Monday, December 19, 2016

Keeping Things Interesting (II)

I am returning to my thoughts on making the world a more interesting place rather than a better place, even though I realise this is a bit of a dangerous subject.

It's a dangerous subjects because it can be so easily misunderstood. I am going to admit in this post (if I haven't already admitted in a previous post) that I have sometimes been a conscious reactionary and a conscious contrarian.

This is a dicey admisssion because I can see-- how could I not see?-- the reasons being either of those things might be seen as stupid, or pointless. In fact, I am very often annoyed at people who seem to me to be reactionaries or contrarians simply for the sake of it. I wrote a series of blog posts on the good and bad sides of contrarianism, here and here and here.

To be a reactionary, it is often said-- and it seems to me indisputable that this is true-- is limiting because you are simply responding to somebody else's initiative. It is rather like the war on the eastern front in World War Two where Hitler squandered his forces trying to win Stalingrad, which had no particular strategic importance in the first place. (Obviously I'm glad he did, even if the Soviets were not much better than the Nazis. It's just a simile.) A reactionary, under this view, is always on the defensive, his priorities and emotions dictated by other people.

G.K. Chesterton often pointed out how the social and political movements of his time (or of any time) were usually a reaction to a previous reaction, which was itself very often a reaction. Probably the best example of this is the 'History of Hudge and Gudge' chapter in What's Wrong with the World:

There is, let us say, a certain filthy rookery in Hoxton, dripping with disease and honeycombed with crime and promiscuity. There are, let us say, two noble and courageous young men, of pure intentions and (if you prefer it) noble birth; let us call them Hudge and Gudge. Hudge, let us say, is of a bustling sort; he points out that the people must at all costs be got out of this den; he subscribes and collects money, but he finds (despite the large financial interests of the Hudges) that the thing will have to be done on the cheap if it is to be done on the spot. He therefore, runs up a row of tall bare tenements like beehives; and soon has all the poor people bundled into their little brick cells, which are certainly better than their old quarters, in so far as they are weather proof, well ventilated and supplied with clean water. But Gudge has a more delicate nature. He feels a nameless something lacking in the little brick boxes; he raises numberless objections; he even assails the celebrated Hudge Report, with the Gudge Minority Report; and by the end of a year or so has come to telling Hudge heatedly that the people were much happier where they were before. As the people preserve in both places precisely the same air of dazed amiability, it is very difficult to find out which is right. But at least one might safely say that no people ever liked stench or starvation as such, but only some peculiar pleasures tangled with them. Not so feels the sensitive Gudge. Long before the final quarrel (Hudge v. Gudge and Another), Gudge has succeeded in persuading himself that slums and stinks are really very nice things; that the habit of sleeping fourteen in a room is what has made our England great; and that the smell of open drains is absolutely essential to the rearing of a viking breed.

Isn't this a perpetual temptation? Reaction is almost inevitably over-reaction. Surely the best thing is to evaluate a state of affairs as objectively as possible, without getting caught up in the whirlwinds and eddies of ideology.

And I would agree-- in an important sense, that is what we should do.

I would never say or write something that contradicted my sincere beliefs. I am a Catholic because I believe Catholicism is true, not because I consider its doctrine sublime, or because I am a social conservative, or because I am a nostalgist, or because I enjoy swimming against the tide, or because the memory of a Madonna and Child painting hanging in the Catholic secondary school I attended entered deeply into my soul-- even though all those things are true.

Similarly, I don't bash modern poetry because I enjoy being a contrarian and a dinosaur, even though I do enjoy being a contrarian and a dinosaur. I bash modern poetry because I truly believe it's terrible, and that it has a degrading effect both on poetry and society. I don't hold up A.E. Housman as a great poet while dismissing Adrienne Rich as a fraud because Housman was rather reactionary and Rich seems to have been the encapsulation of political correctness. It's because Housman wrote great poetry and Rich wrote something that can only be termed poetry out of politeness.

However, not everything is as straightforward as this. For instance, traditionalism. How can you assess whether a traditionalist view is right or wrong?

I suppose there are many ways whereby you could do this. You could argue using social science findings that the traditional family structure is more beneficial than alternative family structures. Things like that.

That's not really the sort of arguing for traditionalism that interests me, though. I'm more interested in arguing for tradition for its own sake. That seems impossible to do using empirical evidence.

But there's more to it than that. I am very often conscious of an impulse to argue for traditionalism for the sake of the argument itself. Not for the sake of being argumentative, but to keep a particular debate (or opposition) going because I feel it should be kept going.

And when I say I feel it should be kept going, I don't mean 'believe', 'judge', 'discern', or any other verb that implies cool evaluation. It's something much more visceral than that.

So much of life seems to be a yearning after some kind of wholeness-- a wholeness that is not necessarily to be understood as peace, or repose, or finality, but perhaps something that is quite the opposite of all those things.

The attraction and friction between the sexes seems to me the example of this par excellence. Men are drawn to women and women are drawn to men because they sense their counterpart in the opposite sex. It's certainly not for a quiet life or for peace.

The same is true of so many things. This searching for wholeness seems to be at the heart of so many human activities. We see it in the arts-- both in the arts themselves, and in the history of the arts. How many artistic movements are a reaction to a previous movement, or a reaction to some particular tendency in history? The harmony of the High Renaissance was replaced by the extravagance of Mannerism and Baroque art, which were in turn replaced by the austerity and polish of Neoclassicism. The Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction to mass production. And so on.

(I don't think reaction is the only way this drive towards wholeness is expressed. But it's one way.)

I am very conscious of this drive towards wholeness in my own psyche. I feel it in myself. I feel a very visceral urge to be a counterweight to social and cultural tendencies that seem to be going too far in a particular direction.

In this sense, I think there is a legitimacy to a certain kind of contrarianism-- in the sense that one feels the need to act as a counterbalance.

Take, for example, the matter of reverence. I wrote a rather didactic poem last year on the absence of solemnity and reverence I feel in modern society. I have honestly sometimes felt the temptation to become entirely humourless, as a counterweight to the excess of irony and flippancy in modern society.  I'm not going to do that, but if I did, it would be a good example of this kind of healthy contrarianism.

A more pertinent example might be political correctness, and my increasing alarm regarding political correctness, and my increasing conviction that it needs to be hit very hard, even mercilessly.

As mentioned previously, and despite misgivings about some of the things he says, I'm very much a fan of Milo Yiannopoulous. I believe that political correctness has become so dangerous and so all-pervading that it really takes a no-holds-barred, no-quarter-given opponent like Milo to lead the charge against it.

Saying this is problematic to me because it seems to be mirroring some of the very politically correct rhetoric that bothers me so much.

For instance, the feminist attitude that patriarchal domination is so deeply engrained that you can't be 'fair' on this subject-- that 'fairness' is just a tacit acceptance of the misogynstic status quo, since women are always starting from a position of oppression anyway.

Or the comparable attitude when it comes to race, that we can't be fair or objective because the field is already rigged against non-whites-- that we have to compensate for that rigging to even reach any kind of equality.

It seems obvious to me that 'this way lies madness'-- that once you say: "I'm not going to be fair, because the situation is not fair to begin with"-- then you are caught up in a never-ending whirlpool of faction and special interest-- you have lost any right (and perhaps, any inclination) to appeal to truth.

Michael Moore was once asked why he didn't include any dissenting voices on his documentary attacking the health insurance industry, Sicko. He said: "They get to tell their side of the story already. It's called the six o'clock news." (Or something like that.) I get his point, but this just seems to lead to a riot of partisanship, pure and unabashed prejudice.

So how do I square this with my own urges to be a contrarian, a reactionary, a correction?

Well, partly through my previous claim, that I would never uphold or proclaim anything I believed to be untrue.

More relevantly, perhaps, this tendency towards reaction and contrarianism is more at the level of how I live my life rather than the truths I proclaim.

When I proclaim the truths of the Catholic faith, I am proclaiming truths that I believe to be universal, ahistorical and (in a sense) impersonal.

But other aspects of my outlook-- for instance, my Irish nationalism, or my love of poetry, or my love of tradition-- aren't really a matter of proclaiming a truth. They're more a matter of asserting an ideal. You can argue on their behalf to some extent, but to a greater extent it's merely a matter of trying to communicate an enthusiasm, or to perpetuate a tradition. And indeed, the desire to perpetuate a tradition, to pass on a social and cultural legacy, can be as visceral and instinctive and even painful as the desire to procreate. I may write a whole post about this.

A verse in Edward Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam runs thus:
“Tis all a Chequer-board of nights and days
Where Destiny with men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.”

Perhaps we should find it degrading to see ourselves like that-- but I don't. I don't mind being one soldier in a great game of soldiers. I don't mind the sensation that I have my own particular role to play, that I have been enlisted onto one particular side by my temperament and history and goodness knows what else, and it's my place to play out that role as honestly and enthusiastically as I can-- to follow that banner into the thick of battle.

 I have more to say on this subject. 

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