This writer is unsurprised that the Boston Review has retained the editorial services of Junot Diaz. After all, Diaz has made much of being on the approved side of many of the divisions that plague the culture, plus, he has a big reputation, plus, maybe the Review decided to take an unpopular, independent stand and say “so what” or “too bad” about Diaz’s purported abusive behaviour toward a “group” of women. The remaining egomaniacs, boors, and creeps, particularly the ones that are male, who populate the poetry and publishing world— the poetry and publishing world differing little from the world at large—must wonder when the knock will come on their door: social media humiliation, loss of publication, disappearance of their work from websites, libraries, and even bookstores; loss of employment no matter how minor or poorly paid; and permanent loss of reputation. I can’t stand it. I think it’s wrong. And I don’t want to know who did what to whom in some sordid drunken adult encounter five, ten, or twenty years ago, or even last week.
Zero Tolerance doesn’t look good on anybody, especially on anybody who lives and otherwise behaves as if they live in a postmodern secular society. But religious zealotry is never very far from the surface of an imagined social cohesion. We seem to be compelled to create and sustain victims. and to create and sustain enemies. In the absence of actual war, we create political wars, culture wars, poetry wars, gender wars, and wars against the past. There is seemingly no end to subjects liable to persecution by Zero Tolerance—whole peoples, individual persons, epochs, eras, philosophies, vernaculars, literatures, religions.
In the 1955 movie The Night of the Hunter, Robert Mitchum, playing a possessed evangelical preacher, is using his own knuckles to grind out a conflict between the word “hate” tattooed on one set of knuckles and the word “love” tattooed on the other, as he stalks a young woman in the town whose money he is after. Stalking the private lives of writers, artists, and intellectuals, both living and dead, for moral reward or financial gain, or both, is now an acceptable critical practice. More and more, the culture is being deprived of anything private, complex, grown-up, and real. It seems there is absolutely nothing to admire about ourselves anymore except our ability to torment those with whom we disagree or to valourize those whom we have decided to absolve of their personal failings.
The French writer Marguerite Duras once asked an interviewer if it was possible to “innocent” someone— if “to innocent” someone was an actual thing, a possible verb, since it did describe the desire within her writing practice. Such a practice, even such a desire, is so far from what we do today. Yet I agree with and applaud Duras’ project, against the tide of guilt-attribution that passes for critical thinking. (Must I acknowledge that as a member of a society that has benefitted from imperialism and racism that I have much to learn, to change, and to atone for? Yes, I must. And that I want men to stop sexually assaulting women and children? Yes, I do.)
A dogmatic puritanism, however, is the shadow side of Decadence, of which our era is a textbook example. While allying itself with Officially Approved Decadence, this now-institutionalized puritanism at the same time indulges its irrepressible need to judge others who are actually, perhaps, decadent. When the epidemic of sexual abuse co-exists with the ubiquity of pornography (the “chief outlet,” in Blake’s terms, of our age), the pornographic model for intimacy almost always involves an absence of care for the feminine. Consent is the hope that whatever ensues can’t really be called assault. This is an overwhelming sadness, since everyone wants and needs to be loved, and love is absent. Except, perhaps, somehow invisibly, in the best poetry.