Thursday 15 September 2011

Modernity and the blurring of approved concepts: poetry, books, creativity


One important way in which modernity subverts The Good is by blurring approved concepts until they become inclusive of the anti-Good: until approval embraces that which is hostile to The Good.


It used to be said that Good books were good, but it was recognized that not all books were Good.

Some books were bad, and it was often better not to read bad books, or to read them cautiously.

Now, however, the mainstream view is that books as such are good, and buying and reading books is something to be encouraged – the implicit idea is that reading books can do you nothing-but-good.

So (in the UK) we have a national 'book day', with no discrimination between Good and bad books.


A more specific literary example is poetry. In the days when then there was real poetry, there was always discrimination between Good and bad poetry – between beautiful, moral and true poetry which had an edifying effect; and on the other hand ugly, immoral and/ or dishonest poetry which had (if any effect) a degrading effect.

Now, when there are (by past standards) no real poets and no real poetry in the public realm; poetry has become promoted as good-in-itself: so, of course, we have a national 'poetry day' now, and public display of – err – ‘award winning’ words printed in short lines (which is what gets called poetry nowadays).


And the same applies to human attributes. Creativity used to be regarded as Good when it was divinely inspired, but evil when it was demonically inspired.

But now creativity is always regarded positively; no matter what its motivation, honesty or consequences.


This trend began with the romantic movement, more than 200 years ago; and was dissected by Thomas Mann in an interesting (but, I find, almost unreadable) novel called Doktor Faustus in which a German composer deliberately infects himself with syphilis in order to attain a demonic frenzy to inspire and energize his composition – in effect to boost his creativity and originality.

The novel is an allegory of Nazism – and the pact with the devil which gave Germany a decade of tremendous creative energy and optimism – the price of which was the near-complete destruction, distortion and emasculation of German culture (by a further demonic reaction-against the whole German spirit; which had supported many of the great achievements of modernity).


The allegory is applicable to the West in general, especially since the mid-1960s, when we sold what remained of our souls in return for that demonic frenzy of hedonic nihilism (systematic promotion of the anti-Good) that is contemporary ‘culture’.


C.S Lewis foresaw this in Screwtape Proposes a Toast – he foresaw that words like ‘democracy’ and ‘education’ would be expanded to be used as a battering-ram against The Good in general and Christianity in particular.

The process has gone so far by now that coherent reasoning is impossible when the concepts involved – such as ‘immigration’, ‘racism’, ‘social justice’, ‘poverty’, ‘torture’, ‘tolerance’, ‘freedom’, 'art', 'selfishness' and so on – have all been tendentiously expanded to disregard discriminations between the Good and the anti-Good.


What to do? - Where to turn?

In a world where you cannot talk honestly with any person in your environment; with whom can we communicate?

One place to meet Good minds is books – specifically Good books: which mostly means Old books...


A skill we need is to read Old books on their own terms.

The bad news is that there such are a lot of Old books. 

The good news is that we do not need many of them: that is a lesson of the Middle Ages. A mere few dozen various texts (some in translation, others incomplete or extracted or summarized) salvaged from the wreck of Greece and Rome, the Scriptures, and writings of the early Christian fathers sufficed to support a much higher level of intellectual discourse than we have now.

And that is all we need. 



Daniel said...

Getting to a Good Old Book after a day surrounded by glowing screens, blaring radios and jet engines: like finding a life raft in a tossing sea.

I do understand, however, and even halfway support the notion of "any book is a good book" these days. Your point about good books vs. bad books absolutely stands, and the notion that "reading is always good" is absurd after even only a moment's thought. But if one accepts the idea that the very act of reading a book (even a horrible book) engages a part of the mind that it is well to engage, and when you consider how many people basically never get away from the glowing screen (be it television, games, facebook, whatever) and when you consider how evil most of the glowing-screen-content is, it's not a totally baseless notion to suggest that any book reading would be an improvement.

Reading bad books is less likely to be a step down the slope to bad ideas and bad life — these days — and perhaps more likely to be a step up to reading good books, to good ideas, and good life. Of course, it would be much better to just skip the bad books altogether.

The Crow said...

Off topic, but while I remember:

Bruce will like this :)
If not, please excuse.

Thursday said...

The relation of the moral good to aesthetic beauty is just incredibly vexed. For example, is Homer, one of the handful of overwhelmingly great poets, morally corrupting, as Plato accused him of being? There is a good case for the prosecution.

Thursday said...

One can feel the tension of this conflict in many of C.S. Lewis' essays.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thursday - I don't agree that it is incredibly vexed: usually it is perfectly clear on which side of the line a work stand, and whether the author can be trusted (or requires to be read only through a 'filter'); but as always there are 'hard cases' and 'gray areas'.

I don't know Homer directly - perhaps Plato was simply aware that Greek society no longer subscribed to the heroic ethic of Homer's era (in which, for example, lying and cheating were perfectly acceptable in a good cause).

Wurmbrand said...

It's a good idea to reread, every few years, C. S. Lewis's "On the Reading of Old Books," which was originally a preface to a translation of St. Athanasius's On the Incarnation. He recommends that we practice the discipline of reading no more than one new book for every old book we read or reread (or something close to that). He says that older books are not necessarily better than new ones, but that they will, at least, be free of the characteristic blindnesses of our own age; where their authors were blind, we will be able to see and compensate for the errors. He could have added that a book's survival for (say) a hundred years or more suggests that it has something going for it that has stood the test of time.

Thursday said...

Poetry's whole purpose is to arouse the passions and the best poetry is that which most strongly arouses those passions. But whether those are good passions or bad passions simply simply doesn't matter from the perspective of aesthetic success. It is important to note morally good passions do in fact make good poetry, but it is the fact that they are passions that makes them amenable to poetry, not that they are good. We take pleasure in the good, but it is not the only thing we take pleasure in.

Anyway, a good summary of Plato's quarrel with poetry is here:

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thursday - modernity is built on the possibility of disunity, e.g. separating - to some extent and for a while; including transcendental goods such as virtue and aesthetics.

The possibility is there, and indeed by focusing more exclusively on the aesthetic - and disregarding virtue - the poet can (sometimes) intensify the aesthetic effect.

Classic specialization, in other words - the same amount of effort and skill is used but applied to a smaller subject matter. And some non-virtuous poets are able to thrive who would otherwise be ignored or suppressed.

These are the facts. But I am restating the ancient wisdom that this is a perilous strategy, indeed fatal if pursued.

The benefits of aesthetic specialization turn out to be very temporary, and then poetry (art) doesn't work - it has lost its unity, the work becomes lifeless and ineffectual; and artists are driven to impose significance or interest on their poetry by extrinsic factors, or by attacking morality (which is not to ignore it).

In most of modern highbrow (professional) art - the 'interest' is almost wholly extrinsic; indeed deriving from the politically correct idea of virtue. Poetry (art) has been re-moralized - but not in a unified way but by the application of morality onto lifeless and dull artifacts (or sometimes repellent artifacts) like a veneer (or a syrup).

Most bad things are good at first - else we wouldn't do them. The badness (the non-artness) of modern art is further down the line from the 'romantic' geniuses who specialized in art and set aside morality and truth - that is set aside transcendental unity.

They were indeed greatly inspired, and we still respond to that - but we now see their inspiration was demonic in origin - like Doktor Faustus.

Indeed Faust is the key - because he began as a moral warning of the dangers of pursuing power and self will; but under the hand of that Faustian figure Goethe, became a romantic hero to early modernity.