This post comes out of the exchange of comments on the previous post. It didn't seem adequate to look at the question in the space of a note. What the letters dealt with was my own dissatisfaction with the competitive aspect of the contemporary scene. How valuable a characteristic is the competitive spirit, for an individual and society? A fish in the sea doesn't know how salty the water is. Americans apparently aren't aware just how competitive things have become here, the tendency is too universal for us to perceive clearly--unless we back off a bit and try for objectivity.
We're taught that competition helps us excel, in athletics, scholastics, and art; that competition between businesses offering commercial goods and services produces better goods and services; and that we need to compete on the world stage in order to insure the security and well-being of our country. These assumptions are so much taken for granted that we don't even bother to look at the other side of the question. What is the cost of competition, for the self and for the world? First, a sort of garrison mentality, in which the goal of beating the rival never gives us a moment of relaxation or untroubled rest. W.E.B. Dubois, after his first visit to Liberia, noted a certain laisser-aller in that country; it wasn't a model of efficiency or tidiness. What he did see was ordinary human contentment and added that he had noticed a correlation between unhappiness and the demands of efficient modernity in advanced Western nations. Obviously something is going wrong in our own particular society, if you consider how many Americans take antidepressants, the shockingly high percentage of people in prison, high divorce and suicide rates, drug addiction, alcoholism, and troubling level of unemployment. Businesses, in order to be competititve, must downsize, reduce the payroll and schedule of benefits. No one's job is safe in the current competitive ambiance. Computers now answer telephones, absorbing many of public's productive hours during the week while we thread our way through the beeps and then are kept on hold until one of the company's two telephone answerers gets to us. And why? So that businesses can downsize and remain competitive.
And when we go to the supermarket, yes, we're confronted with forty varieties of laundry detergent, but do we really think that any one of them is significantly better than any other? The main way that the companies compete is through eye-catching ads on TV, which cost the companies a fortune, at least until advertising expenses are passed on to the consumer. A recent credit card ad proclaimed, "We are a nation of consumers, and there's nothing wrong with that." Oh? The main spur for consumption seems to be the old keeping up with the Jones syndrome. A high school senior dare not appear in the classroom without the sneaker of the month. His parents dare not drive a car that fails to make his neighbors choke on envy. "He who dies with the most toys wins." Designer clothes, designer furniture, designer lives, designer drugs, Subzero fridges--all to show that you have successfully competed. Unfortunately, in the race to keep up we've moved to the edge of bankruptcy and become a debtor nation. If our competitive spirit produces better products, why does no one but an American want to buy an American car or home appliance? Because those products are inferior. In fact, affluent Americans all want foreign cars and products because these expensive items prove that you have successfully competed. And if you're still not happy, you can go on Lexapro. Jefferson's "pursuit of happiness" has become all pursuit and no happiness.
As for international competition, it has meant the build-up, at staggering cost, of a massive military machine, absorbing tax dollars that could have gone to socially constructive programs like national health and repair of the infrastructure (see the collapse of the Minneapolis bridge). This huge military potential lulls us into a false sense of security, and encourages in us a readiness to use military rather than diplomatic means to solve international problems. There's an important article by Tony Judt in the May 1 New York Review of Books, where he accounts for American blitheness about war by the fact that we did not experience on home ground the terrible devastation of the two World Wars. We lack first-hand knowledge of what it's like to have your own city or town bombed, to see dismembered bodies of people we love, to lose all that we have. War for us is just another video game. But not for those who are sent to Afghanistan or Iraq, who return to tell us or don't return. And certainly not for the civilian populations whose lives we have pulverized.
In today's New York Times journalist John Tierney suggests that we just drop the restricitons on athletes doping, since drug tests are unreliable and anyway athletes should be free to use any method whatsoever in order to compete successfully. Apparently there's even a way to alter your DNA by injecting genes with the help of a virus so that stronger muscles can be built, more records be broken, and more gold won by the country with the easiest access to the latest biotechnology. Is this grotesque or what?
What produces happiness? Moments of solitude and communion with what is divine, moments when no rivals are around to stir up anxieties. And then moments of shared happiness with those I love, moments of community spirit with people I like and don't regard as enemies. In Chaos theory, it's said that every time a butterfly unfolds its wings in China, weather patterns in the Western Hemisphere are slightly altered. Along the same lines, there's a popular ballad titled "Let There Be Peace on Earth (And Let It Begin With Me)," which, sentimental as it is, even so contains a grain of truth. Every time I choose competition over cooperation, every time I try to cut someone off on the freeway, every time I am violent in deed or word, I increase the world sum of aggression and the probability of armed conflict. It's only a question of scale between, on one hand, the high-school and college shotgun massacres we've come to expect now, and, on the other, bombing countries we decide are dangerous to us. Maybe the best expression of this concept is Marianne Moore's poem, "In Distrust of Merits," where she speaks of the war-producing disease of "myself."
Turning to the arts in general and poetry in particular, I have to say I find the spectacle of competition on the contemporary poetry scene thoroughly repellent. There used to be a website called Foetry that detailed some of the underhanded tactics of some poets to get ahead of their rivals or to promote the particular aesthetic faction to which they belong. Perhaps the website was sometimes in error and maybe they overplayed their hand. But no one with an inside view can fail to see that competitive infighting is a destructive, not a creative force. Yeats's phrase about the "worst" being filled with a "passionate intensity" applies well here. So far from being in favor of freedom of expression, today's aesthetic factions are dead set on crushing any and all rivals. Whereas, to prove that they are more than simple machines designed to advance the case of Number One, I believe that poets or poetic parties ought to sometimes publish or allow into their forums representatives of alternative views. In Marxist theory, progress in thought or in social organization works through dialectic. How little we see of that in the current scene. No, it's all about Moi, and everybody else can go to hell.
I would like to see great works of art produced in my time. If they are produced by this hand, fine. If they are produced by someone else, equally fine. I feel lucky to be the colleague of many wonderful poets now writing. I'm glad when someone else scores a triumph, it's one more artwork in the world that I can enjoy. The artist I'd like to outdistance is the artist I was before now. Lao-Tse: "The wise man does not compete. Thus no one can compete with him."