Harold Pinter's "God Bless America"
The latest piece of Brit anti-war poetry hits the streets with an incoherence that must be seen to be believed. Sample line: "Your eyes have gone out and your nose" .
11:00 PM, Jan 26, 2003 • By J. BOTTUM
Your head is a pool in the dirt
Your head is a stain in the dust
Your eyes have gone out and your nose
Sniffs only the pong of the dead
And all the dead air is alive
With the smell of America's God.
I can't say "Your eyes have gone out and your nose" is much of a line of poetry. (A note to Andrew Sullivan: How about starting a new prize category? Call it the "Pinter Prize for Bad Political Verse" or the "Your Eyes Have Gone Out And Your Nose" Award.) The two previous five-line stanzas didn't lead us to expect a concluding eight-liner. And isn't this supposed to be where the poem reaches past sarcasm to achieve high moral seriousness? "Pong" is a massive failure of diction.
But the point is: America stands for death. That's expressed in such an anti-religious way, one gathers Pinter thinks God Himself stinks of death, which, in truth, the elderly playwright probably does--the old Swinburnian double bind in which Christians are denounced as childish at the same time that Christianity is blamed for killing off the childish joy of the ancient pre-Christian world: "Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath; / We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death." (Still, at least Swinburne, unlike Pinter, actually understands how a three-beat metrical foot works.) But America is Pinter's burden here: America the violent, which stands so much for murder that its very God is death.
Absent from all of this, of course, is any hint of argument. Great political poetry is not impossible; try Andrew Marvell's Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland, for example, which ends in subtle warning: "The same arts that did gain / A pow'r, must it maintain." But such poetry has to argue something, and the old European culture seems now incapable of serious argument. "A civilization in decline digs its own grave with a relentless consistency," the theologian Bernard Lonergan once wrote. "It cannot be argued out of its self-destructive ways, for argument has a theoretical major premise, theoretical premises are asked to conform to matters of fact, and the facts in the situation produced by decline more and more are the absurdities that proceed from inattention, oversight, unreasonableness, and irresponsibility."
That's the real lesson in Pinter's poem--and Andrew Motion's, for that matter: the irresponsibility of it all, the posturing that takes the place of thought, the faded images that substitute for argument. The wrongness of America's descent upon Iraq is entirely a failure of American motives to be good enough to withstand these Europeans' scrutiny--primarily because (in a marvelous example of circular reasoning) America is by definition so corrupt that it cannot have a good motive for anything.
Are America's motives really that bad? You can see in them some self-servingness (beginning with the reasonable self-servingness of wanting the events of September 11 never to be repeated), and you can also see in them considerable idealism about the rights of freedom around the world. I tried once myself to write a poem that admitted we had sinned and, no doubt, would sin again--but are not thereby relieved of our duties. In a 1932 exchange in Christian Century, prompted by the question of whether the United States should intervene against the Japanese in Manchuria, the well-known Christian ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr wrote of what he called "the grace of doing nothing"--to which his brother, the even-better-known Reinhold Niebuhr, replied that the desire to wait for perfect motives translates into the inability ever to act. Because human beings are what they are, our motives will never reach perfection. We must attempt to do what ought to be done, despite the tangle of our natures, and act most times in imperfection.
Though Harold Pinter thinks that means "all the dead air is alive" only with "the pong of the dead," the air would be even deader--the pong of the dead even stronger--in his self-righteous world of mortal inaction.
J. Bottum is Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard.