Sunday, December 10, 2023

The Bigotry of the Literal Mind

Leave it to the great Lionel Trilling to bring clarity where once there was confusion. I have the complete works of Trilling on my bookshelves and regularly dip into them, not only for his insights into literature but, more importantly, for his insights on society. I even have the book, Why Trilling Matters, by Adam Kirsch, but I can save you the trouble with one sentence. Trilling matters because he didn’t believe in literature for literature’s sake; he believed in literature as one of the most important ways to understand our own morality, not just individual but social morality. One example of this comes in the title of an essay by his most influential professor, John Erskine. The title of the essay was, “The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent.” We see the startling effects of this today, as a large swath of proudly anti-intellectual voters regularly participate in the very immoral act of trying to elect immoral leaders to the highest offices in the land. And so their very lack of intelligence directly affects the rest of the populace in a decidedly negative way. Morality, unlike personal integrity, is a social construct because it has to do with the effect of people’s actions on others. Intellect is absolutely vital to this, precisely because it is our rational mind that allows us to comprehend the negative effects we can have on others through our actions, and hopefully avoid them. The fiercely ignorant, on the other hand, have absolutely no idea that they are willingly destroying themselves and utterly clueless that they are taking the rest of us with them in the process.

What Trilling taught me today, however, is not about the ignorance of the political right, but the ignorance of the political left. For years I have struggled to understand what writer and professor John McWhorter has described as the religion of Wokeness. The reason he puts it in those terms is because Woke ideology is founded on dogma rather than intellect. Dogma is something to be followed, adhered to unquestioningly, just like the sacred texts and teachings in a religion. So, as far as that goes, the greater part of the paradox of Wokeism can be thus understood by the fact that it is just as anti-intellectual as the MAGA right. That much I knew already, but it still didn’t explain why that was the case. And that in itself is another troubling aspect of society today, primarily in the media but increasingly infecting academia and all of American letters. I used to tell my students when I was teaching that the only question that matters is “why.” The reason for that is a “why” question forces the responder to begin with the word “because,” and therefore must always be followed by an explanation—requiring the responder to understand what it is they’re talking about in order to explain it. But with increasing frequently, writers of books and articles today do not have the intellectual capacity to explain anything, so instead they choose not to. Most writing today is primarily descriptive, which means that it is also primarily meaningless. Without explaining why something is the way it is, the mere fact that it is the way it is means relatively little.

So that’s the question that has haunted me about Woke ideology: why? Why would those on the left, liberals, who I take for granted believe in social equity, be so unflinchingly critical of other liberals, for absolutely idiotic reasons? It makes no sense. To begin at the beginning it’s important to realize that America’s public education system is primarily to blame. I witnessed firsthand the fact that the vast majority of teachers in classrooms have no interest in analysis or explanation—the “why” questions—but instead fall back almost exclusively on “what” questions, that is, recall of facts, identification, and description. The simple reason for this is that they themselves were never taught to analyze in school, so they obviously can’t teach it. The bitter irony, however, is that the reason public school classrooms wound up operating in this manner is because that’s exactly what they were designed to do. For the past hundred and fifty years, public education has been living up to its original intent of churning out good workers: wage-slaves who do not think, who do not question, and therefore are incapable of explaining why they are in the downtrodden position they find themselves in. They have been taught to believe in the most destructive of all American myths, the unquestioned good of Capitalism and the social-Darwinian pseudo-science of competition as the guiding principles of society. So given that context it really shouldn’t be a surprise that people indoctrinated by religion and public education are incapable of thinking for themselves, because they have been trained not to. And in the case of Woke, just as with MAGA, that is what everything else follows from.

The reality is, the dogma coming out of the Woke movement today is nothing new. It really began in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, when it became painfully obvious to almost everyone that it was the Republican policies of unrestrained capitalism that were to blame for the financial disaster that had befallen the United States and the rest of the world. At the time, people who continued to espouse making the rich even richer seemed especially abstruse and almost anti-American, in that it was not a leap at all to see that doing thus would simply punish suffering Americans even more. Following this idea was an offshoot that would regain momentum in a much broader social context eighty years later, and that was the belief that anyone working in a public sphere, be it Congress, a corporate CEO, or celebrity, has an obligation to society to voice only accepted liberal beliefs or they risk betraying society and becoming a de facto enemy to the liberal cause. Fortunately in the 1930s there was so much overwhelming political support for the New Deal, that the idea was never politically divisive the way it is today. There were still Republicans who tried to fight the New Deal, but by and large they were not politically successful. In the depths of the Depression, there were not a lot of politicians who had the temerity to deny outright the federal government’s obligation to help he citizens of the country through the worst economic crisis in history. Where this idea did manage to stay alive, though, was in literary criticism.

In an essay by Lionel Trilling entitled “Hemingway and his Critics,” written in 1938, the professor bemoaned the fact that this idea had taken root in literary circles and as a result it began causing authors to write in a specific way in order to prove their liberal credentials, rather than as their inspiration dictated. For Hemingway, as far as Trilling could tell, this had been a disaster as the self-conscious abandoning of his decidedly anti-liberal themes and symbols in his recent work had led to an inadvertent undermining of the power that had made him a great artist in the first place. Instead of simply being an artist, and creating works of art, Trilling now sensed that Hemingway was trying to write “as Hemingway,” the man, rather than ignoring critics and embracing the separation that had always, and will always, divide the creator from the created.

          One feels that Hemingway would never have thrown himself into his new and inferior work if the
          necessity had not been put upon him to justify himself before this magisterial conception of literature.
          Devoted to literalness, the critical tradition of the Left took Hemingway’s symbols for his intention,
          saw in his stories only cruelty or violence or a calculated indifference, and turned upon him a barrage
          of high-mindedness—that liberal-radical high-mindedness that is increasingly taking the place of
          thought among the “progressive professional and middle-class forces” and that now, under the name
          of “good will,” shuts out half the world. (Trilling 1980, 127)

The problem for liberal critics was that in his early work Hemingway told the truth, but by the end of the 1930s critics didn’t want to hear that anymore. Liberal-radical criticism only wanted to hear the truth as they saw it, an ideal of what should be rather than what was still left to overcome. And Trilling duly called them out, stating quite assertively, “what should have been always obvious is that Hemingway is a writer who, when he writes as an “artist,” is passionately and aggressively concerned with truth and even with social truth” (Trilling 1980, 127). When Trilling says these critics were “devoted to literalness,” what he meant was this: in writing about the social ills of the day, those critics could only see the truth as an endorsement of the status quo, rather than the reverse. What they lost the ability to do was understand that only by exposing the unvarnished truth in a context—in this case literary—in which that truth is believed in and acted upon by its characters, can that truth be seen in all its ugliness, can it be truly understood for the detrimental impact it is actually having on society. And this is the same misunderstanding that society is faced with today in the Woke movement, but infinitely worse as it has infected political discourse to the point where many on the left are so literal-minded that they have become utterly unable to grapple with the truth and, even more crucially, understand why it’s so incredibly important.

In providing an example to prove his point, Trilling made the genius move of citing Mark Twain’s novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. While it is the perfect example, it certainly didn’t come out of thin air, as Trilling cites Hemingway’s oft-quoted remark that all of American literature comes from Huckleberry Finn. Of course Hemingway never explained what he meant by that, and left it up to us to figure out why. What’s so frustrating is that no one, it seems, in the last hundred and forty years since its publication, has really understood the actual importance of Huckleberry Finn—perhaps not even Hemingway. It even seems clear that Trilling himself really didn’t know, not fully anyway. To be honest, Trilling had any number of things wrong over the years, but that’s not finally the point, because his message was never ultimately about literature in a vacuum. Trilling, as a teacher—not of literature, but through literature—was one of the greatest in all of U.S. history. Again, going back to public education, the fact that so many people over the decades have failed to understand the significance of Twain’s novel should not come as a surprise. Readers, critics, teachers, students, and especially blacks, have all been baffled for nearly a century and a half as to what the novel really does.

But let’s first begin with Trilling, as a way of understanding how the reading of the story of Huck Finn could go so terribly wrong. What Trilling does understand is that, “Huck’s prose is a sort of moral symbol” (Trilling 1980, 127). Why the qualifier, however, I have no idea, because Twain’s novel is entirely a moral symbol, the whole thing, which is the primary reason it has confused readers for so long. And Trilling is symbolic of this confusion himself, as he compares Woodrow Wilson to the Widow Douglas: “the pious, the respectable, the morally plausible.” It’s the final phrase, moral plausibility, that is crucial here, but unfortunately Trilling goes completely off the rails at that point, declaring that the novel is “the prose of the free man seeing the world as it really is.” No, no, no, no, no! That is not what Huck Finn is about. Huck is not a free man, even when he is out on the river! With only one exception, everything he sees along his journey is a reflection of who he already is, a slave to what Arthur Miller so eloquently called “the moral fashion of the day.” Huck believes that slavery is right, that blacks are inferior, and that Jim should be returned to his owner—throughout the entire trip. And that’s the whole point. Huck is supposed to be racist.

Trilling’s interpretation of the novel in terms of Hemingway, however, focuses on the lies that politicians like Wilson told the young men of that era, lies that led to their death and destruction in the First World War. Just as Huck had internalized the lies told to him about slavery, similarly the young men at the turn of the twentieth century had gone to war believing in the ideals professed by men like Wilson:

          To the sensitive men who went to war it was not, perhaps, death and destruction that made the
          disorganizing shock. It was perhaps rather that death and destruction went on at the instance and
          to the accompaniment of the fine grave words, of which Woodrow Wilson’s speeches were the
          finest and gravest. Here was the issue of liberal theory; here in the bloated or piecemeal corpse
          was the outcome of the words of humanitarianism and ideals; this was the work of presumably
          careful men of good will, learned men, polite men. (Trilling 1980, 128)

It’s actually quite a fascinating interpretation—as it relates to Hemingway. As it relates to Huckleberry Finn, however, it’s quite wrong. Huck does not change his view of slavery because of what he sees along the trip. What he sees of the world, “as it really is,” only goes to reinforce the ideas he’s been brought up with. His relationship with Jim prior to the trip, immersed as they both were in a slaveholding society, also reinforced his beliefs. What changed Huck was not the world, but spending an extended period with Jim outside of the world.

What pains me the most is how so many black critics and black academics have entirely missed the point of the novel, and still do. Twain’s novel is a work of genius, and not only does all of American literature begin with Huckleberry Finn, but I would go so far as to say it is the peak of American literature, the summit to which many have attempted but only Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has come close to reaching. Sadly, blacks see the novel as inherently racist. They are embarrassed by the character of Jim. He’s uneducated and penniless, a superstitious man who never once questions the institution of slavery. But the thing is, he was written that way on purpose! The whole point of Twain’s novel is that Jim shouldn’t have to be educated, shouldn’t have to have money, shouldn’t have to be intellectual, and shouldn’t have to be a social critic against slavery. He should be respected and treated like a human being because he is a human being, not for the way he behaves. The whole point of Huckleberry Finn is that it’s not Jim’s fault for the way he’s treated. The onus for change is entirely the responsibility of whites. Huck is the one who needs to change, not Jim. And that’s just what Twain does.

It’s no coincidence that the Widow Douglas and her sisters are both Bible thumpers. The Bible is one of the first how-to manuals for owning slaves. It’s a slavery-positive piece of literature. It’s no wonder that God-fearing Southern slave owners we so confident in their conviction that slavery was endorsed by the God of the Bible—because it is! That was the world Huck was brought up in and that’s very much what he believed at the beginning of the story. One of the most powerful scenes in the book then, is when Huck makes the decision that he would rather go to Hell than make Jim go back to his owner. In that instance his own personal integrity became more important than the social conscience he had inherited. Huck makes the decision, for himself, about what is right, rather than listening to what the rest of society believes. And if that means he has to argue his case before God himself in the afterlife, then he’s willing to do it. Finally, the real climax of the novel comes when Huck describes Jim in the only way he knows how. When Jim tells the story of coming out of hiding to help the doctor with the wounded Tom Sawyer, knowing Jim was giving up his chance at freedom but refusing to turn his back on a friend, Huck tells the reader, “I knowed he was white inside, and I reckoned he’d say what he did say.” What Huck expresses in this simple sentence is the very essence of racial equality, that all people are the same inside, no matter what they look like on the outside. All people are the same . . . because they’re all people. In his novel, published in 1884, Mark Twain was able to convey to the entire nation the reality of racial injustice: that whites began it, and whites need to end it. The responsibility for ending racism has nothing to do with the behavior of blacks.

The problem is, this makes absolutely no sense to modern readers. One of the cardinal rules in writing fiction always used to be “show” the reader what’s happening rather than “tell.” But people today do not have the ability to understand what they are being shown, and so without an author telling them what’s going on they are incapable of seeing what an author like Twain is really doing. Just as with Trilling’s literal-minded critics, today's modern critics see only a racist novel, an embarrassing stereotype of a black slave, along with an abused white boy who travels down the river to find freedom. But the physical freedom Huck achieves at the end of the story is absolutely nothing compared to the freedom of thought he achieves in realizing that he has to make up his mind for himself about what is right and wrong, and not go along blindly with what society or the Bible has taught him to believe. Freedom of thought, however, seems to be alien to the radical Woke crowd, who for some unfathomable reason believe that it’s racist for whites to do anything to help blacks—and yet all the time castigate whites for their “unconscious” racist behaviors. The whole exercise is not only dumbfounding, it’s just plain dumb. And does absolutely nothing to solve the problem! The inability of the Woke warriors to think in any way but literally—when it comes to dogma; the dogma itself is wildly fictitious—has turned them into blithering idiots who adhere to nonsensical strictures instead of thinking for themselves. And yet if an uneducated teenager, “so ignorant, and so kind of low-down and ornery,” as Huck describes himself, in the 1840s can figure out how to think for himself, the question for the radical Woke mob becomes, “What’s your excuse?”

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