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Liars

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So, it is Sunday, and I’m doing my usual Sunday morning thing.  Gustav Leonhardt is playing the harpsichord with The Well-Tempered Clavier on the CD player behind me, and I’ve just spent the entire first disc reading more of Paul Johnson’s Modern Times.

I’ve just reached the point of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, but what interests me more at the moment is the account of Stalin’s rise to power in the USSR.

And what interests me there is not Stalin  himself, who seems to have been mostly a common grade thug with good opportunities, but the response of European and American intellectuals and artists to him. 

Every once in a while, I make mention here of a long essay by the critic George Steiner called The Archives of Eden.” 

In it, Steiner makes the point, repeatedly, that although  he is willing to grant that democracies do in fact make life infinitely better for the vast majorities of mankind, only authoritarian societies can produce great art, or great civilization.

Great art, Steiner says, needs either to be supported by a class recognized as superior to the common run of mankind, or actively resisted by a class bent on destroying it. 

In both cases, art is recognized as serious and important and as having a standard that is not relative, that is not merely “taste” but that has an objective basis that must be learned and is not entirely natural.

Democratic society, being what it is, recognizes only taste, and implicitly implies that one man’s taste is just as good as another’s.  This leaves only one standard for the worth of art:  popularity.   

This need to seek validation is the acclaim of the multitude corrupts all art because it draws the artist into a position where he is required to satisfy the public taste rather than the internal and objective requirements of his art.

The public taste, in this case, means not only the obvious public taste (like, say, Die Hard movies), but the taste of the kind of people who run the National Endowment for the Arts or PBS.   Although the percentage of the public that supports the kind of art supported by these organizations is small than the percentage that supports action movies, they still, at base, accept the idea that art is entertainment, that it is a minor part of life, and not the most important thing.

Now, I’ve got a lot of problems with Steiner’s thesis, not the least of them being that I think that last bit–art becomes merely entertainment and a minor part of life–is just plain wrong.  It’s of course true that some people in democratic societies look on art that way, but my guess is that some people in authoritarian societies do, too.   But I also think that if you look around you in this society, you’ll find plenty of people who believe passionately that art is the most important thing.  It’s just not necessarily the kind of art Mr. Steiner would call “great.”

But right now, what I want to look at is Steiner himself, as a person, at least as he presents himself in what he writes.

Because Steiner doesn’t just say that authoritarian societies are the only ones that produce great art, but that the suffering of larger numbers of people in those societies is an acceptible price to pay for that great art.

I think that would be a questionable thing to say no matter who said it, but coming from Steiner, it stops me cold.

Steiner is here, in the United States, because his father pulled his immediate family out of German just ahead of the Nazis.  Of the uncles, aunts, and cousins who refused to believe that Hitler had to be taken seriously, not a single one of them survived the war. 

I don’t know if Steiner thinks that any of the art that came out of (or out of the resistance to) Nazi Germany is great, but he certainly does think that some of the art that came out of the Communist USSR is. 

To be fair, of course, I should note that his preferred authoritarian and hierarchical societies are not the totalitarian ones, but the aristocratic ones.   He is not nostalgic for repression and terror as public policy, but for a world in which categories of human beings and their habits and tastes are recognized on a hierarchical scale.

All that being said, however, the first thing that comes to my mind whenever I read this essay is that Steiner ought to know better.  Creating a society where the vast majority of human beings not only get to live reasonably well but get to develop into decent and moral people is not a small thing, and it’s also certainly worth the possibility that no one in it will ever create a David or an Eroica.

But knowing better is something it seems that a certain kind of  intellectual mind is not capable of. 

One of the things that is very clear in reading a history of the period strictly chronologically is that it becomes impossible to avoid the knowledge that virtually every single thing we think of as a signature of Naziism was in fact done at least a decade earlier by Stalin. 

The first concentration camps and death camps were instituted by Stalin, almost 10 years before Hitler ever became Chancellor. Mass executions without trial, forced starvation of particular ethnic groups (note the racism), the knock on the door in the middle of the night, the coercion of children into reporting their parents–all of it was invented not by Hitler but by either Lenin or Stalin, and where Lenin was the inventor, Stalin was the perfecter.

 What interests me here is this:  there was, during the Twenties and Thirties, a positive parade of English and American writers and artists who visited the new Soviet Union and declared it a paradise, or the next best thing to one.

Some of these were people–like Lincoln Steffens–who had prior commitments as Communists.  Most of them, however, were not. 

They did, of course, have the vaguely “socialist” leanings that were common on most levels of Society in the Thirties and common in intellectual circles in the Twenties as well. 

For most of my life, the explanation I’ve heard about how this all happened was that the writers and artists involved, shell shocked from the Great War and further traumatized by the Depression, were so desperate to believe in something that they deluded themselves about the things they say in Russia.

The more I read in the history of the period, however, the more obvious it is that this cannot be true.  They saw and they were not deluded.  They just lied.

And not only did they lie, they lied on a scale so monumental, it can sometimes be difficult to take in.  They looked on labor camps, general starvation, state terror, and all the rest of it and then just made stuff up to send as “reports” back home. 

And, what’s worse, in some ways, many of them are still doing it.  The Nation devoted an issue, a few months back, on what was good about the Soviet Union.  They left out all the labor camps and the engineered famines and the mass summary executions, but they left them out as if they’d never existed, as if they weren’t something we needed to take into account about the society in question.

But it’s worse than this, really, because in spite of the frequently made claims that intellectuals only make these allowances on the Left, the fact is that they have no trouble at all making the same allowances on the Right.

And big allowances.

You could make a case that Nietzsche’s message was distorted by his devotees, but Martin Heidigger was a Nazi.  He was a member of the Nazi Party, and he personally carried out the policy of removing Jews from the faculty of his own university after Hitler came to power.  Paul de Man was a Nazi collaborator during the German occupation of France, and it’s not possible to look very long at the wartime behavior of Jean-Paul Sartre without realizing that he was one, too.  After the war, he became a doctrinaire Stalinist, because that’s how that works, and Sartre was always doctrinaire.

Steiner’s take on the conditions necessary for the production of great art is one possible explanation for this behavior, as is Johnson’s that these were the people who, in a believing age, would have been the clergy, and they were just looking for another religion to be the clergy of.

But these explanations seem to me to be grossly inadequate, as does the one that says these people expect to be part of the ruling class rather than the ruled.

In fact, for most of these people–the historical people now, Bernard Shaw and Lady Astor and the Webbs–the issue seems not to be wanting to be part of a ruling class as wanting to have a ruling class to look up to. 

They all seem to be looking, desperately, for somebody or something to worship.

What I want to know, at the moment, is something more basic.

I want to know if there is something inherent in certain kinds of intellectual work that predisposes people to be apostles of totalitarianism. 

Or if this is an aberration brought about by the particular history of the West in modernty.

Written by janeh

September 16th, 2012 at 10:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Liars'

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  1. Two things.

    Objective value in art. (Gee, Teach, AGAIN? Do we hafta?) Pretty clearly these are meant to exist “objectively” in the sense of really existing apart from my opinion of it. There is also “objectively” in the sense of without bias, and there are times I think that’s the exact opposite of what’s going on here. It all depends on whether the person of “educated” or “sophisticated” taste has been opened up to things he didn’t see before in the art, or just to the one big thing: that anyone who deviates too far from the consensus won’t get or keep his union card. Myself, I think the problems of old critics looking at new art argues very strongly for the latter. Chemists or engineers may need a generation to figure out what something new is good for, but they don’t need a new generation to figure out what it is and what its properties are, so I DON‘T think artistic merit exists “objectively“ like a place on the hardness tables or atomic weight. I think there is good and bad art in the sense that there is good and bad footwear–materials and craftsmanship certainly, but also foot sizes and intended use. But that’s a matter for another day.

    The artistic class and the anti-democratic state. Hmmm. Here we have people who believe that the most important thing in the world is something which only they can recognize. In fact, if we tie this into the “Great Conversation” discussion, something only about 10% of the population could possibly be trained to recognize. The proles can’t have an opinion any serious person would need to pay attention to. And you suspect these people might feel some affinity with Bolsheviks, Fascists and Nazis. Ya think? (And it can only be an aberation of “modernity” if we date modern prior to the Peloponnesian War, since Plato had the earliest documented case.)

    Apart from the emotional affinity, though, the totalitarian state benefits an artist in another way, courtesy of its desire to control, well, everything–but especially its censorship and propaganda departments. It’s not just that the propaganda department will pay him to produce KOLBERG, SCIPIO AFRICANUS or IVAN THE TERRIBLE or to write the AENEID. It’s also that the censors will tear up his work, have him beaten or throw him in the camps. They take him seriously! There is a category of person would rather be sent to a destructive labor camp than to create great art and have no one know or care. Ayn Rand wrote about these people, and the fury of their reaction shows just how good she was and is.

    Steiner prefers the aristocratic state to the totalitarian one, though, and with reason. An aristocratic state is a wonderful place for the artist. It’s chock full of people ready to spend money to build and decorate their estates instead of bourgeois types who might use the money to eat three meals a day or have plumbing. And (a bonus) the patrons aren’t anyone the artist has to respect. He can take their money and still feel superior to them, a condition found in democracies only among confidence men and politicians. The American artist can still demand “public funding for the arts” but even though it’s better than having to actually convince the people who made the money that your art is worth it, it’s still not as satisfying as selling inbred imbeciles oil paintings of themselves. Goya had all the fun.

    robert_piepenbrink

    16 Sep 12 at 2:26 pm

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