Culture! Violent Culture! - Ludwig James
by The Editor
... It left me wondering... does high art really have a civilizing affect on man? Does it humanize him and tame his more violent primordial impulses?
By Ludwig James
‘Culture has its origin in the love of perfection; it is a study of perfection. It moves by the force, not merely or primarily of the scientific passion for pure knowledge, but also of the moral and social passion for doing good’. Mathew Arnold
‘The love of our neighbour, the impulses towards action, help, and beneficence, the desire for removing human error, clearing human confusion, and diminishing human misery...come in as part of the grounds of culture’- Mathew Arnold
Both quotes come from Arnold’s influential essay entitled Culture and Anarchy. It left me wondering... does high art really have a civilizing affect on man? Does it humanize him and tame his more violent primordial impulses? Arnold is not the only literary critic to have claimed that it does just that. In The Great Tradition, Cambridge Don F R Leavis holds that ‘there cannot be great literary art without serious moral purpose’. Written just after the Second European Civil War of 1939-45, Leavis was attempting to set up high culture, and particularly literature, as the new transmitter of moral values. ‘This can be taken as meaning that the old religious ideologies have lost their force, and that a more subtle communication of moral values, one which works by dramatic enactment rather than rebarbative abstraction, is thus in order’, Professor Terry Eagleton observes.
I smell a literary rat. Litterateurs would want to dress up high art as the moral educator of mankind wouldn’t they? It would give their academic discipline an added importance in the world, and turn them into what priests were before the old religious ideologies lost their force.
Atheist scientists a la Richard Dawkins try to do exactly the same thing with science today; not content with analysing the world, he also wants to govern it. And it would be an atheist dream if novels or science could replace the Bible in the West, and the Quran in the East, because then the churches and Mosques would be done away with in a fell swoop.
But this is rationalist fundamentalism. And one thing the high priests of rationalism do not seem to understand about human beings is that men are not mere receptacles of rational instruction. Man is governed by emotions, principles, desires and spirit as well as by reason. At times we get angry, proud, righteous, territorial, and sometimes that’s for the greater good. At other times we become generous, stoical, loving.
Reason is an essential faculty, yes. But because we reason, we should also know the limits of reason. I wouldn’t exalt it into an overarching panacea to improve humanity. Scientists are talented at science, and novelists talented at writing novels; it doesn’t mean they should be given a special platform from which to pronounce how society should be organized and man governed. Art is part of society and reflects society. It is not a solution to it. If it really were true that novels could transmit morality from page to flesh, then there wouldn’t be so many cultured men around who are violent.
Even in literature itself, cultured men are violent. The most infamous cultured thug in English print is Alex, the protagonist of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. He listens to classical music, that most Dionysian of all art forms. Beethoven’s 9th symphony is Alex’s favourite. It has a powerful, megalomania-inducing effect on him. Here’s how he puts it in his own idiosyncratic argot:
‘Music always sort of sharpened me up, O my brothers, and made me feel like old Bog himself, ready to make with the old donner and blitzen and have vecks and ptitsas creeching away in my ha ha power’.
Alex has good taste in music, but Beethoven fails to turn him into a vegetarian pacifist and he lives in a post-Christian age where pride is no longer a sin, and megalomania of the most unhealthy variety flourishes in the post-religious void. Alex enjoys fighting, burgling, taking drugs and raping women, all because macht is his aphrodisiac .
Beethoven, Wagner, Prokofiev, and Grieg all produced aural expressions of transcendental perfection. But instead of being ‘studies of perfection’ which have produced the ‘love of our neighbour, the impulses towards action, help, and beneficence’ as Arnold proclaims in utopian fashion-despite being a good English poet- it has produced the perfect music for film scenes of mass murder by rootless loners in a cultureless atheist void.
Take Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. A chilly and uncomfortable subject for discussion, for it’s the controversial film about the 1999 Columbine High School Massacre. Only one song is featured in the whole movie, and again it’s the German master, with Beethoven’s Fur Elise played; this time by another Alex, the assassin-pianist who indiscriminately shoots his schoolmates dead and then shoots his accomplice in this wicked crime as well. Beethoven creates the perfect atmosphere for this.
Can anybody imagine a dramatic mass murderer who listens to Top Shop Rock like Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber? I can’t. But a spotty adolescent who listens to Beethoven and Wagner, and reads left wing atheists like Sartre and Camus is quite believable. What’s more, many cultured men with power in a post-religious age have committed horrendous crimes in their quest for ‘perfection’, which is a polyvalent ideal in the hands of man. For Lenin and Stalin, perfection was purging the world of anyone who didn’t submit to the communist revolution and the forging of a new artificial classless man; homo sovieticus. For Hitler, perfection was an Aryan triumph over the Semitic spirit. Richard Wagner and Carl Orff were in, Gustav Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn were out.
To be fair on cultured man though, many uncultured men have proved to be murderously violent as well. We must remember that, lest this become an indictment of culture itself. In cultureless 2012, insalubrious British streets lie riddled with louts skilled in stabbings and knife-crime, yet teachers report that these same uncultured, unparented souls cannot use a knife properly in the school canteen. Metal detectors are installed in state schools up and down the country to encourage the young to choose pens over knives as their weapon of choice; yet both illiteracy rates and stabbings continue to rise. Primary school teachers’ tell of some children who can do little more than grunt on classroom entry, let alone write their name.
Only eighty years ago things were different. Christian grammar schools taught working class kids Greek and Latin and they were less inclined to stab each other. Now, the sort of bog comprehensives I had to attend cannot even pass on the basics of English grammar to the next generation. And so it cuts both ways. The uncultured and uncivilized can behave like savages just as the cultured can. Especially in a secular age which enthrones ‘rational man’ as the measure of all things, and so does not really understand human nature.
Sometimes culture is even purposefully dynamic and violent. Exactly a century ago, the Vorticists were born in Britain. A ragtag of artists electrified by their youthful fire-spirit, they published a manifesto of what is to be blessed, and what is to be blasted. Bless and Blast. That was the key. It contained the following verbal fusillades:
· We start from opposite statements of a chosen world. Set up violent structure of adolescent clearness between two extremes.
· We set Humour at Humour's throat. Stir up Civil War among peaceful apes.
· We only want Tragedy if it can clench its side-muscles like hands on its belly, and bring to the surface a laugh like a bomb.
Their canvasses were jagged, hard-edged, and rectilinear. Check out Wyndham Lewis’s Crowd or Edward Wadsworth’s Dazzle-Ships and see. The Vorticists etched their distinctive world vision into art. It proved to be a short lived movement and burn out like all highly-strung intensities. In 1914, most of them were vortexed into the First European Civil War to fight like lions gone awry, attacking their own European pride. But their art serves an example of what is possible today if spirits are re-kindled, hinged on the transcendental, and rooted in the traditions of our ancestors. What’s more, they were British! And most of the contemporary British art scene is dire; the farcical Hirsts’ and Emins’ are utterly lacking in vision and their vulgar works grounded on no theory or spirit more radical than the amount of money rich Arabs and Russians are willing to pay for it. It’s what happens in a stultified world where people are either asleep or on facebook.
Is it time to bless and blast once again? Is it time for a new violent culture against rootless post-modernity and all its junk?