Being a Facebook non-combatant (i.e. one who left Facebook because of all of its poetry-related slinging, spitting and pissing matches) I was surprised when a friend of mine sent me a transcript of a thread from a recent brouhaha on my favourite anti-social media site. This thread concerned the battle-lines drawn over Dave Coates’s denunciatory review of Toby Martinez de las Rivas’s latest book Black Sun and Rob A. Mackenzie’s retort to Coates’s review in the most recent issue of The Dark Horse.
What amazes me about these arguments on Facebook is how interminable they are, invariably reaching an impasse, sometimes taking a little detour to ad hominem-ville. I think of all the creative time that is lost when poets pour their energies into Facebook tiffs – all the unwritten poems and what have you. But I understand that by my even saying this, I am making an ideological statement myself – rather akin to Norman MacCaig’s aggressive assertions that he was apolitical and detested ‘isms’, which were paradoxically very political.
Is Toby Martinez de las Rivas really a fascist – overt, crypto or otherwise? Certainly not. But my opinion doesn’t preclude the possibility that someone else, with a radically different experience from mine, might read his work and find it offensive. We need brains that are Walt Whitman-esque – containing multitudes plural, broad and tolerant enough to embrace contradictions and different viewpoints. Nowadays there seems to be too much of a readiness to see things in a completely binary, Manichean way – black and white, good and evil etc. And it’s that mind-set that brings us to a ‘trigger warning’ culture where texts begin to get censored or banned, and that can only be a bad thing.
I was once reading around the poetry of the Spanish Civil War and found, in an old bookshop, a first edition (indeed, the only edition!) of Roy Campbell’s notorious Flowering Rifle – a brute, bellicose, barefaced piece of pro-Franco propaganda. However it is also a fascinating historical document written by a man who knew he was a powerless, bilious literary pariah, fallen completely out of fashion. When I bought this book I found myself compelled to apologise to the bookseller, but then, they were selling it.
I credit myself with, not much, but enough intelligence to be able to read something offensive and diametrically opposed to my own tenets, and not be swayed or influenced by it. Hugh MacDiarmid’s (Campbell’s most bitter rival) poems of World War Two have been repeatedly condemned as calling for the German bombing of London, but this is an extremely two-dimensional reading of these poems by academics who are personally offended by the poet’s message, they are much more nuanced than people have been led to believe. Written before the Blitz, these poems were intended to shock people out of the imperialist governmental propaganda and make them feel something and highlight the plight of Scotland, always MacDiarmid’s concern.
If I was to write this piece in the font ‘Perpetua’ (beloved of Faber and Faber, publisher of de las Rivas – coincidence? Methinks not!) would it then be discredited? Because we have to remember that it was designed by Eric Gill, who was a pathological sex offender, settling for the family dog when members of his family weren’t available. Very few creators have also been saints but I think we owe it to ourselves to be able to acknowledge the sins of the creator and their private lives and still use and enjoy the fruits of their creative labours. Enjoying or engaging with a problematic text is not to necessarily endorse it and is even less likely to support the errant behaviour of the creator. We do owe it to ourselves to be aware and cognisant of their crimes – not that I am saying that Toby Martinez de las Rivas has done anything wrong at all. I am just taking my case to more extreme examples.
When I was at school, I took part in something called a ‘mock trial’ which is where students pretend to be lawyers, jury et al in a mock trial within a real court. Someone had to be the accused, and aw shucks that was me. No crime had been committed, it was all an act, but I went into the court determined that I was innocent (this is because I was accused of domestic abuse). I was cross examined and grilled and I tried to be as eloquent as I could. It almost became Pirandellian – and felt like real life. But I grew to realise that everyone else had decided to find me guilty. When the judge (a real judge) delivered his sentence, I was taken away in cuffs (can’t remember if these were real). That’s when it struck me, that even though we were just playing, I knew and felt viscerally that I could never commit an act of domestic violence, and yet here I was convicted of it. Guilt and innocence can often just be an opinion and a perfect stranger (of a higher class) is the one who decides what you are.
On a much lighter level, arguing can also be like this I find. So little of it is to do with a moral imperative and so much of it is to do with one of the major lubricants of our society (other than booze and money) – competition. Everything is a competition so it stands to reason that dialectics / debating is nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with sophistry – a persuasive, facile blend of words that sways the bystander and recruits them to your cause and wins you the case.