“The gospel, too, is carnival,” said the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin. The carnival “was the victory of laughter over fear that most impressed medieval man,” and “[F]or the medieval parodist everything without exception was comic. Laughter was as universal as seriousness; it was directed at the whole world, at history, at societies, at ideology.” When I think of the poetry of Michael Robbins, I think of Bakhtin’s ideas of the carnival and carnivalesque. In his newest book of poetry, The Second Sex, Robbins continues the poetic festival commenced in Alien vs. Predator (a New York Times selection for Best Books of 2012). However, in The Second Sex the parodia sacra [sacred parody] is more explicit, lulling the reader into reverence by way of the irreverent, becoming, as one reviewer has described Robbins, like Graham Greene’s “whiskey priest” from The Power and the Glory.
Trevor Logan: Recently I’ve been reading snippets from a biography of Tolkien to my children. One recurrent theme is how strong Tolkien’s self-doubt was about publishing anything, in fact Tolkien admits his debt to C.S. Lewis not for influence but for Lewis’s “sheer encouragement”. (Dostoevsky, too, if I recall correctly, also wrestled with immense self-doubt.) Are there times when when you ask yourself, “What the hell am I doing? Is this complete bollocks?” If so, how do you work through it? And do you have someone who offers “sheer encouragement”?
Michael Robbins: Well, given Tolkien’s tendentiousness and stylistic infelicity, one wishes he’d doubted himself even more. But of course I doubt myself. Are there writers who don’t? None whose names we’ll ever know, I’d wager. As for encouragement, I’ve often mentioned the poet Anthony Madrid, who read and commented on every poem in my two books. But since I recently discovered that for over a year he has been surreptitiously inserting obscene playing cards into the books of my library whenever he’s been left alone in my living room, I must now denounce him as a skunk.
TL: Concerning The Second Sex, it seems to have the same capitalist-wasteland ambience as Alien vs Predator. Namely, the logic of modern consumer capital and marketing is god. But in The Second Sex the repercussions of serving mammon induce a deeper carnivalesque atmosphere. It is a Feast of Fools. The shadow of a carnival Christ stalks the contours of your poems, arousing a faint awareness of our current cultural amnesia precisely by clothing Christ with the garb of triviality and farce. The effect reminds me of Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty. A carnival of bourgeois intoxication and banality—numbing techno, martini drenched breasts fleshed in neon lights, a stripped woman ramming her head into stone as an art exhibition—will suddenly shift to medieval a cappella, or a nun chasing children amidst Rome’s gentle lemon trees and cloister gardens. Two architectures of consciousness and material culture are juxtaposed throughout the film with striking contrast. Your poetry, it seems to me, juxtaposes two architectures as well. On the surface, the theological architecture seems almost completely absent from The Second Sex, but read closely it resurrects through the back door of consciousness. Without this “back door”, so to speak, one could easily misjudge the poems as being merely exercises in random cleverness, poems to be read flippantly on the toilet but not to be taken seriously. Your thoughts?
MR: There is a lot to respond to here, including a movie review. Just to pick up a couple of threads: I would not use language like “consumer capital” or “serving mammon.” It’s capitalism tout court, not consumerism, that is God; marketing is merely a local deity. Of course the local brand deities appear in my poems, because I’m writing from within their domain. But it’s the exploitative logic of the production and reproduction process that is what Sinéad O’Connor would call the real enemy, and that logic survives any supposedly enlightened resistance to “material culture.” “Ethical consumerism” is for liberals.
That said, yes, I’ve become resigned to the lazy readings you refer to—a couple of reviews of the new book have focused on my “pastiche” and “mash-ups.” Please. I suspect, for instance, that anyone who could write a review of The Second Sex without even mentioning God didn’t actually read the book. I’m not Eliot, nor was meant to be—compared with him, I’m nothing, OK—but imagine thinking that all that matter in The Waste Land are the allusions and the Fisher King.
TL: Or maybe they did read the book, but are bereft of a meaningful grammar in which to make sense of the word “God”? Kierkegaard touches on this when he says that “…[W]e are willing to keep Christian terminology but privately know that nothing decisive is supposed to be meant by it.” Do you think this is part of the reason why there is no mention of God in these reviews?
MR: Yeah, that’s part of it. There’s probably a sense—available only to those who haven’t bothered to read my religious criticism, for instance my Commonweal review of David Bentley Hart—that what I mean by God can’t possibly be, you know, God. We all know that God is the province of people who think fossils are a satanic trick or whatever. But Deus non est in genere [God is not a particular instance within a class].
TL: Right. I’m pretty sure, for example, that Jerry Coyne thinks the existence of iPhones is definitive proof that God is a delusion. But Coyne is a waste of time. Let’s move on. Many poets throughout history have been quite conversant in philosophy, and you seem to be as well. Why do you think this is so often the case? And what philosophers do you read most?
MR: Coyne is the paragon of those in thrall to what Charles Taylor calls “closed spin.” Someone recently directed me to one of his several posts about me (I’ve stopped reading them, because they all get the same things wrong in the same way) in which he implies that Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the death of God is a counsel for gloom. Nietzsche, the yea-sayer, he of amor fati! I’m so grateful for Chapter 15 of Taylor’s A Secular Age, which demolishes the flip, uninformed, reductive canards of Coyne and his ilk. For an honest scientific take on these questions, on the other hand, I recommend Marcelo Gleiser’s The Island of Knowledge. But yes, let’s move on.
I don’t know that, historically, poets have been any more conversant with philosophy than have other writers, although there’s obviously a relationship that goes back to Plato. I don’t read philosophy because I’m a poet, but because I’m interested in thinking about hard questions and problems. I’m interested in having an “open take” rather than a “closed spin,” to revert to Taylor’s language. A Secular Age is certainly the work of philosophy I’ve returned to most of late, for all its faults (it should be at least a third shorter than it is, and Harvard University Press must have been too intimidated to suggest that Taylor refrain from idiosyncratic usage of commas and semi-colons). I return often to those who recognize that there are historical and cultural constraints on what it is possible for us to believe—“a background,” as Taylor says, “to our thinking, within whose terms it is carried on, but which is often largely unformulated, and to which we can frequently, just for this reason, imagine no alternative”: Marx and Freud, despite their unsophisticated views of religion (the result of just such a background, which no one’s thinking can entirely escape), and Heidegger and Lacan.
Such thinkers teach us that people like Coyne are not only mistaken that their beliefs are “obvious” and “rationally grounded” but literally incapable of imagining that they could be wrong about the nature of reality. They always demand “evidence” for God’s existence, but, as Stanley Hauerwas puts it in a discussion of Thomas Aquinas, “if we could have the kind of evidence of God the evidentialist desires, then we would have evidence that the God Christians worship does not exist.” It’s not simply that the evidentialist doesn’t grasp basic theology and epistemology, but that the notion that the concept of “evidence” is itself not neutral or ahistorical could never occur to him, given the picture that holds him captive. And of course I’m not denying that the language of evidence is proper to its sphere or that my own thinking (or anyone’s) is not subject to all sorts of constraints I don’t recognize. But even if we cannot attain to a view from nowhere, we can recognize that we cannot, which allows us to avoid, to some extent at least, the epistemic arrogance that characterizes scientism. I do not know that God is the creator of heaven and earth, or that Jesus Christ is his only son, our Lord.
TL: This morning, while dropping my kids off for school, R.E.M.’s Man on the Moon shuffled on the stereo. The line “here’s a truck stop instead of Saint Peter’s, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. . .” conjured up an image of a recurrent thought: Why, in light of the nearly wholesale acceptance of the myth of inevitable progress, does our material culture not reflect the supposed superiority of modern man over those we often condescendingly call “medieval,” or whatever? What is to be said about the fact that instead of building beautiful monuments reflecting the magnificence of the human mind, say Saint Peter’s Basilica, we’ve opted for the scenery of petty pragmatic huts of capitalism—the internuncios of Wal-Mart—littering miles of highway? As Svetlana Geier says, in The Woman with the Five Elephants, upon returning to her home after decades and seeing the proliferation of billboards and hideous architecture taking over the landscape: “This is quite simply ugly. That wall doesn’t have to be like that. It is ridiculously ugly and nothing works.” Hence the epigraph to The Second Sex, taken from Allan Peterson’s Hydrology—“Look at your money. No one is smiling”—is similar to saying, “Look at what your way of thinking has wrought. No one is smiling.” Indeed no one is smiling. And thus you end The Second Sex with these lines:
And I’d be more like them
if I were less like this,
a billion points of glitter
in a fathomless abyss.
There is a lot of laughter, jesting and fun in your poetry. But at the same time there is something serious simmering beneath its surface, one gets the feeling of “walking through the twilight or retracing some day in our past” and feeling “that we have lost some infinite thing,” as Jorge Luis Borges writes in Paradiso, XXXI, 108. Amidst “a billion points of glitter / in a fathomless abyss,” capitalism is proving itself deeply traitorous to the grandeur of the human imagination. Personally, I oscillate between hope and despair about the future; but what do you think? Is there a way out of the inferno, the abyss (as Dante would presume)?
MR: Trevor, R.E.M. is a satanic trick. And I think one has to be dialectical here: of course our material culture is not “superior,” but it does represent progress of a sort. I would not want to return to the world of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, published while St. Peter’s Basilica was under construction. I think penicillin might be worth a cathedral or two. And I’ve seen some beautiful truck stops. And yet modernity has indeed been unkind to infinite things, for believers and nonbelievers alike. Taylor speaks of a yearning for fulfillment that would have been unthinkable in previous ages. My own commitments to Christianity and communism are commitments to hope. Karl Barth says “the characteristic marks of Christianity [are] deprivation and hope.” But sometimes I think Kafka was right: “There is an infinite amount of hope—but not for us.”