July 26, 2004

A disinterrment from the Poet's Corner

Posted by Curt at 12:59 AM in Literature | TrackBack

As I have said before, The Weekly Standard seems to expend all the unused spine that it saves through writing slavish propoganda for the Bush Administration in publishing bold and might I even say significant cultural criticisms, with a specialty in the demolition of beatified intellectual frauds. Well, maybe it’s not very daring from the point of view of The Weekly Standard’s political agenda to perform a literary beheading of Pablo Neruda, but thank God that someone has finally done so, which seems almost taboo these days in international literary circles. Perhaps it is not surprising that Stephen Schwartz is waving the axe, since he has made something of a reputation for himself recently by speaking some very brave and unpleasant words of truth about fundamentalist Islam and particularly Wahabbism and its many-tentacled reach into politics, beside which the opinion and relative approval of the international literary community must seem a very small yipping chihuaha.

But Schwartz’s very point is that when it came time for the intellectuals of the West to speak some brave and unpleasant truths about communism and particularly the many-tentacled reach of Stalinism 60 years ago, Neruda was not simply hiding under the bed with his ears covered, he was actually actively advancing violent Stalinist agendas to the point of being essentially complicit in the conspiracy surrounding the murder of Trotsky. Neruda’s political culpability seems to shoot a long ways past that of Jean-Paul Sartre or Knut Hamsun; he is fully in the company of Ezra Pound and Yukio Mishima, politically speaking, among the great writers, but his reputation has not paid a thousandth the price.

Of course, to an extent I certainly do not feel that the political views of an artist should wholly condition our response to their art, although generally speaking I find most compelling the writers who, like Yeats or Faulkner, managed to stay essentially aloof in difficult times of political polarization, which, while it may seem somewhat lacking in courage on human terms seems after all the issues have died away to recommend itself most highly by the standards of intellectual integrity. However, Stalinism demonstrated as effectively as any political movement ever has that bad politics can make for bad art, at least when the politics specifically condition intellectual slavery and artistic dogmatism. Schwartz has a couple of examples that should prove as embarassing to Neruda’s reputation artistically as politically:

“To be men! That is the Stalinist law! . . . / We must learn from Stalin / his sincere intensity / his concrete clarity. . . . / Stalin is the noon, / the maturity of man and the peoples. / Stalinists, Let us bear this title with pride. . . . / Stalinist workers, clerks, women take care of this day! / The light has not vanished. / The fire has not disappeared, / There is only the growth of / Light, bread, fire and hope / In Stalin’s invincible time! . . . / In recent years the dove, / Peace, the wandering persecuted rose, / Found herself on his shoulders / And Stalin, the giant, / Carried her at the heights of his forehead. . . . / A wave beats against the stones of the shore. / But Malenkov will continue his work.”

I think Schwartz’s postscript comment to the poem almost goes without saying: “This poem remains in print in Neruda’s Spanish-language collected writings. It does not often appear in anthologies of his work in English.”

Now, Schwartz claims that Neruda’s reputation in Latin America is, ironically, much lower than it is in the United States and Europe. That is certainly possible; this phenomenon of being appreciated more abroad than at home is certainly common enough, from Thomas Mann to Jacques Derrida. But, if true, it would be a touch more ironic in Neruda’s case because, whether it be a factor of his Stalinist ideology or simply an inflated sense of self-importance, Neruda himself seemed to specifically claim fame on the basis of speaking for the common man, for the earth and the soil and those that lived off of it. It would not be terribly surprising to me if those who love him best are those who rely on someone like Neruda for reports of what the soil even is.

I myself am not ready to consign everything from Residencia en la Tierra or Canto General to the memory-hole, but I must admit that, even setting aside the politics, for a long time I have found a goodly proportion of Neruda’s images and metaphors abusive and sophistic in the same way that a sermon by Derrida is. There is a closedness, a smugness and a self-regard in Neruda’s poetry which is very much consistent with intransigent and unquestioningly held political beliefs, even monstrous ones. That attitude, of course, was very much in the air in the ‘30’s, but what separates Neruda from his contemporaries among the Lost Generation, the surrealists, the existentialists, etc. is that, while sanctimonious infantile dogmatism may have pervaded the political and even the artistic views of many of les grandes of this epoch, often they were at least able to detach it from their authentic literary productions. Not so Neruda.


Reprehensible though his politics may be, Neruda's 20 Love Sonnets is still wonderful.

Posted by: shonk at July 26, 2004 09:42 AM

Of course, as Schwartz points out, one of those is stolen straight from Tagore, so God only knows how much of that is even his work.

Posted by: Curt at July 26, 2004 12:59 PM

You know, I just went back through and re-read some of those poems again, and they aren't as great as I remember. There are still some great turns of phrase ("viejas hélices del crepúsculo", "como un campanario en las manos de un loco"), but a lot of it is pretty overwritten ("Ah los ojos de ausencia! / Ah las rosas del pubis!").

Based on the subject matter and on when I first read them and responded positively, I'd have to say the appeal is largely adolescent.

Even if one loves 20 Love Poems, it's undeniable that there are much better Spanish-language writers from the 20th century, like Lorca and Valle-Inclán (Bodas de Sangre and Tirano Banderas are, I would argue, two of the best pieces of writing from any time and in any language).

Posted by: shonk at July 26, 2004 01:38 PM

As far as leveling criticism on Neruda, I feel that this is devastating, but also about as far as we can go. We are all products of our times, and monstrous though his views were, ignorant as his beliefs became, there's something to be said for his work artistically. If we are to use Abrams' Objective method of Criticism, then I suggest to you that Neruda stands on his own against greats in many ways. The notion that because his art did not reflect truth should not take away from our general understanding of that... even if I do quite like Schwartz's work here.

Posted by: Admiral Waugh at July 30, 2004 10:40 PM

If we are to use Abrams' Objective method of Criticism, then I suggest to you that Neruda stands on his own against greats in many ways.

I think Curt and I both acknowledge this, though I don't think either of us find the New Critical approach satisfying.

Posted by: shonk at July 30, 2004 11:34 PM

More than that even, the criticism that both of us were levelling at Neruda, I from the political angle and my brother on the matter of his sentimentality, was directed principally at the deletrious effects of these characteristics on his poetry, not for what they said about him as a man. What I, at any rate, was trying to say was that the very same dogmatism and simplemindedness that are manifested in his political extremism and sentimentality are also evident in poetry which is not infrequently bad, if not embarassing. The irony is that, as much as some might want to quash discussion of Neruda's politics now that they are generally unfashionable, if not considered despicable, in my opinion, as in Schwartz's, Neruda's lofty reputation was established in no small part on the basis of his politics, rather than solely on the quality of his poetry. So, in fact, if we do try to exclude extraneous considerations like his personal politics then I think one can perceive that much more clearly his inadequacies as a poet. I do not wish to exaggerate excessively (although that would be very Nerudian), but what was once said of his friend Salvador Allende seems not wholly applicable to Neruda, and not only because they both perished during the time of the Chilean military coup: "Becoming a martyr was the only thing that prevented him from becoming a failure."

Posted by: Curt at August 2, 2004 05:29 PM