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Filthy Lucre

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Every once in a while I have one of those, where things don’t just go wrong, they persist in epic fail. By eight o’clock, I was a complete wreck, and I’ve become very worried about my chicken. 

Given the principle that luck comes in runs, that chicken is going to get up and walk out the door before I cook  it, or I’m going to accidentally put it down the garbage disposal the way I did the turkey one Thanksgiving a few years ago, or…

You see what I mean.

Part of  the list of failures for this morning is my utter inability to find the link to the Weekly Standard article about the lack of Republican literary writers. 

I know there’s a link to it somewhere, because I found it with a link.  It was on Arts and Letters Daily about a week ago.  But when I look at ALD, I can’t find the link, and when I google the article–I get sent to the ALD home page.

Where I can’t find it again.

So, for the moment, you’ll just have to take my word for it–there was a short article in The Weekly Standard lamenting and trying to explain the lack of “literary” writers from the Republican ranks.

It was a very short article, and very odd in some ways. 

There was, for instance, that emphasis on “literary.”  Why restrict yourself to a single genre when discussing the political content of writers work or their lives?

It is difficult to impossible to dispute that, these days, what goes by the name of “literary” is not the high art tradition but another genre. 

And it’s a highly restrictive genre at that.  Writers like Lorrie Moore, Tim O’Brien and Sue Miller aren’t the heirs of Dickens, Shaw and Hemingway.  They’re not even the heirs of Proust.

By and large they’re part of a large bureaucratic class whose career paths are mapped out ahead of them and whose income is predicated on a strict adherence to a set of rules that covers not only their writing, but their personal  lives and their opinions on everything from fast food to genocide.

Great writers were once stereotyped as guys who ran away from home to travel on tramp steamers.  Most contemporary literary writers  never get out of school.

But what interested me most about the piece was the assumption–never stated, and possibly unnoticed by the writer–that there are only two possible choice, “liberal or left” and “in favor of commerce and business.”

And we all do it, to an extent.  We assume that “literary intellectuals” will always and everywhere be left-wing, or at least welfare state liberals.  Scratch a passionate devotee of the Metaphysical Poets or the Pre-Raphaelites or Homer  in the original Greek, and you find somebody also passionate for redistributing income an installing the dictatorship of the proletariat–or at least the vanguard that will lead the dictatorship of the proletariat.

What’s odd about this is the dichotomy itself–either you’re for the rise of commerce or  you’re for the rise of “social justice,” and that’s that.

But those are hardly the only two alternatives, and there’s more ways than one to be against commerce. 

What’s more, up until a few decades ago, men and women committed to that third choice made up the bulk of teachers of English, art history, and philosophy–and a fair clump of the teachers of history proper–in most American and European colleges and universities.

One of the reasons why you may denigrate commerce, and capitalism in general, is because capitalism is a great leveller.  It breaks down traditional relationships between the classes more surely and relentlessly than a Communist dictatorship (of the proletariat or not) ever could.  It sweeps away all the old hierachies and makes the old gatekeepers irrelevant.  It substitutes the rule of the dollar for the judgment of the elect.

In other words, one of the reasons you may be opposed to capitalism is because it destroys aristocracy.

Now, it is true that the social justice/welfare state/socialist-to-Communist line is also an attempt to return to aristocracy.  It posits a world in which the Enlightened Few who Really Understand what is going on in the world direct and control the choices and lives of the Unenlightened Many.

But no matter how fundamentally aristocratic that vision of the world is, it is not aristocratic in the same way as that of straightforward aristocrats.

An aristocrat–an Ortega y Gasset, for instance–doesn’t simply believe that the masses are  Unenlightened.  He believes that the number of people able to attain true culture are very small, and that the culture itself is vastly more important and valuable than any hundred thousands of human beings who just don’t get it. 

What’s more, such culture is both traditional and ancient.  Modern society has, by definition, nothing to add to it.

Nor does science, which is grubby and procedural and of no interest to anyone but people with grubby little minds focussed on the trivial.

The aristocratic mind is focussed, above all else, on preserving the legacy of the past in as hierarchical and rigid a way as possible.

As late as the era in which I went to college, there were nice big clumps of aristocrats in the Humanities. 

And in the era just before that, between the two world wars especially, such aristocrats existed not only on college campuses, but very prominently in the culture at large.

Ortega  y Gasset’s book was a best seller, and undergraduates were at least as likely to style themselves as exemplars of Good Taste and Good Breeding as they were to take up radical politics, especially at universities in the South.

My question is this–where are all the aristocrats?  Where did they go?  Why does it seem, these days, as if they no longe exist?

When I try to  puzzle my way through this question, I come up with a lot of half-answers that aren’t truly satisfying.

One of those  half answers is that it is harder to play the aristocratic role than it is to play the revolutionary. 

It isn’t quite enough for an aristocrat just to strike a pose.  He has to actually know something, and quite often he has to know a lot of something.

We’re long past the era when prep schools automatically insured that their graduates could read Greek and Latin and that they h ad read their way through Homer and Shakespeare as well.  We’re completely forgotten that there was a time when our high school guaranteed the same for their “college course” students.

Even most of the best public and private schools no longer teach “that stuff,” and even when they do teach it they don’t do it in any systematic way.  It’s beyond unusual to find a college Freshman who arrives on campus convinced that Hesiod is more important to the tradition than Sappho or that Donne’s meditations have more to recommend them than his sonnets.

But “knowing something” is, after all, a relative thing, and there’s that saying about the kingdom of the blind. 

Both undergraduates and PhDs these days are so badly prepared acadmically that a would be aristocrat could probably get away with quite a lot of not knowing things he should. 

I wonder if the real reason is that the option doesn’t occur to anybody, because they’ve never actually encountered it.

One of the things the Humanities are supposed to do for us is to let us experiences ways of living and modes of thinking different from our own.  They are supposed to present to us all the possible ways in which life can be lived and understood, at least as they have appeared in the Western tradition.

I had a student this past term who tried to explain Coleridge’s “Kubla Kahn” as his expression of despair at his “addiction.”  When I explained to her that this era had no concept of “addiction,” and that people like Coleridge thought smoking opium was good for them (witness the poetry he wrote while high!)–she couldn’t assimilate it.

This same student, being informed that in the era of Shakespeare and Donne, it was definitely NOT the case that “everybody had their own idea about God,” confidently asserted that since people of the time were restricted to “just one idea” about God they were very frustrated and angry and couldn’t lead good lives.

It is very different to imagine lives that are truly and fundamentally different from our own.  In some ways, we can never actually do it.

There was a time, though, when we provided not just competing visions of what the world was like–you can get that from science fiction and fantasy–but competing realities of possible lives. 

My students are not surprised to find that writers of novels and stories have different ideas about how the world does or should work–that’s “creativity” and it has nothing to do with the real world.

On the very few occassions when I have been able to get through the hazy conviction that Now is all that’s real or possible, they’re amazed that there are or were actually people in the world who thought these things and lived these ways and who would consider the way they themselves live to be completely undesirable.

Even when I do manage to impress it on them, they’re highly skeptical.

We’ve lost a big whacking hunk of who and what we are and were.

Ortega y Gassett is probably rolling over in his grave somewhere, feeling vindicated.

Written by janeh

June 30th, 2013 at 10:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Filthy Lucre'

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  1. So I’m reading this and I’m thinking, “Jersey Shore” and “Swamp People” and “Keeping up with the Projectile Vomitassians”.

    Those are the sources of our current alternate possible manner of living examples. Either extravagant beyond belief or dig-down-until-you-reach-it lowest common denominator crap. A competing vision where intellectual striving and aristocratic privilege (not predicated on massive wealth) are sources of respect? Not so much. I can’t think of any, honestly.

    My own heroes tend to be scientists, anyway, and particularly those scientists who take their theory into practical operancy. Those kinds of people tend not to be wed to tradition of any sort.

    Have we lost some of our cultural identity with the decline of this aristocratic class? They were always only a tiny tiny fraction of our society, not many were capable of achieving the freedom from economic striving necessary to spend one’s life in cultivating the intellect.

    I’m not sure where I’m going with this, so I’m going to go try to avoid the heat today. I don’t do well in heat.


    30 Jun 13 at 11:50 am

  2. A particular kind of aristocracy – that of the intellectual elite – does seem to be gone, and the idea that there is value in at least the study of past societies (leaving modern art out of it for the moment) seems to have disappeared. Modernity triumphs! It’s a natural, although perhaps tragic, result of the conviction that everything new has to be better than what went before. I think the whole concept of an aristocracy is now skunked, and the best that people with an unusally high level of interest and skill in, say, history, can hope for is to be classified with other odd minorities, like odd but boring ethnic groups and trainspotters.

    The very word ‘aristocrat’ makes most moderns break out into hives since it is contrary to the idea of absolute equality. Of course, if consider yourself to be among a minority of right-thinking people who know exactly how society should operate, that doesn’t count as being an aristocrat, not in these days! It’s just the more enlightened people being equal to everyone else, but somehow simultaneously more equal than some of them.

    The difficulty of imagining a way of life based on completely different premises than your own is something else, though. I think the only solution is constant exposure, even vicarious exposure, to other people, especially but not exclusively those from other societies, and in person as well as in books. I’m sure that I’m not the only person who has sometimes gotten into a conversation with someone from my own culture and a similar background only to discover part way through that our basic assumptions on the topic in question are so divergent that we might as well be trying to communicate on different wavelengths. And of course, the phenomemon is even more profound with people from a different time or a different culture, no matter how many novels and TV shows assign anachronistic attitudes to the medievals or ancient Romans.


    30 Jun 13 at 1:56 pm

  3. I studied under one of those professors justified by aristocracy. He was just about a new hire in 1970, which might have made him the last of the breed. When I revisited about 30 years later, he was a man of the left–having discovered, as a colleague observed, that you could have an aristocracy under socialism. I’ve said before that when the justification changes but not the behavior, it’s the behavior that’s sincere. So we continue to have a professorate which justifies itself by despising what I hold dear. That at one time some of them justified themselves by breeding and now they all justify themselves as the vanguard of the proletariat is curious, but not really important.

    As for the Weekly Standard author, the poor devil probably attended a school which told him that only Literature counted, and that of course science fiction, fantasy, romance, horror and adventure weren’t Literature and detective fiction, though allowable as recreation was not to be taken seriously unless it went Literary. There’s a lot of that around. (I’m going to let the whole “SF doesn’t show us the REALITY of different ways of living and thinking” bit go, though I do seem to remember someone enthusing about Mailer or Capote showing a different mode of thought was possible.)

    But yes, to teach young people that people have lived and thought in different ways, someone would have to teach history seriously. As part of that, they’d have to discard a ton of current categories–pretty much everything produced beginning with Marx and Freud and alleged to describe all people everywhere–and start letting Spartan hoplites and medieval monks describe things as THEY saw them. I don’t see that happening any time soon. Learning history instead of jamming historical figures into a small collection of approved categories is a lot of work.


    30 Jun 13 at 2:39 pm

  4. jd

    30 Jun 13 at 4:14 pm

  5. “aristocrat” doesn’t suggest an interest in history or literature or art to me. It suggests people with large estates, big houses, and lots of servants who spend their time at house parties and hunting and fishing.

    Think Downton Abbey before WW1.

    Or think of the Duke of Denver (Gerald Wimsey)


    30 Jun 13 at 7:53 pm

  6. Reading that article makes me wonder how our modern western societies can survive in these increasingly parlous times. If we’ve really reached the point where the defining criterion of our intellectual and political divide is a respect/contempt for “profit”, then it’s clear that we haven’t travelled very far from historical times.

    The British aristocracy at least was based on its possession of the land. Wannabe nouveau riche interlopers who had made their fortunes in “trade” were to be shunned with poorly disguised or even overt contempt (see Trollope or just about any other 19th century writer). Of course, over time, the original aristocracy became indebted to the upstarts to an extent where they were forced to sell their land and the depredations of modern warfare killed off disproportionate numbers of the younger generations of the aristocracy.

    Just as nature abhors a vacuum, as the ranks of the hereditary aristocracy shrank, a new aristocracy arose to fill the places they used to occupy. Those with buckets of money from “trade” bought their peerages and other badges of aristocracy. Others, rising through academia, occupied the intellectual places formerly the domain of the intellectual aristocrats.

    It seems to me that the intellectuals, whose exceptional communication skills have allowed them to dominate public discourse, have abrogated to themselves the niche of that portion of the hereditary aristocracy that pursued, as “gentlemen scholars”, intellectual and scientific activity. It seems that many of them have also assumed the contemptuous attitudes of the hereditary aristocracy to those who need to make a living in less “honourable” ways.

    In the real world, however, where most people live, it seems to be only relatively recently (since Marx?) that the “profit” has become a dirty word. It also seems to me to be a sign of pure, unalloyed (and utterly crass) intellectual snobbishness. Everybody in the entire western world at least survives on somebody’s profit, and to suggest that one is above all that is simply insane.

    If the profit motive is now the political watershed between “liberals” and “conservatives”, the world has gone mad.


    30 Jun 13 at 9:14 pm

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