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Literature and The Moral Imagination

| 61 Comments

From Russell Kirk's 1981 essay "The Moral Imagination."

"Every major form of literary art has taken for its deeper themes the norms of human nature. What Eliot calls "the permanent things" - the norms, the standards - have been the concern of the poet ever since the time of Job, or ever since Homer: "the blind man who sees," sang of the wars of the gods with men. Until very recent years, men took it for granted that literature exists to form the normative consciousness - that is, to teach human beings their true nature, their dignity, and their place in the scheme of things. Such was the endeavor of Sophocles and Aristophanes, of Thucydides and Tacitus, of Plato and Cicero, of Hesiod and Vergil, of Dante and Shakespeare, of Dryden and Pope.

The very phrase "humane letters" implies that great literature is meant to teach us what it is to be fully human...."

"Now I do not mean that the great writer incessantly utters homilies. With Ben Jonson, he may "scourge the naked follies of the time," but he does not often murmur, "Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever." Rather, the man of letters teaches the norms of our existence through allegory, analogy, and holding up the mirror to nature. The writer may, like William Faulkner, write much more of what is evil than of what is good; and yet, exhibiting the depravity of human nature, he establishes in his reader's mind the awareness that there exist enduring standards from which we fall away; and that fallen human nature is an ugly sight.

Or the writer may deal, as did J. P. Marquand, chiefly with the triviality and emptiness of a society that has forgotten standards. Often, in his appeal of a conscience to a conscience, he may row with muffled oars; sometimes he may be aware only dimly of his normative function. The better the artist, one almost may say, the more subtle the preacher. Imaginative persuasion, not blunt exhortation, commonly is the method of the literary champion of norms..."

Read in full, and discuss.

61 Comments

Joe, have you ever read "On Moral Fiction" by John Gardner??

Your sweetie probably owns it...

Marc

I don't believe I agree with Kirk's central thesis that great literature has a moral purpose. As I read the piece I wonder if Khomeini would nod his head in agreement with the notion that literature should have an edifying purpose and direct mankind, whether directly or obliquely, on a path towards virtue. Not that Kirk would endorse a judgment of death, but is the framework of judgment very different?

Also, I found it interesting that Don Quixote, largely accepted as one of the greatest novels ever written, is unmentioned in the piece. Cervantes largely sets out to satire the field of books of virtue and still stands laughing at such efforts.

I think Russell Kirk's thesis is sound, and more painfully to the point now than when it was written. We are prey now to the diabolic imagination in film. Institutionally the movie business is under the sway of extreme, depraved evil.

The orgy scene from Eyes Wide Shut (1999) would be a fair starting point for apprehending the inner lives of monsters such as Woody Allen, Harvey Weinstein and their beloved peer, the child-rapist Roman Polanski.

Would be, except that the testimony of the victim, which everyone ought to read at The Smoking Gun (link), is clearer, more down to earth, and sworn legal testimony, in effect, on the moral character of those who weave our dreams and who define our heroes and villains.

This is the point at which I'd like to say something about bastards having colonized our imagination (link), except that Wim Wenders put his name on the list of the damned too.

I'd like to say something about literature, that being our starting point, but Salman Rushdie also signed his name to support child-raping privileges for elite artists.

I'd like to say something about non-fiction, but William Shawcross, famed for Deliver Us From Evil, signed up in support of the evil-doer too.

It's like getting your culture from an audience that in the movie of Interview with the Vampire (link) knew that what was happening on stage was real, and were a smug, self-righteous and waspish collective bodyguard for the fiends slaking their lust for innocent blood and the pleasure of self-display. What inferior brutes could dare pursue the great artist and Holocaust victim, and victim of personal tragedy, their dear friend Roman Polanski? Who could dare interrupt him on the way to yet further celebrations of his wonderfulness, when the rites of self-congratulation of the cultural elite ought to be above law and morality? That is their attitude.

I'd like us to flee this ziggurat of moral madness, and make a new beginning (link). But the only guy who's showed that he had the ability and the will to do it hasn't said a word against Roman Polanski, and in any case he condemned himself in the eyes of all, when, drunk and raving, he said antisemitic things. For a third strike, he's filed for divorce.

I think the only solution is, if you want to have good stories - and I agree we are moral beings and need them - make your own, however inexpertly. Any rolelaying game session with a plot devised by a gamemaster with a decent heart and taken on by decent players doing their best will have more moral value than the total production of the world's artistic elite, as things stand now.

"I don't believe I agree with Kirk's central thesis that great literature has a moral purpose."

I agree, and I'll do you one better- often as not the 'moral purpose' is assigned afterwards by critics and teachers. I recall Hemingway hated that phenomenon (the old man is an old man, and the sea is the sea).

I find there are two kinds of people involved in the arts- the tiny minority the produces almost everything worthwhile, and the vast sea of 'experts' that make their livings explaining why the former is so important.

In fact these people are induced to portray art as critical and relevant as possible, mainly because of their own inability to produce anything worthwhile themselves. The 'message' has to be meaningful and complex in order to justify their own jobs in unraveling the mystery and explaining it to the riff-raff.

Beware the failed artist.

PD Shaw:

I don't believe I agree with Kirk's central thesis that great literature has a moral purpose. As I read the piece I wonder if Khomeini would nod his head in agreement with the notion that literature should have an edifying purpose and direct mankind, whether directly or obliquely, on a path towards virtue. Not that Kirk would endorse a judgment of death, but is the framework of judgment very different?

Yes.

A great difference between us and the Islamic world is that we have been through a process of softening ourselves and learning to put ourselves in the other guy's place. There has been a very high price to pay for this, but it's made us better people, and to be Western is to have a share in this.

Our literature was a vital part of this edification, maybe the main part.

The Islamic world, very simply, laments every little hurt to itself, and counts wounds to the kuffer as nothing. Guided by its system, which foments aggressive intolerance, it is about as empathic towards us, institutionally, as a shark. That is why Afghans reacted as they did to the Christian convert Abdul Rahman.

David Blue,

Most of your comments seem to be directed toward the artist. For my part, I separate the art from the artist, and operate from the expectation that people in arts, politics, and sports are going to disappoint. I think a lot of the misplaced support for Polanski is from fans incapable of making this distinction. The man can certainly be appreciated for his work with the recognition that he has broken laws for which he should be punished.

David,

A somewhat curious set of propositions. An agreement with Kirk’s thesis that, as PD put it, “great literature has a moral purpose,” then a quick shift from literature to film, followed by a denouncement of the moral depravity of film makers.

In a sense, and perhaps somewhat inadvertently, David is illustrating the good sense expressed both by PD and Mark B. Commanding from the outside what good literature should be is a foolish endeavor. I think Kirk would have been better off saying that he was describing a subset, or genre, of western literature that happens to appeal to him. For every Richardson there is a Fielding, and a Sterne. If you wanted to be boringly pedantic (something I’ve never been afraid of being), you might even construct a mediocre theory that much of western literature can be described as a dialectical movement between those writers whom Kirk admires and those writers who find their work either comically absurd and worthy of a good tease or outright dangerous.

We're all entitled to have our favorite books and to develop reasons for our tastes. But great literature is full of books whose central purpose is nothing more than to entertain. Twelfth Night, comes to mind.

A quick p.s.: I'm not sure we really want to set up artists as our moral guides. I think we'll be disappointed as often as pleased. As a group, they are not known for the normality of their standards and practices.

Consider the Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamizaton of music. He simply banned the broadcasting of all music other than religious music and military music. Islam aims at the conquest of the world, so he saw some value in music Muslim troops could march to. Other than that, no.

If you had in view a thesis that great music ought to make us better people, and criticized it by saying "that is the same standard that the Ayatollah Khomeini would have applied: he too wanted music that would make people better, from an Islamic point of view," you'd be stretching a point way too far.

PD Shaw:

Most of your comments seem to be directed toward the artist.

Right. I've found that addressing the moral foundations of, say Match Point (2005) or Chinatown (1974) head on is worse than useless. You're like the bull, and you will never hit a concrete target behind the waving matador's cape. It's all an artistic, artificial reality. You set yourself us as a moron who has to be told be Magritte: "This is not an apple." It's always easy to imply that behind the obvious "superficial" corruption of the work there's a higher morality that the boobs who condemn it don't see.

There isn't. Behind the skilfully made but depraved art, there is only a bunch of technically talented and cultivated but depraved men.

In other words, I feel I have to break the rule: "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."

mark:

A quick p.s.: I'm not sure we really want to set up artists as our moral guides. I think we'll be disappointed as often as pleased. As a group, they are not known for the normality of their standards and practices.

And yet they set themselves up as our moral guides, and have been doing so since, at latest, Richard Wagner. This is built into the work. The hero artist is everywhere from The Mastersingers of Nuremberg to Charlotte's Web.

I'm not knocking the value of critical literature. There is more to being improved by literature than taking in every "approved" influence, stewing it up and acting it out with maximum fervor and humorless self-righteousness. That's why Samuel Butler's Hudibras hit the mark.

David:

And yet they set themselves up as our moral guides, and have been doing so since, at latest, Richard Wagner

Well, let me suggest it's just a little more complicated than that. Firstly, not all artists set themselves up as moral guides. Many of them simply make art. It's critics like Kirk, whose theory you describe as sound, who set them up as moral guides. Secondly, all manner of folk other than artists set themselves up as moral guides. As a matter of fact, you set yourself up right here on WoT as a moral guide with all your fire and brimstone about the evils of Hollywood & Muslims. Thirdly, Richard Wagner is a somewhat late place to start the list of artists with a moral cause.

In the end, it's a case of some do and some don't. Some like those who do and some like those who don't. Some even like both.... equally. I'm not a big fan of Match Point, but I can watch Love and Death once a month.

I'll double down on my unpopular stand. Not only do I agree with what Russell Kirk said, and think it's more to the point now than then, and valid in film as much as literature, or more so, but I'm a big fan of Reflections on the Revolution in France, except for the part where Edmund Burke comes out in favor of rotten boroughs, and at a few other peripheral points. Reflections is a very sound foundation to quote from and build on, as Russell Kirk did.

To urge moral opinions you think are true, as I do and as everyone has done since the Epic of Gilgamesh, is not to set yourself or people of your class up as epic, redemptive figures.

If David Blue is right, then David Blue is nobody special, and you should look to people like Rick Rescorla for good examples.

If Richard Wagner was right, then the Hero Artist, who's Richard Wagner or a lot like him, is all-important.

And this is why Roman Polanski gets support. True, he raped and sodomized a 13 year old girl, but he is a Great Artist.

It's a deeply corrupted scale of values, and I think it's at odds with what great narrative art ought to do.

David Blue:

And yet they set themselves up as our moral guides

A good part of my negative reaction to Kirk's essay was the notion that the writer is "meant to teach us what it is to be fully human...." This strikes me as utter condescension.

I think the writer (or at least the novelist) is meant to entertain us, and whether he entertains the mind or merely the lower extremities, and whether his reach extends in both time and place, or the factors that make him or her great.

BTW? How do we know whether those ancient Greeks were just as degenerate as Polanski?

David:

what great narrative art ought to do [emphasis added]

ah, well there's the nub of it. There's a big difference between stating what great narrative art does, and what you think it ought to do.

If a work doesn't do what it is supposed to do, then you can simply turn around and say, "it isn't great narrative art."

This is an excellent illustration of a tautology.

I think what is being left out of this discussion so far is the extent to which great works share a high level of aesthetic value, not moral value, which is much tougher thing to define.

Kirk's list of writers, and as many that he leaves out, are remembered for their talent and skill, not their message or good intentions. Talent and skill are slippery, subjective things. Originality is another quality that needs to be incorporated. Great artists often shatter boundaries and traditions, both thematic and stylistic, of their own eras.

A great work of art creates a whole new space for itself to occupy. It isn't something we should -- or can -- confine with definitions or imperatives. I'm not saying it isn't fun to chat about, but let's leave the scolding behind. Stalin's dead. We don't need to revive his approach to art, do we?

PD Shaw:

A good part of my negative reaction to Kirk's essay was the notion that the writer is "meant to teach us what it is to be fully human...." This strikes me as utter condescension.

And yet in every generation that comes up, many, many young men and women are looking for guidance.

As things are, they'll be much better off getting it from Spider-Man 2 (2004) than from our corrupted canon of critically acclaimed serious / high art.

PD Shaw:

I think the writer (or at least the novelist) is meant to entertain us, and whether he entertains the mind or merely the lower extremities, and whether his reach extends in both time and place, or the factors that make him or her great.

What?

PD Shaw:

BTW? How do we know whether those ancient Greeks were just as degenerate as Polanski?

I don't know. Maybe Homer hunted boys with nets, and we just never heard of it.

But they don't seem to have made art of it in the way that he has and that his good buddies have, with a critical chorus that takes moral demystification as a good thing (link).

Sophocles' Ajax exists in a different moral universe.

mark:

I think what is being left out of this discussion so far is the extent to which great works share a high level of aesthetic value, not moral value, which is much tougher thing to define.

OK, do the easy thing, and define aesthetic value.

David,

I should have been clearer. I was trying to say that aesthetic value is much more difficult to define than moral value. Not the other way around . As you may have noticed, I have a comma problem.

mark:

A great work of art creates a whole new space for itself to occupy.

Or just does what everyone has been doing for a while, but a bit better. I'm thinking of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

mark:

It isn't something we should -- or can -- confine with definitions or imperatives. I'm not saying it isn't fun to chat about, but let's leave the scolding behind. Stalin's dead. We don't need to revive his approach to art, do we?

PD Shaw led of in comment #2 by suggesting that Russell Kirk's view was not very different from that of the Ayatollah Khomeini. I answered that charge, and so you reproved me setting myself up as a moral guide "with all [my] fire and brimstone about the evils of Hollywood & Muslims."

Now you're identifying my approach and Stalin's.

Leaving aside the baselessness of this, why should I set up an additional attack for you on David Blue's "fire and brimstone about the evils of Hollywood, Muslims and Communists"?

You're Khomeini! You're Stalin! You're Khomeini and Stalin, and additionally reprehensible for being opposed to both and the principles of each!" is not much of an argument. At best, I'd call it mere scolding.

Fair enough, mark. We agree that aesthetic value is very difficult to define.

And I have a run-on sentence problem. I merely intended to clarify my disagreement with the writer as "teacher of what it means to be truly human" paradigm. I think the writer is an entertainer, and a great writer is one that is intellectually entertaining.

People like to pretend that Shakespeare was a "moral writer". That's utter BS. He writes about heroes in orgies, about their hideous temptations, about murder and racism and comedies focused around liars and drunkards. He writes about good men who are destroyed by fate (Hamlet) He writes about the folly of life itself. If you don't see this, you obviously don't understand what makes Shakespeare great.

And I think when you look at movies like "match point" and "Eyes Wide Shut" both explore the "vile" while the viewer stands apart in disgust (note: these films are only mediocre examples). That's intended, as it is in Macbeth. The film (or play) does not condone the characters actions.

Better examples exist when the "hero" starts from embracing depravity, while the film lifts away to show the rot at the core. The show Mad Men is a good illustration. It's looking at the 60's through a modern frame. To the characters, the chauvinism, sexism and racism is unnoticeable, but gazing on them with fresh eyes we see what they cannot. The dashing male character's lies are slowly killing his family, but he doesn't notice (or doesn't worry) because his friends are doing the same. The show clearly condemns what the characters do not.

This sometimes creates issues with fans who are so attracted to the "system" they miss the part where the vile destroys. Then you end up with fight clubs breaking out, and heroin junkies who use trainspotting as their motto. Is it the fault of the audience that they misunderstand the art? Is art to blame for individuals who clearly cannot understand the consequences faced by the main characters?

I think exploring 'the vile' is healthy to a certain extent. Many people call hollywood "lies" but in my opinion, many scripts (especially independent films) are deeply personal. They write about flaws they see, or have experienced, and try to understand where they came from, and where they are going. If art can illustrate and explain how & why individuals are flawed, they surpass the vile and become art. Just off the top of my head... "13 conversations about a single thing", & "Talanted Mr. Ripley" are examples of films focused on the flaws of their characters, and how that shakes their lives.

Now there are those that are vile for the sake of being vile. For me, it comes down to whether the film resonates with reality. If some character (no matter how terrible) reflects a piece of humanity, art is created. The better the reflection, the better the art. This is where Shakespeare excelled, and why he is still readable to this day.

And that's why sometimes I hate the classics this author loves. If a writer is more interested in his "moral parable" than with a reflection of reality, the work is often dull and uninspired (Hunchback, Last of the Mohicans... just to name a few).

However, sometimes these "fantasies" this writer laments properly reflect humanity without any focus on "morality" or "reality". For this I turn to Haurki Murakami & Tarkovsky. I can't tell you what a single book/movie by them means, but somewhere in there, they reflect my soul. That's damn impressive, especially in worlds that are pure wonderland.

David,

I'm not sure you need to take it quite so personally. I can't speak for PD, but I do think it is worth pointing out that your condemnation of certain types of art as morally degenerate shares some qualities with Stalin's and Khomeini's condemnation of certain types of art as morally degenerate. In pointing this out, it is my hope that you might modify your views somewhat--specifically re-evaluating the wisdom of judging art by its moral content instead of by its entertainment value. You can see how unattractive an approach it is when someone who doesn't share your moral views employs it. I'm certainly not calling you Stalin.

By raising the shadow of Khomeini, I never intended to label Kirk or people that agree with him to be Islamic Fundamentalist. Perhaps a less controversial statement would be that I don't want to live in Plato's Republic under the guidance of philosopher kings. I reject the notion that those simply by virtue of writing ability have some special moral knowledge.

And David, you seem to believe that the writers and artists that are signing petitions are exerting some significant influence on how Polanski will be treated. I think not, at least in the United States. They are cashing in on celebrity, but if they really wanted to influence the debate, they would create great works of art that glamorized thirteen year olds being raped and sodomized. I rather think many of them have lost influence by signing petitions. (Except Woody Allen)

OK, I hash up my sentences too, constantly, so there'll be no snooty remarks from me. :)

I don't want to knock "intellectual entertainment" as a motive for creation. We have The Lord of the Rings because J.R.R. Tolkien loved artificial languages, and wanted a world where his fit. (The Lord of the Rings in both book and extended length DVD set versions rings all my chimes as worthy art.)

I don't think that entertainment and nothing else is a big enough blanket to cover what great literature is for. I agree with Russell Kirk that there is literature that has value in forming better men and women, in a way that an equal amount of time doing (say) crossword puzzles would not. Not that there is anything wrong with puzzles, but they don't substitute for Homer or the Poetic Edda.

This is not to say that what literature is for exhausts the value of literature.

Tolkien thought that God was a creator, and that creativity was a touch of divinity in man. I agree. The implication of that belief is: the attempt to create art is proper, in keeping with the best in mankind, and it requires no other justification. (Which is why I strongly disagree with "beware the failed artist". I would say "It's proper to make the attempt, and never mind if you fail.)

mark:

David,
I'm not sure you need to take it quite so personally.

OK, third personal attack: taking it personally.

mark:

I can't speak for PD, but I do think it is worth pointing out that your condemnation of certain types of art as morally degenerate shares some qualities with Stalin's and Khomeini's condemnation of certain types of art as morally degenerate. In pointing this out, it is my hope that you might modify your views somewhat--specifically re-evaluating the wisdom of judging art by its moral content instead of by its entertainment value.

And a handy explanation of your strategy, not that it wasn't obvious. You're putting pressure on me to change my views, by gluing my opinions to those of Stalin and Khomeini. To stop the pain, I should judge art by its entertainment value rather than its moral value.

mark:

You can see how unattractive an approach it is when someone who doesn't share your moral views employs it. I'm certainly not calling you Stalin.

I can see how unpleasant you're being. And I'm certainly not calling you Roman Polanski.

But, I think it's important to hold up a mirror to bad behavior and illegitimate personal shots, rather than hunkering down in a purely defensive crouch, which lets attackers have an inherently rewarding free run.

So in the interests of holding up a mirror...

I do think it is worth pointing out that your trivialization of all art as morally blank entertainment shares some qualities with the thinking of serial killers making trophies or keepsakes of their victims. In pointing this out, it is my hope that you might modify your views somewhat--specifically re-evaluating the wisdom of judging art by its entertainment content instead of by its moral value.

You can see how unattractive an approach yours is, when someone who doesn't share your (presumed) restraint regarding chainsaws and human leather face-masks employs it. I'm certainly not calling you Ed Gein, so I hope you won't take the old you and your serial killer peers gambit personally.

Shall we go on? Or are we done, now that I'm starting to push back a little? Because I think we're done.

PD Shaw:

I reject the notion that those simply by virtue of writing ability have some special moral knowledge.

This, we agree on.

Assuming we agree that everyone who has signed in support of Roman Polanski is a moral dead-head and / or depraved, and assuming we agree there are talented writers on that list, we've got proof that writing ability does not grant any moral knowledge.

PD Shaw:

And David, you seem to believe that the writers and artists that are signing petitions are exerting some significant influence on how Polanski will be treated.

I think peer support has influenced how Roman Polanski has been treated for over thirty years, and justice delayed is justice denied.

I think signing the petition was intended to be more effective than it probably will be. I also think it makes the responsibility and the guilt of those who chose to sign their names in support of the fugitive child rapist as clear as can reasonably be asked.

PD Shaw:

I think not, at least in the United States. They are cashing in on celebrity, but if they really wanted to influence the debate, they would create great works of art that glamorized thirteen year olds being raped and sodomized.

Art works its morally educative or mis-educative magic more subtly than that. Russell Kirk covered that.

And at this point I'll recommend Ann Althouse on Polanski (link), specifically Are Hollywood types defending Roman Polanski because they love him as a fellow artist or because of their own pedophilia? (link).

1. To hell with Roman Polanski.

2. Damned if I know what Eyes Wide Shut was all about. I enjoyed the musical score, though.

3. As much as I like Kirk, he was kind of a prude.

4. Kirk doesn't mention Tolstoy's theory of art, though from Marc's link it seems that John Gardner (whom I have not read) does.

I learned Tolstoy in school, from a pretty unsympathetic teacher, and it seemed to me afterwards that Tolstoy is the aesthetic equivalent of Democracy: the worst theory, except for all the others.

A couple of comments on the comments: David Blue mentions Tolkien. Tolkien always denied that his work was moral allegory; he insisted that he was concerned only with creating myth. The creative imagination - and his was hard to match - is the whole point.

Alchemist on Shakespeare: Your point is mostly well taken, but you can make a strong case for Shakespeare as a moralist. (For that matter, you can make a case for William S. Burroughs as a moralist.) For example, it is not at all clear to me that blind fate is what destroys Hamlet.

At any rate, we love Shakespeare because he has all the things that Kirk finds missing in contemporary lit - real love, and real hate.

Tolstoy shouldn't be mentioned without Chesterton's commentary on him.

bq.Joan of Arc was not stuck at the cross-roads, either by rejecting all the paths like Tolstoy, or by accepting them all like Nietzsche. She chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt. Yet Joan, when I came to think of her, had in her all that was true either in Tolstoy or Nietzsche, all that was even tolerable in either of them. I thought of all that is noble in Tolstoy, the pleasure in plain things, especially in plain pity, the actualities of the earth, the reverence for the poor, the dignity of the bowed back. Joan of Arc had all that and with this great addition, that she endured poverty as well as admiring it; whereas Tolstoy is only a typical aristocrat trying to find out its secret. And then I thought of all that was brave and proud and pathetic in poor Nietzsche, and his mutiny against the emptiness and timidity of our time. I thought of his cry for the ecstatic equilibrium of danger, his hunger for the rush of great horses, his cry to arms. Well, Joan of Arc had all that, and again with this difference, that she did not praise fighting, but fought. We know that she was not afraid of an army, while Nietzsche, for all we know, was afraid of a cow. Tolstoy only praised the peasant; she was the peasant. Nietzsche only praised the warrior; she was the warrior.

I might be able to get behind the idea that each piece of great literature or great art serves a moral purpose. Kirk seems to be sharpening that to say that great literature all serves the moral purpose, which he will describe to you at length.

And that's where I let Kirk ride off into the sunset without me. All the moral absolutists look depressingly similar to me.

Glen: In many cases, sure, you could argue Shakepeare was a moralist, but I would not apply that logic to Hamlet. What is, after all the moral message there?

Revenge solves nothing? Yes... and no. Revenge leads him to kill the priest accidentally, but most of the play (and his eventual failure) results from him refusing to come to terms with what must be done.

So maybe the moral is to act quickly, and bring justice swiftly? To kill before you are killed? I think the fact that Hamlet is wary of murder is what makes him so...human. He isn't an action figure, he is a caring soul with no good options.

And I think we can all agree that there's no morality in letting regicide go unpunished (especially when the King is likely (and does) try to kill Hamlet).

I heard Jude Law talking about Hamlet (coming out soon) and I think he's got it right. Hamlet is the ideal man (likely even a depiction of Shakespeare himself), a man who would have been an ideal king. But life has beat him down, stolen greatness from him. In that way, it's really more like Oedipus... more on 'fate' than morality.

Alchemist,

I have to disagree. A play like Hamlet (or Oedipus), which may well be about fate, is a play with a moral center, at least of the type that Kirk is talking about. I don't think Kirk is using "moral" to refer to the notion of right and wrong. I think he means that it offers insight (he frequently uses the word "teaches") into the nature our humanity.

I would agree that great literature can--and frequently does--offer such insight. I'm just arguing that it isn't a requirement.

What makes Shakespeare great, that is to say what sets his work apart from a writer who may have an even deeper insight into human nature, is his craft. He is a great writer because of the way in which he handles words, character, and plot--what I would call his high entertainment or aesthetic value.

But Kirk is not writing about art so much as he is writing about what he calls literature or letters. He includes theology, philosophy and history in this category, which is where I think he falls off the track. What draws one to Aristophanes is not necessarily the same as what draws one to Plato. To find the fundamental commonality between a comic satirist and an earnest philosopher is rather like trying to find the similarities between a second baseman and a grand master in chess. They're both good at games?

In any case, I reject the notion that the artistic works of "great literature are meant to teach us" anything at all. They are meant to entertain us. A book you don't enjoy reading isn't worth reading unless you are getting paid for it.

Fair enough. I guess I skimmed this article too much, but I still don't agree with him. Still, I think great art gives something that stirs the soul. I would never use the word "teach", as that implies that art must have some explicit (or measurable) meaning. Most of the books I love most I am at a loss to explain emotionally.

Still, having read from Ebert for many years, he would mention that they're are some great films that are not entertaining. Some are evil, bombastic, or painful that they cannot be enjoyed. "Birth of a nation" comes to mind, or "Triumph of the Will". Both hideous films, that have become infamous for their use of film. Here's ebert on how he (reluctantly) views Birth as an important film. Some of this conversation is wrapped in there too.

Still, I have no urge to see either of them.

Hi Alchemist,

That's very funny, actually. After I sent my last comment, I went back to look over the essay and felt that I, too, had skimmed it too much. After a more careful reading, I feel I disagree with him even more strongly and think you were closer to the mark. His view of the "moral imagination" really does have more to do with explicating right and wrong than with insight into the human condition.

He really does see literature, including novels and poems, as principally serving a moral pedagogic function. Not so much a mirror as an instruction manual.

I wonder what he thought of "Madame Bovary." I wonder what he thought of "Lolita!"

It is very difficult to look at contemporary art, and not see the diabolic imagination on full display. Now, 80% of everything is always crap, if not more. How many bands do you go through, before you get to the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Grateful Dead, etc.? Right.

But there are different types of crap. And the types that predominate tell us something about ourselves. So, too, does what we look to as a standard.

Which is why I think Kirk has a good point here, actually. Literature, as opposed to books (penny dreadfuls have never been in short supply), needs to grapple with the human condition, while acknowledging in some way that there is a greater context into which that fits. Kirk himself is careful to note that moralizing will fail, and is not what he's asking for. But he is asking for serious acknowledgement of that greater context, and some form of grappling with it that bring of of these things out. As opposed to mere voyeurism, active nihilism, or smirking cruelty as an author's voice.

So the point about Shakespeare's real love, and real hate, rings true to me. There is a difference.

Attempts to link that concept to the Ayatollah Khomeini or Stalin... I think it's dishonest and offensive. David's eventual tit-for-tat reply to it was apt.

We had better engagement of the argument with examples. So our friend Don Quixote, sure, it's a total satire on moralistic literature. BUT - ask people what they remember about it, what they like about it, what they take away. Obviously, it's Pinky and the Brain singing "to Scheme the Impossible Scheme"! ....A defensible choice, actually, because even the joke points to a truth. Most associate Cervantes work with a song he didn't write: "To dream the impossible dream." Perhaps because it's such an apt characterization. And what was Quixote's dream? Inescapably, something rooted in Moral Imagination on a grand scale. That's what folks still respond to. And it's part of the reason Don Quixote wasn't just a brief period comedy like, say, Kramer vs. Kramer.

Tolkien may not be moral allegory. I accept his denials. But it's impossible to say that he isn't grappling with the big questions of good, evil, and freedom of choice amidst large events. Yes, his main goal was a uniquely English myth. Which must, in turn, be grounded in something larger. The very project requires the Moral Imagination, and the direction of Tolkien's is clear. So is whose side he's on, as a writer, and why.

The stuff that endures does have a pattern to it; I don't see it as random, or "whatever, in the name of art."

I'm with Kirk to say that there is such a thing as a "culture of humane letters," and that societies who wish to last need to take it seriously and cultivate it. And that what we choose to cultivate, matters.

I'm also with him that there is such a thing as the Diabolic Imagination. "Eyes Wide Shut" indeed, if folks can't see it around them. I see it often, and consistently, and it bothers me. When it escalates into hatred of the good for being good, it frightens me. Perhaps because it isn't an isolated thing, but so very much of the tone of the age.

There will, of course, always be "the other 99%" of stuff out there. Most of it is neither of moral or diabolic imagination, just trivial and/or executed to a low standard. It has its place, too, and can even have many virtues (Would the world be a poorer place without Bugs Bunny? Hell, yes!). But its place isn't on top, or as a standard-setter. The composition of it is a legitimate subject for discussion and criticism.

Alchemist -

Hamlet is NOT Oedipus. Oedipus is screwed from birth; his tragedy is metaphysical. The characters in Hamlet meet their fates because of the choices they make.

There is absolutely a moral to this story; at the end Horatio is about to impart it to Fortinbras: "And let me speak to the yet unknowing world how these things came about. So shall you hear of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts; of accidental judgments,casual slaughters; of deaths put on by cunning and forc'd cause; and, in this upshot, purposes mistook fall'n on th' inventors' heads."

There is a world of difference between this and nihilist literature, where all ethical action is treated as a delusion, sham, or hypocrisy, and the author frequently takes sadistic delight in punishing characters who pretend to it.

Joe:
"Eyes Wide Shut" indeed, if folks can't see it around them. I see it often, and consistently, and it bothers me.

This is how I feel about "Blue Velvet", for reasons I can't quite understand. The film has a strangely comfortable feel, like checking into a good hotel. But in spite of the beautiful Isabella Rossellini, the sexuality is absolutely repellent. Dennis Hopper's Frank is one of the most terrifying characters ever depicted on film, and the continual threat of violence is painful. The main character, Jeffrey, never earns my sympathy.

This film should make me sick to my stomach, but something holds it above that. What makes me sick instead is the mean-spirited sentimentality of "Titanic". Go figure.

Glen:_The characters in Hamlet meet their fates because of the choices they make._

I always thought of Hamlet as a single character play, motivated around the psyche of Hamlet. From my memory, we know much, much less about the motivations of those around him.

Do you think this last line implies Hamlet's judgement is accidental? We've gone through 200 pages demonstrating that he is certain. (And then there's the part where his uncle kills him...)

So, on Hamlet... be more specific. Based on this "clear" moral, how should Hamlet have acted?

It seems to me there wasn't a "good" choice left. He searched for it until the final scene limited his options.

Joe: I never like Zeppelin, or the dead. Give me the stones. Give me Mingus. Give me Ben Folds. One man's trash eh?

On David Blue & Ann Althouse (#30)

Ann Althouse goes on to name Oscar-nominated films Doubt, Milk, Slumdog, The Reader & Benjamin Button as films centered around pedophilia, and so therefore Hollywood must have pedophilia on the mind (and QED must embrace phedophilia).

I can play this game too!

Ann Althouse likes to write about Obama. Ergo, Ann althouse is obsessed with Obama! Ann Althouse loves Obama! OMG I'VE broken the code![snark off]

To be fair, I haven't seen most of these films. But just because a film discusses pedophilia, or deals with pedophiles, does not mean it should automatically be in the "pro" category. The films I have seen lately on this count "Born into Brothels", "Mysterious Skin" & "Monsoon Wedding" have a lot to say on this matter without being part of a pro-pedophillic cabal that's clearly working for Polanski.

The same thing happened with "Million Dolar Baby" which was partly about euthanasia, talked about it honestly, and showed how it destroyed the main characters. Nuance is everything.

This goes back to what I said about "vile" before. Let's face it:Life can be vile. Sometimes, especially if they've been touched by it, writers & artists have a compulsion to write it down, clean it from their system. That doesn't mean that vile is depicted as a "good" thing... often through nuance, it is declared otherwise.

Alchemist:
Based on this "clear" moral, how should Hamlet have acted?

Hamlet's alleged indecisiveness is vastly overstated. When he learns that Claudius murdered his father, he can't "sweep to his revenge" until he is absolutely sure the accusation is true. He especially distrusts it because it aligns with his own personal hatred for Claudius. Hamlet is the most honest of people, a man who is ruthlessly honest with himself. Because he despises Claudius, he takes pains to make sure he is proceeding justly against Claudius.

Having made sure by means of the play, Hamlet is now fully prepared to slaughter Claudius, with no bleeding heart reservations whatsoever. But when he finds Claudius at prayer, he hesitates. Hamlet now takes his revenge to a higher level - he not only wants Claudius dead, he wants him damned. He decides to withhold his revenge until he can strike Claudius down with unrepented sins on his soul.

This is Hamlet's fall - he has a right to Claudius' life, but not to his soul. He gets his wish, but at a brutal price: the unrepented sin will be Hamlet's own murder, and the death of his mother, too.

Likewise Laertes, who is Hamlet's echo, gets revenge for his father and sister, but only by stooping to dishonorable means that costs him his own life, as well.

Life can be vile. Sometimes, especially if they've been touched by it, writers & artists have a compulsion to write it down, clean it from their system.

Let's face it: Vile (evil) is more fun. Dostoevsky said that he had to work very hard to create the good Aloysha in The Brothers Karamazov, but the ravings of Ivan Karamazov and Smerdyakov just poured out of him.

So evil can make great art (John Milton! Dante!) but wallowing in human corruption can also be a dodge, by making mere depravity look like something profound.

BTW - if no one here is familiar with it, Russell Kirk wrote some very fine horror fiction.

Glen:+1

Yep I forgot the "prayer" scene, and the one moment where we have insight into Claudius thoughts (It has been 10 years).

Kirk on "horror fiction". It just seems weird to me that someone who has spent a long letter breaking down the "vile" would take an impish delight in writing it. I agree, there is a lot of vile out there, but in many cases, I love it. Even, if it isn't "high art" (Lovecraft, Palahuniak, King)

_there are two kinds of people involved in the arts- the tiny minority the produces almost everything worthwhile, and the vast sea of 'experts' that make their livings explaining why the former is so important.

In fact these people are induced to portray art as critical and relevant as possible, mainly because of their own inability to produce anything worthwhile themselves. The 'message' has to be meaningful and complex in order to justify their own jobs in unraveling the mystery and explaining it to the riff-raff._

While I certainly can't deny that this sort of thing happens, I detect a whiff of philistinism here. The critic does serve a valuable function. Professionally trained readers who have a supple interpretive mind, minute attention to detail, and a thorough knowledge of the contexts (historical, personal, philosophical etc.) of works of literature (a set of qualities which I concede is not present in all critics but certainly is in the best of them) can help ordinary readers see what they might otherwise have missed, make connections that might not otherwise have occurred to them, and make reading a work of literature a deeper, more rewarding, and yes, more entertaining experience. Keep in mind, authors, particularly great ones, often do more or other than they intend (I know this as a writer (albeit a meager one) myself. Hemingway may or may not have been sincere when he said the sea was just the sea, but that does not intrinsically invalidate reading it as other things as well, provided an effective argument can be made for those readings.

I also believe both mark and David Blue are right about Shakespeare and both wrong. Shakespeare's greatness consists both in having some of the most profound insights into life and humanity our culture has produced and in his ability to embody those insights in some of the most beautifully crafted writing our culture has produced. One may have great ideas without great craft or vice versa, but the truly immortal works have both.

Also mark, I'm sure Stalin and Khomeini both considered certain actions morally degenerate that we would not. Does that mean there are no morally degenerate actions?

There are pieces of iconic fiction that we all know and that influence us and help us communicate with each other.

If one pokes into what books were read by the leaders of the Revolution, the framers of the Constitution and the principal men of America before 1800, one finds that nearly all of them were acquainted with a few important books: the King James version of the Bible, Plutarch’s Lives, Shakespeare, something of Cicero, something of Vergil. This was a body of literature highly normative. The founders of the Republic thought of their new commonwealth as a blending of the Roman Republic with prescriptive English institutions; and they took for their models in leadership the prophets and kings and apostles of the Bible, and the noble Greeks and Romans of Plutarch.

They could not have done much better. I would be very happy to learn that people charged with the gravest responsibilities had all read such things, and were swapping quotes at each other and seeing the world through that lens.

I'd be happy too if they were all Tolkien fans and had all grown up as C.S. Lewis fans, from the books and movies.

Suppose they were all Star Wars fans, which is what I think we've got, because new military thinkers happily called themselves the "Jedi Knights". That's not bad. It's not the very best, and I'd be much happier if all of them had Virgil and Homer under their belts too. But it's a healthy influence.

Now look at Thomas Harris' immensely popular and influential series of books, also available as movies: The Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon, Hannibal and Hannibal Rising.

Would anyone care to argue that that's not the diabolic imagination on full display? Or that any influence from, say Hannibal would not be poisonous?

I'm not advocating any sort of censorship or purge of literature and movies, nor was Russell Kirk. It's not just that other people should make their own choices, though that's fundamental. I wouldn't even purge Crank (2006) from my own DVD collection, because I think it's laugh-out-loud funny.

But if you grew up on Hannibal, Dexter and torture porn movies, and gave everything from Sophocles to Solzhenitsyn a pass, you'd be missing out on normative vitamins that it's important to get somewhere, and you'd be much less equipped to be part of a productive elite communicating on the basis of a shared understanding of life founded on weighty and good influences.

" The critic does serve a valuable function. Professionally trained readers who have a supple interpretive mind, minute attention to detail, and a thorough knowledge of the contexts (historical, personal, philosophical etc.) of works of literature (a set of qualities which I concede is not present in all critics but certainly is in the best of them) can help ordinary readers see what they might otherwise have missed, make connections that might not otherwise have occurred to them, and make reading a work of literature a deeper, more rewarding, and yes, more entertaining experience."

So the critics say. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, I don't need a floriphile to explain the nuances of rose scent.

If literary critics provide one unabashed good its allowing literature student to avoid reading the source material. Let somebody else make the nuanced connections, Dancin with the Stars is on.

Criticism and creativity are not neatly divided. Livy was great. So was Machiavelli.

On literary critics: J.R.R. Tolkien was one.

I find C.S. Lewis' The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature vastly helpful in understanding the medieval mentality, or the better parts of it.

Add T.S. Eliot to the list of critics, and the refutation is complete. Though I agree that art and criticism tend to sort poorly in most minds.

If literary critics provide one unabashed good its allowing literature student to avoid reading the source material. Let somebody else make the nuanced connections, Dancin with the Stars is on.

Boy, that whiff of philistinism has become an overwhelming effluvium.

Re Tolkien, Lewis, etc- there is a substantial difference between a critic and a scholar. A scholar, for instance, is a researcher and a teacher. A critic, in this context, believes he is adding to the whole of the work via his own insights. I think Tolkien would take offense at being tagged to that word. The irony is that a scholar does add to our appreciation of the work by actually adding context etc. A critic simply tars the work with interpretation purely with arguments from authority.

"Boy, that whiff of philistinism has become an overwhelming effluvium."

A sure sign of a critic is using a fifty cent word where a nickle would suffice. Someone should do a computer analysis of the number of syllables in the words of classic works compared to the critical analysis accompanying them.

Regardless, your premise is proving my point. I happen to believe art would be appreciated more with less analysis by so called authority. You seem to be assuming that not appreciating the allegedly brilliant insights the critics bring to the table is equivalent to not appreciating art. That's ridiculous.

And btw I recall Tolkien despised allegory as well. He absolutely rejected any connection between the war of the ring and WW2. Does the comparison make for a richer story? Tolkien certainly thought not.

Fred,

Also mark, I'm sure Stalin and Khomeini both considered certain actions morally degenerate that we would not. Does that mean there are no morally degenerate actions?

No, not all. Again, I can't speak for PD Shaw, who brought up Khomeini, but I was drawing a comparison between Stalin & Kirk's attitude toward art, not between their actions or any other beliefs or the way they part their hair.

While Kirk is not a Pinard prosecuting Flaubert for writing Madame Bovary, he does make the exact same claims about the role and purpose of art that Pinard made and which he used to condemn Madame Bovary. It's those claims I take issue with.

I beleive that what separates the tiny proportion of art that we call "great" from all the other art (some of which is good, some not so much) is the higher quality of its artistic achievement, not the clarity of its moral vision.

When Kirk says "the better the artist..the more subtle the preacher," while he may be trying to distract us from the essential moralistic nature of his theory, he reveals that, in the end, he still equates an artist with a priest.

On critics: I've actually learned alot by reading critics. I grew up watching bad movies at 2am... the same kindof stuff Tarantino grew up on.

At some point, I wanted something different. So, I started with Ebert. He would review a movie and say something like (paraphrased)... "this is just a modern version of (x)" or "... an American version of (y)" or "covers the same ideas as this independent film, but the indie film is focused more on character and less on fx".

It really turned me on to films I've never heard of (nor had the people around me): Solaris(russian ver), The Devil's Backbone, The Station Agent, Old Boy (speaking of vile...) just to name a few. The trick is simply finding a critic that you tend to agree with, who is also very knowledgeable about the art. (Sense of humor is good too).

Tolkien absolutely rejected any connection between the war of the ring and WW2.
In my opinion, once an artist distributes art, it doesn't really belong to them anymore. You can't control how people perceive your artwork. Frankly, if people see their life and events in your work, then it seems more likely to stand the test of time. It doesn't matter if it's intentional or not.

Russell Kirk doesn't want a "humane letters" that's "moral" in the simple, propagandistic sense of advocating things he approves of. He doesn't want to drive alternative ideas out of the public space, Communist style. Above all, he doesn't want people with crimped imaginations and third-rate educations, "smatterers" (Solzhenitsyn's word), who can't be moral beyond a certain point, because they haven't developed the imaginative reach and subtlety to see beyond man as a brute beast and "more cakes for me, less cakes for you." There is nothing like "Socialist realism" in Kirk's thinking, nor any "new Soviet man", nor that hatred for "escapism" which is the sure sign of the jailer. In sum, he doesn't want to bash people into peg-holes (implementing a collectivist vision).

Rather, he wants people to grow, to flourish, to develop increased personal capacities and then refine them and put them to good use. This is a Western-style individual-centred approach.

He advocates fantasy first, then narrative history and biography, then reflective prose and poetic fiction, then philosophy and theology. I have a caveat about that: it only describes the ideal case, where a child can grow as he should, with no crisis to react to. But the ideal is clear, and if the course of education needs to be modified for an individual who needs urgently to consider something like deaths in the family and theodicy, that doesn't challenge the idea that humane letters should help people to grow and become the best that they can be.

Given the range of facilities that might help someone to cultivate their moral intuition and use it to the best advantage, and that Kirk is in favor of all of them, it's beside the point to say that this or that book, series or movie is pure fantasy, or history with no specific moral point. The Matrix (1999) and Patton (1970) fits perfectly well into Kirk's framework, even if you assume that neither has any moral, and that a child learns nothing from them but "once there was a man, an American soldier, like this", or...

Morpheus: "Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?"

David,

[Kirk] wants people to grow, to flourish, to develop increased personal capacities and then refine them and put them to good use. This is a Western-style individual-centred approach.

That's all fine and dandy. I'm just saying it isn't the responsibility of art, (or an individual artist) to promote what Kirk wants.

Trying to squeeze literature into a role that isn't of its own making is a mistake. Literature will never stand for such an imperative, no matter how good it may sound. It's simply not its job.

Narrative art should no more be expected or required to "search the human heart to find in it the laws of moral existence" than should a string quartet or a still life of fruit.

Some short shots:

Mark, I think your definitions are unfair. You're just using two words (scholar vs critic) for the same activity depending on whether you agree with the message or not.

Alchemist, on allegory and interpretations, I agree and disagree. I agree absolutely that art is an artifact of interpretation-- once the author creates his work, he is done. If he needs to explain or comment further, this is an indication of failure, and it is up to the readers (or viewers, whatever) to provide the rest of the interpretation.

On the other hand, allegory is a pretty heavy word for me, implying not just elements of symbolism, but an extended, point for point metaphor that's hard to ignore. I don't think Tolkien was denying the idea of symbolism in literature, only that he was not writing LOTR with World War II in mind. He is certainly qualified to make that assertion, and I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt there-- any World War II that I read into it is therefore mostly mine.

David Blue, I disagree with your interpretation of Kirk. I wish I could read him the way you do, but when he uses loaded words like "the diabolical imagination," I think I can fairly accuse him of demonizing art he doesn't like, even if he may not be calling for censorship. Literally.

Arts come from somewhere. They have special meaning and sanction in some civilizations but not others. It was the Greeks that produced drama, originally for religious reasons. It was not, and never would have been, Islam that great great bodies of figurative art. In that context, it is reasonable to say that for the West, narrative arts do have a moral function.

Of course, every individual piece of narrative art doesn't necessarily fit that function. This is part of of Kirk's charge: we have at least two kinds of imagination that have fundamentally defected from the great project: the idyllic imagination, and the diabolic imagination. (And nothing Kirk says forbids the creation of another kind of defection. There's no special need for it, but he does not guarantee that new social circumstances and man's perversity can't come up with anything else.)

As far as I'm concerned, the American Renaissance embodies "the way it ought to be" and the art Barack Obama is moving onto the White house walls now is "the way it ought not to be," short of Saw movie posters and torture porn stills from Hostel.

The American Renaissance was not only a movement in literature that was awesomely productive in a short time, but an art movement that strove to make concrete for Americans a national heritage based on the best of Greece, Rome and the Renaissance in Europe. There is nothing better that could have been attempted - and attempted with great success.

"Watusi" embodies an aesthetic that might as well have been devised by some KGB bureaucrat specifically to make America's public spaces demoralizing and destitute of American values worth standing up for, and - after standards are done away with - that's all about Affirmative Action. In other words:

Get me art by an African American woman!
Sir, but what if it's not as good as some dead white male's art?
Artists have abolished "good". It's all about bluffing now. What's real is race, gender and so on. Mainly race, while I'm around.

That represents a failure of moral imagination. It's back to "more cakes for me, less cakes for you."

The ties that ought to transcend race are as far as I can see so weak as to be useless in Barack Obama. He's spent his life in a corrupted educational system, in a radically bad church, and in a corrupted political system, all of which have allowed and encouraged him to see race as a trump card, not something you have to get beyond, and this is where he's ended up: with Affimative Action fake art.

It's the equivalent of "I, Rigoberta Menchú" as biography. What matters is to be the person that biased judges intend to give the awards to. The rest can be fake.

Barack Obama has just won a Nobel prize himself in the same way: for nothing but race and power, having gotten his nomination within days of taking office.

Here we have a "new" school of criticism, a "new" scale of values, that applies to literature, art and the moral worth of persons. (A few days into his first term of office, a nomination for a Nobel prize for Barack Obama was about him and his race, and not about anything he had accomplished for peace.)

It's really the oldest "old school" of all, apart from art produced my mankind's primordial religious needs. Between two indifferent bits of color smeared on a cave wall, the one produced by the chief's son is the beautiful one, the one produced by the member of the disfavored tribe, is the ugly one.

Marcus Vitruvius:

David Blue, I disagree with your interpretation of Kirk. I wish I could read him the way you do, but when he uses loaded words like "the diabolical imagination," I think I can fairly accuse him of demonizing art he doesn't like, even if he may not be calling for censorship. Literally.

What do you mean by that "literally"? He isn't calling for censorship.

Nor does he set the standard: "art ought to be demonized if Russell Kirk would not have liked it."

Who likes something is not the point. The point is whether this literature facilitates the development of capacities that will help the individual in Western society to act ethically, which means first being aware that a radical "demystification" of all culturally elaborated moral values is barbarism, not truth.

Russell Kirk might have liked a lot of art that has nothing to do with that, as I do, and he might have found himself bored to tears by a lot of worthy, received literature, as I am, but that's irrelevant.

The "diabolic" label is slightly problematic for me, though only slightly, given how solid his approach is in general. It's a word that fits neatly into the mindset of a Christian and a Catholic convert, which is not where I'm coming from. It's a "hot" word, and I'm a big fan of cool, neutral language.

But he needed some word that could immediately be understood. And it fits way too much literature and art.

I feel the same way as Glen Wishard about Blue Velvet (1986). There's something badly wrong with that.

There's way too much literature that ought to be called diabolic, because it sets out from the first to profit from shock, perversity and degradation. When the author seems to have a smug, sadistic set against anyone who believes in decent values and is trying to do the right thing, a pejorative is called for.

If you start using the word "diabolic" you need to take great care to keep the discussion at an even and low temperature. We will not all agree on what fits into what box, even if we agree on what the boxes are. (Sade obviously "yes", Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence "maybe" - I'd agree, others wouldn't, and they aren't in league with "the diabolic" in virtue of disagreeing.)

And I'm pretty sure I wouldn't agree with Russell Kirk on the shape of the boxes.

Russell Kirk seems happy with divine revelation as he received it, with custom, convention and tradition as he knew them. But almost any pagan is going to look at Christendom and see much to admire and much that's been refined to the point that it's better to go with it than to reject it even if the foundations are wrong; but also a lot of things that make you think: "wrong way, go back. Start again on a better foundation."

According to Russell Kirk's religion, all of that would be diabolic by definition, since Jesus is rejected at the outset, but according to his theory of humane letters, it isn't necessarily diabolic. Rather the question is whether it's constructive in a way that can be built on, or merely an idyllic dead end, or whether it wallows in perversity and the subhuman. (I assume: compared to a hopeful view of what a fully realized human can be.)

He doesn't say there are no new beginnings, or that there or that there are no old paths that might be walked again, perhaps to somewhere good. All he says (my emphasis added) is:

The idyllic imagination ordinarily terminates in disillusion and boredom.
When that occurs, too often a third form of imagination obtains ascendancy.

It seems obvious to me that he's right. Can't we see that "too often" all around us?

I mean he isn't calling for censorship literally, but it seems to me he would be inordinately happy if people would stop writing things of which he disapproves. The jump from, "I don't like this," to "This is morally bad," is very troubling to me.

However:

Who likes something is not the point. The point is whether this literature facilitates the development of capacities that will help the individual in Western society to act ethically, which means first being aware that a radical "demystification" of all culturally elaborated moral values is barbarism, not truth.

What is a radical demystification of all culturally elaborated moral values?

I suspect I know, but I'd rather not just assume.

Marcus Vitruvius:

I mean he isn't calling for censorship literally, but it seems to me he would be inordinately happy if people would stop writing things of which he disapproves. The jump from, "I don't like this," to "This is morally bad," is very troubling to me.

He doesn't jump jump from, "I don't like this," to "This is morally bad," he has a theory, and it isn't all about him.

Russell Kirk is explicitly against "Gradgrind" education and stultifying the young imagination, he doesn't want young people to be "educated" to adjust them to whatever society dishes out, he doesn't carve out an exception "unless what society wants is consonant with my milk pudding utopia", he praises myths he admits are "not very nice" (no lie!) and that are inconsustent with his religion, and he himself wrote stuff that wouldn't fit into a "nice thoughts only" curriculum; so I don't see what more he can do to make himself clear.

Also, as long as you agree that it's not your call, according to law, what people write and say - it's fine to wish people had never written some things. Seriously, have you ever chewed your way through the complete Sade? If you do, like me, because you think it's "important", you are likely to finish by thinking that mankind would be better off if all that had never been written. It would require a heroic degree of perversity for you not to at least wish that Sade could have been more concise, briefer, less repetitious.

Marcus Vitruvius:

What is a radical demystification of all culturally elaborated moral values?
I suspect I know, but I'd rather not just assume.

He quotes Burke to spell this out.

On this scheme of things, a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order. All homage paid to the sex in general as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded as romance and folly. . . . On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations, or can spate to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows . . .

Burke has plenty more to say on the cultural elaboration of values, through tradition, historical development and reference, and a bottom-up process, from the individual, family, small groups and social networks, all the way to the state, which he thinks should never be allowed the strength to abolish the "little battalions" of moral cultivation under it. Since Russell Kirk is simply agreeing, it's fine for him just to say, in effect, "read Edmund Burke for the rest."

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Recent Comments
  • TM Lutas: Jobs' formula was simple enough. Passionately care about your users, read more
  • sabinesgreenp.myopenid.com: Just seeing the green community in action makes me confident read more
  • Glen Wishard: Jobs was on the losing end of competition many times, read more
  • Chris M: Thanks for the great post, Joe ... linked it on read more
  • Joe Katzman: Collect them all! Though the French would be upset about read more
  • Glen Wishard: Now all the Saudis need is a division's worth of read more
  • mark buehner: Its one thing to accept the Iranians as an ally read more
  • J Aguilar: Saudis were around here (Spain) a year ago trying the read more
  • Fred: Good point, brutality didn't work terribly well for the Russians read more
  • mark buehner: Certainly plausible but there are plenty of examples of that read more
  • Fred: They have no need to project power but have the read more
  • mark buehner: Good stuff here. The only caveat is that a nuclear read more
  • Ian C.: OK... Here's the problem. Perceived relevance. When it was 'Weapons read more
  • Marcus Vitruvius: Chris, If there were some way to do all these read more
  • Chris M: Marcus Vitruvius, I'm surprised by your comments. You're quite right, read more
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