Writing Wrongs, by Rachel Zucker
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From excerpts of a lecture collected in The Poetics of Wrongness, which was published last month by Wave Books.

In late January 2013, I told my mother I was going to publish my memoir, called MOTHERs, despite the fact that she’d told me she did not want me to and that, if I did, terrible things would happen to her, to me, and to my children. A few hours after receiving my email and forwarding it to several friends with a note saying that I was breaking her heart, my mother, who was in Taiwan at the time, was rushed to the hospital. She suffered an aortic dissection and never regained consciousness after an emergency heart valve replacement surgery.

For months after my mother’s death, I organized memorials, cleaned out her apartment, managed her literary estate, and mourned her, all while believing that I’d killed her, that my actions—my writing and my decision to publish that writing—had in small or large ways precipitated her sudden death. I stopped writing. Perhaps I was in shock or afraid of my own writing or perhaps I imagined that never writing again would be penance.

A few years ago, the poet John Murillo delivered a talk at Adelphi University titled “Family Business: Elegy and the Ethics of Confession,” in which he raises the question: Do we have the right to use the lives of others as fodder?

Murillo explains that when writing poetry of witness, poetry in which one speaks for someone who supposedly cannot, one necessarily runs the risk of violating someone else’s privacy and/or appropriating or exploiting another person’s story and experience for one’s own purposes. But later in the talk, he also says, “Even when I’m appropriating or exploiting, I can do it in a way that will bring some happiness.” In the end, Murillo’s answer to his own question is this: “It’s unethical, but it’s what we do.” “Ours is a dirty business,” he stated. “What’s the alternative?”

And what would poetry be if people only wrote “harmless” poems? Should we invent a litmus test to measure hurtfulness and put a “no one was harmed in the making of these poems” sticker on qualifying books? When I imagine a kind of poetry that tries not to hurt anyone I can only imagine a poetry so obscure, coy, and abstract as to be unintelligible. I can’t think of a poem I love that would qualify.

This is, in a way, a problem that concerns all works written about real people. Journalists have codes of ethics, as do physicians, but poets do not. Is that because poetry does not seem, like medicine, a matter of life and death? Or because, unlike journalism, it seems like a hobby rather than a profession? Or do poets lack a code of ethics because American poetry is so marginalized that we are not overly worried about violating anyone’s privacy when we have so few readers?

None of these explanations is an ethical defense. “You know,” the poet Saeed Jones tweeted, “it’s WILD how many poets get a pass on the blatant racism / misogyny in their work because of poetry’s relative obscurity.” Jones’s tweet, posted on March 15, 2015, was responding to a reading at Brown University two days earlier, in which the conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith “remixed”—which is to say, slightly reordered—the autopsy report of Michael Brown, a black man killed by the police, in a piece he called “The Body of Michael Brown.” Goldsmith was decried as racist, exploitative, and insensitive for reifying, perpetuating, and replicating the racist stereotypes he supposedly intended to critique or subvert. The reactions that resulted—especially the disturbing online defenses of Goldsmith by certain white, male poets who tend to cry “censorship” when anyone criticizes conceptual poets—signal the need for a conversation that should not stop with “It’s unethical, but it’s what we do.”

What is clear is that these literary actions have hurt others and have set off a wave of argument and discussion about what a person has the right to write about. I can’t imagine not asking myself: Are there things I should not or would not say? Are there poems or books that step over the line? How so? In what way? Should there be guidelines for writers? If so, what should they be?

In a series of lectures called Discourse and Truth given at Berkeley in 1983, Michel Foucault outlined the etymology and evolution of the Greek concept of parrhesia from its origins in the Greek tragedies to its denouement in the rise of philosophy. Parrhesia is usually translated into English as “free speech,” but our American notion of free speech is so vexed that I would like to go back to a more literal translation. Here is Foucault:

Etymologically, “parrhesiazesthai” means “to say everything”—from “pan” (everything) and “rhema” (that which is said). The one who uses parrhesia, the parrhesiastes, is someone who says everything he has in mind: he does not hide anything, but opens his heart and mind completely to other people through his discourse. In parrhesia, the speaker is supposed to give a complete and exact account of what he has in mind so that the audience is able to comprehend exactly what the speaker thinks. . . .In parrhesia, the speaker makes it manifestly clear and obvious that what he says is his own opinion. And he does this by avoiding any kind of rhetorical form which would veil what he thinks. Instead, the parrhesiastes uses the most direct words and forms of expression he can find.

To imagine literature as an act of parrhesia, a mode where one “says everything” one has in mind and relays one’s own opinion in “the most direct words and forms of expression,” is, at first glance, counter to what most of us expect. We usually expect linguistic refinement rather than transparency and maximalism. Parrhesia also runs counter to our American notions of freedom, which we usually define as the absence of limitations. In particular, we have strong feelings about freedom of speech, which is a constitutional right limited only when absolutely necessary.

I’m interested in thinking about the writer as a parrhesiastes, or someone who uses parrhesia, because parrhesia has specific requirements, attendant rites, rituals, and qualifications. For “saying everything” to qualify as parrhesia (as opposed to chatter or flattery), there must be a meaningful political purpose to the speech and a significant risk for the speaker. Foucault:

Someone is said to use parrhesia and merits consideration as a parrhesiastes only if there is a risk or danger for him or her in telling the truth. For instance, from the ancient Greek perspective, a grammar teacher may tell the truth to the children that he teaches . . . [but] he is not a parrhesiastes. However, when a philosopher addresses himself to a sovereign, to a tyrant, and tells him that his tyranny is disturbing and unpleasant because tyranny is incompatible with justice, then the philosopher speaks the truth, believes he is speaking the truth, and, more than that, also takes a risk (since the tyrant may become angry, may punish him, may exile him, may kill him).

Parrhesia is linked to courage in the face of danger: it demands the courage to speak the truth in spite of the potential risk. There must be risk for speech to qualify as parrhesia, but the risk is not always a risk of life. If, in a political debate, an orator risks losing his popularity because his opinions are contrary to the majority’s opinion or his opinions may usher in a political scandal, he uses parrhesia.

There must also be a purpose for speech to qualify as parrhesia. Saying you don’t like your friend’s hairstyle is not an act of parrhesia or courageous speech. The difference has to do with the inherent political nature and power structure of parrhesia. “Parrhesia,” explains Foucault,

is a form of criticism . . . where the speaker . . . is in a position of inferiority with respect to the interlocutor. The parrhesiastes is always less powerful than the one with whom he or she speaks. The parrhesia comes from “below,” as it were, and is directed towards “above.” This is why an ancient Greek would not say that a teacher or father who criticizes a child uses parrhesia. But when a philosopher criticizes a tyrant, when a citizen criticizes the majority, when a pupil criticizes his or her teacher, then such speakers may be using parrhesia.

Here is where our sense of the confessional impulse and parrhesia diverge: the confessional memoir writer is thought of as narcissistic and self-indulgent whereas the parrhesiastes is an underdog hero offering necessary criticism at great risk to herself. Confessionalism has at its root the (Christian) practice that imagines that admitting wrongdoing will absolve the confessor, but confessionalism is generally thought of as unethical, in that it violates the privacy of the confessor and disturbs and disrupts the sensibility of the reader. Parrhesia, on the other hand, is inherently political rather than spiritual, does not assume a state of sin, and is considered necessary for the health and well-being of citizens, rulers, and the community. Foucault:

A good king accepts everything that a genuine parrhesiastes tells him, even if it turns out to be unpleasant for him to hear criticism of his decisions. A sovereign shows himself to be a tyrant if he disregards his honest advisors, or punishes them for what they have said . . . Power without limitation is directly related to madness.

The “say everythingness” of confessional literature is often a sign of the writer’s madness or immorality, but parrhesia is a sign of the speaker’s and listeners’ sanity and goodness. Whereas confessionalism serves only the self (and can be self- destructive), parrhesia is oriented toward the benefit of the community.

I still do not know whether my decision to publish MOTHERs was an act of parrhesia or not. I do write about myself and my life candidly, but my writing is not primarily an act of self-expression. I aspire, instead, to write and publish poems and prose that are relational, political, and, hopefully, ethical. Even though I believe that “narcissism” is often an accusation used to try to control women, I am no longer interested in writing that is only about the self, and I have never been interested in writing that attempts to exist without the self. To write with no self is irresponsible. To write with only self is irrelevant.

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