© PEDRO VALTIERRA/LA JORNADA; NEW DIRECTIONS
In 2005 the editors of the ecumenical poetry annual Fulcrum sent out a questionnaire on “poetry and truth” that ventured to ask the big questions, no matter how self-serious or old-fashioned they seemed: “What is poetry’s essential nature (if any)?” for instance, and “How does poetry relate to the human condition?” For the nineteen poets and critics who responded, including Billy Collins, James Wood, Lyn Hejinian and Charles Bernstein, the exercise was something of a Rorschach test of their comfort with the questionnaire’s elevated tone. Some matched its earnestness note for note (“Poetry, among all arts, probably comes closest to the search for truth since it expresses itself in language, which is the truth medium”–Russian poet Alexei Tsvetkov); some answered it with Steinian riddles (“The greatest poets….accomplish nothing, which is everything”–Hejinian); and some deflated it with absurdist humor (“Poetry is to truth like rubber to the rubber tree: it bounces”–Bernstein).
And then there was Eliot Weinberger, cultural critic and award-winning translator of Octavio Paz and Jorge Luis Borges, who pushed back against Fulcrum‘s questions about poetry and truth with a story about poetry and the failures of criticism. (It is included in Weinberger’s new collection of prose pieces, Oranges and Peanuts for Sale.) In sixteenth-century India, Weinberger’s story goes, a poor but devout farmer enlists the god Shiva to write a poem for him so that he might win a prize of a thousand gold coins promised by the king of Madurai. Shiva does write a love poem, but the royal assembly rejects it for what seems to be a trivial reason: the poem describes a woman’s hair as naturally fragrant and, according to the critic Natkira, the court’s official aesthetic treatise does not allow for such a thing. When Shiva appears at the royal court to argue for his poem–its features, embellishment and sentiment–Natkira is unbending, pointing again to the treatise and its rule on the description of hair. At this point, Weinberger writes,
the god became enraged and revealed his terrifying third eye of flame. The critic said, “I don’t care if you have eyes all over your head. Your poem is no good.” So Shiva cursed him and turned him into a leper.
Weinberger was clearly having some fun with Fulcrum‘s questionnaire: instead of answers, he offered a booby-trapped parable, advising all critics to be wary of the dogmas they subscribe to, lest they find themselves on the wrong end of another summary judgment. But though there is a dash of humor to the parable (the unflappability of Natkira when confronted by Shiva’s exposed third eye; the testiness of Shiva and the quick flick of his punishment), it’s undeniably a revenge fantasy too. Critics often presume to wield control over the fate of artists, but here it’s the artist, unbound by aesthetic and legal convention, who relishes the power to literally flame his critics. Which is fitting for Weinberger: he’s the sort of critic who often takes up arms against other critics, speaking for an aesthetic vision that is like that “terrifying third eye”–normally hidden from sight but incandescent and disturbing when revealed. Creativity and castigation, invention and moral judgment, are the alpha and omega of Weinberger’s work.