In Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, there is a poignant exchange between the nameless master of the novel’s title, and the everyman-poet Ivan Bezdomny:
“What, don't you like my poetry?” asked Ivan with some curiosity.
“I hate it.”
“Which poems have you read?”
“I haven’t read any of your poems!” the visitor anxiously exclaimed.
“Then how can you say that?”
“What?” his guest responded. “As if I haven’t read any other poems? Is it so unexpected? But alright, I'm prepared to take it on faith. You tell me. Is your poetry any good?”
“Monstrous!” Ivan suddenly said, boldly and earnestly.
“Don't write any more!” the visitor implored. (Bulgakov 2007)
There is deep truth in this excerpt. Here is another, this one from novelist Jade Chang:
How many times did people have to prove that anything could be art before we could finally admit that very little was actually art? (Chang 2016)
The notion that art could have something to do with quality sounds vaguely backward to us today, and so it is. But maybe so it is. I recently re-read Barthes’ From Work to Text, an important work (if you’ll pardon the expression) of critical theory and post-structuralist thought. In it, a certain word jumped out at me like a little hornet in a bush:
...Similarly, the infinity of the signifier refers not to some idea of the ineffable (the unnameable signified) but to that of play. (Barthes 1978, emphasis added)
Play. I can’t tell you how sick I am of play. Everything about the neoliberal economy is an injunction to play. Get out for a while! Celebrate. Enjoy life. Try new experiences. Spend money you don’t have. Express yourself. Don’t be so cheap. Play. Play. Play…
Barthes too was sick of something. I know what it was, and I understand why. His interest in the authorless text, as opposed to the authoritative work, was a democratic passion. He was reacting to an aristocracy of culture and of politics that was clogging up the revolutionary arteries of his time. He wanted to overturn old authorities, push back against the racist, sexist, classist institutions of power bankrolled by the bourgeoisie. When the theory of the text came out in the sixties and seventies, it was a break. It heralded a new, subversive way of doing democracy. There were no longer any authors, those mustachioed potentates of the written word. Suddenly, anyone and everyone could write—and indeed, could not avoid writing. People were not authors so much as vectors spreading text, a newly-discovered commons, a matrix of insurgent potencies. Jacques Derrida, another student of the text, devoted his life to the idea that everyone is always writing all the time. The world is a text that we continuously contribute to. But who on earth has ever had so much of anything meaningful to say?
You have to be clever to navigate a text, and so much of art today is clever. It is a good clever, as far as it goes—the product of supple minds busily at work on the general culture (understood now as a text), adding footnotes, endnotes, aphorisms, euphemisms, spoonerisms, interpretations, celebrations, cross-references, crass references, class references, subtle innuendo, double, triple, quadruple entendres, committee hearings on the text of culture. It’s enough cleverness to drive you mad. You know who isn’t trying to be clever? Curators. Art dealers. Appallingly white males in liberal suits-and-ties who handle reverentially what artists spit out with acerbic schadenfreude. Watching them hang a show or talking about brush strokes is like watching bankers count coins. The sacraments offered by these monks of consignment are the well-intentioned feelings society pays forward for the change it does not want to make. The reverend brothers do not talk half so piously of raising the minimum wage or breaking up monopolies as they do about some painter’s self-expression. Knaves! They’ve got it backwards! A proper world is one in which artists treat their work with sacramental reverence and everyone else ignores it completely. That’s the world I want to live in!
I understand the democratic intentions of the theory of the text, the theory of writing, the theory of play—but it is no longer subversive. It has moved on from democratic to coercive. Express yourself. Enjoy, tweet, text, pursue your wildest dreams! It’s practically non-consensual.
Not everyone has to be a writer for democracy to work. In fact, it doesn’t work when they are. Donald Trump too is a writer. He has no qualms about tweeting whatever passes through him like a gallstone or a stool. Our oppressors are no longer the lieutenant-barons of yesteryear, but rank-and-file idiots favored by their appetites for power and the color of their skins—hedge fund populists who have found their calling in 140 characters or less. We are deafened by this toilet seat democracy.
Another quote, this one from Milan Kundera. Ignore the bad simile, the point he’s making is a good one:
"Don't you like music?" Franz asked.
"No," said Sabina, and then added, "though in a different era..." She was thinking of the days of Johann Sebastian Bach, when music was like a rose blooming on a boundless snow-covered plain of silence.
Noise masked as music had pursued her since early childhood. During her years at the Academy of Fine Arts, students had been required to spend whole summer vacations at a youth camp. They lived in common quarters and worked together on a steelworks construction site. Music roared out of loudspeakers on the site from five in the morning to nine at night. She felt like crying, but the music was cheerful, and there was nowhere to hide, not in the latrine or under the bedclothes: everything was in range of the speakers. The music was like a pack of hounds that had been sicked on her. (Kundera 2009)
I want a democracy of silence. A reverential calm broken here and there by vital missives—not signifiers at play, but words! Words that mean something. The Hungarian injunction to be quiet is “hallgass!”—listen. I want there to be something to listen to.
A meritocracy, a true society of quality, is a society of equality. It need not—cannot—be a class society. Rich people are empty—hollowed out by their incessant struggle for another thirty pieces of silver. They simply don’t have that much quality to go around. Shut the fuck up! Listen. Wonder. Speak if and only if and when you have something to say. Something important, something life-giving, something decidedly un-clever. I want to hear it. I really do. But I can’t for all that racket you call writing. “Don’t write any more, the visitor implored. I vow and promise, Ivan ceremoniously said.”
Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text,” in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1978).
Mikhail Bulgakov, Мастер и Маргарита, Книга на все времена (Moscow: АСТ МОСКВА, 2007).
Jade Chang, The Wangs vs. the World (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being: A Novel, trans. Michael Henry Heim, Deluxe edition (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009).