Truth In Art

In this day of “false news,” alternative facts, and countless untruths told by our sitting president, it seems appropriate to turn once again to the age-old question of whether there is any truth in (of all things) art. At the very least it might help us recall that there is truth (and falsity) and that at times it hides its face but remains there for those who wish to take the time and trouble to look for it.

There are three ways in which something can be said to be true. In all three cases there must be corroboration by others. A statement can be said to be true if it corresponds with a fact. Thus “The president tells porkies” is true if, in fact, he does so. (And, as we all know, he does.) A statement can also be said to be true if it “fits in with” a body of known facts. Thus the statement that “humans and chimpanzees descended from a common ancestor” is true if it accords with a body of known facts — based on such things as the fossil records. This is known as the “coherence” theory of truth. And the third way in which something can be said to be true is if it is intuitively clear. We “see” it with the “mind’s eye,” as it were. This is the sense in which there is truth in the fine arts, including literature. Intuitive truth, which tends to be a bit subjective, must accord with common sense and be plausible.

To begin with literature, a good novel tells us a  great deal about the human condition — its strengths as well as its foibles. I just finished William Dean Howells’ short novel about The Rise of Simon Lapham, for example, and he does a skillful job of depicting the pretense of blue-blood Bostonians and their tendency to look down their noses at all who are beneath them — which includes all who are not to the manor born, not themselves several generations of Bostonians. The novel tells about Simon Lapham’s attempts to be accepted by the more “cultured” Bostonians. He has become very wealthy but his money cannot buy their acceptance. He eventually goes bankrupt and this is the start of his “rise.” As the narrator tells us, in one of those flashes of insight that marks the exceptional novel (there being so many more important things than mere wealth):

“Adversity had so far been his friend that it had taken from him all hope of the social success for which people crawl and trickle, and restored him, through failure and doubt and heartache, the manhood which his prosperity had so nearly stolen from him.”

In painting the artist seeks to show us the soul of the person whose portrait she paints or the hidden beauty in the ordinary landscape we are presented with on the canvas. The dancer seeks to show us the grace of human movement while the actor draws us into the world of another to enable us to know ourselves and our fellows on a deeper level. Even the raised middle finger of artists such as Marcel Duchamp, who placed a urinal in a museum, reveals our own pretense as we wander through art galleries and museums and glory in our self-importance — instead of acknowledging our own ignorance.

In a word, the artist who creates is intent upon showing us our own world in a clearer and more detailed fashion. She opens our eyes to the world around us and takes us out of ourselves — at least for a brief moment. This is a good thing in a world in which we tend to get lost within ourselves and preoccupied with our own small selves. We need to be reminded that our world is a world of tender beauty along with the mess we have created with our attack on the earth, our crass business models, and our dirty politics. There is considerable truth in the works of the poets and novelists as well as the painters, actors, and even in the music that is created to open our ears to the sounds around us and quiet the storms within. We need simply to open our eyes and ears.

In a world in which truth has been reduced to subjective opinion and annoying facts are dismissed as fictions, it is good to remind ourselves that there is, indeed, a deeper truth available to us in the works of genius that are readily available. Those works abound and the truth they reveal is undeniable and lends the lie to the notion that all is whatever we want to make of it. Truth in art is not always pleasant, but it commands our assent if we simply attend to what the artist has to say.

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What Makes Art?

“From the eighteenth century onward, enlightened opinion has held that art plays an important part in the life of the individual and society, some would say a decisive part.” (Lionel Trilling)

It has been said that if four artists were to sit down on a hillside and paint a landscape the result would be four entirely different paintings. The reason, of course, is that each artist interprets what she sees differently. I would argue that it is precisely the interpretation that makes art. The artist does not merely copy what she sees (as Plato would have it), she creates an entirely new work each time. It’s what makes art art and not, say, craft. The two differ in that one respect.

There are craftsmen who can reproduce what they see in exact detail. Some of their works are more accurate than a photograph. With rare exceptions, what they produce are not works of art. There may be artistic elements in the craftsman’s work — the determination of what to copy, the arrangement of the items in the work, and the like. But the work as a whole usually lacks the truly creative element and this is what is essential: art is so much more than a mere copy.

Johann Sebastian Bach
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

In performance, the artist creates a new work every time she performs a work. I recall in college when we were discussing Bach’s “Goldberg’s Variations,” we listened to a performance recorded by Wanda Landowska — regarded at the time as one of the very best harpsichordist in the world. The tutor who was leading the discussion — himself a performing artist (and a Jew who had been sent to a Nazi prison camp where he had his fingers smashed so he could no longer play the piano. That’s what they did.) — continually noted that Landowska was repeating and/or playing slower than Bach had indicated in the score. The tutor did not regard this as a fault. Rather, he insisted that this was the mark of the true artist as performer: taking the work as written and interpreting it in her own individual manner. This was the creative artist performing the work of a creative genius.

Many years later I recall listening to a recording of a Bach organ piece I was familiar with played by a friend of mine in which he played the piece much, much slower than anyone else I had ever heard play the piece. He admitted it was much slower than Bach had even intended. But it was the way he thought the piece should be played. It was his interpretation: it was his work of art — courtesy of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The dancer interprets the music she dances to and the actor interprets the character he plays on the stage. No two dancers will dance the same dance the same way — and the same dancer will likely dance it differently each time she performs the piece. So also with the actor. Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Willy Loman is unique. The element of interpretation is the creative element which makes each performance a work of art. The music on the sheet or the lines in the script are in themselves works or art — or they can be. But the performance is a new creation each time it is performed.

The craftsman, as mentioned, can reproduce an exact copy — at times with exceptional accuracy. Norman Rockwell regarded himself as an “illustrator,” not an artist. He worked from photographs and the results were remarkable in their own way. But they were not works of art — with a few rare exceptions. The element of interpretation was missing almost always as Rockwell simply chose to reproduce what he saw. And he did this with remarkable skill. His works are highly treasured as the works of a man who could present us with scenes from ordinary life that generated strong sympathetic responses. But those responses are the same that we might feel if we were to see a photograph of the same scene, or reflect back on scenes from our childhood. They are not the responses that a truly sensitive person feels when regarding a work of art; they are not aesthetic responses . The spectator, in the latter case, responds to the mysterious element of creativity, that sudden expression that suggests the artist’s interpretation of what was seen.

In art, therefore, we have three different elements: the artist herself who paints, sculpts, composes, performs, or plays; the work itself which must contain the element of creative interpretation; and the response of the spectator who also interprets. Each work is unique, as is each performance and each response. It’s no wonder, then, when no two people agree about the same work of art — because no two people see the same thing and the object itself is highly suggestive, rich with possibilities.

This does not mean we cannot discuss art, of course. There is still something “out there” that we respond to in our own way. The person who is practiced in viewing art will often be able to point out features that another might miss and there may be features of the work that have yet to be uncovered and that we can come to see or hear if we open ourselves to it and to one another. But the point is that there is something to discuss and agree or disagree about. It’s not all a matter of opinion. Not by a long shot!

And it is one hellovalot more interesting and enriching than the toys we have become fascinated with.

Cultural Pluralism

At the end of the nineteenth century, James George Frazer published a twelve volume study of various cultural practices from ancient times to our own. The book was titled The Golden Bough and was later brought out in a single volume, much edited, and has had a profound influence on cultural anthropology. Indeed, many regard it as a classic. I recently began to peruse the volume and found the following rather startling passage regarding the treatment of young women in primitive tribes:

“When symptoms of puberty appeared on a girl for the first time, the Guaranis of Southern Brazil, on the borders of Paraguay, used to sew her up in a hammock, leaving only a small opening in it to allow her to breathe. In this condition, wrapt up and shrouded like a corpse, she was kept for two or three days or as long as her symptoms lasted, and during this time she had to endure a most rigorous fast.”

This is only one of the practices enumerated by Frazer; several so-called “primitive” cultures did whatever necessary to seclude these young women from other members of the tribe until they had outgrown their “malady.” This includes the example of young women being secluded for as long as seven years in small tent-like buildings raised off the ground — until it was determined that they were safe to be among the other members of the community. Such passages are among the many Frazer includes by way of enlightening us about the way people have behaved over the centuries. And we might include in this list the ancient practice of Sati in which the husband’s wife is thrown on the funeral pyre at his death. Or it might include clitoridectomies in young women performed by a number of primitive tribes — with no anesthetic and with dull tools — to assure that those women become less promiscuous in their adult years. The list goes on and on.

In our day a postmodern army has taken over the universities and is intent on instructing the young about the crimes that have been committed in the name of Western Civilization; it makes a point of insisting that our civilization is rotten at the core and that, in the name of “cultural diversity,” students should learn about the superiority of other cultures. And all other cultures are ipso facto superior to our own, it is said. I dare say, Frazer’s book is not on the reading list. Nor is any mention made of the practices of the Guaranis. Nor, in all likelihood, are the other practices mentioned above. The idea is to make a point and that point is that Western Civilization is the main, perhaps the only, source of the many ills that have befallen humankind. It is only we, in the West, who are capable of unconscionable behavior to our fellow humans.

I am as aware as anyone else of the atrocities that have been committed — and indeed are even today committed — by our culture. I am aware of slavery and the abominable treatment of women and children for so many years; I am also aware of the genocide that was practiced against the native people of this continent in order to bring “civilization” to the New World. I am aware of the atrocities that are committed, even today  in the name of capitalism and “freedom” that have resulted in the widespread poverty of millions of people in this country alone in order that a few can become terribly wealthy. I am, in general, aware of the sins committed by Western Civilization as it spread across the globe in an attempt to “civilize” the rest of the world.

But I am also aware that capitalism has made it possible for many to have so much more than they would otherwise have; that Western medicine has prolonged life and made us healthier than humans ever were before. I am aware of the beauty and the magnificence of the cathedrals that tower far into the sky in the name of God and “peace on earth,” and of the hundreds of thousands of beautiful works of art that are displayed around the world. As noted, I am also aware that the things we have done in the name of civilization are in many cases unconscionable. And it is this awareness, which applies to our own culture no less than it does to others equally barbarous, that is the result of the lessons that have been learned as Western Civilization was aborning. That includes the awareness of human rights — the rights of ALL humans. It also includes the awareness that such practices as Sati and clitoridectomies in young women are barbaric and violate universal moral principles such as the rights of all humans not to suffer needlessly. Finally, this awareness has raised moral outrage to a fever pitch in this country over the forced separation of children from their parents who seek asylum, forcing our would-be dictator to rescind his order and alter his plans — or so he says. That is to say, the awareness itself is the major prize of Western Civilization.

If we are going to teach young Americans to be more aware of the shortcomings of their own culture, it behooves us to also teach them of the strengths of their culture along with the shortcomings of other cultures. There is no such thing as “cultural superiority.” No culture on earth is without its errors, blunders, and atrocities. Ours is not unique in that regard.

Looking Back

One of the standard comments one hears when listening at keyholes is that old farts like me pine for a golden age and waste their time on this earth wishing those times would come back. I hasten to disagree. Heartily! As one of those old farts who looks at current events somewhat askance, I can say with no fear of contradiction that there never was a golden age and that I, for one, do not wish that days gone by would return.

At the same time, those of us who level criticism at current events have a legitimate concern that something precious has been lost in our notion that progress is invariably a good thing and restraint is a burden. At times they are not. Take the Victorian age, if you will.

I am perfectly aware that the Victorian age in England, to focus exclusively on that country, was an age of terrible suffering for a great many people. Poverty was rampant, child labor was commonplace, as was the lowly esteem in which women were held. Many were the woes of the period that Virginia Wolff and others in her Bloomsbury Group  were quick to note — as was Charles Dickens. Still, there was something there beneath the surface that was worth preserving and it has been lost. I speak of the restraint of many people and the sense of the obligation that a great many of the wealthy felt toward those who depended upon them for their livelihood. We stress rights without regard to the fact that rights, except in the case of children and the mentally challenged, necessitate responsibilities. In the Victorian age this was not the case: rights took a back seat, for a great many people, to the responsibilities that they felt for their fellow humans and their determination to help realize the “common good.” There was about that age a sense that the future depended on the good behavior and the accordance with duty of those who lived in the present.

In a word, I look back not to pine after a golden age that never was, but to try to see what it is that we have lost and to determine whether it is even possible that some semblance of that sense of what truly mattered can still be salvaged. In the process I take comfort in the fact that the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb spent her life studying the Victorian Age and concluded many of the same things I have concluded while I merely skimmed along the surface of knowledge about an age she knew so well. It’s not so much that she agrees with me, but that I find myself agreeing with her. She must therefore be right. It follows, does it not?

In sum, looking back can be justified only if it helps us to see things more clearly and in the process also enables us to understand ourselves and our age a bit better. There was never a golden age. But there were times when certain things that no longer matter mattered a great deal — and had we not tossed them aside  those things might have made us a better people, not to mention also a happier people, than we are at present.

In any event, those who know nothing of the past, and especially those who think the past somehow “irrelevant,” are not in a position to criticize those who look back in order to see more clearly what lies around them. And they shouldn’t dismiss out of hand those of us who think that much that is going on around us could be so very much better if there remained a semblance of those values that were held dear in the distant past. Progress may or may not be a good thing. But it happens. What matters is that we measure it carefully against what is being lost in the process. I don’t want to live in an age of slavery, child labor, debilitating illnesses that can now be cured with a pill, or an age that fails to allow that women are entitled to the very same things as men. But I don’t like living in an age of chaos and violence that centers around a shriveled-up self and takes no account of others or the responsibilities we all have to our fellow humans. It’s a question of keeping one’s bearings and finding a balance.

A Wealthy Republic?

I begin with a disclaimer: I have nothing against money. I like money and I am happy that after years of struggle I finally have enough to be relatively worry-free and even able to help others when given a chance. At the same time I am aware that money is a two-edged sword. In the form of the capitalistic economic system it has brought about a higher standard of living for more people than could have been imagined by folks like Adam Smith when he was promoting free enterprise in the eighteenth century. But I do wonder if it has brought greater happiness to a great many people — as Smith thought it would. And as one who read his New Testament carefully for many years in his mis-spent youth, I am aware of the inherent contradiction between the basic principles of capitalism and the values promoted in the New Testament where, we are told, the poor are blessed and it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

This latter concern was given impetus when, as an undergraduate, I read R.H. Tawney’s compelling book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. It opened my eyes to the contradiction I had dully sensed. The history of the organized Christian church, and the machinations of “Christians” everywhere attempting to explain away the words of the New Testament have been fascinating — and upsetting. But it wasn’t until the Protestant revolution that the lid came off, as it were, and folks were given a free ticket to claim their Christian affiliation while at the same time pursuing unlimited wealth. We now have self-proclaimed ministers of God like Jesse Duplantis flying about the country in their private  $45 million jets and living the good life in their palatial homes after they have preached an inspiring sermon to the many who arrived at the service in the huge amphitheater in their gas-guzzling SUVs.

But I never fully appreciated the tensions that were everywhere apparent during the colonial period between the pursuit of wealth and the preservation of the new Republic. It didn’t worry Alexander Hamilton and his followers who would prefer to have the President and the Senate serve for life — in imitation of the English King and House of Lords. But it worried a great many more colonists who followed Thomas Jefferson in his suspicion that those focused on wealth and prosperity would make poor citizens of a republic built on the notion of the Common Good.

In his excellent book, Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic, to which I have referred a number of times, John Murrin points out the struggles of the early colonies with the problems of great wealth. Many at that time worried, along with Jefferson, that excessive wealth in the hands of a few would plant the seeds of a new aristocracy. After perusing numerous newspapers from the period, Murrin tells us that the colonial attitude, generally, was one of concern, worry that:

“The pursuit of wealth without regard to the public good not only corrupted individuals. It threatened to destroy independence and the American republic.”

Or again,

“In a capitalist society that generates huge amounts of wealth and want, democracy is ever at risk.”

And this has, indeed, become a larger and a larger problem as today we seem to find ourselves in a “democratic” country ruled by the very rich who pick and choose their politicians as one might pick cherries from a bush, and then tell them precisely how to vote on key issues — lest they lose their high-paying jobs in Congress and state legislatures. It is a deep and perplexing question just how far the pursuit of profits and wealth blinds us to the larger questions that surround the notion of the public good: the cares and genuine concerns of those around us. It is a political conundrum and a serious moral problem that we might all do well to ponder.

I do not have the answer, but the Scandinavian countries seem to have a suggestion for us in the form of Democratic Socialism which they have embraced and they are reputed to be the happiest people on earth at the moment.  Raw capitalism is driven by avarice and encourages self-interest in the name of healthy competition — not qualities designed to help a democratic society grow strong, to promote the common good. Curbs on raw capitalism, which we have seen from time to time in this country (and which the current Administration would eliminate), put a bit in the mouth of the beast which it finds annoying but which still make the common good a possibility — remote perhaps, but still a possibility. A good start to much-needed reform would be a fair tax system that closes the loop-holes for the wealthy and for corporations and taxes them at the same rate as everyone else.

 

Suggestions!

One of my favorite readers has expressed her impatience with social critics like myself because we seem to point out problems but never make predictions or suggest solutions to the problems we point out. In a word we are “nattering nabobs of negativism” — remember that!!?? In that spirit I thought I would make a stab at suggesting a few remedies for the many problems we face at this point in time.

Let’s begin with politics. There are a few things that are obvious, but I will state them anyway. There should be term  limits for every elected office at the state and federal levels. And let’s put pay raises for elected officials up to the voting public — they should reflect the rise in the cost of living in the general public and not  be determined by the officials themselves in a closed meeting. And the PACs, especially Super PACs, should be disallowed immediately. No more lobbying for special favors. On the economic front, we should demand that taxes be across the board — no special loop-holes for the wealthy and the corporations. Everyone pays his fair share. I would prefer that we go even further away from raw capitalism, but this is a step in the right direction, it seems to me. And while we are at it reduce “defense” spending and put that money, plus the millions “donated” by the wealthy as a result of fair taxation, into repairing the infrastructure and into important items such as health care, education, and major welfare reform that puts money in the hands of the millions of people in this country in desperate need. Also, demand funding for alternative energies and take steps on the Federal level to slow climate change — which requires, at the very least, that we stop denying the obvious. Just for fun we could also limit electioneering to one month prior to the elections and limit donations to $10.00 per person (including corporations which, in its wisdom, the Supreme Court decided were “persons”). All of this is possible if taxation were fair.

As I have said before, we should make clear that the Second Amendment to the Constitution refers to the militia — as Judge John Paul Stevens has said it takes only a simple clause in the amendment: ”A well-regulated Militia, being  necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.” How delightfully simple! And while we are at it, outlaw all automatic weapons and make it harder, not impossible, for every Tom, Dick, and Sally to buy guns. As I read the tea leaves, these are things the general public favors, but the gun lobby (see above) fights against tooth and nail. And since they provide the elected officials with special favors and bundles of money to help them hang on to their high-paying offices this change is not likely to happen unless we eradicate the PACs and lobbying as suggested above.

In education, we could take some on the money we collect in the revised tax structure and the reduction in “defense” spending — as per the second paragraph — and put it into education. Pay the teachers an attractive wage in order to bring the best and brightest young people into teaching. Eliminate the teachers colleges and the certification requirements. They are a waste of time and money. Private schools do not require “certified” teachers and their faculties are made up of college graduates from all major fields. And they have inspiring results. This is also the model in Finland which sets the benchmark for education the world over. This should be the norm in public education. Turn the bright teachers loose after a year of apprenticeship with a seasoned teacher, and let them teach the subject matter as they see fit. And while we are at it, turn the electronic toys off while the kids are in school and teach them only basic computer skills. The rest of their study should focus on books and interaction with fellow students and the teachers. Provide them with the intellectual tools they need to succeed in an increasingly complex world.

In the social realm we should do whatever is necessary to discourage use of social media. All electronic toys should be monitored and use limited so all of us would start looking around us to see the beauty that it everywhere and look others in the eye while talking with them. And let’s start listening to one another and disallow uncivil discourse. Television is the worst possible example: curb the talking heads and refuse to allow them to shout one another down. It’s all in the name of opening each of us up to  one another. We cannot make anyone love anyone else, but we can certainly demand that we respect one another and at the very least that we are aware that there are others in the world who matter and who deserve our attention and even our concern. As a society we are far too self-centered and increasingly we ignore those who have important things to say and who need to be heard.

Pie in the sky? To be sure. But it all starts with dreams and these are steps that might take us in the direction of preserving some semblance of a civilized society. If you can think of others, or find fault with any of my suggestions, I would appreciate your comments. This should be an ongoing discussion, it seems to me!

Self-Restraint

This post is a continuation of a discussion about the demise of Western Civilization started in the last post.

Civilization, according to Ortega y Gasset, is above all else the “will to live in common.” It centers around the city, including the society of others, civil laws, and morés. It also involves, in most cases, what we loosely call “culture,” which ranges from low to high. “High culture,” which many identify with civilization itself, involves the highest expression of the human spirit in the form of the fine arts, literature, philosophy, and science. Low culture, we might say, centers around the entertainment industry and social media. (Sorry.)

As I have noted in a number of previous blog posts, civilization has come under fire by poets, novelists, and philosophers since the latter part of the nineteenth century and, especially, the early twentieth century. The latest form of the attack comes with what is referred to as “postmodernism,” a movement largely within the academy involving ongoing intellectual protests following the student protests in the 1960s that openly and avowedly seek to eradicate all vestiges of Western Civilization (at the very least). All in the name of “freedom.” The idea is that the restraint that is necessary for human beings to create civilization has resulted in a bourgeois society wallowing in materialism, the suppression of the disadvantaged, and false pleasures. Worse yet civilization has become stifling, suffocating. It is time to throw off the shackles and become free, free of all stuffy customs, false values, and civil constraints which have brought misery to so many, in spite of its so-called benefits.

I summarize, of course, but I do so in order to raise anew the question of whether, in fact, civilization is worth saving, whether or not it has, on balance, brought more misery and suffering than it has beauty and benefits. I confess that I cannot answer that question to my own complete satisfaction, but I suspect the balance is in favor of saving the best of civilization while recognizing that much of what we call the “civilized world” is indeed worthy of rejection. I would suggest, however, that the freedom so many cry out for, the throwing off of the shackles of social norms and restraints, is a snare and a delusion. This is because those who seek to eradicate civilization in the name of greater human freedom seldom, if ever, pause to ask what it is they seek to establish in the place of what they have grown to detest and are keen to destroy. Nor do they think deeply about what freedom is.

Freedom, properly understood, requires restraint. The total absence of restraint is nothing more and nothing less than pure chaos; it is not freedom. Thus, the ideal of the modern and post-modern theorists who would jettison civilization in the name of greater freedom are, in fact, espousing what must be called a “new barbarism,” a world without rules and without concern for others. The ideal figures in this new paradigm would be the thoroughly miserable Underground Man of Dostoevsky. Or it would be, as I suggested in a previous post, Conrad’s thoroughly debased Kurtz. Or it would come in the form of the latest maniac who walks into a school with a loaded automatic weapon and starts shooting at random. These folks embody pure freedom, the absence of restraints, the absence, indeed, of morality which has been thrust aside as nothing more than personal opinion. True freedom, comes at the cost of acknowledging something outside the self that requires the sublimation (to use Freud’s word) of those instincts that we wish to turn loose and instead channel them into creative outcomes. It comes in the form of knowledge of what is and what is not truly valuable. The truly free man or woman acts from the knowledge that what he or she does will make the world around them a better place. Knowledge is the key here. Freedom is not 68 varieties of bread to choose from. It arises from the knowledge of which bread is healthiest.

Personally, I do not wish to live in a world that has as heroes, men (or women) who act without restraint in the name of human freedom, living life to the full — as they see it. I prefer to “live in common,” to help build communities held together by mutual respect and a willingness to sacrifice immediate gratification and unfettered impulse for the sake of something greater than the self. I suppose this is why I have spent so much of my time — and so many words — hoping to preserve some semblance of what is best in Western Civilization, that high culture that sets us apart from those that would simply throw off the chains (as they see it) and turn the demons loose.

There is simply no way to distinguish this alternative world from the world of Kurtz. And we must recall his final words: “The horror! The horror!”

Worth the Price?

I have spent the better part of my adult life defending Western Civilization against the postmodern attacks from within the Academy (especially) that would bring it down about our ears. Those attacks, I have been informed, began in the Modern era with writers such as Nietzsche, Sir. James Frazer, Kafka, Joseph Conrad, and Freud — among others. The “revolution” in the 1960s was just an outward expression of the revolt that had already begun. Indeed, an essay written by Lionel Trilling in 1961 that focuses attention on modern literature asks us to question whether or not it would be better if civilization as we know it were to succumb to the attacks of those who find it a painful burden. Trilling makes his point at some length and asks us to ponder the imponderable:

“. . .the historic sense of our literature has in mind a long excess of civilization to which may be ascribed the bitterness and bloodiness both of the past and of the present and of which the peaceful aspects are to be thought of as mainly contemptible — its order achieved at the cost of extravagant personal repression, either that of coercion or that of acquiescence; its repose otiose; its tolerance either flaccid or capricious; its material comfort corrupt and corrupting; its taste a manifestation either of timidity or of pride; its rationality attained only at the price of energy and passion.”

This is one of the most powerful passages I have read in many years and it demands that those of us who would defend civilization against various attacks from within and without search our souls for an answer. It would appear that the postmodern attack, so-called, is merely the latest version of an attack that has been going on since the latter part of the nineteenth century. And that attack has been increasingly effective, as I have noted on numerous occasions.

Trilling suggests that in Civilization and Its Discontents Freud is one of those, following Nietzsche closely, who raises deep questions about whether the price we have paid for what we call “civilization” is worth it. To be sure, that price is suggested in the words I have quoted above, and we must ask whether the “contemptible,” middle class existence that we have all grown comfortable with is indeed the highest expression of the struggles of humankind with its baser instincts. In Freud’s view, civilization demands restraint, the repression of our baser instincts, sublimating them into creative and imaginative outlets that we label “art,” “philosophy” and “science.” Has the “cost of extravagant personal repression” been too great?

On the face of it, the cost is minimal. After all look where science has brought us, along with an economic system that promises the average person a higher standard of living than the kings enjoyed during ages past. But that is precisely the question: has the repression of our baser instincts been worth the prize? And, more to the point, what effects might there be if we decide all of a sudden that the cost is too great and it is time to turn loose the demons that reside within each of us?

It is the fear of those demons that has triggered my defense for so many years in the things I have thought, taught, and written. But I must now ask whether the demons are indeed more frightful than the effects of those restraints that civilization demands that we place upon them, including the worst features of a greedy capitalism and such things as slavery, deprivation, and colonization. Is Trilling correct in insisting that the complacent middle class life we have come to embrace in the name of Western Civilization can be described as “contemptible,” “otiose,” “flaccid,” “capricious,” “corrupt and corrupting,” “its rationality attained at the price of energy and passion”? Are we to prefer instead a world in which the depraved Kurtz, the protagonist of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is a prototype of what we might hope to become?

I suggest that there is considerable truth in what Trilling says. And that’s deeply disturbing. But it is perhaps only a half-truth. Because, as noted, civilization has also brought about the highest expression of the human spirit in the form of its art, philosophy, literature, and science. If we have allowed our civilization to reduce itself, as Trilling suggests, to “bitterness and bloodiness,” it may not be the result of repression and the restraint that civilization and high culture have demanded. It may be the fault of people who have allowed themselves to become lulled into a false sense of their own superiority and a dulled sensibility to human suffering, those who have enjoyed the fruits of civilization without understanding what the cost has been and what debt we owe to those who have gone before us.

Civilization demands restraint. What is not clear is that this restraint has brought about repressions that have diminished the human soul or whether those restraints have, rather, made possible the “best that has been thought and said in the world,” as Matthew Arnold would have it. I prefer to think the latter, and as I look about and see what seems to be happening as civilization comes unraveled and a new age of barbarism dawns, how humans behave to one another when given free rein, I worry that we have decided as a race that the cost has been too great and it is time to let go completely. Heaven knows ours in not a society known for its restraint! Great minds have suggested it is time, perhaps they even pointed the way, and many within the academy today are teaching their charges that change is long overdue. And the young listen eagerly as they hear the siren sounds of a call to release the demons so long locked up.

But I find this worrisome, to say the least — and certainly food for further thought.

The Ad Hominem

I recently got involved in an exchange with a fellow blogger on the topic of violence and its possible causes. In the course of the discussion we got off-topic a bit as he took me to task for appealing to Freud’s notion of the “reality principle,” which I regard as one of Freud’s most important contributions to human psychology. The discussion became a bit testy, if not downright acrimonious (clearly my fault) because I accused him of committing the ad hominem fallacy. He was prepared to reject all of Freud’s contributions because he has read that Freud’s “discoveries” [his quotation marks] were stolen from other thinkers.

I do apologize for being testy and realize that I must tone down my comments when I get my shackles up — as they are when I hear Freud wrongly accused. There is no question but that many of Freud’s insights (and for heaven’s sake let’s stop calling them “discoveries” in scare quotes!) came from the poets. In fact, on his death-bed he acknowledged his debt to the poets. It inspired me to write a post on “Freud and the Poets” which included the following paragraph:

Late in his life, as he was dying from the agonies of cancer and insisting that he only be treated with an occasional aspirin, Sigmund Freud noted that his “discovery” of the human unconscious mind was down to the poets.  As he wrote, “Not I,  but the poets, discovered the unconscious.” By the word “poet” he meant artists who work with words, such as Shakespeare and Dostoevsky — the latter having written what Freud regarded as the greatest novel ever. Indeed, Shakespeare, as we all acknowledge, provides innumerable insights into the human condition and Dostoevsky not only explores the human unconscious mind but can be said to have discovered the duality in the human mind. His first novel, The Double, depicts a man who gradually loses his mind and goes to work to find he is already there.

Please note my use of the quotation marks around the notion of Freud’s “discoveries,” but there is no scare involved! There is simply the fact that he borrowed, as do we all, some of the essential insights that went into the making of his system. And that word “system” is key, because it was Freud, and Freud alone, who systematized those insights into a coherent model for explaining human neurosis and psychosis. The insights of the poets are the necessary conditions for Freud’s contributions to psychology, but they are not sufficient. It took the mind of a genius to put the pieces together to form a whole.

But as far as the charge that my fellow blogger committed the ad hominem fallacy goes the charge strands, despite his denial, because even if we insist that Freud stole all of his ideas that is no reason whatever for rejecting his system outright. This is clearly an attack on the man — not his ideas. The fact that his insights were borrowed, or stolen, has nothing whatever to do with the fact that they help, as part of the systematic whole, to explain human behavior. Freud clearly borrowed from Schiller, Goethe, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer as well as the two named in my above quote, but his system stands on its own feet: it requires that it be tested in the arena of human intercourse to see if it helps relieve pain and suffering, to help human beings recover form various sicknesses. And it does work as there are still a large number of psychologists who employ Freud’s methods despite the fact that it is popular these days to reject most, if not all of whet he says, Feminists, for example, don’t like his notion of “penis envy,” and his Victorian attitude toward women; behaviorists think his system too cumbersome. The fact remains that it explains a great deal and can help us better understand what is going in the minds and hearts of ourselves and our fellow humans.

The key to the ad hominem fallacy is the irrelevance of the critique. It is a non sequitur. The attack on the man (or the woman) who puts forward an argument is beside the point when it comes to the argument itself. A complete nut job could come up with a brilliant argument to establish the most implausible conclusion. If the argument holds up to critical scrutiny then it stands despite its source. If Freud’s system is inaccurate or somehow wrong, then it needs to be shown not that he borrowed ideas from others, but that those ideas as he worked them into his system simply do not work.

The best attack on Freud’s system I have ever come across is by thinkers like Carl Popper who reject it because it is not scientific: it cannot be proved wrong. And scientific systems must be provable and/or capable of being shown to be wrong, i.e., disproved. Freud’s cannot. Scientific or not, the Freudian scheme is seminal and extremely helpful in better understanding the human predicament.

 

The Social Critic

In a most interesting critique of an essay by Roger Kimball in his blog “Word and Silence,” Tim Miller raises some interesting questions about the role of the critic in today’s society. Since I regard myself as a social critic of sorts — certainly not of the stature of Robert Kimball — I was intrigued. Miller confesses that he has been “behind enemy lines” in reading Kimball’s essay in The New Criterion, a conservative publication. (Heavens, what next!) But it is best to know what the devil is up to, as I am sure Miller would attest.

In any  event, while he hesitates to follow Kimball in embracing Donald Trump (as I do), Miller tends to be sympathetic with many of Kimball’s criticisms of contemporary society. But, in the end, he has a problem with Kimball’s concern that we have lost sight of any sense of authority.  Also, he insists that there never was a golden age in which everything was hunky-dory and that whatever bed we have made for ourselves we had best learn how to lie in it. Those are my words, by the way. Miller takes more words to say the same thing much more eloquently.

In any event, I am inspired to raise the question of just what the role of the critic is in today’s world. To be sure, it is not a popular one. Folks would generally prefer to keep their collective heads in the sand and not think about what is going on around them. I do think that Kimball is right and that something went terribly wrong in the 1960s when the kids took over, American society became child-centered, and the attack on the “Establishment” (which was long overdue and richly deserved) resulted in tossing out far too much of lasting value in what we loosely call “high culture.” Much needed to be changed, to be sure, but declaring open war on anyone over 30 and on all of Western Civilization was marginally stupid, to say the least.

In the end, the critic simply asks us to open our eyes and see what is going on around us. My blog posts are not overly popular, and I understand that. No one wants to read some old curmudgeon in Minnesota carping about the wrongs around him, especially if those woes are not generally acknowledged by those who are busy making money and having as good a time as possible. The glass is half full, many would say, and they don’t want to read some guy telling them that it is really half empty.

The purpose of social criticism, as I understand it, is to raise issues that are worth raising, ask disturbing questions about the goings and comings of contemporary men and women, and hope that all this generates thought. Things are not as they were. There never was a golden age in which everything was as it should be. But, on the other hand, imagine yourself, if you will, in a world in which you KNOW that you will be rewarded in heaven, that folks like Donald Trump will rot in Hell, and that this is as certain as 2+2=4. Think of the peace of mind that a fellow like Dante must have experienced as he imagined himself in the afterlife walking with Virgil and Beatrice to see sinners punished and look on the face of God. Those were awful times, in so many ways, but they were also certain times, times in which there was a solid center to life and things were black or white. A person’s life made perfect sense and the authority of both the Church and the powers above gave comfort and succor to those who suffered. We no longer have that certainty; our world is coming unglued. Miller’s concern with Kimball’s stress on our need for authority is misplaced. We do need authority: kids need it and adults need it. It may not come from above or from the Church, but it should come from parents and teachers who provide structure for the kids and from something more assured than common opinion for the rest of us — whether it be “values” or a conviction that there is something greater than the self.

Times have changed. To point that out would be trite, but the observation is not designed to make people pine after a time when things were more certain. It is designed to help us better understand the present which is so very different. This may take thought and it may even be a bit difficult at times, even painful, but the critic’s role is to help us get our heads out of the sand (or wherever they happen to be at the moment) and look around. That’s it. Nothing more and nothing less. Criticism should not be dismissed out of hand because the critic is deemed to be a pessimist. We should all want to know what is going on and if some, like Kimball, are able to help us better understand and see things in a broader perspective we are all better off for it in the end. Ignorance is not bliss; as Socrates noted long ago, the unexamined life is not worth living.