Distraction v. Attraction
This essay, in an earlier version, given as a paper at the conference on ‘Something We Have that They Don’t: Anglo-American Poetic Relations since the War’, organised by Mark Ford and Steve Clark under the aegis of the University of London.
Few 20th-century events, even in literary history alone, were at once important and relatively harmless. One was the rise and fall of Anglo-American literature. I use the term, in what may be too subjective a sense, to span the period from the birth of Whitman to the death of T.S. Eliot. It could be said that before Whitman, no American poet of real gifts wrote American literature; and after Eliot, none wrote anything else. Between these two points, two cultures, already to different degrees and in different ways interdependent, began to produce a fused, rich and ambiguous literature. This is a large subject, and I shan’t attempt to cover it. I want merely to offer some comment on three poets – Eliot, Larkin and Ashbery – who may all be said to throw different kinds of light on the phenomenon of Anglo-American culture.
First, some definitions: what, for instance, does it mean to be ‘American’ in this sense? Over the last century, American writers have returned to the shared apprehension that the problem for an American writer is one of language. Thinking aloud – in a letter written in 1932 – about his difficulties over Mourning Becomes Electra, Eugene O’Neill lamented his lack of a great language adequate to his tragic subject: ‘By way of self-consolation, I don’t think, from the evidence of all that is being written today, that great language is possible for anyone living in the discordant, broken, faithless rhythm of our time.’ ‘Our time’ is perhaps not just the 20th century, but the period that gave birth to American modern culture. And it is a bastard modernity in this sense that Saul Bellow – in the Romanes Lecture he gave in Oxford in 1990 – finds inescapable yet crippling for any writer reflecting the society of his time:
In public life everybody uses the same formulas – presidents, former presidents, senior statesmen, secretaries of state, leaders of the legal and other professions, celebrity financiers, talk-show hosts, university presidents, disc jockeys, leaders of the various liberation movements, star athletes, rock musicians, artists, singers, Hollywood personalities, publishers, the clerics of all churches, environmentalists . . . Sportscasters, rap musicians, university rightists, university leftists, all employ the same language.
It might be expected that two Nobel Prize-winners should share an image of modern American speech and life. Interestingly, though, a lament not all that different comes in a recent fiction, Romance, by one of the country’s leading crime writers, Ed McBain:
That had been the idea. Not a bad one, actually. One people. One good and decent, grave and honourable tribe.
But somewhere along the way, the idea began to dissipate. It had lasted longer than most ideas in America, where everything is in a state of incessant change. In America, there’s always a new president or a new war or a new television series or a new movie or a new talk show or a new hot writer. In view of the overwhelming wealth of ideas flooding America all the time, day and night, night and day, it wasn’t too surprising that people began thinking maybe the idea of mixing all those separate colours and languages hadn’t been such a hot one all along.
All three have in common the problem presented to the writer by American scale and diversity. Saul Bellow gave that topic a sharper definition when he called his lecture ‘The Distracted Public’. By ‘distraction’ he implies a fragmentation and confusion of culture endemic to modernity but essentially New World in its source. His focus is on the Information Revolution, the vast expansion of knowledge beyond human understanding or discipline, and the ensuing presence of incoherence and irrationality in the culture generally. He takes the representative case of multi-channel TV systems that – under the power of remote-control toys – ‘permit us to jump back and forth, mixing up beginnings, middles and ends, alternating Westerns with gamblers in Chinatown or talk shows’. He concludes: ‘The kid with the clicker is the Boss.’ Or, more sombrely: ‘Here consciousness emptily asserts itself.’
Both Whitman and Eliot, the polar American writers of modern life, are, perhaps, faintly present in echoes under Bellow’s powerful prose. The rhetoric of multiplicity is other than American (Robert Burton probably invented it for English prose) but both Bellow and McBain are probably hearing some rhythm from Whitman’s sometimes tedious but more often breathtaking echt American anaphoras, constructed to coast us as in a spaceship across an otherwise unparaphrasable vista of human data in a not-yet-cinematic continent. Whitman is the laureate of an America whose soul is scale, whose innocence is the discovery of new places and new spaces, of tracks always westward.
But diversity, for Bellow, is distraction. When he uses the word for his public, he is surely hearing a voice morally less concerned with innocence and culturally more European:
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper . . .
In the mid-1930s the American-born Eliot (who hated Whitman, though he, too, was haunted by his rhythms), in ‘Burnt Norton’, the first of his Quartets, took his fellow London Tube-travellers through their usual endless Inner Circle of non-being. Five years later, these travellers would reappear in ‘East Coker’ on a more spiritual journey ‘into the dark’:
the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent
men of letters.
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen
and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of
many committees . . .
It’s hard to think of a finer or more urbane poetry of distraction; and Bellow’s ‘presidents, former presidents, senior statesmen’ and others surely echo Eliot’s calm and radical humour. What the reader doesn’t find in Bellow is the dimension by which Eliot’s subversive spirituality can look hopefully for a different and good distraction; what is called, in ‘The Dry Salvages’, the ‘unattended/Moment, the moment in and out of time,/The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight’. Eliot is, in practice, both damning and blessing an earlier American progenitor, as if Whitman’s vast landscape could just occasionally stretch west through the dying day into God.
The three prose writers I began from – dramatist, novelist and crime writer – are all from their own angles defining 20th-century America as a distracted public. The OED glosses ‘distraction’ as ‘violent stretching or extension’, and as ‘dispersion, scattering’. I want on this basis to make use of a cliché. The United States of America constitutes a vast terrain, and one whose communities are ethnically unlike. Geographically, sociologically and culturally, the violently scattered and dispersed publics of America offer a peculiar challenge at any number of linguistic and substantial levels to the writer – especially the poet – who hopes for an audience continent-wide. The poet and his or her reader are inhabitants of what W.H. Auden described in the introduction to his Faber Book of Modern American Verse as ‘a continent only partially settled and developed, where human activity seems a tiny thing in comparison to the magnitude of the earth’. In her more recent Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry, Helen Vendler has made a comparable point, arguing that geographically and topographically there must be many American poetries: ‘There will be no American landscape that does not speak in words as well as in line and colour.’
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.