History, with limited details incomprehensible in their horror––documents facts, statistics, events, sometimes presents a critical truth rupturing the politics of allegiance and the winning army’s system of values, as in the Roman historian Tacitus’ comment when he stated about conquerors: “They make a desert and call it peace.”
Poets working with what language and visual images can express and communicate through sincerity and complexity, through itemized awareness of the politics of expression, through compassion rising out of imagination’s association with others’ suffering, must be aware of the contradiction they live with and present to the real world of high finance, militarism, and cultural control, which is unrelated to shaping a world valuing imagination. This does not mean that Fredric Jameson’s borrowing from Marcuse’s reference to the “libidinal utopia of the individual body” is an unfit subject or an irrelevant desire because of imminent crises within the international community. What I have been arguing is that because of the realization and habit of pleasure, because the variety of unorganized rituals of fantasy, with roots in art and eroticism, because of the imagination’s magnetics in relation to pleasure as an ultimate value—the deferral, the decimation, the absence of it for others is intolerable to witness.
I don’t expect poetry or any of the arts to solve the problems of our catastrophes. Confrontation regarding that failure establishes the dilemma, which should increase the confrontation with catastrophe rather than accuse artists for intruding. Artists accepting that they are unwelcome witnesses to issues concerning war, labor, racism, sexism, etc. is an accomplishment of the State. Though we have the precedent of Adrienne Rich refusing the National Medal of the Arts from a ruling class whore, we have yet to experience a single poet laureate taking an ethical position against any of the numerous violent acts perpetrated by our government domestically or internationally.
Plato’s perversely renowned banishment of the poet from the Republic, Thomas McGrath’s blacklisting during the McCarthy Era, Federico Franco’s assassination of Garcia Lorca during the Spanish Civil War––either a silencing through exile, repression, or death; an effective either/or argument which hasn’t taken much to get poets to behave. But the deadening, whether it is literal or one that is self-imposed upon the evidence of one’s perception––emphasizes the libidinal quality of art to incite and the anti-libidinal bullying of the State to repress.
The confrontation reaffirms not only that the foundational quality of poetry is libidinal by definition, but that history’s libido is the poetry, art, and film that expresses uncensored historical realities and emotions about the subject that would otherwise be unexpressed, remain excluded from our consciousness, disappearing or disappeared lives unrecorded without the artist’s steadfast liability. Replacing the Headlines the State-sanctioned media places in our heads, poetry is a symbolic act of species preservation, as art itself past personal expression is a product of species enhancement and perpetuation.
From: “History’s Libido: The Role of the Radical Imagination in 20th Century Poetry and Art,” a lecture and poetry reading delivered at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1998.