A Modernist Temperamentby Michael Sandlin
Oranges & Peanuts For Sale by Eliot Weinberger (New Directions, June 2009)
For someone who so ferociously champions the onward rush of change and innovation—whether he’s writing about Chinese poetry, anthropological photography, or New Yorker darling E.B. White—it may seem ironic that so many of internationally lauded essayist Eliot Weinberger’s literary subjects have been, until now, quietly buried in the past.
But judging from the collected essays in Oranges and Peanuts for Sale Weinberger is a staunch disciple of the early 20th century modernism of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot; and many of these 28 critical essays employ not-so-subtle variations on Eliot’s brand of forward-looking historical criticism: wherein tradition should not necessarily function as a model, but more as a platform for radical transformation of the present. Weinberger, then, like Eliot, is concerned with what’s been called “the current significance of the past.”
And much like Eliot’s influential writings that brought a host of obscure Jacobean dramatists back into 20th century relevance, Weinberger finds valuable contemporary significance in the work of obscure, long-deceased poets like Gu Cheng, Vicente Huidobro, and George Oppen. Weinberger has an unusually keen eye for, among other things, rooting out previously ignored modernist innovation in pre-modernist texts: emphasizing the results of certain serendipitous cross-pollinations of language and other multi-ethnic convergences that give a “post-national” identity to a particular author’s work and thus an ongoing ring of contemporary relevance. “Immigration revitalizes a national culture,” Weinberger writes, “any given literature thrives in eras when there is a great deal of translation, and/or an influx of new people speaking and writing in the language.”
And to this end, Weinberger (an accomplished translator himself) traces the T’ang dynasty and classical Chinese poetry’s unheralded influence on the modernist imagism of poets like Pound; he explains how the Psalms came to be an important but underappreciated linguistic foundation in American poetry, from Whitman to Ginsberg; and he rediscovers Samuel Beckett’s unlikely but indispensable contribution to Mexican poetry—through microscopically scrupulous readings of Beckett’s whimsical translations in the 1958 Anthology of Mexican Poetry. And perhaps most fascinatingly, in “Photography and Anthropology,” Weinberger offers some provocatively unorthodox notions that question long-standing assumptions about both photography and anthropology being “inextricable from nostalgia.”
Weinberger’s critical exposition on fellow essayists E. B. White and Susan Sontag more specifically spotlight the backward thinking that’s so antithetical to his stubbornly progressive bent. He isolates E.B. White’s “Here is New York,” a piece top-heavy with the familiar smug elitism that’s marked New Yorker prose for eons. Here, Weinberger refutes the popular notion of White being a quintessential New York writer, arguing that the essayist’s bewildered nostalgia for a bygone New York has nothing in common with a city that thrives on constant change to create what is essentially “New York” about New York. His study of Sontag’s life and work is a combination of reverent mini-bio and serious critical re-assessment: Weinberger even-handedly investigates how this onetime vanguard thinker lapsed into fogeyish closed-mindedness in her later years; thus, he concludes that Sontag ultimately “may belong to literary history rather than to literature.”
The book’s third section consists of Weinberger’s feisty political writings. What immediately distinguishes essays like “Poetry Is News” and “The Arts and the War In Iraq,” from other anti-Bush/Cheney jeremiads is its withering critique of the U.S. literary community’s reaction (or in this case, non-reaction) to the Bush administration’s dirty dealings in Iraq. Weinberger clearly believes that poetry (and art in general) should serve an activist anti-establishment agenda as it did in the 1960s: “Above all, art was the alternative, often openly hostile, to middle-class America and all of its institutions, including universities.” Still, just when it seems Weinberger is finally succumbing to nostalgic temptation, his argument takes a progressive turn. Although he idealizes the zeal for protest poetry in the sixties (even at the expense of more personal “artistic” gestures), he simultaneously champions the communication tools of the future—namely, the Internet—and places utopian faith in their ability to resurrect literary social protest through more egalitarian, non-corporate outlets. And why not? In “The United States of Obama,” he scientifically distills the Obama Democratic Primary victory over Clinton down to one campaign being more Internet savvy than the other. It’s a seemingly facile but valid conclusion, especially in light of yet another election season in which serious discussion of real issues was almost nonexistent.
Fact is, erudite but non-academic collections of interdisciplinary literary essays like the ones comprising Oranges and Peanuts for Sale seem time-warped from an era long before woe-is-me memoirist narcissism assumed its domination over the nonfiction market. And although Weinberger’s choice of subject matter can sometimes show frivolous obscure-for-obscurity’s sake tendencies, he nearly always winds his way to surprising revelations: insights that give unjustly ignored contributions to world literature a generous re-assessment far outside the ever-narrowing circles of academic critical discourse.
Michael Sandlin is a contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.