Dollars and Sense

I am borrowing this title from my senior thesis in college. I have been fascinated since that time (back in the Dark Ages) by the direct relationship between the accumulation of great wealth and the weakening of moral precepts. We are at present witness to the very fact to which I allude in the form of a very wealthy president who has (shall we say?) his own unique take on morality. But this is merely an isolated example and hardly makes my case.

In the pages of a novel by George Eliot in Victorian England around the time of our Civil War, the author pined for a time before the coming of the railroad when:

“reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.”

Perhaps reflecting this same sentiment in an introduction to an edition of  Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn he wrote in 1950, Lionel Trilling focused on the fact that Twain noted that the Civil War in this country marked the sudden transition from a mere desire for money to a fixation with it, the growth of greed in this country on a grand scale and the loss of something of major importance, something very much like what George Eliot regretted losing. He also drew on such prominent thinkers as Twain, Henry Adams, Walt Whitman, and William Dean Howells when he noted that

“. . .something had gone out of American life after the war, some simplicity, some innocence, some peace. None of them was under any illusion about the amount of ordinary human wickedness that existed in the old days, and Mark Twain certainly was not. The difference was in the public attitude, in the things that were now accepted and made respectable in the national ideal. It was, they all felt, connected with new emotions about money. As Mark Twain said, where formerly ‘the people had desired money,’ now they ‘fell down and worship it.’ The new Gospel was, ‘Get money. Get is quickly. Get it in abundance. Get it in prodigious abundance. Get it honestly if you can, dishonestly if you must.'”

Now, to be sure, one could go back to John Calvin for the source of the Protestant “work ethic” and the birth of the notion (which has become commonplace among the spiritually certain) that wealth is a sign of God’s love. But, in this country at least, in the early years there was a healthy suspicion about wealth and a concern that too much was not a good thing.  Indeed, a preliminary draft of Pennsylvania’s Declaration of Rights included an article that stated:

“. . .an enormous Proportion of Property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the Rights and destructive of the Common Happiness of Mankind.”

This, perhaps, was a result of the Puritanical view that the love of money is the root of all evil. In any event, nearly all of the colonies has proscriptions, even laws, against the accumulation of too much wealth — laws against such things as primogeniture, for example. After all, that way lies aristocracy and the separation of people into classes. It was frowned upon. It was undemocratic.  It was regarded as leading the country in the wrong direction — even by such enlightened thinkers as Thomas Jefferson.

The Civil War marked the radical changing point because, like all wars, there were many technological advances — especially in armament but also in such things as steam engines and the sudden “need” for thousands of miles of railroad tracks and new and faster engines to haul more goods and people to places they wanted to go. And the war made many people, especially in the North, very wealthy. In a word, the Civil War marked the true dawning of industrial capitalism in this country and soon we saw the birth of the Horatio Alger myth that insisted anyone could become fabulously wealthy overnight. The notion that wealth was a sign of God’s favor was now a certainty. And with this certainty much of the simplicity that Trilling and Eliot talk about disappeared and, along with it, the notion that there was moral high ground that was sacred, certainly more important than building miles of railroad tracks and making more money than one can spend in two lifetimes.

To be sure, it is difficult to make a case for the causal relationship between two such diverse factors as great wealth and the decline of morality. But there does seem to be a conjunction between the two. How often are we struck by the generosity and charity shown by the very poor who have nothing and the obsession with money that seems to consume the very rich who never seem to have enough? I ask this as a question, but it is largely rhetorical because the relationship I speak about  is evident. And it may help to explain modern man’s “search for a soul” as Jung would have it, and our uncertainty about what truly matters and what is of considerably less importance.

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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?

Uncivilized??

After reading Lionel Trilling’s excellent essay insisting that Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park oughtn’t to be dismissed as her weakest novel I was inspired to visit the novel again. I must admit I had thought, along with many another critic, that of all her novels this was indeed the poorest. With Austen, of course, even her weakest  novel would be gradations above the novels of so many others, but still, it simply didn’t seem to rank up there with Pride and Prejudice. Trilling shows that Austen herself started writing Mansfield Park almost before the ink was dry on the pages of her greatest novel when she thought it could have been even better — an urge that lead her to start writing what she regarded as a more balanced novel.

Whether one agrees with Trilling or not, and the argument can get a bit hairsplitting at times, a tempest in a teapot if you will, Austen points us in a direction we seem to have too long ignored. In her novels, all of them, we are forced to admit that manners are what makes the person. Character and good manners go hand-in-hand and cannot be separated from one another. Ortega y Gasset reminded us in the 1930s that “civilization is above all else the will to live in common,” and Norbert Elias, in his study of The Civilizing Process insists that civilization is nothing more and nothing less that the awareness of others and the “consideration of what others might think.” In a word, the civilizing process involves “restraint and the regulation of elementary urges.” The notion that others matter, that we have obligations to others is the common thread in what we loosely call “good manners” — as it is in all of Austen’s novels.

When a man opens a door for an elderly person, or gives up his seat on a crowded bus; when a neighbor turns down the radio or television out of consideration for others who might be disturbed; when one avoids saying what one thinks because it might hurt the feelings of the listener; when a speaker refuses to interrupt another speaker; in all these cases, we see self-restraint at work along with the “regulation of elementary urges” — good manners. Edmund Burke saw them as the stuff of morality.

Franny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park, is the embodiment of good manners, the civilized person. She has been torn away from her poor family at the age of nine to live with her wealthy uncle and aunt one hundred miles away. She suffers separation anxiety in the extreme because of the sudden change and her one link to mental stability is the care and concert of her young cousin Edmund who, alone among all the other “upper crust” people she nows lives with, cares about her and shows compassion and concern for her suffering.  In the eyes of her new family, except for Edmund, she resides somewhere between the servants and themselves. One of her aunts relegates her to an attic room and tells the servants not to light the fire.

As Fanny grows older and her love for Edmund deepens and her sensitivity of others around her increases — including her three other cousins and her aunts and uncle — she becomes an attractive and fascinating woman. Indeed, a “gentleman” of considerable fortune by the name of Henry Crawford sets out to make Fanny fall in love with him, purely out of boredom, only to fall helplessly in love with her himself. He makes her an offer of marriage, an offer Fanny repulses — to the distress of her relatives. She sees him as the embodiment of all that is wrong with those around her, an “uncivilized” man; she sees

“. . .a want of delicacy and regard for others. . . .a gross want of feeling and humanity where his own pleasure was concerned — And, also, has always known no principle to supply as a duty what the heart was deficient in.”

In fact, the pleasure-seeking, self-absorbed Henry Crawford is the embodiment, along with his sister Mary, of what Trilling calls “the modern type, the person who cultivates the style of sensitivity, virtue, and intelligence.” In other words, in Trilling’s view Mansfield Park is about pretense, personality in the place of character, the tendency so many have to pretend they are something they are not for lack of sound moral principles to form a solid core of self. Fanny and her cousin Edmund are, among all the characters in the novel, the only two who are genuine and honest, the only truly civilized people among a host of others who either pretend to be so or who are past caring.

And this is where  a novel written in 1816 can be seen to be a commentary on our own age and culture, an age and culture in which the self and its pleasures have become the center of concern for the greater part of humanity and the Other has been lost in that preoccupation with self that sees good manners as archaic and somehow irrelevant — and who view honesty as not an obligation we have to ourselves and others but simply a matter of letting it all “hang out.” All of which places us in the category of those who in one way or another revealed themselves to Fanny Price as people who are locked within themselves, showing a lack of principles “to supply as a duty what the heart is deficient in.”

Disillusioned

In 30s of the last century a great many liberals, including folk song icon Pete Seeger, flirted seriously with Communism.  Indeed, Seeger was a member of the Communist Party, as were a great many liberal thinkers at the time. For one thing, the ideals of Communism resembled in a great many ways the ideals of Christianity with which many in the West were familiar– if not enamored. It espoused strong communities, the eradication of exploitation of the poor by the wealthy, and the equal distribution of all property, including wealth. It also embraced the notion that we should all care about our fellow humans. In any event, as I noted, a great many liberals embraced the ideals of Communism though most of them later became disenchanted when the reality of Communism began to stare them in the face. At the time it seemed an obvious alternative to hated Fascism and some, like George Orwell went so far as to join the anarchists on the side of Communism in Spain fighting against Franco and Fascism. The term “anarchist” denotes the confusion on the Spanish left as it included both socialists and Communists all in the name of “Nationalism.” But they were united in their hatred of Fascism.

Orwell, author of the recently best-selling 1984 (thanks to the election Donald Trump in America) wrote a journal describing the gradual awakening to the horrors of Communism that took place on the part of a young, idealistic reporter who went to Spain to write about the war and ended up joining the anarchists. His journal is titled Homage To Catalonia and it describes in painful detail the story of a young idealist waking up to the harsh reality that those in power, even those one admires and who seemingly embrace the same ideals as oneself, succumb to the temptations of power and wealth and behave just as badly as those against whom you are risking your life — perhaps worse, since they join hypocrisy to their other flaws.. Orwell was seriously wounded in battle against Fascism and nearly lost his life. He spent the rest of his days fighting a verbal game against the totalitarianism he saw up close.

Lionel Trilling wrote a paper in 1952 extolling the virtues of a virtuous man, as he considered Orwell. Not a great man, but a virtuous man, one who embraced the Victorian notion of “my station and its duties.” This was a man who walked the walk and who had no patience whatever with closet liberals who talk the talk but become lost in abstractions and find themselves lame when it comes to standing up to the sort of reality he saw up close. He was, above all else, honest to a fault. He was an advocate of democratic socialism though he saw clearly that democracy is also flawed; it has

“. . .told us that genius is available to anyone, that the grace of ultimate prestige may be had by anyone, that we may all be princes and potentates, or saints and visionaries and holy martyrs, of the heart and mind. “

In a word, it tends toward mediocrity, a leveling down of human aspirations to the gathering of wealth and the having of as much as our neighbor, the refusal to allow that there is greatness in the world, that some are actually better persons than others, that failure can be an important lesson learned. So says, Lionel Trilling. But he echoes the convictions of George Orwell who embraced democracy for all its faults — perhaps because, as Winston Churchill said, it is the worst form of government except for all the others. Heaven knows, Orwell saw the “others” up close — at least in their twentieth century guise. And he saw that the best government is the one that empowers the greatest number of people and in socialism he saw that restrictions were necessary to prevent the accumulation of great wealth in the hands of the few who have no idea how to manage the power it delivers to them. These things Orwell saw up close and in person. It almost cost him his life, but he lived to warn us all to be suspicious and not fall for the empty promises of ideologues and the pretty speeches of politicians whose only interest is their own welfare. And above all else, he urged us to become engaged in the world in order to preserve our precious human freedom.

Homage to Catalonia is well worth reading if only to see how painful it was for this one man to have his eyes opened to the realities of a world gone mad, a world in which even those who seemingly embrace the highest ideals also easily succumb to the temptations of power and the desire for great wealth. He worried above all else that we would be lulled to sleep by mindless diversions and political apathy

“…sleeping the deep, deep sleep . . ., from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake until we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.”

The Arts and Morality

I would like to take as my text a brief passage from a lecture Lionel Trilling gave at Harvard University in 1970. His topic is sincerity and he has this to say about literature and the universality of the messages we receive when we take it seriously:

“Generally our awareness of the differences between the moral assumptions of one culture and those of another is so developed and active that we find it hard to believe there is any such thing as essential human nature; but we all know moments when these differences, as literature attests to them, seem to make no difference, seem scarcely to exist. We read the Iliad or the plays of Sophocles or Shakespeare and they come so close to our hearts and minds that they put to rout, or into abeyance, our instructed consciousness of the moral life as it is conditioned by a particular culture — they persuade us that human nature never varies, that the moral life is unitary and its terms perennial, and that only a busy intruding pedantry could ever have suggested otherwise.”

I shall begin by confessing that I have devoted a majority of my life to the defense of both literature and the universality of certain fundamental moral precepts — such precepts as justice and human rights, which I insist are at the core of every civilized (and indeed uncivilized) society and whatever religion they happen to practice. Trilling is suggesting there is a connection and I suspect he is right.

But I would add all of the arts, including dance, painting, music, and poetry to the list of things that demonstrate the universality of what we call “human nature.” The arts, and naturally literature as one of the core elements of the fine arts, prove indubitably that we are all basically alike despite our superficial differences. What this means is that as human beings who share a common nature, we are held to the same ideals regardless of our cultural or historical differences. As Trilling suggests, those differences make no difference. We all espouse justice, fairness and the rights of others as fundamental principles of a common moral code. We may view this code differently or stress different elements at one time or another — shrinking or expanding our grasp of what constitutes justice and allowing or disallowing that some who have been denied also have rights. Moreover, we may espouse those universal principles and yet refuse to act on them. But when push comes to shove, or when we stop and think “what if….?” we realize that we all demand fairness, justice and the recognition of our human rights, though, of late, we may tend ignore the responsibilities that go along with rights..

The fine arts, including literature, attest to the correctness of those demands. They demonstrate as cannot be otherwise demonstrated that we are all fundamentally alike. We share Achilles’ outrage at his treatment by Agamemnon despite the fact that he lived in a different culture ages ago. We commiserate with the seventeenth century French playwright Molière’s character Alceste when he comes to realize that one must play a role to succeed in the real world. We suspect this is a profound truth, even in our day. We can feel the hatred that permeates the soul of Keiko, one of the main characters in Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness, and share Okonkwo’s outrage over the presumption of the Christian missionaries in their attempts to colonize his country in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

Moreover, when we view a painting or see our fellow humans dance or hear them sing (despite the fact that we cannot understand the words) we respond, as Trilling says, with our hearts and minds to the same emotions or others very much like those of the artists themselves. We note the presence in symphony orchestras of people of different ethnic backgrounds and from different countries who tap deep into the emotions of the composers of their European music and project it into the audience made up of a heterogeneous grouping of their fellow humans and we share a common experience.

Thus, when we hear that “it is all relative,” and that we shouldn’t be “judgmental” because we are all different, we know this is at best a half-truth, a “busy, intruding pedantry.” We are all different in so many ways as those who would ride the “Identity Politics” horse would insist. But at the core we are all the same and when we do the right thing or the wrong thing we know that this can be seen and recognized by our fellow humans who also seek in their own way to do the right thing or avoid the wrong thing. We all seek the moral high ground — or if we don’t we should.

The fine arts demonstrate in no uncertain terms that we all suffer outrages and seek approval and love in the same way and take delight in the same joys and are repulsed by the same atrocities committed by those who seem very real though they be mere “fictions,” products of an artist’s imagination. This is why we read and why we open our eyes to the beauty that surrounds us in whatever form it may take. Because it deepens our sensibilities and makes each of us a little more human.

 

On Being Successful

In a recent professional football game involving the Pittsburg Steelers, one of Pittsburg’s defensive backs suffered a spinal injury because of a head-on tackle in which he exhibited poor technique. He lay moaning on the ground for minutes until he was carted away and sent to the hospital. As of this writing he has had back surgery and is still being observed by the medical experts to see if there is any permanent damage. If there is, it certainly wouldn’t be the first such case. And it will almost certainly not be the last.

This set the networks abuzz with talk about how brutal a game is football — at all levels — and had many a talking head on television wondering what more could be done to prevent further injuries. The NFL is already concerned about concussions, which have had serious consequences for many retired football players; equipment has been improved and there is a great deal more caution after a possible head-on collision than there once was.

In any event, one of the Steelers was interviewed on ESPN and defended his sport despite its violence — trying to calm the waters and assure people that the game is not “brutal” and it would go on. I will not mention his name (because I can’t remember it!) but it matters not. His somewhat disjointed comments defended the sport which he loves because it has enhanced his “family legacy,” i.e., it has made him an immensely wealthy man. There was more to his comments than this, but this was the gist of what he said. And it raises a number of questions.

To begin with, it is a non-sequitur because the violence of the game cannot be dismissed because it makes a number of men very wealthy. In addition, of course, the comments were all about the player himself with little mention of his teammate who lay in a hospital bed trying to recover from a very painful injury. But, more to the point, we heard once again the All-American mantra that identifies success with wealth (his “family legacy”). To be a successful person in this country one must be  tremendously wealthy. Those who dedicate themselves to the well-being of others and make sacrifices every day to make sure that others are healthy and happy, or perhaps simply better informed, are not regarded as successful — unless they can brag about their bank accounts and show you their expensive cars and their overpriced, palatial homes. This is absurd.

In his lectures on sincerity and authenticity, Lionel Trilling points out that the West has struggled for many years with the concept of authenticity, the notion that human beings are truly human when they have achieved not wealth but authenticity: when they are who they truly are. Trilling  focuses on Jean Paul Sartre who spent many pages in his Being and Nothingness talking about “Bad Faith,” the tendency of people — all people — to play roles, to pretend to be someone they are not.  To an extent, Sartre would insist, society demands that we do so. But this does not alter the fact that we wear masks.

Trilling points out that true authenticity has to do with being, not about having. He quotes Oscar Wilde who insisted that “The true perfection of man lies not in what man has but in what man is.” We are truly human when we achieve autonomy, when we are self-directed, not when we become wealthy. In fact, money has nothing whatever to do with it. He notes that this popular misconception, this false identification of wealth with success, stems from the confusion of having with being: it is a type of inauthenticity. We are not what we have; we are what we are within ourselves and in relation to others.

It is not likely that our notion of success, insisting that success is identified with what we have, will change. But it is quite likely that the storm over the violence in America’s most popular sport will quiet down and there will be more injuries in the future. Is it just possible that this is a good thing because it allows Americans to get vicarious pleasure from a violent sport that releases some of the pent-up frustration resulting from lives spent pursuing wealth which they identify with success — though they sense dimly that there is something terribly wrong somewhere?

Open Minded?

In a review of  The Kinsey Report that Lionel Trilling published in 1948 he notes that the Social Sciences were already suggesting ways folks ought to behave instead of simply telling us how they do in fact behave. They were already becoming prescriptive when they should have restricted themselves to description. This greatly affected the way we raised and taught our children. That went well!

He also makes a fascinating point about our democratic way of thinking, what he calls our “generosity of mind.” He regards this as peculiarly American and he insists that it is “often associated with an almost intentional intellectual weakness.” What he is speaking about is our refusal to make distinctions because of our fear that such distinctions will point the way toward discrimination.  Indeed, given the date of this review, one must conclude that Trilling was prescient, because we are now handicapped by our fear of “being judgmental,” by our inability to even allow for the possibility that anyone is different from anyone else lest this suggest that the one is somehow inferior to the other.  To quote Trilling at some length:

“[This intellectual weakness] goes with a nearly conscious aversion to making intellectual distinctions, almost out of the belief that an intellectual distinction must inevitably lead to a social discrimination or exclusion. We might say that those who most explicitly assert and wish to practice the democratic virtues have taken it as their assumption that all social facts — with the exception of exclusion and economic hardship — must be accepted, not merely in the scientific sense but also in the social sense, that is, that no judgment must be passed on them, that any conclusion drawn from them which perceives values and consequences will turn out to be ‘undemocratic.'”

This is a powerful statement and is worthy of serious reflection. What Trilling is saying is that our refusal to make distinctions has led us to the point where we are now intellectually disabled. Our fear that we might be “judgmental” renders us unable to make important distinctions between those who can and those who cannot. In our effort to “leave no student behind,” for example, we have dumbed down the curriculum in our schools to the point where those who graduate have learned very little, if anything — and the very bright are the ones who are left behind. On a broader canvas the liberal arts, as has been said many times, are elitist (“undemocratic”) and cater only to the very few. On the contrary. They can make it possible for all who come into contact with them to gain possession of their own minds and become autonomous persons who can resist the temptation to follow the herd and swallow the latest political pill that will eventually make them very sick.

The notion that certain thoughts are “undemocratic” is a brilliant way to point out that our determination to think alike has made it impossible for most of us to gain any sort of real intellectual freedom. Liberals must think in a certain way which (God Forbid!) must be nothing like the way conservatives think. And vice versa. True intellectual independence would allow us to make the important distinctions, to point out major differences, say, between women and men, between social classes, between the gifted and the obtuse. It would allow us to make distinctions between such things as the use and the mention of the “N” word, for example. Additionally it would allow us to distinguish between a protest against racial injustice and disrespect for the flag of this country, a distinction so many, including our President, seem unable or unwilling to make. To add to our intellectual burden is the current proscription against using certain words — despite the fact that words form sentences and sentences form thoughts. Without words, all words available, our thinking becomes crimped and begins to resemble, oh I don’t know, say, tweet-speak??

Trilling is on to something here and the fact that he was aware of this tendency in the late 1940s is truly remarkable. The tendencies he points out, as I have suggested, have only become worse and we are, as a society, even more “intellectually weak” than we were in 1948. The only way out is through education properly conceived, a course of study that takes the young on a challenging journey with the greatest minds that ever lived and, while being sensitive to the feelings of the disadvantaged, it allows for the open discussion of even the most controversial of topics with those who agree with us and, more especially, those who do not.

 

Are Poets Mad?

Going back in time at least as far as Plato there have been those who insisted that poets, and artists generally, are mad as hatters. Plato thought they were “inspired” and the Platonic dialogues are full of exchanges between Socrates and assorted poets and artists who are unable to explain to Socrates what exactly it is they do and what it is they claim to know. And because they cannot explain what they do in discursive terms — as a geometer would explain why it is that the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides, for example  — Socrates was convinced that these folks who wrote about things they didn’t understand were in some sense of the term “mad.”

This notion persisted through the ages in the West until the time of the romantic poets, such as Byron, Keats, and Shelly who actually took pride in the fact that they were a bit mad and relished the notion. This was a view shared by many of the “beat” poets in the 50s and 60s and it still has its adherents. The problem is, of course, that we don’t know just what these folks meant by “mad” when they ascribed it to poets and artists. Freud called it a “neurosis” and sought to explain the genius of someone like Leonardo da Vinci on the grounds that his creations are the expression of his neurosis: indeed, all artists are neurotic and their art is neither more nor less than the expression of that “illness.” Later, as he thought more about this “illness” Freud came to the conclusion that we are ALL neurotic — not just the artists. As he said  in his Introductory Lectures:

“The result depends principally upon the amount of energy taken up in this way: therefore you will see that ‘illness’ is essentially a practical conception. But if you look at the matter from a theoretical point of view and ignore this question of degree, you can very well see that we are all ill, i.e., neurotic: for the conditions required for symptom-formation are demonstrable also in [so-called] normal persons.”

Neurosis, as Freud developed the notion, was the result of a conflict within the person, frequently an emotional one, but at times both intellectual and emotional. It often had to do with the person’s inability to develop a strong “reality principle,” that is, to distinguish clearly between reality and the imaginary. Cervantes had played with this notion years before when he was writing Don Quixote, since the knight can be regarded as either a poet or a madman because of his inability to distinguish between reality and his own vivid imagination. Is the barbers basin really Mambrino’s helmet? Are the windmills really giants? Is the herd of sheep really an army to be fought to the death? Are the prisoners on their way to the galley really decent folks who have been wronged by a system that is stacked against them? Quixote is always working his way through these questions. The clue that Quixote is not mad, of course, is that he is often aware of what these things appear to be to others. He knows, for example, that Sancho takes the object for a barber’s basis while he “knows” it to be Mambrino’s helmet. A madman has a weak “reality principle” and would lose the distinction entirely between what is going on his head and what is “really” going in the world we share with him. The neurotic person has difficulty separating reality from the imaginary; when the distinction breaks down completely that person is psychotic.

We have a president at the present time who seems to have a weak reality principle, who seems a bit mad. He certainly is not a poet or artist, but, rather, a deluded man who insists that reality, and facts as well, are of his making and those who disagree are clearly in the wrong.  We may all be headed in this direction as we play with our electronic toys and lose ourselves in a world of make-believe that becomes more “real” than the world we share with others. This, it seems to me, is a very real possibility since in that world we are all-powerful. In this world not so much.

In any event, poets and artists generally are no more neurotic than the rest of us and their power as artists consists of their ability to deal with the conflicts they experience through their talent and skill that allows them to create poems and works of art that reveal to the rest of us what it is they see and we are all missing. As Lionel Trilling puts it: “What marks the artist is his power to shape the material of pain we all have.”

The rest of us must simply learn how to deal with that pain with more or less success, depending on who we are and how successfully we can develop the reality principle that makes it possible for us to remain in the “real” world and not lose touch entirely with the one the rest of the world occupies. That world, for all its pain, is also beautiful and filled with many good people trying their best to do good things.

 

One More Time

I shall once again refer to Lionel Trilling’s excellent novel The Middle of the Journey because it raises a fascinating question, one that so many of us have forgotten to think about. I refer to the problem of human freedom and responsibility. Rather than accepting blame for our many mistakes we have become used to making excuses, prodded on by the social sciences (or the “pseudo-sciences,” as a friend of mine would have it) that insist we are the product of social causes, environment, education  (or lack of education), economic pressures, the “character pattern imposed by society” (as Trilling puts it). This leaves us no room whatever for human freedom and when freedom disappears so also does moral responsibility. We buy into this tripe because it is an easy way out. After all, if there is no responsibility for human beings then since I am a human being I bear no responsibility whatever for anything I may happen to do — including taking the life of another, or inciting others to do the same. How very comforting!

Trilling raises this question toward the end of his novel when a small group of friends is gathered around following the death of a young girl who was slapped by her father and died because she had a weak heart about which he knew nothing. The question is whether the man deserved to be published. The liberal view, the view of the social scientist, the view shared by the majority of the small group, is ready to make excuses for the man, though the most vehement member of the group wanted to have nothing more to do with the man, despite the fact that he could not have known his daughter would die from his slap. In a word, she didn’t hold the man responsible yet she can’t forgive him. These are human beings after all, albeit fictional ones, and they are as full of contradictions as are the rest of us.

In any event, Trilling insists that this woman, despite her strictly deterministic viewpoint, cannot forgive the man. Moreover, he has the former leader of the group, Gifford Maxim, the former card-carrying member of the Communist Party who has found God and left the Party at considerable risk to his own life, reply to the notion that there cannot be any responsibility — or forgiveness. Maxim makes a series of points to counteract the view of the social scientist who would blame “society” rather than individuals:

“I can personally forgive [the father of the little girl] because I believe God can forgive him. You see, I think his will is a bad one, but not much worse, not altogether different in kind, from other wills. And so you [who cannot condemn the man because you blame society] and I stand opposed. For you — no responsibility for the individual, but no forgiveness. For me — ultimate, absolute responsibility for the individual, but mercy. Absolute responsibility is the only way that men can keep their value, can be thought of as other than things. . . .”

Now whether or not we buy into the religious aspects of this point, it is worth pondering. It is so because the notion of human responsibility can be rescued only if we insist upon the fact of  human freedom — if we reject the notion that we are products of society, simply. We might be forced to admit that society, broadly speaking, plays a role in the formation of who we are. Doubtless it does. But to insist, as so many in the social-sciences do, that we are totally the product of our social conditioning — poor potty training, angry baby-sitters, or a third grade teacher who hated us — a claim that cannot be proven, is to leave no room for responsibility whatever. As Maxim points out, there can be no forgiveness because everything is pre-determined.

But the point that strikes me as the salient one in this discussion is near the end of Maxim’s comment above, when he notes that “Absolute responsibility is the only way men can keep their value, can be thought of as other than things.” This, of course, is the heart and soul of Kantian ethics as it is of the Christian ethic, and it is a point that cannot be denied without reducing, as Maxim says, human beings to things. In the end human freedom can be rescued from the snares of the social scientist by virtue of our own felt-experience; the fact that no logical proof has ever been devised to prove that we are not free; and even Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which shows that activity on the sub-atomic level is in principle unpredictable. Accordingly, human beings can be held responsible. And they can be forgiven, or condemned as the case may be — depending on the degree of their culpability.

 

Another Gem!

The delight one takes in reading exceptional literature (dare I say “great” literature?) is in finding the occasional gem. They are always there and that is what makes them exceptional. In the case of Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey, to which I have referred before, they are there in abundance.

The novel was written soon after the Second World War at a time when many an American intellectual was flirting with Communism, which appeared to be the way to deliver the poor and downtrodden from under the foot of the greedy capitalist power-brokers. In the novel the leader of a small group of intellectuals from New York has had a sudden change of heart and has deserted the Communist Party to the dismay and even anger of his small group of devoted fellow-travelers.

The news has come out of Russia of the atrocities that have been committed for years in the name of Communism, the millions of dead and the promise of millions more — all in the name of a “better way of life for all.” The leader of the local group, Gifford Maxim,  has risked his life to leave the Party to which he has devoted the majority of his adult life. He has had an epiphany of sorts as he has come to realize that the end does not justify the means when the means involve the death of so many of his fellow humans. He is no longer a member of a small community of like-minded zealots, “My community with men is that we are children of God.”

By way of reaching this conclusion, he has this to say to his former friends and devotees:

“And never has there been so much talk of liberty while the chains are being forged. Democracy and freedom. And in the most secret heart of every intellectual, where he scarcely knows of it himself, there lies hidden the real hope that these words hide. It is the hope of power, the desire to bring his ideas to reality by imposing them on his fellow-man. We are all of us, all of us, the little children of the Grand Inquisitor. The more we talk of welfare, the crueler we become. How can we possibly be guilty when we have in mind the welfare of others, and of so many others?”

In light of recent events in this country, when our feckless Leader loudly threatened to “totally destroy” an entire nation of people whose ideology differs from our own, a time when the air still rings with similar threats from the leader of the “other side” who refers to Our Fearless Leader as a “dotard” and labels him as “deranged”  —  neither of these men seeming to realize that countless human lives are at stake if these threats are carried out — it is a timely reminder that the hidden political agenda is to acquire and maintain power, to “impose” one ideology on everyone. There are no winners in this power game; there are only losers.

As Maxim reminds us, ours is the community of the “children of God.” We are all human with our many foibles, and the particular ideology we follow seems not to matter one bit. There are always those who will lord it over others, those who will take while insisting that they have the right to do so, those who simply want more of what they already have. It matters not whether we call it “Communism” or “Capitalism,” in any case, it is about power, and about who is to wield it and for how long.

Trilling is usually labelled a “Conservative,” though he regarded himself as a moderate; in any event, it is a simple matter to dismiss these sentiments as those of someone who thinks differently. We tend to do that sort of thing. But this would be a mistake, the very same mistake Gifford Maxim has made in following an ideology blindly, ignoring the atrocities for years out of the conviction that his is the only legitimate way to see the world. As Trilling himself has said, in another context entirely,

“Ideology is not the product of thought; it is the habit or the ritual of showing respect for certain formulas to which, for various reasons having to do with emotional safety, we have very strong ties and of whose meaning and consequences in actuality we have no clear understanding.”

Committing oneself blindly to an ideology, any ideology, is a denial of our fundamental humanity. Labelling the opposition instead of listening to what they have to say leads to frustration, ignorance, and eventually to violence. Whether or not we are in sympathy with what the author of this novel has to say — and he has a great deal to say — it is well worth hearing. And to my ear it rings true. We all seem to be quick to condemn those who disagree with us and to see our way of thinking as the only way while, in fact, there are many ways to think and to see — and ours may not be the best way.

In any event, the end certainly does not justify the means when it involves the death of so many others who disagree with us, many of whom are totally unaware that they do so.