Sunday, March 30, 2008

Bruce v. Bill

A while back Bruce Andrews went on Bill O'Reilly's conservative TV talk/news show and went toe to toe with Bill. Mike Hennessey links the YouTube recording of the encounter and has a few good words to say about it.

After viewing this again I went to my bookshelf to pull down some Andrews and re-read, and I listened to several of his more overtly political poems on his deep PennSound author page. One of my favorites there is "You Made This World, We Didn't", which is the final section (of 100 sections) of I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism), a book published by Sun & Moon in 1992. Listen to this marvelous poem (Andrews reads well) and imagine how Bill O'Reilly would have--could have--responded had he asked Bruce to read a poem on the air and Bruce had read this. There's a politics in which one person tries to force another to speak the common already-corrupted language, a point at which we still believe the common language hasn't entirely broken down, although one has to deal with evasions and dodges on both sides; and then there's the politics of a Bruce Andrews poem, in which it becomes clear that the poet bespeaks the breakdown, which has already occurred before the poem began, and in which that breakdown is a sign of confidence and health, and an openness to other possibilities. Bruce is willing to talk in both worlds, thank goodness, so I am intrigued to hear him in both at once. What are the differences? Yes, but what are the similarities?

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Google goes black

I read Grand Text Auto as often as I can. It's a "group blog about computer narrative, games, poetry and art." In a new entry, Nick Montfort satirizes Google by showing a black Google home page along with this note: "It warms my heart to see that a major Internet company has turned its Web page black, joining the protest against the Communications Decency Act only 4433 days late."

Charles Bernstein points me (and us) toward Google's blackle which Google claims has saved (at the moment I went there) 536,868.931 Watt hours. Given this rhetoric, I suppose Nick is wrong in thinking Google belatedly red or pink; they're trying to be green.

classroom as kiva

During the era since the emergence of digital media and, now or very soon, of ubiquitous connectivity—-and as the effect of these advents on the delivery of materials to the classroom but also their storage outside such a space becomes profound—-the irony of the classroom lecture on modernism has become more obvious than before and increasingly disabling.

I want to explore that irony and lament the disability.

I've written this here before, and I've noted that the main problem is not diagnosing the ill. It's easy to mock someone lecturing on modernism as a failure to admit any measure of the form of its innovation into the room. Which is to say: the problem will be to define or at least describe an alternative.

So I've turned to ideas about noise as a possible model - I mean, poetry as noise or what Bruce Andrews has called "athematic ‘informal music’”. Aligned with the spirit of this, I've been wondering here from time to time if the poetry classroom might be filled with such noise.

One working assumption is that the “use” of new technologies to abet the teaching of poetry is not going to make a bit of difference unless some sort of fundamental pedagogical change accompanies it.

Is it possible that quality of that changed environment might indeed sound something like Andrews’s athematic informal music? If it is true that “An onomatopoetic expression automatically entails the specification of what is being described,” then the teacher of that expression who wishes to describe specifically must to some extent reproduce sound-sense.

Because of the difficulty of effecting such reproduction, most advocates of an historically capacious modernism — I mean, the radical modernism that embraces archaic, pre-literate forms, the non-Eliotic mode that defies New Critical analysis — have argued that such poetry does not belong in the classroom. If one accepts such a contention, such as that put forward by Jerome Rothenberg in 1975 in his “Dialogue on Oral Poetry,” then one must either remove this poetics from the curriculum or rebuild the space and the role of the teacher. Rothenberg:

“As for poetry ‘belonging’ in the classroom, it’s like the way they taught us sex in those old hygiene classes: not performance but semiotics. If it I had taken Hygiene 71 seriously, I would have become a monk; & if I had taken college English seriously, I would have become an accountant.”

Yet Rothenberg did and does teach, and so admits to the realization that “the classroom becomes a substitute for those places (coffee shop or kiva) where poetry actually happens & where it can be ‘learned’ (not ‘taught’) in action.”

Friday, March 28, 2008

slipped into an evidence bag

Twelve hours of reading aloud Lolita, to mark her 50th yesterday. The "program" prepared for the event (by Thomson Guster, Kaegan Sparks, and others) was a dossier of pages typewritten on a portable manual Olivetti slipped inside a clear plastic "evidence bag." Writers House staffers walked around all day in orange or green t-shirts emblazoned with alluring or boldly declarative ("HUMBERT HUMBERT") words.

This morning's Daily Pennsylvanian, in part:

Audience members were treated to a lunch taken straight from the pages of the novel, featuring treats like cherry pie, candy, ham and eggs, figs, bananas and ice cream sundaes. Each plate was accompanied by a bright pink slip of paper with a quote from the book related to the snack.

College sophomore Thomson Guster, who works at the Writers House, explained that sweet food is symbolic in the novel because the character of Lolita, a bratty little girl, can be bribed with candy and lollipops.

Food is "part of the whole seduction" of the book, said Jessica Lowenthal, director of KWH.

Here is the whole article.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

drive, she said

The novelist and essayist Lynne Sharon Schwartz visited the Writers House recently as a "Writers House Fellow." She read from her 9/11 novel The Writing on the Wall on Monday evening; an mp3 is available, and so is streaming QuickTime video. The next morning she was back, and this time I interviewed her and led a discussion with an audience of about 50 people gathered at the House. This to can be heard and also viewed as video.

During the interview we talked in part about her essay called "Drive, She Said," which is a mostly implicit rejoinder to Robert Creeley's "I Know a Man":

drive, he sd, for
christ's sake, look
out where yr going.

Lynne is somewhat afraid of driving recklessly or fast; her father was the master of the road and she wants his inheritance, but she drives cautiously and slow and cannot get over the fear that a cop will pull her over, ask her to roll down the window and will say, "You're not your father's daughter." She seeks counsel from her therapist, but she neglects to say the most important thing about her driving anxiety--that it's founded entirely on a fear of her father's driving and her incapacity at the thought of being disconnected from him as a timid driver. The therapist preaches the therapeutic gospel of a communalist road, where we share interests even while driving our separate ways. Lynne would like to believe that, but she can't. Nor can she end the essay. She is after all her father's daughter. She's more Creeley-like than not, in the end, because her essay-memoir talks on and on and meanders until finally she's driving the essay forward in the mode of which she thinks she's afraid. To me it constitutes an interesting feminist response to the Creeley of that early Guy Talk/On the Road poem.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

poetry would survive a post-literate situation

"I'm saying that the domain of poetry includes both oral & written forms, that poetry goes back to a pre-literate situation & would survive a post-literate situation, that human speech is a near-endless source of poetic forms, that there has always been more oral than written poetry, & that we can no longer pretend to a knowledge of poetry if we deny its oral dimension."--Jerome Rothenberg, from a dialogue on oral poetry with William Spanos, 1975*

* in Pre-Faces, p. 11.

Monday, March 24, 2008

book excerpt

On Charles Bernstein's blog, find a link to an excerpt from my new book.

poem as news, news as poem

I've had a lot to say - too much, for most people, I'm sure - about the cardboard caricaturing of American communist poets, an invention of the 1940s and 1950s after the apparent/alleged dominance of such poets in the 1930s. I don't mean their politics, which often can be aptly caricatured (or at least predicted); I mean their aesthetics.

To take an instance: Collage, one would think, would be anathema to a communist poet at the height of the anti-fascist movement.

Responding to the death of Franklin Roosevelt in the spring of 1945, the communist Aaron Kramer constructed an elegy of words he found in the New York newspapers of April 13th and 14th. The result is a poem that is most certainly not an effort to respond coherently to a major political event - maybe emotionally, but not ideologically. It's not, in my view, a great instance of collage, but it is a newspaper collage and it was published in the American communists' official newspaper. The whole text is available in my modern American poetry site/English 88. Here are a few parts:

QUESTION: What did President Roosevelt mean to you
Place: Times Square...

A black crepe bowknot
either with or without streamers...

They came up out of the subways to put the question...

the flag is flown at half-staff, it was pointed out,
but never with the blue field down,
as that signifies a signal of distress

Sunday, March 23, 2008

domesticating aura

Sometimes the magic is not in the looked-at but among the onlookers. As in this 1952 cartoon (published in the Saturday Review of Literature):

There's also here, of course, a related 1950s narrative about the Americanization of the Other, his transformation from status as the Real Thing to that of mere member of the Lonely Crowd craving the domestication of the non-rational. MORE >>>

Thursday, March 20, 2008

open-book prof

In today's NYT "ThursdayStyles" section the lead story, under a huge photo of a famous crusty TV law prof, is a story about "the professor as open book." Wow! News! Now students and others can discover their professors' red wine preferences, their favorite films, their social-networking profiles, "friend" them. Or not - or not - if the academic in question does not choose to put such stuff up, which is most often the case, even at this late date into the internet age. So what really is the story here? The key perhaps is where the story runs: the "Style" section, not the higher-ed page/half-page in the main first section. This story befits the My Space/You Tube/no-one-is-private-anymore craze and has nothing to do with academics or education or the professoriat per se.

"It is not necessary for a student studying multivariable calculus, medieval literature or Roman archaeology to know that the professor on the podium shoots pool, has donned a bunny costume or can’t get enough of Chaka Khan.

Yet professors of all ranks and disciplines are revealing such information on public, national platforms: blogs, Web pages, social networking sites, even campus television....

While many professors have rushed to meet the age of social networking, there are some who think it is symptomatic of an unfortunate trend, that a professor’s job today is not just to impart knowledge, but to be an entertainer."

Now ponder this last part. The professor's "job" seemed to be in part to create an aura of personal impenetrability and solitariness and remoteness only when, as it happens, the technologies of personal knowing were what they were. Now that they are what they are, the "job" seems to be changing. These things are not innate. And as for entertainment, it's the Times that's asserting this by putting the "story" on its Style page. There's nothing more or less entertaining about a teacher who is known as distinct from unknown. It all depends on the teaching.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

poet says...

Hear C. D. Wright read this poem.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

great start

Did you know that in the early national period of the U.S. a didactic poem was really not a poem - and is not to be considered (in the long view) a poem? Rhetoric and poetry, often in history merged categories, were distinctly separate as the American poetry tradition got started. Or so says a scholar named Gordon Bigelow. MORE>>>

Friday, March 14, 2008

history or psychology?

I hadn't known until today that a book I consider to be one of the most interesting ever written about Freud - Philip Rieff's The Mind of the Moralist - was quietly quasi-coauthored by Rieff's then-wife Susan Sontag, who was at the time (1959) an instructor in religion at Columbia. I should say that this is just something I've heard; I myself have no evidence. But I have found some textual or indirect the one thing the young Sontag published in 1960, which was a review of a book about Greek and Shakespearean drama that somehow permits the reviewer to summarize the end-of-ideology critique of politics as a form of change-suppressing ahistorical psychologizing. I've got more to say about this 1960 piece on my 1960 blog here.

I had the honor of hosting Sontag - and of interviewing her - in 2003, soon after she published Regarding the Pain of Others. Here is a link to video recordings of her talk and of that interview.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

noise vs. books

Students in a writing seminar taught in the spring of 2008 by poet Julia Bloch were assigned to listen to recordings of several poems by Amiri Baraka archived in PennSound. One, “In Walked Bud”, was not available to the students in print. Halfway through the discussion, a student, Michael, offered a reading of the poem that successfully associated Baraka’s jazz-metrical scatting with the narrative of the speaker’s physical movement (I caught his response verbatim):

"So I try to listen and see if the sound tells me the story. Why is this guy saying DO DO DEE [he imitates the scat]? And then I realize that it’s the way he’s walking into the scene that summer night. He’s an African in the West with European harmonies. And then he says, 'In walked us.' Later the DO DO DEE comes back but it’s changed by then. I heard it as a story and then [in a writing assignment] did a close reading based on the sound of the [scatting]. I never bothered to image how it would look as language on a page."

From there the discussion among the students was all about the form of the poem, very little directly about its social content. Bloch had not pointed out the lit-class anomaly: students assigned to write about a poem they had not seen as writing. She patiently waited for a student to do so. “We haven’t even seen this written down,” Amy had exclaimed (and her remark precipitated Michael's capable reading); then she threw up her arms and asked, “How do we read this poem?”

What more fundamental question could there be? The noise of Baraka instigated it. To those who worry, as the conservative Georges Duhamel once did in an anti-modernist tirade against the radio, that “people who really need education are beginning to prefer noise to books,” such student response is a powerful rejoinder.

The book has long been a medium for arriving at the teacher’s goal, which is to teach young people to understand form as an extension of content; “noise,” as either separate from the book or parallel to it, can similarly be the medium.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

censorship and fear-mongering

Every day there's a new PennSound Daily entry. Today's features me! If you're coming to this entry a little later, though, you'll doubtless find something new when you click on the link.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

"seems surreal"

Paul Baker at WordSalad has posted a review of Counter-Revolution of the Word.

the end of the lecture (redux)

At Stanford University in the fall of 2007, Greg Niemeyer taught a lecture course on the history of computing. Stanford is the most aggressive member of a consortium of American universities contributing digital audio (and some video) recordings to an “academic” space reserved by Apple through the easy interface with its media servers, ITunes; the educational project is called “ITunesU.” Niemeyer has taught courses on digital art in public spaces, computer animation, and one called “The Illusion of Life” (on CG animation and web development using Flash). He has self-consciously formulated techniques for instruction; his lectures are full of charming, defamiliarizing analogies between computing and life lived everyday in Real Time. That fall he lectured on open souce, the potential of the web, and “The History and Invention of Computers.” Here is how the latter lecture began:

Can you hear me now? We’re all clear? So before we were trying to untangle our cables here, and that worked out all right, so now we have the microphone ready in case you do have questions, so it’s all open. And, we were talking about how nice it would be if the microphones were wireless, then you wouldn’t have the need to untangle them. But the problem is, if you have wireless connections everywhere they have other ways of tangling up that are far more complex, and then you can’t look at the tangled mess and untangle it with your bodies. So there we have a problem of serious abstraction. Today we will talk about the conditions that give rise to the invention – sorry – of computers in the past 100 years or so – 200 years – actually we’re going to go way back to see where the origins of abstractions lie and [pause] we’re going to have several talks about – [5 second pause, fiddles with computer] – the origins of computers, the conditions the needed to be in place for the computer to work…and it doesn’t always work [fiddles with computer], as in this case right here [pause, silence, fiddles with computer] … and we’ll know more about how complex the system really is… [pause, silence, fiddles with computer, inaudible talk with assistant] .. um, [to assistant], this one is still starting up here, very funny. Huh? [inaudible remark by teaching assistant] I think it’s nonsense, nonsense here. So do we get a picture? [to class] Okay, just ignore that image that says “Starting Mac OS” there for some reason, and we’ll see if we can get what we need to get. [20 seconds of silence] Wow! This thing is really confused. [30 more seconds of silence] Can we find anything? [20 more seconds of silence] So weird. A minute ago it was fine. [10 seconds of silence] Hope it works! [5 seconds of silence] Oh this doesn’t look good at all. [5 seconds of silence] So I made this beautiful application for you guys [pause] and [pause] it’s not working so well. Let’s try it on your computer…. What’s going on? Guess what? One computer doesn’t start up and the other doesn’t want to connect. Well, the topic of today is abstraction. And this is important because you can’t do anything with the computer unless you have a symbolic system in place. Language is a classic symbolic system….

On that day, at least, this was a course about new media but its mode did not at all participate; as a form it might have occurred somewhere in the middle of the history of the development of the computer, rather than at its current endpoint – which is to say, there was nothing new here. As the lecturer struggled to use a computer in narrating its history, he made almost nothing of the juxtaposition and yet that was what every student was thinking about – in fact, I would guess, could not help from working through.The necessary multi-tasking, of which, one easily imagines, Niemeyer normally excels, did not penetrate the form of the lecture; the narrative goal was straight, history was teaching. No adaptation was made to perform the failure of the history of computers; it was simply presented after some delay, diagrams and symbols hand drawn on a blackboard (Stanford lecture halls still have blackboards), and a PowerPoint presentation, enabled by Flash, was reverse-engineered back into handwriting, with the effect being, so far as I (a later listener) could tell, no difference at all. Nonetheless, “[t]he topic of today is abstraction,” a lesson oblivious to the unabstract failures all around.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

little pop ditties

Mike Hennessey responds to PoemTalk #4 - our show about Ginsberg singing Blake. "The Blake songs [as AG sung them] were like perfect little pop ditties — radio-ready, catchy and always surprising." And: "it seems appropriate that Ginsberg would provide direct link to one of his greatest influences by re-imagining Blake’s work in a contemporary setting."

Here is more.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Bernstein blog

See the March 6 entry about me on Charles Bernstein's blog.

very friendly toward sovereignty

I have long been a sometimes unreasonable antagonist against Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. It's a film about the Holocaust with an ideologically ironic Master Narrative feel, and Oskar is presented as an I know/You don't, I am/You aren't, I have/you want relationship to Jews individually and collectively. The power dynamic gets sexualized (Oskar is physically attracted to a Jew's weakness in connection with his strength - although he knows the difference is merely a result of the era and will change later). The film uses Oskar relentlessly as a focalizer of our view, and so (despite what I take to be Spielberg's good intentions) this movie gives us the Holocaust of a German (indeed a member of the Nazi Party) when so many other perspectives are narratively possible. When we see the little girl in the red coat, we see her only and precisely from Oskar's point of view (which is to say Spielberg's) and there is no visual choice. We see what he wants us to see. In an otherwise black and white film (pseudo-documentary) her coat is painted red. Get it? Sure, we get it and how can we see anything else. It's a fascistic camera. No formal replication of the chaos, the utter chaos, the multiple views, the self-reflexivity, the varying degrees of complicity, the painful-to-watchness, the who-knows-what's-happening historiography of works like Maus or Shoah.

In '94 the Village Voice hosted a terrific symposium on the film. To me this is the finest way of understanding the issues the film raises about representations of the Holocaust.

Gertrude Koch, a panelist, says, "Who has the power? Who has the power to give life or death? That's what the film's about. I think the film is very friendly toward the concept of sovereignty, in the sense that Spielberg is always reproducing it."

Click here and read the whole symposium.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

when asked about the sentence

modernism from right to left

The folks at Google have been presenting full-text online books and have recently made my Modernism from Right to Left available, all 396 pages. Here it is.

close listening

I was pleased to be invited to be Charles Bernstein's guest on his radio show, "Close Listening," a series (now 38 shows) done in collaboration with We talked about the cold-war politics of modernism, about literary history as a method for poetics, about my new book, etc. The show is about 35 minutes long. Have a listen. All of the Close Listening shows are listed and linked in PennSound.

house that writers built

Now, at the Kelly Writers House main page, you'll see daily (or almost daily) updates, news, links to featured recordings, info about the upcoming reading. And be sure to subscribe to the feed.

The Writers House was founded in 1995-96 as a writer-centered bottom-up writers' haven or sandbox, and by now, a dozen years later, we offer 300 events - seminars, lectures, readings, book groups, manuscript exchanges, mentorships, symposia on all forms of writing - each academic year, September through May. All events are free.

We have an archive of media files - audio and some video, mostly mp3 but also RealAudio and RealVideo - of hundreds of readings and talks. It's called medialinks. There's also an archive of webcast recordings - of (to name a few writers) Laurie Anderson, Robert Creeley, Thalia Field, Lyn Hejinian, Tony Kushner, Alice Notley, James Alan McPherson, Carl Rakosi, Susan Sontag, Slavoj Zizek. We have a podcast series that on this date has produced 15 programs. We host week-long and month-long book discussion groups.

Best of all, we've made a bunch of good friends - mostly, I think, by treating writers well, by feeding them fabulous food and by bringing to them and their art audiences that typically have read carefully, ask thoughtful questions and don't mind disagreeing.

[] "You have created at once a center of artistic and personal social power, a non-bureacratic, unconventional power in one spot without being marginalized in the process. Brilliant."--Nick Spitzer, host of NPR's radio show, American Roots.

[] "The people at the Writers House have created such a lively and hospitable environment that I love to walk in and teach there. I just finished reading a manuscript about the University of Chicago in the 1950's and that literary environment, and I thought that Writers House might have saved a lot people in that era."--Max Apple, author of The Oranging of America and many other books, and member of the Writers House "hub" since autumn 2001.

[] "I keep telling everyone I see that this is an amazing thing you have here, this house of writers. It exists in no other space that I can think of in the United States. We were talking about that earlier, this question of a place for writers and translators, where poets and artists can come together and work, in a sense, in collaboration. It is amazing. So thank you."--Ben Hollander, poet and participant in "UnAmerican Poetry," a conversation about writing, translation, globalization, politics in the Middle East, the foreign poet's relation to language in March 2001.

Monday, March 03, 2008

hear the voice of the bard

...who present, past and future sees.

Allen Ginsberg saw himself in the line of prophetic poets. And so he made an LP of William Blake's songs of experience, including "The Garden of Love." We've just released PoemTalk episode #4, a 25-minute discussion of Ginsberg's chanting of this poem in country-western style, featuring Charles Bernstein, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Jessica Lowenthal.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

there is here

There's a poem by Guillaume Apolinaire called (in English translation) "There Is." (I just said that the poem is there. But that's a kind of pun, since I meant that such a poem exists--as in, "There is a young man who travels the highway..."--but I also meant that there [below, here; on a page somewhere] it is, or, it is there, a particular place where you can find it. Ah.) Every line there (there I go again) begins with "There is" (or for plural objects, "There are" in English). Its effect as a list poem is doubled by the constraint/non-constraint of that opening phrasal construction. What is there? What is out there? What is in here (in the mind)? Whatever there is is there (here) in the poem. As a reader I don't try to follow a sequence--I don't try to "get somewhere"--because I know that what's next is just another thing that is there, and there can be outside but also inside the poem.

Then again the poem is a sequence but it's "about" war. It's about the ubiquity of war, in which every "there" is there. You can't turn away from it because it is just there. I don't try to get somewhere as a reader because in the end I will end up there, again.

The poet is pointing out things ("Look, there is that, and, see, over there is that...") and he is saying that these things are. It is also, in certain lines, about what is not there, not present (his love). So "there" on occasion means the opposite of presence.

The translation I know is by Michael Benedikt. The whole poem is in my English 88 site, and there--just below, there (see what I mean about thereness?)--are the first few lines and then a few others:
There is this ship which has taken my beloved back again
There are six Zeppelin sausages in the sky and with night
coming on it makes a man think of the maggots from which the
stars might some day be reborn
There is this enemy submarine slipping up beneath my love
There are one thousand young pinetrees splintered by the
bursting of the same shells falling around me now
There is this infantryman walking by completely blinded by
poison gas....

There are all these crosses everywhere this way that way
There are paradisial persimmons growing on cactus-trees in
There are the long hands of my love

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Buckley caught red-handed

I'm one of those people who've actually read William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale. Mind you, I'm not recommending it - just, perhaps, asserting my oddity or mania or both. It's a very poorly argued book but, as you might expect from a young Buckley, dazzling in its audacity. I've always enjoyed the replies, reviews and counterarguments published all over the place in the months after the book made its first splash. McGeorge Bundy's reply appeared in the December 1951 Atlantic:

"When I sat down to review Mr. Buckley's book, I was somewhat concerned lest my readers refuse to believe that so violent, unbalanced, and twisted a young man really existed. His rejoinder removes that concern, and it remains to demonstrate that as a defense it is almost a complete fraud."

That's hilarious. Of course "that concern" refers to the fact that such a person as the young Buckley actually existed!

Then of course the attack on Yale by one of its recent own created defenses of the university - I mean Yale, but also the idea of the modern university - that were, well, purely defensive, and also theoretically untenable. I'm now looking at a New York Times column reprinting the entirety of a report issued by an advisory committee of Trustees and other alumni, a "Report on Intellectual Policy." The gist is that "the business of a university is to educate, not to indoctrinate, its students." This was a distinction they had to make. This was 1952 - February 18 to be exact - and HUAC'ism and McCarthyism and McCarranism dominated the landscape; these old Yalies had to insist that there were no communists on the faculty, and to do so they mostly didn't mention communism but tried to imply it by describing the utter neutrality and apoliticism of the points of view of the faculty. Thus education shares nothing with indoctrination, and students at Yale "study, discuss, and write about facts and ideas without restrictions, other than those imposed by conscience and morality." That's a huge logical "other than those..." turn. Constraints following the mores of the day - and those established by the tradition of the university - do not hedge free discussion, qualify the student-written word, or create boundaries between what can and cannot be studied in association with a class. God and Man at Yale ironically did nothing to make this back-and-forth freedom-constraint discussion a significant one, and when Yale entered the 1960s, and students began to demand real freedom to discuss, write and resist curricular indoctrination, it was as if the big Buckley fracas had never taken place.

Buckley and Bozell, in their defense of Joseph McCarthy (McCarthy and his Enemies) wrote: "A hard and indelible fact of freedom is that a conformity of sorts is always dominant... [Therefore] the freeman's principal concern is that it shall be a conformity that honors the values he esteems rather than those he rejects" (p. 120). The above-cited book - and Buckley's ridiculous Yale book - are both full of hateful contentions and loose empty logic, but I have to say that here the Far Right is being franker about conformity than the Academic Center. A conformity that honors the values the conformed person esteems. That's surely it.

Now that Buckley is gone, mainstream media talking heads are describing his charm and even his talent for ideological crossing. And folks not just on the political right are coming forward to say that they were his friends and that they felt his grace and generosity. I don't really believe any of this, although I do recommend that you leave this zone of the web and go over to YouTube to watch some clips from Firing Line. The debate between Buckley and Noam Chomsky on Vietnam in '69 is stunningly good. I also have to say that I was momentarily moved by David Brooks' recollection of Buckley's generosity this past week during the Brooks-Shields political round-up on The NewsHour. (Brooks as a U Chicago upstart had brutally satirized WFB's limo- and ski trip-centered lifestyle, whereupon Buckley, giving a speech at Chicago, asked if there was a David Brooks in the audience. There was, and Buckley hired him on the spot. Call it strategic cooptation of the Young Right; call it reaching out. Either way, Brooks's gratitude is real.)

My own vision of being caught with Buckley alone has always been that of the oblivious mouse at the end of a cave with a venomous snake. (Psychoanalyze that if you like.)

Now I hold in my hands (as Tailgunner Joe used to say) an unpublished letter dated December 15, 1953, which I read and had photocopied in the Henry Regnery Papers at the Hoover Institution. It's in the Buckley file of Regnery's correspondence in box 10 of the enormous Regnery collection there. Regnery was a conservative publisher of conservative books. He worked with the liberal president of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, on several Great Books projects, but for the most part he published far right essayists, novelist, literary critics (at least one book on Pound), and poets (Roy Campbell, e.g.) who were having a hard time finding a press. At this early point in Buckley's career, Regnery was a crucial supporter. The problem with McCarthy and His Enemies was that it was a big and expensive book - $6.50. At that price it would not sell. Buckley and Regnery agreed that if "gifts" (donations) could be made toward the selling of 6,000 advance copies of the book, Regnery could dare to print a larger first run, and the press could lower the price to $5.

So back to this 1953 letter. It's from William F. Buckley to The Honorable Joseph R. McCarthy himself. Buckley says he's thrilled that McCarthy likes the book so much (which he has no doubt seen in galleys). It "justifies the faith that your most earnest friends have in you." So "let me at this point ask your help," and Buckley goes on to ask if McCarthy can arrange for donations to be made to - in effect - subvene the cost of publishing the book. Buckley wonders if McCarthy can arrange with foundations to "accept gifts which would be earmarked for buying these advance copies." This was McCarthy at his height, or perhaps a few months after he'd reached the zenith of his power and influence. I don't know enough about the publication of Buckley's pro-McCarthy book to know if McCarthy did arrange for such "gifts," but I find the letter utterly remarkable. Leave aside that it's untoward for the supposedly independently minded author of a book to ask the book's controversial subject to help pay for its publication. I'm sure this sort of thing happens all the time. But here's the same brilliant, young, already famously autarchic fellow asking an elected government official to use his influence to engineer donations to ensure the profitability of a right-wing publisher. Surely this was deemed (even in those urgent days) to be a huge no-no, and surely WFB knew it.

Or maybe not. Maybe I'm naive about such things. (Maybe? Almost certainly.)

Near the end of this letter, the late great William F. Buckley says to the Honorable Joseph R. McCarthy: "Any suggestions you might have will be exploited with McCarthy-like vigor."

What a clever man he was.

Related: why real conservatives hate Freud.