Frederick Seidel's Bad Tastei
"Everything in the poems is true," Frederick Seidel told New York magazine in 2006. "You should take them at face value." Richard Poirier provides the de rigueur response: "Fred's created a character named Frederick Seidel that has little to do with who he is."ii There is something about Seidel's poetry that moves critics to foreground the claim that the speaker of a poem is not identical with the poet. For what could it mean to take lines like these, from "Letter to the Editors of Vogue," at "face value"?
I am drinking gasoline
My daughter squeaks and squeaks
What would it mean to inhabit Seidel's assertion rather than reflexively dismiss it, to suspend our learned doubt about the "speakers" of poems? This cannot mean accepting everything in the poems as literally true: Seidel doesn't have a daughter, for instance. Taking the poems at face value does not require us to take them as factual autobiographical reports. Rather, Seidel gives himself over to grotesquerie, caricature, and hyperbole, a strategy of outsized scale, in order both to offer a critique of morality based on taste and to claim for himself an extreme form of agency.
Seidel conducts an amplification of affect beyond what we might legitimately ascribe to ordinary persons. Every critic of Seidel has located him within the Lowellian tradition of masculinist confession. But if the literary historical assumption about confession is that it institutes a norm of subjectivity, Seidel's work helps us to see that this norm's contours have always been extreme rather than normative. This is a corollary of the premise from which Seidel begins: that we live in a culture of almost unlimited suffering, a culture whose capacity to produce guilt and shame is infinite. To respond adequately to the infernal conditions of modernity requires what George Puttenham, in 1589, termed "Hiperbole, or the Ouer reacher, otherwise called the loud lyer," the "immoderate excesse" of poetic speech.iv Seidel's lurid hyperbole is a way of negotiating the problem of personhood in an impersonally violent world.
Seidel's confessions sometimes take a plausibly Lowellian form: "A naked woman my age is a total nightmare," he writes (49). This is readable as (although not only as) confession—as if pronounced, that is, with chagrin, in acknowledgment that one is in error. But such moments, although outrageous, compete for space with more telling ones. Seidel imagines a terrorist blowing up the Chunnel train, along with "a ﬂock of Japanese schoolgirls ready to be fucked / In their school uniforms in paradise" (112). He is given to schoolboy blurts like "Shit with a cunt! / The prince was blunt. / Shit with a cunt. // Cunt with a dick!" (60). Here we find Seidel reveling in unacceptable social attitudes and a kind of infantile scatology, Tourette syndrome as nonsense verse. These ejaculations are characteristic of Seidel's work, and they undermine the moral scaffolding upon which an earnest Lowellian confession would seem to depend. However indebted to Lowell he might be in other ways, it would be a category mistake to see Seidel as truly "confessional," precisely because he "confesses" in order to offend against the norms of taste, in order to revel in the sins he has committed.
The value, then, of his outrageousness is to be had by taking it seriously. When Lowell admits that "Everybody's tired of my turmoil," he seems truly self-deprecating.v Seidel, on the other hand, is telling us that we should not mistake him: he really is an asshole, and he is not about to apologize for it. To ask whether this is a persona is beside the point, or it is to overestimate the distancing effect of personae. Isobel Armstrong has astutely problematized the status of Browning's personae in Men and Women by suggesting that the poet is "extraordinarily faithful" to a Benthamite conception of aesthetic fictionality. On this view, a fiction must be dealt with "as if it were real simply because it has entered substantively into experience by existing at all." By not writing in propria persona, Browning builds the politico-ideological problem of agency "into the very structure of the poem as a problem."vi Rather than absolving the poet of personal commitment to his words, persona dramatizes the problems of selfhood, the questions of where and how agency inheres. The sheer force of the personality on display renders toothless the resort to persona as a way of excusing the poet's seeming depravity. Seidel's poetry, in the words of Armstrong's reading, "declares itself insistently, almost raucously, with a kind of ravenous energy which asks to be confronted" (299). What that energy asks to be confronted with is the reader's taste—his or her disgust and offense—in order to suggest that that taste provides the unexamined foundation of a morality that serves as a veneer disguising hard truths.
Seidel's hyperbole and excess are amplifications of the literal. Or, more precisely, they are a way of saying, with Theodor Adorno, "The barbaric is the literal."vii For Seidel, then, hyperbole is a means of confronting the world on its own terms, of constructing an affective vocabulary adequate to the world's barbarism. It is also therefore a means of producing personality in a specific relationship to shame: Seidel seeks to move entirely beyond shame, to be literally shameless, making the most barbaric aspects of the self the sources of its power, presence, and even delight. According to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, drawing here on developmental psychology, shame is "the affect that most defines the space wherein a sense of self will develop."viii With this in mind, I want to consider some of Seidel's most offensive lines in order to read his commitment to inflating and dramatizing his own worst impulses—to a performance of his own shamelessness—as a way of confronting a moral dependence on taste and sensibility.
Specifically, Seidel's "bad taste" poses a challenge to his readers (as well as to himself) to defend their unthinking willingness to be guided by their tastes. He insists on the triviality of questions of artistic propriety in order to demonstrate the inadequacy of the affects surrounding taste—particularly when it takes the form of horror or disgust—as a response to a world that presents itself, to Seidel as to others, as "a killing field" (50):
I stick my heart on a stick
These lines from "Mr. Delicious" both crassly refuse and boldly confirm Adorno's oft-repeated proposition that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. It is worth imagining, because it is imaginable, a claim that the "actual value" of "Mr. Delicious" is as an exercise in moral edification, mimetic of the atrocity the poem describes: the language one uses with children ("choo-choo train") seems grotesquely out of place, until one reflects that children were grotesquely out of place in the death camps. The seemingly innocuous word "campfire," with its connotations of Scouts munching marshmallows, glints off the gold teeth of corpses reduced to ash. The point of the poem would then be something like: the 20th century has tainted language itself, cremated it—which was Adorno's point. Of course poetic language is incommensurate to the horrors of the Holocaust, Seidel says—and here's how incommensurate it is. I can't even write a poem about it, I can only try to show, hyperbolically, how obscene any attempt to poeticize the event must remain.
But this reading, which would make Seidel into an edgier Steven Spielberg, seems adequate neither to the gleeful, infernal energies with which the poem violates propriety nor to the perversely clichéd subject matter. The offensive nature of these lines baffle any attempt to read them as conducting redemptive political work. Seidel's hewing to the standard imagery of chimneys should instruct us that he is not really trying to tell us anything about the murder of European Jewry. The Holocaust, precisely because it has become the archetype of the horror and absurdity of political violence, lends itself too easily to representation, at the risk of triteness—which is to say, it resists representation, even of the subversive, antinomian variety Seidel attempts here. In fact, to say this much is already a cliché. Seidel recognizes this, flags it, by reaching for his images only as far as the nearest docudrama—cattle cars, the smoke of crematoria. When we examine his 9/11 poems, we encounter a similarly clichéd representation of an atrocity already almost illegible behind its scrim of clichés: the planes approaching the towers, the flames, the collapsing buildings—no detail not immediately accessible to anyone whose imagination and memory extend no further than televised news footage. He is, we might say, shameless in his exploitation of atrocities that have already passed over into the banality of popularization.
"Mr. Delicious," like so many of Seidel's poems, takes for granted that we are offended, and asks us why we should value our own sensibilities enough to care that we are offended. What is it about our taste that strikes us as so trustworthy that we should allow it to dictate our moral responses? The poem, in other words, is a demonstration of the category mistake that is made when one is offended by evil. Rather than portray the horror of the Holocaust, or trivialize it (it is already, as received by an infernal culture, trivialized), Seidel instrumentalizes it in order to shame us with our own horror at his violation of decorum. There are aspects of the world that cannot be humanized, cannot be brought to submit to adjudication as matters of taste. Seidel's philosophy, as I read it, is deeply anti-humanistic in its insistence that opinion is beside the point, that a morality of taste is no morality at all. If one is tempted to dismiss Seidel's poetry on grounds of aesthetic taste, in other words, one should at least acknowledge that a central purpose of the poetry is precisely to challenge us to question those grounds.
That disgust should play such a large role in Seidel's critique of a taste-based morality is inevitable. Disgust and taste are intimately linked, perhaps most systematically in Kant, for whom, as Winfried Menninghaus points out, the disgusting extends to "the morally disgusting, hence to phenomena subject…to an intellectualizing judgment."ix A different approach to the problem is that taken by Martha Nussbaum, who has recently argued that disgust (and a morality of aesthetic reaction in general) is the wrong basis for criminal legislation, insofar as it represents an attempt to deny our very humanity, a cringing before our embodiment out of a pathological resistance to our own vulnerability.x For Seidel, as for Nussbaum, the aesthetics of taste is precisely the field on which the moral cannot possibly be adjudicated, and his provocations call upon us to recognize this. It is this morality of taste against which Seidel directs his verse, but with crucial differences. For Seidel, a morality of emotion and aesthetic evaluation is too human: the disgusting partakes of its opposite, the beautiful; because it remains within the realm of taste, disgust humanizes the inhuman. On further inspection, though, this contradiction vanishes: what Nussbaum means by the "human" is something like what Seidel insists cannot be "humanized": "I like the odor of spoiled meat," Seidel writes of the corpses of the victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11. This odor should not be humanized insofar as that means assimilating it to a symbolic aesthetic order that would tame it, dilute its representation of the ultimate horror at the heart of existence—but in another sense there is nothing more human than this odor, nothing more human than that we are all rotting carcasses. Seidel is trying to make us see what he calls, borrowing the terminology of theoretical physics, "the invisible / Dark matter we are not made of / That I am afraid of"—that which cannot be humanized, about which "opinion" has no bearing (138).
If shame and disgust, reactions based in aesthetic decorum, keep us from seeing the infernal truth about the world—make it into a kind of invisible dark matter—then Seidel will hyperbolically evoke those reactions, as if to demonstrate their inadequacy to the excess that is even more accurate than "the literal standard" established by a morality of taste.
Inferno as literal standard is, as it were, literalized on a Tuesday morning in September, brought abruptly into Seidel's actual home:People on fire are jumping from the eightieth floor
To flee the fireball.
In the airplane blind-dating the south tower,
People are screaming with horror.
The airplane meeting the north tower
Erupts with ketchup.
("The War of the Worlds," 230)
Again we are meant to be offended by the aestheticization of an event that has taken on a sacral aura. The tastelessness required to describe 9/11 in terms of blind dates and ketchup provokes a reaction that Seidel turns against us. The fire is figured as the fake blood ("ketchup") of the television screen, the plane's penetration of the south tower as a blind date, as if the two were contestants on a reality show. The attacks of 9/11 did not simply become a spectacle but were designed to be one, endlessly looped on cable news. But this is a rather obvious interpretation of the poem—even the metaphor of September 11 as reality television is stale by now (Jean Baudrillard apparently having begun work on it by September 12). The violation of decorum is thus built into the event itself, the tastelessness of Seidel's representation diluted by its redundancy.
A more fruitful reading would require us again to attend to the scale of the human. We should note that Seidel once more traffics in the clichés of the outsized event. 9/11 quickly became a kind of emergency code for national trauma, oversaturated with meaning, which is to say all but meaningless for poetry. The attacks themselves are humanized, figured as human actions ("dating," "meeting"). Those familiar with his work cannot but recall the opening of the earlier poem "Spring": "I want to date rape life," he writes, as though if life is to be approached through the lens of human action, it should at least acknowledge that to do so is to do violence to reality, with the uncomfortably comic suggestion that no human violence could possibly be adequate to reality's own (256). One clue that the redundancy of "War of the Worlds," too, is deeper than it at first appears is that it erupts onto the surface of the poem as redundancy only when the event's human actors take the stage: they are "fleeing the fireball" even though they are already "on fire." In this way, the infernal is perversely humanized, the human figures assuming its fiery aspects in a kind of parody of the way human affects like disgust project, as Blake would have it, the human shape onto everything. Seidel's irony is double: first, his critique of taste's reliance on the human abstract is conducted via the humanization of the planes and the towers. More complexly, the aesthetic defect reproduces the defect of a morality of taste precisely insofar as it is a defect. Taste is an aesthetic phenomenon, and the aesthetic is the inevitable horizon of human action. Only a perspective that goes beyond taste is capable of grasping the truly infernal at the heart of things, the dark matter we are not made of that is not made of us, and in order to go that far, one must violate the boundaries established by taste and decorum.
This helps us understand why the Shoah—the real Shoah, "terrifying and inadmissible," not the one in books and social studies classes—is a model of the dark matter taste prevents us from seeing. The Holocaust is a preferred stage for Seidel to defile, because it is a paradigm of an event one is expected to treat with such reverence and respect that its representations are scripted in advance. In the earlier poem "The Complete Works of Anton Webern," the cattle cars of "Mr. Delicious" are already made the vehicles of a poetic violation:Sing a song of sealed trains
Arriving day and night.
These trains had kept it all inside.
These trains had never let their feelings out.
These train-sick trains were just dying.
These trains couldn't hold it any longer.
These trains shat uncontrollably
All over the sidings and ramps
Jews for the camps.
Here again, the content of the image is simply grotesque. The trains are personified that they might defecate the Jews onto the ramps—the Jews are not human cows or snow, they're shit. This is the more offensive given the well-documented hellish conditions on those trains, whose floors were often covered in feces and quicklime, and many of whose passengers did not survive the journey. That Seidel's Grand Guignol is directed against a moral reliance on taste and decorum is evident from the passage's rhetoric of psychobabble and self-help psychology, whose spokespersons urge us not to "keep it all inside," to let our feelings out rather than hold them in. Seidel follows this advice, and shits his feelings all over his readers—as if to say, you think feelings are what matter, I'll show you feelings.
The Holocaust presents an especial affront to attempts to transcend feeling. Like a beautiful woman's anus (in Seidel's poem "Broadway Melody"), the Holocaust should not be there. Seidel certainly wasn't there:I don't want to remember the Holocaust.
I'm thick of remembering the Holocaust.
To the best of my ability, I wasn't there anyway.
This refuses the logic of "never forget," but perversely, as though Seidel took the injunction personally. The tastelessness is prominent as usual: what Seidel wants can hardly be at issue, while the childishness of saying you're "sick" of remembering the Shoah is matched only by the inappropriate comic affectation of a child's lisp. But what is at issue in the call to remember something you didn't experience? Can it be that the very insistence on remembering prevents us from seeing, that the memorialization of the event domesticates it, brings it down to a manageably human scale, makes us too "thick" to penetrate its horror?
It is difficult to determine Seidel's position on the question whether the Holocaust is essentially continuous with human action or constitutes a radical rupture. Certainly the Sadean-Nietzschean thrust of his critique would seem to indicate agreement with the tenor (if not the political tendency) of Adorno and Horkheimer's view that barbarism is constitutive of modernity as such, and the possibility of civilizational rupture inheres in the very fabric of instrumental rationality. But this is countered by the poems' repeated insistence that the human is not commensurate to the scale of evil represented by the Holocaust. "To the best of my ability, I wasn't there anyway" is a very strange line. His not having been there has nothing to do with his "ability"—he was a nine-year-old boy in St. Louis when the war ended, the son of a wealthy coal magnate. Is the absurdity of claiming agency for contingent historical circumstance intended as a rebuke to those who would locate the Holocaust within the continuum of human action?
Regardless of whether Seidel goes so far as this, he is certainly concerned with the extent to which the hellish conditions of modernity nullify human agency, and the second of his urgent tasks as a poet, coexisting uneasily with the moral critique, is to stake out a position from which agency might be recovered. This would also produce an expansion of agency, a new freedom and strength for the self: "I felt invulnerable, without feelings, without pores" ("Eisenhower Years," 291). He seeks an ideology of self-representation that might be adequate to an infernal present—and there is no room in such an ideology for delicacy of feeling, or indeed for the porosity of feeling that encourages us to let our feelings out, not to hold them in. Seeking to free himself from the tyranny of feeling, Seidel spews his feelings upon the page, refusing to curb their intensity—by giving them free rein, he both parodies the logic of the self-help movement and purges himself. It is important to note that this intensified self-presence is directed against taste, but for a very different reason than that which motivates Seidel's critique of a morality blinded to the truth of the world. But Seidel's aggressive claim of agency is related to—in fact reliant upon—the horror he diagnoses, and the two currents of his poetry share a vehicle in his offensive against taste.
For Seidel is responding to the infernal present when he presents himself as infernal. He represents the self not as a bulwark against a ruined culture, or as merely determined by it, but as appropriate to it—he makes himself into a devil in order to be at home in hell.xi If our sensibilities enrage him, it is not because our feelings of horror and offense seek to deny that we too belong to the infernal but because they prevent us from seeing it. It is important to recognize that to see a morality of taste as a veneer is not incompatible with a moral sense of another kind. Seidel's outrageousness is incomprehensible without a recognition that he is outraged, that he would not have to try to make a home in hell if he felt at home there already—or if he could believe that there were an alternative to life in hell, the possibility of salvation through the expiation of sins rather than the negative salvation of their embrace.
In "December," Seidel imagines 9/11 as an infernal parody of the Eucharist, a sacrament dedicated to the proposition that salvation depends upon external agency:I like the color of the smell. I like the odor of spoiled meat.
I like how gangrene transubstantiates warm firm flesh into rotten sleet.
We are close to Sade here, whose novels often stage blasphemous travesties of Catholic rites. Like Sade, Seidel seems to risk lapsing into mere antinomianism, "liking" what disgusts us, transported into synesthesiac ecstasy by the smell of rotten human flesh. As the Jews become human snow, the victims of 9/11 become dirty sleet—the profundity of carnage reduced to a weather report. But the imagery recalls us to Seidel's preoccupation with his own mortality, to the always unwelcome recognition that we are only dying animals, organic systems of reproduction and waste-excretion whose hearts, on their sticks, will be quite consumed away.
Seidel turns these coils and tremors into sources of power and delight—the foundations of a hypertrophied self-presence—by embracing the Nietzschean amor fati. "I like" that we are bags of rotting meat, "I like" the people on fire jumping from the eightieth floor, "I like" the carbon ash of human corpses drifting like an early snow onto the streets of downtown Manhattan. This bears more than superficial resemblance to Nietzsche's recommendation of "an unreserved yea-saying even to suffering, even to guilt, even to everything questionable and strange about existence" (Ecce Homo 3)—although Seidel is more likely to say "no" to guilt by embracing those actions that from a conventional moral standpoint should produce guilt.
The impetus for such relentless assertion of the self is in part the overriding suspicion that as the appendage of an infernal culture, the self is nothing, that "we are not made of" anything. "I isn't anything," Seidel writes in "Barbados": "And I is the first one hacked to pieces" (91, 93). If the self isn't anything—not even part of "the nothing" "we know so much" of—then what could its taste possibly amount to? This is the critique of the metaphysics of presence applied to the real world, where the self is a dispersed network not of signifiers but of body parts on the jungle floor. The death drive is figured here as the desire to literalize the trope of the subject's dispersal: the paradoxical desire "to cut oneself in two" because one suspects one's self is nothing.
But an alternative is to hold that if the self is nothing, one might as well behave as if it were everything. In "Barbados," therefore, we meet Seidel as a tourist staying at "Literally the most expensive hotel in the world" (91) in a tropical paradise built on the slave trade, which he envisions as a surreal cartoon:
The most expensive hotel in the world
It isn't the lack of a moralizing perspective on slavery that is offensive (as if we needed Seidel to remind us that slavery is bad) but the sense that the poet is simply gloating in his privilege and the human costs that prop it up—that he is not just refusing to denounce the fruits of slavery but actively enjoying them as such. Another poet might write a poem that acknowledges that his island vacation was made possible by the exploitation of other human beings, in order to explore the complex relations of the self's dedication to its pleasures with the guilt induced by those pleasures' price. But Seidel gives the impression that he is simply using an atrocity, and another exhausted one at that, to expand his sense of himself—as if all the evil of slavery were worthwhile if it produced one afternoon in Frederick Seidel's life of "pure aristo privilege." The machinery of the world—nature, politics, economy—eats the "spoiled meat" of human beings, grinds it up and spits it out, all in despite of the refined vegetarian taste of liberal sensibilities. Hacking the "I" to pieces is just what the world does. A single slave's screams cannot be heard above the roar of the "epileptic fit" of the universe (127). So what would Seidel's denying himself his tastes accomplish, compared with the aggrandizement of self-power that they enable?
For Seidel's denunciation of taste as a moral category is perversely dependent upon his affirmation of his own exquisite taste in luxury items. This millionaire poet has never had to work for a living, and his poems rarely fail to evince this. He is a man of wealth and taste, as unapologetic about it as about his aestheticizations of disaster. Many readers will find this dimension of his poems the most vulgar of all. Seidel stays, of course, at "Literally the most expensive hotel in the world," smugly poeticized as "the smell of rain about to fall." (The intertext here is offensive in itself—from his playboy paradise, Seidel is paraphrasing lines Pound wrote in the death cells about "the clouds over Taishan / When some of the rain has fallen / and half remains yet to fall."xii) His collected poems rub their readers' noses in Seidel's appetite for expensive things: Cartier watches, his Savile Row tailor; there are paeans to the famous jeweler Joel Rosenthal. But by far Seidel's most conspicuous displays of conspicuous consumption are to be found in the several poems about his six-figure custom-made Ducati motorcycles. He is especially fond of the Ducati 916, "the most beautiful motorcycle ever made" (307), an aesthetic "miracle / Which ought to be in the Museum of Modern Art" (299). He flies to Bologna to see his bike being built; he is shepherded through security; it is like being initiated into religious mysteries:
The Lord is my shepherd and the Director of Superbike Racing.
The trains and snow are innocent here, within this temple of exquisite taste, but we are still disgusted. How crass is this profligacy, how worshipful an ostentation. In passages like this one, Seidel is still challenging our dependency on cultivated liberal taste, no less aesthetic than his literal commodity fetishism. But these moments are also distasteful because they are so blatantly hypocritical: he sneers at our disgust and horror, our commitment to aesthetic propriety, and then he kneels before the "altar" (58, 416) on which his beloved superbikes are consecrated.
The one time a cognate of the word "shame" appears in Poems 1959-2009 is in the last line of a recent poem from Evening Man. Seidel is describing a friend's husband whose sudden partial paralysis puzzles his doctors:
It is exactly as if he'd had a stroke—though he is young.
Here Seidel acknowledges the impropriety of turning a friend's trauma into the occasion for a poem, but of course his insincerity is almost audible. He is about as ashamed as Sidney's Astrophil in Sonnet 34: "Art not asham'd to publish thy disease? / Nay, that may breed my fame, it is so rare." Much more suggestive is the penultimate line, which seems to revise Elizabeth Bishop's famous rebuke of Robert Lowell after he incorporated passages from Elizabeth Hardwick's letters into the poems of The Dolphin: "Art just isn't worth that much."xiii The dog—surely Seidel himself in this case—is the paragon of shamelessness.
Of course, Seidel is not "behaving" in these ways, but representing himself as disgusting and indifferent to others' opinions. His claim that the poems are to be taken at face value might also be understood, then, as a kind of speech act meant to ensure that the representations have the force of disgusting conduct. In other words, Seidel's shamelessness is a form of self-sufficiency, an extreme assertion of a self that delights and affrights in the infernal, that in fact requires the infernal as the only tableau adequate to the force of the personality on display.
There is instability at the heart of Seidel's poetics. The twin motives of his poems—to render and face real evil and to carve out within that reality a space of power and agency for the self—are ultimately incompatible with each other. This, I feel, is the source of the strange appeal of Seidel's poetry. For if the point of the offense, the tastelessness, the excess is to make us see that our offense, our taste, our timidity do not matter, that they leave evil untouched, that they allow it to flourish, then the desideratum must be that we should cease to be offended, should give up our reliance on a morality of taste. But if we did that then the second motive, the motive of agency, would fail. For if we saw the conditions of modernity as the hell they are, flensed of our illusions of taste, Seidel's personality would no longer appear as a grotesque hyperbole but as entirely adequate to his surroundings. All other poets would then seem cowardly devotees of litotes. Seidel's poetic voice can retain its force only if readers perceive it as a violation of, rather than as the only appropriate response to, the demands of decorum.
ii Alex Halberstadt, "The Motorcycle Diarist," New York Magazine (Dec. 2006), http://nymag.com/arts/books/features/24986/.
xi Perhaps it is worth pointing out that "devil," from diaballein, and "hyperbole," from hyperballein, share an etymology—ballein, to throw. The diabolical is cast out, while the hyperbolic is thrown too far.
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