Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Stabbing Art to Death

Today's first column:

Most of my favorite authors have the distinction of being deceased. This is especially true in regards to writers of fiction. Now, my affinity for the dead is not born merely out of an intellectual snobbishness, nor even out of cantankerous conservatism. I find four reasons for my antipathy towards most modern writers.

First, there is a saying that good writers borrow, and great writers steal. Shakespeare, I am told, told but one original story. The rest he borrowed—or stole—from lesser playwrights, who could only gain fame vicariously by The Bard's refinement of their work through his genius. In examining great art, it is astounding how often we find writers drawing mightily from his predecessors. Dante's Commedia, the greatest poem ever written, abounds in references to the Bible, Italian history, Virgil, Ovid, and Thomistic thought. Without the influence of good art, modern writers drown in the shallow waters of their own torpid imaginations.

Second, and related to the first, language has been thoroughly degraded. English, for instance, is exquisitely rich. Slightly different words have slightly different meanings, and in the hands of a master, subtle renderings can be wrought. The effects of this degradation can be readily seen in vacuous pop culture, but also in literature. Occasionally, a competent writer is discovered, but it is rare to find one who wields the language with beauty and ease.

Third, it must be admitted that, as the Good Book says, “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place.” Even supposing that a good author emerged, he would almost certainly be buried under the wealth of mediocrity that pervades modern literature; his craft would be ignored, and we could only hope a later generation would discover him. It is not accidental that such a fine columnist as Fred Reed must publish his own works on the web, since no one will syndicate him.

But the last reason, and I believe the most important one, is the gradual disappearance of the religious atmosphere which is integral to the novel. Atheist author Camille Paglia agrees: “Great art can be made out of love for religion as well as rebellion against it. But a totally secularized society with contempt for religion sinks into materialism and self-absorption and gradually goes slack, without leaving an artistic legacy.”

As Henry David Thoreau put it, “The best works of art are the expression of man's struggle to free himself from this condition, but the effect of our art is merely to make this low state comfortable and that higher state to be forgotten.” The greatest characters in literature struggled with issues of morality. Any decent artist paints a moral dilemma: man fights to become better than he presently is. Without religion, standards of morality fade, and we are left with dull stories of self-actualization, sufficient to amuse only a people already spiritually dead.


tina said...

4. Maybe you are right. Sometimes the religion can have a great influence for our understanding of a good novel. But on the other side, we may have another feeling about the book by our own mind. We can also have another different understanding. We study it for enriching our mind but not copy the authors mind. We can have our own mind for it. This is I quote from a person at I do agree with him.

gregra&gar said...

Awakening to ones own ignorance from faith in authority is always the crux of moral responsibility. Religion is just one of our handy excuses to let someone else do our thinking for us — just to fit in, don'tcha know.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

Fine, you reject the "authority" of religion. What do you posit for your alternative authority? A religion-rejecter, Christopher Hitchens, recently recommended that we bomb Iran. If you reject this immoral action, what do you offer as an objective standard which allows you to condemn his actions?

Further, with which points in my essay did you disagree? Religion may be an "excuse", but do you deny that it is useful in the production of good art?

gregra&gar said...

I reject the authority of authority.

What I was trying to express before you got all huffy was that discovering ultimate responsibility for oneself after blindly following parents, principals, priests or presidents is stuff of good art — any realization of ones own capacities in contradiction to authority's will is the meat of great art. It all about sprouting from the compost of ones past, becoming more aware and responsible.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

It all about sprouting from the compost of ones past, becoming more aware and responsible.

This works for the brilliant, but you're forgetting something. If art is made from rebellion from authority, that authority must hold some real weight. For instance, it worked for Joyce because he felt deeply the Catholic traditions of his country.

What do we have to rebel against? A lazy plutocracy is hardly the impetus for great art. I hold that, whereas the religious atmosphere is rapidly shrinking, art will also lost its power and goodness.

gregra&gar said...

Could it be that the dirth of art you find is that it is awakening to what you still hold sacred and therefore consider only desecration? I recommend checking out Pirsig's Dynamics of Quality.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

I don't think that's correct. As Paglia suggested, great art can be made in rebellion against religion, but it's becoming increasingly clear that my way of thinking, i.e. along religious lines, is becoming less and less prevalent, at least in our culture.

I don't get all offended when someone blasphemes, but no one is going to care about the blasphemy when no one believes any longer in that which is being blasphemed.

I'm a fairly big fan of Nietzsche, and if his black mass--from Thus Spake Zarathustra--made me uneasy, I also found it to be a profound expression of art. The effect of his prose is lessened when the audience believes God is dead, and someone who could not consider the alternative, that God exists, would never be able to create like Nietzsche.

Interestingly enough, I just finished Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It's going to take me some time to process some of his thoughts.

troutsky said...

The depth of religious contemplation has certainly been the source of great art(and more than a little junk) but let's not go putting limits on experience. Nor pronouncing the end of literatue.I have a list of great moderns I'll never get through!

A Wiser Man Than I said...

I have a list of great moderns I'll never get through!

If you would be kind enough to provide a list, however brief, I would appreciate it. I know you're a fan of Vonnegut, and I do enjoy some of his works, but I rather doubt his staying power.

Tyler said...

I was "googling" the Thoreau quote you used when I came across this blog. I find it ironic that you utilize a Thoreau quote from a work like Walden, which encourages self-actualization and a dependency on intuition rather than faith in dogma, to bolster your theory of the necessity of religion with regards to art.

I like what Tina said about having a feeling about a book "by our own mind." Why can't we write by our own mind also? How long do we need to allow the ancient and dusty religions to influence our thoughts and creativity? Their dying influence is testament to the fact that they no longer define the experience of all humans or direct their actions. They no longer need to. It is possible for humans to define what is right and wrong without checking a dusty reference book or consulting a priest. Thoreau's knew this more than a hundred years ago. I remember reading that his family worried about his not professing an orthodox faith. Shortly before he died, one of them ( I think it was his aunt) asked him if he had "made peace with God." Thoreau responded, "I did not know we had quarreled."