Friday, August 30, 2019

What I suspect drives hatred of “populism”

I meet people who tell me they hate “populism”, Trump, Brexit and the like every day. That they really hate is undeniable but their attempts to explain what it is they hate and fear about these things are always incoherent. I’ve long suspected that “populism”, whatever that is supposed to mean, is just a symptom of something else, the passing of a way of life.

A friend of mine shared this on Facebook this morning:
"The purpose of an education is not merely to communicate information, let alone current scientific opinion, nor to train future workers and managers. It is to teach the ability to think, discriminate, speak, and write, and, along with this, the ability to perceive the inner, connecting principles, the intrinsic relations, the LOGOI, of creation, which the ancient Christian Pythagorean tradition (right through the medieval period) understood in terms of number and cosmic harmony." — Stratford Caldecott, Beauty for Truth's Sake

Now that might strike you as a little odd. How many people are committed to the “ancient Christian Pythagorean tradition”? Very few, to answer my own question. But what is at risk is the notion of using education as a way of indoctrinating people into a value set, a way of life. Slowly and by degrees, the government has been taking over higher education and, not surprisingly, it has been insisting that it serve its purposes, which are to train future workers and managers. That’s not necessarily an unalloyed good. But education used to be something different. It used to be an elitist institution whereby the young of a privileged class were indoctrinated into it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

A rude question I ask myself

Any time I see an activity or group that, to put it the way an existentialist might express it, proposes itself to me I ask myself, “Do the people engaged in this activity look like life’s winners?” Is that shallow of me? Perhaps. Jesus said he came for sinners—tax collectors and prostitutes.

On the other hand, there is a difference between choosing your religion and choosing your pastimes.

For example, marijuana use has been made legal in Canada. Dispensaries where people can acquire dope had sprung up in town even before it was officially legal. When I walk by those dispensaries I cannot help but notice that they are packed with losers. Losers whom Jesus tells us we should love. But I don’t think love implies being like them or acting in the way they do.

Another example, someone I know takes part on rather elite trivia events, gatherings of people who take this stuff very seriously. As typically happens, people tend to get good at what they take very seriously; these people can answer trivia questions correctly much more often than the rest of us. They are, in a sense, winners. But just to look at their group picture is to see people who are marginal. Deserving love but not emulation. (I know some people would insist that is impossible but I think it is possible.)

Monday, August 19, 2019

Walt Whitman controversy

Sarah Ruden, who has also done a good translation of Augustine’s Confessions has a piece up at National Review “Walt Whitman Isn’t America’s Greatest Poet”. It’s causing great consternation over there and, as near as I can tell, almost nowhere else in the known universe.

I’m not qualified to judge Whitman as a poet. I’m not qualified because I’ve never read much of the guy. I have a beautiful edition of Leaves of Grass on my shelves at home but, despite many attempts, I have never been able to read it. Not because it’s not good, possibly even great, poetry. The problem is that it fails to excite me. I just don’t care enough to keep reading.

And there, I think, is where Ruden strikes home. If we take it that there is a difference between “America’s Greatest Poet” and the “Greatest Poet Who is an American” it becomes possible to say that, whether he is a great poet or not, there is nothing about Whitman that speaks to America.

I’ve made similar points about James Joyce. Joyce may be a great writer but he hasn’t touched anyone outside the academic world. He’s read outside the academic world but only as a duty. Compare Joyce with Proust and we see that, there too, we have a writer revered by the academic world and read out of duty outside it but with a crucial difference: there are readers who dutifully slog  through Proust only to get enraptured by him. I know of no one who reads Joyce or Whitman and has that experience.

Instead, we have a writer who is read because he is “important” and continues to be affirmed as “important” because, damnit, he’s “important”. Most of the rejoinders at NR have that circular quality.

I have nothing against orthodoxy per se. I think there is a difference, however, between people who defend an orthodoxy because they love what we might call the content of that orthodoxy and people who defend it because it gives them a secure sense of identity to be aligned with an orthodoxy. I read Kevin Williamson’s rejoinder to Ruden, for example, and I find the usual good writing and sound argument I’ve come to expect from him. What is missing is any sense of genuine enthusiasm for Whitman.

Years ago, a Quebecois separatist whose name escapes me at the moment caused great outrage among defenders of PierreTrudeau by saying that Trudeau wasn’t an intellectual. When challenged, the separatist said, “Show me a time when Trudeau uses a quote that isn’t in Bartlett and I’ll concede. This stirred up even more outrage. As a teenager, what really struck me was that no one took up the challenge. For it should have been an easy matter, where Trudeau a genuine intellectual, to cite many examples of his having actually read the authors he cited in depth.

Similarly, if Whitman is America’s Greatest Poet, it should be possible to cite poetry that speaks to America. We haven’t seen that. All we have is a bunch of angry gesturing.