Saturday, February 18, 2012

What are bad writers for?

Roy Edroso has been inviting us to savor the writing of James Poulos, at the Daily Caller, on the topic of "What are Women For?", a question you may never have asked yourself.
Witches at work. From A Blurred History.

Thers, whose opinions I normally revere, insists for some reason that James Poulos does not truly deserve to be called the worst writer on this or any other Internet (his italics); he thinks [jump]
that the title belongs to one Paul J. Celia, editor of What's wrong with the world: Dispatches from the 10th Crusade, who is indeed pretty bad:
I would drill even deeper into this and ask: what is at back of demographics? The answer is human reproduction, what George Gilder in his brave and brilliant book Men and Marriage called the sexual constitution. From there it is a very simple trace of logic to the realization that human sexuality can never, ever, be a purely "private" matter. It is, always and inevitably, a matter of absolutely vital public importance.
But really, you want to reserve an award like that to a body of work that shows a certain level of boldness and aspiration that Celia's flabby prose and facile ultramontanism just don't have—although his poetry is very remarkable, using a little-known prosodic technique in which each line appears to have a metrical structure that is unlike the metrical structure of any other line in an entire (sometimes quite long) poem:
When one dim and darkening day, as whispers have long foretold,
No German balance sheet, no synthetic neo-deutschmark sold
By even the cleverest rocket science modeling risk probabilities
Can avert the crack of doom, can calm the quaking knees
Of financiers and securitizers stalking every trading floor
In Paris and in London, faraway Dubai and Singapore
Nor sparing Basel, Frankfurt, New York or Reykjavik,
Every last bank integrating capital, the globalization trick;
Liquidity and margin calls, swap spread, three-party repo:
Mystique of technicality like any human hubris is laid low.
Calm those quaking knees!

Anyhow, Poulos has the audacity that can push a bad writer into a kind of transcendent awfulness beyond meaning itself:
Left opinion is no longer defined by the comfortably careworn liberal consensus that Sandra Day O’Connor conveyed in the abortive plurality decision of Planned Parenthood v. Casey. There, the metaphysical trouble kicked up by the elective killing of fetuses was relegated to the realm of life’s cosmic mysteries — a place liberals contemptuously deride as beneath human dignity when referenced in terms of the suffering of the crucified Christ.
Look at the oxymoron of "comfortably careworn" next to the redundancy of "contemptuously deride"! Close your eyes and imagine what's meant to be abortive, the plurality or the decision, and what exactly that entails!* Take that Disney dark-ride trip to the realm of life's cosmic mysteries, a location where you evidently should not leave your metaphysical trouble! According to liberals, you would be lurking somewhere beneath human dignity if something or other were referenced (footnoted? referred to?) in a particular way, though not otherwise...

But then
The purpose of lifting the left’s Potemkin skirts is not to score tits for tats.
I don't mind if it is, actually, as long as he's the one who ends up scoring the tats. Potemkin skirts, obviously, are false-fronted skirts whipped up by your one-eyed prince after he failed to make you the real ones on time. The implied equivalence between the left and Catherine the Great may have something to do with an association linking man-on-dog to woman-under-horse and a revolting and absolutely false piece of gossip about Catherine, no doubt spread by Jesuits in the counter-Revolution because Catherine was in fact a sort of liberal; and I'm not sure why the skirts instead of the villages—I guess you could say that for Poulos, it takes a village to raise a skirt?

So what are women for?
...the dominant but failing framework of liberal sexual politics.... hasn’t come anywhere close to answering even the most basic questions about what women are for — despite pretty much universal recognition across the political spectrum that a civilization of men, for men, and by men is no civilization at all, a monstrously barbaric, bloody, and brutal enterprise. A few inherently meaningful implications about what women are for flow naturally from this wise and enduring consensus, but no faction of conservatives or liberals has figured out how to fully grasp, translate, and reconcile them in the context of our political life.
Seems to be several questions rather than just one, some more basic than others, that a particular political framework was meant to answer but didn't. One very basic question of course would be how a civilization of men, for men, and by men would reproduce itself, supposing you wanted to try it out, as organisms like ourselves are ill suited to reproduction by cell division or budding.** But that wouldn't explain what women are for—it would do a better job with what are men for, since it's the Y chromosomes that are the advanced feature that presexual beings don't have any of. I wonder if that's an inherently meaningful implication?

You see what I mean, though: this is bad writing amplified into another world. It's somebody purposely setting out to create the same kind of effect that Sarah Palin improvises, but in the austere and deliberate language of a newspaper editorial—like a composer trying to duplicate the feeling of a really tedious heavy metal guitar solo with an ensemble of oboe, harpsichord, and theorbo. It's superlatively bad; it's practically hors concours.

In a later post, in response to a "wave of anger and condemnation that has come from some quarters," Poulos tries to clarify what he was aiming at:
At the heart of the culture wars is a very deep-seated disagreement over whether or not women’s natural bodies give women unique or particular purposes — and, if so, what those purposes are, and how our morals, politics, and laws ought to treat the relationship between those purposes and women’s choices about how to actually live.
 Here a little light begins to dawn. If he thinks women's natural bodies give them unique or particular purposes, then yes, I disagree with him; I'd agree that women's natural bodies give them abilities and options that I and other men don't have, but I wouldn't use the word "purpose" at all—or "unique" either, since there are in fact lots of women around. (With unnatural bodies, like the Bionic Woman, it'd be another story on both counts.)

Presumably the idea of women being endowed with extra purpose that is missing from men comes from religion, and specifically from Genesis; because the Lord doesn't bother to offer any explanations as to why he creates humanity in Genesis 1:26, but when he starts working on woman in Genesis 2:18, he says explicitly,
It is not good that the man should be alone: I will make him a helper as his partner.
In Genesis 2, woman is made for man, like a kind of housewarming present. ("Everybody needs a crock pot and a good corkscrew, no matter what they think; and also, I got you this woman, you'll love her.") Whereas man is just there, like God and in God's image, so that he doesn't need to be explained—he is that he is.***

And Poulos goes on to say what he thinks women can do—it's not just childbearing, indeed he even seems to be a bit of a pro-choicer, but what's hinted at in that picture of a "monstrously barbaric, bloody, and brutal" society without women (sort of like a Dominican monastery):
women’s bodies might equip them to play a particularly important social and political role.... Philosophers from Plato to Rousseau to Heidegger have disapprovingly warned of the apparently natural propensity of men to fill up the world with stuff — machines, weapons, ideologies, and so on — that often objectifies and instrumentalizes people, and often distracts us from its own sterility as regards fruitful human living [and] I’m not alone in thinking that women are uniquely able to help humanity avoid becoming enthralled to the more sterile cultural creations of men.
Yes, that's it: the purpose of women having those natural bodies of theirs is to stop dudes from buying too much stuff! Like, if she didn't have boobs I would totally get an I-phone. A-and a gun. Actually, there may be something to that, as far as the phone goes at least, except it would be one of those cases where it's really more a bug than a feature.

And what are bad writers for? Well, I think good writing—no, hang on, I think trying to write well is about finding out what one understands: what's in there, in your perceptions and their juxtapositions to each other, and out of the language system, from which you can draw an understanding. And by a similar token, there is a way of deliberately writing badly that is about hiding what you understand, about papering it over with what Sarah Palin calls "verbage" ("Don't forget to take out the verbage, Todd").  You can understand conservative writing better if you read it as—let's not say lying, it isn't necessarily deliberate in that sense, but hiding, from the thing back there in the mind that terrifies them, whatever it might be. Poulos, for one, has some very deep anxieties about women, and he's writing to conceal them from himself first, before anybody else.

*He may think "abortive" means "pertaining to abortion", as in, "He stood with his sign in front of the abortive clinic."

**Maybe he's thinking they'd still have women, but not in the civilization; barbarian women, perhaps, living in procreation camps.

***That, Poulos, if you ever happen to see these lines, is why so many women and other people were offended by your essay—it's as if you were to ask, "What are black people for?—They're different, aren't they, what's up with that?" The answer isn't, as many conservatives who don't want to be racists imagine, that they aren't different from you; it's that you're different from them as well; you're speaking as if from a privileged point of view for which there isn't any justification.

That was a lot of work! I think we need some Brahms. 

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