Archive for November, 2009
So I was thinking today–it’s not the best of Sundays, because Matt has to go back to school later this afternoon. That means that I’m going to have to get into the car and drive him all the way down to New Haven, but it also means that my day is just not going to be the smooth-flow-to-cooking-dinner I like. One of the good things about not having a “real” job is that I get a lot of days like that during the school vacations.
This morning, I came down to find it was very cold for only the second time since summer, so I’ve made tea and cranked up the heat, and in the living room I passed the catalogue I get sent every Christmas from a company called Leaflet Missal. They’ve got a web site, which is
but for whatever reason, I don’t usually go there. They’re a good place to get certain of the more obscure Catholic books and also some really odd things I’ve never seen anywhere else, like a paper doll collection of traditional nun’s habits.
I’ve got some odd tastes in esoterica. I mean, you know. What the hell.
But what brought up Leaflet Missal this morning was one of their big offerings for the Christmas season: nativity seasons, both small ones whole and complete and the various (and endless) parts of the bi ones.
For those of you who are used to nativity seasons being small plastic items showing Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus and maybe some sheep, trust me, they’re a much bigger deal for a lot more people.
And they are, I think, the first case in which I can find a distinction between “high” and “popular” art.
The terms aren’t quite right, I’ll admit. In an aristocratic age, the term “the people” wasn’t used as we use it now, and the real distinction would probably have been expressed as the difference between “gentle” and “rude.” By “rude” the Middle Ages meant unfinished, or without polish or finesse, and I don’t think it actually occured to anybody at the time that “rude” people preferred “rude” things.
Rather, “rude” things were all that “rude” people were capable of making for themselves. They hadn’t the intelligence or the training to create better things for themselves, and they didn’t have the money to buy such things from professionals.
The Middle Ages–or, I should say, the literate men and women of the Middle Ages who wrote about things like art–would have found it astonishing if you’d told them that “rude” people had an aesthetic all their own that they preferred to the one the “gentle” people preferred.
And I don’t actually know if they did. I do not live in an aristocratic age, and it’s been centuries since anybody did.
But nativity scenes are a good place to look at the differences between high and popular art, not only in the Middle Ages, but now, because lots of people on every side of every divide are dedicated to them.
And it’s not just professing Christians. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been able to get into New York at Christmas, but it used to be that the Metropolitan Museum of Art erected a gigantic, two-story tall Renaissance nativity scene in the main entrance hall–the nativity scene as High Art.
And it’s very high art indeed. The face of the Madonna is like something out of Botticelli, with that ethereal and yet almost painfully material perfection that manages to seem both all too human and all too divine at the same time.
I had professors in college and graduate school who went on at length about the relationship between the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation and the development of painting in the Renaissance, and in Botticelli, you can just see it.
We do not have access, any more, to the kind of rudely carved nativity scenes ordinary men and women made for their own homes during this period, although we know that some people made them. We’ve also lost almost all the nativity scenes that once stood in churches during this period, many of them destroyed during the more lunatic phases of the Reformation.
But we do have a thriving community of people, spanning continents, who are committed to building and designing nativity scenes, and even more people who buy their products and construct small scenes of their own without necessarily realizing that they are taking part in a worldwide movement.
The reason the Leaflet Missal Company got me started on all this is that their Christmas catalogue contains literally page after page of figures for nativity scenes, made for both indoor and o utdoor displays, ranging from the very cheap to the quite expensive.
One of the things I’ve noticed is that nativity scenes these days are like wedding dresses. Poorer women who would normally be very careful about what they spend on clothes will spend anything at all to get exactly they want in a wedding dress, creating a market in which wedding dresses aimed at the more upscale shopper actually cost less than those aimed at their less well-heeled sistere.
Nativity scenes seem to be one of those things that people who do not ordinarily have a lot of money to spend are willing to spend large amounts on. Leaflet Missal offers a large number of nativuty figures from a wide variety of sources, but its most popular line comes from an Italian company called Fontini.
Fontini indoor starter sets cost anywhere from fifty or sixty dollars into the hundreds, but they’re only the beginning. There is a rich tradition of nativity stories in in both the Catholic and Orthodox churches, stories that do not appear in the Bible but that have been part of the Christian narrative for as long as anybody can remember.
I’ve always thought that the Protestant desire to purge the Christian religion of all these things, or most of them, was misguided, but Leaflet Missal is a Catholic company, so nobody is purging anything.
A family that splurges on the Fontini eleven-piece starter at $270 gets the stable, Mary and Joseph, Jesus in the manger, the three wise men, an angel, and an assortment of animals. They can then add to this, year after year, literally hundreds of different figures. Most of hese cost between $20 and $30, but some can cost considerably more than that. “Camel with blanket,” for intsance, is $50, and and “Jareth the drummer boy” is $40.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Fontini nativity sets. They’re plastic, but they’re not cutesy-pie or cheap looking. They’re not kitschy or fake. They’re also not Botticelli, and after a while I think I may know why.
I am more and more coming to the conclusion–and boy, is this one going to get me into trouble–that a liking for high art is always an acquired taste. Some of us are drawn to it from the beginning, but all of us start out preferring Disney’s view of reality to Raphael’s.
And with that shot over the bow, I think I’ll go listen to a little Anonymous 4.
Okay, Thanksgiving worked out okay, and I’m up to early in the morning because I am. On the other hand, this is a non-workin week-end, which means–to answer Mary F’s question from a few days ago–I get to have Bach (Handel’s Messiah today, I think, actually) on a day other than Sunday.
It’s n ot that there’s some secret law that only allows me to listen to music on Sunday. It’s just that Sunday is usually the only day of the week when I don’t have to be up and out of here very early. It’s the only morning I have when I’m not constantly thinking about what I have to do next.
Except that I have that today, too, because it’s a vacation. So there’s that.
Right now, I’m on a kind of tangent, brought on by discussions of what is and is not good writing. These sorts of things happen to me.
To backtrack a little: when I was very young and feeling very trapped in my Fairfield County home town, I had a yearly ritual. It was a ritual that lasted well into my twenties. I would read, every year without fail, three books: Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, and Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.
I take it back. It lasted well into my thirties, because I can remember talking about those books, and the fact that I still read them every year, to a young woman who had come in to help out just after Matt was born. And that year I was thirty-six.
It’s A Moveable Feast that got to me where I am right this minute, but I might as well say, before I start this, that I know what it was about those three books that held my attention so strongly, and that made me want to read them again and again.
It was that sense of place I talked about earlier–that feeling that I was being set down in some part of the world where I would much rather be. Part of that was landscape, of course. That’s why I was so fond of Mary Stewart in my adolescence. But part of it was people–of knowing that a group of people existed out there somewhere who would like the kinds of books I liked, want to talk about the kinds of things I wanted to talk about, and never, ever make fun of me for caring about the things I cared about.
The fact that the habit lasted well into my thirties is telling, I think. I was luckier than a lot of people get. I actually got to go off and visit my landscapes, and I will say that they were mostly disappointing. I loved being at Vassar, but it was not the kind of all-enveloping monastary of the mind that I was hoping for. Part of that was the Sixties, where everybody was busy denying that art and literature and music really mattered, just like the people who made me crazy every year I was forced to go to my aunt’s house for Easter.
Part of it, though, was just reality–in the real world, there are no monastaries of the mind. No matter how smart a young woman is, if she’s “built” (as they used to say in my day), that’s what boys, men and even professors notice first, and there are lots of ways to pay homage to looks and money while pretending that you’re doing something else.
Okay, that was cryptic. But it’s a different subject for a different time.
I think the landscape that most disappointed me when I finally got a chance to visit it was, far and away, Paris. I grew up dreaming about living in Paris the way other girls grow up dreaming about living in the perfect house with the perfect husband.
In my mind, Paris was a place where Everything Was Different–a world where everybody talked about books all the time, and wrote them, and tried to publish them; a world where nobody ever watched television or asked you if you were really going to read “that whole book.”
I’ve said several times on this blog that I think most of American politics can be explained by the extent–and the ways–in which the baby boomers were all traumatized by junior high school, and I get more evidence of that by the day. I’ll have to get back to that later.
Paris, however, or my vision of it, was built up from the work of Ernest Hemingway, from The Sun Also Rises and the short stories, but especially from A Moveable Feast.
For those of you unfamiliar with Hemingway, A Moveable Feast was his memoir of life in Paris between the world wars, in the expatriate community made up mostly of British and American writers and painters, or people who were trying to be writers and painters.
I have no way of knowing if the Paris of the time was the way this book made it appear to be. Long after I’d lived in Paris and been ravingly disappointed by what I found there, I finally read the works of Gertrude Stein, and from what I can tell, her take on the general atmosphere was very similar to Hemingway’s.
I’ve come to very much like Stein’s work, although I think the feminist-inspired movement to declare it “major” was misplaced. I think I can say with some assurance of accuracy that Stein lived the life in Paris that I hoped to find, and didn’t.
But I can say something else now, too, and that is that A Moveable Feast, although labeled a memoir, probably isn’t one, strictly speaking. Heminway was a man who told stoies, and if the incident at hand didn’t live up to his standards, he fudged a little. Or a lot.
It was an interesting trait, because from all reports, he wasn’t a liar. In the day to day things, he made nearly a fetish of telling the truth. Get him started on his latest trip deep sea fishing, though, or what happened when he had that fight with Harold Loeb in the Dome, and what you got was the story he was writing in his head.
A Moveable Feast is a wonderful book. The prose is Hemingway at his best in that incredibly clean, totally idiosyncratic style that makes anybody else who tries it sound like an idiot. Edmund Wilson hated the way Hemingway wrote, and everything Hemingway wrote about, and that usually had an effect. Wilson was all that public knew of “intellectuals” in the Thirties and Forties, the face of The High Art Tradition and Literature, but they bought Hemingway’s books anyway. In cartloads.
What caught my attention this morning, though, was that now casually accepted fact, that a lot of the book is written more than it is remembered. And that started me remembering James Frey and A Million Little Pieces, and the dozen or so other recent “memoirs” that have turned out to be largely fabricated. It started me thinking, in fact, about memoirs.
Let me start out by saying tht there is nothing to indicate that Hemingway did what Frey did. There’s nothing to indicate that anything in A Moveable Feast is outright fabricated. Hemingway made mundane stories better. Frey and his cousins in the faked-memoir brigade invented things out of whole cloth.
But that brings me up short again–in Hemingway’s day, Frey would have written what he did in fact write, but he’d have honestly labeled in “fiction” and readers would have brought and read it as fiction.
The reason he labeled hat he wrote a “memoir” and claimed it as fact has a lot to do with the resistance of the public to reading fiction. Frey had to call his book a memoir, because if he’d written exactly the same thing and called it a novel, practically nobody would have been interested in reading it.
What, exactly, is going on here? My mother is the first person I ever knew who was like this about fiction. She insisted that fiction was “just made up” and that she wanted to read “what was real.”
But like Frey’s readers, that wasn’t what she wanted, either. Reality disturbed the hell out of her, and she spent a great deal of her life refusing to accept it. What she wanted was to read stories that confirmed her prejudices about the way life worked, and for these to be “what was real.”
I have absolutely no idea if I’m being clear here.
I’m not trying to beat up my mother–or Frey’s readers–for seeking out books that confirm their prejudices. To an extent, we all do that. What confuses me is why they won’t accept having those prejudices confirmed in fiction.
Previous generations of readers did not have this prejudice. In fact, they actively sought out stories for precisely the purpose of confirming their views on life and living, and they were more than happy to use such stories as evidence that what they believed was true.
Previous generations of readers referred to the characters in fiction as if they were more, not less, real than the real. They referenced Fagin and Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary to explain the behavior of the people around them and to provide a template for their own behavior, and for what was likely to happen if they took one life path instead of another.
When did we get to the point where fiction was not enough, where readers had to be lied to twice in order to get the same effect their grandmothers got out of reading Lloyd C. Douglas?
Granted that man is a narrative animal, andthat human beings are most intensely interested in other human beings, and that even the greatest literature has an element in it of being (not my phrase) The Higher Gossip–when did we get to the point where The Higher Gossip had to be actual gossip in order to be worth reading at all?
Frey’s problem is not that he’s a liar. Frey’s problem is a that he’s a novelist in a world that thinks it’s uninterested in reading novels.
Let me start with a little background here-it is the day before Thanksgiving, and I do not have a working refrigerator in th is house. I was supposed to get one delieverd by a certain well-known national chain of bargain department stores, but they managed to decide not to deliver until next week and then didn’t tell me about it. So, having figured out something was wrong–no e-mail or phone call confirming the delivery they’d already paid themselves for out of my card–I made a few phone calls and, wham.
So I ended up cancelling that, and calling someone local, who has promised to be here any minute, and who ended up charging me nearly a hundred dollars less for the same make and model.
Which is interesting, all things considered. But it’s not here yet, and the new delivery time has pretty much destroyed my day, so I’m a little antsy.
So to speak.
But I want to get to Robert’s comment about how it’s all obvious why the West has produced a load of self-hating, anti-Western “intellectuals–they just hate demcrocy because it empowers the masses and the masses don’t take all those tenured humanities professors seriously.
I don’t want to completely repudiate this train of thought, because I’ve had it myself. If you go to the main page of the website, you’ll find an essay called “Why Intellectuals Love Marx,” which says almost exactly the same thing.
And there are people like George Steiner–in an essay called “Archives of Eden”–who have said that democracy is good for people but bad for art, and who therefore want to ditch the democracy.
But as a generl explanation for the phenomenon I’m talking about, the explanation will not do.
Neither Byron nor Shelley was an academic of any kind–and tenure didn’t even eist in England during the Romantic period. Nor could either of them complain that they were being ignored by the masses. They were their generation’s equivalent of rock stars. When they gave readings, those readings were packed. When they published their work, it sold out. They were rich, famous and celebrated, and they had every reason to think that the empowering of the democratic masses was actually going to be good for them on every material level.
Nor does this explanation cover the tens of thousands of ordinary members of the European public–everyday ofice workers, doctors, lawyers, you name it–who are committed to just as virulent versions of anti-Western bias. And I do mean anti-Western, and not just anti-American.
The drive to cultural suicide in some European countries defies all reason, and is completely unaffected (is that a word?) by evidence.
I’m sorry, but I think this particular oddity requires an explanation. And it’s an odder oddity than it’s given credit for.
Anti-Western attitudes are not confined to humanities departments even on college campuses. There’s plenty of that sort of thing going around in the hard sciences. One of the most strident of the New Atheist lecturers–complete with the whole anti-capitalist, the masses are idiots schtick–is a man with a Nobel prize in physics. There’s a reason why they say that the other departments on a university campus have “physics envy.” If anybody gets deference in this society, it’s scientists, and physicists are generally considered to be the smartests guys on the planet.
But the really oddest thing here, and the one that I think needs some investigating, is the fact that most of this constitutes self loathing, and self loathing needs an explanation any time it appears.
In the lives of individuals, it is usually the result of guiltbut there are civilizations with far more blood on their hands than this one which do not inspire this kind of collective revulsion on the part of their members.
There is something going on here that is much bigger than the petty resentments of some marginal academics.
So, yeseterday or the day before–I get a little lost here–I got an e-mail. Part of it went like this:
<<<One related point: remember the old saw about anyone who isn’t a communist at 20 has no heart, and anyone who is still a communist at 30 has no brain? I’d like to think one can have both even at 20, but at some point, still, you have to have answers to the big questions of life, and drive on. By the big questions, I mean the nature of people and society, the sources of truth and moral authority, the purposes for which government is created and so forth. Yes, these are important questions. Yes, they can be–have been–debated forever. But barring an earth-shaking event, these questions should be settled for oneself before one has a family and career. Having an answer removes certain books from the lists. The particular answer chosen removes others.<<<
And I will admit that I was, literally, stopped in my tracks.
I know that I keep saying that I’m going to get around to how you form an objective standard for what is and isn’t “good” in literature–by which I mean the quality of the literature, not whether or not the work necessarily belongs in the Canon, no matter who is defining Canon–but I keep getting brought up short, and this is about as short as it gets.
The first thing is this–I do not believe that it is possible to form definitive answers to the big questions by the time you’re thirty or so, or ever. I don’t think engagement with the big questions is something you do and finish before going on to other things.
I think we all spend our lives engaging the big questions, bringing new experiences to re-evaluate what we once thought we knew for sure, rearranging and reassessing.
I’m not talking about wimpiness here, or being unable to take a stand about anything. At various points in our lives, we will come to the determination that we know enough about X to know what is true about it. And we act on those decisions, because we must.
But the questions are always open. And especially the questions as outlined above–the nature of people and society? I still read a ton of stuff on the nature/nurture problem, and especially Pinker and the new evolustionary psychologists. I changed my mind about the extent to which both intelligence and behavior was impacted by heredity in my forties.
The nature of society? Well, I am, by temperament, a libertarian–my father used to joke that the first full sentence out of my mouth was “Go away and leave me ALONE!”–and I’ve learned enough about history over the years to know that liberal democracy–bourgeois democracy, as the Marxists call it–seems to be the ticket to general prosperity and a more than minority observance of the human decencies.
It’s also the case that bourgeois democracies throw up a number of odd side effects: a peculiar self-loathing on the part of the very people who profit most from them, for instance, and a rapidly declining birth rate and, finally, a fanaticism about imposing morality by law that sometimes seems to rival the Ayatollah Khomeini’s. If you don’t believe me, go take a look at everything from anti-smoking crusades in Virginia to anti-“hate speech” legislation across the European union.
Even just ten years ago, I was more sure of my answer to that question about “the nature of society” than I am now. And though I am no less sure that there is no reason to believe that God exists (note the wording there), I’m no longer of the opinion, which I held in my thirties, that religion is just going to disappear once people become better educated and more prosperous, or even that it would necessasrily be a good thing if it did.
And part of the reason why I am shifting in my opinions here and there is that the world has changed. Fifty years ago, I could say that religion was just superstition and due to disappear as we all got smarter and less afraid of the vicissitudes of life and faith–but there had never been a society whose majority was made up of nonbelievers. I had no idea what that w ould look like.
I now have the beginning of an idea, and I’m not sure of what I’m seeing. So I’ve been checking around, again, trying to figure out how that works.
I’ve been trying to figure out, as well, what causes the nearly visceral hatred of their own society by so many of the citizens who are most priveleged by it–we all that a certain kind of intellectual trends Left less for a belief in the goodness of various Leftism (that’s hard to maintain given recent history), than because of distaste for and disgust with the society in which he lives. Why should that be so?
Aristotle had no such distaste for Greek Civilization. Even Socrates had no such distaste for the Athens that ended up killing him. Shakespeare could wax poetic–well, okay, about almost everything–but certainly about the superiority of Britishness in particular and the Western tradition in general.
And even that line up there about Leftisms obscures some of the issue here–up until World War II, the revolt against the Western tradition occurred on the right as much as on the Left. In both cases, what you see is otherwise intelligent people willing to lie to themselves and others, ignore the obvious evidence of brutality and murder, twists themselves into knots just in order to give themselves a place to stand while they spit on “liberalism.”
And by liberalism, they didn’t mean the public option. They meant democratically elected governments and what they liked to call “the profit motive.”
And as soon as you begin to look into the issue, the whole thing becomes increasingly confusing, because it doesn’t take long to realize that the terms everybody is using–“the profit motive,” the “bourgeoisie,” “alienation,” “individualism”–obscure more than they illuminate. It is as if an extremely important discussion has been carried on now for centuries, entirely in code.
Lately, I’ve been reading a book called The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism and the Twentieth Century, by Francois Fuget, an intellectual history of Communism in the West–Communism not as an historical phenomenon (although it goes into that, too, necessarily) but as a faith. And faith is the word.
One of the things that has been increasingly obvious to me as I go through this book is the fact that this man, who is French, thinks in different categories than I do–thinks with a different framework. And trying to understand those categories, and to be able to think within them in order to work out the rationale for what he is describing, has been an interesting exercise.
But it’s also an indication that it is part of the Western tradition I knew little about. I’m not talking about the subject matter, but about the method–the way of thinking. And it’s something I should understand, if I’m going to understand the world I live in.
So I don’t expect ever to settle the big questions. I don’t think anybody ever does.
But on top of that, I go out of my way to read things I know before I start that I’m likely to disagree with. I watch Olbermann and O’Reilly. I read Ayn Rand and Marx. I try, as hard as I can, to check out everything I run across that seems to have a significant impact on the world I live in and that also interests me.
And that goes for fiction as well as nonfiction. I am not a fan of Tolstoy. I learned long ago that thegeneral tenor of his mind annoys me and that his writing rings less true to me than Dostoyevski, but “The Kreutzer Sonata” is a famous story, and when I had the chance, only a year or two ago, I read it. I think it was vile, quite frankly, well done but morally objectionable–the work of a moral thug, quite frankly, even worse than Marvell.
Does that mean I wasted my time? I don’t think so. I know something I didn’t know before.
My father used to say that if you couldn’t make your opponent’s argument as well as he could make it himself, you didn’t know what you were talking about, and I think that holds true.
The Western tradition is a vast array of different ideas and ideals held together by a very small number of principles that can be defined in a number of ambiguous ways–but the tradition is all of it, not just some of it, and toknow the tradition is to know even those parts we end up rejecting.
And now I’ve blithered quite enough, and I’m in search of a refrigerator.
Okay, some of this is just semantics–a result of the fact that the way we say things sometimes makes it seem as if we’re talking about the same thing in two different statements, when we’re actually talking about two different things.
There, that should break your head open on a Sunday morning.
If you ask me if the reality of the world–the thing we have to stare in the face in order to create a good work of art, literature or otherwise–is always the same, then I would say yes.
The nature of the world, like the nature of the human being, is what it is. It exists as itself whether we like it or not, and whether we would prefer it to be another way than it is.
In Aristotle, this is called the Law of Idenity. The way it’s usually stated is: a thing cannot both be and not be in the same respect at the same time.
Some things that can be said about the world are true, and they are true for every person. Some things that can be said about the world are false, and they are false for every person.
The nature of the world, and of human beings, and of human life is objective, outsider ourselves, independent of what we want.
But when you say “is looking at life in the face the same for every person,” you’re no longer talking about the nature of the world, or of life. You’re talking about the experience of the individual person.
Each individual human being is limited–limited in her capacity, limited in her ability, limited in his experience.
How’s that for solving the his-her problem.
Anyway, we each of us stand in our own little bubble, and our contact with the world is limited by the fact that we all live and die radically alone. Nobody can get inside your skin. Nobody can get inside your head. You must take what you have inside you, apply it to the objective reality outside you, and come to some understanding of what you can see.
This is a large part of the point of the arts in all their forms–they are a way for us to at least partially experience what other people do, people who are different from us in many ways, and who therefore see different aspects of our common reality.
Not to get too cliched about it, but it’s like the old story of the blind men and the elephant. None of the blind men were wrong about what they perceived–all of them were perceiving a reality that was not dependent on their perception–but all of them were limited in how much they were able to perceive.
The reality of the elephant, however–the truth of its elphant-ness–did not change, and was not different, for each person. It remained really and objectively true outside their perceptions.
Life is, I think, like that. None of us can see all of it. None of us can experience all of it. And none of us see, or experience, in just the same way.
But the objective reality of life–and of what it means to be human–is the same for everyone, because it is not created by our perceptions, and it is really not created by our limitations.
Neither Keats nor Celine were wrong. The beauty that Keats saw in human life is really there, the beauty in the human being and in nature. The ugliness Celine saw was there, too, the will to death and destruction. Neither of them made the m istake of bad art, and tried to obliterate reality in favor of a lie, comforting and otherwise. Kitsch is kitsch, first and foremost, because it is that kind of lie. Think not only of the coziest of the cozies, where everybody is Just So Cute, but of the most hard boiled of the hard boiled, where every Pillar of the Community is a corrupt pint-sixed Machiavelli and every woman willing to have sex is either a murderess or the mistress of a murderer.
The Greeks tried to come to some understanding of this by saying that the human being is halfway between a god and a beast. Christianity provides a similar answer in the doctrine of original sin. Both Socrates and St. Paul saw this as the principle dilemma for the human being–the fact that we can see what is good and true and beauitful, the fact that we know how we ought to behave, and yet we have so much trouble actually doing it.
That implies, of course, that there is an objective foundation for the moral law, that morality is outside ourselves in the sense that we do not create it, either by opinions or by laws. The Greeks would have said that morality was instilled in every man by nature. St. Paul would have said it was instilled there by God. Aquinas would have said that God intilled it in every man’s nature, so that every man could know the good even if he didn’t know God.
I think Socrates and St. Paul and Aquinas and all the hundreds of others who came to this same conclusion over the long course of Western Civilization are not only right, but provably right.
Which means I need to talk about the fact that there are lots of contradictory omral opinions out there, and to address the question of the relationship of morality to law.
But I’ll get to it tomorrow, because this is Sunday.
And that means there is Bach.
I’m back on the computer that was giving me problems the other day, so I have my fingers crossed. I’ll do the best I can, and then after the sixth reboot I’ll give up and post what I’ve managed to get.
In the meantime: I’m with Cheryl, in that I think that there are things that are True–not just “true for” somebody, but true.
On one level, none of us ever denies this. If you fall out of a fortieth story window and hit the ground, you’ll almost surely die. Barack Obama is the fort-fourth President of the United States. The earth has one moon and we’ve sent men to play golf there.
All these things are True, and even though we respect the rights of other people to be idiotic and deny them, those denials do not make those things any less true.
Simply because something is “controversial” doesn’t make it untrue. Evolution is controversial, and I’ll guarantte that it’s true. There was a time when the majority of the people on the planet thought it was flat, but this did not make the roundness of the earth a matter of opinion. It just meant that a lot of people were wrong.
Where most people resist the idea of Truth is in relation to human nature, human affairs, and human life, and I think they do this for two reasons, both wrongheaded.
The first is a belief that by insisting that “everything is an opinion,” it will protect them from a world where some people will try to force their ideas about truth down the throats of other people who do not agree.
This is, in itself, a massive refusal to accept what is True–note the capital–about human nature. I don’t know who said that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing, but that is what this is.
When you believe in freedom of speech and the press, rights for women and gay people, and the separation of church and state and you declare that morality is subjective and everybody has his own truth, you don’t disarm your opponents, you give them ammunition.
Haven’t you just said that all your principles are mere subjective opinion? Your opponents are onvinced that their prinicples are facts, and your temporizing convinces them that they’re right. Obviously,even you know that they’re right, since you know that your pretend-principles are just opinions.
The other thing I think is going on here is the internal conviction that if there are some things that are True about human nature and morality, then those things must be the most conservative and reactionary principles around. If we ever accept the fact (and it is a fact) that there is a sngle Truth that can be discovered by all of us about human life and human nature, then it will surely mean that women will be sent back to the kitchen, gays will be sent back to the closet, and big piles of books by Joyce and Nabakov will be burned on the library lawn.
I have no idea why anybody thinks this would be so. It is certainly not born out by our common experience, in which the most prosperous, creative, and scientifically successful countries that tend to recognize the rights of individual citizens to pursue happiness in their own way. It’s not Iran that’s winning the majority of Nobel prizes in medicine, chemistry and physics.
As for Keats and whether or not truth is beauty, the important thing is not to take that line out of the context of the poem, or of Keats’s life.
Keats was young, talented, handsome, without particuarly strong religious convictions–and dying young in a horrid and ugly way.
Faced with two facts about the world nd the human condition–the great beauty of life and youth and the great ugliness of death and end–he denied neither, but he chose youth and beauty as what it all really meant.
Other people, of course–try Louis Frederick Celine–have chosen the ugliness, death and end, seeing the meaning of life in the pain and suffering and seeing beauty as only an illusion.
If I had to pick one side over the other, I’d go with Keats.
But I really think they’re both just half right.
So let me apologize, first, for yesterday. For some reason beyond my comprehension, the program just would not work right. I would type the post, the program would disappear and shut down, I’d reboot and find that it had only saved part–and the lesser part–or anything I’d written, and on and one and on.
I was on reboot number six when I tried to publish what I thought would be a complete but much shortened attempt at the post, only to find later on in the day that only part of it had actually published.
Okay. We don’t actually want to get me started.
But let’s see if I’m having better luck today, and eventually I really will get around to those nativity scenes.
I’ll stick to what I said–the Middle Ages, although far more “religious” than society now, were nowhere near the sort of monolithic, religion-only centuries the Enlightenment narrative leads us to expect. Religion was, in that era, part of everyday life in a way it isn’t now, and for that reason there was often a lot less religiosity than at periods when religion was less automatic and more self-conscious.
In a way, you can look at The Canterbury Tales as the example of what it is I’m talking about. The frame was definitely religious–a pilgrimage to the tomb of Thomas a Becket–but the content of the poem as a whole and of the individual tales within it is not particularly. Oh, there is a religious tale or two, but there are more concerned with what we would call secular subjects–love, lust, marriage, greed, and all the rest of it. The Canterbury Tales is not an elongated morality play.
What it is, however, is a good example of one of the usual differences assumed to excist between high and low culture, at least in the realm of literature: in a world in which the full range of character as it had existed in the plays of classical antiquity had largely disappeared, The Canterbury Tales gives us many fully rounded characters whose natures and actions are not readily attributable to stereotypical assumptions of how people should behave.
I feel like I’m putting this badly. But all I’m saying is that the characters of the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales are closer in execution to the characters in a Victorian novel (and a good one) than to the non-characters in a morality play.
I don’t remember who it was who said that simple longevity would not be enough to make a book part of the Canon for her, but I sort of half agree with her.
The problem is that any book that lasts–uncoerced–for centuries is something we need to pay attention to, because it’s certainly hooked into something very important in the culture at large.
I’ll insist–the Canon isn’t a list of books drawn up by a literature department. It’s the respository of the culture, and it exists whether anybody acknowledges it or not. The first requirement is that the work should last long enough to become part of the fabric of the civilization. And I think that longevity is a good indicator.
But the other things that put a book into the Canon–once it’s been around long enough–include technical skill in execution, and in that area The Canterbury Tales is a remarkable piece of work. It would literally be a centuries before the general technical level of even high-art literature in English would equal what Chaucer did in this one long work. Even the European sources Chaucer used as a basis for his stories and his form do not reach the level he did of characterization alone.
I do think that it is the case that technique contributes to longevity, at least up to a point. For one thing, even if the general public does not take to a work, if that work is highly techniqually proficient, other writers will take to it, and incorporate what they learn from it in what they do. That’s why James Joyce has been the enormous influence on modern fiction that he has been–even writers well down the prestige food chain have often read him, admired him and tried to copy him in at least some ways.
I think that part of what divides canonical work from noncanonical work is what I think of as the truth factor–that is, the work “rings true” generation after generation–and the comfort factor.
This is, in a way, where I was going to get into the nativity scenes, but you can see it in a lot of different areas, and a lot of different ways. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has an El Greco Crucifixion, and there is a lot you can say about it, in terms of technique and otherwise, but I think the one thing everybody would agree on is that you wouldn’t want it hanging in your living room.
Christianity can be a very comforting religion, and it has been made more comforting over the centuries by people wo concentrate on happy baby Jesus in the manger, angels who look like five year old Christmas pageant stars, and even Crucifixions carefully cleaned up of all the blood and pain–or, parodoxically, perhaps, on scenes with lots of blood and bathos, so that what should look painful looks merely grotesque.
But the El Greco Crucifixion is not grotesque. Like Michaelangelo’s Pieta, it is simply nearly unbearably real.
And yet, in the middle of all this, I don’t want to suggest that better-educated people, or more literate people, are somehow less prone to falsifying and prettifying human existence than people with less cultural training or range. And I really don’t want to suggest that about richer or more highly placed people vis a vis poorer and less highly placed ones.
Maybe all I’m trying to say is that looking life in the face and without illusions is a minority taste, but a valuable trait to have, and the best art–the very best of it–is the art that does that for us, that helps us do that for ourselves.
And that includes both the hard look at what we are and the unmodified call for us to be what we ought to be.
I may be blithering, here.
But that, above, is the third plank in deciding if one work of art or literature is better than another.
I’m going to try to post this now, and with any luck, it will post, all the way.
Sometimes I think it’s my mission in life to make modern Americans–and, you know, others–understand that the Middle Ages was not a time when everything was religious.
It wasn’t even close to such a time.
If you’re looking for societies obsessed with religion, and in which religion became virtually the only focal point of existence, you have to go forward several hundred years to the Reformation.
But the Middle Ages, and especially the High and Late Middle Ages, was a very practical and pragmatic period, especially in the English-speaking world (I’m throwing Scotland in here). Universities in the Reformation and the Counterreformation were entirely tangled up in religion. Universities in the Middle Ages–and it was the Middle Ages that invented them–although they included scholars in theology, were far more concerned with training doctors, lawyers, and “clerks,” meaning people who could read and write Latin well enough to compose court documents and correspond with the international community.
I also wouldn’t put too strong an emphasis on “a literate upper class” and “an illiterate lower class.”
Although it’s true enough that the lowest classes of society were illiterate, so were many members of the upper classes. It isn’t until we get well into the Middle Ages that we find aristocrats automatically assuming it was necessary to learn to read and write. Charlemagne never did learn, and he wasn’t the only one. That was what you hired clerks to do.
It was the middle class–specifically, the professional middle class–who knew how to read and write, and they learned for the same reason their counterparts today go to Harvard Business and Yale Law–because it represented a marketable skill.
Nor were such people–or the aristocracy who hired them–likely to speak French in England much past the days of William the Conqueror. By the time you get to Henry II–a thorough Plantagenet, unless I’m forgetting this completely–the English aristocracy spoke English, and all the documents that have come down to us, plus all the books written in the vernacular, were also in English.
To the extent that there was an issue with the upper class use of a different language than the vernacular spoken by the common people, it was in the use of Latin. But Latin wasn’t spoken by aristocrats in preference to the native tongue. It was the official language of the Church, of scholarship and of international relations. It was not the language of poetry, music or song, even for the aristocracy–who often couldn’t speak or write it anyway.
Nor do I think that the “literate upper classes” somehow deliberately supressed “lower class” literature or art. Analyses of that kind tend to rest on modern assumptions about “power relations” that have very little to do with the reality of the Middle Ages.
For one thing, upper and lower classes–and that professional middle class again, a very important element in England–shared quite a lot of that culture. Mursery rhymes, for instance, would have been known at all levels of society, and would have the Arthurian legends, the fairy tales and the basic folk stories.
The problem is that anything that was known largely to people who were illiterate is unlikely to have been written down by anybody. If the people who can read and write don’t know about the work in question, they can’t write it down. If the people who know about the work can’t read and write, they can’t write it down either. The result is a work that is likely to get lost as the social structures that maintained the oral tradition of which it was a part began to break down.
But it’s also important to remember that most of this culture was religious only in a nominal sense. The idea that the Middle Ages were a benighted period in which the Church controlled everything and held back science and art by an insistance on doctrinal orthodoxy is a complete fiction.
Of the works of the period that have come down to us, only a very few are religious in nature. Many are histories, with history being practiced as it was for the ancients–as a kind of more-or-less fact-based docudrama sort of thing. And the single most famous work of literature of the period–Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales–although it uses a religious occasion as its framework, is largely secular in content.
Actually, even the religious framework is at least somewhat secular–you get the impression that the pilgrims on Chaucer’s
So, I was thinking about it–it has been mentioned here before that the split in “taste” between the more highly educated and the less highly educated, or maybe the general public and the high art tradition–is of relatively recent vintage. Everybody in classical Greece heard Homer and saw the plays of Sophocles, who was a popular as well as a high art author.
But it occurs to me that this may be something of a trick of the light. The vast majority of people in the classical world, in Rome as well as in Greece, could not read or write. The Jews were the only civilization in the ancient Mediterranean who even attempted something like universal literacy, and from what has come down to us, it looks like they concentrated on scripture, commentaries on scripture, and disputations on law, with the odd secular history thrown in. I know of no store of Jewish comedic plays or love poems in the era of the Roman Empire or the years immediately afterwards.
It occurs to me, then, that this idea of two cultures–a high art tradition existing next to a popular art enterprise (if not tradition–more on that later)–might be older than we think, or than we can know.
If I look at the England of the Middle Ages, for instance, if I look at everything we know about it, instead of just those works that have come down to us in written form, there does seem to be a lot more going on than there might seem to be at first glance.
In the first place, what works do come down to us as part of the canon almost necessarily reflect the preferences of relatively priveleged people. They would have to, because only such people could read.
What’s more, the aristocracy and the group we would now call the educated upper middle class–the professionals whose literacy skills made them invaluable to the running of the Court and the Kingdom–were the only ones with the money to pay for manuscripts, which were difficult to produce and expensive to come by. Chaucer had a vast audience among these people, but if his numbers were reproduced in the publishing world of today, he’d probably look like a “literary” author with a very small audience indeed.
Some of what was produced for the entertainment and edification of the classes underneath these two has come down to us, but not really very much. If there were songs and stories performed in homes and in the streets, they have largely been lost. We don’t know what they were like.
The art in churches was commissioned for those members of the public who were illiterate, in the hopes of teaching them through pictures what they were unable to read for themselves in their Bibles. But that art reflected the tastes and preferences of the educated people, in and out of the clergy, who paid for it and commissioned it.
We also have reports of street entertainments that are both bizarre and repulsive, but I think we can safely rule them out as art. I doubt if they were intended as art.
Of what has come down to us that we can accurately identify as “popular” art, we’re basically left with two things: morality plays, and nativity scenes.
For those of you who have never seen or heard of a morality play, it’s difficult to know where to start. The plays were written by authors who have remained anonymous to this day, usually members of traveling theater groups who went from town to town to put on shows.
A number of these have come down to us, and a few years ago the Modern Library, I think, put out an edition with eight or ten of them. It might have been Penguin.
The most famous of them, and certainly the most complex of the ones we have left, is called Everyman, and tells the story of a man named Everyman, who journeys through the world and its snares until he finally heeds True Friendship and fixes his sights on Virtue.
I’m not capitalizing all that in order to be sarcastic. In morality plays, characters have names like Lust, and Chastity, and Greed, and Gluttony, and the serve as representatives of ideas rather than as characters in the sense we use the term.
What’s more, there are really only two available plots-either Our Hero meets the challenges placed before him on his journey to Heaven and Eternal Life, and gets there, or he doesn’t, and he falls into the pit of hell and is condemned to burn forever.
One of the things that distinguishes morality plays, and that upsets modern readers or viewers of them, is the utter lack of individuality of any of the “characters” that supposedly inhabit them. There are no actual people in morality plays, only incarnated ideas, and the ideas are as bald and unsubtle as it was possible to get and remain in the Christian tradition.
This is very odd in a number of ways. Certainly individuation was not unknown in the dramatic tradition the Middle Ages inherited from antiquity. Sophocles, Euripedes and Aristophanes created very distinct and memorable characters
And even if we accept the argument that such ancient authors would have been unknown to the sort of poor authors who wrote for the traveling troupes, either because they were temporarily lost altogether or else existed only in a learned language like Latin, we know that there were troupes who performed other kinds of plays at royal courts, plays that corresponded much more closely to what we think of as theater.
The morality play, then was in its way a genre, and from what we can tell, the single most popular genre of its time. People who had very little, who were often close to starvation, paid good money to see these things.
And it’s impossible to know, really, why they disappeared. Chaucer lasted bcause generation after generation discovered his work and passed it along, but his work was written and aimed at a literate audience. Most of the audience for morality plays couldn’t read or write, and once the troupes began to be replaced by acting companies working in formal theaters–theaters which had to attract wider audiences in order to stay solvent–it was the tastes of the educated (and more monied) that survived.
Would the morality play as a genre, or its equivalent in secular temrs (an allegory whose “characters” are really ideas), have survived if its audience had been literate and there had been the equivalent of the penny press to keep them available?
I don’t know. I only know that they didn’t. These days, morality plays are a curiosity interesting to scholars of the Middle Ages and literary historians, but they are not part of the canon as it is usually understood. Certainly, by any standard of what makes “good” literature used by anybody, highbrow or middlebrow or low, in the twenty-first century, these plays are God awful. Their plots are formulaic, their dialogue is wooden, and their characters are nonexistent. The most avid fan of the worst kind of modern formula novel wouldn’t be able to sit through ten minutes of a morality play without getting disgusted, even if the morality on offer was the twentieth century variety.
If “standing the test of time” is the first requirement for making it into the canon–and it is–then it would be a good thing to know just why the morality play as a genre did not stand the test of time, and why no individual morality play made it either.
If it is because the work is inherently weak, and weak work doesn’t lst–which it doesn’t–that’s one thing. If it is because the work wasn’t available to be cherished and built on by people who would have cherished it and built on it if they had had the chance, well, that’s something else again.
It’s interesting to think that there might have been a different and parallel literary tradition in English, with different assumptions and a different canon than we have now.
And no, I’m not going over into relativism, so don’t start.
I’m going to go find something comforting to drink. Maybe tomorrow I’ll go on and on about nativity scenes, which have more to do with the literary tradition in English than you’d think.
I was going to go in a different direction with this today, but right now I want to tr to head off yet another problem–and that is the constant tendency to equate “objective judgments of literature” with “what English Departments teach.”
Virtually every single time we have this particular discussion, common sense observations about objective standards in the arts are followed by, “well, you’d better tell that to those English teachers who are teaching all this crap in Freshman English.”
First, English departments are are a relatively new phenomenon. Universities did not begin teaching literature in English–or any modern language–on the college level until the beginning of the twentieth century.
For a while, there wqs a real effort to produce departments and courses in the major that would train students to understand and evaluate literature. It lasted, I’d guess, until about the late Sixties or early Seventies.
But Freshman English has rarely been an effort to introduce students to great literature. It’s a composition course, meant to insure that students can produce a standard college essay without too many mistakes in it. To the extent that literature was presented at all, even in the old days, it was to provide fodder for teaching how to write the paper. Freshman English, after all, had to be taught to everybody, including to people who were not interested in literature. Those people still n eeded to know how to write standard English papers.
These days, the standard Freshman English course contains no literature at all. Readings are restricted to “topical” essays on subjects the faculty hopes will “interest” students, which is why you get those endless “thoughtful” disquistions on euthanasia, abortion, and smoking bans.
But second, standards for literature are not set by English Departments, nor are English departments necessarily the last word on what is good or bad in literature.
They should be–and during that period when there was a serious attempt being made to make them so, they go pretty close–but in the last forty years or so they have come to representing one of the great dumping grounds of academia. I could list on the fingers of both hands–with fingers left over–the graduate departments of English in this country that still teach students to understand and evaluate literature.
I don’t care what is being taught in English departments, or what the latest professor of deconstuctionism thinks of Christopher Marlowe, and I really don’t care what is being taught in Freshman English. None of those things have anything to do with objective standards of quality in literature, or even with the contents of the Western Canon.
The Western Canon would still be exactly what it is if there were no academic departments of any kind at all, and the standards of value in literature would be the same even if nobody was ever again i nterested in knowing them.
As for the fifty year rule–it does not say that if something has been around fifty years, it automatically belongs in the list of great works in English. What it says is that if a book has been around for fity years, read and reread by a couple of generations of uncoerced readers, then it deserves consideration–and fifty years is the minimum that has to pass before we are able to give it consideration.
And that standard was proposed in a time before the Internet, when it was relatively difficult for a work to last for fity years without something extraordinary happening. It may take longer now to know if a book is actually going to last, or if it just happens to be fitting into a particular niche in time.
I don’t know. I’ll let that one ride for the moment, and stick with the fifty year rule unless it seems to be becoming less useful. That said, Chaucer has been around for close to a millennium now, and people went on reading him when there were no English departments to “assign” h is work, and that’s a very useful indication that he had something we need to pay attention to. So, time matters, and really long periods of time matter a lot.
The last thing is this–I’m talking here about literary criticism, not literary reviewing. Literary criticism tackles subjects like “The Image of the Madonna in the Poetry of Peter Abelard” and “The Evolution of the Puritan Ethic in the Work of the Transcendentalist Poets.”
It does not deal with snap judgments about contemporary work–buy John Jone’s novel, it’s reaelly great! That’s reviewing.
So, if we can take those definitions and stick to them, I think I can find a way to go on from here.
And m aybe actually say something that doesn’t get tangled up in mess.
Of course, I’m still sick, so there’s that.