Blake Butler stares down the skeptics.
Recently there was a minor kerfuffle at HTMLGIANT, the infamous “internet literary blog of the future” founded by Blake Butler (and a blog no stranger to kerfuffles, controversies, and “shitstorms”). As catalogued here by Rauan Klassnik, disgruntled poet Philip Hopkins (and friend of Klassnik) used a post eulogizing the death of Seamus Heaney to air pointed complaints regarding what he perceived as Butler’s immoral “poetics.” He later apologized for the puerility of his remarks, and elaborated on the nature of his aesthetic disagreement, in an e-mail included in Rauan’s post. He would develop his ideas further in an essay published on Montevidayo by Johannes Goransson, another poet criticized by Hopkins. Essentially, Hopkins’s main beef seems to be that neither Klassnik, Goransson, nor Butler are interested in writing “moral” literature, which Hopkins associates with Heaney—in his words, a writer of “conscience.”
As Goransson explains in his disclaimer to Hopkins’s essay, the essay is interesting not necessarily because of the originality of its content, but because it repeats a complaint that certain kinds of writers not necessarily interested in accessibility have been hearing for some time: namely, that their work is “masturbatory, not public, not mature, not grown up.” The idea is that writing which does not in some sense declare its intentions as humanist is, in a sense, excusing itself from the larger literary conversation. Whether this is actually true of “inaccessible” texts, or purely the result of disdain from “conservatives” like Hopkins is up for debate.
The poetry of Archilochus of Paros, ranked in antiquity alongside Homer and Hesiod, once came under similar assault. Critias the Sophist—who was (among other things) a politician during the Peloponnesian Wars—claimed that Archilochus’s work, the earliest example of surviving Greek lyric, was marred by his frequent references to his personal failings. Through his poetry, explains Critias, we learn that Archilochus was the son of a slave woman, that he left Paros because of poverty, that he was an adulterer, that he was “indecently sensuous,” and, “worst of all,” that he threw his shield away in the midst of battle (in order to run faster). “Archilochus,” explains Critias, “was no good testimony to himself, leaving that kind of slander and scuttlebutt behind him.” We are meant to understand that this makes his poetry less valuable.
Critias presents a different position from that which Hopkins espouses, but the intent of the attack is the same: to diminish a work of art through reference to an arbitrary moral standard. The only real difference is the shift from the conduct of the poet (and his apparent lack of tact) to the work itself (and its apparent lack of tact). What is lost is a sense of what the work might be capable of providing to the reader, despite its refusal to adhere to the critic’s invented standards.
Roughly half a millennium after Critias, Dio Chrysostom explained that Homer’s poetry is one of mastery (of representation and the physical world), whereas “Archilochus took the opposite direction, that of reproach, because, as I see it, he knew that men need this more, and his first object of attack is himself.” This opinion was roughly in line with other Neoplatonist critics, such as Emperor Julian the Apostate and Synesius. According to Frederic Will, it seems to represent a new understanding in what might loosely be called “literary criticism.” Even though Dio Chrysostom is still speaking from a social perspective, the emphasis is on what the text can accomplish even if it is asocial in content.
To the sensitive reader, the well-executed text always has something to offer, regardless of its intent. Butler’s writing, because it is so different from “conventional” literature, can be conceivably criticized among many lines (for instance, his relatively large back-catalogue contains much repetition—perhaps because, as he has said, he regards his work as “typing” as opposed to “writing”). But an outright dismissal of his work because of its differences from “conventional” or “moralistic” literature would be missing the point entirely.
If our records can be trusted, Archilochus was the first of Greek poets to speak from a true first-person perspective, as well as the first poet to “attack” himself with the same sharpness he reserved for his enemies. While this might have shocked critics used to navigating the mores and customs of ancient public life, it is Archilochus’s unrelenting honesty that strikes a chord in the reader, an honesty which can only be appreciated if the reader isn’t concerned with how the work might be living up to their prejudicial standards. Blake Butler might not be Seamus Heaney, but literature already has a Seamus Heaney. Even if Butler’s work could be spoken of as “masturbatory” (and there isn’t enough space to get into that here), inaccessible or masturbatory literature can still provide solace or diversion to the reader. This isn’t a question of morals but of aesthetics, and without meaningful reference to those very aesthetics, Hopkins’s criticism comes to a dead end. Perhaps “moral” writing could be more properly conceived of as writing which does not censor itself, which, like that of Butler and Archilochus, lets the reader pick and choose and come to her own conclusions.