Independence!

by Joseph S. Salemi
Even though I am a right-wing aristocrat at heart, I love our American Independence Day.  The Fourth of July fills me with patriotic pride, and a certain amount of arrogance.  Part of this has to do with the way we traditionally celebrate it: wildly, noisily, and with complete contempt for the law.  When I was a kid I was crazy for firecrackers, simply because they were illegal.
 
My maternal grandmother (born 1881) told me that when she came to New York in 1906, she was shocked by the noise and tumult of celebrations on July 4.  It wasn’t the fireworks—she had seen and heard those back in Sicily.  But here in America grown men were in the streets firing revolvers in the air!  The police didn’t stop them; it was just considered the normal thing to do on Independence Day, which after all commemorated the initiation of a sanguinary war of rebellion.  It’s right that there should be some noisy, lawless abandon on the day when we told Great Britain to bugger off, and that we were prepared to wage war against her.
 
And regardless of one’s long-term historical view on the merits or demerits of the cause of the Thirteen Colonies, there was something very right about that war.  It was the response of tough-minded and self-reliant farmers, tradesmen, and plantation owners to an insufferable European bureaucracy intent on heavy taxation, the imposition of arbitrary laws, and the micromanagement of business affairs.  This bureaucracy (like the scum who currently run the E.U.) was arrogant, pushy, and intractable.  Americans wanted to cross the Alleghenies and settle in the rich territories that lay beyond them—the stupid British government, out of deference to the savage Indian tribes, wouldn’t allow it.  Americans needed Lebensraum, and the pooh-bahs in Westminster thought they could prevent us from taking it.
 
Well, they were wrong.  We kicked their asses and those of the Indians, and moved west.  There is something profoundly American in resistance to governmental authority, especially if that authority tries to dictate what’s best for you, and what you can and cannot do.  We crushed Prohibition, and we’ll soon do the same with our horrendous anti-drug laws.  The basic political DNA of America is right-wing libertarian, tempered by some sentimental whinging from the pulpits.
 
It’s different with Europeans.  They are the children of Louis XIV, Cromwell, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, Metternich, Bismarck, Stalin, and Hitler.  They can’t help being what they are: the reflexive slaves of authority and Diktats.  When some stinking little chargé d’affaires farts in Paris, the rest of France quakes.  When a Reichminister in Berlin pontificates, all Germany has to listen.  This sort of thing appeals to left-liberals, which is why they show a marked nostalgia and preference for European-style governance.  “People in Europe are responsible,” sniffed one of my half-assed colleagues at NYU.  “They listen to what their government says.”  Jawohl, mein Führer!  Befiehl, wir folgen!
 
Leftists and left-liberals, although they talk a good game about rebellion and resistance, are actually quite uncomfortable with the two phenomena.  The little academic dweeb with his La Lucha Continua! bumper sticker, and the faded Free-Mumia poster on his office door, is a total fraud.  He’s not really into rebellion.  He and his tenure-track colleagues are representatives of the most stifling orthodoxy our planet has known since Pharaonic Egypt: the political correctness of radical politics, feminism, eco-speak, affirmative action, multiculturalism, and minority-worship.  Try to rebel against this orthodoxy in a college English department, and see what happens to you.  As Camille Paglia has said concerning academia, “If you don’t embrace the consensus, your career stops in its tracks.”
 
Everything about leftists and left-liberals betrays their lust for power over others, and their visceral loathing of the freedom and independence that most Americans have cherished since 1776.  Want to keep your guns?  There’s a left-liberal who opposes that.  Want to eat red meat?  There’s a left-liberal who opposes that.  Want to homeschool your kids?  There’s a left-liberal who opposes that.  Want to drive an SUV or have an exclusive club or opt out of Obama’s healthcare?  OK, I’ll stop… but the common notion that liberals are in favor of “freedom” is one of the biggest propaganda coups in the history of rhetorical duplicity.
 
I’ve been talking here about political independence, but my words have a bearing on one’s artistic autonomy as well.  Artistic freedom, like political freedom, is dependent on one’s willingness to tell authority to drop dead.  But today, for the most part, authority in the arts doesn’t exist or function in the overt manner that it did in the past.  There isn’t an academy of official painters dictating styles and subjects, with anyone deviating from their strictures having to go to Le Salon des Refusés.  There isn’t a Soviet Writers’ Collective, forcing dissidents to publish in samizdat.  That kind of overbearing, official censorship is no longer fashionable.
 
Today authority functions unofficially, and as such tends to be more insidious and vicious.  Just as drug-dealing becomes bloodily violent when drugs are illegal, so does authority become all the more arrogant when it is exercised without formal sanction.  Authority now does its work via the conformism of mass thought and fashionable poses.  And this sort of authority is much harder to fight, since it presents itself not as a guarded rampart, but as an intangible atmosphere of received opinion.
 
It is for this reason that an artist today (no matter what his field) can only preserve his aesthetic integrity and creative independence by steering clear of the ruck of other practitioners.  Can he have a few trusted friends and colleagues?  Sure.  Can he consult with a handful of fellow artists whose work he respects?  Certainly.  But he has to stay away from the great mass of conformists who will surely asphyxiate him with the fell breath of trendy accepted ideas.
 
Consider the poetry world.  Here practitioners are constantly urged to join an on-line workshop or discussion group to share their ideas and early drafts with other aspiring talents.  On the contrary, I always advise my students to avoid these gatherings as one would a typhoid ward.  Workshops are deadly to one’s artistic independence.  In fact, the entire purpose of such groups seems to be to get you to “fit in,” or “do what’s appropriate,” or otherwise follow a set of arbitrary conventions that have more to do with sociability and ideological conformity than with the act of fictive mimesis.
 
Why in God’s name would you subject yourself to the advice and criticism of commentators whose credentials you don’t even know?  To listen to some shithead in Dubuque tell you that you have too many adjectives?  To hear some Kaffeeklatsch poetess tell you that your diction offends her cutesy-poo middle-class sensibilities?  If you are serious about poetry, and confident in the value of your work, you don’t need to have it second-guessed by anonymous amateurs and self-appointed censors.  The act of creation is profoundly private and solitary.  If it happens at all, it does so within the magic circle of the self.  Indiscriminately allowing other people to intrude upon this act, to add their presumptuous comments and kibitzing, is self-destructive.  As for on-line workshops and discussion groups, it’s hard to understand what anyone gets out of them other than promiscuous chitchat and the satisfaction of the herding instinct.
 
It’s extremely difficult to maintain one’s independence as an artist because of this devolved authority, which manifests itself as democratic discussion but which has the ultimate effect of reducing all work to a common denominator of socially acceptable pap.  Like a committee report, the resulting art has everybody’s fingerprints and nobody’s genius.
 
There’s an even greater threat to one’s independence, and that comes from the envious.  In this case fashionable conformism isn’t at work, but the sheer hatred emanating from one’s inferiors.  There are whole armies of people who want to hobble you and hamstring you.  They want to interfere with your productive activity in some way, and hamper it.  You are prepared to achieve and accomplish, and they are always ready to be an obstacle in your path.  They think up difficulties for you.  They dredge up moral objections to your plans.  They try to discourage you and fill you with doubts and hesitation.  They do this out a deep sense of their inferiority, and their unspoken resentment of your abilities.  When Bill Carlson and I were starting Iambs & Trochees back in 2002, there was a pompous poet-acquaintance of Bill’s who for months did nothing but badger us with complaints and objections and negative criticism about the proposed magazine.  I finally told Bill that he either had to break with this man immediately, or get someone to replace me as Associate Editor.  Bill made the break, and Iambs & Trochees was born—and the erstwhile poet-acquaintance was not too proud to submit some of his tedious work to us.  Bill published it for old time’s sake.  (A lot of mediocre stuff in Iambs & Trochees was published simply because Bill met the dorky authors at some dumb poetry reading or book launch).
 
Make no mistake—persons of this sort are the deadliest enemies you can have.  Allowing them any input whatsoever in your life or work is suicidal.  If you have a friend like this, cut him off completely.  If there is a colleague who does it, ignore him totally.  If your spouse acts in this manner, get a divorce at once.  These persons are the intellectual equivalent of Lucrezia Borgia, and they will poison anything you do.
 
I’m not kidding.  Do you want to achieve?  Do you want to leave some mark in the world?  Then don’t let anyone interfere with your independence.  Consult no one.  Listen to no suggestions.  Remember that you are surrounded on all sides by the envy and hatred of worms.  You are the only one who can do what your destiny as an artist bids you to do.  There is no goddamned “community” when it comes to aesthetic achievement, so stop trying to join one.
 
When the envious are also partisans of received opinion, then you have the strongest enforcer of conformism and the most effective defender of authority since the French Revolution’s Committee for Public Safety.  How do you fight this sort of tyranny?  There’s only one way: Declare independence.  Fire some shots in the air, like those Americans my grandmother heard back in 1906.  Believe me, more people are listening than you might imagine.
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About Joseph S. Salemi

Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, the Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.