Friday, March 10, 2006

Right to Privacy

An interesting post by Josh suggests that there are three types of poetry: (A) social formalism (“critical, antimetaphysical, constructivist, and politically engaged”), (B) the private-romantic (“the poem as guarantee of some minimal subjectivity (legroom in coach)”), and (C) the metaphysical-romantic (“It has the highest ambitions for poetry within the private-spiritual sphere to which poetry has traditionally been allocated (whereas Poetry A seeks to explode or implode that sphere)”). As suggested by Josh’s “legroom in coach” aside, he finds it hard to take B seriously.

What strikes me is how crucial the issue of privacy has become in our lives—in so many areas. In the political arena, progressives are often the defenders of privacy, both on issues like the Patriot Act and wiretapping and, of course, abortion. The existence of a Constitutional right to privacy has become a central doctrine of the left, and it’s ironic that, as Josh says, the effort to “explode or implode” the private sphere has become a central goal of some of the most “politically engaged” artists. It also is interesting to note that “the earliest recognition of the concept of privacy is in the Muslim religion. . . . ‘In Islam the law is God-given and the right of privacy is a sacred right’” (OK, that's according to Wikipedia).

As one of those people—one of those poets—who feels “continual outrage” (as Josh says) at the attacks on privacy by self-righteous preachers (whether religious, political, or literary), I am fascinated by America’s love-hate relationship with privacy. It goes back for hundreds of years: the Puritans demanded communal, public confession (think of the witch hunts, both literal and figurative, conducted by extremists of both the right and the left throughout history), while the American founders were determined to protect privacy (and, not incidentally, private property).

Artistic privacy needs to be protected as much as political privacy, even though it’s dangerous. Just as freedom of speech protects offensive speech as well as enlightened, defense of the private sphere in art inevitably protects the sort of “fiddling while Rome burns” poetry (or perhaps “sipping my latte on a snowy evening” poetry or, as Josh nicely puts it, “culinary” poetry) that reduces privacy to self-indulgence, as well as makes possible the genuinely sublime that can only emerge from privacy.

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