Wednesday, July 31, 2002

Elaine Pagels, in Adam, Eve, and the Serpent spends a chapter discussing the struggle between Augustine and John Chrysostom over the direction of the church. Pagels tries to come to terms with the victory of Augustine's authoritarian philosophy, concerned with the maintainance of church power, over Chrysostom's defense of the historical precedent of a liberal or even radical egalitarianism. One could argue that Augustine was right, but Pagels doesn't think so, and neither do I. One could say that that history was on his side, or that he was better connected, that power tends to win, etc. Or you could say what Pagels shies away from: that Augustine was a smarter and more convincing orator but morally and philosophically wrong throughout.

People can become stymied when they come upon great art that has been coupled with moral argument, even though all art needs to contain some aspect of it. The various decisions that make up the direction of a work need the backing of a commitment to something stronger than a sense of taste, if only to give the audience something to hold on to. Greenbergian Formalism when it was any good –at the beginning if at all– concerned itself with the desire for a purified non-representational art because the artists who subscribed to it thought such an art was appropriate or even necessary for the description of the time and place it was being made. The works constitute an argument for art for art's sake not the thing itself. Nobody sat around drinking beer arguing about which shade of red to use. On the other hand, Plato through his art made Socrates, a man who was thought of by many of those around him as a dangerous boor, and who was distrustful of art, into a brilliant and heroic intellect. He may well have been the man his followers adored. But without Plato's skill, could we tell? Poetry and truth aren't the same thing, but good poetry can only come out of a commitment to the actions and choices that produced it, that has the force of veracity, even if in fact it's total bullshit. It should be a commonplace, and at various times it has been, but between a Modernist denial of the obvious and a post-structuralist desperation to supplant one model of truth with another, of 'non'-truth, it's ignored.

What's more dangerous, art or its suppression? The premise of our society is that supression is worse, though Plato wouldn't agree. We believe that people are capable of understanding the implications of their ideas, and are capable of handling their own affairs. But do they always want to? Not necessarily. Let's say a group of people adding up to about 10% of a given population offer their voting rights to another group in exchange for a guarantee of lifetime care. This is illegal in the US, but one could still argue that large organizations offer that exchange to their employees all the time. Stories have been circulating for years about the Microsoft 'cult', and the chanting of "I am Arthur Anderson" doesn't help matters much. The teachings of the Catholic church likewise demand absolute fealty, but few Americans follow them before anything else. Still, the number of people in my neighborhood in Brooklyn who are shocked and surprised to hear about the behavior of some members of the priesthood is quite large. A cynic would say the numbers result from the fact that the people professing suprise have a history of listening more to their priest than to their neighbors. At the same time I wouldn't be living where I am were it not for my devout landlady's deep sense of the immorality of greed. Nonetheless she's deeply conservative, and doesn't concern herself with issues she thinks beyond her.

Is democracy viable without some sort of education in it's obligations?
The glory of the United States, the thing that makes us the envy of the world, is a philosophy, if that word can even be used here, of personal freedom, combined with a sort of careless irresponsibility. It's been a fun ride, and those from this country who have argued against it most often sound like dry sticks or moralizing bores. There's a real tragedy in the story of the American left. It no longer has any peasants or workers, only priests and dilettantes. My father used to refer to what he called "the bourgeoisification of the working class." Give them enough color TVs and a new car every 2 years and they'll shut up. Marx made the same complaint about the British. He blamed it all on backyard gardening.

I was in Europe 3 months ago. In Germany I spent about a week drinking with the cream of the old bourgeoisie: the son of an ambassador; a man whose family has been the rag trade for three hundred years, and a lawyer also from an old 'good' family. They each spoke at least 5 languages, read Ovid and Homer in the original. They knew all the cities of Europe and the US and all the frescos in Tuscany. They loved Mozart, The Clash and The Rolling Stones; and since this was Dusseldorf took pride in the fact that the album Trans-Europe Express by local heroes Kraftwerk had been chosen 25 years ago by black teenagers in NY as the musical backdrop for the invention of Hip Hop. And these men feared cutthroat capitalism.

In Madrid I stayed in a 3 star hotel, paying $80 a night, since all the hostals were full, and spent my late hours talking with the night manager and smoking his cigarettes. He had left the communist party in 1973 during the row over Eurocommunism.
Like all communists, even ex-communists, he loved to talk. He speaks maybe 5 languages. He's forgotton his Russian. He has family in Paris, Caracas and New York. His hotel was bought out by Best Western 3 years ago, but it's still the hotel where all the left wing politicians stay when they're in town, which means among other things, that the secret police come by every day to make a list of everybody staying there.
One morning at about 2, a short heavy set old man walked in the door and picked up his key from the desk. After he'd slowly made his way up the steps, Carlos laughed quietly in my direction and said: "There's another one."
"Mm?"
"One of the founders of Eurocommunism."

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