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The Death of Culture & the Culture of Death
by Ralph McInerny
Delmore Schwartz has a memorable line: “In dreams begin responsibilities.” What is true of the individual is true of the culture as well. Imagination is a prelude to action. In this paper I examine the role literature has played in bringing about the Culture of Death. That culture denies that every human life has value and is willing to sacrifice some human lives for the alleged benefit of others. Literature both effects and reflects the transition.
The works of what is called the Western canon were produced in the cultural ambience of Christendom and thus shared an outlook on human agents and what they were destined for. Thus C. S. Lewis gave it as a bonus of his conversion that he now shared the faith of the authors he studied. Dante, in his dedicatory letter to Can Grande della Scala, advises that his great poem can be read in the way the Bible is. There is a literal meaning, and there is an allegorical meaning as well. The literal meaning is the state of souls after death. The allegorical meaning is that human beings, by what they freely do, determine their eternal condition, whether of happiness or damnation. In some sense Dante’s work was inspired as the Bible was—there is Beatrice behind it all, and Virgil of course, a gathering up of the gospel and what preceded it. The writers of the Bible were inspired by the Holy Ghost. George Bernard Shaw said he believed that the Bible was inspired by the Holy Ghost, but then he believed that all other books were as well. This quip separates him from, rather than links him to, Dante. The secularization of culture is accompanied by the secularization of the arts. The latter was a long process, but it reaches a culmination in what is called modernity.
My thoughts on modern art were stimulated by reading John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses and pursuing various leads he gives. The thesis is this: Those who sought to kill culture for the common man display a disturbing disposition to want to get rid of the common man—whom they regard as already dead.
When I first read Ortega y Gassett it was with keen delight, but now when I go back to him I am appalled at what he has to say and repentant of my earlier enthusiasm. In a 1948 essay called “The Dehumanization of Art,” Ortega makes explicit the aesthetic implications of his contempt for ordinary folk that was already palpable in The Revolt of the Masses.
Ortega, in The Revolt of the Masses, sounds like an advance man for Planned Parenthood or Zero Population Growth. There are just too many people, and he regards them with undisguised loathing. I still have the little 35-cent reprint of the book I bought half a century ago. On its cover one finds this: “With Western populations tripled in the last 100 years, a powerful new phenomenon has arisen—the mass-man. Can Western culture survive his encroachments? Will democracy crumble into mediocrity and chaos?” The book was published in 1930. It opens with a scary scenario.
Towns are full of people, houses full of tenants, hotels full of guests, trains full of travelers, cafés full of customers, parks full of promenaders, consulting-rooms of famous doctors full of patients, theaters full of spectators, and beaches full of bathers. What previously was, in general, no problem, now begins to be an everyday one, namely, to find room.1
That all these people should presume to crowd into the sacred precincts of art is something that must be prevented, and Ortega thinks this is just what modern art has done. On the back cover of my old edition of this book there is an ironic legend: “Good Reading for the Millions.” The Revolt of the Masses was one of the first mass-market paperbacks.
The mark of the modern in any art, Ortega argues, is that it thwarts the expectations of the ordinary man. His point is not that modern art attracts only a few, as if this were merely a contingent fact. Modern art, as he sees it, deliberately repels the many, and that is why reactions to it divide men into “two different varieties of the human species,” into “two orders or ranks: the illustrious and the vulgar.” The majority does not like modern art because it cannot understand it. One can, of course, dislike art that one understands, but something much deeper is involved here. “Modern art will always have the masses against it. It is essentially unpopular; moreover, it is anti-popular.” Such art challenges the assumption that men are equal.
Prior to modernity in art, the work won over the reader or listener or spectator by engaging his passions and feelings, ordering and interpreting them, sublimating them. Modern art refuses to cater to such vulgarity; the mass of mankind, failing to find any semblance of themselves in the work, are humiliated and filled with a sense of inferiority.
It is painful to read these smug, contemptuous words and attractive to think that they represent only the bloviations of a philosopher seeking to ally himself with those he conceives to be the cultural elite. But Ortega is on to something. What he purports to see in modern art is there, and it is there because it has been deliberately put there by the artist.
There are, of course, taxonomic difficulties in speaking of modern art as Ortega does. A work will count as modern art to the degree that it displays the marks of the modern that Ortega sets forth. Not all works contemporary with what thus counts as modern art will themselves be modern. It is just this that is taken to establish a hierarchy among contemporary artifacts. Those works that display the traits that modern art has superseded will to that degree be popular. And, of course, the popular is inferior. It is inferior because it appeals to the mass of mankind and can be understood by them. They enjoy its cathartic effects. Dwight MacDonald once wrote of Mass-Cult, Mid-Cult, and Hi-Cult, suggesting gradations within the popular predicated presumably on how broad the demotic appeal of a work was.
In any case, it is clear that the art that counts for Ortega is that which makes an effort to be impenetrable by the unwashed, which thwarts the expectations that have been fostered by traditional or classical work, and which presupposes a contempt for the ordinary run of people. Many works exhibit these characteristics, and their makers do indeed share Ortega’s disgust with the vulgar. Odi profanum vulgus et arceo? Not quite. Horace’s line is the expression of a reclusive mood, not a policy toward potential readers. Appreciation of the Roman poet is an acquired taste, of course, requiring many skills, but there is nothing in the intricate mosaic of the odes designed to thwart understanding. Horace will conceal his art but not his meaning.
Art that is not immediately intelligible only because it is difficult is yet intelligible in principle by anyone who masters the difficulty. But when the difficulty is the aim and not the accompaniment of the work, something very different is in play. If Ortega is right, one who seeks for the relationship of art to life in the modern world is facing an impossibility, not a difficulty. “What is behind this disgust at seeing art mixed up with life? Could it be disgust for the human sphere as such, for reality, for life?” (27). Ortega unconvincingly suggests an alternative: that this is only meant to protect the primacy of art over life, but his argument and rhetoric go against this suggestion.
The poet’s essential tool, according to Aristotle, is metaphor. I was once nearly run over by a truck in Athens that had “Metaphora” emblazoned on its side. Doubtless it was delivering words to another part of town where they did not literally belong. Metapherein is the transfer of a word from its native habitat to a surprising and illuminating use.
O the mind, mind has mountains. . .
We waited while she passed,
It was a narrow time. . .
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
[Midway this way of life we’re bound upon]
The simile is a more overt comparison of one thing to another.
When we were children, our papas were stout
And colorless as seaweeds or the floats
At anchor off New Bedford.
Sometimes we have a meta-metaphor.
At the round earth’s imagined corners. . .
Borges has said that words are symbols for shared memories.2 The metaphor is discursive, it takes us from the thing the word usually or literally means to something else to which perhaps it has never before been applied, yet we see the point of the transfer; there is the shock of recognition; it tells us something; we learn.
If this is true, the fundamental and constitutive metaphorical move is from the world in which we live to the world depicted by poet, dramatist, novelist, artist. But the traffic of the internal metaphors is in the opposite direction. Most fundamentally, we learn about ourselves.
Is this classic view a thing of the past? In his essay, “The Role of the Man of Letters in the Modern World,” Allen Tate wrote that the artist today must do what he has always done: “He must recreate for his age the image of man, and he must propagate standards by which other men may test that image, and distinguish the false from the true.”3 Self-knowledge is the final purpose, the extrinsic end. But he adds, “Men in a dehumanized society may communicate, but they cannot live in full communion.”4
If Ortega is right, what he calls the modern in art deliberately cuts off that contact with the lived world of ordinary folk; it takes away the ladder lest the scarcely literate dare to climb up where they are not wanted.5 John Carey6 has advanced the convincing argument that the masses so disdained by Ortega and by a surprising array of writers during the period Carey studies are an invention of those very writers and of the intellectuals by whom they are influenced. Barzun enjoined the artist to beware of “ideas,” of an intellectualism that would stunt him. The advice came too late for the writers Carey studies.
Carey notes the influence of Nietzsche on the writers who meet Ortega’s specifications for modern artists, and he finds this fear of the threat the masses are taken to pose in the most surprising authors: Yeats, H. G. Wells, A. R. Orage, editor of New Age, Ibsen, Knut Hamsun. The last ended up celebrating Adolf Hitler. Indeed the connection between the anti-popular motif of modern art and totalitarianism is a story in itself.7 F. R. Leavis shared the concerns of Ortega, fearing that culture faced an unprecedented crisis due to the rise of the mass media.8 Carey notes the general contempt for newspapers in the writers he studies, and contrasts it with Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, whose knowledge of newspapers is uncondescendingly exhaustive. The great detective’s ability to discern the individual by way of common clues strikes Carey as “residually religious, akin to the singling-out of the individual soul, redeemed from the mass, that Christianity promises.”9 This suggests that there is something unchristian in the contempt for the masses one finds in Ortega.
In Eliot, in D. H. Lawrence (“the major English disciple of Nietzsche”), the mass of people are described as dead.
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Eliot borrows Dante’s line about the literally dead and applies it to the living London crowds. Lawrence thought that most people are already dead while allegedly alive, and opined that another flood that would wipe them all out would be nice. An even more frightening thought of Lawrence’s, contained in a 1908 letter, is cited by Carey:
If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly; then I’d go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them in, all the sick, the halt, and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’.”10
Carey points out that the Eugenics Society, founded in 1907, was dedicated to preventing the increase of inferior breeds, a goal shared by Margaret Sanger.
The epigrammatic effusions of Nietzsche either reflect these views or are the origin of them. He certainly conferred a kind of respectability on this misanthropy directed at the masses. In The Will to Power he envisaged a master race, a new aristocracy, in which “the will of philosophical men of power and artist tyrants will be made to endure for millennia.”11 Yeats was drawn to eugenics and wrote a little screed on the subject, On the Boiler.
D. H. Lawrence despised universal education, which was producing masses of illiterate readers. “The great mass of humanity should never learn to read and write,” he thought, and Eliot too had misgivings about the drive to educate everybody. The growth of colleges and universities was cause for further horror. Eliot wanted the numbers in higher education cut by two-thirds, not expanded. And there are too many books published.12 Out of such fears grew the characteristic note of modernism. It is here that Carey’s analysis joins Ortega’s.
The intellectuals could not, of course, actually prevent the masses from attaining literacy. But they could prevent them reading literature by making it too difficult for them to understand—and this is what they did. The early twentieth century saw a determined effort, on the part of the European intelligentsia, to exclude the masses from culture. In England this movement has become known as modernism.13
Realism was out and so was logical coherence. T. S. Eliot wrote that “poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult.”14 And Geoffrey Grigson as an editor sought verse rebarbitive to the masses. The means of achieving this was, as Ortega had decreed, to dehumanize art, with the aim of taking literacy and culture away from the masses.
It is John Carey’s view that the intellectuals did not find themselves confronted by the masses; they invented them. The masses do not exist. “The mass, that is to say, is a metaphor for the unknowable and invisible.”15
Enjoying the Modern malgré lui
One who, like myself, was raised on the works of the modernists Carey has put into such an eerie light must ask if the misanthropic snobbery that is on the page in Ortega, but present more often than not merely in obiter dicta of the artists, must forever after spoil our appreciation of the works.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table.
The anti-metaphors of Eliot rang in one’s mind long before one realized that their meaning was not just difficult but perhaps non-existent. Did I ever understand the line, “The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream?” Does anyone? Did Wallace Stevens? Does it matter?
Hugh Kenner, one of the keenest critics—and proponents—of the modern, presents it mainly as artful fun. He revels in the techniques, the verbal legerdemain of the modern, and one detects no sense at all of the sinister beneath the difficult. The Pound Era may be Kenner’s best book: It is full of delights, the delights of the delighted, and is carried by a couple of bad arguments. In a chapter called “Words Set Free,” Kenner relishes the Wittgensteinian thought that language is a little world made cunningly, without need of meanings that link it with the world, telling us all this in a language that ignores, as it must, the thesis. Bad arguments?
Item. We read in Cymbeline that
Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney sweepers come to dust.
The metaphors seem obvious: youth : gold :: age : dust. So for generations the lines were read, until a visitor to Warwickshire heard a boy refer to dandelions as gold boys. And what are they called when they go to seed? Chimney sweepers. And that is what they look like. So what is the argument? That the lines had been long misunderstood and now could be understood aright? Kenner is after more and finds it in Pound. The symbolist revolution “allowed Pound to know that there would still be poetry for the reader who could not fill the ellipses back in, who literally, therefore, did not know what many words meant. Or even for the reader who filled them in wrong.”16 But if golden lads and chimney sweepers receive new meaning, it is specific to the previous generic. Golden youth : dandelions :: chimney sweepers : dust. And how generalized could the point be made? Could one respond to a poem while understanding none of its meaning? Well, Eliot tells us that he read Dante before he understood Italian, and surely he could have appreciated the music of the lines, but can an element of the poetic serve as the whole?17 Eliot eventually learned Italian, after all.
I should like to save the moderns from Ortega’s and Carey’s characterization of them, at least in large part, doing so by suggesting that there is a spectrum, on which the modern may be located at a far extreme but which connects it to artifacts designed to attract rather than repel readers. The modern is not as repellent as it allegedly wished to be.
When C. S. Lewis in Experiment in Criticism began his discussion of what literature is by proposing that it is anything that will be reread, he offered a criterion that excluded everything that would be merely read once, if at all. But why would we read something again? Aristotle held that the soul of the tragedy is its plot; it is the plot that provides a beginning, middle, and end of the events enacted on the stage. Fundamental as it is to fiction—generalizing from tragedy to all narrative fiction—the plot alone is not likely to bring us back again to a story, novel, or play. Once we know how it comes out, whodunit, for example, the story would lose its interest for us—if plot were all. But of course plot is the vehicle of other elements of a fictional creation. There is character, speech, setting, alien lore. Through all these the plot conveys not just a well-rounded action, but a meaningful action. Finally, it is because, to whatever degree, a story tells us something about ourselves and the mystery of the human action that we return to it. In fiction, each writer has a distinctive voice, a distinctive outlook, a manner in which to interpret the human actions put before our eyes. It is for those—above all for its distinctive interpretation of human life—that we especially go back to certain works.
What Lewis’s suggestion enables us to see is that there is a spectrum on which we locate works of art. At one end, the lowest end, there are stories that are merely entertaining, diverting, a good read. Elmore Leonard can serve as an example. Has anyone ever reread an Elmore Leonard novel?18 Those novels that make it as literature on Lewis’s simple criterion are not all of a piece, needless to say. Not all works of literature are of equal value. Nor do many of them make it into the Western canon.19 There are some works that are literally inexhaustible, read and reread not just by one generation, but by generation after generation. At the high end of the spectrum, there is something approaching consensus on what is truly great, hence their canonical status. No one would confine his reading to these works, and Lewis’s catholic criterion enables us to enjoy without apology the poor cousins of the canonical works because they share to varying degrees that more-than-mere-plot that brings us back to them.
Such a view of literature discourages the notion that there is some deep chasm between the works that fall toward one end of the spectrum and those that fall near the other. There is a continuum the reader travels back and forth upon, recognizing the qualitative differences between works of literature but not anathematizing works that just barely make it onto the continuum. Children’s books are the usual introduction to reading, and some of them deserve the appellation literature by the Lewis criterion. The child who learns to love them will be disposed to move on up the continuum to more rewarding books. But what adult does not return to Huckleberry Finn and Kidnapped again and again over the years, long after the children to whom he read them are reading them to their own?
It is just these considerations that enable us to place works of what Ortega would call modern art on that spectrum and read them despite the apparent intention of their authors to make them unreadable. Some of the poetry Hugh Kenner celebrates is unlikely to be thought equal to the canonical works of poetry, but for all that, they have elements of the poetic in them. A poem in which the music of the language drowns out all meaning continues to instantiate an essential element of poetic language—measured and melodic sound.20 But are their meanings really indecipherable? Do critics of Pound go on and on about the meaninglessness of the Cantos? Of course not. Is Ulysses impenetrable?21 Finnegan’s Wake almost succeeds in thwarting every attempt to understand it, but shelves groan under the weight of books that offer us its key. The modern may deliver up its meaning reluctantly and with difficulty, but that it is essentially esoteric, as Ortega suggests, seems doubtful. But then perhaps his point is made if it is only sufficiently difficult to turn away most readers. But that is not unintelligibility per se.
Misanthropy & the Modern
We are still left with the data provided us by John Carey and the theory advanced by Ortega. There is the depiction of ordinary folk in the novels and poems Carey scrutinizes: People are seen as dead, depressed, absurd, subhuman. Eliot’s Sweeney displays the anti-Irish animus of his milieux—Boston, then England. Lawrence can hardly contain his contempt for the masses. It is significant that both Eliot and Lawrence lament the increase of literacy: What use can louts make of this skill except to read newspapers and other trash? About this, two things.
First, if modernism sought to break the link between the popular and the difficult, withholding its high art from the masses, this created the conditions in which schlock and trash could flourish—produced for the most part by the elite.
Second, the masses in a more serious sense are not merely a foil for the modern artist; they are the public expression of the individualism of which others have spoken. The atomization of society ends in little more than an aggregate of autonomous units and the weakening of the common good, which threatens the shared memories words symbolize. The arts become the manipulation of the many by some, just as philosophers aspire to become strong poets, that is, to impose their ungrounded outlooks on others. The mass media address us one by one, appealing to passion and desire. This is the situation Kierkegaard foresaw and deplored in The Present Age. And Trollope often groused about the Times, alias The Jupiter. This was not contempt for the common man, but for those who would manipulate him. The ultimate telos of this is titillation, pornography.22
A Cheerful Note
Faulkner, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, made the memorable declaration, “Man will prevail.” Whatever one makes of this as a prophecy, it suggests the fundamental policy of the artist, certainly of the novelist. He, as Allen Tate made clear, is involved in interpreting his reader to himself, pondering and elucidating the mystery of the human person as it is revealed in the imagined contingencies of choice and decision. The greatest novels provide the richest variety of human virtue and folly, and across the spectrum from such definitive works as War and Peace, I Promessi Sposi, and Moby Dick, through Austen and Fitzgerald and James and Willa Cather, to those millions of works that merely entertain—entertain, not titillate—there is an undoubted declension, but there is as well the possibility that the more than mere entertainment found even in popular art will lead the reader toward more rewarding works.
Isn’t there hope in the fact that such great works never go out of print? Trollope and Dickens may be read more now than they were in their lifetimes, and the same could be said of dozens of others. Was Henry James ever so popular as he is today? Film and television adaptations of the best of stories find their audience. But works that were fashioned to repel continue to do so and end up etherized on the impatient deconstructionist’s table. The phrase “critical mass” takes on ironic meaning. The unreadable is not read. But reading goes on in all its varieties. And I console myself with a thought that I hope is not too fanciful, a thought encouraged by the continuing appeal of the kinds of works the modern sought to replace. If modern art assumed the stance of the Culture of Death, literature in the classical sense may prove to be the remedy.
For of course the old tradition has continued unbroken into our own day: Walker Percy, J. F. Powers, Edwin O’Connor, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, on and on and on—authors who do in their different ways what Allen Tate said the artist has always done. Flannery O’Connor, reflecting on her writing, recalled a remark St. Cyril of Jerusalem made to catechumens: “The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.” It was Flannery O’Connor who, in a perhaps unconscious echoing of Dante, said that all literature is anagogic. Here is her comment on St. Cyril: “No matter what form the dragon may take, it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell, and this being the case, it requires considerable courage at any time, in any country, not to turn away from the storyteller.”23
1. Jose Ortega y Gassett, The Revolt of the Masses (New York: Mentor Books, 1950), 7.
2. Jorge Luis Borges, This Craft of Verse (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 117.
3. Allen Tate, The Role of the Man of Letters in Modern Times (Meridian Books), 11.
4. Ibid., 12.
5. One can find a genial and humane discussion of the modern by Jacques Barzun in “The Road to Abstraction,” in The Energies of Art (Vintage Books, 1962). Many of the ideas in this essay show up in From Dawn to Decadence.
6. John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses, Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880–1939 (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1992).
7. See Michael Hamburger, The Truth of Poetry (New York: Harvest Books, 1969). He writes, “The work of W. B. Yeats abounds in instances of a ‘moral nihilism charged with moral fury’; and his sympathy with right-wing totalitarian movements was shared by poets as various as Rainer-Maria Rilke, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, Gottfried Benn and the Futurist F. T. Marinetti. The conservatism of Hugo von Hofmannsthal and T. S. Eliot was less nihilistically based, less ‘charged with moral fury’; but Hofmannsthal took up the dangerous slogan ‘conservative revolution’—a concept also dear to the various nationalist factions that prepared the way for Nazism in Germany and Austria—and Eliot’s ‘idea of a Christian society’ was so absolute and utopian as to be irreconcilable with liberal democracy” (85), and “Yeats’s attitude to Irish and European Fascism has been examined by Conor Cruise O’Brien . . .” (86). The attraction of the totalitarianism of the left was perhaps even stronger.
8. F. R. Leavis, Mass Civilization and Minority Culture (Cambridge: The Minority Press, 1930).
9. Ibid., 9.
10. Ibid., 12.
11. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, translated by Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingsdale (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1968), 389–390.
12. Carey, 15.
13. Ibid., 16–17.
14. T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 289.
15. Carey, 21.
16. Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 133.
17. Borges, in the lectures cited above, ends by reading one of his sonnets, telling his listeners that it doesn’t matter if they don’t know Spanish: “[M]eaning is not important—what is important is a certain music, a certain way of saying things” (121).
18. I am thinking, of course, of the fast-paced, slash-and-burn, below-the-belt novels that have made Leonard a millionaire. His early westerns, like Valdez Is Coming, invite and reward rereading. However, they are literature in a modest sense.
19. See Harold Bloom, The Western Canon (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994).
20. In volume one of Either/Or, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym suggests a scale of discourse in terms of the music of language, at one end an almost babble where no meaning interferes with the music and at the other a prose that artfully suppresses the music and measure of sound so that language is a translucent medium of meaning.
21. Carey says that Ulysses is almost unique in modern art for celebrating a perfectly ordinary fellow, but that ordinary fellow, Leopold Bloom, would not be inclined to read the novel.
22. E. Michael Jones in Libido Dominandi (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2000) suggests a more sinister motive: the acquisition of power over the many who become addicted to the pornographic and thus are more manipulable by those who feed their lusts.
23. From “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” in Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works (New York: The Library of America, 1988), 806.
Ralph McInerny, well known for his Father Dowling Mystery Series, has written numerous other books, including The Defamation of Pius XII (2001), Characters in Search of Their Authors (2001), Heirs and Parents (2000), and What Went Wrong with Vatican II (1998). He is also a cofounder of Crisis magazine and editor of the Catholic Dossier. This essay was delivered at “A Culture of Death,” the inaugural conference of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, held at the University of Notre Dame in October 2000.