The Political Theory of Ferlinghetti

Sky of a priest, is it going to rain?
If it rains you’ll be butchered;
If it doesn’t you’ll be burned. — Benjamin Peret

Sin is the desire of men to become gods — Fr. Ernesto Cardenal

Of the Bourbons who once ruled the Kingdom of Naples it was said that they were unable to learn or forget anything. So it is with the left. Mistaking the federally-finessed austerities of the last four years for a replay of the Great Depression, the left, long paralyzed with perplexity by a modern world beyond its old ideologies, now with great relief relapses into its old ways. Back to the New Deal! Too bad it can’t see that its bogey Reagan has already adopted the only New Deal remedy for economic anemia that ever worked: arms production, intervention and war.

But rather than ponder high policy I’d as soon establish how the left has advanced not an inch in its insights or aspirations by looking at phenomena more local and close to home; and, paradoxically, relating to foreign affairs, not domestic programs. I mean the way the poets, artists and (to use their own warped self-description) “cultural workers” are once again expressing their creative criticality and notorious individualism by signing on as the propagandists of the authoritarian left, or by suborning others who do, or by silencing those who don’t. In the 1 930’s the Communist Party in its Popular Front phase managed the politics of many intellectuals through a network of cultural front-groups. This cartel of organizations and publications could make or break many a marginal artist or writer. While there is no such centralized direction today, many of the cliques who control the paltry means of production of avant garde artifacts are sympathetic to the export of antiEstablishment values to conveniently remote foreign destinations (Grenada, El Salvador). The refusal of all prearranged forced-choices is almost as hazardous as in 1937 when erstwhile left darling George Orwell had Homage to Catalonia rejected by the Left Book Club because his first-hand report on the Spanish Revolution disclosed that the official left was on one side, the revolutionaries on the other.

A troubling manifestation of this trend is the steady stream of radical celebrities, or those striving for celebrity, to Nicaragua, to “liberated” parcels of El Salvador, and — until recently — to that “lovely piece of real estate” (as George Schultz sees it), Grenada. (Albania, Vietnam, Cuba, and South Africa’s new friend Mozambique also have their devotees but these believers are plainly made of much sterner — but not, obviously, Max Stirner — stuff.) Not all of their reports, only most of them, are entirely worthless. The second issue of No Middle Ground has a lengthy first-hand account by Caitlin Manning—better known locally as “Maxine Holz,” the Margaret Thatcher of Processed World — on Nicaragua. I agree with Ted Lopez that her story is a “Lukacsian travelogue,” “revolting Malrauxian shit” and “one of the most obnoxious and disgusting things by a supposed ‘antiauthoritarian’ that we’ve ever seen.” Still, this sophisticated Sandinista apologia can be mined for data which discredit its crypto-Trotskyist “critical support” line in yielding glimpses of life in the “new” (but not that new) Nicaragua.

The same, which isn’t much anyway, cannot be said for Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who parlayed a one-week tour into a coffee table book whose base tenor is apparent from a recent Poetry Flash interview. Ferlinghetti as a poet is endorsing Nicaragua the way a baseball player would endorse a razor. The “poetry” angle is forced to the point of farce: about the only point of even apparent intersection is Ferlinghetti’s crony and counterpart Ernesto Cardenal, a supposed poet, and, as Minister of Culture, a nominal member of the ruling Sandinista junta. Cardenal is, of course, that lowest of life-forms, a priest. When J2P2 played the Central American circuit he snubbed Father Cardenal, this is true, but to my mind the key point is, not that Cardenal was not allowed to kiss the Pope’s ring, but rather that he even tried to in the first place.

It’s too bad that Lawrence Ferlinghetti, that world-weary has-been, didn’t shamble off to the Elysian Fields ere he ever signed on with poet-turned-puto Ernesto Cardenal’s MiniCult propaganda machine. Our revered Beat(off) presumes too much on our credulity when he pretends that — deceived by the satanic Reagan — he “had a lot of preconceived notions about Nicaragua before I went there.” What? After thirty years of ostensible opposition to the Establishment (didn’t he write something about impeaching Eisenhower way back in his vanished youth?), all of a sudden Ferlinghetti believes the likes of Ronald Reagan? No wonder, then, that after his quickie radical-tourist jaunt in Nicaragua he jettisoned one batch of preconceived notions only to take another aboard. If he’s not lying he is — at best, and by his own admission — the dupe of whatever self-interested ideologue happens to be the last to catch his ear.

Politics is not a paternity suit. Nobody cares when and where Ferlinghetti’s opinions were “conceived,” the point is, are they true?

As always, left and right play into each other’s hands. Ferlinghetti disputes a State Department estimate of Nicaraguan Communists rather than address the real situation in that country. All Communists are repressive statists but many, or most present or prospective rulers aren’t CP. If only flagging future Fuehrers were that easy! But in fact they’re incubating all over, in the mislabeled Libertarian Party no less than in the Stalinist nut-cults like the RCP or COOP. If Ferlinghetti didn’t notice that Nicaragua is a one-party dictatorship he must not have noticed anything.

Asked about the censorship of poet Pablo Antonio Cuadra, a La Prensa editor, Ferlinghetti finds it “symbolically interesting that La Prensa was next door to where the Banco de America is.” For some reason Ferlinghetti never found this interesting in the Somoza period when his chum Cardenal used to publish his poems in La Prensa. Nor did the Nicaraguan masses or even their Sandinista mentors find this too interesting in 1978 when the bourgeois liberal character of the paper’s editor Pedro Joaquin Chamorro didn’t preclude their seizing upon his assassination as the catalyst of their harrowing but ultimately successful revolt. I say “revolt” rather than “revolution,” not to devalue the sacrifices of suffering insurrectionaries far more respectable than any of their North American cheerleaders, but to leave open the real question what kind of a change really happened down there. To oust and exterminate a gang of outright looters is self-evidently desirable, but so limited an objective leaves larger vistas of social transformation unapproached.

Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore, which has in recent years installed anti-theft electronic detection devices, is across the street from the nearest branch of Bank of America, a fact which I’m not sure is even “symbolically interesting” whatever that evasion means. What I find really and not just “symbolically” interesting is the fact that the Bank of America flourishes undisturbed in “socialist” Nicaragua. Ferlinghetti received no coaching and so has nothing to say to explicate the state-capitalist nature of the “new” Nicaragua.

Anecdotal irrelevance, accepted unquestionably by idolatrous interviewer David Volpendesta, is Ferlinghetti’s only remaining rhetorical talent. Asked about the status of women (Volpendesta knew better than to even ask about gays), Ferlinghetti told some stupid story about the Sandinista menfolk letting a woman poet participate in a military action. This is like answering a question about the oppression of women in America with a fairy tale about Molly Pitcher.

The Vergil from Intourist who arranged the appearances that Ferlinghetti happily settled for was Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal, who must I suppose be acknowledged as a poet in the same sense Ferlinghetti is. This Marxist McKuen is the author of the sickening travelog In Cuba with its obscene panegyric to Fidel Castro and its profound respect for the way the regime enforces such Christian values as puritan morality and the work ethic. Now he’s done unto Ferlinghetti what Castro did unto him. One of Cardenal’s translators writes: “Ernesto Cardenal is a Catholic priest and a Marxist poet, and he sees no conflict between these two loyalties.” Neither do l!

Ferlinghetti’s flirtation with anarchism is finally done with; what a relief for the anarchists! Now he doesn’t care if a country has an authoritarian power structure so long as at least six of the nine Sandinista bosses are “basically humane, reasonable intellectuals, rather than military men or dictators.” When is a dictator not a dictator? When he’s a “humane intellectual” like Ferlinghetti: when he’s a nice guy. Ferlinghetti was too humane and reasonable to ask any of these reasonable humanists why strikes have been prohibited in Nicaragua since 1981.

Ferlinghetti’s contemptible performance is in the tradition of the eager dupes who used to get carefully misguided tours of the Soviet Union and came back saying, for instance, as Sartre did, that “freedom of speech is total in the Soviet Union.” As recently as 1975 Ferlinghetti was writing, “I’m still concerned with the symbolic importance of a poet lending his talent to any branch of the government, even if he’s paid privately for it.” I guess it’s okay as long as it’s somebody else’s government. Of course, if Ferlinghetti were to deny that he’d lent his talent to the junta, I’d have to agree.

Nicaragua is a statist, capitalist class society which it is convenient for the Reagan regime to portray as revolutionary. But if anything revolutionary about the insurgency which overthrew Somoza has survived the Sandinista bureaucratic consolidation, Ferlinghetti doesn’t know it and couldn’t care less. He is wholly identified with the ruling clique in which his counterpart, the priest Cardenal, is an ornament. There is unfortunately little prospect, between Reagan’s destabilization policies and the junta’s Leninist objectives, that the Sandinista State will — like Ferlinghetti’s integrity — wither away. Old Noah is drunk; let us feel shame for his nakedness.

Part III: Appeal To Treason