Commie Plato and Nazi Aristotle Hold Forth
If you are a learned person, your poltical ideas are like expensive wine: they have fermented a long time in the deep-delved earth; your arguments are subtle, winding, ever-fresh and powerful, as they trickle among the ancient stones where the blood of the first gods is still moist. Your political ideas have nothing to do with sound-bites on television or what some political hack did last month or what the gullible learned in History 101.
In Plato’s day, poetry was politics in every sense. Hyperbole? Well, even if it only seems that way because Dame History reveals to its students what is not apparent to mere hedonists in the span of a mortal life, is it less a fact? No, it is a fact. Today, poetry is merely pursued as office politics: how many pulitzer prizes do you have?
By the time we get to post-modernism, the artist gives up all claim to political importance; with Andy Warhol, the artists said, “We’re silly.” This was the final chapter in a book that began in the late 19th century with “art for art’s sake” and the unfolding of the self-consiousness of the niche-artist in divison-of-labor capitalism in the 20th century.
The Modernist “revolution” was played out in Paris cafes between the two world wars. What sort of “revolution” happens in cafes? Who are we kidding?
Museum exhibits became the tool of artistic revolution beginning with the Salon Des Refuses, sponsored by the reactionary government of Napoleon III.
What sort of “revolution” is possible in a cafe? In a museum? In a gallery? In a concert hall?
Think of all the major art movements in the last 150 years which begin in galleries and exhibitions and magazine-spreads and interviews and almost immediately settle into museums and are published as official canon material.
The “new” does not belong in a museum, and putting it there is no “revolution” against the old, but rather a “revolution” agasint the new, because everything becomes immediately ripe for the museum; the difference between old and new is obscured in all sorts of shallow ways, destroying the ability to see and decipher old art. Art dwindles into trend. Art is headlined into obscurity.
The modern art and poetry movements have been reactionary, retrograde, elitist vulgarities, manufactured and artificial, puffed and hyped, bought and sold with stunning rapidity. Before the people even see it, the modern poem is in the canon, the modern painting is in the museum, proclaiming itself as historical and legitimate.
This tendency for governments, revolutions, atrocities, genocides, ideologies, to emerge full-blown overnight, has been a blight upon our age; the tyrants want change and want it now.
Slow down, people! Your “innovation” might not be so innovative, dudes. “Non omnis moriar,” cries the past.
Moderns don’t like to study the past because it humbles them too much. The moderns see the ancients thinking what they (the moderns) thought was new and in more articulate and far-reaching ways than they (the moderns) ever dreamed, and the moderns give up in despair: they take another hit of LSD or they watch a TV marathon while giggling uncontrollably. It’s kind of sad.
In America the problem is even worse, because the stinky British (as opposed to more learned cultures) have this “Masterpiece Theatre” hold on the American intellectual consciousness—if it has a British accent and if it has read a few books, American intellectuals swoon in admiration. Henry James and T.S. Eliot are America’s greatest writers—because they became British. Poe is the most reviled American author among American intellectuals—because the French love Poe and the British (including—surprise! Henry James & TS Eliot) hate him. Americans are not very good with languages, and therefore French gets them rather worried and English is oh-so-comfy, even when intellectually vicious and empty of thought.
The British have still not gotten over the fact that the French and the Americans beat them in the American Revolution and for decades afterwards, the Brits thought it only a matter of time before the empty-headed Americans with all that forest-land would came running back to Mommy.
Meanwhile, the British have played Americans in ways only possible for a bitter parent to play a child.
The British intellectual, bred on running an Empire for centuries, can be two things at once: a passionate iconoclast and tweedy conservative. The British intellectual can be both, even though it may make little sense at first blush. Americans cannot. The American intellectual is either completely Left or completely Right. And one finds that the more radically Left or the more radically Right the American intellectual is, the more of an anglophile that American intellectual is. If the American intellectual favors Aristotle, for instance, they have a tendency to be conservative. This is not because the American intellectual reads Aristotle and is trained, thus, to be conservative. No, the American intellectual learns his conservatism from the British intellectual’s reading of Aristotle.
In conclusion, I shall close with words from Martin Seymour-Smith, the influential British intellectual (and companion of the poet Robert Graves) who many Americans have probably never heard of, but they should, because Americans swim in his kind of thought:
Aristotle, whatever he may have thought about war or peace or the benefits of Greek culture or about the convenience of hundreds of thousands of people, was quite powerless, and could not possibly have done anything but supported what may be called a nationalist program. Besides which, notoriously—and this is relevant—his work contains no objection to the practice of slavery, which meant that—rather like those who believe that Jesus Christ spoke English—he assumed the natural superiority of Greeks (he had the disadvantage of not having heard of the superiority of England, just as, although to become the chief inspiration to the most pious of Christian philosophers, he was denied the benefits of paradise on the grounds that he made the seriously rational error of being born before Christ—and not in England to boot.) To point this out is not, however, to point any triumphalist and “politically correct” finger at Aristotle. Political correctness is the sullen revenge of the spiteful, intolerant, and ill-willed dunce upon all the liveliness in the world. It is no more than the humorlessly insincere resort of minds so mediocre that, for them, a revival of Stalinism is preferable to the pain of a glimpse of self—it is the last sigh of the beast that Nietzsche identified as ressentiment. Such minds take their grim notion of pleasure—like the fantasised erections of centenarian eunuchs—in combing what little they wish to know of history for figures who seem not to conform to the artificial standards of twentieth-century government at its most inept.
We owe to him, too, the distinctions between the glutton and the mean man, the lover and the friend, the buffoon and the wit; our notion of moderation begins with what he said. Could anyone have done better? The syllogism—and many of the subtleties associated with it—is his: the argument that runs, so familiarly to us, in the form of, “All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal.” It is from Aristotle, originally, that we get the realization that the assumption implicit in I saw a policeman calling at number six this morning, I wonder what the she has done wrong is false and malicious. That all the known political parties of the world proceed by these methods, treating those they aim to rule as mindless scum—a source of cash with which they may take the world to the brink of disaster—is no tribute to their respect for Aristotle.