Cultural Parallel

 

Lately I have been reflecting on the demise of the humanities and of Western culture generally. I have expressed my disappointment and even my dismay. But several years ago I had already begun to note the problem and in reading a number of novels written by great Japanese writers came to realize that what we are going through is very much like what the Japanese went through after World War II. Granted, the parallel is not exact, but we are seeing the gradual replacement of Western culture by a shallow commodified culture where everything has a price. Our present situation is not unlike the experience of the older generation in Japan after the war who watched helplessly as their culture and values were replaced by Western ideas, movies, dress, baseball, and above all, materialism. They, too, were becoming a commodified culture. The problem is that this indicates the death of spirit and this is why the problem is worth exploring, though I must apologize for the rather long post as the issue is complex and I have added a bit here and there.

I have been somewhat immersed of late in the writings of such great Japanese authors as Kawabata, Tanizaki, Mishima, and, most recently, the satirist Nakae Chomin. What all of these authors have in common, despite their many differences of style and approach, is a shared concern regarding the trauma Japan suffered in leaping from a Feudal age into the modern world in a very few years. While they knew that the modern world would bring benefits to the Japanese people, they also knew that something precious might be lost in the process. The parallel with our own history struck me and seemed worth reflecting upon. This is not to say that the history of the East exactly parallels that of the West. After all, our escape from the Feudal age was gradual and we did not undergo the sudden shock of alien ideas overnight. Nor did we suffer the devastation of more than five hundred bombing raids setting our world on fire, followed by the dropping of two Atom bombs that brought our nation to its collective knees. None the less, the concerns of these remarkable authors are the same ones many of us share in this hemisphere, especially the worry that in breaking with centuries-old traditions we may be leaving our world devoid of meaning.

In this regard, the delightfully satirical book by Nakae Chomin, titled A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government, is especially interesting. Chomin lived during the Meiji era, from 1868-1912, and was witness to the rapid changes that were taking place around him. In fact, he was responsible for many of them himself, given his fascination with ideas he picked up in France, especially, where he became an expert in European philosophy and political thought. He wrote copiously about enlightenment ideas and, especially, about the necessity for Japan to embrace democracy, if not all European ideas. Japan’s despotic government was not entirely convinced that democratic ideas were palatable and Chomin’s idea of universal suffrage was especially anathema to those in power who were suspicious of liberal thinkers like Chomin. He was for a time expelled from his native city of Tokyo and was repeatedly silenced by a government that feared his keen wit and outspoken writings. His Discourse, especially, came under government scrutiny and as a result became extremely popular and quite effective in helping to bring about many of the changes that Chomin thought Japan needed to embrace.

But, at the same time, Chomin was aware that these changes were diametrically opposed to a great many ancient Japanese traditions that he himself revered and realized were essential to Japan’s national identity. He was the son of a Samari warrior and was of two minds when it came to agitating for change in Japan — as his Discourse points out. In that book two protagonists, hosted by Master Nankai, who acts as something of a referee and (more importantly) keeps filling their empty drinking cups, wage a war of words about the pros and cons of radical change in Japan. The Gentleman of Western Learning, a philosopher/idealist, embraces Western ideas and argues somewhat naively that linear progress is inevitable and of unqualified benefit to the nation as a whole. His opponent, the Champion of the East, is a conservative, hawkish character who embraces war as a manly activity and worries that Japanese culture is on the verge of annihilation at the hands of the West (especially Western materialism) and young Japanese activists. This concern is echoed in one of Mishima’s novels in which a group of young idealists plot the murder of several key Japanese capitalists. Chomin himself at times embraced both of these views, which is what makes the Discourse so compelling. It steers away from simple solutions to complex issues and reveals the heart of the dilemma that Japan faced at the time.

As hinted, many of the issues raised in Chomin’s Discourse are also raised in the novels of the other authors I mentioned above, which simply demonstrates the truth that poets see problems more clearly and sooner than the rest of us. And the fact that these thinkers wrestled so strenuously with real-world concerns that also trouble us in the West is remarkable. They saw, for example, that democracy was inevitable but that in its Western guise it was inextricably bound to free-enterprise capitalism and that the ideas of economic and political freedom would become conflated and at times impossible to separate. In fact, like Chomin’s Gentleman, there are a great many so-called “conservative” thinkers in this country today who still maintain that freedom necessarily entails free-enterprise capitalism, while the stunning example of the Scandinavian countries demonstrates the fact that political freedom can be blended nicely with a socialistic economy. Indeed, recent studies show that the people in those countries are among the happiest on earth.

Thus, the fact that a number of Japanese intellectuals wrestled with what we would like to call Western ideas and, especially, that they worried that the modern age would mark the end of traditional values such as honor and duty and replace them with the pursuit of pleasure and a preoccupation with creature comforts, while at the same time they embraced democratic ideas and worried about the dangers hidden within a materialistic world view, must give us pause. It was, after all, honor that was at the center of humanism in the West at the outset and honor that began to dissolve as capitalism gradually expanded its influence. The hints can be found in both Shakespeare’s plays, especially Julius Caesar, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote where the Don’s sense of honor is made to appear comical if not a bit mad.

But in the end we must note that many of the problems we face are also seriously pondered by people on the other side of the planet. And they seem to be caught up in the same quandaries we are. It is certain that they face the same problems of survival as we do on a planet that is under attack by greed and corruption and populated by increasing numbers of bellicose humans.

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In Pieces

In his remarkable book, The Wreck of Western Culture, John Carroll paints a bleak picture of what he sees around him:

“We live amidst the ruins of the great, five-hundred-year epoch of humanism. Around us is that colossal wreck. Our culture is a flat expanse of rubble. It hardly offers shelter from a mild cosmic breeze, never mind one of those ice gales that regularly returns to rip us out of the cozy intimacy of our daily lives and confront us with oblivion. Is it surprising that we are run down? We are desperate, yet we don’t care much any more. We are timid, yet we cannot be shocked. We are inert underneath our busyness. We are destitute in our plenty. We are homeless in our own homes.”

He might have also noted, our children in school hold their heads under their desks in fear as they regularly practice the latest drill to thwart maniacs who, demanding loudly their right to bear arms, arrive with automatic weapons and start to shoot.

Disturbing as is Carroll’s picture, it is not overblown. Much the same thing was said many years ago by Jacques Barzun who warned us to lock up our treasures because the barbarians were about to arrive. Well, they have arrived and they have taken over. They now have rank and tenure in our major universities and control matters of curriculum and edit the prestigious journals. They prance on our streets in outlandish garb insisting that we look at them rather than to the beauty that surrounds us all. They use social media to demand that we think about them and not about anything of real importance. They have provided us with toys we hold in our hands or which greet us upon entering the room with constant reminders that the corporate world is the real world. As the inheritor of a humanism that began with an attempt to raise medieval human beings from the mud to greater heights, the world of business and corporate profits has placed itself firmly at the center of a commodified culture. And we are told repeatedly that we are the most important thing in the world.

Humanism was born at the end of the Middle Ages and the start of the Renaissance when humans began to see themselves as the center of the world. Not God. Certainly no longer. The corruption within the Church coupled with the invention of the printing press and growing literacy among the population at large all led to religious revolutions coupled with the industrial revolution and the birth of modern science which have engendered general prosperity and long life, reinforcing the notion that human beings no longer need to lean on God or any other “superstition.”

These are the stepchildren of the Humanism which, Carroll tells us is now in tatters around us. This is because we are learning of the terrible mistakes that come with the riddance of something greater than the self. We are seeing around us, if we look with Carroll’s eyes, the reductio ad absurdum of the Self as God. Medieval men and women, living in terrible times, knew that death was the beginning. Humanists insisted that death is the end, as we learn if we read Shakespeare’s Hamlet carefully. That was the problem: could humans replace God? They could not. What began as a powerful movement to empower the human spirit, to allow it to express itself in extraordinary works of philosophy, art, and science, soon degenerated into the “Cult of Me.” What resulted was  a fearful, industrialized world polluting the air and water and producing an economic system that equated wealth with success. But there’s more.

Among other things, we have come to confuse freedom with license, to descry restraint and self-discipline, to stress human rights and ignore human responsibilities, to see law as nothing more or less than a curb on the impulses that, being human, are ipso facto a good thing. “Let it all hang out!”  We wallow in a sea of self-importance while at the same time we dimly sense that something is missing, that there is more to life than pleasure and the “stuff” of which George Carlin makes delightful fun.

John Carroll sees the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 as a symbol of the destruction of our puffed up sense of self that has morphed from humanism; it reveals to us all that human beings are not worthy of self-adoration, that there needs to be something more in our lives than our own selves. It seems trite somehow, but it is profound. For all its beauty and intellectual splendor, humanism was hollow at the center.

As Carroll notes,

“humanism failed because its I is not the center of creation in the sense of being creature and creator in one.”

The times demand greater self-awareness, the admission that humans are not the center of the world and that we need something greater than ourselves to provide our world with meaning if we are to avoid the continuance of what are essentially meaningless lives. It need not be God and it certainly need not be organized religion. But it demands an acceptance of the fact that we are a human community bound together by a common purpose, living on a fragile planet, and aware that there is something beyond our selves.

Freud And The Poets

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.

But we might do well to pay attention to what Freud says, despite the fact that few read him any more and he has been dismissed by so many — even a great many of those who owe their profession to him. He was correct about so many things and even when he was wrong he had important things to say about the human mind and about the struggles we all have to make to maintain what we call “civilization.”

Ernst Cassirer said that poets create culture, which is the intellectual and emotional shell we surround ourselves with in order to help aid us in our struggle to maintain civilization — “the will to live in common,” as Ortega y Gasset would have it. It takes determination, according to Freud, because it requires restraint and even repression of the basic impulses to violence that dwell at the center of the human psyche. And this is an everyday struggle. Civilization, according to Freud, is the result of the sublimation of those instincts and the redirection of them outward in the form of the creations and discoveries that make our world larger and more interesting. And who better to lead us in this struggle than those creative artists, including the poets, who bring us out of ourselves and take us into a wider and deeper world, the world of imagination that enriches what we like to call the “real world”?

What is required, of course, if we are to join the poets and artists in their journey, is what Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” This requires what he called “poetic faith,” an effort of imagination that is becoming increasingly difficult for growing numbers of people whose sensibilities have been dulled by an entertainment industry requiring no effort of any kind, much less an effort of the human imagination. These days it’s all “out there” and we need only sit and tune in. But we miss so much and in the process we become less human in so many ways because our interactions with others require an active imagination and without interaction with others we become lost within ourselves. Some, including myself, would say this ship has already sailed.

In any event, we have become less and less interested in “the will to live in common” and increasingly, as Ortega would have it, “hermetically sealed” from the real world and unable to use our imaginations to build a bridge and walk with the poets and artists into a world which is truly rich and full of delight — all of which we miss in our preoccupation with our selves.

The place of the poet is to aid us in the effort to save culture, while at the same time we are urged to question it and wrestle with the deeper questions about the worth of our culture as we struggle to achieve true selfhood;  and in the process we strengthen and preserve civilization itself by enlarging our world and ourselves enabling us to engage something greater than ourselves. Freud warned us early in the last century that the preservation of civilization requires effort and it appears that as we increasingly ignore the help of the poets he admired so much that effort is becoming increasingly difficult for a great many people to make. It is easier to simply turn on the television or check out social media; and we are well aware that as humans we dearly love to take the path of least resistance.

Revisiting the Crystal Palace

Once again, dear readers, I must recall the past as I am busy as a bee editing my best posts for the upcoming book!

UNDERGROUND MAN
(6/16/12)
I recently read an interesting essay on Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground in the June 11th edition of the New Yorker. The author of the essay, David Denby, revisits the book and reflects on its enduring message for our times. He’s right: “it can still kick.”
It does seem to me that along with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass not to mention Kafka’s Trial, Dostoevsky’s novella does indeed show us a side of ourselves and the world in which we live that we may want to deny. But when we contemplate the things that are being done on a state and national level out there in the “real” world, where politicians insist that we can improve education by eliminating teachers, and that we will be safer by firing policemen and firemen; when the military expands the war on terror in parts of the world that most of know about only by hearsay and kills by remote control; and when corporations destroy the earth and ignore threats to the survival of life on this planet (and legislators say it isn’t so), the words of these authors start to ring true.
Dostoevsky’s hero in this novella is a man of “caprice.”  “He passionately loves destruction and chaos. . .” He does things for no reason whatever. He likes to deny the obvious, rails against the Crystal Palace and everything European/scientific/technical/mathematical. Two times two may NOT be four. “. . .two times two is four is no longer life. . .it is the beginning of death.” We learn from this novella that if we try to fathom human motives we come up empty. The world is borderline insane and humans do things for no reason whatever much of the time — as Carroll and Kafka also suggested — and we might just as well not try to make sense of it.
For someone who spent his life trying to teach young people to think, who still believes deeply that sound judgment is the way to ferret out small pieces of truth, these authors leave a bad taste in the mouth. One doesn’t like to admit that his life may have been spent in a caucus race (as Carroll would have it) chasing around incoherently with no purpose and slim rewards in the form of comfits from Alice’s pocket.
But as I grow older and “crawl toward death,” along with Shakespeare’s Lear, I begin to think Carroll, Kafka, and Dostoevsky were right: the world really doesn’t make sense. And humans are capricious: acting often without reason, doing good or evil seemingly with blinders on. But I don’t despair because reason can help us sort things out; more importantly, we have it on good authority (when Dostoevsky’s underground man exhibits a profound need to connect with another human being) that the things that matter remain after all: friends, loved ones, and a life lived trying to “lift the lives of others,” as a good friend of mine recently put it. Why? Why not?

The Poet’s Place

 

For lack of anything new to say, I choose to reblog an old post that was widely ignored.

Shelly is supposed to have said that poets are the legislators of the world. Ernst Cassirer later said that poets create culture — using the word “poet” in the broadest sense possible. I assume Shelly was speaking about poets like himself; Cassirer was speaking about artists who could create with words and pictures and thereby help us look at the world anew.
I think Cassirer was right, though I’m not sure about Shelly. But soon after Cassirer made his pronouncement the poets became journalists who wrote stories and in writing helped us see our world as they saw it and to make it into something new whenever they got tired of the old way of seeing things. Recently the print journalists have been replaced by media journalists of the entertainment variety. Our world is now created for us by those in the entertainment industry and consists almost entirely of pictures, moving and still: films, TV, radio,electronic devices of all shapes and sizes, and the internet. And we are pounded relentlessly.
In any event, the world they are creating is one that centers around the self. It is a theme I have developed before, but it is worth mentioning again in light of recent events. We are so much in the middle of a world of self-absorbed individuals we may not be aware of it. But just listen and watch: note how many popular songs refer to “me”; watch the TV commercials closely as they stroke the viewer; note how many reality TV performers will resort to any trick to grab the spotlight (and how many thousands want to be on stage); note how many politicians talk about themselves and see themselves as the center of the political world (especially you-know-who), how the sense of entitlement is ubiquitous, and how the internet is full of images and words telling us about those who post them. Or just consider U-Tube. Note also how materialistic we have become and how fame and wealth have become the center of so many young lives in our culture.
All of these are sure signs of a narcissistic personality. And this desire for fame, which triggers millions of words and images on Facebook and My Space and the millions of U-tube episodes involving self-absorbed people who want to be seen and heard, is spreading like the plague. In fact, it has been argued that the craving for fame at any cost is the major reason for much of the violence that has become alarmingly commonplace in this society, such as the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. The kid who takes (his mother’s) guns to school and kills several teachers and twenty young children may simply want to be seen and heard: a wasted life for a few minutes in the limelight. It seems unlikely, but studies have shown that our cultural narcissism runs that deep.
As readers of my blogs will recognize, I am drawing on Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell’s important book The Narcissism Epidemic. They make a very strong case that what started as a push to make kids feel better about themselves in our schools and in their homes has blossomed into a pervasive sense of entitlement and even cultural narcissism. We have become a society in love with itself, just as Narcissus in the Greek myth fell in love with his own reflection upon seeing it in the water. If they are right in their assessment of the situation, the repercussions are serious indeed.
The two main features of narcissism are the inability to build interpersonal relationships and what Freud called a weak “reality principle.” What this means is that we are becoming increasingly unable to get close to one another and we tend to live fantasy lives. Our electronic toys make this easy as they keep us from making human contact and push us deeper into a make-believe world where everything that happens is all about us.
As Miranda says in The Tempest, “Oh, brave new world that has such people in’t!” In Shakespeare’s day Miranda was filled with wonder; if she said that today she would be snickering. And the major player in this drama is the entertainment industry that creates fictional worlds, invites us in, and tells us we are the most important part of the drama. And we lap it up.

Fear Itself

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the young hero tells his friend “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Now, I know that “philosophy” in Shakespeare’s day meant “natural philosophy,” or science, as we would say today. None the less, as a professor of philosophy for forty-one years, I always balked at this statement. I dismissed it as the faulty insight of a poet, not to be taken seriously. But as I have grown older, and “crawl toward death,” as Shakespeare would have it, I realize that, like so many things the poet said, it is a profound truth. There is much more to life than can be found in philosophy, or in reasoning about life and drawing conclusions from syllogisms, no matter how valid. There is mystery and there is passion which refuses to take a back seat to reason. Thus, while I taught logic for so many years and sought to help young people learn how to reason cogently and reject the bloat and rhetoric around them, all important things, to be sure, I realize that Shakespeare was right — as was Pascal, David Hume and William James, among others.

In his remarkable book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, for example, William James recounts numerous personal experiences reflecting the power of religious feeling and the fact that, as he put it,

“The truth is that in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion. . . . Our impulsive belief is always what sets up the original body of truth and our articulately verbalized philosophy is but a showy translation into formulas. . .Instinct leads, intelligence does but follow.”

Indeed, I am of the opinion that the strongest “instinct” is that of fear. In the infant it is the fear of falling or the spontaneous cry at the sound of the door slamming shut. In our youth we fear separation from our mother (“separation anxiety” as Freud called it), we fear the unknown and the unexpected. As we grow older our fears start to mount: the fear of flying, the fear of failing, the fear of debt, the fear of inadequacy, the fear of rejection, and above all, the fear of death. As we age we are a nest of such fears that we try to shield ourself from in a verity of ways that depend upon our personality and our ability to face our fears without flinching. Some people are better at this than others.

Fear of hellfire and damnation was used throughout the Middle Ages by the Church to keep its adherents close to home. Fear was used by Hitler and Stalin to control their masses of zealots who trusted no one. And, one might suggest, it is even used in this country today to maintain control of the thought and action of American citizens who are constantly reminded of the danger of “terrorism” and the need for security in the form of massive “defense” systems. Fear permeates our thinking on many levels.

Take the case of global warming. Clearly, this is an issue where fear and strong passions rule supreme. Some accept the evidence provided by science that the threat of climate change is very real, but this seemingly rational acceptance is perhaps nothing more than the fear of what will most assuredly happen to the planet if we continue to ignore the warning signs. Opponents of the notion of climate change find solace in the spurious reasonings of those who reject science because they find in those “arguments” a safe haven from the fear that global warming may indeed be a fact. Like all of us, they fear the unknown and in this case find themselves unable to allow that the threat might be very real indeed. They seek reassurance for those beliefs they hold dear. In both cases, our reasoning is led by our feelings, especially that most powerful of all feelings, fear.

Shakespeare was right. There are more things in heaven and earth than can be found in our philosophy. Reasoning can take us only so far — and it does tend to be led by the “instincts,” as James would have it. But this does not mean that we should ignore reasoning altogether. Or the findings of hard science, either. It means that we should allow for the pull of the strong emotions, but at the same time seek to temper them with the calm influence of reason which can be reassuring. It can reassure us that the sound we heard in the night was only the cat, not a burglar, for example. It can assure us that there is a way home when we are lost deep in the woods. Reason can calm our fears — up to a point. And it can show us a way to solve our problems which, if ignored, may overcome us altogether.

Hippocratic Oath

I’m not totally convinced by this argument, but I want to put it out there to see what others think.

Supposedly the so-called “Hippocratic oath” was written by Hippocrates (“the father of Western medicine’) or one of his students in the early part of the fifth century B.C.E. It is widely recognized and is an oath that is taken by most, if not all, practitioners of the science (art?) of medicine, though in this country a more modern version is sworn to rather than the antiquated version. The modern version was written in 1964 by Louis Lasagna, Academic Dean of the School of Medicine at Tufts University, and used in many medical schools today. So far as I know it does not require the swearer to pay allegiance to the almighty dollar, but many physicians seem to have taken that oath as well. In any event, the oath, as written by Dr. Lasagna is (in part) as follows:

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.

I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.

I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.

In a word, the physician vows to take “all measures which are required” to preserve and enhance the lives in his or her care. The question I have is ethical, if not moral: should physicians be required to take this oath in this day and age — given the fact that the world population as of this writing has exploded to 7 billion 319 million (and counting). The growth of the human population so far this year is 34,962,750. Many theorists who have studied this phenomenon insist that the earth has already reached its carrying capacity. And with global warming making future food production problematic, at best, one needs to seriously ask whether it is ethically right to prolong life when it is attacked by a deadly disease. I admit that there are serious questions about who chooses to terminate life and when the decision should be made, but I shall ignore those questions to simply ask the central question: why prolong human life?

The spiritually certain, of course, insist that human life is sacred and they abhor such things as abortion (while at the same time a great many of them support war and capital punishment). Many of us on the fringes of Judeo/Christian belief might agree. But just because large numbers of people think that human life is sacred doesn’t make it the case. It may simply be a strong feeling we have all grown up with and we have been unwilling to question. I question it here, not to be facetious but because I do believe that such hard questions will soon be forced upon us by factors beyond our control — such as major storms, drought, famine, and super viruses that attack living organisms and which are not treatable. Indeed, at some point physicians may not be able to prolong life. The question before us is whether it makes any sense today to be blindly embracing a policy that may increase, rather than decrease, human suffering on this earth.

I’m not advocating a program of enforced euthanasia — though if such a program were in place I would suggest we take a page from Shakespeare and start with the lawyers, or at least the politicians! But we need to keep an open mind about the possibility of euthanasia for the terminally ill; take a more vigorous approach to family planning, including the promotion of the virtue of having small families; keep in mind that abortion is the woman’s choice; and accept as a given fact that there are people in this world who do not want to have children (or shouldn’t have them if they do) and may even want to choose a partner of the same gender. Our thinking about the so-called “sanctity of human life” is little more than a deep-seated prejudice — not shared by many other cultures, as it happens, and relatively recent if we take history in the large. Think about it: why should human life be considered any more sacred than that of other living creature?

So we might want to alter the Hippocratic oath to simply ask physicians to seek to prolong life as long as reasonable, rather than keeping folks alive at huge expense to their families and with little or no hope for recovery in a world where increasing numbers of people are crowding their way to a rather small table.

Tolstoy As Artist

Leo Tolstoy, the author of Anna Karenina and War and Peace, once said in an essay on aesthetics that the Bible was the greatest work of literary art ever written. He was wrong. The Bible is a truly remarkable piece of literature, but it is not art at all. It is the opposite of art: it is pure didacticism. It is designed to teach, whereas art is designed to delight. We engage didactic works with our intellect, we engage works of art with our imagination and our heart.  William Gass saw this clearly, and he should know as he is not only a philosopher who writes readable essays (which sets him apart), he is also an author of novels and short stories. He once insisted that when novels succeed as art they don’t tell, they show. Theirs is not discursive language, the language of the philosopher or the psychologist, it is metaphorical and poetic; the novelist seeks to present characters and events in their full presentational immediacy, as much as possible.  Gass provides a most apt example from Shakespeare:

“Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus walk upon the castle platform awaiting midnight and Hamlet’s father’s ghost. Hamlet says, “The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold,: and Horatio answers, “It is a nipping and an eager air.” Hamlet and Horatio do not think of it as cold, simply. The dog of air’s around them, shrewd and eager, running at heels. The behavior of this dog is wittingly precise in their minds. It nags — shrewishly, wifelike. The air is acidulous, too, like sour wine. Hamlet and Horatio, furthermore, are aware of the physical quality of their words. Horatio not only develops Hamlet’s implicit figure, he concludes the exchange with the word that began it, and with sonorous sounds. The nature of the weather is conveyed to us with marvelous exactitude and ease, in remarks made by the way, far from the center of action, so that we find ourselves with knowledge of it in just the offhand way we would if, bent on meeting a king’ ghost, we too went through the sharp wind. Yet Hamlet’s second clause is useless. “The air bites shrewdly” is the clause that tells us everything. It is cold. The wind is out. The wind is alive, malevolent with wise jaws. The two clauses have a very close relation. The first is metaphorical, the second literal. Both are about the weather, but the one is art, the other not.”

In the case of Tolstoy — especially in War and Peace — the novelist  cannot resist the temptation to philosophize and engage in polemics and even criticism (usually of historians who regard the telling of history as a science), which detract from the novel considered as a work of art. Indeed, the second part of the Epilogue is a lengthy and somewhat dry philosophical treatise on power, history, and free will. Interesting though it is in many ways, it has no literary merit whatever. Tolstoy’s novel is also disconcertingly jingoistic and given to inaccuracies and contradictions. He seems at times to simply be musing. This makes the novel far too long, though it remains, on the whole, a great literary work and even a fine work of art. How is this possible?

It is possible because despite its many flaws, Tolstoy is insightful and a masterful wordsmith; he is no Shakespeare, but he is able to lean convincingly on historical events (and bend them to his purpose); provide precise and moving descriptions of events, places and people; portray his main characters with great sensitivity and care, including penetrating insights into human motivation and feeling; and, for the most part, allow the novel to have its head. When the man takes control, as he does on many occasions, the artist takes a back seat and the novel fails as art. The novel taken as a whole is a fascinating struggle between Tolstoy the man and Tolstoy the artist. But there are enough moments when the artist is in full control to judge the novel as a remarkable work of art — if one can say that the novelist ever truly controls the novel. And those  moments are full of beauty and passion, fully able to engage the reader on a visceral level as well on the level of imagination and intellect. When the man, Tolstoy, writes there is much to think about; when the artist takes pen in hand, the reader is touched on a deep, human level.

So, on balance, despite the fact that Tolstoy needed a good editor who could have shortened the 1200 page novel to about 800 pages and helped the author work out some of the blemishes, no editor could have done what the novelist himself did and that was to write a novel that is also a masterful work of literary art — in spite of the fact that Tolstoy himself didn’t seem to know what art is.

Legal Advice

In a recent issue of Sports Illustrated, the Bible of sports fans across the country, an attorney by the name of Michael McCann wrote that Jameis Winston should quit Florida State and wait for the NFL draft where he will assuredly be a high pick and will then become another spoiled millionaire football player (I added the last caustic comment). You remember Winston, surely? He was investigated for raping a fellow student a year or so back and in the brief police cover up investigation it was determined that there was no case against the young man. He later stole some crab legs from a grocery store, claiming he “forgot” to pay and was summarily released. He then stood on a table in the cafeteria and shouted obscenities at the top of his voice — for which offense he was suspended one game by the football coach. He is a real jewel. Each time he screws up he faces the camera with an earnest expression on his face and swears it won’t happen again.

In any event, McCann’s professional advice is for the young man to quit school because the university has decided to investigate the alleged rape on its own and could bring charges against Winston, and possibly suspend him, on the grounds that he violated the rights of one of his fellow students. Indeed. McCann’s idea is that if Winston leaves the university, the investigation will never surface. If he remains enrolled evidence might come to light that would not only lead to his suspension from the university but also provide grounds for a possible civil case later on. As McCann puts it, it’s a question of what is in Winston’s “best interest.”

And there’s the rub: it’s what is in the young man’s “best interest” in the eyes of this lawyer. The young man should quit and not face the possible consequences of his actions. He should quit school and lie low, making sure he commits no further atrocities, until the NFL comes calling and he can sign on for the big bucks that surely await him. Given his past behavior this is more easily said than done, of course: he seems to lack self-control. But McCann doesn’t mention that. Be that as it may, the issue of what is morally correct is not considered by Mr. McCann, who chooses to focus attention on legal and practical matters. The fact that the young man would be ducking his responsibilities as a citizen and member of the university community is apparently irrelevant according to Mr. McCann. What is important here as this lawyer sees it is the issue of saving face and making big money later on.

In a follow-up issue of Sports Illustrated one reader wrote, with tongue in cheek, that McCann is right and that Winston should quit and go back to third grade where he would learn “that stealing is wrong, swearing is not acceptable, and that women should be treated with respect.” Another reader put is more seriously: “I was disappointed with McCann’s article. He basically wrote a blueprint for how Winston could avoid disciplinary action for his alleged heinous acts against a female student.” Spot on! What was it Shakespeare said? We should kill all the lawyers. He knew a thing or two, even if McCann doesn’t.

In any event, the entire episode underscores once again the rotten state of things at the heart of big-time college football and basketball. As I wrote years ago, the athletes should be regarded as semi-professionals and paid a decent salary to play — even allowing them to form unions to make sure they get a fair share of the millions of dollars at stake in college sports these days. Then, those who actually want an education can enroll in classes and pay like all the other students, thereby learning what those students are learning every day —  that after graduation it will be hard to find a job and there will be huge debts to be paid to the colleges and universities when they finally do find one. The things in this life that are most worth having are not those things that are simply handed to you: they are the things you work hard to earn.

D.I.C.

One of the sobering consequences of the revolution that has placed electronic toys in the hands of everyone who can hold one is what I would call “D.I.C.”  — diminished imaginative capacity. By coining this term I join with others who seem to love to make up names, and especially acronyms, for common events and phenomena in order to seem more learned. (We need not dwell on the acronym in this case!) The electronic toys the kids play with today and the movies they see do not require that they use their imaginations at all: they are loud, graphic, vivid, and present themselves to a largely passive audience. All the person has to do is sit and watch, or play with a joy stick, and their world is at their finger-tips with all its violence and noise. And because they read far less than their parents and grandparents and visit fewer art galleries, dance recitals, or symphony performances, this is of considerable concern: it is symptomatic.

To begin with, the appreciation of all great art and literature requires an effort of imagination. Take Joseph Conrad, for example. Despite working in a second language, his vocabulary is very rich. Further, He is what many have called an “impressionistic” writer and this causes problems for many readers for two reasons. Thus, Conrad’s rich vocabulary requires an extensive knowledge of words on the part of a reader. But more to the point, Conrad leaves gaps and spaces in his writing that require an imaginative effort on the part of the reader in order to engage his writing fully. And the effort is one that a great many people are unwilling or unable to make, especially given their shrunken vocabularies of late. The same might be said of the highly imaginative Shakespeare whose language is rapidly becoming foreign to growing numbers of young people. But the list of writers who demand an effort on the part of their readers could be added to endlessly. And the same could be said for art and music: they require an effort of imagination to engage the works fully. So, the question before us is: Why should anyone make the effort when they can pick up an electronic device, push buttons, sit back, and let the thrills begin? The answer is that very few are, in fact, willing to make the effort.

The results of all this have been analyzed and cataloged by a number of psychologists who have shown that the young, especially, are going forth into a complicated world with short attention spans and what amounts to a form of brain damage. They cannot attend to any subject, especially one that doesn’t interest them, for any significant length of time; further, portions of their brains are simply not developed. There is, indeed, quite a controversy among so-called experts about whether these people will or will not be able to cope in the future. I have written about it in previous blogs and choose not to repeat myself here. But the evidence suggests that it will be increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for these people to think their way through complex issues or use their imaginations to consider alternative consequences of future actions. And this is serious, indeed.

Moreover, I worry about the loss of capacity to imagine when it comes to great literature and great art because it means that these things will simply slide into oblivion, pushed aside by a growing number of people whose interest is focused on the immediate present and the graphic nature of the images and sounds that issue forth from their electronic toys that require no effort whatever. It may not be a problem on the scale of global warming, but coupled with that problem — and others of major proportions — it does not bode well for the future. Those who solve the problems we face now and in the future will have to use their analytic powers and, above all else, their imaginations. So, on the growing list of things that ought to have our undivided attention, we most assuredly should add D.I.C. and insist that the schools continue to require literature and art and that teachers discourage the use of toys as a substitute for those activities that will fully engage their minds and hearts. If only the teachers would….