Joseph S. Salemi
When I talk to Europeans I get many complaints about America, some valid and some not. If the complaints are based on envy or prejudice (or as is frequently the case today, on kneejerk leftism) I defend my nation stoutly and vigorously. I don’t take crap from Marxist Eurotrash living in a welfare state protected by our nuclear umbrella.
Nevertheless, many of these critics have noticed a failing about Americans that is indisputably real, and in some sense definitive of our country’s character. And that is our indisposition to hear anything that isn’t optimistic, positive, over-hyped, or eye-poppingly enthusiastic. A sober assessment of anything strikes Americans as deeply depressing, and by extension wicked. You are culpable in American eyes if you express a less than positive view of a new idea or a proposed plan of action. A cold, unsparingly critical judgment is seen by Americans as cruel, or even somewhat insulting. How dare you rain on our parade? is the typical American reaction to criticism of a novel or popular notion.
That’s why America is the hothouse for stupid new ideas. Now it would be one thing if our ingenuity were restricted to technical matters like innovative screwdrivers or jet engines. There we beat everyone else, hands down. But it’s quite another when we come up with corrosively evil concepts concerning life in general. Our home-grown Yankee notions can be truly lunatic, as in the case of education (Deweyism), the family (gay marriage), politics (universal democracy), economics (deficit spending), and religion (a welter of weird denominations). This last category is particularly telling; America has produced more bizarre and off-the-wall cults than the subcontinent of India: Unitarians, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, Millerites, Seventh-Day Adventists, Snake Handlers, Christian Scientists, Oneida Perfectionists, Vegans, Feminists, Deep Ecologists, Animal Liberationists… the list is endless.
The existence of all these crazy cults is symptomatic of a severe problem in the American psyche: the restlessness, the free-floating enthusiasm, the wacky dreams, the hunger for immediacy and emotional release. Nothing is more American than a glassy-eyed schmuck with charisma shouting “I’ve had a revelation! Follow me!” And this glassy-eyed schmuck appears not just in a religious context, but in our politics, our arts, our entertainment, our foreign policy, our sports, and our commerce. He’s everywhere, firing up enthusiasm for some new absurdity. If he’s not present Americans get uneasy and querulous, and wonder what’s wrong. The cool, unsmiling, self-controlled person scares the bejeezus out of most Yanks, and puts them on their guard. They start to think the following: He’s devious! He’s Machiavellian! He’s calculating! Or that catchall American condemnation: He’s unethical!
This is what lies behind the American worship of youth. It is practically universal in this country—you’ll find octogenarian geezers going completely ga-ga with adoration if something is presented to them as “young” or “new.” Why? Simple—the young are the most vulnerable to hype and enthusiasm and therefore, in American eyes, most likely to come up with brilliant ideas or miraculous solutions. Their supposed openness and lack of prejudice lets them see things clearly and virtuously. Consider this typical couplet from the poet Sidney Lanier:
Vainly might Plato’s brain revolve it:
Oh really, Sid? Let’s send your six-year-old to the Middle East to straighten out problems on the West Bank. I swear, if I hear another American bloviating about what a genius or prodigy or whiz his grandchild is, I’ll lay about me with a saber.
I had a friend in her early seventies who insisted that all of her doctors be young men fresh out of medical school, and she would switch doctors as soon as the one treating her began to look more mature than the age of thirty-five. When I expostulated with her, arguing that this was silly and self-destructive, she would explode “No! I need someone who’s energetic and young, and open to new ideas! He’ll be up on all the latest research!”
I pointed out that she was losing the benefits of an older doctor’s experience, not to mention his familiarity with her medical case history. Besides, I added, most young doctors were silly yuppie twits without a shred of intellectual independence or initiative, having gone through modern medical schools that were more concerned with legal issues and ethical posturing than with hands-on care of the sick. These young physicians were mostly just functionaries of the big pharmaceutical companies, and they certainly didn’t “keep up with the latest research,” since the bulk of them were as semiliterate as their fellow college graduates. They were pill-pushers taking their cues from the drug manufacturer’s catalogue.
These observations would get my friend infuriated. They contradicted her religiously cherished mythology of the superiority of “youth.” For her, young people were invariably “bright” and “quick” and “intellectually sharp.” Teaching undergraduates for a few semesters might have cured her of that notion, but I couldn’t.
It’s one thing to admire youth for its vigor and strength and physical beauty. The Greeks knew that these were the unquestioned advantages of being in the Prime Hebdomad. But they would have been baffled by our utterly fatuous notion that being young gives you a sharper perception of the world, or intellectual superiority. That’s patently absurd.
But if you believe this patently absurd idea, you will tend to have consequential notions concerning poetry and the arts in general. You will illogically favor a younger artist over an older one. You will reflexively support “current” and “experimental” and “risky” work at the expense of traditional products. Your countenance will get misty as you talk about “new directions” and “exciting changes.” In short, you’ll become a glassy-eyed schmuck as described above, and just another problematic encumbrance in the world of letters.
What’s the source of all this frenzy? That’s easy to discern: It’s the longing for perpetual ecstasy and excitement, a need to be constantly initiated into a new scenario of “hope” and “expectation.” Americans fall for this archetype the way cats fall for catnip. It’s why we have always been a land of con-men and the conned. From Scarlett O’Hara’s “Tomorrow is another day,” to Willy Loman’s pathetic faith that “Something’s bound to come up,” to Alvin Toffler’s futuristic mirages, and to the celebrational hype of our musicals, you can feel the lust for the warm blanket of hoping and dreaming.
And this, in my view, is one of the reasons why so many Americans find it difficult to adhere to the canons of proper aesthetic practice. It’s our propensity to wild and directionlesss enthusiasm, our impulse to break boundaries and disregard limits, and our fetishizing of youth. These were great attitudes to have when we were winning the west. They are not so great when you’re composing poetry.
Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize. His upcoming books, Gallery of Ethopaths, and a collection of critical essays, are forthcoming. He also acts on occasion as a poetry contest judge.