We all carry within us our places of exile our crimes and our ravages. But our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to fight them in ourselves and in others.
It's easy today, when a vast infrastructure of cultural conservatism has been securely established, to forget the courage of those poor souls who stood crying in the wilderness back in the days before. Thus, in politics, we tend not to give men like Albert Jay Nock and H. L. Mencken the credit they deserve for standing up against the New Deal. Meanwhile, in the field of literary criticism, while we recall C.S. Lewis and his Abolition of Man, we've forgotten this little classic, Trousered Apes--with a title borrowed from Lewis--by Duncan Williams. The book is no longer even in print, despite cover blurbs by luminaries like C. P. Snow and William F. Buckley Jr., an introduction by the great Malcolm Muggeridge, and the fact that it was short-listed for book of the year by several British periodicals (the London Sunday Times, the Sunday Telegraph, and the Observer). This is especially disturbing because Mr. Williams's message remains just as pertinent today as it was thirty years ago, unfortunately.
His topic is the decline of literature, a decline he posits began quite some time ago. He traces the problem back at least to Jean Jacques Rousseau, William Blake and the Romantics, who celebrated emotionalism and anti-authoratarianism, as typified by the French Revolution. Artists prior to that time aspired to something quite different, as Mr. Williams says:
Great literature is that which over the centuries sustained and elevated man-kind; it represents a conquest by man over the diverse and bewildering complexities of his own nature and of the world surrounding him. Such art involves a prodigious effort and concentration on the part of its creator and demands a cultivated response from its audience. As such it is exclusive, in terms of those who create it and those who can appreciate it. It therefore constitutes a minority culture . . . detested and feared by the majority of contemporary artists and writers with their egalitarian aims and allegiance.This was obviously anathema to men who believed in the Noble Savage and the radical egalitarianism of the French Revolution. In its place they erected the cult of the anti-hero, the man of "Raskolnikovian mind":
[T]he 'Raskolnikovian' temper...is well-illustrated in the following description of 'The Harvard aesthetes' (1912-1919). taken from Malcolm Cowley's essay, 'Dos Passos: Poet Against the World', in After the Genteel Tradition: "They [the aesthetes] did not seek to define their attitude except vaguely, in poems; but I think that most of them would have subscribed to the following propositions: That the cultivation and expression of his own sensibility are the only justifiable aims for a poet; That originality is his principal virtue; That society is hostile, stupid and unmanageable; it is the world of the philistines, from which it is the poet's duty and privilege to remain aloof; That the poet is always misunderstood by the world, and should, in fact, deliberately make himself misunderstandable, for the greater glory of art; That he triumphs over the world, at moments, by mystically including it within himself: these are his moments of ecstasy to be provoked by any means in his power--alcohol, drugs, ascetism or debauchery, madness, suicide; That art, the undying expression of such moments, exists apart from the world; it is the poet's revenge on society."Modern literature then, at least that by authors of Raskolnikovian temper, does not even aim at greatness, succumbing to, rather than seeking to overcome, our nature. It settles for what is least in us, finding an egalitarian level at the cost of elevated, and elevating, aspirations. It appeals to the multitude, the masses, the mob, by demanding nothing of them--though we might not the delicious irony that they tend not to like modernist art the least little bit.
Mr. Williams recognized that it was a tall order, especially when he was writing, to try and halt a cultural trend by means of a lonely polemic, but he also knew how important it was to try and return literature to the task of moral edification:
Morality always involves a sentiment of submission, a sense of service and obligation. In other words, it demands the recognition of an authoritative norm, be it secular or religious. The terms submission, service and obligation are all antithetical to the contemporary concept of freedom--freedom to write, paint, compose, act, demonstrate, riot as one pleases. We are in the process of experiencing the agonising results of such 'freedom'. 'Art', wrote Camus, 'lives only on the constraints it imposes on itself; it dies of all others. Conversely, if it does not constrain itself, it indulges in ravings and becomes a slave to mere shadows. The freest art and the most rebellious will, therefore, be the most classical'. The alternative, he suggests, is that artists will become lost in nihilism and sterility.If it is undoubtedly the case that many authors and other artists have continued down that path, it is also the case that, thanks in no small part to the rearguard action fought by men like Albert Camus, C.S. Lewis, and Duncan Williams that the rest of us can say so and, instead of feeling like lonely voices, be joined by a chorus of the like-minded. Most of us, when we read Cowley's description of the Harvard aesthetes today have sense enough to laugh at their pretensions. The exquisite term used here for artists who would believe such tripe is that they are guilty of "temporal provincialism", that they can not see beyond their own moment in time to the value of what came before. Claiming to be rebels who open up new vistas, they instead blind themselves to anything beyond their own navels. It is the Duncan Williams's of the world who, in summoning us back to the classical, effect the real rebellion and guide us again to truly free art.
See also:Literary Criticism
-ESSAY: Negate The Negation!: Rescuing Man from Nihilist Art and Materialist Science (Duncan Williams, March 1985, Imprimis)
-ESSAY: Acting Like Apes Instead of Angels (F.R. Duplantier, March 9, 1997, America's Future)
-ESSAY: Survival of the grossest as manners make a monkey of Darwin (Gerald Warner, 11/17/02, Scotland on Sunday)
Book-related and General Links:
The final conclusion would seem to be that whereas other civilizations have been brought down by attacks of barbarians from without, ours had the unique distinction of training its own destroyers at its own educational institutions and providing them with facilities for propagating their destructive ideology far and wide, all at the public expense.
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd