‘One of the specialties of the realistic novel, from Richardson on, was the demonstration of the influence of society on even the most personal aspects of the life of the individual. Lionel Trilling was right when he said, in 1948, that what produced great characters in the nineteenth-century European novel was the portrayal of “class traits modified by personality.” But he went on to argue that the old class structure by now had disintegrated, particularly in the United States, rendering the technique useless. Again, I would say that precisely the opposite is the case. If we substitute for class, in Trilling’s formulation, the broader term status, that technique has never been more essential in portraying the innermost life of the individual. This is above all true when the subject is the modern city. It strikes me as folly to believe that you can portray the individual in the city today without also portraying the city itself.’
‘New York City was—and still is—the only place on earth where a writer might set himself up as a professional tour guide and attract the interest of the entire planet. That’s mainly what Wolfe was, at least in the beginning: his job was to observe the sophisticates in their nutty bubble for the pleasure of the rubes in the hinterlands, and then, from time to time, venture out into the hinterlands and explain what is really going on out there to the sophisticates inside the bubble. He moves back and forth like a bridge player, ruffing the city and the country against each other. He occupies a place in between. He dresses exotically and is talented and intellectually powerful, like the sophisticates in the bubble. But he isn’t really one of them. To an extent that shocks the people inside the bubble, when they learn of it, he shares the values of the hinterland. He believes in God, Country, and even, up to a point, Republican Presidents. He even has his doubts about the reach of evolutionary theory.’
‘Hefner showed me through his chambers. The place was kept completely draped and shuttered. The only light, day or night, was electric. It would be impossible to keep track of the days in there. And presently Hefner jumped onto . . . the center of his world, the bed in his bedroom. Aimed at the bed was a TV camera he was very proud of.’
‘…aesthetics is going to replace ethics, art is going to replace religion, as the means through which educated people express their spiritual worthiness…‘
The satire of the liberal intelligentsia is pretty rich, as well as the Southern Gentleman’s WASP ‘rejuvenation.’ You just know Christopher Hitchens had to get-in on that action:
From the Late Show in 1989 with Howard Jacobson:
Was Tom Wolfe seeing things clearly, as they really are?
Certainly the liberal pieties and the conflicted, activist base is still ripe for the picking…for what is preventing the mocking of the Brooklyn hipster and the echoing of ‘This Land Is Your Land’ across the fruited plain?:
What are you looking for in a novel: Ideas and the deployment of ideas? A reflection of your life/times/society? Good prose? Characters that pop into your life? Glimpses of the author? Pleasure?
‘The deeper divisions, as Wolfe’s novel compellingly presents them, are between those who believe that happiness consists in one form of pleasure or another — including the aesthetic pleasure of sensitively glimpsing one’s own sensitivities and the sensitivities of others — and those who, like Tom Wolfe and his heroes, believe that happiness consists in the exercise of courage, self-control, and the other qualities of mind and character that constitute human excellence.’
‘I agree. I also agree that there is a kind of interesting elite consolidation under way in the U.S. that does parallel the events of the late 19th century. We have a fabulously wealthy new elite, namely tech billionaires and related folks. The established monied classes in the United States need to incorporate these people, and they’re being incorporated around a kind of woke agenda, just as the elites of the late 19th century were incorporated around a Christian agenda of social do-gooding.‘
Personally, I suspect if the American body politic were an iceberg, then a large enough portion has rolled so that religious belief comprises only a plurality nowadays. Many people are still deeply religious, and we Americans deeply idealistic, but politically and socially, especially in the upper eschelons, it’s not what it was.
I don’t trust many people promising me what it should be.
Some fears, from a Straussian perspective: This decay could presage a more European-esque politics, with many attendant problems of nihilism (unmoored individuals seeking meaning through ideology, more mainstreamed ‘burn it all down’ political factions, more radical (not merely utopian/communitarian) and politicized art movements, less social mobility and more entrenched ‘classes’, more social stratification with a scelerotic bureaucratized government apparatus).
On that note, a better path seems to pursue and partake in human excellence, where it is to be found. What kind of political order we have is up to us and our Constitution. People desperately need ‘low resolution’ ideas to form cohesive groups of any kind, especially within institutions, and many of those guiding ideas are now more socially activist and ‘change’-focused.
Where creative synthesis and new thinking are often occurring, in the arts and sciences, can lie old wisdom and new knowledge:
Venus is such a hothouse. Do we need more data?
As for the media landscape, it all depends on where you stand.
Media drift-As to more radical groups splintering and applying pressure upwards upon political idealists, high liberals, atheists and humanists.
Maybe ignorance, zeal, moral judgment and enforcement are best thought of as NORMS, not exceptions, when it comes to human nature.
I’d like to think that secularly liberal leadership, more broadly, including the people who want to be in charge of all of us (at their best operating from within moral communities of not too great a solipsism and self-regard) can resist such pressures. For there certainly are those who would fracture our institutions into rafts of post-Enlightenment ‘-isms’ and politicized movements often driven by illiberal ideologies; movements relying on the presumed self-sufficiency of reason while behaving quite irrationally.
I’m looking around and not seeing too much decency in American politics, lately.
A.C. Grayling makes one of the better cases for morality without religious doctrine, I’ve heard of late, but I’m not entirely sold these particular problems can be addressed sufficiently:
Jonathan Haidt has infused the more modern field of moral psychology with some of David Hume’s empiricist theory of mind, the idea that intuitions come first, and our reasons for them are usually trotted out afterwards (when was the last time you walked away from an argument/debate/discussion totally converted and persuaded by the reasoning of the other guy?
Yet, how, exactly, did our institutions of higher-learning get to the point of catering to the loudest, often most naive, and often illiberal student-groups claiming their feelings and ideas deserve special treatment?
Isn’t this already a failure of leadership, to some extent?:
“‘…a morally concerned style of intellectual atheism openly avowed by only a small minority of individuals (for example, those who are members of the British Humanist Association) but tacitly accepted by a wide spectrum of educated people in all parts of the Western world.”
‘If Obama and Kerry had not spent so much time and treasure on the ill-advised Iran nuclear deal, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia would not be so worried about a potential nuclear-armed Iran. (See my article from earlier this month, Saudi Arabia and China nuclear cooperation – is Riyadh seeking nukes?)‘
‘This summer, word came that Keith Christiansen, perhaps the single most distinguished curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was beset by the mob. His tort? Commenting via his Instagram account on a drawing of the French archaeologist Alexandre Lenoir. Lenoir devoted himself to saving French monuments from the all-consuming maw of the French Revolution. “How many great works of art have been lost to the desire to rid ourselves of a past of which we don’t approve[?],” Christiansen wrote.‘
Just looking for contrary thinkers around here, standing against the prevailing winds, where tides of moral sentiment push into bays, inlets and swamps.
Edward Feser discusses the work of Paul Feyerabend, and the view that some people are turning the sciences into a kind of religion.
‘First: science as an institution, and liberalism as its house philosophy, have taken over the role that the Church and its theology played in medieval society.
Second: the case for this takeover rests on the purported superiority of the methods and results of science, but crumbles on close inspection.
Third: when consistently applied, the most powerful expression of the liberal idea—John Stuart Mill’s defense of free speech in On Liberty—tells against rather than in favor of the hegemony of scientism. Let’s consider these themes in turn.‘
As for me, I’m still sympathetic to the following.
‘They are, in fact, idealists: and idealism is a cast of mind that Conrad questions even more than he questions radicalism. The logical end of radicalism, in his view, is terrorism; but idealism is the mental aberration that allows terrorism to be brought about. Conrad’s originality was to see that a new tyranny could be generated by people who thought that their rebellion against the old tyranny was rational. Thus his writings seem prescient about what was to happen in the Soviet Union. He didn’t predict the Nazi tyranny because he had underestimated the power of the irrational to organise itself into a state. But then, nobody predicted that except its perpetrators; and anyway, mere prediction was not his business. His business was the psychological analysis made possible by an acute historical awareness. Under Western Eyes is valuable not because it came true but because it rang true even at the time, only now we can better hear the deep, sad note.’
The trees are in their autumn beauty, The woodland paths are dry, Under the October twilight the water Mirrors a still sky; Upon the brimming water among the stones Are nine-and-fifty swans.
The nineteenth autumn has come upon me Since I first made my count; I saw, before I had well finished, All suddenly mount And scatter wheeling in great broken rings Upon their clamorous wings.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures, And now my heart is sore. All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight, The first time on this shore, The bell-beat of their wings above my head, Trod with a lighter tread.
Unwearied still, lover by lover, They paddle in the cold Companionable streams or climb the air; Their hearts have not grown old; Passion or conquest, wander where they will, Attend upon them still.
But now they drift on the still water, Mysterious, beautiful; Among what rushes will they build, By what lake’s edge or pool Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day To find they have flown away?
‘Used judiciously and with a suitably grim humour I think Plato can be a help. On the one hand he suggests that the issues raised by the relation of Showbiz to the rest of society have changed little over more than two thousand years. On the other, that the myriad effects of high-tech modern illusionism, both social and political, should not be too casually brushed aside.
The ‘is-ness’ of say, Unit Vector scaling (used in game dynamics) need not answer the many questions we might have about reality and the world (how should I behave? why am I here? what is my purpose? where is all this headed? when should I turn GTA off and go to bed?) but hopefully, such knowledge will simply produce people capable of understanding this knowledge and applying it, as well many others just enjoying a game.
Against the modern grain of having such questions asked solely by the religious, countered by the New Atheists and the secular, but also by the increasingly moralistic ‘-Ismologists’ and ‘Wokists’, it’s interesting to cast such a debate in more ancient terms.
Such framing can even provide breathing-room beneath the arguments flung over the table between analytic philosophers and many a postmodern nihilist.
Do Roger Scruton’s argments hold up, disassociating the arts and humanities from simply copying the Sciences, but also keeping the arts and humanities out of the hands of Marxist materialists, New Atheists, ideologues and ‘-Ismologists?’
‘It is true that the theory of the meme does not deny the role of culture, nor does it undermine the nineteenth-century view that culture properly understood is as much an activity of the rational mind as is science. But the concept of the meme belongs with other subversive concepts — Marx’s “ideology,” Freud’s unconscious, Foucault’s “discourse” — in being aimed at discrediting common prejudice. It seeks to expose illusions and to explain away our dreams. But the meme is itself a dream, a piece of ideology, accepted not for its truth but for the illusory power that it confers on the one who conjures with it. It has produced some striking arguments, not least those given by Daniel Dennett in Breaking the Spell, in which he explains away religion as a particularly successful but dangerous meme.‘
Those concepts according to Scruton, are not science, but rather ‘scientism.’
And he focuses back-in on judgment, or the capacity for judgment attached to ‘I,’ and an ‘I’ which looks towards transcendence:
‘Surely human beings can do better than this — by the pursuit of genuine scientific explanation on the one hand, and by the study of high culture on the other. A culture does not comprise works of art only, nor is it directed solely to aesthetic interests. It is the sphere of intrinsically interesting artifacts, linked by the faculty of judgment to our aspirations and ideals. We appreciate works of art, arguments, works of history and literature, manners, dress, jokes, and forms of behavior. And all these things are shaped through judgment. But what kind of judgment, and to what does that judgment lead.’
‘I was struck by the parallels between the furious debates among artists in the early years of the revolution and those that raged during the Depression about the “correct” way to paint and the role of art in society—the assumption being that an indubitably correct answer was there to be found, as if there could not be many mansions in art, as if appreciation of one style automatically precluded admiration for another. The debates were highly ideological: in the Russian case, about what activity truly served the revolution and the proletariat (itself an abstraction, very different from workers’ actual lives); and in the American case, about what activity was truly American.’
To be flippant, as previously posted on this site: A little piece I like to call ‘Stalin’s Fingers’ in Seattle. Comic and graphic art may be taking up some of the muscularity of socialist realism and public-works solidarity.
You might have noticed those tiles already look a little drab and dated, even though construction only finished a few years ago.
‘In a wide-ranging and candid interview with New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio casually noted that the “way our legal system is structured to favor private property” provokes his “anger, which is visceral.”
De Blasio likely places certain ideals (‘community,’ equality, and cooled revolutionary spirit) above private property, free enterprise, and individual liberty, even as he’s collecting the wealth from the successes of NYC finance, trade, property taxes, and tourism.
‘Bill de Blasio, then 26, went to Nicaragua to help distribute food and medicine in the middle of a war between left and right. But he returned with something else entirely: a vision of the possibilities of an unfettered leftist government.
‘His activism did not stop. In the cramped Lower Manhattan headquarters of the Nicaragua Solidarity Network of Greater New York, where he volunteered, Mr. de Blasio learned to cause a stir. He and a ragtag team of peace activists, Democrats, Marxists and anarchists attempted to bring attention to a Central American cause that, after the Sandinistas lost power in a 1990 election, was fading from public view. “The Nicaraguan struggle is our struggle,” said a poster designed by the group’
‘Aristotelianism is actually opposed to that sort of materialism [Heraclitus and atomic doctrine] but Aristotelianism carries the war so far into the enemy camp that it’s actually very hard to reconcile the Aristotelian philosophy with the modern scientific enterprise which says a lot about atoms, the movements of particles…matter and that sort of stuff….
‘…and indeed I think it was no accident that when the modern scientific enterprise got going, it got going by throwing away the Aristotelianism which had so dominated the Middle-Ages.’
But, Platonism is much easier to reconcile with the modern scientific enterprise and that’s why I think, since the Renaissance, really, Platonism has lived on after the death of Aristotelianism because that’s a philosophy you can use, or be influenced by, if you’re seeking to show how scientific and spiritual values can be reconciled…if you want to do justice to the complexities of things where materialism is giving just too simplistic a story.’
Here are two response tweets to The Atlantic’s edition two years ago, and I’m probably not alone in thinking it’s hard to take some people seriously, though it’s probably important to take them as seriously as they take themselves.
This is serious business!
Maybe within modern liberalism lie movements of radical liberation; authoritarian, totalitarian, utopian, which are byproducts of failed theories of (H)istory like Marxism, which are byproducts of Europe. Maybe our founders gird against theories which colonize academies & media
Maybe many modern liberal intellectual sorts become obsessed w/ fascism & authoritarianism, seeing them everywhere in rivals, because they themselves don’t have deep enough moral lights to create stable political orders…until elections which ‘confirm’ their views anew.
I’m guessing a lot of Atlantic readers have expressed shock at the relative loss of political influence and structural stability they’ve experienced since the election of Trump. But as I see things, despite Trump’s many faults, accepting the claims of radical activists, critical theorists and postmodern types, is a structural failure of liberal idealism, leading us to become a lot more like Europe.
I’ve long been thinking both the Arts & Sciences could use better stewardship and popular representation. I remain skeptical that many current conceptions of ‘The Self’ and that their immediate liberation are imminent. At least, such ideas seem to have been deeply oversold.
Rather, I see a lot of new rules emergent from the latest moral ideas, many of the same old ideas active in the field of play, and a lot more people ecouraged to join political coalitions under political ideals in order to express very basic human desires.
Many things regarding human nature and human affairs aren’t apt to change that much, I suppose.
The readers of the Boston Evening Transcript
Sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn.
When evening quickens faintly in the street,
Wakening the appetites of life in some
And to others bringing the Boston Evening Transcript,
I mount the steps and ring the bell, turning
Wearily, as one would turn to nod good-bye to Rochefoucauld,
If the street were time and he at the end of the street,
And I say, “Cousin Harriet, here is the Boston Evening Transcript.”
‘So here’s a second opinion on Kronman’s diagnosis: The disease that afflicts the American academy is not caused by the pathogen of egalitarianism from without. It is a cancer produced by the excesses of analytic philosophy and structuralist thinking within.’
I really like this line (could be more of a writer problem…writers can become reclusive weirdos, but still telling nonetheless):
‘It says something that the most normal professor I encountered in graduate school was the extremely odd and reclusive aesthetician and novelist William H. Gass.’
Here’s a somewhat similar vein of thought. From friesian.com:
Although Anglo-American philosophy tended to worship at the feet of science, the drift of academia to the left has led to characteristically totalitarian political attacks on science itself — this despite the leftist program to use “climate science” to impose a Sovietized command economy on energy and the tactic to smear climate skeptics, i.e. “Deniers,” through associaton with Creationism or Neo-Nazi Holocaust denial. None of that has stopped the “post-modern” move…’
I’ve often thought that many New Atheists, liberal idealists, progressives and radicals overlook the inherent dangers of human ignorance, the need to believe and the semi-permanence of people committed to radical ideology. The sciences and social sciences are being asked to bear a tremendous pressure as a result. Sure, religious believers disagree with, and have a long record of persecuting free-thinkers, scientists and natural philosophers, but actual terrorists and radicals are being normalized under the banner of liberal idealism. I doubt this bodes well.