Friday, June 30, 2017

Ode on a Grecian Urn (1819)

by John Keats

Anyone who knows my literary preferences will know that I have a strong dislike for poetry. In the first place, poems are far too brief to be compared favorably to anything like the sustained effort it takes to produce a novel. But it’s probably the artificiality of the rhyme and meter that put me off the most. I prefer my literature in naturalistic language, and so I will always prefer prose. That being said, there is no denying that there are examples of poetry that are unsurpassed in their beauty and eloquence and must be respected as a the literary equal of any other. John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is just such a poem, and as such has been the source of much spilled ink over the last two centuries. The greatest source of contention for modern critics has been the quotation in the final sentence of the fifth stanza: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” At first glance it is difficult to make out how there could be any controversy in the statement, for the simple fact that it seems self-evident.

The best example supporting Keats’ idea comes from, of all places, science. In 1987 the BBC produced an episode of their Horizon science series called Life Story, eventually renamed Race for the Double Helix, about the discovery of the structure of D.N.A. The film was based in part on James Watson’s book The Double Helix, and written by William Nicholson. In the film Watson, played by Jeff Goldblum, and Francis Crick, played by Timothy Pigott-Smith, attempt to guess at the structure of D.N.A. without using any original research, taking what they know and have heard from other scientists working in the field to see if they can piece it together before anyone else. As they are beginning their quest, Crick suggests William Astbury’s work might be a place to start, but Watson shoots down that idea by saying one word: “Ugly.” Crick responds by saying, “You don’t like ugly?” to which Watson replies, “It doesn’t deserve to be true. Truth is . . . pretty.” At the end of the film when the two scientists do in fact come up with the structure, Watson says, “I knew it would be pretty.” Again, the idea seems self-evident, as the simple beauty involved in the scientific structure inheres its very truth. And this idea seems just as fitting a way to explain the historic messages conveyed by Keats’ personified urn. Others, however, are not as convinced.

T.S. Eliot famously said of the statement, “This line strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem; and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement that is untrue.” While Eliot’s inclination is clearly toward the later, I’m inclined to see it as the former. Literary critics Kenneth Burke and Cleanth Brooks, among others, have devoted entire essays to the explication of the poem. Brooks essay, “Keats’ Sylvan Historian: History Without Footnotes,” begins rather unfairly, however, suggesting that Keats, “would have approved of Archibald MacLeish’s dictum ‘A poem should not mean / But be.’

          Hence it is the more remarkable that the “Ode” itself differs from Keats’s other odes by culminating
          in a statement—a statement even of some sententiousness in which the urn itself is made to say
          beauty is truth, and—more sententious still—that this bit of wisdom sums up the whole of mortal
          knowledge. This is “to mean” with a vengeance—to violate the doctrine of the objective correlative,
          not only by stating truths, but by defining the limits of truth.

The reason I say this is unfair is that Brooks begins by putting words into Keats’ mouth—the words of MacLeish’s dictum—and then chiding him for violating them. The fact that Brooks wants to read into Keats’ poem an underlying objectivism based on the subject matter, an inanimate urn, does not obligate the author to adhere to the critic’s expectation. Rather, the onus is on the critic, in the words of Eliot, “to understand it.”

Brooks goes on to make a further misstep when he states that “one can emphasize beauty is truth and throw Keats into the pure-art camp, the usual procedure. But it is only fair to point out that one could stress truth is beauty, and argue with the Marxist critics of the ‘thirties for a propaganda art.” How anything labeled propaganda can be associated with the idea of truth is a bit mystifying as the two would appear to be mutually exclusive, but the real question that emerges from Brooks’ two arguments is, what’s the difference? Clearly Keats didn’t think there was one, which is why he tied the two phrases together and united them as a single thought. The more beautiful something is the more it speaks to the truth inherent within, whether that truth is designed to enlighten or ennoble or inspire. Likewise, the truth inherent in the work of art is born out by its beauty. Certainly there are truths to be had in things that are not beautiful, but that isn’t really Keats’ point. The two phrases belong to one sentence, and begin with the word beauty. In the context of the poem they must be referring to the same specific object. Once the beauty of an object has been established then beauty and truth are interchangeable. Reinforcing this is Brooks best line in the essay, where he finally grants Keats the genius of his own artistry. “This is surely not too much to ask of the reader—namely, to assume that Keats meant what he said and that he chose his words with care.”

In the opening sentence of the poem, Keats offers an utterly devastating—in its positive sense—example of compression. “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness, / Thou foster-child of silence and slow time, / Sylvan historian, who canst thus express / A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:” Though he speaks of quietness and silence, this is light-years away from the comparison Brooks tries to make with MacLeish’s “palpable and mute” fruit. The emphasis here is on the nouns. Keats’ unravish’d bride still holds within her the secrets of history that she has been decorated with. Likewise, she has also been born away from her home like a foster-child who remembers a time long before but can only tell us what it was like, vague reminiscences of something we can never experience for ourselves. And then all of this is summed up in a phrase of almost Shakespearean invention: “sylvan historian.” Again, it’s the noun that informs the previous phrases by demonstrating that the urn itself is not merely a piece of history, but an historian that has the ability to tell us something about the past. As Brooks says, “historians tell the truth.” What is most telling is the adjective sylvan. The urn, while man made, has now become a part of nature, perhaps even reclaimed from the soil in which it was once buried. Like the scientist who examines plants as a way of making any number of deductions about their lives and habitats, the narrator understands that the urn can only reveal its secrets in the same voiceless way. And just like the plant, the urn is able to express her “flowery tale” with an aesthetic quality more pleasing than the poet’s pen.

In the second half of the first stanza the narrator wonders aloud what secrets the urn has to tell. “What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape / Of deities or mortals, or of both, / In Tempe or the dales of Arcady? / What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? / What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? / What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?” The ring of leaves that frame the scene is similar to that worn by men, thus reminding us of the personification of the urn in the first sentence which also renders the last spoken line of the poem perfectly understandable. The scene it decorates is a legend that “haunts,” a vestige from the past, murky and unclear but vivid enough to seem real, from a time back in time that the ancient Greece of Tempe and Arcady evoke. The male figures might be mortal or might be representations of the gods, as are the maidens they pursue. Loth in this context means reluctance rather than hatred, though it depends on the context. If the “mad pursuit” is love, then reluctance is merely prudence. If it depicts a “struggle to escape,” then hatred would certainly apply. The fact that the scene is accompanied by musicians playing flutes and tambourines implies the former, especially as the narrator goes on to use the phrase “wild ecstasy” to describe it. Nevertheless, all of this is conjecture, a questioning on the part of the narrator who must explore all possibilities—much as the botanist does—before coming to any conclusions.

Again, Keats uses the next sentence to explain not only what has come before, but what will come after. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; / Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d, / Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:” The unheard melodies are like the information offered by the sylvan historian, silent and yet all the more exquisite because of it. As is so often the case with art, the imagination is far more powerful than anything the artist can render. The musician on the urn who plays in perpetual stillness therefore plays for our soul rather than our ears. It’s in the second half of the second stanza that Keats most obviously waxes Shakespearean. “Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave / Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare; / Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, / Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve; / She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, / For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!” Comparisons with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18—and there are many others—in which it is the poem itself that forever captures the beauty of the narrator’s lover, are inevitable. Frozen in time upon the urn, the lovers who are serenaded by the silent musician will never touch, will never consummate their love. But the narrator tells them not to grieve because their love will never grow old and never be spoiled, and they will always be beautiful.

In the opening of the third stanza Keats uses his overlapping technique to good effect by taking a passing phrase from the previous stanza, “nor ever can those trees be bare,” and expanding on it. “Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed / Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu; / And, happy melodist, unwearied, / For ever piping songs for ever new;” Though in the previous stanza Brooks would have us ponder the fact that perhaps the musician who “canst not leave” is trapped, here we are told he is “unwearied,” as is everything else in the scene. The branches on the trees are just as happy as the musician, as they will never grow old, never lose their leaves and always exist in the full spring of their youth. Keats then expands on this idea for the lovers. “More happy love! more happy, happy love! / For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d, / For ever panting, and for ever young; / All breathing human passion far above, / That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, / A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.” The first line is important, because the emphasis here is on the adjective happy. The love that young lovers experience—and even more so because they have yet to consummate their love, “still to be enjoy’d,”—is the most exquisite there can be. And so it is only that happy love that the eternal lovers will share. Keats continues with an impressive description of the heart that is “for ever panting.” First he says that the heart is “high-sorrowful,” as in the bittersweet ache for something not yet possessed. But then he goes on to use the word “cloy’d,” meaning completely full up with desire, which is really an absence. This is a tremendous juxtaposition of ideas, though he ends the stanza with a more prosaic comparison of unconsummated love to a fever in the final line.

In the fourth stanza Keats shifts his gaze completely—to another scene on the urn in the conceit of the poem, though in reality probably an entirely different work of art. Here he witnesses a religious rite being performed. “Who are these coming to the sacrifice? / To what green altar, O mysterious priest, / Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies, / And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?” If there’s a stanza that’s confusing, it’s this, not the final one. Keats repeats the same kind of questioning from the end of the first stanza, wondering aloud exactly what these people are doing, especially the “mysterious priest,” but the rest is primarily description. From the foreground scene Keats then shifts to the background. “What little town by river or sea shore, / Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel, / Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn? / And, little town, thy streets for evermore / Will silent be; and not a soul to tell / Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.” The issue is that Keats has devoted fully three stanzas to the lovers and the musician, only to shift to unanswered questions about this new scene that suggest there is no background at all and we are simply left to imagine whether these people lived by the sea or in the mountains. Brooks, however, manages deftly to remind the reader of the purpose of the urn in the poem, and that Keats’ intention here is “thoroughly relevant to the sense in which the urn is a historian.” Thus, instead of seemingly being taken in a different direction by the poet in this stanza, he is actually returning full circle to the main idea rather than allowing us to be so transported by the timeless lovers that we forget our purpose, which comes finally in the fifth stanza. According to Brooks:

          The “reality” of the little town has a very close relation to the urn’s character as a historian. If the
          earlier stanzas have been concerned with such paradoxes as the ability of static carving to convey
          dynamic action, of the soundless pipes to play music sweeter than that of the heard melody, of the
          figured lover to have a love more warm and panting than that of breathing flesh and blood, so in the
          same way the town implied by the urn comes to have a richer and more important history than that
          of actual cities. Indeed, the imagined town is to the figured procession as the unheard melody is to
          the carved pipes of the unwearied melodist.

The beginning of stanza five also finds Keats returning to the first stanza in the way that he once again addresses the urn directly. “O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede / Of marble men and maidens overwrought, / With forest branches and the trodden weed;” Attic is a reference to another region of ancient Greece and, along with the weaving together of branches, men and maidens on the urn, is taking the reader back to the first stanza literally as well. The next sentence is probably the most important in terms of understanding the final stanza. “Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity:” Thought, in this context, is the mind filled with the cogitations of everyday life. The “silent form” of the urn is then able to release the viewer from those mundane thoughts in order to focus on something else, in the same way that the contemplation of eternity makes us think of things beyond ourselves. These scenes of everyday life in a time long past, will eventually be no different than the viewer’s life, swallowed up by the distant march of time. “Cold Pastoral!” the poet addresses the urn in another cunning juxtaposition, a lifeless piece of clay that nevertheless has the power to conjure the bucolic reality of those long dead and give solace to those in the present. “When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, / ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’”

Brooks makes a nice observation about the word generation here, which is in keeping with Keats’ own use of juxtaposition. The verb form of the word implies action, things being generated, people being continually created as in the breed (brede) of the men and women who inhabit the urn peopling the earth down to the present day. But as a noun, along with Keats’ reference to the wasting of that generation, the word conveys the finite amount of time that humans have to live. And still the urn remains, a friend to future generations in the way that it will continue to inform the human soul. More importantly than the “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” line, however, is the context in which it is presented. This is all that we can know on earth. Things beyond our sensory perception will forever remain beyond them, and the urn is letting us know that this is as it should be. It’s all we need to know. The implication is that in setting our sights on things beyond our knowledge we ignore all the aesthetic truth that the world has to offer right now. Whether we believe that a god created that beauty or not, the emphasis of life needs to be on allowing beauty to “tease us out of thought” so that we don’t wind up mired in our own “woe” all our lives. The search for love, the creation of music, the attention to duty, these are all to be done with the consciousness of the truth inherent in all of these actions, and the more beautiful they are the better.

It’s clear by the end of Brooks’ essay that his initial unfairness is simply his way of playing devil’s advocate. Despite some minor quibbles, his respect for the author and the assumption of authorial preeminence in analyzing the author’s work become obvious the deeper the reader gets into the text. In looking at those elements of juxtaposition in Keats’ poem, which Brooks calls irony, his respect for the author is evident. “The purpose in emphasizing the ironic undercurrent in the foregoing lines is not at all to disparage Keats—to point up implications of his poem of which he was himself unaware. Far from it: the poet knows precisely what he is doing. The point is to be made simply in order to make sure that we are completely aware of what he is doing.” And this gets to the very heart of what it means to analyze literature: the assumption that the author knows what he or she is doing. The first step in finding meaning in literature is to understand what the literature means in and of itself, “‘to mean’ with a vengeance,” rather than bringing to the work preconceived theories or ideas that turn Keats’ “well-wrought urn” into something unrecognizable. This is something Brooks deals with convincingly in his conclusion:

          If we can see that the assertions made in a poem are to be taken as part of an organic context,
          if we can resist the temptation to deal with them in isolation, then we may be willing to go on to
          deal with the world-view, or “philosophy,” or “truth” of the poem as a whole in terms of its dramatic
          wholeness: that is, we shall not neglect the maturity of attitude, the dramatic tension, the emotional
          and intellectual coherence in favor of some statement of theme abstracted from it by paraphrase.

And nothing could be more beautiful than the truth of the author’s words allowed to stand on their own and conveying all their meaning to us in “silence and slow time.”

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Devil's Pleasure Palace (2015)

by Michael Walsh

I picked up Michael Walsh’s book, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West in the hopes of getting some kind of perspective on the Frankfurt School of literary theory that has become such a perversion of true literary theory in colleges and universities over the past fifty years. Unfortunately Walsh’s book is nothing more than a fundamentalist religious screed posing as scholarship. It’s too bad that so many on the religious right feel obligated to argue the legitimacy of a faith based worldview when they have absolutely no argument to make. Christian mythology, regardless of how religiously adhered to, has no validity on which to make a rational argument and so believers are forced to fall back on ad hominem attacks and “evidence” culled from religious texts, neither of which are valid in any reasonable sense. And that’s the real problem with the whole exercise; religious belief is not reasonable endeavor, which makes their arguments all the more ludicrous when they try to present them as such. There’s nothing wrong with their belief, per se, but they are for some reason compelled to try and prove that they are “right” despite the fact that there is no evidence for their belief, hence the word faith.

Walsh tries to come up with a workable thesis in his preface, the idea being that literary theory is important to a culture because it is the lens that their actions and progress are viewed through. In terms of the United States he gives lip service to the Greek philosophical tradition by calling it “one of the pillars on which rests the entire edifice of Western civilization”—the other being Christianity—but then essentially ignores it to deal almost exclusively with the Bible and Christian mythology for the rest of the book. Much of the rest of the preface is given over to show how evil the “radical left” is, before launching into his introduction to which he devotes the majority of the space to fictional examples that, while meant to bolster his argument, have no basis in fact and are thus invalid on their face. But then that seems to be his point, when he states in the first chapter, “The roots of the intractable political conflict that currently plagues Western societies lie almost entirely in our rejection of myth, legend, and religion as ‘unscientific’” (24). I would hope we would. Walsh’s distress seems to come from the fact that his brand of mythology doesn’t carry any weight for rational, thinking human beings anymore. The only political “conflict” he sees, therefore, is that everyone isn’t doing things his way. By the time the reader is finished with the second chapter, over forty pages into the book, it becomes glaringly obvious that Walsh has spent absolutely zero time telling the reader what Critical Theory actually is, which can’t help but make the reader suspect he doesn’t really know himself.

My understanding of Critical Theory is that it is an offshoot of Marxism—which has almost nothing to do with Soviet Communism—in which a group of German, post-World War One intellectuals tried to come to grips not only with the abandonment of true Marxism in Russia, but the inability of the Communist Party in Germany to break out of its societal constraints. In thinking about these failures they began to wonder if those societal constraints weren’t, in reality, a set of givens that people didn’t even think about and yet were operating within, which had the effect of limiting their perspective by not allowing them to look objectively at what was really going on. Of course, being Marxist, those constraints were capitalistic ones, set by the ruling oligarchies of the period, whether governmental, economic . . . or religious. In his introduction to Theodor W. Adorno’s The Jargon of Authenticity, author Trent Schroyer defines it this way:

          The intent of critical theory is to reconstruct the generation of historical forms of consciousness
          in order to demonstrate how they misrepresent actual social relations and thereby justify historical
          forms of domination . . . Their concern for the growth of false consciousness generated by the
          “culture industry” and the increased integration, and yet atomization, of persons in the industrial
          order resulted in a series of critical analyses of mass culture and ideological traditions, e.g.,
          authoritarian social forms. (Adorno viii-ix)

In other words, authoritarian societal forms—of which the capitalist oligarchy is certainly one—maintain their domination of the people through the use of mass culture, which generates false ideals that citizens unconsciously accept as their own, never knowing that they have been given to them with the express goal of integrating them into a society that, ironically, tends to isolate them from other members of that society. Thus, there are certain “norms” that people intuitively accept without even realizing it, and Walsh has clearly absorbed them all—individualism, competition, a good vs. evil dichotomy that doesn’t exist in nature, religious submission to an imaginary deity, the myth of the liberal media, a fear of expertise, projection of his own philosophical blindness—and is on a personal crusade to demonstrate his ignorance on the subject to all the world, and to that end he has done a magnificent job.

Just one page from the book will serve as an example of the deficit of evidence and abundance of fallacious arguments that are to be found throughout. On page 33, at the beginning of his argument about how Critical Theory has debased the family, Walsh begins by citing John Milton’s Paradise Lost as “evidence.” It’s an interesting work, and an important piece of Christian mythology, but it’s just as much a work of fiction as The Iliad or The Nibelungenlied, or for that matter, Harry Potter. As such, when arguing about the reality of our lives, fiction carries no weight at all. This is a point that literary critic John Crowe Ransom makes about poetry in general, but can be applied quite easily in this situation as well. In his book The World’s Body Ransom makes a distinction between poetry that describes actual things, physical objects—for our purposes, facts—and poetry that attempts to describe concepts or ideas as if they were physical objects—otherwise known as fiction. “This poetry is an imitation of Physical Poetry, and not really a poetry. [They] practice their bogus poetry in order to show that an image will prove an idea, but the literature which succeeds in this delicate mission does not contain real images but illustrations” (Ransom 52). I love the fact that Ransom never denies that this type of argument succeeds in its “delicate mission,” but is nevertheless compelled to point out that an illustration is not the real thing. However much Walsh might want his images to prove his ideas, at the end of the day they are still fictional illustrations, not facts.

But Walsh is just getting warmed up. He then goes on to commit a standard right-wing fallacy without, of course, even realizing it. It talking about how what he calls “the Unholy Left,” has as one of its prime directives to destroy the nuclear family, he makes this statement:

          Soviet Communism (along with its evil twin, National Socialism, as pure an expression of the
          satanic in man as one can imagine) understood this well: Destroy the family, seize the children,
          and give the insupportable notion of a Marxist post-Eden replacement paradise a purchase
          power for at least one more generation. (33)

Okay, let’s begin with the most glaring fallacy: equating Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, and speaking of them as if they were the same. In reality, they are two very different things. One is communism and the other is fascism. Communism is philosophically left wing, while fascism is philosophically right wing. Soviet Communism my have had as one of its primary tenets the breakdown of the family unit, but the same cannot be said about Nazi Germany. The Nazis, in fact, were zealous promoters of the family and family values—as long as they were in line with Nazi philosophy—similar to the way fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. don’t just promote family values, they insist on attempting to legislate them and impose them on everyone who doesn’t believe in their mythology. That’s called fascism. Nazi philosophy actually has far more in common with modern fundamentalist Christianity than it does with Russian Communism. But Walsh had already made the same fallacious association earlier in the book when he said, “this battle is simply the latest front in an ancient war, this classical struggle—‘the Fight’ or ‘the Struggle’ (or der Kampf) as leftists call it—is the defining issue of our time” (3). Again, Nazis aren’t “leftist,” they are right-wing fascists who hated the communist left every bit as much as Walsh. But like so many on the right, he doesn’t bother trying to understand the difference. Hitler and his master plan, Mein Kampf, were evil so they must be the same as every other evil. Of course, for people who don’t have the ability to distinguish between the fantasy of religion and the reality of their own existence, all things evil must emanate from the same place—Satan—and therefore they must be indistinguishable.

And speaking of Satan, are we really going to try to explain away the Holocaust and the Stalinist Purges by trotting out Flip Wilson in drag to have him say, “The Devil made me do it?” But that’s what Walsh would have us believe. Unfortunately for him, Arthur Miller already thoroughly destroyed that argument back in the nineteen fifties in his background narration to The Crucible when he wrote about the political uses of the Devil.

          Since 1692 a great but superficial change has wiped out God’s beard and the Devil’s horns, but
          the world is still gripped between two diametrically opposed absolutes . . . When it is recalled that
          until the Christian era the underworld was never regarded as a hostile area, that all gods were
          useful and essentially friendly to man despite occasional lapses; when we see the steady and
          methodical inculcation into humanity of the idea of man’s worthlessness—until redeemed—the
          necessity of the Devil may become evident as a weapon, a weapon designed and used time and
          time again in every age to whip men into a surrender to a particular church or church-state. (33-34)

The first aspect of Miller’s genius is to place Christianity firmly within the long line of other human mythologies. In this context God and the Devil are no different from any other fictional deities that have been an integral part of human existence. But the big difference is on Christianity’s insistence on “man’s worthlessness,” a humiliating and meaningless prerequisite that serves only one function: submission to the Church. In this way the idea of the Devil is simply a form of control that has been used by the Christian Church to varying degrees since its inception. Miller mentions the Inquisition, to name just one example, but then goes on to say, “the Church’s enemies relied no less upon the Old Boy to keep the human mind enthralled” (34).

This is an important point. Walsh continues to paint Marxism and Communism—again, indistinguishable in his mind—as Satanic and evil, but fails to realize that Communists think the very same thing about him. “In the countries of the Communist ideology,” says Miller, “all resistance of any import is linked to the totally malign capitalist succubi” (34). Walsh can’t have it both ways. If he wants to believe the left is evil just because he says it is, then he has to admit to being just as evil because they say he is. Again, no evidence is proffered; the mere fact that he assumes the Devil exists seems to be his only argument. But this idea of calling the enemy evil is, in point of fact, evil in and of itself. Miller concludes by illuminating the bottom line for the political use of the Devil. “Political opposition, thereby, is given an inhumane overlay which then justifies the abrogation of all normally applied customs of civilized intercourse. A political policy is equated with a moral right, and opposition to it with diabolical malevolence” (34). And there it is. Walsh, by turning a cultural theory into a moral abomination, is now free to take whatever action he likes against it with the delusional comfort of knowing the other side isn’t worthy of civilized discourse or the use of anything like facts or rationality. If the people on the religious right actually did some thinking for themselves perhaps they would realize that they already have religious freedom in this country. But that’s not good enough. Apparently they won’t be happy until they take away everyone else’s right to religions freedom—which includes the right not to practice religion at all. Once again, that’s called fascism, which, once again, doesn’t come from the left.

What Walsh does next is another classic example of Christian argumentation: projection. What this consists of is taking all of the flaws and irrational behaviors that the religious right indulges in and pretends to make the other side guilty of them, as if simply saying it makes it so.

          Leftists are fueled by a belief that in the modern world, it does not so much matter what the
          facts are, as long as the story is well told. Living in a malevolent, upside-down fantasy world,
          they would rather heed their hearts than their minds, their impulses than their senses; the
          gulf between empirical reality and their ideology-infused daydreams regularly shocks and
          surprises them, even as it discomforts and kills millions who suffer the consequences of their
          delusions. (33)

It’s almost laughable how accurately Walsh describes fundamentalist Christianity in this paragraph. Almost, because it’s pretty clear he actually believes in his own delusions. To begin with, ignoring facts is one of the dominant features of the Christian right, everything from Evolution to climate change is denied as part of the propaganda campaign waged by corporate America to guarantee votes from those on the religious right who don’t bother using their brains to think for themselves. And to justify their ignorance is, of course, The Greatest Story Ever Told. Whoever came up with that title for the Christ narrative probably didn’t get the irony of using the word “story” to describe it—though I secretly hope they did. But on we go. The malevolent, upside-down fantasy world of which he speaks is none other than the world of the Devil. “Satan . . . has no need for servants in Hell, as God does in Heaven; he is instead satisfied with corpses on earth. As modern history shows, the Devil has had great success and ample reward in that department” (7). The only people with the worldview that the earth is in the grip of some supernatural malevolence force are those who believe in the fantasy of the Devil. And as far as heeding hearts rather than minds, that sounds rather more like a Biblical injunction that a condemnation of philosophy. Similarly, “ideology-infused daydreams” is as apt a description of living the Christian life as any I’ve ever seen. And if we want to go back to the year one and work our way forward, there are probably hundreds of millions who have died at the hands of religious delusionaries through the centuries.

Finally, Walsh ends page 33 with what I can only assume is a Freudian slip, when he says about Critical Theory, “It, like scripture, contains all the themes and clichés deemed necessary to sell a governing philosophy that no one in his right mind would actually vote for absent deception and illusion.” Correct, Mr. Walsh—that is exactly what scripture is. But this is actually one of the most charming things about the book, the way in which his sarcasm continually trips him up into making bold pronouncements about religion and right-wing ideology that are absolutely true. Another such bon mot is this gem about Satan himself: “If the myth of the Fall is correct—and it either it is, or it is a mass hallucination that somehow, against all odds, has sprung up and endured . . .” (59). You couldn’t put more accurate words into his mouth to describe exactly what Miller is talking about. But it’s no hallucination; it’s a calculated tool on the part of the Christian Church to coerce compliance with their ideology and adherence to their dogma. And all of this is on just one page. Unfortunately, there are two-hundred and eleven more to wade through. Much of what he has done to this point in the book is put words in the mouths of the nebulous “left” that he disparages, usually the words of Satan from various sources—his favorite is Milton—but offering absolutely nothing from the actual words of critical theorists themselves. And continuing to read phrases like “the Unholy left” and “wheedling Leftism” gets tiring very quickly as it becomes increasingly clear that ad hominem attacks are his only real argument. In Chapter Three Walsh quotes Marx directly, his oft cited words summarized to the effect that religion is the opiate of the masses, and is then compelled to deliver this intellectual rejoinder: “These are the demented ravings of a dangerous idiot.” Ah, if only Marx were alive so that he could respond with, “I’m rubber, you’re glue . . .”

There are also plenty of contradictions, as should be expected in an anti-intellectual diatribe like this. In one chapter Walsh utters the stinging indictment of the Unholy left stated above as those who “would rather heed their hearts than their minds,” and in the very next chapter he castigates the very same people for “rebel[ling] against the evidence of their hearts” (39). He also quotes Brian Anderson to the effect that the Russian people in 1917 knew they were being lied to, and yet the siren song of Communist—again, not to be confused with pure Marxist—propaganda brainwashed them with “the emotional pull of the grand illusions that they served,” (40) completely ignoring the oppressive nature of the omnipresent police state that forced them to accept Communist lies. Walsh also wants it both ways when it comes to Christian hypocrisy. Christianity in this country has gone hand in hand with hypocrisy since the time of the Puritans, but instead of recognizing that he accuses the left of “casting human frailty as hypocrisy” (45). He even wants to criticize the use of the term Christianity by those on the left because, “there is no one Christian church.” And yet he has no compunction about repeatedly painting all liberals as the same, unified “Unholy Left.” He also claims that the reason the Soviets lost their war in Afghanistan is because of “the self-discrediting Marxism-Leninism of the Brezhnev era” that resulted in a “loss of cultural self-confidence” (47). Though he mentions dozens of films, it’s painfully obvious that Walsh hasn’t seen Charlie Wilson’s War, which begs the question of whether or not he’s learned anything that hasn’t been filtered through his religious-capitalist worldview—which was exactly the Critical Theorists’ point.

It’s not until Chapter Three that he finally gets to actually discussing Critical Theory. His definition? “There is no received tenant of civilization that should not either be questioned . . . or attacked” (48). Questioned, sure. Attacked? Philosophically, maybe, but for the anti-intellectual right there’s no distinction when it comes to attacks. They’re all evil. Walsh presents three quotes by various theorists with no comment, assuming a rhetorical indignation at their apparent self-condemnation. The first is by Herbert Marcuse. “Freedom of enterprise was from the beginning not altogether a blessing. As the liberty to work or to starve, it spelled out toil, insecurity, and fear for the vast majority of the population . . . the disappearance of this freedom would be one of the greatest achievements of civilization” (42). The sarcasm of the second mention of freedom by Marcuse was apparently way over Walsh’s head. With no other option but to work for someone else at the wages they decide, the hours they set, and the ability to fire their employees at will, this “freedom of enterprise” is the very opposite for the vast majority of workers in a capitalist society. Given that, any other way of ordering a society’s economic life, either real or theoretical, would be a tremendous step forward in human civilization.

The second quote is by Max Horkheimer. “Although most people never overcome the habit of berating the world for their difficulties, those who are too weak to make a stand against reality have no choice but to obliterate themselves by identifying with it. They are never rationally reconciled to civilization. Instead, they bow to it, secretly accepting the identity of reason and domination, of civilization and the ideal, however much they may shrug their shoulders” (42-43). This goes to the heart of Critical Theory in the way that the economic freedom that Marcuse talks about is really a prison for most workers who haven’t the mental energy to understand who their jailers really are. Thus they fall in line and get their job and work for the man, which has the net effect of obliterating their individuality. And even for those who know it’s wrong and doesn’t work, what are the alternatives to the domination of their lives by the capitalist oligarchy? The reality is, there are none. The final quote is by Theodor Adorno. “A German is someone who cannot tell a lie without believing it himself” (43). This speaks to the self-deception in all of us. Perhaps this last quote bothers Walsh so much because it describes him so well. His book is filled with lies, and yet he believes them with all his heart.

In reality, all three quotes are cogent examples that explain how in a free-market system the individual is left to fend for himself rather than looked after as part of a larger economic community, and most have no other choice than to go along with it. Jesus chasing the merchants and money-lenders from the temple couldn’t have said it any better, but Walsh seems clueless to the implications, only seeing what he has been programmed by capitalism to accept without question, namely that capitalism is an unquestioned good. Perhaps that’s why he accuses them of “complexity over simplicity . . . obfuscation and misdirection,” because he’s too dumb to get it, which is reinforced by the fact that there’s no other explanation of Critical Theory in the entire book, nothing. Throughout, Walsh continually connects Critical Theorists with Soviet Communism, which means that he either doesn’t understand the difference or is purposefully practicing “obfuscation and misdirection” himself. The Frankfurt School was actually highly critical of Soviet Communism for becoming just another dictatorship and, in its abuse of workers, no better than capitalism. According to David Held, in his book Introduction to Critical Theory, both Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch wrote works in the early 1920s,

          calling into question the dominant Marxist orthodoxies—the established doctrines of the
          Communist and Social Democratic parties. The publication of Lukács’s History and Class
          Consciousness and Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy met with a number of bitter polemical
          attacks. Some of the harshest criticism came from leading spokesmen of the Communist
          International itself. (20)

Walsh accuses the Frankfurt School of being “anti-religious,” which they most certainly were, as religious fascism and fanaticism is every bit as hurtful to people as the economic and governmental varieties. Certainly Christianity hadn’t been able to do the job in its nearly two thousand-year trial run, so it clearly doesn’t work. But then he goes on to claim they were also “anti-human,” which makes no sense, as the only goal of these theorists was to figure out a way of making life better for mankind. He also continues to argue that it is only with religion that man experiences free will—this despite references to being God’s servant in heaven, or Arthur Miller’s point about accepting the worthlessness of man—while claiming that it is the leftist ideology that wants to create “a mass of self-corralling slaves who mistake security for liberty” (50). Again, that sounds more like people taking a trip up the aisle to the altar at the front of the church to supplicate themselves before the radical right’s insistence that we give up all our liberties for the illusion of security. Oh, and he’s also a misogynist: “If the feminists have an argument, it is with God, not men.” How convenient; take up your argument with the magical, mythical, imaginary figure in the sky, not the real people responsible for your subjugation.

The book is essentially a radical right, neocon greatest hits collection. As such, Walsh naturally takes a swipe at expertise, the obvious reaction of someone who is averse to factual evidence. “But in an age when credentialism is disguised as supreme, practically Faustian knowledge, and when minutiae are elevated to the status of timeless universal principles (even as the existence of such principles is otherwise denied), Leftism masquerades as sophistication and expertise” (41-42). Interestingly, his parenthetical dig at principles that are “denied” doesn’t say that they are disproven, only that the right disagrees—not the same thing. But a recent book by Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, lays that particular anti-intellectual sound loop to waste . . . and does it expertly.

          Any assertion of expertise form an actual expert, meanwhile, produces an explosion of anger
          from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are
          nothing more than fallacious “appeals to authority,” sure signs of dreadful “elitism,” and an
          obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a “real” democracy. Americans
          now believe that having equal rights in a political system also means that each person’s opinion
          about anything must be accepted as equal to anyone else’s. This is the credo of a fair number
          of people despite being obvious nonsense. (5)

More tedious science bashing follows, including another swipe at Evolution (and he has the nerve to claim that the left is a relic of the fin-de-siècle). Examples from Through the Looking Glass, Orwell’s 1984, and movies like Independence Day and To Live and Die in L.A. are used because they apparently originate from “some deep, Jungian wellspring of primal memory and collective unconscious” and so to doubt their use as evidence is “is to doubt nearly the entire course of human history” (50-51). This is all mind numbing in it’s tenacious clinging to the very blinding of thought produced by religious mythology that the Critic Theorists were attempting to expose. In writing this book, Walsh has become the poster boy for the very mindless automatonic behavior that the Frankfurt School was warning against. Then, in Chapter Four Walsh attempts to tie Critical Theory to Romanticism, and it’s easily his least effective argument—and that’s saying something. German Romanticism, Wagner and Hitler all get somehow thrown into the left side of the pool in his version of reality though again—and again, and again, and again—fascism is not left-wing ideology. This is followed by more projection: “leftists could not conceive of any diminution . . . that could possibly effect their own standard of living . . . The primary goal of the Frankfurt School . . . was the attainment and retention of power in order to amass wealth” (60, 62). Again, a tidy recap of capitalist oligarchical thinking.

Walsh then delivers to the reader another right-wing chestnut in the form of the myth of the liberal media, this time in league with academia and government, a cultural axis of evil that is apparently controlled by the Critical Theorists. Though how that’s supposed to work he presents no evidence for, in direct opposition to his sarcasm about the other side with their “charts! graphs!” (62) which must at least contain some kind of statistical information. Instead he rants and raves with the only real effect being—to paraphrase a line from Amadeus, which he should appreciate—“You are passionate, Mr. Walsh . . . but you do not persuade.” The myth of the liberal media has long been debunked, most eloquently by Noam Chomsky, this from the film Manufacturing Consent:

          If the system functions well, it ought to have a liberal bias, or at least appear to. Because if it
          appears to have a liberal bias, that will serve to bound thought even more effectively. In other
          words, if the press is indeed adversarial and liberal and all these bad things, then how can I
          go beyond it? . . . A well functioning [propaganda] system would in fact have a bias of that kind.

It’s certainly no secret that all of the large media outlets in the United States are owned by giant corporations, and that they are only interested in the bottom line. If the perception of liberal bias helps them achieve that, then so much the better. Laura Mulvey, in her book on the film Citizen Kane, explains this apparent paradox about as well as anyone. Media tycoons like William Randolph Hearst were forced to rely on the general public rather than doing business exclusively with a coterie of like-minded business owners, which naturally developed “a split between different types of capitalism, a conflict between banking interests which represent only an elite and those of communications which have to find a populist appeal outside the narrow limits of the capitalist class” (Mulvey 58). As such, “the newspaper tycoons had vested interest at stake in populist, anti-elitist, anti-capitalist rhetoric” (Mulvey 55). And things haven't changed since.

Chapter Five begins with another inadvertent undermining of his own argument when Walsh discusses the variant ways that authors have dealt with the descent of Christ into Hell after the crucifixion. Augustine and Aquinas have differing views, and the whole subject “has become so controversial within Christianity that it is often now dropped from the prayer” (67). If various Christian writings disagree, then how can any one of them be used as actual evidence of anything? Next, Walsh makes a blanket condemnation of political correctness (How every single one of America’s woes can be laid at the doorstep of the Critical Theorists defies credulity, but Walsh is nothing if not thorough) without realizing the metamorphosis it has gone through long after the critics themselves were dead. In his article on political correctness for New York Magazine, author Jonathan Chait had this to say about the genesis of political correctness.

          [L]iberals are correct not only to oppose racism and sexism but to grasp (in a way conservatives
          generally do not) that these biases cast a nefarious and continuing shadow over nearly every
          facet of American life. Since race and gender biases are embedded in our social and familial
          habits, our economic patterns, and even our subconscious minds, they need to be fought with
          some level of consciousness. The mere absence of overt discrimination will not do . . .

This is certainly something Critical Theorists would agree with. Unconscious behaviors of any kind that influence our thinking should be understood so that, if harmful, they can be eliminated. But what became perverted was the nature of political correctness itself, until it gradually mutated into the form it commonly takes today, a cudgel used to punish those who, intentionally or not, have said or done something that a person identifying themselves with some kind of minority chooses to be offended by.

The irony of Walsh bemoaning p.c. as another left-wing conspiracy is one that blogger Mitchell J. Freedman pointed out in his FM Blog namely, that conservatives have co-opted their own brand of political correctness that centers on patriotism and the Bible, and they are every bit as adept at using shame as a weapon to coerce people to their way of thinking as those on the left. “What I find sadly lacking [in the argument] is that the Right and conservatives also have political correctness . . . Political correctness on the Left is about sensitivity to racism, sexism and the like while . . . political correctness on the Right is about sensitivity to religion (one’s own of course), white males, traditional hierarchies and symbols, capitalism and the like.” Therefore, when Walsh makes the entirely spurious claim that “Subduing the freedom of speech is precisely the goal of the Jacobins of the Unholy Left, who cannot countenance any thought unmoored from policy prescriptions or social goals” he is really talking about Christian fascists who denounce political candidates who won’t wear American flag lapel pins or pay lip service to religion as a requisite for being elected.

Chapter Six should be titled Chapter Sex, because what right-wing rant would be complete without the hand wringing of Christian fascists who can’t stand the though of people making up their own minds about who they want to fall in love with how they want to express that love. Walsh’s fascism shows right from the first page when he claims another of the left’s secret missions is breaking down “the relationship between the sexes and the hard-won morality attending such congress” (75). Hard won? From whom? Walsh goes on to admit that the left has no interest in any of this, but insists they want to do it anyway. The lack of logic is almost comical: if those on the left are outraged by things that the right feels similarly about, then it’s only “to obscure its true purpose” (78). Further, if anyone he deems a leftist is actually exhibiting sings of agreeing with the right, he claims, “there’s no Progressive like a Regressive” (83). At the end of the day things mean only what Walsh wants them to mean, and if they don’t really mean that he simply says they mean the opposite. His racist and misogynist diatribes are exhausting to read, and all the quotes in the world from Faust or Paradise Lost or Casablanca can’t hide the fact that there is not one shred of evidence in the whole of it to back him up.

In Chapter Seven he goes from using fiction to back up his assertion, to trashing authors of fiction like H.P. Lovecraft. Yeah, go figure. Apparently nihilism has run rampant in our culture and everything from abortion rights to social security is Satanic in the way that it robs the people of their will to live. Then he trots out the “heroic impulse” as the proof underlying his selection of fictional evidence that demonstrates why he is right when he attempts to connect leftist ideology with—wait for it—Islam. Yep, you read it right. Walsh loves to use the phrase Ur-Narrative to prove how the literary norms—as he reads them—must be coded into our DNA, which makes Umberto Eco’s fourteen points from his essay “Ur-Fascism” in the New York Review of Books such a welcome antidote to Walsh’s entire book. For now, Number 11:

          In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology heroism is the
          norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death . . . In non-fascist societies,
          the lay public is told that death is unpleasant but must be faces with dignity; believers [in the
          myth] are told that it is the painful way to reach a supernatural happiness. By contrast, the
          Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-
          Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.

The reality is spiritual fantasies like religion, whether Christian or Muslim, are extremely dangerous in the way that they ultimately denigrate human life, whether their own in the case of martyrs, or others in the case of holy wars. If the afterlife is all that is important then human existence on earth is meaningless with a mythical heaven to look forward to, and in that way the fundamentalist Christian is no different from the Salem witch hunter, Jim Jones and his followers, or the Muslim suicide bomber.

Chapter Eight is a bit of a ramble and a definite reach in an attempt to equate music theory with that of the right-left conflict in America. He concludes this short chapter with another juicy bit of projection claiming about Critical Theorist philosophy, “It appears to require thought, but in fact all it requires is faith” (121). A better definition of religion it would be difficult to devise. Chapter Nine begins with a typically intellect-free argument against abortion—“it’s not as if condoms and other prophylactics are not readily available” (124). Gee, I must have missed sex-ed. class the day they said those methods were one hundred percent effective. Of course this is a typically patriarchal view of abortion, coming from a man who will never have to face the “choice” he so glibly ridicules. And like another group of people who were obsessed with the lives of fetuses, and wanted mothers to bear as many offspring for the Fatherland as they could, he is just as obsessed with Wagner, using the composer to support any number of arguments, as if opera wasn’t every bit as fictional as the writing and movies he references. And though he desperately wants to associate Wagner with leftist philosophy, like the fat lady, it just doesn’t fly. In Chapter Ten, Walsh again, wants it both ways as he denounces rationalism in the form of Rousseau—as he had done earlier with his pejorative use of the adjective Jacobean—while in his previous denouncement of Romanticism, praised rationalism when it comes to the Founding Fathers. He even calls Rousseau a champion of Romanticism! Clearly, this is a man who doesn’t just want it both ways; he wants it every way.

Chapter Eleven excoriates William Reich for his bizarre psychological theories, which of course casts every one of the intellectuals he is associated with into perdition. Shall we do the same thing to Walsh? Jim Jones was an evil, cult leader with a Messiah complex who founded all of his teachings on Christianity. To use Walsh’s logic, that makes all of Christianity evil. While that’s not far wrong, it still doesn’t make any logical sense and is therefore an invalid argument, just as Walsh’s is. In Chapter Twelve Walsh suggests that the way to win the culture wars is to ridicule the left. “The most potent weapon the Right has against the Left—mockery of its sheer pretentious ridiculousness.” This is pretty much standard operating procedure. When intellect fails, as it has in the case of the right, they resort to bullying. Chapter Thirteen begins with an attack against one of his favorite targets, Saul Alinsky. Why is the right so afraid of this guy? Oh, because he wanted to make things better for poor people. Walsh and the rest of the fascist right can only see public assistance through one lens: “‘social justice’ morally demands equality of outcome, obtained by stealing property and selling it to someone else in exchange for his vote.” This is the ultimate in capitalist credo, that helping someone else only serves to diminish one’s own material wealth. I’m pretty sure Jesus had something to say about obsession with money and possessions, but perhaps I have a different Bible than Walsh and his pals.

Walsh attacks health care in Chapter Fourteen, stating that it’s “a tax increase in the service of a welfare scheme of largely subsidized recipients that benefits only a small fraction of the population” (178). Wrong on every count. The Affordable Health Care Act helped millions of people with no extra tax burden on capitalists or Christians, but by now Walsh’s anti-intellectual upbringing is on full display. He whines about not having devastated the Middle East after 9/11 so that “it would have taken a century or more to recover,” (179) conveniently forgetting that it was Bush who botched the job. In Chapter Fifteen he equates atheism with a belief “in nothing.” No, that’s the myth of Christianity. Then he says that the left’s struggle is really with God. No, it’s against mindless zealots who believe in a fantasy that doesn’t exist. And of course he equates leftism with Soviet Communism for the umpteenth time, still clueless that they are almost mutually exclusive and that the model of the Soviet Union is what the Critical Theorists were fighting against. And there is still more projection: “The Left must always have something to ‘fight,’ lest it be rendered impotent, because its driving force, as we’ve seen, stems not from philosophy but from emotion—hatred, resentment, envy, and malcontentment.” Again, a pithy summary of Christian fascist and capitalist oligarchical behavior.

Finally, mercifully, the last chapter, but no relief in sight as Walsh defends the indefensible lone-gunman theory of the JFK assassination, gives us more Wagner and Rousseau, and some Blackadder thrown in for good measure. All of which is followed by the rallying cry of “we have standards” (204). This is actually the first of Eco’s fourteen points: “The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition” (Eco), which can also be coupled with number three: “Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake.” Or, as articulated by Walsh, “righteous anger when necessary, when attacked, when challenged on moral grounds” (204). More Milton, more Wagner, more Nazis—the guy is relentless. This is followed by Ur-Fascist point number nine, “For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle . . . life is permanent warfare” (Eco). And Walsh’s version: “Warriors do not seek to understand the motivations of their enemies or treat them with ‘respect.’ They kill them, and they keep on killing them until those enemies are all dead or cannot fight anymore” (209). I think that’s what they call “that old-time religion.” After that it’s Dr. Strangelove, Rocky Horror Picture Show and, to close everything out with the last word, you guessed it, John Milton.

Normally I would say something here about my purpose in reading this book was to get a better handle on what the radical right is thinking, but it’s painfully obvious that there’s no thinking going on here at all. The entire book is like a black hole of ignorance in the way that knowledge and wisdom gets sucked in and are never seen again. Nothing is going to penetrate the minds of a group of people desperately clinging to a way of life and a belief system that are completely non-functional in today’s world. All one has to do is look around the globe at a world mired in hatred masking as religion. “There is nothing,” said Goethe, “more frightful than ignorance in action,” which makes the fascist Christian right the most frightful thing in our country right now. The tremendous, overwhelming irony in all of this is that Michael Walsh’s complete societal enculturation is exactly the thing that the Critical Theorists were trying to wake up the world to. But as long as religion keeps blinding people to reality, the capitalist oligarchy will be able to use them as tools to keep all of us intellectually and economically enslaved. Which may be great for Michael Walsh, but it’s not okay with me and millions more who think—not like me, but who actually think. Reading Mein Kampf is actually a beneficial endeavor, a way of understanding an episode of historical significance that can serve as a warning and enhance the reader’s wisdom as a result. Michael Walsh’s The Devil’s Pleasure Palace is none of those things and, something I rarely say about any reading experience, a complete waste of time. My only solace is that I bought the book used, so he won’t see a dime of my money.

Friday, March 31, 2017

A Profile of King James I

This, with tremendous affection for Jeff Kacirk, from his Forgotten English. Please feel free to make your own modern parallel.

“In his History of England (1848-1861), historian Thomas Macaulay wrote disparagingly of King James I. ‘James was always boasting of his skill in what he called kingcraft, and yet it is hardly possible even to imagine a course more directly opposed to all the rules of kingcraft than that which he followed . . . He enraged and alarmed his parliament by constantly telling them that they held their privileges merely during his pleasure, and that they had no more business to inquire what he might lawfully do than what the Deity might lawfully do . . . His cowardice, his childishness, his pedantry, his ungainly person and manners, his provincial accent made him an object of derision . . . On the day of the accession of James I [March 24, 1603], our country descended from the rank which she had hitherto held, and began to be regarded as a power hardly of the second order.’”

And this, with the tiniest sliver of hope, from Warner Brothers’ Captain Blood from 1935.

          PETER BLOOD: A bad king is a bad king, and a worse one if he's James.

          LORD WILLOUGHBY: James? This commission is sent by King William.

          PETER BLOOD: You mean they’ve roused themselves at home and kicked out that pimple James?

          LORD WILLOUGHBY: Yes, and he’s fled to France and he’s in hiding there . . . The English people will go
                                            so far, and then they get up on their stubborn hind legs.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Music History: How Criticism Corrupts

How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll by Elijah Wald

As an historian myself, it is fascinating to see how things have changed. For a long time writers of history concentrated on big ideas, important men, powerful countries, and how the inexorable march of time led to the inevitability of that history. Then things changed in the later part of the twentieth century, and history shifted in order to emphasize the plight of the nameless masses in books like A People’s History of the United States, or The Free and the Unfree. But now I’ve noticed a recent trend in modern histories that tries to unify the two approaches. In a new book on European history called The Inheritance of Rome, author Chris Wickham states that too many histories see the Middle Ages as the infancy of the nation-state or the embryonic form of everything modern, that it was a “bad” time, an embarrassing anti-intellectual period that Western Civilization had to work its way out of in order to be “good” again. That the Middle Ages led to specific things is undeniable, but what Wickham takes exception with are the characterizations of the period as being unformed or somehow lesser in stature that either the time that preceded it or the time that followed. “I am in favour of most of these final ends myself; but to me as a historian the storyline still seems ridiculous, for every period in history has its own identity and legitimacy, which must be seen without hindsight . . . to attribute values to it is a pointless operation.”

So it was with great fascination that I began to read Elijah Wald’s book on popular music in America with the provocative title How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll. The book, it turns out, is not about The Beatles but about how music criticism in the twentieth century has been mistaken for music history and has thereby distorted what the actual history really is. Criticism, which places an emphasis on value, is never going to give an accurate account of a particular musical style or an era any more than calling the Middle Ages “dark” is going to be enlightening. In the same way, music history has suffered from the “big innovations and important artists” impediment that has crippled many general histories.

          Music criticism demands studious, analytic listening, and the people who listen that way tend to
          value music that rewards careful attention and analysis over styles that are just fun, relaxing, or
          danceable--which, again, is perfectly reasonable but automatically separates them from most of
          the people buying and dancing to popular music. And in the same way, [music] historians tend
          to focus on unique, original musicians rather than typical, generic ones, even when they are
          supposedly studying trends and movements rather than exceptional achievements.

To make his point, Wald uses his introduction to compare The Beatles to Paul Whiteman, and he makes a fascinating case. In almost every history of jazz Whiteman is conveniently ignored or pointedly disparaged because he had the temerity to call himself the King of Jazz. But, as Wald points out, “Whiteman’s orchestra was not only the most popular band of the 1920s, but was also enormously influential in every field of music.” The fact is, Whiteman virtually defined dance music and big band arranging, as well as the kind of big band singing that became the template for every legitimate jazz band playing in the late 30s and 40s. The bandleader was also instrumental in “the struggle to have jazz recognized as art music, bringing it out of the saloons and dance halls and forcing ‘serious’ music fans to take notice of it as the sound of their time.” The parallels to sixties pop might not be obvious at first, but they are there. Singers like Pat Boone and Patti Page are typically discredited in rock ‘n’ roll histories because their either hijacked true rock music, in the case of Boone, or watered down its impact by flooding the airways with inane popular confections, like Page. But it was actually The Beatles, like Whiteman, who were “attempting to maintain older, European standards as the streamlining force of rhythm rolled over them.”

If one looks at jazz and rock as black inspired music, art forms created by and best played by blacks, then by the early sixties the music of Chuck Berry and Little Richard had already faded into the past. It was the Beatles whose “contributions were to resegregate the pop chart by distracting white kids from the innovations of the soul masters
. . . In other words, rather than being a high point of rock, the Beatles destroyed rock ‘n’ roll, turning it from a vibrant black (or integrated) dance music into a vehicle for white pap and pretension. That is how a lot of jazz fans over the years have categorized the Whiteman band.” The real difference, something Wald never actually gets into, is that while Whiteman faded into obscurity in the late 30s and 40s because of the ascendance of great black jazz bands, the Beatles fractured the music, or “resegregated” it as Wald would say. Black rhythm and blues from the late 40s and early 50s was co-opted by whites in the form of Elvis Presley and Bill Haley and called rock ‘n’ roll, but this never stopped great black artists like Chuck Berry and Fats Domino from plying their trade right along side them. And things were no different on the pop side of the dial in the late fifties, with singers like Andy Williams and Doris Day sharing the same airwaves with Nat ‘King’ Cole and Johnny Mathis. After the Beatles, however, things were different, and sixties popular music seemed far more divided along racial lines, with white groups playing rock ‘n’ roll and black groups playing “soul” music.

For Wald, the hips that shook the world in 1955 were not the signal of a new sea change in music, but the same kind of integration that reflected late fifties popular music in general. “That is the image of Elvis that dominates virtually all rock histories: the young revolutionary of ‘That’s All Right’ and ‘Hound Dog.’

          But if the stripped-down energy of the Sun recordings makes it easy to place Elvis in the comp-
          any of rockers like [Jerry Lee] Lewis, Berry, and [Carl] Perkins, his success--the way he grasped
          his moment--very quickly put him in the company of Pat Boone and Perry Como, who rank just
          behind him as the top hitmakers of the 1950s . . . When he left Sun for RCA, he quickly began
          to alternate the rock numbers with dreamy concoctions like “Love Me Tender” and “That’s When
          Your Heartaches Begin.”

In looking at the “great man” approach to history, Wald quotes Peter Guralnick, whose two volumes on the singer may be the definitive work on the subject, in saying that, “The world was not prepared for Elvis Presley . . . He hit like a Pan American flash, and the reverberations still linger from the shock of his arrival.” Nevertheless, history, as history, paints a different picture, in that as soon as he left behind his rockabilly sides at Sun, “The major label’s choruses and studio musicians helped him sound like the movie stars he had idolized back in Memphis, and he would pick ‘It’s Now or Never,’ based on Mario Lanza’s version of ‘O Sole Mio,’ as his own favorite among his recordings.”

Wald’s point is that isolating an entertainer from their time is what leads to the isolation of the music, and the confusing of the different purposes of criticism and history. “The critic’s job is to assign value and importance on an artistic level, which is necessarily a judgment about how the work stands up in the present. The historian’s is to sort out and explain what happened in the past, which means attempting to understand the tastes and environment of an earlier time.” This last part is what is most difficult for music historians to achieve. I can remember watching Ken Burns’ Jazz for the first time, and noting how little attention was paid to so-called “sweet” bands like those of Glen Miller and Tommy Dorsey, who were much more popular nationwide than the black jazz bands of the time. But even that documentary failed to mention the enormous popularity of dance bands like Guy Lombardo or Glen Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra, who even outsold Miller and Dorsey. For Wald, he actually sees the labels themselves as barriers to a true understanding of the music in its time. “The fact that the eras’ music symbolized the dreams and hopes of new generations gave the words “jazz” and “rock” a special weight [to music critics] . . . Because of that, they have inspired particular devotion and tend to be seen as not only separate from but also inimical to the pop music that preceded them and surrounded them in their youth.” As a result, the music history that focuses on genius and artistry, can’t help but give the reader an unrealistic picture of what was really going on at the time.

I’m almost exactly the same age as Elijah Wald, and yet my own experience with music in the sixties actually proves out his point. While he grew up listening to the Beatles, my only exposure to their music came during the Beatles cartoon show that aired on Saturday mornings, just one among any number of cartoon shows that I watched as a boy. My mother and father had attended high school in the fifties but both of them graduated in 1955, before the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. So around my house as a child, I was far more likely to hear the sounds of The Kingston Trio or Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass than any of the British invaders. In fact, were I to attempt to reconstruct my musical memories from that decade, songs like “A Walk in the Black Forest” and “A Swingin’ Safari,” or movie themes like “Around the World in 80 Days” and “Baby Elephant Walk” would be at the top of my list. The only albums I owned during the decade were soundtracks to the films my parents took me to see, everything from Mary Poppins in 1964 to Oliver! in 1969. And the only British invasion song I consciously remember from the time was “I’m Telling You Now,” by Freddie and the Dreamers, and that was only because I won the 45 at the school carnival record walk. In fact, if there is one musical sound that takes me back to that time in my life more than any other it’s Floyd Cramer, not the Beatles.

The problem for the music historian, then, is the surfeit of contemporary criticism focusing on artistic innovation and genius rather than popularity. “They drew strict boundaries between these artists and mainstream imitators . . . and completely ignored older, and unrocking singers.” All of which leaves a fairly large gap in the reporting of the day, especially when an historian is attempting to see the musical landscape in its entirety as a way of gaining an objective view of the era. “Were they really the idols of opposing camps? Or does that way of seeing them just reflect the fact that the few teenage music fanatics who went on to become rock critics had different tastes from the millions of teenagers who swooned over both?” The primary way that this whole artificial division between art and popularity skews history is in the area of influence. In an article discussing film, writer James Janis had this to say about the difference between a “great” film and an “important” film, or one that he sees as influential rather than simply artistic in its own right.

          When the American Film Institute trotted out its list of the century’s 100 Best American Films, it
          created quite a bit of controversy . . . Horror films were ignored, save for a few token titles allowed
          to sit in the back of the bus. This is ironic since where would the number one film on their list,
          Citizen Kane (1941), be if Orson Welles did not have Mad Love (1935) and Son of Frankenstein
          (1939) to steal from? . . . Perhaps the problem was inherent in the parameters of the list itself.
          Instead of “Best,” might it not have been better to use the category “Important?” . . . Ah, but there’s
          the rub. Compiling such a list would require a true knowledge of film history . . . A list of important
          films? Honestly? Citizen Kane cannot be on it.

In the “great work” theory of criticism, Citizen Kane is obviously at the top of the list. But in terms of how influential it was . . . it wasn’t. No one has made a film like that since. But take Universal’s Dracula from 1931. Hundreds, if not thousand of films have been influenced by Bela Lugosi’s vampire, whether copies, homages, or “great works” on their own. And the same effect can be seen in music if one goes back to Elvis. Despite Peter Guralnick’s assertion that “an egocentric genius like Jerry Lee Lewis may even have had a greater talent. Certainly Chuck Berry or Carl Perkins had a keener wit. But Elvis had the moment,” that was all he had. How many rock groups from the sixties decided to don white jump suits and sing show tunes? Yeah, I can’t think of any either. But in looking at who was really influential in the fifties--something Wald doesn’t address--it was Buddy Holly. The primary difference is that the groups like the Beatles, who were influenced by Holly, wrote and performed their own material. And in that respect, all of the performers mentioned by Guralnick were far more influential on sixties rock music than Elvis, who never wanted to write in the first place, or rock for that matter. “I had never sung anything but slow music and ballads in my life at that time,” Wald quotes the king as saying in an interview from 1955.

This is also the major difference between Paul Whiteman and the Beatles, as Wald admits. “The Beatles, unlike Whiteman, composed their own songs . . . But the differences in how they tend to be viewed by historians say more about the way jazz and rock history have been written than about the realities of their music and careers.

          If one accepts that the Beatles and their peers transformed teenage dance music into a mature
          art form, then it isn’t fair to deny Whiteman credit for doing much the same thing to jazz. And,
          conversely, if Whiteman is to be damned for attempting to turn jazz into white art music, why
          are the Beatles to be applauded for doing the same thing to rock?

The question is as close to a thesis statement as Wald gets because it points out the huge contradiction in attempting to tell the history of music from a critical perspective. Value judgments always get in the way, and even worse, they completely distort the true nature of the story that writers are trying to tell. The stated goal of his book, as he puts it, is “I am trying to write history, not criticism--that is, to look at some of the most influential movements and stars of the twentieth century and explore what links and divides them without worrying about . . . whether I personally enjoy their music or not.” This should be the goal of every music historian, and yet it is almost never the case. While Beatle historians pore over covers of Chuck Berry’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” or Little Richard’s “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” they give short shrift to “A Taste of Honey” or “Till There Was You.” In addressing this disparity, Wald makes one of the all-time great statements, not just about writing history but in appreciating art in general. “The most difficult thing about understanding the past is appreciating choices and tastes that seems strange or disagreeable and trying to confront them on their own terms.” The biggest hindrance to writing accurate music history, in his view, is that “because we have our own taste and must listen to the records that we are studying over and over, [we] pay more attention to records that excite us than to records that we find boring.” The problem with this is that, “it tempts us to think of those recordings as representative even when they are not.”

I must confess to falling into that trap for many years. As someone who was a devote of both jazz and rock, my prejudice was nearly complete. But it was actually Ken Burns’ Jazz, despite its faults and many detractors, that first made me aware of the connective tissue between all the different forms of jazz, and the enthusiasm of those on the screen who understood that connection was infectious. As someone who was almost exclusively interested in bebop and hard bop for years, my music collection expanded exponentially after that to include ragtime, traditional jazz, swing, jump jazz, soul jazz, and everything in between. In terms of rock, I had the greats from the fifties and sixties, but little else. It wasn’t until I began purchasing the nearly exhaustive series of late fifties and early sixties American pop music put out by the British company One Day Music that I branched out into doo-wop, rockabilly, folk music, gospel, country and a dozen other genres that coexisted with rock ‘n’ roll and that both influenced and were influenced by each other. In some respects How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll is an unfortunate title for Elijah Wald’s book, because it doesn’t really covey what an important work it is. There’s nothing else quite like it in the way that it looks at popular music in the twentieth century from the most objective way possible, and in the process, shows us a history of music that we never knew existed.