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“The Sea-God’s Herb - Essays & Criticism 1975-2014” … A Song of Post-Modernism

“The Sea-God’s Herb - Essays & Criticism 1975-2014” … A Song of Post-Modernism

Tom Verso (July 2, 2014)

When I first saw the “Italian American Writers Association” (IAWA) notice of “The Sea-God’s Herb – Essays & Criticism” by John Domini, my first thought was: “I wonder if he is related to the John Domini who wrote the novel ‘A Tomb on the Periphery’. Talk about being in the dark! /// /// I’m profoundly literature and criticism challenged. However, a student of southern-Italian Americanita, I feel obliged to read southern-Italian American writers manifesting their history and culture. That’s how I happen to read “Tomb…” It blew me away (see related articles #1). However, after completing it, I moved back into my non-fiction ‘social-science-history’ bag. Accordingly, I was not aware of Domini’s amazing range of writing genre (novels, poetry, criticism). /// /// If he was not Neapolitan and I had not revered “Tomb…” I would not have read “Sea-Gods…”; most especially when I determined that it was at least in part a celebration of post-modern literature (i.e. what the literati call literature). I stand passionately against the ‘stuff’! /// /// I think post-modernism is a decadent component of the culture war being waged against the historic/traditional values of Western culture. /// /// But, my social science and historiographic epistemological assumptions oblige me to read objectively, even what I reject on axiological grounds. And, thankfully, I did!!! John writes: “It’s the idea of ‘help’ that drives the critic and essayist in me...most modern and post-modern work has been so badly understood that I feel I can be useful.” In short, he is a teacher. And, a good and devoted teacher should always be heard. In short, this is a significant study of postmodern Americana, and a must read for students of American culture generally and most especially southern-Italian American. Domini is Neopolitan through and through, and though his works we may see how the southern-Italian American literati meld, or not, with the broader American culture.


 Preface Post-modernism

Post-modernism, in its every form (art, religion, ethics, etc.) tears at the essence of the near 3,000 year old Western Culture.
In 1907 Pope Pius X issued the encyclical “Pascendi Dominici Gregris”, wherein he discussed at length and warned against dangers of the emerging cultural concept of “Modernism”.
Fifty-eight years later (1965), the Vatican II Council of Bishops, ignoring Pius X’s warnings, embraced the modern/post-modern milieu. With that, the 1,965-year-old pillar and core of Western Culture crashed.
For 1,965 years the Church manifested unified homogenous theology, moral teachings, ritual, clerical garb, architecture, music, etc. All that unity ended in the post-modern era. Absolutism was replaced with relativism: today all and every aspect of the Church is rent.
Pius X made a very interesting observation about Modernism, which is clearly applicable to the post-modern cultural milieu generally. He wrote (click for link):
“The Modernists (as they are commonly and rightly called) employ a very clever artifice, namely, to present their doctrines without order and systematic arrangement into one whole, scattered and disjointed one from another…”
Similarly, in the post-modern era we find no “systematic arrangement” of what post-modern is in fact. Google "postmodern", and one finds "scattered and disjointed" articles; the more one reads, the more ephemeral the definiton becomes – a metamorphosis.
Post-modernism is a ‘being’ without an ‘essence’.
And, yet virtually every aspect of Western culture experiences the indefinable post-modern de facto ideology. However, one thing is common to every metamorphic manifestation of post-modern:
Post-modernism, in all its forms, stands against traditional historic Western Culture.
“The Sea-God’s Herb …”
“Right-off-the-bat” – the first thing that should be said about “The Sea-God’s Herb…” is that it falls completely in the erudite tradition of southern-Italian American critical scholarship. 
Sea-Gods manifest the same encyclopedic knowledge and challenging vocabulary found in: Fred Gardphe’s “Italian Signs, American Streets”; Mary Jo Bono’s “Claiming A Tradition…”; Frank Lentricchia’s “Crimes of Art and Terror”; etc.. 
Domini et al “fly-in-the-face” of the pop culture idiomatic “dees-and-does” image of the southern-Italian Americans.
Ironically, regarding vocabularyDomini writes:
“My critical vocabulary strives for American plainness.” (e-book Location … L 95 emp.+)
WOW! If he, a resident of Des Moines, thinks the Sea-Gods text is representative of American plainness, I really have to change my opinion about Iowa.
Less tongue-in-cheek:
Ain’t no way Jose, that his idiom remotely constitutes “American Plainness”. On the contrary this is a very very challenging read in terms of vocabulary, symbolism and nuance. Keep in mind Domini is a poet; metaphor comes natural and cannot be denied.
Sadly (tragically?), such erudition as Sea-Gods is so very not representative of southern-Italian Americana. Southern-Italian Americans are not a highly educated people and the best educated fall largely outside of the humanities. (see: Census Dept. education statistics at end of this article)
Nevertheless, Domini et al demonstrate the humanist intellectuality that southern-Italian Americans are capable off, when so motivated.
So why write literary criticism?
The story is told about a mountain climber about to undertake an especially challenging climb being asked: “Why do you want to climb the mountain?” To which the climber replied: “Because it’s there!”
Who can explain why a person climbs mountains, or plays chess or writes books or, or, … ad infinitum?
John Domini quizzed himself about his motive to write “The Sea-God’s…” He writes:
Why should I take time and energy to write about contemporary literature, and other art forms…?
“I can claim that the essays and reviews here … amount to an argument on behalf of latter-day non-traditional storytelling.
“Nevertheless, now when I look the effort over and ask myself why, some part of my answer must be a shrug. That’s the way the helix doubles.
“No honest assessment of what this book’s about can ignore the vagaries of my DNA. (L 35)
In short, we do what we do for reasons that are not totally explicable. I guess that’s why psychoanalysis was invented.
Apart from the mystery of ‘fundamental (DNA-esque) motivations’, more to the point, Domini is pretty clear about his ostensive motivation. He writes:
“… it’s the idea of “help,” you see, that drives the critic and essayist in me, when everything’s said and done… this argument keeps coming up… a brief on behalf of the most modern and post-modern. Such work has been so badly understood that I feel I can be useful. (L 49)
‘True dat!’ … But!
True: Domini is not only a writer of fiction, poetry and literary criticism; he is a teacher (Grinnell College and Des Moines Community College). Accordingly, whether by ‘nature or nurture’, it is understandable that he, as a teacher, would be motivated to clarify things pertaining to literature that are “badly understood”.
Thus for example, he writes:
“The most thoughtful review or essay will have an ameliorative impact, correcting misapprehension and enlarging the perception of beauty
Mine reveals ancient narrative structures and satisfactions in contemporary storytelling. (L76)
But, while Sea-Gods fulfills its pedagogic objective brilliantly it is more (very much more) than explication or clarification of the postmodern.
Sea-Gods is, in Domini’s words: a celebration of the postmodern. (L 66) He goes far beyond clarification/explication, and enters into the realm of advocation. The word ‘postmodern’ occurs explicitly 41 times and implied many more.
Domini, it seems to me, is ‘selling’, if you will, the post-modern genre.
Humanist teaching, to my mind, ideally entails presenting various points of view objectively, without necessarily advocating one or the other. 
However, the best teachers are those that have a passion for their subject.  They convey their excitement, enthusiasm and passion for their point of view of a subject, and hopefully that enthusiasm will transfer to students; motivating them to study and enjoy.
Nevertheless, the student should be left with the knowledge and skills necessary to reach their own conclusions; not merely ‘sold’ on the teacher’s point of view. Ultimately, the best pedagogy renders a student a thinker not a regurgitator.
Critics, who function as teachers, must be mindful not to let their enthusiasm for a point of view turn a pedagogic presentation into an evangelization.
Internal vs. External Criticism
This is not to say that Sea-Gods should be a history of post war literary criticism. It is what it is: a single voice in the debate/discussion of the relative virtues of post-modern literature. Rather, it is to suggest that any reader of any literary criticism should be aware of the critic’s subject aesthetic and value judgments.
The best reader is one who acts the boy when the Emperor parades his new clothes. And, the best critics have no pretentions about their clothes.
Similarly, a reader of Sea-Gods (especially students) should strive to understand Domini’s point of view without being overwhelmed by his ever so formidable intellect, knowledge, passion and eloquence.
Domini says as much:
“I’ve got an argument, but at the same time I can’t help but think of how it could ring tinny.
“I can’t help but think of critics who never get over themselves. Harold Bloom would be the obvious case, wailing about The Closing of the American Mind even as he shoved his own dusty bookshelves against the door. More recently, there are the New Yorker hatchet jobs of James Wood.
“The distinguishing mark of such stuff is the lack of receptivity. Earning an insight matters less than getting off, with a snicker of self-congratulation, a quip.
“Thus I’ve got to be receptive myself … (L 89)
To my mind, the first step in receptivity is to distinguish between two types of literary criticism: internal and external.
By internal criticism, I mean analysis of and judgments about the text per se. 
Mine reveals ancient narrative structures and satisfactions in contemporary storytelling. (L76)
The process of "revealing" constitutes "internal criticism"

Or, his extended analysis of Dante’s Divine Comedy. This type of analysis requires detail knowledge of the text. Nevertheless, it largely consists of subjective aesthetic value judgments and theory of ‘poetics’.
For example Domini writes:
“I’ll proceed by analysis of three major images in the work, each occurring at similar junctures late in their canticles… I’ll suggest an overarching psychological or anthropological paradigm at work.” (L 4210)
While “psychological or anthropological paradigm may provide a modicum of objectivity (‘fig-leaf’?); nevertheless analysis of images is inherently aesthetically subjective.
External criticism, on the other hand, places the text in an historical and sociological context. This demands more objectivity; in that the Facts of society at any given time are what they are, and not what the critic subjectively judges them to be.
For example, Domini writes:
Those who read this essay will likely participate in the eighth century of discussion concerning The Divine Comedy … intact already, the completed work began to circulate in 1320 … “(L 418)
This type of discussion about The Divine Comedy entails factual knowledge of circa 1300 A.D. northern Italian society and culture.

Accordingly, regarding Domini’s celebration of the postmodern, readers should be conscious of the subjective internal criticism of the postmodern novels under consideration, and not be seduced by Domini’s passion for the postmodern that reinforces their own subjective aesthetic bias.
Similarly, readers should be on guard against postmodern external critical arguments, albeit eloquent and erudite, nevertheless fallacious because they are not consistent with the historical/sociological facts.
In short:
Great writers may be Sirens whose beautiful songs are both alluring and dangerous; they teach us and at the same time close our minds.
Domini’s Postmodern External Problematic’
It would be folly for a literature/criticism challenged such as me to engage a scholar, novelist and poet like John Domini in internal critical debate.
However, external criticism, as noted, is historical/sociological and subject of objective factual analysis. It is Domini’s ‘external critique’ that gives me pause and I, with no small trepidation, take issue with some of his facts and inferences.
Domini’s argument about the lack of “receptivity” for post-modern novelistis is essentially a sociological and cultural argument. And, I judge it to be factually inaccurate
He writes:
Here’s the problem. You decide to try some reading outside the ordinary, a novel that doesn’t have the usual earmarks, and it proves interesting, satisfying, but you don’t entirely understand why, and when you look for help, an illuminating review or something, you can’t find any. (L128)
“That’s the problem… In the millennial US, for those who venture an unconventional approach to book-length fiction, criticism just hasn’t been doing its job. (L157)
Postmodern” sits comfortably with other media, whether a Danger Mouse mashup or Angels in America. But when it comes to novels, the term’s a dirty word, even for a lot of novelists. (L169)
In short, to my mind, Domini’s problem may be reformulated and characterized:
Literary critics have not joined in the culture war celebrating the postmodern subversions of Western culture.
Some examples, which stand factually in stark contradiction to the “Dirty Word argument:
Carlo Maso’s “Aureole”
Right-out-of-the-shoot, Domini goes into an extended discussion of Vassar graduate (‘just plain folk’) Carlo Maso’s Aureole.
Interestingly, in the culture war context, Domini does not identify the book’s genre (novel, short stories, poetry?). But, he does give a hint:
“Aureoloe looks like poetry…” (L144 )
“Looks like poetry”, of course implies that its Not Poetry! Well what is it? 
Per the “Carol Maso” website (click for link):
An erotic prose poem sequence” (emp.+)
The community college I attended offered a course Introduction to Literature and the book used was titled “Prose and Poetry”. The operative concept in the title was denoted by the conjunction “and”. Which implies that ‘prose’ is Not the same as ‘poetry’; i.e. historically in Western culture they were considered two different literary genre.
But I digress.
Crying all the way to the Bank
The issue here is Domini’s problem i.e. the postmodern is considered a dirty word when it comes to criticism of novels. He leaves the distinct impression that these novelist or prose/poetry-ist are experiencing some sort of rejection. Clearly that is Factually Not the case!
He seems to be talking about a very narrow range of the American literati establishment, i.e. “critics” such as Harold Blum, James Wood, etc. However, apart from that niche, there is significant documentary evidence that postmodern writers are wildly successful and acceptable in the hollowed halls of the American (counterculture) literary establishment.
Consider for example the accolades of Carol Maso listed on the Brown University (‘just plain folk’) website: (click for link)
Awards and Honors
Cultural Arts Project Support (CAPS) Grant for Fiction, 1983
W.K. Rose Fellowship in the Creative Arts, 1985
New York Foundation for the Arts Grant, 1987
National Endowment for the Arts Emerging Artist Reading Grant, 1987
National Endowment for the Arts Literature Grant, 1988
Pushcart Prize, 1993
Lana Literary Fellowship for Fiction, 1993
Funded Research
Cultural Arts Project Support (CAPS) Grant for Fiction, 1983
W.K. Rose Fellowship in the Creative Arts, 1985
New York Foundation for the Arts Grant, 1987
National Endowment for the Arts Emerging Artist Reading Grant, 1987
National Endowment for the Arts Literature Grant, 1988
PEN American Center
Teaching Overview
Distinguished Writer in Residence, Illinois State University, 1991-92
Jenny McKean Moore Writer in Residence, George Washington University, 1992-93, 2 classes per semester, enrollment approximately 15 students
Associate Professor of Writing, School of the Arts, Columbia University 1993-95
Graduate Fiction Workshops, 2 each semester, 15 students
Independent Studies- 3 per semester
Graduate Theses- 8
Visiting Writer in Residence, Brown University, Creative Writing Program, 1994
Graduate (... more) courses
LITR 1110F - Narrative Strategies. Spring 2012.
LITR 1150J - The Cinematic Essay. Spring 2013.
LITR 1150X - Reading, Writing and Thinking. Spring 2011.
LITR 2010A - Graduate Fiction. Spring 2011, Spring 2012, Spring 2013.
Does this list remotely suggest that “postmodern” is a “dirty word” when applied to Maso’swork?
Consider another ‘rejected’ postmodern writer Domini critiques.
Gilbert Sorrentino
Positions at:
Sarah Lawrence College
Columbia University
University of Scranton
New School for Social Research
Professor of English
Stanford University (aka ‘West Coast Harvard) 1982-99
Honors and awards
Guggenheim Fellowships in Fiction in 1973 and 1987,
John Dos Passos Prize for Literature (1981),
PEN/Faulkner Award finalist in 1981 and 2003, the
Mildred and Harold Strauss Livings of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (declined, 1982), the
American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature (1985), the
Lannan Literary Award for Fiction (1992), and the
Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. He died in Brooklyn on May 18, 2006.

Other examples of postmodern rejection: Don De Lillo, Toni Morrison, W.S. Piero, etc.
One could go on with such examples … but, the point is there are no small number of postmodern writers who are wildly embraced and celebrated and financed by the postmodern literati.

To say that readers "get no help understanding when reading out of the ordinary" is to wonder what all the 'publish or perish' professors 
at the universities, where post-modern is clearly being celebrated, are teaching and writing about .

To say or imply these post-modern writers are rejected is to say they are crying all the way to the bank!  
Git muh drift’
In my opinion: John Domini is fighting a straw man when he says or implies that postmodern writers are rejected. He may be correct about a niche group of rejection critics, but such critics are swapped by the adoring literary establishment.
Further, those admirers are not minor players in the post-modern milieu. On the contrary, they are strategically placed in primer culture establishments (major crème de la crème universities, very wealthy funding organizations and mega publising houses).

These ‘cultural establishments’ insure that the post-modern ideology becomes pervasive in the culture war against traditional Western moral and aesthetic values.

In short, the post-modern assault on traditional Western literature is a Culture War juggernaut.
However, I don’t want to overstate my point.
Sea-God’s is a very important work of literary criticism. In terms of internal textual criticism it's an excellent guide to helping readers appreciate the aesthetics of the various works discussed. It is a must read for any and all students of the postmodern milieu generally and the 35 writers in particular Dominni critiques.
However, when it comes to external sociological criticism, I think Domini’s exuberance may mislead readers who not sensitive to the broader historical and sociological cultural war context and implications of post-modernism.
As the Pope Pius X encyclical implies:
Post-modern is more, much much more, than an aesthetic.
The forms of post-modern expression (“Danger Mouse mashup, Angels in America”, novel/poet-ist, etc.) may be aesthetic, but the ideological substance goes to the essence of Western culture.
I’m not suggesting that literary critics such as Domini are obliged to act the role of cultural historians and sociologist.   However, critics-of-the-critics are. Especially when the critic-of-the-critic is a ‘culture warrior’ (c’est moi!).


Italian American Education Attainment - 
25 Years and Older
(Yous guys ain't doing so good - yoh!)

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Grazie del cuore

Tom Verso, once again, grazie del cuore. You're a dream reader -- not least because you're so well-informed yourself.