Thursday, March 06, 2008

`The Real Philistines'

On primary election day in Texas, I read "At the Forest's Edge" by Anthony Daniels (aka Theodore Dalrymple) in the March issue of The New Criterion. I have voted only once in my life and for the subsequent 28 years have felt guilty about doing so. I dread the coming, every four years, of the presidential sweepstakes and the candidates’ empty, promise-filled voices. Daniels’ essay came as a palliative on an especially grim Tuesday. As I walked my 5-year-old across the schoolyard that morning, a smiling toady armed with pamphlets stopped me and asked, “Are you voting or just taking your kid to school?” I thought of George Herbert’s line in “Affliction (IV)”: “My thoughts are all a case of knives.” Her dismissive “just” primed me for Daniels addressing the inevitable philistinism of Mass Man, with Freud and José Ortega y Gasset as guides:

“Mass man does not have to be poor or stupid. He can be both highly paid and highly intelligent, in a narrow way, and he can also be very highly educated, or at least trained; indeed, as knowledge accumulates, and as it becomes more and more difficult for anyone to master more than the very smallest portion of human knowledge, so connected thought (of the kind of which mass man is incapable) becomes rarer and rarer. Mankind collectively knows more than ever before, says Ortega, but cultivated men grow fewer.”

I was gratified to see Daniels begin his essay with an anecdote from Simon Leys, the pseudonym of Pierre Ryckmans, a Belgian-Australian essayist, Sinologist and early critic of Mao and the evils of his Cultural Revolution. His Chinese Shadows, published in English in 1976, opened a lot of Western minds, though not enough. With approval, Daniels quotes Leys’ punchline:

“At that moment, I was struck by an obvious fact that has never left me since: that the real philistines are not those people incapable of recognizing beauty -- they recognize it only too well, with a flair as infallible as that of the subtlest aesthete, but only to pounce on it and smother it before it can take root in their universal empire of ugliness.”

Among Leys’ lesser-known books is Broken Images, a collection of essays translated into English in 1980. In the title essay, he seems to be addressing me personally in this already endless election year:

“No policy is ever more implacable than one which aspires to make mankind happy….If there is one great lesson to be drawn from the blighted hopes of our age, it is that politics ought to tone down its ambitions. This means assigning it a more modest function, a humbler status: its job is to `do the housework’ as Camus said, not to force recipes for perpetual happiness down the throats of mankind.”


Frank Wilson said...

I am reminded, Patrick, of a line from Schiller's Don Carlos, that "the lovers of humanity (humanität) are the persecutors of mankind (menschlichkeit)."

Diana said...

Excellent quotes. I am preoccupied with this very subject of the cruelty of utopian thought. I have added Leys' Broken Images and Schiller's Don Carlos to my reading list.

Anonymous said...

One of the great pleasures of moving from high school to college was the disappearance from my life of "student government" types, along with their grubby, grasping minor-league ambitions and goofy platitudes. However, I soon realized that these pestiferous beings emerged from the ground every four years, like some terrible insect-human hybrids (Cicada politicus, perhaps), to play leading roles in the presidential election process -- candidates, operatives, commentators, etc.

I dislike this tawdry spectacle as much as you do, but it's all we've got. So, I will be voting this November, as I have for the last thirty-six years.

Why? Well, the last two elections offered us a choice between mediocrity and incompetence (incompetence which was always there, in plain view: How does one fail in the oil business, especially when all of the financing is provided by Daddy's friends?), and the voters chose incompetence both times. This was due, at least in part, to the "philistines" voting in great numbers, while too many members of the disillusioned "cultivated" class stayed home.

I plan to visit my mother this weekend, in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. My Saturday morning walk will take me by the Bethesda Naval Hospital, where some of the most gravely injured Marines from Iraq are sent for treatment. If it's a nice day, a few of the luckiest among these patients will be hobbling or rolling along the paths on the hospital grounds. I spoke to one of these men a couple of years ago, but remember little of our conversation. However, I remember vividly his horrible wounds and my internal struggle not to avert my gaze while we talked. I frequently wonder how he and his thousands of brothers are faring.

Later that afternoon, I will take my mother to visit my father's grave at Arlington National Cemetery. I'll walk a few hundred yards down the road to another grave, containing the remains of a young acquaintance who was blown to pieces in Iraq, another victim of a war that should not have happened, started by a man who should not have been elected president.

As I drive the two hours back to my home, I'll be thinking about the current three candidates. Not about platforms or policy proposals, but rather about character and judgement. Who are these people, really? How can we know? Perhaps one of the benefits of this drawn-out spectacle is that it allows occasional glimpses of innate character, especially when a candidate faces an unexpected event or challenge. I'll be watching carefully, because one of these people will be president. We must choose, and the choice will have consequences.

Art Durkee said...

I am reminded of Winston Churchill's famous quip, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others."

shelli said...

Bravo, anonymous - and yes, we must choose.