More screens but still nothing worth knowing
(from the novel in progress A Republic of Books, more of which can be found elsewhere on this ethereal site)
Reel life may be directed to a sharp technical edge in the age of CGI, but what real life we are allowed by the authorities who know better, or allotted by chance, may be pretty dull by comparison. Weren’t we told that art is life? And by some, that life is art? But I ask, if it was created by a computer, is it art? Exactly what art is that?
Now, must I be careful of what I say and how I say it? In my own bookshop? Will ideas be proscribed, and not just words? Reducing language to political memes is a regression akin to doing away with the thousand year old content of our dictionaries and grammars and returning to the pictograph. Of course, the schools began this process with sight reading in the 1920’s in order to enhance their sundry rote, all of which was designed from the beginning for the convenience of the teacher and the administration of the schools which are now mass indoctrination centers, rather than for the actual enlightenment of the student. And the process is fairly complete after barely a hundred years. The loose ends and deckled edges are easily trimmed in the digital age.
The teachers themselves often take such criticism personally, as if a judgment on the architecture of a building was an attack on the carpenters and electricians. Most teachers are a careful and intelligent lot, albeit too willing to follow orders, and their intentions are for the ostensible good of their charges, but few question what they do any more than the carpenter might question the architect. As an extension of the political structure, even those with tenure understand that to object to the fundamentals of the process they are engaged in is to end or limit their careers. Their role is thus very much like the policeman who follows procedure rather than doing the right thing. Their intention may be to keep the public safe, but the effect of the laws they enforce are too often detrimental to the welfare of the individuals they are supposed to protect.
Yes, I’ve said it! The teachers are at fault. And the cops.
In any case, the administration of our educational process is no less than Stalinist. The progressive children of John Dewey understand the stakes. For them it is a matter of life and death. Free thought is dangerous. Call it by another name—antisocial, bigoted, arbitrary. Better yet, following Orwell, reverse the very meaning. And the schools are at the foundation of this utopian state the authorities have envisioned. Even the alternative chance to avoid teaching the same prescribed agenda in private schools has been eliminated in just the last generation by the necessity of all institutions to comply with federal standards in order to maintain an attachment to the federal teat. Out of the many hundreds of colleges in the United States, only one—one that I know of, anyway—refuses federal money and is thus able to freely pursue the teaching of knowledge and remain dedicated to the development of curious and questioning minds.
In that context (the ‘establishing shot,’ to use that term of film again), I despair of making my own case from this small shop of ideas. How do I put forward the truth—that the common law civilization upon which we stand was built by ungloved hands, grown from the soil of Arthur’s Britain, by way of Kings and Queens, Lord Protectors and Parliaments; from Norman Conquests and medieval subjugation, to slave trade, convict transportation and indenture; from gunpowder plots and revolution to glorious emancipation, manumission, and suffrage; from plow and stars and cottage industry, coal dark shafts and mill work drudgery to Newtonian physics and technical wizardry, and thus it has blossomed with Chaucer and Shakespeare and Austen and Dickens and Poe and Melville and Twain and Eliot and Kipling and Yeats and Conrad and Orwell. . . . No chance! No chance at all, if history is not taught. The amber prism of those authors and all the best of all the rest is unintelligible. Without history the world the student might know is only the world that is, and now suppose it always was, and in fact, without history, the world that will always be—but worse. Without context, all desire for betterment is lost on the digital battlefields of a computer game. Two thousand years of human struggle is redacted and the masses will be appeased again by bread and circuses.
No? Maybe not. Alchemy might work. Phlogiston might illuminate. Magic might be. In truth, this began years ago, and I have played my own part in it by avoiding the use of certain language and doubtful ideas in public. ‘Don’t drive the public away,’ as Margaret always said. But I don’t blame her. It was not her doing. I did it willingly! I vent and rant in the pages of my books but seldom speak out in the shop in the same way, much less on the street. I am at fault, as much as any undermining teacher or crooked cop. I am responsible for this state of affairs.
Just another fine mess I have gotten myself into.
It has come to pass, after too many years—more than a century now, yoked to a common plow of philosophical ambiguities—that we live in an age of equivocation and prevarication, deceit and deception, speciousness and sophistry. Idealism has been relabeled. Truth is now a committee effort. Evil no longer lurks. It parades. The perpetrators of this chicanery need not gather in cabals because their objectives are no longer clandestine. There is little need for conspiracy when the ruling class are all agreed. Now, it is the idealist who must hide—derided as fantasist, romanticist, purist, escapist, and unsocial, hostile, argumentative, and combative. You see? I am being circumspect even now. Even after the window is broken, both physically and metaphorically. But I have been called far worse. (Eccentric is the only of these opprobriums that I answer to.)
Nevertheless, the great loss here is to the young. That is the time in life when true idealism must bloom, but if crushed then to egalitarian uniformity, or disfigured by abuse and denigration, it seldom recovers. Our topiary youth, shaped by the public schools and now too by the social media to serve the common good, age poorly. Their parents and grandparents, the baby boomers, already show that sag of old age that is too often betrayed by audible complaint and bitterness for dreams unfulfilled. True idealism, a search for the best and the means to the best that begins by nature in the young, too often ends right there today, beneath the weight of social criticism, parental demand, and academic requirements. The exceptional is rarer still. Yet, little more than a hundred years ago it was the grail of our American soul. From Frank Merriwell, to Horatio Alger, to Tom Swift. See! It doesn’t take long for such change to occur. For the better or the worse. A mere lifetime.
We live now in a society of permission; not the grants and escheatage of olden times, or the feudal allotment, or even the penny indulgence, but of countless permissions made by endless laws for limitless occasions of sin.
Before this, I have cited the great change at the time of the Enlightenment. One generation of heretofore obedient Scottish farmers, herdsmen, and merchants (at least relatively so) was transformed into the next by the simple expedient of having been told in their kirks that they must learn to read in order to understand the word of God for themselves and follow that according. The consequent free-thinking, previously squelched by tradition and absolute religious authority, released an energy of thought that changed everything. By the time the authorities realized their mistake, it was too late to stop, and the New World lay just ahead.
At present it has been several generations since the teaching of Karl Marx and John Dewey, Herbert Marcuse and Howard Zinn permeated the schools in my own time. The effect of that has been no less dramatic than that of the teachings of Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Thomas Reid and Thomas Brown when our Forefathers lived. And this began well over a hundred years ago when a Princeton University professor by the name of Woodrow Wilson preached that the masses must be lead to what is good, and that the leaders necessary to the task must by raised by the Universities. Suddenly, the Ivy Leagues had found a cause they could rally to even more than football and secret societies. William F. Buckley’s sacrilegious comment only two generations later (a Yale Man after all) that he “would rather be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand people on the faculty of Harvard University,” was just one of his many piquant realizations in this regard. Oligarchy only works if the masses are willing to listen. But once, in spreading the seed of dissatisfaction and destruction of the old order in their reach for power, they released the kraken.
Withal, the level of perfection in parents that is wanted by their juvenile offspring has usually been beyond achievability, but apparently it is the easy trade of their professors—those who today so facilely disrespect the strivings of the middle class, disdain the need to work for a living, and despise the rich as much as Royalty (and too, anyone who dare disagree with their politics of resentment), while striving for their own share of the pie. It has always been odd to me, in particular, that children should more readily believe their teachers—hirelings who have never spent a colic night at their bedside or risked insolvency to see them fed and clothed and schooled—but who clearly have an agenda. I have always had the opposite response: prove it! My teachers always loved me for that! Yet the utopian purity sought by the political mavens is continually set beyond the grasp of any one of us, and teachers most obviously.
It is not that imperfection should be tolerated, or accepted, or excepted from any better rule. It is a matter of recognition that we are imperfect from the start and bettering ourselves is always the task at hand. That we must be free to achieve those ends and not bound by the faults of our parents—or our teachers. And that great things can happen with such efforts, in the same way that democracy was born by tyrants in a slavehold society and our common law was fashioned in a monarchy. To erase our beginnings, to hide from our faults, is to deny our chance to make good on our potential.
Let us consider Cleisthenes again. It would appear he was a practical man. He would have had no intention of starting something so unfinished as a new means of government, after more than 2500 years of Greek tyrannies. He was not a philosopher, I think. Little is known of him but that his family were likely merchants. We know from Herodotus, reporting only a generation later, that the clan were banished repeatedly by the competing powers of Athens, and yet they found the resource to survive and persevere. Given the opportunity, Cleisthenes was elected tyrant by his peers and chose to use that power to try something different. The old ways had failed. Greece was already in the shadow of larger empires. The city-states that made-up that country were ununited and commonly at odds if not at war among themselves. The traditional rule of clans must have been clearly at fault to him. It is my conjecture that his invention of democracy was not an idealism, but rational, pragmatic, and businesslike—an application of the commonly understood principles of fair trade, then and now. That is why, having gained the support of the citizenry, he was allowed to try his experiment. And he did not stop with one change in a broken system of family rule. He went beyond that to something newer still. But perhaps more important than ‘democracy’ was another invention that might have been his as well: ‘Isonomia,’ equality under the law.
“The rule of the people has the fairest name of all, equality (isonomia), and does none of the things that a monarch does. The lot determines offices, power is held accountable, and deliberation is conducted in public.”
Consider that! Unknown in history until that moment. Equality under the law! And not as some ideal, but as a working solution to the problem of a well made social order.
The question has been posed by others a hundred times. A thousand times. Why did all that we know of that golden age of Greece happen then, and not before, or ever after. This is a question akin to why so many wise men happened to gather in this western quarter-hemisphere around 1776.
In the case of the Hellenic rise, this might well then be the progeny of a single brain applied to a difficult task. I am inclined to think that. It didn’t happen in Egypt, or China, or India, or Germany, or Russia. It happened in a rocky little land laid out like a hand and fingers upon a wine dark sea, peopled by independent farmers, merchant traders, fishermen and artisans, but all of them citizen warriors. Hoplites!
Having set these gears in motion, Cleisthenes disappears. After a few short years at Athens, accounted for in brief by Herodotus, he is gone from the histories and only after mentioned by Plato and Aristotle in passing. Because he did not write on his own, not that we know, his story is told by others who were not as impressed by his accomplishment as later ages would be. We do not know what joys or sorrows blessed or plagued this man, Cleisthenes. We do not know if he had sons or daughters or a loving wife. His life is a mystery and perfect fodder for the likes of me to speculate. Given time, I think I’ll write a novel about him as well. We’ll see.
As a consequence of Cleisthenes, a mere generation later, Plato was free to imagine his ideal republic and to fascinate the intellectuals forever after with visions of sugarplum utopias—though that philosopher created nothing himself. Still, the Golden age of Greece lay just ahead. And that glory was built on the industry of those hoplite farmers and craftsmen, at Marathon with the force of their arms. Emboldened by a new found belief in their own power over themselves—and I think too, an appreciation for the taste of their own blood.
What we do know is this, in a political moment not unlike our own, when every interest appears to serve itself, Cleisthenes devised a democracy that enlarged the assembly and the courts, and this despite the fact that it would not immediately help his own family, and perhaps even knowing that it might hurt them in the shorter term. He could not have guessed what would occur over two millennia later as a result of his plan, but he would certainly have predicted immediate cause and effect. There is a story there to be told there too, I think.
And what elemental movement of proton and electron was careening about when Washington took command at Cambridge? I would like to ask old Ben Franklin that!
But I’m at a loss here as to how to judge my own time. What age is this, anyway? In what epoch are we? No longer modern, certainly, if we are turning yet again to ancient communism, oligarchy, and tyranny. Are we amid a period of warming, or cooling? Perhaps mere stasis—stagnation, balanced by fear of all that surrounds us. Fear appears to be our theme. But calling it the ‘Age of Permission’ seems too petty even for us.
The great ages of art, Baroque and Romanticism, are far behind us. Can time be reversed for the sake our aesthetic taste? Have we yet fallen far enough in artistic arrears to look forward again to such a golden age? Will we ever, as a species, witness the great questions of a Caravaggio once more? Is there a Vermeer capturing the moment among us even now? To think, Rembrandt would have been able to pay all his bills today if he had the recent auction income from a single sketch. Clearly there are those who appreciate beauty. But does that outrageous auction value only occur in the vacuum of a time otherwise empty of such excellence? Could a Velazquez live again without the need of patronage?
Remember too, that the age of Rembrandt was a time of slaughter and plague as well. Can we drain the puss from that carbuncle now and still find a gem? Is our very own Jan Brueghel hidden here by the banks of the Charles?
Consider, if you will, that deaf and stinking monster of a man who was Beethoven. By reason alone, we cannot imagine that such greatness might have sprung from an age of powdered wigs and Lutheran conformity? How does this happen, that a single mind gave birth to a hundred years of the greatest music mankind has ever made? And don’t talk Bach to me. Will we ever see his like again? Or are we now condemned—for tasting the apple of that too-brief fling with such aural beauty and such a profligacy of melody—to eternal damnation and punishment in an age of arrhythmic noise. True, even yet we have the symphony orchestras ready for a potential renaissance still in place, shirts white and tuxedos pressed (paid for by taxes rendered from a benumbed public that would rather listen to ‘Rock’ or ‘Hip-hop’ than ‘modern’ music) But are those fine musicians, trained in the classic tradition, now just as satisfied to play to emptied halls amidst the repetitive echoes of a Philip Glass, and only content to pay homage to the war horse compositions of a better past in order to fill subscriptions? The Romantic era of music is now over by more than a century. The last composers of that glory passed with the likes of Rachmaninoff. Are there no new composers of merit?
I suppose that movie scores are the best we can do in a digital age. Gads!
We do have artists. A few. Odd Nerdrum has even written a manifesto for them. Has it been read by more than a few? I don’t know.
Just as architecture too appears to have reached a wrong turn after Frank Lloyd Wright. Height is now the goal there, (in the tradition of mine is bigger than yours) and ‘post-modernism’ has devolved to the nightmares of Mr. Geary built on a foundation of Soviet brutalism. And what exactly do we call these boxes of tender that disfigure our suburban landscapes? Houses perhaps but not homes.
Too many questions without proper answers?
Shakespeare died about 400 years ago, whether by Julian or Gregorian measure. For a time, all the world was a stage and well set for the drama we have since known. Since his time, they’ve burst the stage apart and set it in a circle, shunted it back and forth, and turned it round and round, yet, like it or not, it is still the greater story that we have lost. With few exceptions, the drama or comedy that once played upon the boards to shadows in guttering lamplight—that theatre we have lost. All of it unionized! Whether or not I am correct, and de Vere was responsible for all of that original dramatic pause, I cannot help but wonder why?
Now too, the feature film, the celluloid step-child of the stage, has been made for one hundred years. Yet even the best of those were made in less than half of that span of time. Argue now, if you must, for The Godfather, or some other more recent movie if you like. However (with a few exceptions, as there always are), in another generation the conceits of that film and any dozen you choose will have aged as poorly as the self-proclaimed geniuses who made them. Yet, I am just as confident that the author of Shakespeare, whomever he was, went home at night with fewer expectations of having committed ‘art.’
Is that the key then? The exception is no exception. If there is a better, there must be a best and worse. We can’t be having that! If art is anything we want it to be, then what principle of living do we follow? Is it that the very idea of ‘modern’ art is itself the villain? Or does the rot begin when you raise fine craftsmanship up to call it art, and lose its unique purpose in the bargain? It’s a thought.
Which, at last, brings me back around again to my beginnings. What purpose does my little shop of politically incorrect horrors serve today? I see none that might not be fulfilled elsewise. So it’s time for me to go.