Politics and Awful Art

Fol­lowup to: Ra­tion­al­ity and the English Language

One of my less trea­sured mem­o­ries is of a State of the Union ad­dress, or pos­si­bly a pres­i­den­tial inau­gu­ra­tion, at which a No­bel Lau­re­ate got up and read, in a ter­ribly solemn voice, some poli­ti­cally cor­rect screed about what a won­der­fully in­clu­sive na­tion we all were—”The Afri­can-Amer­i­cans, the Ethiopi­ans, the Etr­uscans”, or some­thing like that. The “poem”, if you can call it that, was ab­solutely awful. As far as my ears could tell, it had no re­deem­ing artis­tic merit what­so­ever.

Every now and then, yet an­other athe­ist is struck by the amaz­ing idea that athe­ists should have hymns, just like re­li­gious peo­ple have hymns, and they take some ex­ist­ing re­li­gious song and turn out an athe­is­tic ver­sion. And then this “athe­is­tic hymn” is, al­most with­out ex­cep­tion, ab­solutely awful. But the au­thor can’t see how dread­ful the verse is as verse. They’re too busy con­grat­u­lat­ing them­selves on hav­ing said “Reli­gion sure sucks, amen.” Land­ing a punch on the Hated Enemy feels so good that they over­look the hymn’s lack of any other merit. Verse of the same qual­ity about some­thing un­poli­ti­cal, like moun­tain streams, would be seen as some­thing a kinder­gartener’s mother would post on her re­friger­a­tor.

In yes­ter­day’s Li­tany Against Gu­rus, there are only two lines that might be clas­sifi­able as “po­etry”, not just “verse”. When I was com­pos­ing the litany’s end, the lines that first popped into my head were:

I was not your des­ti­na­tion
Only a step on your path

Which didn’t sound right at all. Sub­sti­tute “path­way” for “road”, so the syl­la­ble counts would match? But that sounded even worse. The prosody—the pat­tern of stressed syl­la­bles—was all wrong.

The real prob­lem was the word des-ti-NA-tion—a huge awk­ward lump four syl­la­bles long. So get rid of it! “I was not your goal” was the first al­ter­na­tive that came to mind. Nicely short. But now that I was think­ing about it, “goal” sounded very airy and ab­stract. Then the word “city” came into my mind—and it echoed.

“I was never your city” came to me, not by think­ing about ra­tio­nal­ity, but by think­ing about prosody. The con­straints of art force us to toss out the first, old, tired phras­ing that comes to mind; and in search­ing for a less ob­vi­ous phras­ing, of­ten lead us to less ob­vi­ous thoughts.

If I’d said, “Well, this is such a won­der­ful thought about ra­tio­nal­ity, that I don’t have to worry about the prosodic prob­lem”, then I would have not re­ceived the benefit of be­ing con­strained.

The other po­etic line be­gan as “Laugh once, and never look back,” which had prob­lems as ra­tio­nal­ity, not just as prosody. “Laugh once” is the wrong kind of laugh­ter; too de­ri­sive. “Never look back” is even less cor­rect, be­cause the mem­ory of past mis­takes can be use­ful years later. So… “Look back, laugh once smile, and then,” um, “look for­ward”? Now if I’d been en­thralled by the won­ders of ra­tio­nal­ity, I would have said, “Ooh, ‘look for­ward’! What a pro­gres­sive sen­ti­ment!” and for­given the ex­tra syl­la­ble.

“Eyes front!” It was two syl­la­bles. It had the crisp click of a drill sergeant tel­ling you to stop wool­gath­er­ing, snap out of that daze, and get to work! Noth­ing like the soft cliche of “look for­ward, look up­ward, look to the fu­ture in a vaguely ad­miring sort of way...”

Eyes front! It’s a bet­ter thought as ra­tio­nal­ity, which I would never have found, if I’d been so im­pressed with dar­ing to write about ra­tio­nal­ity, that I had for­given my­self the prosodic trans­gres­sion of an ex­tra syl­la­ble.

If you al­low af­fir­ma­tion of My-Fa­vorite-Idea to com­pen­sate for lack of rhythm in a song, lack of beauty in a paint­ing, lack of poignancy in fic­tion, then your art will, in­evitably, suck. When you do art about My-Fa­vorite-Idea, you have to hold your­self to the same stan­dard as if you were do­ing art about a but­terfly.

There is pow­er­ful poli­ti­cized art, just as there are great re­li­gious paint­ings. But merit in poli­ti­cized art is more the ex­cep­tion than the rule. Most of it ends up as New Soviet Man Heroically Crush­ing Cap­i­tal­ist Snakes. It’s an easy liv­ing. If any­one crit­i­cizes your art on grounds of gen­eral suck­i­ness, they’ll be ex­e­cuted for sid­ing with the cap­i­tal­ist snakes.

Tol­er­ance of awful art, just be­cause it lands a deli­cious punch on the Enemy, or just be­cause it af­firms the Great Truth, is a dan­ger­ous sign: It in­di­cates an af­fec­tive death spiral en­ter­ing the su­per­crit­i­cal phase where you can no longer crit­i­cize any ar­gu­ment whose con­clu­sion is the “right” one.

And then the next thing you know, you’re com­pos­ing dread­ful hymns, or in­sert­ing gi­ant philo­soph­i­cal lec­tures into the cli­max of your fic­tional novel...

Part of the Poli­tics Is the Mind-Killer sub­se­quence of How To Ac­tu­ally Change Your Mind

Next post: “False Laugh­ter

Pre­vi­ous post: “The Li­tany Against Gu­rus