flying fuck in a rat’s ass if Ms. Bird likes Byron but we do give a whale’s ass sized damn that no one is calling her out on her staggering ignorance, that any attempt to question her sense of literary ethics will be denounced as misogyny, and elitist snobbery, and that she is (with the assistance of the fawning supine media and her pimps in publishing) perpetuating a downward cultural spiral in which all that matters is who can shout the loudest.
I don’t know much about art but I know what I like is an old aphorism that hardly anyone employs anymore because of course the Morlocks and the Elois have all but won.
Our education system long ago was colonized and transformed into an indoctrination system designed to mass produce drones. As a result we have Ms. Bird who does not know that writers are guardians of knowledge, that they are links in a chain, that Byron, lunatic, opium-waked sociopath, rebel, and genius, was a 19th century iteration of Brando in, the Wild One who upon being asked, what are you rebelling against, said: What have you got.*(5)
She seems to not know that like a majestic historical koan, he was, despite his sadism (or because of it) and his misogyny, part of the spark that helped propel Mary Wollstonecraft to create the modern Prometheus.
One could say, Byron looked upon the bathhouses of Greece, and it was good, but only if one actually knows what the fuck they are talking about.
And neither Ms. Bird nor her enablers in the circus know, or seem to care, just so long as the filthy lucre and the attention keep flowing.
So, take your jodhpurs, and stuff them where the poetry don’t shine.
1 Yes, dear reader, we are aware that for all anyone knows it might have been a female.
2 Then there’s the first punk, Rimbaud, who flamed out at 17 and went on to be an entrepreneur in guns and slaves. We assume, based on the evidence, that Ms. Bird probably knows as much about our Arthur as she does about Lord go fuck yourselves Byron.
3 Of course it’s worth noting that it was Fitzgerald who edited The Sun Also Rises and convinced Hemingway to cut the first 15 pages of the rough manuscript, explaining to him that by keeping those pages he was giving the world more Michael Arlen which it certainly did not need.
4 Feel free to eat and drink anything you like in any order you want but the point still stands.
5 While at school, in the early 19th century, at a moment when England was in the grip of an all-consuming panic over the French revolution and the specter of an invasion led by the diminutive Corsican, Byron placed a bust of the French Emperor, on his desk, as if to say: What the fuck are you conformist limp dicks looking at, and, what the fuck are you going to do about it.
Of course, this not only highlights Ms. Bird’s staggering ignorance but also highlights the danger in the insipid media giving her a pass on her ignorance because now, a vast cadre of other frauds will take their cue from her and say yeah Byron, who gives a fuck.
For a look at The Guardian’s hand job, see the following: