Art and the Unexpected

In an essay he wrote in 1952 Lionel Trilling uses a captivating phrase in describing the novel of an obscure Russian writer by the name of Isaac Babel. Trilling notes that “the essence of art is unexpectedness.” This is, of course, true, as is the related notion that the success or failure of art, especially literary art, hinges on ambiguity. The worse sin that a writer or novelist can make is to convey messages; art degenerates into didacticism. This is why Tolstoy was wrong when he insisted that the Bible was the greatest work of art ever written. The Bible is fundamentally and essentially didactic: it seeks to convey messages, clear and to the point. Literature and indeed all art requires, above all else, the unexpected.; they also require at the center an ambiguity that allows for a great many interpretations of what the artist or writer is up to. They themselves may not even know what they intended to say or paint. So, rather than listen to them we must recall what D.H. Lawrence said:

 “If you want to know what the novelist has to say, read the novel. As for the novelist he is a dribbling liar.”

In any event, Trilling’s comment about the unexpected lead me to recall an essay I used to teach in aesthetics classes years ago by the musicologist Leonard Meyer. He insisted that great music is a function of the unexpected. The difference between Bach and Francesco Geminiani, for example, is that Bach is full of surprises, whereas Geminiani tends to be predictable. Bach is a great composer; Geminiani is not. When we listen to Bach, or Mozart, or Beethoven, we never know quite what to expect. Music has “gestalt” qualities, as does all art, which lead us to certain expectations, certain resolutions of tensions built up with in the work. The great artists know how to frustrate those expectations and to surprise us in so many creative and interesting ways, thus increasing what Meyer called “information” — the heart and soul of greatness.

Greatness in art, as indeed in anything except in sports where greatness abounds apparently (along with “super stars”), has disappeared behind a screen of relativistic nonsense. We can no longer talk about greatness because it is a sign of our being “judgmental, which is forbidden by the politically correct…..and incorrect. Those who call the shots these days insist that there is no truth and no greatness. There is just what people do and it is up to us to make of it what we will. To which I say: bollocks! There is truth, and there is greatness. In fact the preceding sentence is true and certain works of art and literature are indeed great — for the reasons given above. It’s all about “the unexpected.” It is not about what we perceive, it is about what is going on, or what fails to go on, in the work itself. Our tendency these days to reduce all value judgments, in both art and ethics, to personal reactions is nothing more and nothing less than a sign of out inverted consciousness, our determination to turn the world into the world-for-us. It is a denial of the objectivity and reality of that which stands before us in all its glory, and it is quite simply wrong-headed — if for no other reason than it closes off to us the beauties and wonders of a world we are lucky enough to be a part of. It is not OUR world; it is THE world. We share it and we can make statements about it that are either true or false. And some of us can create works of great beauty, works that reveal to us dimensions of that shared world that we would otherwise miss. Our world tends to be bland; theirs is full of surprises — we never know quite what to expect.

And, curiously enough, the unexpected is the heart and soul of comedy as well. Interesting, don’t you think?

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Religion and Morality

It has always struck me as odd that those of a liberal political persuasion are frequently, if not always, averse to any talk about religion or morality — especially religion. I suspect it has something to do with the historical record of religions, especially Christianity, in which the Church, as the embodiment of the religion, has shown itself to be intolerant and authoritarian, not to mention responsible for thousands of deaths. The Church decides what is right and wrong and it has been throughout its history intolerant of those who would dispute its absolute authority on such matters as good and evil.

Dostoevsky had problems with this role the Church has played and pilloried it in his remarkable book The Brothers Karamazov. He was himself a deeply religious man but he was also distrustful and suspicious of the Church and insisted that its claim to absolute authority on matters of ethics has threatened, if not removed altogether, the freedom that makes human beings human. In any event, I share his distrust of the Church as an institution and would follow him in insisting that religion be separated from the institution in which it finds itself housed, to wit, the Church. The two are not the same, by any means. Christ preached love; the Church, historically preaches intolerance — as do so many of its followers.

And this brings us to the point I raised at the outset: why so many intellectuals have rejected the Church as well as the religion they often confound with the institution that houses it. I suspect it is all about tolerance, or the lack of same. As I have noted in past blogs, we hear again and again (and again) that we must not be “judgmental,” which is to say, we need to be more open-minded and tolerant of other ways of living and believing. But the notion of tolerance is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we should tolerate other points of view — not blindly, not always accepting, but after thinking our way through them, listening and questioning, but tolerant none the less. On the other hand we should not tolerate, say, views that promote violence, hatred, and fear. In a word, we need to be circumspect but not refuse to make judgments (be “judgmental”), acknowledging that we must remain open to the possibility that we do not have all the answers and that those very answers may come from the most unexpected sources — even from others whose opinions are diametrically opposed to our own.

There are certain things we come across in our lives that simply should not be tolerated. The insistence that we not be “judgmental” is simplistic nonsense  — because it ignores those very actions that we not only should not but must not tolerate, namely those actions that lead to the violations of another’s personhood or violate the universal principle of fairness that transcends all ethical systems. And these sorts of actions are precisely those that religions preach against. The tendency to turn away from religion and morality toward a relativism that would insist that all actions are somehow good simply because they are practiced by someone is wrong-headed, as I have noted in the past, because it makes impossible the judgment that some practices are quite simply wrong. Words like “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “evil” are not frightening. It is possible that in talking about these things we might become intolerant when we should remain open to other points of view. But that is a mistake and something we should avoid at all costs; it is not, however, a necessary concomitant of searching for answers to complex moral issues. We should not be afraid to talk about those things that we and others do that are simply not right. If I see a young woman being attacked on a dark night I should not tolerate such an action; I should instead intercede in her behalf. Intolerance may at times involve intervention, but it need not do so. The determination not to be intolerant or not to interfere with the actions of others should not blind us to the fact that we, as humans, should never fear the making of judgments and, at times, recall that intervention may be necessary. Good judgment is the key.

In any event, it is not religion and morality that we should be wary of, but the reluctance to acknowledge that at times it makes perfect sense to be intolerant. And it always makes good sense to exercise judgment; it’s what leads to informed action rather than impulsive behavior.

Is Tolerance A Good Thing?

I have encountered few minds I would readily call “brilliant.” I must confess a prejudice on my part to restrict the term to those who lived and wrote long ago; contemporary writers seem to be satisfied to skim the surface for the most part. One exception is Christopher Lasch, whom I have referred to repeatedly in these blogs. I find myself drawn back to his books when I feel the need for insights into our current cultural malaise. I have read no one who seems to have his finger on the pulse of today’s difficulties more than this social historian who seems to have read, and understood, everything. He has a great deal to say about what bothers us most these days and in his book The Revolt of The Elites he talks about intolerance in the context of the question whether our democracy is worth saving — an interesting question in itself. Lasch is convinced that our democratic system is in serious trouble and while democracy is in principle certainly worth saving, it is not clear that today’s version of democracy in this country is. He is especially critical of the shallow relativism that is widespread today together with the growing tendency to refuse to critique other cultures; he worried about the tendency of intellectuals to avoid the really important questions, such as the place of religion and belief in today’s world. On the subject of tolerance, which we like to think is the major virtue of our democracy, he has much to say and I can do no better than to record him at some length.

“In the absence of common standards . . . tolerance becomes indifference, and cultural pluralism degenerates into an aesthetic spectacle in which the curious folkways of our neighbors are savored with the relish of the connoisseur. However, our neighbors themselves, as individuals, are never held up to any kind of judgment. The suspension of ethical judgment, in the conception or misconception of pluralism now current, makes it inappropriate to speak of “ethical commitments” at all. Aesthetic appreciation is all that can be achieved under current definitions of cultural diversity. . .  The deeper question [we should address] is the question How should I live? [which today] also becomes a matter of taste, of idiosyncratic personal preference, at best of religious or ethnic identification. But this deeper and more difficult question, rightly understood,requires us to speak of impersonal virtues like fortitude, workmanship, moral courage, honesty, and respect for our adversaries. If we believe in these things, moreover, we must be prepared to recommend them to everyone, as the moral preconditions of a good life. To refer everything to a ‘plurality of ethical commitments’ means that we make no demands on anyone and acknowledge no one’s right to make any demands on ourselves. The suspension of judgment logically condemns us to solitude. Unless we are prepared to make demands on one another, we can enjoy only the most rudimentary kind of common life.

“Democracy requires a more invigorating ethic than tolerance. Tolerance is a fine thing, but it is only the beginning of democracy, not its destination. In our time democracy is more seriously threatened by indifference than by intolerance or superstition. We have become too proficient in making excuses for ourselves — worse, in making excuses for the ‘disadvantaged.’ We are so busy defending our rights (rights conferred, for the most part, by judicial decree) that we have given little thought to our responsibilities. We seldom say what we think for fear of giving offense. We are determined to respect everyone, but we have forgotten that respect has to be earned. Respect is not another word for tolerance or the appreciation of ‘alternative life-styles and communities.’ This is the tourist’s approach to morality. Respect is what we experience in the presence of admirable achievements, admirably formed character, natural gifts put to good use. It entails the exercise of discriminating judgment, not indiscriminate acceptance.

“There are far more important issues confronting friends of democracy [than the issue of cultural pluralism]: the crisis of competence; the spread of apathy and a suffocating cynicism; the moral paralysis of those who value “openness” above all. In the 1870s Walt Whitman wrote: ‘Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us.’ Those words are as timely as ever.

“. . .it is our reluctance to make demands on each other, much more than our reluctance to help those in need, that is sapping the strength of democracy today. We have become far too accommodating and tolerant for our own good. . . Democracy in our time is  more likely to die of indifference than intolerance. Tolerance and understanding are important virtues, but they must not become an excuse for apathy.”

Lasch owes much to his reading of Hanna Arendt. Indeed, she insisted that our failure to exercise judgment is one of the most serious shortcomings of an age in which “being judgmental” has become a thing to avoid at all costs. As Arendt pointed out in her writings, if the Germans in the early years of the last century had been more judgmental, (and therefore less tolerant) then perhaps Hitler would never have risen to power. Like Arendt, who is another brilliant mind, Lach gives us all a great deal to think about. And that is what great writers do.

At year’s end, then, it might be a good thing for us all to resolve to be tolerant only of those things that do not warrant condemnation in ourselves and in others as well. We must beware that our tolerance not degenerate into indifference and apathy, lacking any sense of real concern about the world in which we live. Lasch reminds us that we must have convictions, and have the strength to speak out about those convictions. Otherwise we are simply taking up space in an increasingly crowded world.

It’s Not All Relative

During my time as a professor of philosophy I taught a great many ethics courses, including business ethics — which was actually one of my favorite courses: there are so many real-live  incidents in business to discuss from an ethical perspective. But during all those years I continued to run up against a stone wall that appeared in the form of a mindless relativism. “It’s all a matter of opinion.” Or, “It’s all relative.” Or, “we really shouldn’t be judgmental.” I came to understand that these sorts of responses were just a dodge to allow the students to avoid thinking about problems that are complex, do not allow of quantification, and which require a modicum of objectivity. But I hit my head against that stone wall for years and it gave me many a headache.

Thus, while I have blogged about this before, an article in the news jumped out at me today that simply demands comment. It was a Yahoo News story about a terrible incident in a far-off New Guinea:

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — On a tropical island in Papua New Guinea where most people live in huts, a mob armed with guns, machetes and axes stormed a wooden house by night. They seized Helen Rumbali and three female relatives, set the building on fire and took the women away to be tortured. Their alleged crime: Witchcraft.

After being repeatedly slashed with knives, Rumbali’s older sister and two teenage nieces were released following negotiations with police. Rumbali, a 40-something former schoolteacher, was beheaded.

The standard response to such a story in one of my classes, should I have brought it up, would be something like this: who are we to judge whether that is wrong? It’s not our country and we don’t know enough of the details of what really went on. In its shortened form it is the cliché “who’s to say? We haven’t walked a mile in their shoes.” It’s called “cultural relativism.”

The objections ring true, of course, but they are irrelevant. We haven’t walked a mile in their shoes — or even two yards. But we know enough from the article to make an informed judgment — subject to further correction if later information alters the ethical perspective. But at this point we can say with some assurance that even in a country on the other side of the earth, men coming into a home at night and taking four women suspected of witchcraft to be tortured and/or killed is simply wrong. That is to say, even though we have not walked in those shoes, the people who do walk in them are engaged in actions that cannot possibly be justified in a neutral court of rational appeal. And that is the test for all ethical claims: the neutral court of rational appeal. It is something like a jury, except that it has no formal status. But thinking persons anywhere read and assimilate the information provided and attempt to see both sides of complex issues and then render a judgment. Failure to do so would be morally irresponsible: indifference disguised as tolerance.

As I have said before moral condemnation does not necessarily result in an invasion of another country — as though they were hiding weapons of mass destruction, for example. But it simply means that when we read such a story we are appalled, thank our lucky starts we don’t live in such a country and that we have become enlightened enough to recognize that “witchcraft” is hardly grounds for decapitation and torture — or anything much other than bemused indifference. But when concern over witchcraft leads to acts of violence and murder then it is simply wrong, wherever it may occur. When something is wrong, it is wrong whether it happens next door or on the other side of the world. All that is required is careful judgment, imagination, and a lively sensibility. This does not imply our cultural superiority, it simply implies that we have thought about the actions of those men and condemned them — just as we would if they had happened next door.