Saturday 19 March 2011

Political correctness as pastoral idyll


I think I perceive the roots of political correctness in the dreams of pastoral idyll - which happens to be one of my favourite dreams; a genre to which I am intensely susceptible.

The pastoral idyll... It is in Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost and As You Like It - or before that in Robin Hood in the Greenwood; it is in the Romantics such as Wordsworth in the Lake District; it is in Emerson and Thoreau beside the slow Concord River or in a hut by Walden Pond; it is in (to name a contemporary favourite) John Hansen Mitchell's Scratch Flat - it is in real life too, especially between jobs and duties and on the best kind of holidays - time out of life.


What is pastoral? And what (for Heavens sake!) could it have to do with the crushing totalitarian bureaucracy of political correctness?

The short answer is: dreaming of a life free from care, a life where nothing really bad can happen, but where we are harmlessly diverted by diversity.


Eden on earth.

A life where we sink back into a kind of animal consciousness of the present - which (so far as we perceive) is a perpetual presence: such that although we may be mortal creatures, we are not aware of our mortality.

A wish to stop being self-conscious: to stop being human, indeed - to become part of the environment (and not an observer and manipulator of the environment).

And perhaps this is indeed how life actually was - much of the time - among simple hunter-gatherers. It is possible that this really was so.


Both pastoral and PC imagine a life where our environment is benign.

There are no serious harms, nothing to disturb us.

An equality of difference (like Robin Hood and his Merry Men).

Yet not boring, not static: the pastoral idyll is diverse in the diversity of nature. Seasons, the multitude of plants and animals, the changing weather, contrasts of day and night (see Thoreau's Journals).

But all is good, all is for our potential benefit (if we could but perceive them properly, as we are supposed to). All things hold lessons for us, if we can rightly perceive them.

In the pastoral idyll we are each of us gods - we create ourselves and our own world, by the spirit in which we approach it.


To live in an eternal present, with no past and no future, and eternity conceived as just more of the same; and death as unconscious - not something actually experienced because not part of life.

It is a trance-like, indeed dream-like state, aspired to.


The shared features of pastoral and PC are therefore a benign environment including a diversity of stimuli (all of which are edifying).

The difference - and it is such a huge difference as to obscure these similarities - is that pastoral is a natural environment; while for PC the environment is wholly designed.

But both aspire to a universal acceptance that avoids any need for coercion of individuals: both pastoral and PC assume that in a benign environment, conflict will be dissolved.


The gulf between pastoral and PC is the disillusionment which stands between the romantic era and moderns. The romantics believed that reality was good if properly approached; moderns are nihilists for whom there is no reality, and for whom good must be made not found.

Animists believe that the environment is benign, like a loving parent; but for PC the environment must be controlled to make it benign. Or rather, the perception of the environment must be controlled so that it will seem good.

At one time, for a while, nihilistic moderns believed that they could - as individual gods - self-create their own universe (the creative genius as cultural exemplar); but moderns lack this faith in their own capacities. They have found that (for whatever reason) it simply doesn't work.

And to be utterly dependent on oneself to provide meaning and purpose led to solipsistic despair.


(To know that one created one's own reality, and that failure meant nothingness, no form, no meaning (nausea)... this is too overwhelmingly insecure a state to be ignored. It pressed continually upon life, interfering with living. This was existentialism, and it was too horrible to contemplate.) 


So, since the individual seemed unable to create reality, this must be done by society.

Everyone must cooperate with everyone else in this task upon which everything depends; everyone must combine to create and maintain the illusion of purpose and meaning up to the singularity when we forget that it was a created illusion and it becomes inescapably perceived reality: as real as anything can be and with no perceived alternative.

And, to be secure and dependable, this cooperation must be managed, it must be controlled, formal, systematic, and human-proof.


Political correctness aspires to an idyllic state that is fully immersive and lifelong; a virtual reality which is (according to modern metaphysics) subjectively indistinguishable from real-reality - real-reality which, anyway, is assumed to be a childish illusion, like the pastoral idyll.

PC regards itself as a mature illusion, not a childish one. The idyll of political correctness is not, therefore, an adventure playground of forests and rivers; but instead a wholly-managed, totalitarian bureaucratic state that guarantees benign diversity, among which we are free to move un-self-consciously - careless of past, future and eternity.



The Crow said...

Why do I keep saying this as often as I do..?
"The appearance of a thing, is not the thing itself."
PC is not pastoral idyll.
PC takes a thing it considers inadequate, as-is, and re-packages it after meddling with its nature.
It takes life and re-defines it, in the belief that life will somehow be improved, by denying it, and mandating that it become something else.

dearieme said...

I feel happiest in a rural setting with hills behind, water before, and lots of light. But then we probably evolved beside the lakes in the rift valley of East Africa.

Alex said...

According to the Dorothy Eagle edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature, the essence of pastoral poetry is simplicity of thought and action in a rustic setting. Necessarily, it is (perhaps, was) a poetic artifice or distraction that is uncompromised by complexity.

Political correctness seeks to modify social reality by means of an ideology that is disseminated by means of calculated mendacity. The pastoral poets knew their Arcadia appealed only to the imagination of a leisured class who, like Marie Antoinette, could escape from the tedium of the 'real' world by playing at nymphs and shepherds.

The only similarity I can see between the pastoral poets and the agents of political correctness is that both are lying. But a pastoral sensibility is surely harmless because nobody believes in the pastoral fantasies. On the other side, many people are taken in by the bogus 'humanity' of a politically correct mood. And great is the evil thereof.

(By the way Bruce, your juxtaposition of the pastoral and the politically correct is either highly original, or something I haven't come across before.)

James Kalb said...

Interesting post. I'd describe PC as an attempt to return to Eden through social administration. The 60s have been described as Edenic in inspiration, only then it was doing your own thing and the irresponsible ignorant romanticism of youth. As the 60s generation grew older they adjusted their means. Maybe the pastoral idyll was an attempt to do the same in the world of the imagination through poetic artifice.