The French have a great adjective: marxisant. If you look it up in Larousse you are told that it means “that which tends toward Marxism,” but so bald a definition doesn’t capture the connotative flavor of the word. To be marxisant is to be vaguely but ostentatiously leftist, as a form of class display. It means to affect a faux-radical style, and to spout a half-baked Gramscian jargon that identifies you as politically cool and adversarial. It’s a way to be hip and trendy while hanging out at the Sorbonne.
In France if you are marxisant you wear a black turtleneck, you shave only every few days, you discuss Sartre at great length in bistros, and you kiss the feet of every decrepit soixante-huitard whom you encounter. As for Marx and Lenin, well—you haven’t actually read them, but you know they are profoundly important, and you’ll quote them on occasion. Being marxisant isn’t an intellectual position. It’s a social posture, designed to indicate that you are a member of an upscale elite.
We have plenty of marxisant types in America, suitably Yankee-Doodleized. Go to any faculty meeting, where they swarm like locusts, buzzing endlessly about race, class, and gender. Or hang out in a wine bar where graduate students gather. Or visit Ann Arbor, or Princeton, or Cambridge Massachusetts. There they have formed little colonies of the like-minded who teach in English, Women’s Studies, or Political Science. Or else they might work in the social services, or with an environmental group, or for Legal Aid, or in a vegetarian food-cooperative. These are the people who get righteously indignant over global warming, George Bush, racism, and whatever else is on National Public Radio’s current hate list. They have emotional seizures when they watch Thelma and Louise, or Brokeback Mountain.
But just as in France, it’s all primarily a pose. Marxism for such people isn’t a political commitment but a lifestyle choice, with no more significance than a bumper sticker on a Volvo. Indeed, marxisant types are in the same category as those battlefield “re-enactors,” who dress up in Civil War uniforms and shoot off volleys of blanks from replica muskets on weekends, pretending that they are at Gettysburg or Antietam. Everything in America today approaches the condition of a Disney theme park, including our political loyalties. The fakery and the phoniness are palpable.
What’s nice about poetry is that it is traditionally the one area of human life where creating your own special theme park is considered acceptable and non-frivolous. As I have written elsewhere, poetry is “a licensed zone of unreality.” You can conjure up whatever worlds you please out of your imagination or your desires. And you can do it on paper, without investing in muskets and cavalry sabers, or a Che Guevara T-shirt.
Well then, with all this freedom why is poetry in such sad shape? Why is so much of it as unreadable as an alumni newsletter, or a New York Times editorial? In many cases the problem has its roots in a failure of imagination. Freedom without imagination is the freedom to vegetate intellectually.
This is not, I hasten to add, a problem just for poets and other litterateurs, but for the entire modern world in which we now find ourselves stranded. The very structure of contemporary life in what we simperingly call “the developed world” is hostile to imagination, except when it takes the form of the outrageously bizarre, the mindlessly violent, or the explicitly sexual. We have reduced imagination to the trashy common denominator of Jurassic Park, Pulp Fiction, and Sex and the City.
One reason for this situation is that the mega-business types who control the modern world don’t want imagination, except in their accountants and ad-men. Real imagination is unpredictable, and not as easy to turn to profit, the way one can with the merely spectacular or the blatantly outrageous. A population with living imaginations isn’t dependably predictable in its reactions. It can actually think for itself, which is profoundly terrifying to bureaucrats, politicians, and the business community. For all their stupid blather about entrepreneurial initiative and innovation, businessmen are the least imaginative people on earth. They want everything to be as predictable as the chiming of a clock, or the collection of accounts payable. In order to guarantee it they have encouraged a smothering conformism and standardization and regulatory miasma over whatever they can control. And their toadies in the universities have followed suit, dutifully making sure that all undergraduates get the proper message. Don’t think… just follow policy guidelines and get paid.
This is why the marxisant types in our universities are such utter frauds. They talk about their “commitment to the struggle” and their “solidarity with the oppressed,” while in fact they are complicit with an educational system that functions to produce obedient managerial staff and docile consumers. They raise clenched fists and shout “La lucha continua!” while corporate donors build their libraries and endow their professorial chairs. Such “Marxism” is just frippery and charade, like the garish costumes at a Mardi Gras celebration. It’s something to don for cocktail parties and academic conferences, and which doesn’t interfere with one’s stock portfolio.
So we have to distinguish between two very different types of falsity, and their motivations. There is the fakery of the marxisant types, which is directed solely to the base ends of status-display, in-group solidarity, and social climbing. And there’s the imaginative creativity that expresses itself in fictive mimesis. The modern world has no trouble whatsoever with the first kind of falsity—in fact, it encourages it via the retailing of all sorts of “lifestyle choices” and “options.” But the modern world is indifferent and in many instances hostile to the second kind of falsity, which is rooted in the free play of imagination in an individual.
Let’s give an illustrative example. If you want to kill millions of virtual people in a grotesquely violent video game, the modern world will afford you ample opportunity to do so, providing you with sanguinary scenarios in all varieties, shapes, and sizes. But if you write a serious poem or novel about mass murder, all sorts of buzzing disapproval will be heard, and your motives and sanity will be questioned. A student who dared to write on such a theme in his high school English class would be immediately sent to a guidance counselor or the school psychologist. Slaughter myriads of people on a computer screen? Sure, of course. Write about the identical subject in a poem or story? Omigod the kid’s psychopathic!
The same thing with sex. Want wild, crazy, outrageous sex of the most degrading kind? Turn on your computer and surf the great porn wave. See things done that would have made Krafft-Ebing faint in disbelief. But dare to write an explicitly sexual poem, seriously discussing a sexual activity or issue, and watch the prissy rejection slips from tightassed poetry editors pile up on your desk.
What’s going on here? Well, think about it a little. Violent video games and computer porn sites are actually safe—they are controlled by profit-and-loss-conscious people who won’t do a thing that isn’t attuned to their niche market. As I said above, businessmen like what’s predictable. But a good poem or a novel or a story isn’t safely predictable. It can upset your expectations and assumptions. It can question your prejudices. It can remind you of forgotten histories. It can raise political issues. It can actually start you thinking about philosophical or religious matters. It can make you begin to wonder if the world that corporate business types have created for us is really the only possible one. And once something like that happens on a large scale, businessmen start to sweat. If things get out of hand, they’ll phone their lobbyists and their bought congressmen.
So rather than being a factitious revolutionary, like the marxisant types in our universities with tenure-track positions and high five-figure salaries, why not read—or better still, write—a truly subversive poem? Why not imagine something that will really upset and shock conventional readers, and send them screaming to their support groups?
Well, maybe you’re not up to it. Perhaps you’re still worried about what the neighbors will think, or whether your application to the country club will be compromised. In that case stick with your little Kaffeeklatsch of workshop buddies, and write heartfelt poems about your relationships. After all, it’s just possible that toadying and networking will make up for your timidity. What does Mirabell say in the Congreve play? ‘Tis the way of the world.