How to Change the Culture

by Micah Mattix on June 1, 2012

Over at First Thoughts, I point readers to recent discussions of the commercialization of art and the general decline in artistic judgment. I end with the question of how to regain this judgment:

The temptation here–and it’s an easy one–is to blame capitalism for this decline. Panero points out, however, that the problem is not the market, it’s us: “If we are here to put capitalism on trial, and capitalism loses, I wouldn’t question capitalism. I would question our judgment.”

By “judgment” I take James to mean the ability to recognize and value truth and beauty. This ability takes years of nourishment in our families, schools and churches, but, generally speaking, it’s no longer happening, to state the obvious. Truth has been replaced by relativism and egalitarianism (and, as R.R. Reno points out, a miniature moralism), and beauty by titillation. The difficult question is whether this judgment can be regained or whether, at this point, it can only be nourished in small pockets, here and there, for future generations.

Talk of changing the culture (or in this case, changing artistic judgment) is delicate. First, to state the obvious, we don’t change anything. God does. We are merely agents of his change. But second, and more practically, too much focus on changing the culture can often prevent us from being the vehicles of that very change to the extent that it tempts us to calculate or discuss the change we’ve caused or wish to cause and neglect the nourishing of truth and beauty in our own lives and the lives of those with whom we come in contact (students, colleagues, children, friends, and so forth). Of course, it’s helpful to step back from time to time to make sure we’re not off track, that in delving deeply in our respective disciplines or crafts we haven’t lost sight of what’s most important or been wrongly influenced by false ideas subtly expressed in even the best philosophy, music, poetry or art. At the same time, individuals who were great agents of change were often unaware of the change they had caused because, as is so often the case, most of it did not take place until much later, often after they had died.

So, leaving to God the question of how small or large our sphere of influence is, and whether it is principally in the present or the future, we should do whatever God puts in front of us daily to the best of our ability.

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is playing on Broadway again. It has been revived a number of times since it was first produced in 1949, and by all accounts, this particular revival has been a success. It’s even expected to turn a neat little profit.

Over at the graying lady, however, Lee Siegel wonders “why the play was revived at all.” Willy believes, Siegel writes, that he can “attain dignity through his work,” but no one believes this anymore:

In our time of banker hustlers, real-estate hustlers and Internet hustlers, of suckers and “muppets,” it is unlikely that anyone associates happiness and dignity with working hard for a comfortable existence purchased with a modest income. Even what’s left of the middle class disdains a middle-class life. Everyone, rich, poor and in between, wants infinite pleasure and fabulous riches.

Siegel needs to read the play again. It’s not quite right that Willy believes he can attain dignity through hard work. Rather he believes he can attain it through success by force of personality alone. He has very little interest in hard work, as his refrain “He’s liked, but not well-liked,” his memories of Ben striking it rich in the jungle, and the foils of the hard-working (and successful) Charles and Bernard all show.

I’m no fan of Arthur Miller, but Death of a Salesman, despite its other excesses, calls into question the very yearning for “infinite pleasure and fabulous riches” that Siegel (also wrongly) sees everywhere.

Bauerlein on “Resonance”

by Micah Mattix on May 7, 2012

Over at First Thoughts, I have a short post on Mark Bauerlein’s piece on liberalism and literature at Public Discourse. His conclusion that “resonance” or personal fulfillment has replaced truth as the arbiter of value today is worth pondering.

Bauerlein discusses only the novel, but I wonder to what extent the importance of fulfillment–however short-lived–has perverted our view of service in the church or our view of vocation. No doubt we long to be involved in a community or to pursue a vocation that is fulfilling, but this shouldn’t be the only thing, and certainly not the most important thing, that determines which community we join or which vocation we pursue. And often the most fulfilling things turn out to be those we do out of a sense of duty to the one true God.

This, I take it, is part of what it means to lose one’s life to save it.

Wendell Berry, Marilynne Robinson and Empathy

by Micah Mattix on May 3, 2012

Matthew J. Franck has a strong critique of Wendell Berry’s Jefferson Lecture at First Things today. The lecture, Franck says, was “chiefly a catalogue of Berry’s hatreds”:

He hates “agribusiness” and large-scale farming, though it is a great success story in the battle against hunger. He hates “corporations” and derides the notion that they are “persons” in the law, sounding as much like a wise man as the average backbench Democratic hack in the U.S. Congress. He hates “industrialism,” “plutocracy,” and “capitalism,” explaining why his thought is popular among a certain breed of college professors. He hates “materialism” but seems unable to transcend it at any point in this lecture.

* * *
He loves the “stickers” and he hates the “boomers,” terms he borrows from his teacher Wallace Stegner. Boomers are mobile creatures, moving from place to place and seizing opportunities—presumably like the first Berry who came to America centuries ago. Stickers are the ones who stay in place and sink roots in the land. Is there room in Wendell Berry’s moral imagination (he loves that word, “imagination”) for a good word to be said about each of them?

The answer to that question, Franck writes, is emphatically “No.” I’ve read the lecture, which is ironically titled “It All Turns on Affection,” and I think Franck is right in his critique, though perhaps a bit too fervent.  Nathan Schleuter offers a helpful response, pointing out that Berry is equally critical of governmental agencies elsewhere, but this is besides the point and does nothing to justify Berry’s unfair derision of “all agribusiness executives,” who, in Berry’s words, “don’t imagine farms or farmers. They imagine perhaps nothing at all, their minds being filled to capacity by numbers leading to the bottom line.”

Berry is not the only literary figure recently to show a lack of imagination in complaining about the lack of imagination. In her new collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson argues that American public discourse is distinctly lacking in empathy and generosity, and like Berry in his lecture, she fails to show either. My full review is forthcoming in The Weekly Standard, but in a nutshell, she derides the lack of governmental spending on education and welfare programs, and claims that it is unchristian to oppose such spending. She demonizes corporations and suggests that those in favor of austerity measures are suffering from “paranoia.” Yet, while she claims to have had “a broader experience of the American population than is usual,” she shows no real understanding of why serious Christians who care deeply about the poor and the defenseless (particularly unborn children) might actually oppose government welfare and an increase in centralized power.

Too often conservative Christians give greedy corporations or the unjustly rich a free pass. Greed is a sin, and we should speak boldly against it. But so is willful ignorance, which, of course, conservatives can be guilty of as well. Boldness and fairness are not mutually exclusive. Our times require both.

Wendell Berry’s God

by Micah Mattix on April 30, 2012

In the latest issue of The City, Aaron Belz reviews The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry. It’s a mostly favorable review, but Belz expresses disappointment that there isn’t more critical engagement with Berry in the volume. Belz only hints at what such a critical engagement might be, noting Berry’s debt to an earlier naturalism. I am not a Berry scholar, but some of Berry’s Sabbath poems have always raised a few questions in my mind about the relationship between God and nature in Berry’s work–poems with lines like these:

Another Sunday morning comes
And I resume the standing Sabbath
Of the woods, where the finest blooms
Of time return, and where not path
Is worn but wears its makers out
At last, and disappears in leaves
Of fallen seasons. The tracked rut
Fills and levels; here nothing grieves
In the risen season. Past life
Lives in the living. Resurrection
Is in the way each maple leaf
Commemorates its kind, by connection

Berry writes within a generally Christian tradition, and he is all the rage these days with all sorts of Christians, hipsters and non-hipsters alike, but I for one would like to learn more about what he means by “Past life / Lives in the living,” or in another poem when he writes that “Sometimes here [earth] / we are there [heaven], and there is no death.”

That “sometimes” is very coy. At the moment, it seems this is the best bet for further study.

The Politicized Bard

by Micah Mattix on April 23, 2012

A review of A Thousand Times More Fair: What Shakespeare’s Plays Teach Us About Justice, by Kenji Yoshino, Ecco, 2011.

Kenji Yoshino’s A Thousand Times More Fair: What Shakespeare’s Plays Teach Us About Justice begins with a curious assertion: “I do not have a definition of justice. I am drawn to literature rather than to philosophy because I would rather deal with the messy, fine-grained gloriously idiosyncratic lives of human beings than with vaulting abstractions.”

The distinction between the concreteness of literature and the “vaulting” abstractions of philosophy is common enough. The most well-known is Sir Philip Sidney’s. In his Defense of Poesy, he distinguishes between philosophy, which defines virtue in the abstract, and poetry, which provides concrete images of virtue. Poetry is a “speaking picture.” It is virtue “figured” in the concrete. In other words, poetry provides a more accessible portrait of abstract virtues.

But this is not the distinction Yoshino, a law professor at NYU and a gay rights activist, has in mind. For him, literature provides a “messier,” more contradictory portrait of abstract virtues, not a more accessible one. Whether he believes it or not, Yoshino suggests here that philosophy misses something when it defines things in the abstract. It is incapable of providing an accurate portrait of virtues such as justice because it always excludes the messier, contradictory elements of the term in its effort provide a “coherent” definition.

There is an element of truth in this critique of the limitation of philosophy, but it is so often misunderstood or abused that whatever might be gained from it is almost immediately lost. Such is the case here. While it is true enough that philosophy has failed to provide us with a complete and coherent definition of all that is, this does not mean that we can make no truth statements about what is or formulate no definitional absolutes. In the end, Yoshino’s refusal to define justice in the abstract and look rather at discrete images of justice in Shakespeare’s plays does not provide a more nuanced understanding of the virtue. Quite the opposite, it allows Yoshino to play fast and loose with the term in order to co-op his politicized readings of Shakespeare’s plays under the 21st century’s most fashionable and prestigious term. And so Titus Andronicus reminds us of the folly of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, motivated as they were, according to Yoshino, by simple blood lust; Measure for Measure reminds us that excellent judges are those who, like Sonya Sotomayor, are able to make judgments based on empathy as well as precedent; and Macbeth somehow shows us the danger of believing that we live in a “purposeful universe.”
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