The sins of the creator

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 However it is also a fascinating historical document written by a man who knew he was a powerless, bilious literary pariah, fallen completely out of fashion.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.

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4 thoughts on “The sins of the creator

  1. I found this very interesting. However, I don’t agree with your final sentence. Over the last few years, I’ve sat beside people who were dying — three times. There was no element of competition in the air. Not even between the mourners. Maybe there could have been but there wasn’t. And sometimes debating actually IS to do with ethics. It can even happen inside a poem.

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    1. Hi Nell,

      I’m not writing to try and convert anyone to my cause – just giving my opinion and I know my opinions on things can sometimes be pretty outre, so I don’t expect people to agree. I do agree with you though about the company of the dying – I too have been around people nearing their end too many times in the last few years and it is true that they invariably have a strong sense of what matters and what doesn’t. For my friend Marcus it was writing his final long poem before the brain tumour meant he couldn’t hold a pen anymore. He did it, but only published ten copies of the book for his close friends and family – not as some sort of great final statement. That’s not about competition – it’s something so far above and beyond competition – so I really do agree with you and see what you mean.

      As I say in the early stages of this blog – I give an opinion of something but that doesn’t mean that I’m not aware that it isn’t that way for everyone – we can only speak out of our own experience. And my own experience is the society is brutally competitive and adversarial by and large and I see this rise of ideological criticism as not necessarily representing a desire for a moral truth, but a desire for winning the argument (or creating the conditions of an argument if none exist). But I don’t doubt that for lots of people the concern is primarily an ethical one, it’s just that (in my experience) I’ve been in many quarrels and have not been quick witted enough to defend myself properly in words.

      My example is that for most of my life I have been a vegetarian – yet I’ve never hectored anyone about it, I prefer to keep completely quiet – but people ask me now and then why I am what I am and so often it is so they can pick holes in my reasoning. I had a friend at uni who was a meateater who suddenly became a militant vegan and he used to lecture me all the time about the hypocrisy and folly of my being a vegetarian. If there’s an ethical side to it, there’s definitely a competitive edge to it too. At least that’s the way I feel.

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  2. I agree with a lot of this Richie but sometimes you’ve got to stand up and fight for what you think is right. That’s never easy or pleasant but sometimes neccessary. We are, however, also capable of compassion as well as fighting and competing (thankfully!) We’re complex beings! Online keyboard warrior culture does have a tendency to simplify, of course, and that’s a worry, especially for younger people growing up with social media. On the flip side true dialogue is possible among those willing to engage rather than compete futiley. There’s a time to walk away, of course, but there’s a time for standing up as well. You’re doing that in your own way here, I think. Hope my nightshift brain isnae rambling!

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    1. Hi Ross,

      thanks for taking the time to read it – I certainly do stand up for what I think is right, no matter how beleaguered my position is (perhaps because the position is so beleaguered). I’m not denying the existence of human virtues like compassion as well (extremely endangered these days). And I think when I say, as I did above, we need a plurality of understanding I am allowing for human complexity.

      I suppose what I’m getting at is something like that Yeatsian phrase from his autobio: ‘hammer one’s thoughts into unity’. That sounds fearful to me. Consistency unnerves me, and the fact that we put it on a pedestal as some sort of aspirational ideal. Where it comes from is the same place as ideological criticism – it is this desire to set a party line and make sure that everyone tows it – anything anomalous or heterodox must be trampled out. We’re such a pontifical culture too – always guilt tripping people about their lack of exercise, their alcohol and nictotine comsumption while the middle classes parade around in their biking lyrca. Just yet another stick to beat the lower orders with as far as I can see. That’s how I see morality and competition becoming deeply intertwined in our culture (whatever ‘our culture’ might be!).

      My example was vegetarianism (maybe a bad one considering Hitler’s own dietary preferences) – I am a vegetarian becase I want to be, not out of a carefully thought through value system. Yet orthodoxy demands that I have to sit down at a table with meat eaters and because they are the majority they are allowed to quiz me, but how often have you heard a vegetarian say to a table of meat eaters ‘why do you eat meat’?. I got this as school too and the coup-de-grace argument seemed to be ‘I eat meat because God put animals on the earth for us to eat’ – and that was the consensus opinion – what anthrocentrism!

      I’m sure my view of human life is very reductive – but I do see it in a rather Hobbesian light. And how does this all relate to the existence or otherwise of supposedly ‘fascist’ poetry – well, I think it is the shallow minds who can only see a poem promoting fascism (not that Rivas does this in any way – he is patently not a fascist) as a diseased text that needs to be suppressed. They only see someone reading it as someone in sympathy with what it represents, not someone (like me) reading it in a context-building-and-setting light, as a symptomatic (yes, deeply problematic) text of its time.

      But yes, maybe it’s time to walk away from this then 🙂

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