Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

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Monday, March 1, 2010

Lament for the Loss of the Avant-Garde

I grew up committed to the avant-garde. Even beyond partisanship, the concept lay at the basis of my structuring of the world. One pole of every opposition was for me animated with life and energy while the other bore the dead weight of reaction: not only art and politics and religion split into camps of the hip and square, old and young, academic and revolutionary – the principle seemed at the time universal. Remember Norman Mailer’s Village Voice lists from the ‘fifties? Bohr’s model of the atom is square, Heisenberg’s hip, etc. (Though, of course, the wave of the future could involve such radical exhumation of the past as pre-Raphaelitism or Pound’s rereading of the troubadours.)

This whole bipolar opposition is primarily a Romantic myth. In spite of boasts from millennia of artists and writers that they are “making it new,” and in spite of the line of off-beat artists extending back to archaic schizoid shamans, and the ancient world’s wine-drinker poets (in contrast to the soberly craftsmanlike water-drinkers), the idea of bohemia is, like the term, less than two hundred years old. But its course seems already to be run, though practitioners continue to go through the motions that used to épater the bourgeoisie though now these are the very gestures by which they court the embrace of the same establishment.

Now it is clear from oral and popular genres that art that defends the status quo may be great. Apart from exotic examples like African sculpture and oral epic, the USA’s greatest contributions to world culture may well be in genuinely popular genres: movies and jazz. But if gestures are to carry meaning at all, the cocked snoot must be distinguished from the glad hand.

In my opinion the last great era of the avant-garde was launched by the dadaists in the early part of the past century and ripened in the great surrealist ventures of the next few decades. Admittedly, even here it was possible for a perversely conservative entrepreneur like Dali to evolve, but surely Franco and the Pope always knew he was a character to keep at arm’s length even if the buyers of his millions of limited editions did not.

The performances at the Café Voltaire genuinely amazed the public and went near the limit in cracking art’s possibilities. No second appearance of Picabia in a tutu could replicate the first. Beyond sound poetry, what? Not only did these artists do things never dared before in the realm of taste and semiotic manipulation; they were altogether serious in their fierce opposition to those who held economic power. Whether communist like Breton and Huelsenbeck or anarchist like Bunuel, they struggled with the ruling class for control of art.

Now the Rockefeller Foundation is pleased to fund work that resembles nothing so much as the performance of the Duke and the Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn; the largest museums speculate on novelty; we find that the CIA promoted abstract expressionism as part of the cold war, and the once-radical designs of the Bauhaus embody the glittery apparition of American wealth in lower Manhattan. Andy Warhol, who seriously took up the task of representing the icons of our culture, not just soup cans and celebrities, but crack-ups as well, began in corporate advertising and spawned the Interview sensibility which fawns on the rich and finds those who are vicious as well (such as the Marcoses and the Shah of Iran) particularly piquant Mapplethorpe, too, for all the fuss once attendant on his shows, displays flawlessly elegant academic/advertising skills and is attacked only by know-nothings, with everyone in the art world from old line to young lions defending him.

Even real art brut styles have been easily digested from Rouault to Red Grooms, and what passed a few generations ago for derangement of the senses now sells jeans and cologne on MTV. Conceptual art may have been the last theoretical gasp of the avant-garde, for once everything is assimilated to art, what boundary remains to be challenged? What is the next move?

I offer no prescriptions for the resuscitation of the avant-garde. Some alternatives are clear: among the more common already current are antiquarianism, deeper probing of sore psychic regions, the sleazier sorts of pop culture, and borrowing from the tribal. I lament the passing of the avant-garde, and suggest we be conscious of its implications. What changes in society, in art, and in their relation have rendered obsolete the idea of an avant-garde, so seminal these past few centuries? Surely among the assassins of the avant-garde are the continuing marginalization of art, the greedy commodification of art processes, and the collapse of radical challenge in non-artistic realms. Under these conditions an active avant-garde would be a zombie-like walking corpse.

Nine Poems from the Greek Anthology

A longer treatment of the poetry of the Greek Anthology and a generous selection of Leonidas of Tarentum's epigrams will be posted in a coming month. (Unfortunately the notes, italics, Greek characters, and who knows what else do not survive being pasted into this format. And sometimes the footnotes are the best part. A reader who wants the original -- sometimes longer than the blog version as well as including all the trimmings, may write me.)

I am not alone in thinking that some of the greatest works of twentieth century American poetry have been translations: Pound’s Cathay, Rexroth’s Chinese and Japanese and Greek, Bly’s Scandinavian and Spanish, Blackburn’s Proensa come to mind immediately. Translations refresh poetry, though the professor and the poet are alike sometimes slow to recognize the translator’s work as it is neither quite scholarship nor “original”. Language’s renewal may be hastened not by the importation of fresh vision alone, but even by the compromises that accompany the haulage of words from one language to another, even, indeed, by plain misprision.1 The greater the gap in time, space, or culture, the more potentially fruitful the result.
I offer here some versions of Greek Anthology poems2 and a few words to suggest my own appropriations of these millenia-old words. The Anthology has passed through periods of vogue3 and of neglect. Its highly conventionalized texts would have found less reception in recent years than they have were it not that most translations during the last fifty years have been very loose and conversational. Those old home truths about sex and death, mysteries the ancients directly confronted, can seem quite powerful with a sort of blunt grace.
The fact is that the language of the poems is very distant from spoken language. Some of the poems are almost school exercises; at times one poem echoes the previous one’s images and meter, striving only for a slightly greater polish. All is intertextual and artificial -- even the love lyrics and the epitaphs. It’s Hellenistic, as we say, (or, even worse, Byzantine) but in this thicket of language, surprises are frequent.

The first book in the current standard arrangement is Christian epigrams which have found little audience among either poets or Christians. Since the work of Jane Harrison and others of the Cambridge school, ritual and cult components of ancient religious myth have been disentangled from the more literary or sociopolitical ones. And the myths contended vigorously in those days. Not only the Olympians, but also gods of the mysteries, along with a succession of Near Eastern and Egyptian deities (among them Jesus and Jehovah), Gnosticism (not to mention rumors of gymnosophists) -- all clamored for the soul’s allegiance. Christianity was then decentralized and alive with the ferment of heresy and inspiration. The Christian book of the Anthology reflects a time before the church became a bureaucracy and a princely power, when men still set themselves up as free lance hermits in deserts of Egypt and Anatolia. The same “sudden enlightenment” Christianity that brought the likes of Meister Eckhart to trial a millennium later found free expression in some of these lyrics. They are seminal for the vast religious literature of Byzantium more generously bathed in abstract light and even fire than the Platonic Percy Shelley.

This vision of cosmic dance recalls the Gospel of Thomas4 :

One dance, one tune
for men and for angels --
for man and god
have become one!

A description of an icon, this describes art, language, the attempt to use the mind to overmaster earth:

audacious to give shape to the bodiless! but that’s what
leads to recollection, to solid thoughts that vault the sky!

Dualities explode in the image of Gideon’s fleece:

One fleece has dew,
it gave dew to the bowl;
the same fleece is dry:
hide mysteries in your mind.

Egyptian woman, hidden newborn, close water:
when you think about it, they all represent the Word.

And if you think about it hard enough, surely everything represents the Word.
Then there is that practice I have elsewhere called sacred space as sideshow, at which India excels, but Christianity had its Simeon Stylites5 as well as the holy Daniel, here described:

A man suspended between earth and sky,
ignoring the winds from every side . . .
both feet planted tight to the pole.
He dines on ambrosial hunger
and painless thirst, always talking
about the flawless mother's son.

An entire volume of the Anthology contain poems of an obsolete genre: dedications of offerings to deities. Generally the poems contain loving lists of significant objects: often the tools of a trade6 (carpenter, warrior, cook); sometimes objects associated with a stage of life (the toys of childhood); at times the lists approach a tone of incantatory magic7, at times they seem more like objectivism or minimalism. In some the dedicatory form seems incidental. The poems of this book often privilege craft – many are almost identical, with each author seeking to lend the list a slightly more graceful melody. In theme the form is often the setting for very familiar sentiments.

I’m Lais. Ego-puffed I laughed through Greece,
a flock of buff young men outside my door.
Aphrodite, here’s my mirror. I don’t care to see my present self,
you cannot show me as I was then. (Plato)

In the next the dedication itself is absent.

Here’s the little place where Kleito lived, the plot
where he grew food. A few grapevines are round the back
and here’s some brush where he would gather wood. It’s here
that Kleito kept on going, right through eighty years.
(Leonidas of Tarentum)

Notice the similarities of the following two loving lists.

A split berry, a tree’s first borne fruit,
a wrinkled fig with a navel,
a heavy hanging purple bunch of grapes, dripping wine,
nuts just dropping their green coat.
I who tend the fruit have made this offering from the trees
for country Priapos carved from a single block.

Yellow-jacket pomegranate! Old wrinkled figs!
A rosy bunch of grapes picked just a bit unripe,
one sweet-breath quince woolied with fine down,
a walnut peeking out through grass-green rind,
first bloom cucumber from its groundbed in green,
and a gold-coat olive, already dark and ripe.
To you,
wanderer's friend,
Lamon Groundgrubber gives these things
and prays his trees and his own limbs may thrive.
(Phillipos of Thessalonica)

Any accurate idea of poetry must take account of the whole history of the art. Most poetry in human history has been highly conventionalized8. Our Romantic assumptions blind us most when we are unaware of them. Study of out of the way texts like these from the Greek Anthology can point in the direction of a view of poetry at once broader and more precise. The assignment for the poet is to compose an imitation of the text with the greatest appeal (or would the least engaging prove more fruitful?).

The Valley of Beautiful Women

The site of a celebrated (if temporary) victory over the Turks in 1552, the town of Eger lies between the Bűkk and Mátra mountains of northeast Hungary. On its edge is the Valley of Beautiful Women (Szépasszony-völgy) ringed by vine-covered slopes. There’s a tale in a guidebook that the name may derive from a pre-Christian goddess, but the visitor quite soon encounters a statue of the current ruling deity, Bacchus. This particular theophany may be the version of the local Viticulture Chamber of Commerce -- there are two hundred separate growers each of whom makes wine, stores it in caves in the hillside, and offers it in rudimentary cafés consisting of a few tables and chairs in front of the vine-covered slope. Well before catching sight of the first of these establishments, the visitor can smell the grape in the air -- and the odor, too, of its transformation to wine. Open dumpsters with the fresh grapes or the refuse after crushing sit among hoses and barrels. The entire process, from growing the fruit to the customers’ consumption, takes place on these premises in public view. As it is October, the fresh juice (or must) is sold here and there, as is food, but wine rules, and among the wine, surely the most well-known is the Egri Bikavér, called in English Bull’s Blood. This wine, sometimes regarded as similar to Bordeaux and, in modern times, made from varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, is available here for 70 HUF a glass, less than 35 cents.

We had lunch and a taste of wine and strolled about. Musicians were playing the old melancholy “Gypsy” tunes, flirtatious bits of operetta, and folk songs of love longing. They seemed all to be non-professionals -- we never saw any asking for tips. In the park-like center areas each picnic table was provided with, not a barbeque grill, but a stand on which to hang the great kettle called a bogracs, a cookery tool associated both with the original Magyars who arrived over a millennium ago, and with the “cowboys” of the great plain (the puszta). In one a rich stew (pörkölt) was already started, and the people stirring the pot seemed to welcome our interest and offer every friendly gesture though we shared no language. Walking away, however, another member of the party approached and, in a working class British voice, asked if we spoke English.

John Cross was the son of a Hungarian mother and a British father who, after eleven years in the submarine service of the Royal Navy (including a term in the brig for cannabis smuggling) and work, he said, on security details protecting the prime minister, decided at the age of fifty to move to Hungary where he opened a pub and worked in a supermarket. He disdained all religions, all politics, considered simple pleasures and sociability the proper end of life. He had lost most the proceeds from selling his London flat to some broker’s speculative manipulation, but said, “As long as I have the coins to buy a packet of cigs, a sandwich, and a drink, I’m happy.” He rejected the very concept of career. “A man can always work. Just ask one place after another and someone’ll take you to do something.”

So our lunch hour stretched out toward evening, our table filled with convivial Hungarians. John’s friend (whose name was something like Choppy) whom we had seen cutting the potatoes for the stew, and Choppy’s girlfriend (called something not distant from Auggy), the peeler, sat across from us as we drank Bull’s Blood and the shadows lengthened. We had got on to carafés (just under than a dollar).

Musicians from the party with which John had come sang and played an accordion, a saxophone, tambourines. Everyone was singing along with the familiar songs. A round-faced, dark-haired man with the pain of centuries in his face and a suit so surpassingly dark it seemed, like a black hole, to threaten to pull everything into itself, made his violin weep and dance complaints. When the stew was ready, it was distributed to all in the neighborhood, along with dishes of pickles and hot peppers and vinegared slaw. There seemed no longer to be any distinction between John’s party and others in the café and those in the café next door and whoever happened by. Everyone ate and drank and sang and talked and drank again. More wine. More song. Talk and wine. We felt as though we were in a Bruegel peasant wedding, a dinner-party with Alkibiades, Li Po downing a few with Wang Wei. (And such semi-intoxicated revels on the face of this dark earth will surely be re-enacted as long as people feel pain and love and sorrow and joy.) As night settled, spirits rose and sentiment and the jollity was in full swing, but we were weary by nine and offered regrets and set out toward town and the Dobo guesthouse in the shadow of the castle. John seemed genuinely pained, but only for a moment.

Had we met a hidden Buddha?

Seneca the Elder

The importance of Lucius or Marius Annaeus Seneca (called Seneca the Elder) for literary criticism is largely historical. He represents his age in taste and opinions, and he has preserved for posterity records of many oratorical works that would otherwise be lost. He gives the reader an idea of what was appreciated by a connoisseur shortly after Cicero’s time and an anthology of texts embodying those values, but he also represents an attitude toward literature that is less historically bounded.

For Seneca literature is characterized by the Horatian formula that passed naturally through Augustine into the Christian Middle Ages and that continues to be taken seriously by many contemporary critics: it should delight and also instruct. In Seneca the hedonism of literary delight (which risks frivolity and triviality) and the semi-Stoical moralizing that characterizes his instruction may seem specific to the writer’s era, but many of his received ideas persisted through Victorian British pedagogues to our own day.

It can, however, no longer be said that education is centered, as it was for Seneca, in language skills of reading, writing, and speaking. Excellence in that evolutionary anomaly of our species, the manipulation of verbal symbols, was once the most highly regarded of abilities not in the ancient Mediterranean alone, but in China and India, and in the oral cultures of West Africa and Polynesia. Only in our own day has education lowered its ambition to the merely vocational.

The elder Seneca – sometimes called Seneca Rhetor (though he was not a professional orator) to distinguish him from his more prominent son, the philosopher and tragedian, was born to an equestrian family in Cordoba in Spain ca. 54 B.C.E. The city was thoroughly Romanized, the most important in the province, and supported a high level of cultural life, but Seneca was sent to Rome to complete his studies. Rhetoric, logic, and literature formed the basis for the educational system, and as a young man Seneca had the opportunity to hear most of the leading orators of the day, anecdotes and specimens of whose work he was to record much later in life.

He seems to have spent much of his career tending his Iberian estates, though few details are known of his life. His son describes him according to the conventional ideals of Roman manhood after the model of Cato (whom the father regarded as an oracle). Seneca is said to have been old-fashioned and stern, a pious man and a patriot. The fragment that is all that survives of his historical work and several passages in his rhetorical texts indicate that he considered Roman society as much degenerated from earlier times, but this belief, too, is a moralizing commonplace and does not necessarily reveal any personal attribute beyond respectability. Seneca the Younger tells of his father’s dissuading him from vegetarianism, and the elder man did seem to have been distrustful of systematic philosophy, though less so of Stoicism (in the history of which his son was to play an important role).

Seneca’s rhetorical work was composed toward the end of his life putatively as instructional material for his descendants. Though this claim is yet another conventional topos (cf. Lord Chesterfield or Ben Franklin), the place of the volume in the school context is clear – it claims to reproduce, after all, the author’s own education. The proper title for the whole is Oratorum et rhetorum setentiae divisiones colores, an apt description of the work. It consists of a chrestomathy of passages (of a sort popular until quite recently) from declaimers of Seneca’s youth whom he thinks to be superior to those of later times and thus especially valuable examples for imitation by the young. Both the prodigious feat of memory implied by this task and the didactic intent are intrinsic to Seneca’s concept of the work. He approached it, however, with the nostalgia of an old man for his school days and the affection of a connoisseur for his collection, though his tone sometimes shifts to condescension, as he notes at one point that the topic of rhetoric has become for him tedious and that it is in any event “no serious matter.”

Each volume of the book – more commonly today treated as two separate works, the Controversiae and the Suasoriae – begins with a preface that moves informally among a number of topics but that generally tells something of the styles and personalities of the speakers, followed by the anthology of excerpts from their speeches.

The Controversiae consisted originally of ten books, each of which included passages from speeches dealing with six to nine legal cases. These cases were, for the most part, unlikely and artificial, often including curious or sensational details and posing in riddle-like conundrums. For example, the law provided that a rape victim could require that her attacker marry her or that he be put to death. What, then, of the case of a rapist who has two victims, one of whom demands his execution and the other his hand? Another case involves a soldier who, having lost his own weapons, takes those that had been dedicated at a hero’s tomb. Having fought bravely, should he still be convicted of sacrilege? A third case supposes that a youth was disinherited by his father for aiding his uncle financially. Later, the father himself falls into distress and the son offers him aid as well, thus angering the uncle and causing him, too, to disinherit his loyal relative. Should this filial son indeed lose all rights to inheritance?

For each case, Seneca gives the relevant law, then the “theme,” or case particulars, and then lines or passages representing each side. Then follow several possible divisions, called by Seneca the “bare bones” of the case – that is, the outline or principles of arrangement of the materials (often conventional, for instance, the contrast of pure equity and law).

Next are examples of colores, ways of approaching the facts that are favorable to the speaker’s point of view. Last comes a section of miscellaneous material. Such fanciful legal cases had been used in schools at least since the time of Aeschines’ academy in Rhodes in the fourth century B.C.E. The aim of the cases was not so much to develop legal acumen as ingenuity, pure verbal display for its own sake, an aesthetic use of language. In fact, Seneca decries the replacement of the “glorious art” of declamation by sordid business – which is to say, more pragmatically focused discourse.

sententiae are sometimes pithy, moralizing epigrams, but more often they are simply lines striking for their wit, their wordplay, and their novelty – little verbal firecrackers. The reader may then understand why Seneca offers such brief one-liners for the most part – he was more interested in bons mots than in discovery of truth or great thoughts.

The Suasoriae are generally thought to have been written somewhat later. They are excerpts from persuasive speeches (related to deliberative oratory as the Controversiae are to forensic) of advice to or analysis by historical or legendary figures, often allowing picturesque or exotic material. Such examples as these, too, had been used in schools for centuries, especially for younger students. Such exercises are discussed in Aristotle’s Rhetoric and in the Rhetorica ad Alexandrum. Certain of them were already classic set pieces, some to be used into the twentieth century in tradition-minded German and English institutions. These exercises included such dilemmas as Alexander wondering whether to sail the ocean in search of further conquests or the three hundred Spartans who opposed Xerxes debating whether they should retreat with the other Greeks. In this volume the description of the theme is followed only by related sententiae.

To appreciate these texts, one must understand the place of rhetoric and of that form of rhetoric called declamation in ancient culture. The extent to which rhetoric provided the vocabulary and many of the assumptions and values of literary theory, not only in antiquity but through the Renaissance, virtually until the Romantic revolution, is a subject demanding further work. Today, of course, the term rhetoric suggests either the pedagogy of composition or public speaking, narrowly conceived. That oratory to Seneca was merely the central genre of literature as a whole (as tragedy was to Aristotle) is evident in his willingness to cite examples from comedy, lyric poetry, and even history as declamatory models.

Declamare originally signified simply to speak loudly or emphatically, but the word came to indicate speech in which rhetorical display was cultivated for purely aesthetic ends, while it needs to answer the utilitarian ends of deliberative speech (as practiced in the assembly or the senate), forensic speech (from the law courts), or epideictic speech. This last type is the clearest antecedent of declamation, but its early uses are typically to demonstrate “praise and blame,” generally with a clear aim of moral edification, if not a clearer one of patriotism or piety. Epideictic speech, though, evolved to a species of “art oratory,” appreciated for its own sake under the name declamation. Seneca was intimately familiar with declamation, for, as he tells his readers, it had been born “after him.” Though similar exercises had been part of education centuries earlier in Greece and Rome, declamation became a popular form of public entertainment in the time of Seneca’s youth. Figures of speech and thought, Gorgianic sound effects, and “Asiatic” excesses became highly prized for their own sake (as well as attacked), and such prominent Romans as Ovid, Maecenas, and even Caesar Augustus took the declamatory stage. Competitions became the rage, and “stars” such as those Seneca describes arose.

One factor in this trend toward artistic rather than functional uses of rhetoric is surely political. The emergence of the Empire brought about a situation in which to risk offending the ruler by voicing controversial opinions might prove unwise. Further, court reforms had made the old style of speeches in legal cases obsolete. Some of Seneca’s regret for the grand old days of oratory may be republican sentiment prudently camouflaged. Nevertheless, the same sort of suspicion with which the old Greeks such as Aristophanes regarded the sophists and rhetoricians of an earlier age persisted in conservative circles of the Roman world. The professors of rhetoric had at one point been banished (most were Greeks, for the profession had been thought rather an improper calling for a citizen). In spite of the ambivalence with which declamation was still viewed, it came to be at the core of the educational curriculum, a means of continuing education for adults (this trend, too, was still alive through the nineteenth century with its Athenaeums, Chatauquas, and the like), as well as being thought a pleasurable pastime in itself.

These, then, are the kinds of speeches Seneca records and comments on. He reproduces the social ambivalence toward the subject: in one preface he comments that academic pursuits such as declamation are amusing when lightly touched but become tiresome when dwelt upon and analyzed. He is a curious blend of the dilettante and moralist as he insists both on self-fulfilling amusement and character-building as proper ends of declamation.

Many of Seneca’s offhand comments support the view of literature as frivolous escapist entertainment. At the outset of the Controversiae he compares himself to a producer of shows, noting that novelty is a virtue in theatrical productions, gladiatorial exhibitions, and declamation. His own critical method is far from technical or theoretical; rather it is descriptive and digressive. Seneca never passes up an opportunity to note odd or interesting personal characteristics of his speakers, often giving attention to foibles that seem irrelevant to their work. His inquiring curiosity, while universal, is desultory rather than systematic, somewhat similar to the sensibilities of Montaigne or Robert Burton. Seneca is unfailingly attracted to individualism; unique qualities of style in a given speaker are what draw Seneca’s interest, not excellence in a traditional mode.

The same equation of character and style, however, can also lead to a moralistic view of rhetoric. Seneca’s expressed impatience with his own project, which he calls at one point “trivial dallying,” is consistent with his attacks on scholasticism and excesses of style. In this spirit he sees speakers of his own day as too devoted to verbal luxury; for him the tricolon is “this new sickness” and he cites with approval Cicero’s condemnation of overblown rhetorical display. He contrasts declamation as an art form with oratory and calls the former insubstantial, though he feels that the skills gained in the practice of declamation can heighten one’s abilities not merely in speaking but in all other arts as well. This very notion, of course, has been assumed throughout most of European education (as well as in China and elsewhere as well) in the placement of linguistic skills as the foundation of all education.

This educational role is linked with the positive side of Seneca’s equation of style and character. He quotes with reverence Cato’s famous definition that gives morals primacy: “An orator is a good man, skilled in speaking.” Thus, while the decline in declamation corresponds to a more profound deterioration in society, the educational remedy is available. Seneca supports memory training as a healthy discipline and thinks its neglect simply one sign of a general softness. Luxury, Seneca declares, destroys intellectual capacity. Bad character brings not only laziness but also an inevitable inability even to select worthy models, models both for writing and for behavior.

Seneca’s influence is difficult to trace. There are few direct mentions of him in the centuries following his own time, and it is often impossible to distinguish what may derive from Seneca from what derives more generally from the rhetorical tradition in which he participated. In his arguments for a more tempered rhetorical style he anticipates Quintilian and neo-Ciceronianism. For all his fondness for rhetorical ornament he advises moderation and condemns the wilder excesses of declamation and the cultivation of labored ingenuity as the basis for rhetorical education.

As anecdotes the controversiae have an independent history, many gaining popularity as miniature short stories for their strange and ironic twists of plot. Eleven of the narratives in the influential collection Gesta Romanorum are identical with stories in Seneca, though many were retold by various ancient authors. Among later writers who imitate Seneca or acknowledge his influence are Montaigne, Ben Jonson, and Abraham Cowley.

Seneca’s greatest importance in literary history consists in his preserving evidence of the literary opinions of his time and class. The samples of declamations he regarded as so highly entertaining are little read today, but his psychological theories have much in common with some ideas current today in educational policy-making and in popular attitudes toward literature. As a critic Seneca was highly impressionistic, taking no position in most of the controversies of his day and eschewing technical labels for stylistic characteristics, preferring to use terms like “tumultuous,” “solid,” and “excited.” For all his cautions against excessive scholasticism in literature, he dwells today almost exclusively in academe. He vividly records both the now faded taste for verbal ornament and the sober Roman morality that were alike characteristic of his day.

Why I am a Socialist

To call oneself a socialist seems eccentric in twenty-first century America, and indeed, it is even these days somewhat odder in the world as a whole (though left advocacy remains much more mainstream everywhere else, rich countries and poor alike). When I was young, history’s trend seemed to many unmistakable. Socialist (or anarchist) politics were virtually universal among my circle of friends, and armed Third World insurgents were gaining ground everywhere in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Here I mean, not to recall or analyze those days, but to set out, in simple, non-poetic terms, as a citizen, some part of the case for socialism.
Far more difficult, I think, would be to defend the organization of all social production to return private profits to a few. If we want automobiles, surely the goal should be to produce the cheapest, most efficient, least polluting models possible. The recent surge of SUV production, finally brought low by gasoline prices, illustrates how the American system cultivates the opposite. Vehicles that pollute badly (with the looser regulation of “trucks”), use fuel profligately, and threaten the safety of smaller cars became America’s darlings (after appropriate advertising doses). I recall the damning analysis, albeit now out-of-date, of Baran and Sweezy demonstrating that over ninety percent of the price of an automobile under capitalism went to costs other than necessary design and production: advertising, dealers’ commissions (and with many times more dealerships than are needed), nonfunctional design changes (to indicate to the observer that the car is this year’s model and not last year’s), on and on. Given a choice, who would choose to be so wasteful?

The goal, after all, of capitalism is to maximize not value but profit. That can only mean charging more or giving the customer less. People are rewarded within the corporate system for figuring out ways to do these two things in spite of the fact that both are directly opposed to the interests of most of us.

Another particularly egregious (and typical) product of capitalism is the American breakfast cereal, a food ironically descended from “health” foods of the nineteenth century (as soda is descended from old nostrums). In the cereal business, companies compete to see who could offer customers the least. Some basic grain is refined until it is little more than pure starch, then given odd and inappropriate forms, puffed up to as large a shape as possible, and coated with sugar. These strategies are reinforced by the bright advertising which helps to develop our children into consumers, so delighted are they to see a food made specifically for the lowest common denominator of kids’ taste and decked out in such alluring packaging, almost as seductive as television. Should the box’s appeal be insufficient still, the manufacturer puts a toy inside. It is clear that the cereal is not what is sold; some self-image dependent on products is what the purchaser receives. The buyer in search of breakfast cereal should be able to select from foods, not from cartoon characters.

We are, of course, indulgent of our children; the tragedy is that the same system works equally well for consumption-oriented adults. The Hummer, whose demise is noted is today’s paper, is a caricature, but of an everyday reality. Cars and cereals are only dramatic examples of what is true of all production under capitalism. The profit motive creates directly opposing interests between producers and consumers who are forced to ignore their genuine shared interest in high quality goods at a low price. And demand is driven by the devious psychology of advertising, teaching us that our identities, our self-worth are based on consumerism, in spite of the fact that pursuit of merchandise (as the Dalai Lama and the Rolling Stones can agree) brings no satisfaction.

In terms of labor and the environment, the contrast is clear: capitalist employers will try to pay as little as possible and pollute as much as possible because both practices increase profit. Under socialism, the worker would receive as much reward as possible and the earth would be protected, because the economy would be managed for everyone’s benefit instead of for a few fat cats.
Right-wing apologists may point to the sad examples of Soviet repression, Maoist fanaticism, and Khmer Rouge genocide, but the examples are not to the point. As one ought to have learned by high school, capitalism and socialism are economic systems defined by ownership of the means of production; tyranny and democracy are political systems describing who makes social decisions. There is no linkage. If despots condemn an economic system, there have been far more right-wing dictators than left, but the examples of Hitler, Pinochet, or Syngman Rhee are no more relevant than those of Stalin, Castro, or Mao Zedong.

In fact, history unequivocally teaches the liberating potential of the progressive movement. No social step forward has ever come at the urging of business or of conservatives. On the contrary, people once perceived as wild radicals have again and again proved to be the sanest citizens. Even Lincoln thought that abolitionists were extremists, though who today would support slavery? The Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers fought fiercely to retain child labor to the very end, while an advocate for children such as Scott Nearing was fired as a dangerous radical for opposing it. Would women ever have received the right to vote were it not for their agitation, demonstrations, hunger strikes, picketing the White House? Labor unions had to struggle against violent opposition (including state violence from police, national guard, the army, and hired thugs) before they could end starvation wages, twelve hour days, and deadly dangers in the workplace. Socialist activists were, in fact, the spearhead of CIO organizing which resulted in the great American middle class’s enjoyment of private homes and health insurance. Unfortunately, the suburbanites have forgotten the historical process that brought them their comfort.

Such profound social benefits of left-wing agitation should be no surprise since its goal is to raise the living conditions of all people. When individuals seek only to enrich themselves, in fact, they are all but certain to harm others. How could it be otherwise? Goods are already socially produced – it must have taken the collective effort of thousands to produce the computer at which I sit – it is manifestly absurd for a few to be allowed to hoard profits from the sale of products actually made by others.
In my opinion the tendency of homo sapiens to share, to take care of the helpless, and to cooperate in projects for the common good is as significant a factor in the species’ success as opposable thumbs or swollen prefrontal lobes. In American culture we have been led to believe that people are by nature obsessed with wealth and ego. The fact is that such inevitably frustrating goals are culturally constructed. In the end, the human mind is moved by love and aggression – both will always exist in the psyche and in life, but the question is on which to put your chips for a better future. Surely only one answer is possible. I not only don’t hesitate myself; I honestly have difficulty understanding how anyone could consciously prefer the alternative.