I’m now starting a series of posts on impediments in our society which prevent us from facing up to the problems I outlined at the beginning of the series.
This post is entitled ‘the Arts’, however, it’s mainly going to be about literature. I don’t know much about the visual arts and won’t say anything about them, and I’m going to have a future post about music.
The main idea I want to discuss now is the delusion we have that if we have literature, creative writing, the arts generally, then whatever the doings of our society in other spheres, we can say that our society produces artistic works on a higher level and is therefore, redeemed of its other actions.
This is a little like the delusion that because we have nature conservation and nature reserves, then somehow we don’t have to worry about the ecological deficits our society accumulates. In response to this I would use analogy: that of a man who lives in a house and in order to pay his bills has to remove ten bricks from the walls and ten slates from the roof every year and sell them. Each year his house becomes more and more dilapidated, however he consoles himself with the thought that he has been virtuous, for every ten bricks and every ten tiles sold he reserves a small sum to add to the Building Restoration Fund, so there is nothing to worry about.
With literature the story would go that this man has set up the Dilapidated Ruin Council, to reward writers with small sums for producing literature which exemplifies the dilapidated and cause people to become more aware of themselves and their potential.
In truth of course most literature merely describes, or embodies, contemporary society and its values and does nothing to change it.
As a morose friend of mine, a poet, is fond of saying: ‘the only thing that would make Australian poetry any better would be to declare it illegal’.
However, in reality we shouldn’t expect literature to be transformative. In any society it is far more likely that the bulk of the literature produced will conform to social mores and be illustrative of society. In modernity, the vast bulk of literary production (as with vast bulk of production of everything else) means it is even less likely that works which could transform people’s ideas will gain any recognition, as they are drowned in a flood of inferior productions.
In any case the notion of literature has become seriously weakened in the C20 and C21. Dr Johnson, in the C18, thought of literature as acquaintance with learned writing, mainly history and theology. He would certainly not have thought of novels as literature, indeed his definition of ‘novel’ in his Dictionary was: ‘A small tale, generally of love.’ Nowadays most types of literature have fallen away, poetry is hardly read, and literature means mainly novels or short stories.
But even the novel is becoming moribund. In Australia certainly I have noticed over the past 20 years a diminution in the amount of attention that novels and novelists receive. I remember back in the 1990s award-winning novelists would get a headline on at least page 2 of the national press, this barely happens nowadays.
And yet we still have this idea that, well, we’re not doing so well on the [insert name of crisis that modernity has caused] front, but at least our novelists, poets and playwrights are still producing deathless work.
Literature has become the unread, but spiritual heart of modernity, much as, in the C19, religion functioned (and was satirized by Samuel Butler in Erewhon, in the Musical Banks chapter).
Ironically literature now really is literature in the sense that Dr Johnson would have understood it, a buying into the whole contemporary mythos: modernity, liberal humanism and the rest. When modernity has come to its sorry end people will look back and say that this or that work showed the way to the future, but this is with hindsight only, in the same that we say that, for example, the French Renaissance essayist Montaigne reads in a very modern way compared to other writers of the time. Yet the last thing that Montaigne wanted to do was to be revolutionary, he merely wished to embody the wisdom of the classical age, and that of traditional French society and have people live up to those ideals. Montaigne was, if you like, a proper conservative.
Looking around I can’t see any body of literary work at present that really challenges the tenets of liberal humanism, and yet clearly liberal humanism has done its dash. It never going to produce the more egalitarian society it promised because the holders of capital and power were never going to give up sufficient of their power and resources to do away with hierarchies. (To point out the obvious, to have ‘social mobility’, you still need hierarchies). And the methods by which the holders of power fobbed off any discontent (indiscriminate and highly-charged economic growth), was bound in the end to come up against ecological constraints.
And while all this charade was playing out, all our writers could do was, like the sermon-writers of Dr Johnson’s time, exhort people to be good people.
Next Week: Impediments 3, Education