Sunday, May 13, 2018

A Vulgar Time

"Vulgar" is a word with a very broad meaning.  It has Latin origins, and in those origins denotes a mob or common folk.  It can mean unsophisticated, crude, offensive, undeveloped, ostentatious, excessive, and ordinary.  A most useful adjective..

Thucydides complains that "so little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand."  The word "vulgar" as it appears in that complaint has several of the meanings noted, and the complaint itself seems particularly apt to our time.

The picture above is of a part of the Las Vegas strip, and was taken by your charming and delightful old Uncle Ciceronianus during a visit to that ridiculous but amusing place into which have been dumped absurd facsimiles of an Egyptian pyramid, the Eiffel Tower, a Roman arena, a statute of the Emperor Augustus and much more.  Personally, I can't think of it as offensive though I'm sure some do.  But it's certainly vulgar in various ways and so graces this post.  Its vulgarity is of a piece with our time, as excess and ostentation abound among those who've made vast sums of money, from the commonest entertainer to sport stars (also entertainers, when you think of it) and those who manipulate our politics or are politicians, most especially our supremely vulgar president.

As for offensiveness and crudity, they're clearly on display everywhere.  Those characteristics are typical of what passes as public debate in our Great Republic.  We seem eager to offend when offering an opinion or responding to one, or to a person or event.  We even find it offensive to have to do so.  We're particularly incensed by anyone who thinks differently than we do or looks different from us, and feel free if not compelled to say so.  We resent the very idea that we should not speak our mind in the most offensive manner possible.  Thus the current contempt for "political correctness."

Thucydides' complaint is strikingly applicable to our time, I would say.  There is no effort to investigate whether something is or is not true, and acceptance of the first thing we hear, or read, is commonplace among us--provided, of course, that it's agreeable to us.  How else would it be possible for people to believe what they believe, for people to do what they do, here in God's favorite country?

But our time is vastly different from that of Thucydides in that what comes to hand, for us, is so much, and comes to all of us so easily and constantly due to our technology.  We've begun to learn that there are those who take advantage of that technology to provide us with falsities which appeal to us and by which we're manipulated, but being vulgar may take no real notice this is the case in so many instances.  We think what we think and why shouldn't we?  What right has anyone to tell us otherwise?

Those who are offensive readily take offense, and when offended they're crude in their response.  So we revile those we disagree with rather than respond to them.  Our response to those we disagree with consist of ad hominems and nothing more.

What comes after vulgarity?

Monday, May 7, 2018

Homage to W. Somerset Maugham

I wonder whether an artist of any kind can be said to long for success.  Success is something it would seem great artists would wish to avoid, as their greatness to many is defined--if not measured--at least in part by their lack of success.  Great artists are not successful; their work isn't admired during their lifetimes, or sought, and most of all not bought.  This appears to be a condition precedent to greatness in an artist.

I refer to artists of all kinds, to painters, writers, composers, musicians.  The quality of art is thought to increase with failure in life.  Those unfortunate artists who succeed must do so because they appeal to those having money and willing to spend it, i.e. to Philistines.  Philistines necessarily are without the ability to discern great art and are instead attracted to the banal, the clichéd, the sentimental and, worse yet, the bourgeois.

So at least is the conceit of many an unsuccessful artist, I would guess, and of those who discover them after they've suffered through life in poverty or enslaved by drugs or as misunderstood genius-deviants-criminals.  It's curious that the tortured artist has become something of a cliché.  Perhaps the successful artist will come to be lauded and his/her work sought after, and will even be considered great when the artist has passed beyond the allure of genius.  There are examples in history.  Michelangelo, painter and sculptor, who seems at times to have thought of men and God as being as preposterously muscled as modern superheroes, was a successful artist of his time and is nonetheless considered a great one.

W. Somerset Maugham became extremely successful as a novelist, playwright and writer of short stories.  He was a screenwriter too, I suppose.  At least, several of his books were made into movies.  He was also a success as a public figure, that figure being himself as a well-read, knowledgeable, witty and world-weary literary master, of sorts.

Of sorts, I say.  He hasn't been granted iconic status, and has been considered less a writer than the other standouts of the 20th century, such as his contemporaries Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, Scott Fitzgerald.  Even Anthony Burgess, who apparently admired his work, poked fun at him in his Earthly Powers.  Maugham himself pretended (or perhaps even felt) modesty about his work, declaring himself to be in the first rank of second rank writers, or words to that effect.  Orwell thought well of him and admired his storytelling and simplicity of style.

So do I.  Perhaps he was a good storyteller because he was very well-traveled as well as well-read, listened and observed.  He experienced much, and was even for a time with British intelligence, working in Switzerland and Russia after the downfall of the Czar but before the Bolshevik revolution.
He wrote a series of stories about being a spy, naming the protagonist Ashenden.  Supposedly, Ian Fleming was inspired by his work to write his James Bond stories.

He has never been considered a great writer.  I'm sure there's a reason why that's the case.  But I re-read recently his novel The Moon and Sixpence and found myself impressed by the story told if not by the writing.  His style of narration is cool, dry and simple, which I find admirable, but the story is a good one as well, although it grows tedious sometimes as he describes the life of an artist apparently based on Gaugin, as related by those who encountered him.  What makes the artist remarkable is the fact that he is what would now be called a sociopath or one with a similar personality disorder.  He's entirely indifferent to other people, without conscience, interested only in painting.  He destroys lives, without any real intent to do so but for merely selfish reasons and is untouched by consequences to others.

Of course, his art isn't appreciated during his life, but he's considered a genius after his death.  He destroys his greatest work, apparently content to have done it but not wanting it to be seen by others.  I wonder if Maugham was having a bit of fun with the idea of what it means to be a great artist, portraying him as a kind of seductive monster, as inhuman, and telling his reader that he's happy not to be a great artist himself, and the reader should be happy for it as well.  Telling his reader that great artists are not admirable, but merely sick.  They're not content to be tortured themselves by life, but wish also to torture those they know.  Perhaps one doesn't have to be tortured to be a great artist.  Instead, one must torture.

I think of Maugham as being similar to Graham Greene.  They have the same interest in far away places and in the grotesque aspects of human nature.  They both tell a good story.  Somehow it's enough, for me.  To what extent is it reasonable to expect more?  Why be disappointed if an interesting story is told and told well? 

Maugham put a symbol on all his books, and that's what is shown above.  It's supposed to be of Moorish origin, a charm against the evil eye and talisman of good luck.  It brought him luck.  I know nothing of the evil eye.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Regarding Prayer

If you look for a definition of the word "prayer" you'll most likely find a reference to a solemn plea for help or expression of thanks addressed to God.  The famous painting above is called The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer.  The martyrs, of course, are located to the right, kneeling at the feet of some saint standing tall. A lion is posing in center-left, looking I think rather proud, but not evidently vicious.  They're clearly in the Colosseum or some other amphitheater.

That the martyrs are praying is clear enough from their posture if not the title of the painting itself.  Given the definition of "prayer" stated, though, just what are they doing?  Requesting God's help?  I suppose that's possible, though it seems a situation where help won't be forthcoming (though the lion seems as likely to ignore the martyrs while pacing disdainfully about as to devour them).  I'd suggest they're not expressing thanks, but I know and have referred to in this blog the story Tertullian told of the crowd of Christians who went to a Roman governor's house demanding to be killed.  Perhaps these martyrs are supposed to be thanking God for bringing them to the arena to be dispatched.

I've also seen "prayer" defined as communicating with God.  That I would think would include begging him for help as well as thanking him, and any other form of communication.  But the prayer I'm most familiar with is a form of communication by which God is asked for something, or thanked for something.  Very often, forgiveness is what is asked.

This kind of prayer is clearly the kind one would expect to be directed to a God who is, most of all, a Lord.  We ask favors of a Lord, seek to placate him, flatter him, and avoid punishment.  We seek to rise high in his service and so be an object of his bounty and respect.  We're beholden to him for our very existence.  He has the power of life and death over us and our loved ones.

Prayer is called ennobling, but this kind of prayer doesn't seem so, to me at least.  It seems more in the way of debasement.  It debases not merely we who pray, but the God we pray to in such a manner.  Is the Deity merely a Lord, a Master, who wants things done and done in a particular way by his many inferiors?  A Master, however good, is a Master nonetheless.  And a slave is a slave, however kindly treated.

This kind of speculation was probably indulged in by Nietzsche, who thought Christianity to be a slave's religion.  I can't recall, really.  It's been quite a while since I read Frantic Freddie, but it seems familiar.  And it seems in a way appropriate enough.  But I can't recall whether he understood, also, that a slave to a master, or a vassal to a lord, may not only be debased but devoted, indeed enthralled in devotion; fanatic in the service of a master or a lord.

There are many things which can be prayed for besides forgiveness or favors.  Courage, for example, or being a good and devoted servant, dedicated to protecting the interests of the Lord and Master, extending his dominion (which is to say extending the quantity and quality of our slavery), seeing to it that others are good and faithful servants, rewarding his friends and punishing his enemies.  What else are slaves or vassals for?

Debasement and fanaticism go well together, in a strange way.  Such is the fate of those who only follow orders.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Supreme Being and Revolution

In 1794, during the excesses of the French Revolution, the National Convention established by Decree what has since been called The Cult of the Supreme Being.  It seems to have been created entirely by Maximilien Robespierre, called "the incorruptible."

It was one of those cults that last as long as their leader, although it wasn't formally outlawed until Napoleon outlawed it and other cults in 1802, except, it may be said, the cult of Napoleon himself (but note the small "c"; Napoleon never considered himself God, or even a god).  Napoleon had reached an agreement with the Catholic Church, which The Cult of the Supreme Being and presumably other outlawed cults had sought to replace.

The Catholic Church had to be replaced by something, evidently.  Or so thought Robespierre, and it seems other leaders of the Revolution.  For some it was to be replaced by what was called The Cult of Reason.  That cult didn't have much in the way of a divinity, and didn't hold with the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, however, and was considered a kind of atheism.  Robespierre thought a divinity and belief in an immortal soul appropriate and even necessary for morality and social order, and it seems he even believed in a Supreme Being, though one consistent with the Enlightenment, not with the Church.

Thus The Cult of the Supreme Being envisioned, unsurprisingly, a Supreme Being; one which created the universe and set it on its way to operate according to natural laws, discernible by the use of reason.  Those natural laws formed the basis for morality, and their application resulted in a virtuous life, virtuous people and a virtuous nation, which would be a republic.

The Cult of the Supreme Being became the declared religion of France, for a brief time.  And so as shown in the image above the French people, or at least the National Convention speaking as the French people, asserted belief in the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul.

Having become the national religion it was thought only appropriate, by Robespierre and likely others, that it be celebrated in some fashion.  Therefore, a Festival of the Supreme Being was held in June, 1794.  The artist David was put in charge, and the festival was, according to contemporary accounts, neatly and precisely choreographed.  It featured a statute of Atheism which was duly burned, a mountain constructed of mostly paper-mache, and a pillar on which a statute of Hercules was placed, atop the mountain.

Robespierre and other notables then climbed the mountain, and Robespierre himself gave a speech from its summit.  There was singing, and people marched about the mountain.  Accounts indicate that the festival was popular.  But Robespierre was criticized for making it appear he was the messenger of the Supreme Being, if not a god himself.  I wonder whether the comparison with Moses on Mount Sinai was made.

Like the Enlightenment, The Cult of the Supreme Being looked back to ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration, and its principles seem consistent with the pagan philosophies of the ancients, even with Stoicism to a degree.  In itself, this cult seems noble, and certainly harmless.  Just what appeal it would have for most people of the time is unclear, though.

1794 was a busy year for Robespierre.  He created a religion.   Then, contrary to it, he inaugurated the Reign of Terror.  Then he was executed by his opponents, who had by that time had quite enough of Robespierre, the Terror and perhaps the Supreme Being as well.  He had his encounter with the guillotine like so many others, many of them his own victims.  But it was a time of extraordinary violence, if what we read is true, and the guillotine may have presented a merciful manner of death in comparison to those inflicted by the mobs which arose, or were summoned.

It's interesting that lawyers were so involved in the French and American Revolutions.  Robespierre was one, so was Danton, so were many others.  Lawyers made up the majority of the National Assembly and its successor, the National Convention. In the French Revolution I suspect that lawyers played a leading role in part at least because they were orators, and trained in rhetoric.

The lawyers of the French Revolution were very different from those of the American who. together with rich merchants and farmers made up the majority of American revolutionaries.  Compared with the lawyers of the French Revolution, who seemed most successful when whipping up fervor in their fellows and the populace and were themselves often frenzied by what they thought to be the injustices of monarchical France, the lawyers of the American revolution seem at most highly annoyed by the injustices they faced, and their contribution was primarily in creating the founding documents and institutions of a nation.  The lawyers of the American revolution ultimately were, and remained, lawyers.  Those of the French Revolution became something very different.

The French Revolution was the Enlightenment gone mad.  The American Revolution also had its basis in the Enlightenment, but wasn't mad at all.  Was this due to differences in national character or culture, or something else?  It certainly wasn't a result of The Cult of the Supreme Being, or that of Reason.  But the French Revolution serves to remind us that reason may show us that certain things, people, institutions are wrong or undesirable and may even show us what is right, but we're always inclined to dispense with it if we can, especially when outraged.  Or when seeking power.

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Phenomenon of Prohibition

I'm overwhelmed with wonder whenever I think of the Eighteenth Amendment to our Constitution, by which the production, sale and transportation of intoxicating liquors, and their importation to or exportation from our Great Republic and its territories, was made illegal.  Ratification of the amendment by the "several legislatures" of 36 states was achieved on January 16, 1919 and it became effective, by its terms, one year later.  I anxiously await the 100th anniversary of ratification, next year.

The wonder I experience is in part due to the fact that I find it difficult to believe any nation existing in the 20th century would adopt such a measure, and in part due to astonishment that the Temperance Movement and its allies managed to convince the legislature of 36 states of the Union that such a law should be imposed throughout the country.  It was a remarkable achievement.  It was also, and proved to be, a remarkably bad law.

The Internet gives us the opportunity to review the editorial cartoons and other illustrations supporting Prohibition.  One appears above.  I long to know how it was determined that alcohol causes "Atheists."  Others depict a mother holding a small child, a boy, and asks our help in her efforts to keep him pure; or an army of anthropomorphic beer barrels on the march, carrying standards on which are displayed slogans such as "We Make People Poor" and "We are Against Progress" and "We Cause Poverty and Crime."  Children are pictured, asking for votes against liquor "for our sake."  An American soldier asks if we will back him, or back booze.  Those, it seems, were the choices available.  Soldiers were apparently adverse to alcohol in those days.

In some sense these seem examples of propaganda in its infancy.  But we see the same themes employed by those eager to impose, or at least "sell", their political, social and cultural positions in this age, though the means by which they do so are more varied and sophisticated.

Someone told me recently that Prohibition was the child of the Progressive Movement in American politics.  I'm not so sure, myself.  It seems to have had its origin in the Temperance Movement and in certain Protestant churches and denominations of a puritanical and zealous bent.  I don't see that movement or these churches as "progressive." I think that persons like Carrie Nation and the Reverend Billy Sunday had no progressive bones in their alcohol-free bodies.

H.L. Mencken noted the religious origins of Prohibition, associating them with Puritanism,  and of course strongly opposed it.  The Sage of Baltimore is famous for defining (in the manner of Ambrose Bierce) Puritanism as "[t]he haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."  I think there was something in the push for Prohibition that had its basis in the thought that alcohol was too much enjoyed, and that too much enjoyment is, inherently, a bad thing.

But whatever "ism" was behind Prohibition it shared with other "isms" the staunch belief of its followers that it is what was best for humanity in general and for those in the United States in particular.  It was thought that alcohol ruined lives and was the cause of poverty, crime and most of all sin.  So, it was thought entirely appropriate for it to be prohibited by law.

It's clear, I think, that Prohibition's advocates felt that the ill effects of alcohol were most prevalent in the working class and the underprivileged in general.  They were most inclined to drink it to excess, most inclined to commit crimes, abuse their families and to be irreligious--to be sinners.  It evidently didn't occur to Prohibition's proponents that there may be other reasons for poverty, crime and abuse, and that the consumption of alcohol itself may be their result rather than their cause.  It also seems to have been felt that immigrants brought to the United States a culture or cultures of drinking and so the drinking of alcohol had to be curtailed. 

Prohibition was, I think, a very Protestant phenomenon (imagine a largely Catholic country banning the production and sale of alcohol).  The goal sought by its advocates was, particularly when it came to the poor and working class, a citizenry that was sober, hardworking, church-going, amiable, humble, muted, content, passionless and not too inclined to think.

It failed miserably, of course, though it took thirteen years to repeal.  Thirteen years in which alcohol continued to be produced and sold, illegally, and consumed.  Prohibition is the great example of why it is foolish and dangerous to legislate morality.  We still want to do so, though.  Most of all we'd like to regulate thought.  Our Great Republic is full of those who, for moral and religious reasons, wish to prohibit others from doing things by law.