Monday, March 19, 2018

White Makes Right: Racism in America

Lovable Racists, Magical Negroes, and White Messiahs
by David Ikard

Twenty years ago I read a terrific novel by Fredrick Barton called With Extreme Prejudice. It was a mystery set in New Orleans in which the central murder was racially motivated. One of the things that mystified me at the time was how the white protagonist’s efforts to demonstrate his lack of racial prejudice only made his black friend and co-worker angrier with him. Though it was explained at the end of the novel, that feeling of confusion as I read the book always stayed with me. Ten years ago when I was with my wife and two young boys at Disneyland, we were in a long line waiting to get into Pirates of the Caribbean. Next to us was a black family with a small girl who couldn’t have been more than two years old. She did something incredibly cute--I can’t remember now what it was--but I remember looking up at her father and smiling with parental recognition at what she had done. Instead of a knowing return of my smile, however, he simply glared at me and turned away. I remember being incredibly angry about the incident, and it had nothing to do with his behavior. I was angry that we still lived in a country where he had every right to be angry with a white man he didn’t even know. Though I didn’t fully understand either incident at the time, I knew instinctively that racial prejudice in this country was very real. What I understand now, is that it may be as bad as it ever was.

There have been three major phases of racial discrimination against blacks in the United States. The first begins with the settling of this country in the seventeenth century and runs right up to the Civil War. During that phase black slavery was openly practiced, protected by the Constitution, and rationalized as an economic necessity in the southern states. The second phase begins after the Civil War and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, with the end of Reconstruction and the institution of Jim Crow laws in the South. Legalized segregation, voting disenfranchisement, and the turning of a blind eye toward lynching lasted another hundred years until the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century. The third and most insidious phase is the one we live in now, in which white supremacy has finally gone mainstream, resulting in a backlash against civil rights, equal status under the law, equal opportunity, the promulgation of the myths of white fear and white fragility, and specious accusations of reverse racism against blacks. What Vanderbilt University professor David Ikard does so well in his new book, Lovable Racists, Magical Negroes, and White Messiahs, is to show that while those first two phases may be over, their effects can still be felt today in the white blindness this country operates within. “It is rare indeed--even in this day and time--to get most whites to acknowledge that racism still exists or, for that matter, that slavery, segregation, and racial terrorism of the past are responsible in large part for the problems that plague Black America in the twenty-first century” (Ikard 15).

I purchased this book while doing research for my own book on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, but I was utterly unprepared for what I found in the pages of what I assumed would be a straightforward literary analysis. What emerges from Ikard’s treatise is a philosophy of white supremacy that has informed this country’s thinking since its inception, a way of look at the world through white power and privilege that seems no different in 2018 than it was in 1618. As his starting point, Ikard uses the works of James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time) and Toni Morrison (Playing in the Dark) to identify and define the nature of white supremacist thinking in America—and it’s important to note that this is not a phrase that refers to radical, fringe elements like the KKK, but regular Americans who don’t even think of themselves as racist. “Whites often genuinely do not see the consequences of their oppression or privilege because they have conditioned themselves not to see them” (Ikard 14). He then builds upon their ideas to show how this unconscious belief system has informed notions of white identity and, far more tragically, black identity for centuries. This way of understanding the world is not a new one, but has roots in many more areas of cultural life in the United States, in which default assumptions of normalcy include Christianity, patriarchy, and capitalism.

Though Ikard mentions all three of these in passing, he doesn’t go into depth about similar modes of thought control in other areas of American life as a way of explaining the incredible longevity and tenacious hold that racism still has in this country. My recent exploration of the writers of the Frankfurt School has opened my eyes to a world of propaganda and manipulation that disguises itself as cultural identity, but actually has as its only goal the indoctrination of people to a particular way of thinking and behaving that aids and abets the ruling powers who benefit from the control over laborers, women, and minorities that comes when they internalize these false beliefs. Max Horkheimer, one of the critical theorists from the Frankfurt School, wrote about the challenge faced by those who would attempt to make society better, when faced with a nation of people who have been taught, and internalized, that the status quo--whether White, Christian, Patriarchal, or Capitalist--is normal and good, and that anything else must therefore be bad. Though Horkheimer was writing about capitalism, the concept itself is applicable to any of the societal assumptions that American culture operates within.

          Because a bad society transacts man’s business although it does it badly, the person that endangers
          its survival also acts directly against mankind; [mankind’s] friend appears as its enemy. In reality, the
          bad cannot be disentangled from the good, and therefore the fight against what is outdated also
          appears as the fight against what is necessary . . . [This results in the] absolute readiness to loyally
          adopt all significant values of the ruling class, to hate and libel the person who commits his life to the
          improvement of conditions . . . Every thought, every show of sympathy, every relationship, every minor
          or major act against the ruling class involves the risk of personal disadvantage . . . People who want
          to get somewhere must early acquire beliefs which enable them to have a good conscience as they
          do what reality demands . . . The system affects everything, down to the most delicate tendrils of the
          individual’s soul. It has placed a premium on vileness. (Horkheimer 29-31)

Because of this, ideas like cut throat competition, male chauvinism, religious superiority, American exceptionalism --and racism--are the norm in this country, and to go against those ideas is, in a perverted way, to be anti-American. In Ikard’s words, “Critical engagements with our nation’s troubled and troubling past are treated as unpatriotic, socially disruptive, and bordering on treason” (Ikard 19). Thus these ideas are absorbed and normalized in our society through the media, education, and business to the point where the vast majority of citizens don’t even realize their thoughts are not their own, and yet have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they defend those thoughts as if they were.

Ikard opens the book with an introduction in which he relates the story of being accosted by a fellow professor at a book signing who, in the guise of mistakenly trying to correct the author about the rap group NWA, used the word “nigger” loudly and freely, much to the shock not only of most of those within earshot but to the author himself. He relates the incident as an example of what Robin DeAngelo calls “white fragility,” a negative reaction by whites to the suggestion that their unconscious behaviors constitute a substantial and continuing assault on black citizenship in America. “My sense is that, at bottom, he was actually upset with the audacity of my claim that even the most progressive (middle- and upper-class) white liberals have a deep and abiding investment in certain aspects of white supremacy and, by extension, institutionalized racial inequality” (Ikard 3). The offending professor is also an example of Brit Bennett’s “Good White People,” whites who are not only unaware of how their unconscious beliefs perpetuate white supremacy, but are also unable to comprehend how their “ostensible gestures of white goodwill and good intentions reproduce white supremacy in the expectation of, if not demand for, black gratitude” (4). The basis for this behavior is the way in which blacks are perceived in the culture, “the unuttered racial mindset that blacks are prone to criminal and pathological behavior” (5). Rather than apologize, the professor insisted on reciting his anti-racist credentials to Ikard, even going so far as to continue his demand for recognition by sending Ikard an email later. This, then, explains the wide disparity in the experiences of the fictional characters in Fredrick Barton’s novel, which Ikard summarizes rather neatly: “Whites are simply defending their right to remain socially, culturally, and economically dominant; blacks and people of color are defending their very humanity” (8).

The episode goes by rather quickly, and though Ikard doesn’t take the time to spell it out in his introduction, it seems to me to be the real thesis of the book. Whites have been the dominant racial group in the United States for the past four hundred years. Very little--if anything--that happens to blacks has an impact on the lives of white Americans. The relative comfort from which they view the racial struggles in this country are light years away from the day to day experiences of blacks, who find themselves fighting battles on seemingly every front, from being defined as the other--as opposed to the white appropriation of normalcy--to ongoing insensitivity in nearly every aspect of society, marginalization in education and employment, negative portrayals in the media, and a white majority who seems to have no interest in defending obvious abuses that range from racial profiling to overrepresented incarceration to murder. Whites—quite literally—have no idea what the black experience in America is like. Max Horkheimer had something to say about that as well:

          Our privileged position, our capacity for experiencing the suffering of all living beings within ourselves
          does not mean that we can truly become one with them and certainly not that we can free anyone by
          that act of identification. We can make the life of individuals easier, we can deduce some practical
          consequences from empirical insight. But we are still surrounded by a sea of darkness which cannot
          be illuminated by language. (Horkheimer 31)

This is what I see as real white blindness. Acknowledging that whites know absolutely nothing about the suffering that blacks have experienced seems to be the first step toward meaningful change--much more meaningful, certainly, than pretending to empathize with or understand what whites cannot possibly know. But instead the opposite happens, an example of which is one of the most misguided attempts at addressing white ignorance ever put on film. White Man’s Burden, starring Harry Belafonte and John Travolta, was intended to provide a vicarious experience for whites by reversing their role in society. Belafonte is now the rich member of the dominant black class, while Travolta is an example of the oppressed white minority. Instead of allowing whites to see what they are doing to blacks, however, all the film does is to perpetuate racial stereotypes: blacks are cruel and heartless while whites are good hearted and put upon. Even with the roles reversed, whites are still the good guys and blacks the bad. The term “epic fail” was never more appropriate in describing a work of art than it is with this film. In this context it’s no wonder that white sympathy and assurances of understanding are cause for black anger rather than gratitude, as the very real plight of blacks in this country is “not going to matter one way or another in terms of exploding white supremacist ideology or institutional dominance” (Ikard 132).

In his first chapter Ikard contrasts the two versions of the slave narrative Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northrup, which presents a challenge to any analysis right up front because of the unclear nature of the authorship. While the story was Northrup’s, it was actually written by white attorney David Wilson. The result is a curious disconnect between portions of the narrative which attempt to expose the inhumanity of slavery, while at the same time seemingly making a moral distinction between slave owners, going so far as to call one of them, “a model master, walking uprightly, according to the light of his understanding, and fortunate was the slave who came to his possession” (Ikard 22). This is one of the earliest examples of what Ikard calls “the low bar of black expectation” (12). Because the white terrorism against blacks was so horrific in the past, whites see any concession toward blacks as something that should be gratefully acknowledged. But problems arise, in the form of perpetuation of this behavior, when blacks willingly engage in it along with whites.

          The metaphoric bar of black expectation of humane treatment from whites was often set very low,
          meaning that blacks experienced white common decency . . . as laudable and even heroic. This
          calculus of low expectations, gratitude, and indebtedness made blacks who pushed for true racial
          equality seem radical and dangerous to whites and to a significant number of blacks. (12)

These historically low expectations for white behavior toward blacks are an example of Ikard’s first trope, the lovable racist, in which as long as token recognition of blacks by whites is seen as something that blacks should be grateful for, otherwise racist ideologies and behaviors by whites should be ignored. “A lovable racist is a white character who is rendered in such a way that it encourages the reader or viewer to see his/her racism or inhumanity toward backs or people of color as a minor, if not justifiable, character flaw” (24). The end result of this tacit acceptance of white racism is that anyone who challenges the status quo—black or white—appears to be operating outside the accepted mode of societal behavior and is therefore to be feared.

Ikard goes on to show how this trope makes no sense on its face. Despite Solomon’s contention--via Wilson’s authorship--that “Were all men such as he [the good slave master], Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness,” the mere idea that slavery of any kind is acceptable is absurd (Ikard 22). Thus Ikard partially titles this chapter, “Good Slave Masters Don’t Exist.” The author then compares the dubious nature of Solomon’s narrative with the more demonstratively anti-slavery narrative of Frederick Douglass, and finally goes on to illuminate the significant changes that were made to the narrative when it was produced as the Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave. What screenwriter John Ridley and director Steve McQueen were able to do, according to Ikard, is take the isolated narrative of Solomon and the uncomfortable issue of who is responsible for his lauding of the “good slave master,” and include “the critical perspectives of other enslaved blacks” in order to provide a “space therein to interrogate the problems of lovable racist thinking” by both Solomon and the viewer (27). Solomon’s defense of the kindly slave owner Ford in the narrative is indicative of what Ikard calls “battered slave syndrome,” in which the slave, like the battered wife the term is derived from, exhibits “the conditioned belief, borne of fear and violent verbal and physical assault, that you cannot escape the abusive relationship; that compromising with your abuser on his terms, and with the misguided belief that things will get better over time, is the best way to manage the relationship” (27). Using other slaves in the film, primarily black women, to essentially call out Solomon’s timid reaction to his captivity, provides what Ikard calls a “corrective intervention” to the white supremacist thinking that defends slavery as an institution and the continued belief in white supremacy in American society that has evolved from that defense.

Ikard’s second chapter is a fascinating exploration of the way in which ideas of white supremacy are passed on to children, and the attempt to disguise that indoctrination with the myth of “white innocence.” The idea here is that the complete disavowal of the way in which children absorb societal norms and understand their place in society gives whites a way of rationalizing their own internalized negative beliefs about people of color. “The extant myth of white innocence functions on many levels to obscure the systemic ways in which white privilege and power are passed down from one generation to the next” (Ikard 48). By linking whiteness to innocence, what whites are able to do is define whiteness as normal. In this way whiteness is the default setting, so to speak, for one’s existence in American society. Referencing tragedies like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or the school shooting in Newtown, and contrasting public reaction to aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Ikard says, “What this means in terms of lived experience of race is that whites’ problems are American problems and people of color’s problems are people of color’s problems” (51). When victims are primarily—or assumed to be—white, as in the 9/11 attacks, societal discourse tends to center on how to protect future victims. When victims are primarily black, however, discourse tends to devolve into back complicity in their own suffering.

          If the shooter in Sandy Hook were a black or a person of color, then the entire political focus point
          would change. Rather than addressing the possible motives for the shooting, including mental health
          issues and violent video games, the focus would be on the supposed criminality and violence of black
          men and politicians would be calling for heightened surveillance of and profiling of black men. (55)

From here Ikard goes on to show how the idea of white innocence has bee able to adjust to the changing cultural landscape as the country has moved through its phases of racial prejudice. “As we know, ideologies of power are not easily dismantled. When they face serious social, cultural, or economic challenges, as was the case with white supremacist ideology during the Civil Rights Movement, they adjust like a chameleon to the new environment” (57). The author uses the example of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to demonstrate the way in which her abolitionist sentiments were tempered by a reliance on the trope of the “magical negro,” which actually served to reinforce white supremacist thinking about blacks within a call for an end to the practice of slavery but not its underlying ideology. “In order to make . . . Uncle Tom redemptive within her white liberal paternalistic framework, Stowe had to make him pathologically selfless and tether his redemption to white paternalistic Christian sponsorship, protection, and logic” (58). In this way the character of Tom has to fit into the expectation of black gratitude in order not to be seen as an outlier, undeserving of white intervention. Thus, as Ikard demonstrates, “The key point here is that white redemption, not racial equality, is the driving motivation behind the novel” (59). In modern entertainment terms, “updated versions of these myths in pathologically self-sacrificial, caring, and loving sidekicks, lucky charms, maids, secretaries, butlers, and mascots operate to obscure the lingering and tenacious legacy of white supremacist slavery” (61).

In this way the Magical Negro is directly related to the Lovable Racist. Granting specialness to certain blacks who adhere to white expectations, and then showing their gratitude on screen or in the pages of a novel, serves to reinforce the idea that it is only through white largess that blacks earn their way into a modified version of citizenship. “The idea of indebtedness to whites derives from the thinking that whites must ‘accept’ blacks into US society and make the grand sacrifice of tolerating their integration in white schools and other previously segregated spaces . . . which, of course, drives willful white blindness [and] radically informs black notions of self-determinism and agency” (15). At the same time, however, the magical negro is unable to escape from the very debilitating definitions imposed on him by the white majority. Ikard makes this clear by examining Stephen King’s The Green Mile. Though the character of John Coffey is eventually turned into a Christ figure, he is at first understood by all the whites in the film to be a child murderer and rapist—an assumption that is never questioned because of his blackness. Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the film is not about the humanity of the black character--who “is a modern-day version of Uncle Tom with the temperament and IQ if a very tame ten-year-old”--but instead is about the redemption of the jailer Paul (62). Despite whatever redeeming qualities John might have, including complete innocence of the crime, the black man remains in jail the entire film and is ultimately executed. “It purports on a surface level to expose white racism as vile. But in reality the racist idea that black men in general are criminals and prone to violence is never seriously under scrutiny” (64). In the end, the message of the film is ultimately that Paul is to be forgiven for his racist assumptions about John, thus reinforcing his position as a lovable racist, forgiven yet again, by the magical negro.

What I found most enlightening in Ikard’s book was his discussion of distraction as a means of oppressing blacks. This is something that I have been extremely familiar with in the context of capitalism’s indoctrination of consumers. By providing all sorts of distractions, from cell phones and social media, to video games, sports and entertainment, citizen-consumers are continuously kept from examining their lives and the true nature of their place in society. Ikard’s distraction, however, is more along the lines of changing definitions in order to redirect the argument in a completely different direction. One of these distractions is a perversion of one of our most sacred legal precepts, innocent until proven guilty. In practice, however, the media typically portrays black victims in the most unflattering light possible, which in real terms renders them guilty until proven innocent. “This pattern of perpetually placing blacks in this defensive posture is immensely advantageous to the dominant white supremacist power structure as it allows whites to blame imagined black pathologies for black social and economic struggles without having to contend with their white privilege, pathological racist behavior or the white supremacist power structure that licenses black social degradation and death” (70). By constantly having to prove their innocence, or refute white victim blaming, blacks are never able to get out from under the argument and focus attention on the real cause of inequity: white oppression. Ikard also goes on to cite Derrick Bell in an argument that is a variation on Richard Hofstadter’s “pseudo-conservative” from the mid nineteen-fifties. Rather than giving ordinary citizens a true path to success, and as a way to keep them mindlessly working for corporate interests, the controlling elite has instead given them a common enemy in the form of people of color. “Instead of providing the masses with access to real wealth and power, they provided them with embodied wealth in the form of control and dominance over blacks” (74). Ultimately, as Ikard shows, this is simply a variation on property rights concerning blacks that goes back to the days of slavery.

Making the situation even more untenable is white reaction to calls for examination of white complicity in continued black disenfranchisement in the form of intentional misunderstanding. “It places the onus on blacks to prove to whites what they already know to be true and have a significant socio-economic stake in not knowing or acknowledging--namely, that blacks are human beings whose basic rights to freedom have been ruthlessly trampled on by whites for economic, social and cultural gain” (76). But the biggest distraction of all comes in the form of white admonishment for any act by blacks that seeks to make headway in seeking redress for four hundred years of oppression and abuse that can only be defined as white terrorism. From so-called black “rebellion” in the days of slavery, to marches and protests in the Jim Crow era, to movements like Black Lives Matter, white response has always been to see these acts through the lens of black sabotage of their own cause. Ikard cites James Baldwin as identifying “the white habit of perpetually blaming blacks for the consequences of long-standing patterns of white oppression and then claiming ignorance and innocence when their destructive tactics breed civil unrest and protest like Civil Rights and Black Power movements” (78). The result of this distraction trap, as Ikard puts it, is “treating violent black responses to white violence as the source of the racial conflict . . . [exposing] the audacity of the chief historical white perpetrators of looting and violence against black humanity to proclaim that they are somehow victims when blacks retaliate in self-defense or protest against such white assaults” (77).

The overt way in which white society has co-opted black cultural achievement in areas like music and sports is fairly well known. What is far less understood is the way in which the dominant white culture has absorbed successful black resistance and rendered it impotent by folding it back into the larger white supremacist historical narrative. This has certainly happened with Martin Luther King, Jr., but also with figures like Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. “Radical black human rights movements and black leaders who inspired them become deradicalized to the point of gross historical distortion. Their laudable stories of resistance, organizing, strategizing, and outwitting their white oppressors in pursuit of racial equality and social justice are transformed . . . into feel-good narratives about the American Dream, white redemption, and American exceptionalism” (10). In the fourth chapter of the book Ikard examines more closely the Magical Negro trope, in which the motivations of black leaders and heroes to resist white oppression is turned instead into proof of white magnanimity, and used to further rationalize continued white dominance. In this way white culture is able to turn someone like Dr. King who, at the time, “was tagged as a kind of terrorist threat to the United States,” into a what can be seen by whites as a “good black” today (131). Unfortunately, propaganda itself makes no distinction between races, and blacks are equally susceptible to its false messages as whites. “Because what we experience as real is inextricably tethered to what we have been conditioned and policed to experience as real, it is often an uphill battle to get even oppressed people to see how white supremacist apparatuses . . . have altered their perceptions of self-determination, personal accountability, meritocracy, institutional racism, and reality itself” (95-96).

Interestingly, white messiahs get very little attention in Ikard’s book, perhaps because they are so closely related to the lovable racist. The examples he gives are Clint Eastwood’s racist character from Gran Torino who, in the end, sacrifices himself for the Hmong teenagers who live next door, but in doing so vilifies the gang members who have tormented them, “because the film treats the gangbangers as heartless thugs, ignoring not only their humanity but also the white supremacist capitalism that has decimated their community” (25). The other white messiah that Ikard singles out is Bill Clinton, and by association Hillary. Despite Clinton’s affinity for blacks and black voters, his record on drugs and incarceration prove his policies to be every bit as deleterious to black self-determination as the culture at large. Again, this is another example of someone whose claims of black advocacy are only successful in comparison with the more extreme hatred of blacks professed by those on the political right. “Culturally speaking, white-messiah figures like Clinton are able to leverage blacks’ historically low expectation of just white treatment to appear heroic in their empathy toward black concerns . . . In reality his welfare reform and crime policies have had a devastating impact on black communities” (15-16). Likewise Ikard sees Hillary Clinton’s pivot on Black Lives Matter--from initially declaring that “all lives matter” to supporting the cause when running against a blatant racist--as motivated by “social pressure and political expediency” rather than a genuine “change of heart” (16).

While Ikard deals briefly with the interconnection of capitalism and racism, his final chapter brings religion, specifically Christianity, into the mix as well. He returns to the idea of the indoctrination of children, this time using the imagery of Santa Claus and Jesus Christ, both religious icons despite their seeming differences. Tellingly, Ikard also associates the two figures with other elements of American cultural mythology, as well as illuminating their use in social propaganda. “Because being white is still synonymous culturally with being ‘normal,’ the cultural programming of our children vis-à-vis whitewashed superheroes, myths, and religious figures typically flies under the radar of concern . . . What’s more, the majority of villains and antichrist figures tend to be of a darker hue . . . Even black folks internalize these messages (oftentimes despite ourselves) because we have been conditioned to see them as universal and morally transcendent” (112-113). And just as with Critical Theory, Ikard accurately assesses the role that the media and entertainment play as the tool of the oligarchical elite in controlling the cultural messages that have become an intrinsic part of the American experience for all citizens. “If we take seriously the intensity and insidiousness of the white supremacist messaging that is rendered through fairy tales, mythologies, cartoons, and even religion in the United States, it should become clear that we cannot rid our society of racial inequality if we cannot rid ourselves of the cultural mediums that reproduce and substantiate it . . . There is nothing random or innocent about this whitewashing phenomenon. Santa Claus and the Judeo-Christian messiah figure Jesus are constructed as white for specific political and ideological purposes” (125).

Again, this is all part of a white supremacist ideology in which, counterintuitively, the white majority has a vested interest in promoting racial tension. Some critics argue, and Ikard references, that the whole idea of racial difference is merely a construct that continues to reinforce white appropriation of normalcy compared to that of any people of color.

          Americans and Westerners in general conceptualize brown Middle Eastern terrorists as heartless
          religious fanatical monsters who prey on the weak—a conceptualization that conspicuously ignores
          how Christianity and white supremacy has been employed for centuries in the United States to exploit,
          dominate, enslave, and murder generations of people of color, especially people of African descent” (131).

In a curious case of construction, Ikard saves his most powerful argument for the end of the book, in a coda that is not only highly personal, but chilling in its implications. By far the most disturbing aspect of continued white supremacist indoctrination is the devaluation of the lives of people of color. Ikard references the terrorist killings in a black church in South Carolina by Dylan Roof. While whites clearly define attacks against other whites as terrorism, they refuse to do so when the victims are black. Attacks on white school children, now too numerous to list, are seen as hate crimes by mentally ill white perpetrators. Black children dying everyday in in urban neighborhoods, on the other hand, are virtually ignored, even though their numbers are far greater than the more highly publicized massacres. But even that cannot compare with the tragedy that is the blatant killing of black citizens by white police officers. The ubiquitous number of murders of innocent and unarmed blacks by police--especially considering that nearly all of the white police officers wind up being exonerated--is no less than the modern day equivalent of lynching.

In a word, the book is brilliant. Ikard resists the temptation to give in to deconstructionist fantasies that are hardly relevant. Instead, his literary examples are well drawn, and his references to other analyses by the likes of Baldwin and Morrison are equally well chosen. If there’s a criticism it is that he doesn’t take enough time to explain the context in which his literary arguments are being made. He criticizes white authors and filmmakers for their white blindness in terms of the myths they perpetuate, but he isn’t necessarily blaming them. Their white blindness simply reflects their own indoctrination and the identification of that unconscious racism is finally the point, by allowing the reader see the ways that white supremacist thinking has always been part of America’s cultural landscape. While he rightly criticizes them by pointing out what they could have done instead, I have the sense that he isn’t blaming them for what they should have done. At least I hope that’s the case--although it may be my own white blindness that makes me think that. I also take exception with Ikard’s blanket condemnation of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, as I’m not sure he fully understands that Huck is anything but redeemed at the end of the novel and Twain indicts society fairly decisively in the form of Tom. But these are minor quibbles in an impressive work overall.

As Horkheimer said, it’s impossible for whites to know the suffering that they have put blacks through in this country, as mere language is not enough to convey what it’s like, for example, for black parents to have to give “the talk” to their children. That said, however, it’s not to difficult to take their word for it, especially considering the mountain of empirical evidence that is available. At the same time, language cannot be overlooked as a means to continue to apply pressure to a system that has built in resistance to change. “As exasperating as it may be at times to speak out on racism and white supremacy, it is crucial that anti-racist scholars within and beyond black spaces do so wherever and whenever we encounter it.” By going beyond mere literary analysis, David Ikard has masterfully demonstrated how racial tropes in literature not only reflect but inform a way of thinking in this country that significantly devalues the lives of people of color. Lovable Racists, Magical Negroes, and White Messiahs should not just be on the bookshelf of every home in this country, it should be in the hands of every person in America so that they can begin to see how their unconscious behaviors negatively affect those around them, as well as their moral obligation to do something proactive about those behaviors.

Friday, November 3, 2017

A Revolution of the Mind (2010)

by Jonathan Israel

I was initially intrigued by A Revolution of the Mind because of Jonathan Israel’s thesis, that while the idea of revolutionary change that began in the Enlightenment has waned—after producing not only the American Revolution but subsequent revolutions in France and, a century later, in Russia—the actual ideals of Radical Enlightenment have become far more pervasive internationally than most people realize. The problem is, that isn’t his thesis at all. Israel is an authority on the Enlightenment, having written a number of books on the subject, this one based on a series of lectures given at Oxford in 2008. Unfortunately, the book is a challenge to read. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the scholarship. In fact, Israel’s command of the thinkers of the period and their ideas is impressive. What seems to be lacking is a coherent narrative, with similar ideas and expressions scattered throughout the book rather than dealt with individually and for a specific purpose. It’s still compelling reading, but repeated elucidation of the same ideas—sometimes by the same writers—feels redundant at times. The other negative is that many of his sentences are tortuous in execution and take some real work to tease out their true meaning. In re-reading them they appear much clearer, but in many instances they can hardly be said to flow. Ultimately the book seems to be less about the influence of the Enlightenment on later centuries and more about the differences between the two competing factions of thought at the time. And that, it turns out, is an incredibly important idea that has been virtually ignored by historians, and what makes the book itself so important in retrospect.

Israel makes a distinction right away between the moderate ideas of the Enlightenment period in history, which tended to advocate slow and gradual change over time, and what he calls Radical Enlightenment, “an originally clandestine movement of ideas, almost entirely hidden from public view during its earliest phase (the late seventeenth century).

          Radical Enlightenment is a set of basic principles that can be summed up concisely as: democracy;
          racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression and the
          press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separa-
          tion of church and state. It sees the purpose of the state as being the wholly secular one of promo-
          ting the worldly interests of the majority and preventing vested minority interests from capturing
          control of the legislative process. It’s chief maxim is that all men have the same basic needs, rights,
          and status. (vii-viii)

All of this hardly seems radical today, but that is just Israel’s point. While in one sense the history of the United States can be viewed as a long, slow, steady decline from the ratifying of the Constitution in 1789, with religion, racism, sexism, intolerance for free speech, intrusion into personal lifestyle all trying to claw their way back to prominence in American political life—and with some success—there are still a majority of people in this country who hold dear those ideals that were promoted over three hundred years ago with only one thought in mind: to make people’s lives better. Surprisingly, according to Israel, “the history of this process—the gradual advance of the ideas underpinning democratic Enlightenment in the modern era—remains very little studied or known. Indeed, there exists scarcely any historical accounts that analyze and narrate the story of the origins and rise of modern equality, democracy, individual liberty, and freedom of thought in their intellectual, social, and political context” (ix).

Israel’s goals are ambitious and laudable. The unconscious nature of Western ideals means that they are vulnerable to being undermined by “long-dormant monarchical, aristocratic, and religious ideologies, privileged oligarchies and elites,” as well as “various Counter-Enlightenment popular movements that so resolutely and vehemently combat egalitarian and democratic values” around the world—and that includes the United States. (x-xi) “The risk,” he claims, “in considering our core values as purely abstract concepts,” is that they “remain only weakly embedded in education, the media, and in many people’s minds.” The paradox, here, in terms of American culture, is that an abstract idea of what the United States is was necessary for the cohesion of a population that had little else to bind it. This became especially crucial as immigration, expansion, and the Civil War threatened to destroy the tenuous bonds that existed between citizens of widely differing backgrounds. Authors Patrick J. Deneen and Joseph Romance make this clear in their book, Democracy’s Literature:

          Because of the continental expanse of the American system, such identification with the whole
          increasingly required a philosophic frame of mind. Devotion was not to “land” or place as such,
          but to the idea of America. We were a people devoted to a proposition, according to Lincoln, not
          to a particular piece of land in which generations of our ancestors were buried. America presented
          a unique challenge: how to cultivate a generalized philosophic disposition in the citizenry of such a
          sprawling and “abstract” nation . . . America was faced with a challenge—seemingly insurmountable—
          of making philosophy sufficiently accessible and broad yet sufficiently profound to forge a democratic
          seemingly insurmountable—citizenry on a mass scale. (Deneen 3).

For Israel, those necessarily abstract notions of America tend to lose their meaning in isolation, and for citizens to truly appreciate the kind of egalitarian principles that this country was founded on it requires that “Not only scholars but the general reading, debating, and voting public need some awareness of the tremendous difficulty, struggle, and cost involved in propagating our core ideas” (x, xii). In terms of the specific importance of this understanding for Americans, Israel makes clear what have been the two most dangerous enemies of freedom in this country for the last fifty years: anti-intellectualism and the capitalist oligarchy.

          Who can doubt that ignorance and credulity, identified by the eighteenth-century radical enlighteners
          as the prime cause of human degradation and oppression, remain still the foremost foes of democracy,
          equality, and personal freedom; or that an informal aristocracy, like that which arose in America,
          eventually nurturing vast inequality of wealth, can endanger equality and individual liberty as much as
          any formal nobility based on lineage, rank, and legally anchored privilege? (xii)

The book proper starts, rightly, with the great minds of the late seventeenth century, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Bayle, chief among them Spinoza. What Israel stresses is the theoretical nature of their thought, and the immense challenges that lay ahead of them for implementing the kinds of change they believed possible in order to make life better for all of humanity. Their pessimism, however, was borne out of a sense of the practical rather than the possible. “The notion, still widespread today,” says Israel, “that Enlightenment thinkers nurtured a naïve belief in man’s perfectability seems to be a complete myth conjured up by early twentieth-century scholars, unsympathetic to its claims” (3). Writers like Voltaire, Kant, Turgot and Hume, while expressing the Enlightenment belief in the ability of the mind to ennoble humanity, did not embrace the kind of egalitarianism that Israel is talking about. This, of course, is in direct opposition to someone like Thomas Paine, who advocated for nothing less than the wholesale reformation of European society. Many of the moderate thinkers simply couldn’t see what Paine did, from his vantage point of the successful American Revolution. For them, it was all well and good that the British in North America had thrown off their colonial yoke from three thousand miles away, but historically monarchical Europe was a different world. And the French Revolution only seemed to prove their point. Again, practical considerations tended to limit the scope of imagination in mainstream Enlightened thought. While Paine advocated something on the order of early suggestions during the Space Race—namely landing a man on the moon and worrying about how to get him back later—many thinkers of the day were not willing to take that kind of risk to achieve their aims. Hume, reflecting the views of many, “urged extreme caution—though admittedly not outright conservatism—when evaluating plans for the future depending on any ‘derangement in the only scenes with which we are acquainted’” (15).

This dichotomy of thought between radical and moderate Enlightenment thinking is actually plaguing us to this day, especially in the United States. As Israel points out, “all these were essentially either/or questions. Either history is infused by divine providence or it is not. Either one endorses a society of ranks or embraces equality, one approves representative democracy or opposes it . . . (18). The problem with the moderate Enlightenment is that it postulated “a balance between reason and tradition . . . broadly supporting the status quo” (19). Twentieth-century philosopher Max Horkheimer, in his book Eclipse of Reason, renamed these two elemental ways of thinking as “objective reason” and “subjective reason.”

          Objective reason aspires to replace traditional religion with methodical
          philosophical thought and insight to become a source of tradition all by itself . . .
          Subjective reason . . . is inclined to abandon the fight with religion by setting
          up two different brackets, one for science and philosophy, and one for
          institutionalized mythology, thus recognizing both of them. (Horkheimer 12)

Unfortunately the modern mind does not recognize both of them equally. Objective reason has not been a strong enough truth to dislodge mythology from the minds of religious believers; it has not been allowed to become a “source of tradition” but simply another stream of truth in the believer’s mind that, when faced with a choice between the two, will almost always take the path of irrationality, like atheists in foxholes who then pray for salvation. Israel makes it clear, however, that “it is essential to avoid simply equating the split with the difference between theists and atheists” (19). At the time the split was far more along political and philosophical lines, while today Horkheimer’s subjective rationalism does center primarily on religion. But in the eighteenth century there was also another way of thinking that was embodied by the “Counter-Enlightenment, a system of ideas that rejected both kinds of Enlightenment, insisting on the primacy of faith and tradition, not reason, as the chief guides in human existence” (34-35).

What makes the book so meaningful for today is that the United States seems to be dealing with exactly the same issues, all of which can be understood historically. The reason that the French Revolution takes such a prominent place in the revolutionary history of the period, rather than the earlier and successful American Revolution, is that the United States failed to abolish slavery, thus rendering it an incomplete revolution. The other failing of the American Revolution from the perspective of radical Enlightenment thinkers was the retention of an American aristocracy, again, another vestige of the past that continues to haunt the country to this day in the form of a capitalist oligarchy. In the words of French philosopher Denis Diderot, written shortly after the Declaration, he warned the colonists to “fear a too unequal division of wealth resulting in a small number of opulent citizens and a multitude of citizens living in misery, from which there arises the arrogance of the one and the abasement of the other” (45). One explanation for the failure of the American Revolution to fully exploit radical Enlightenment ideals is the relative stability and comfort enjoyed by the former British colonists. “European writers visiting America in the 1780s and 1790s . . . noted that practically everyone in the United States enjoyed at least a modicum of dignity and prosperity, as well as liberty, whereas most men and women in Europe eked out their lives in hardship and destitution” (51).

The great irony here is that many of the European poor, while their lives were arguably worse than Americans of the same station, were the least likely to advocate for a kind of radical change that might makes some meaningful difference in their lives, and instead supported a gradual approach that was far less likely to institute change in their lifetimes. They did this for the simple fact that moderate ideas carried with them the perception of the possible. In their minds, radical ideas were doomed to be quashed and ignored, while moderate ideas stood at least a chance of being implemented.

          It is worth noting that in Britain the bulk of the lower and middle orders of society proved entirely
          willing to unite under crown and Parliament in decrying radical activity and seditious writings.
          But this was because, behind the scenes, democratic and egalitarian ideas were gaining ground
          and a fierce defensiveness, even signs of desperation were taking hold of the ancien régime’s
          defenders. (35)

Barron d’Holbach refused to blame this timidity on the people, however, and put the responsibility where it belonged, on the nobility that had all but turned its backs on the people. “‘A morally blind politics,’ proclaimed d’Holbach, ‘guided by interests contrary to those of society does not allow men to become enlightened either about their own rights, or their true duties, or about the true ends of the association which it continually subverts’” (57-58). The answer to this problem—and others posed by a tyranny of the majority in a direct democracy, or the siren song of the tyrant himself—was representative democracy of the kind eventually adopted by the United States. On this point the radical thinkers were all in agreement.

Another interesting division between the two competing modes of though is the emphasis on the proper place of the individual in society. For the moderate thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and others like him, the average man had no need for social interaction, and best performed his function in society as an individual. For the radicals, however, nothing could be further from the truth, and renouncing society, according to d’Holbach, was “wholly misconceived and immoral” (57). The radicals, it turns out, were correct in their assumptions, something author Tim Blanning points out in his book on the period, in emphasizing what he considers one of the major factors in the successes of the revolutionary period.

          Whatever their social complexion, all European states had to come to terms with the emergence of
          a new kind of cultural space—the public sphere . . . a forum in which previously isolated individuals
          could come together to exchange information, ideas and criticism. Whether communicating with
          each other at long range by subscribing to the same periodicals, or meeting face to face in a coffee-
          house or in one of the new voluntary associations, such as a reading club or Masonic lodge, the public
          acquired a collective weight far greater than the sum of its individual members. (Blanning xxiv)

In modern times the ability of the majority to communicate with each other has been obliterated by providing the citizenry with far more information than they can possibly be expected to sift through. As a result, people tend to communicate only with like-minded individuals, resulting in the same kind of isolation that people face in the early seventeenth-century.

Economic divisions are tackled next, as the more moderate thinkers advocated for unlimited free trade. While at first this seems a far left position—and it is even called liberal economic theory—one can see why the radicals disliked it. Those with money already, the nobility, the clergy, the landed classes, were able to use their wealth to invest and finance, and could afford to take losses once in a while. Those who had no accumulated wealth, then, were unable to participate fully in the nation’s economic life and were relegated to working for those with capital. It’s easy to see in this position a nascent Marxist theory in which working for wealthy business owners is simply another form of tyranny, this time economic, which was decidedly not in the best interests of the majority of people and in practice almost indistinguishable from current forms of noble privilege. Nevertheless, the radicals did not believe that this kind of future Marxist philosophy would be beneficial to workers either. “While championing egalitarianism, however, Diderot, Helvétius, and d’Holbach firmly disavowed any intention of leveling society or seeking to impose full economic equality, which, they appreciated, would inevitably establish a new form of tyranny” (96-97). Again, the radicals were prescient and one only has to look at the twentieth century attempts at Communism to see their greatest fears at work. Nevertheless, in criticizing the works of free-market economists like Smith and Turgot, “Diderot argues, no one has the right to sanction manipulation of price rises in grain while his fellows succumb to famine” (118). And yet this is precisely the situation that we are faced with today, another task left to this generation to complete.

The next chapter focuses on the ability of the state to make war, and the reality that it is the people who bear the brunt of the consequences, both as soldiers and civilians. But where moderates were able to make arguments that economics and social instability weren’t necessarily the fault of the nobility, the act of making war could be laid nowhere else but at the feet of the monarchy. More than in any other sphere this supports Israel’s assertion of enlightened thought as an either/or proposition. The only way to assure against the caprice and whim of the monarch for war . . . was to remove the monarch. “Moderate Enlightenment, then, and Rousseauism lacked any political strategy that could conceivably produce the kind of structural changes capable of transforming the existing order so as to diminish the likelihood of war” (129). The moderates used a tactic common today among the right wing, arguing that while war is an unfortunate occurrence it would be folly to disarm and fall prey to those who don’t, conveniently sidestepping the issue of who is ultimately to blame for pulling the trigger—pun intended. On one side is Adam Ferguson, asserting that war is “the will of Providence,” and that only in the prosecution of war “the virtues of human nature are its happiest, no less than they are so in reaping the fruits of peace.” For the radicals, though, this idea is as ridiculous as it sounds.

          These wars, fought purely in the interests of monarchs, courtiers, aristocratic cliques, financiers,
          and merchants, they considered an inherent part of tyranny, an injustice abominably destructive
          and irrational caused directly by the system of authority, nobility and princely courts . . . in which
          many tens of thousands of soldiers were killed or maimed fighting all across the world for reasons
          few had the slightest inkling of, and which bore no relation to the true interests either of the population
          or of the soldiers and their families. (131)

The last hundred years of warfare by the United States certainly bear this out with “financiers, and merchants” the only ones who have benefitted, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, and the citizen soldiers and their families doing all the suffering. The radicals were also prescient in proposing something like the United Nations, an international body of democratic republics that would be the ultimate arbiter in a world that had no more need for war. The flaw in the modern implementation of this idea is that not enough countries today are democratic republics.

Israel then moves on to deal with morality, the most obvious schism between moderate thinkers still in the thrall of church and king, and the radicals who believed that morality does not need to be imposed from without: “morality is a universal, purely secular system based on a conception of justice wholly separate from, indeed best cultivated without, the influence of any particular religion” (154-155). One of the most fascinating responses to this is by Rousseau who, while disagreeing with the radicals, could actually find no rational argument against them and could therefore only resort to an anti-intellectual rebuttal.

          He calls Diderot, d’Holbach and their disciples, “ardent missionaries of atheism,” so intolerant in
          practice that they were incapable of not losing patience with anyone thinking differently from them-
          selves. Rousseau again admits, though, that . . . he could find no adequate arguments in terms of
          reason with which to oppose their contentions. It was his heart, his feelings, he emphasizes, not
          reasoning, that told him they were wrong. (159)

In fact, the entire anti-intellectual stance of religion was one that was going to inevitably put moderates in conflict with the radicals, especially where morality was concerned. “Revealed religion, maintained the radical philosophes, fragments rather than consolidates society, undermining true morality by extolling credulity and ignorance and discouraging science” (165). Those who argued that religion was the only way to ensure moral behavior, however, were drawing on a terminally weak hand, for if it did, “we would surely not daily hear of assassination, rapine, and brigandage in Europe’s most devoutly religious lands, such as Spain and Italy” (168). Parallels today are numerous. Just one is that while enlightened countries like Great Britain and Australia have been able to legislate just laws that have reduced gun violence almost completely, we are stuck with a credulous and ignorant electorate that is willing to accept an astronomically absurd number of gun deaths every year in the most “advanced” country in the world.

Israel makes some space here to talk about the Scottish Enlightenment, which for me is easily the most important element of the book. It actually helped to make sense of something that had always been a source of confusion for me. In writing about the Scottish Enlightenment, which is usually held up for praise, especially by those writing about the American Revolution, Israel is more accurately able to place it “within its larger international context.” As “opponents of atheism and materialist ideas,” they decidedly fall into the moderate camp and, as such, are far less impressive in terms of their long-range thinking than the radicals. (177) More than that, however, is the way that these particular Enlightenment ideals have been embraced by the right in the United States, something that never seemed to make sense. But Israel puts it all into clear focus. “Precisely the social conservatism implicit in Scottish moral thought and its emphatic restricting of philosophical reason by means of faith and theology lay at the root of its immense appeal at the time (and subsequently)” (182). Suddenly the vehement embracing of the Enlightenment aspects of American Revolution by those on the right in U.S. politics makes sense—for the reason that it is not enlightened thinking they are celebrating at all. By citing the Christian thinkers from Scotland to the exclusion of the radical thinkers, the U.S. right continues to support the myth of America as a country founded on religion. It’s a tactic that was even used by counter-Enlightenment writers at the time. “A much-cultivated philosophical strategy of the anti-philosophes was to invoke the great Moderate Enlightenment thinkers” in order to discredit the radicals. “By highlighting in this manner the deep chasm between Radical Enlightenment and Deist mainstream while at the same time also sharply criticizing the later, Christian Moderate Enlightenment refined a powerful rhetoric effective for disparaging and discrediting all the philosophical authors it condemned” (174-175). Thus the religious right in this country can have it both ways, claiming to be enlightened by citing Scottish writers, and keeping their anti-intellectual religious beliefs at the same time. As a result, “Scottish moral sense and, most of all, Scottish Common Sense, were destined for a long and glorious career, remaining for decades highly influential in Germany and Scandinavia as well as Britain and North America” (182).

At the end of his lecture series on the founding of the United States, Daniel N. Robinson contrasted the thoughts of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine in their reactions to the French Revolution. The final chapter of Israel’s book seemed as if it was going to do something similar, with Voltaire representing the moderates, and Spinoza as the founding thinker for the radicals. But instead it really comes off as more of a rehash of what has gone on before. The idea actually makes for an intriguing missed opportunity, however. One of the online reviews of the book says that Israel takes a lot for granted in terms of the reader’s pre-existing knowledge. Had Israel put this chapter at the beginning of the book and spent some time outlining Spinoza’s influence on the radicals, as well as Voltaire’s desperate response, that might have been a good way to provide some crucial background for the reader. In the end, the primary notion that comes out of the book is that there were really two Enlightenments. The first was geared toward the nobility itself, and of course these moderate thinkers supported and justified the existence of the nobility and the church in order to further their own cause. The radicals, on the other hand, “had no other recourse but to turn philosophy into effective ideology and inundate the reading public with its new revolutionary awareness . . . Ultimately, their aim was to transform the political and social framework of modern life” (223). But by far Israel’s most forceful declaration is, however destitute and abused the French people were by the nobility, that fact alone was not enough to account for the revolution that followed. “Indeed, without referring to Radical Enlightenment nothing about the French Revolution makes the slightest sense or can even begin to be provisionally explained” (224). As a result, any history that fails to take into account the importance of the Radical Enlightenment writings—and Israel claims almost none of them do—is incomplete at best, and highly misleading at worst.

This is part of an overall problem with the historiography about this period, in which historians mistakenly attempt to look for the instances that brought about the French Revolution in the area of social change rather than in the area of thought, “some dramatic transformation of conditions, as their primary cause. This seems to be a fallacy . . .” (37). The reason for this becomes clear if one looks at a nearly contemporaneous example: the Industrial Revolution. In that instance the complete reshaping of economic life for the citizens in Great Britain brought about an attendant change of ideas that resulted in the formation of labor unions on up to more radical ideas like the Luddite movement. The revolutionary period of the late eighteenth century, however, was exactly the opposite. “The real structural shift before 1789 has been broadly missed because it was a ‘revolution of the mind’; an intellectual transformation, bringing with it a huge cultural shift” (37-38). Thus it was that the ideas preceded the action as “radical writers hoped that the American Revolution would not just continue internally but also accelerate the process of democratization in Europe, the West Indies, Spanish America and elsewhere” (47). This is a point that Israel would make clear early in the book:

          This does not mean that the whole emphasis should be placed on books and ideas. Rather, the
          interpretation proposed here envisages revolution as a complex interaction of thought and action
          emerging by stages at a particular moment in history. But while great revolutions are always fueled
          by pre-existing social grievances, to create genuine revolution these grievances must be articulated
          in new, forthright, and much broader terms than previously. (87)

To see a negative example of this effect, one only has to read Nancy MacLean’s book Democracy in Chains, to see how the anti-democratic right wing in this country has been attempting to manipulate themselves into complete power for the last fifty years.

It’s difficult to know how to assess Israel’s book. On the one hand there’s a strong sense of abbreviation in the chapters, part and parcel of its original inception as a series of lectures. But at the same time Israel’s other works on the era are gargantuan, in the neighborhood of eight hundred pages or so each. Given that, there’s probably something to be said for the introductory aspect of this book, though it would have been nice if his thesis were clearer in the beginning. What the book is really about is the largely unsung nature of the radical wing of the Enlightenment during the revolutionary era, one that turns out to be more highly influential than historians give it credit for. The big names of the era, Hume, Voltaire, and Locke, it turns out were rather timid and overcautious, while names that I had never really heard of before—as Paine tends to suck the oxygen out of the room in most histories—like Helvétius, Diderot and d’Holbach are given a considerable amount of credit, and deservedly so. The real success of Israel’s book is to place the radical Enlightenment thinkers in their rightful place in the context of the age, especially given some of what passes for scholarship about the era today. It’s easy to miss this because the moderates were the only ones who were able to implement some of their ideas, and so “it has often appeared that they represent the real Enlightenment, the sensible Enlightenment, the Enlightenment that counts . . . But, on closer examination, such an analysis hardly seems plausible” (120). This is the real importance of A Revolution of the Mind, discovering the true thinkers behind the Enlightenment, the true ideas that have gone into creating our own Democracy, and by doing so demonstrating how far we still have to go.

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.”