Friday, July 25, 2008

Why I write verses

An angel came and plopped himself down in my study last night. No one listened to him but me. Some people didn’t even see him. Sad, sad world we live in, eh? Oh well. He said,

“It is difficult to see a way ahead for the human race--though I fully believe there must be ways ahead.”

I suppose he was checking to see how closely my thoughts aspired to his. I’ll have to ask him the next time he stops by. Anyway, this is what I said, more or less:

Defining and declaring those ways ahead is critical. As I've said many times, quoting/misquoting Fred Turner, ‘we cannot build a better world if we don't first imagine what it will look like.’

Putting aside those who can only look backwards and cluck their tongues at how bad the world has become. And those who can only make cynical comments about our current state, but who have themselves done absolutely nothing to find a better path forward. And those who draw realistic pictures of the world and say, ‘this is all there is.’ And those who exaggerate, twist up, misrepresent, and just plain lie about how things are, in their vicious hypocrisy. There are yet many with faith, who believe that we can find a good way forward.

But too often those with such faith look so far ahead, they lose touch with who/what/where we are. Most religious thinkers and moralizers are driven by messianic visions that hang only by a thread to this world. Or take Marx, in his socialist dream. He is a perfect example of a utopian who forgot that he had to work with real people. Can anyone articulate the next step, rather than the final step? The final step is easy: people who are moral, wise, happy, full of wonder and love.

So how can we invoke more love from ourselves? That is a question dear to my angel friend, and is a theme he is working on in all his mystical machinations. How can we inspire more wonder? That was A.J. Heschel's theme. The problem is, we actually need to build the tools, and not just talk about what we ought to do, or where we ought to be. Perhaps that’s what the Buddha intended with his 8-fold path. That is definitely the purpose of all the 12-step programs that have become so popular, but which, unfortunately, are mostly just intended to get us back to “normal.”

I would suggest that art must take a leading role here. We have all seen great films that were meant to inspire people to want to love more or be wiser or be kinder. And at least until the 20th century, this was a major topic for literature. But still, there’s a problem. There’s plenty of inspirational material, but little that gives us a detailed how-to. Real change is assumed, but the process is glossed over.

What a contrast to our technological world! We can build all kinds of wonderful tools, to wash clothes or to fly to the moon. But we live in a world of dearth when it comes to psychological and spiritual tools.

The US - Iran axis can be seen as a stereotypic model (remembering that stereotypes distort and misrepresent even while offering a template). In the US people live in a Roman wilderness of indulgence. Or more crudely, people grow fat and stupid on junk food and junk entertainment. In Iran people live enchained in harsh religious mores that suppress creativity and diversity. Crudely, people are xenophobic and ignorant.

In general, we see a medieval world of ruthless oppressions to control rampant sinfulnesses. In the example above it's the sneering ayatollahs vs the fat Americans. Both are lawless and revolting, each in their separate ways. In both states there can be no dignity. Dignity must be earned through restraint and sensitivity. There is no restraint where indulgence reigns, and nothing can be earned where behavior is controlled from without. This is the state of our moral and psychological technology. Medieval.

And therefore I compose verses, trying to show how real people come to grips with new ways to see the world. Ahhh, to such little avail.


god-free morals said...

Are you suggesting that art should dogmatically tell people how to live? Or perhaps, less harshly, that there other ways to live?

I assume the second, but can't it easily be turned to the first? i.e. cultural/moral propaganda

Art shows the artist new ways, but can the viewer see this too? Then, should we then all embrace the artistic vision? i.e. all share the same vision, isn't this controlling also?

for me art isn't about inspiring the desire to be wiser or kinder or any other moral attitude. art is amoral in the same way that pure sight is.

On a side note: to me the USA seems pretty 'enchained with harsh religious mores' as well

Stephen Berer said...

Dear god-free,

I am suggesting (I hope not pontificating) something not far in intention from your “Working Class Guilt” post of 7/29 ( I would certainly hope that my writing helps people see the world, and themselves, in a new way. Should you, then, embrace my vision? Embrace what you like of it. It’s now yours to do with as you please.

You suggest art might be used as propaganda. Art has often been used in the service of propaganda. But I must ask you, “is all propaganda bad? What is propaganda, actually?” In any case, whatever I may be suggesting, it is not for the sake of oppressing others. It *is* about inspiring moral responsibility and building knowledge.

Your comment that “the USA seems pretty enchained with harsh religious mores” is true in a sense. But there is a difference between Iran and the US. In the US you can choose to be a part of group whose mores are harsh, or you can choose not to be in such a group. This choice does not come from the government, but from within. This is part of the greatness of the US. And it is, as you rightly noted in your comments about my poem Europa, Europa, perhaps the greatest distinguishing feature between the US and Europe. There is a spiritual void in Europe, and it *will* be filled.

I would also say that the strong religious views in the US are what allows the US to understand the Muslim world with much more depth than Europe does. Europe, having abandoned religious belief almost entirely, is ill prepared to understand how faith can and does override most other ideologies, including self-interest and economic well-being.

god-free morals said...

(I'll answer this in two parts if you don't mind)

1. You ask “is all propaganda bad? What is propaganda, actually?”

Fistly, on a side point, I don't think we're very far from each other at all, i'm just looking for clarification as always.

Artistic propaganda is when the artist uses their art to sell a specific theory as correct/good/just etc. This can be minimised down to the individual artist's perspective, we might say that when their artwork is an endorsement of their own worldvision. However, I do not mean it quite in this way, for there can be a use in seeing an other's perspective or take upon things.

The difference comes when the art is used to glorify the political/moral structures of a larger movement, i.e. that of communist Russian is a fine example. That the artwork, statues, architecture where all made to embody the particular spirit that the leaders wished to exemplify. Then the artist is not working for art but to sell a moral code or political ideal.

Why shouldn't art sell a moral? Isn't it's goal (or one of them) to suggest a higher morality? No, art is an expression of (a) truth, or beauty, or another concept it needs no further persuasion. Truth cannot be forced upon another if it is truth. By all means art can show possiblities, but when it's message is merely "this is how it is and can be no other way" it is sophistic persuation.

I don't think however that it is the artist's 'job' to endorse a particular moral or political view in their artwork (by all means in their life). Art depicts life (or rather an aspect of life from a certain perspective) in all its strangeness, it should seek to express itself and not something else. It is propaganda when it glorifies something as the only right way, it is glorification/endorsement when it is accompanied by a particular theory that seeks to reduce many options into one answer.

Is all propaganda bad? If it is propaganda, yes, but one can show the truth without having to sell a false ideal.

god-free morals said...

2. Secular Europe.

The only spiritual void in europe is that we do not let it run our governments (although to be PM you must be a protestant). The choice in the USA seems to be, be a Christian or be ridiculed and sidelined, especially in politics. Now if Obama was a muslim that might be interesting.

And I don't think that the strong Christian presence in the USA will help understand Islam anymore than a liberal secular multicultural society (not that there are any of those anywhere, but perhaps that's what we're aiming for) would.

The last christian-islamic interaction on a large scale was the crusades, and i know that's mentioned far too much but i don't think that two religions that can be close-minded are any great example of how to get along.

I don't think europe is in danger of a muslim flood anymore than they were from a jewish one 100 years ago. Europe (and the USA and Iran and...) needs to soften not harden. Multiculturalism might result in some dissolution of practice but it allows the multitude of perspectives and for people to make their own minds up and this is what we want isn't it?

There is no void, it's just that there is no dominant religion anymore.

Stephen Berer said...

I find this dialog very interesting. Thank your for opening it, and carrying it forward.

Responding to part of your 2nd comment, re propaganda:
As I see it, propaganda is the promotion of a set of ideas. That's all. We do it all the time, and it is an important part of human dialog. That is, it is important, and good, to believe in oneself enough to express and promote one's understandings and values. I think your general objection to propaganda is *state* propaganda. But even *that* is normal, and not necessarily bad. A well functioning country must be built from a population that shares a wide range of general beliefs. the promotion of those beliefs is propaganda. Failing to build this kind of consensus, a country dissolves into civil war. Look at Sudan or Lebanon or Gaza for realtime examples.

Also realize: the nazis accused the Brits and Americans of propaganda no less than the Brits and Americans accused the nazis. From my perspective, only the nazi propaganda was bad, because it was used to generate hatred and oppression. Allied propaganda indeed promoted hatred of nazis, but look at the end result -- a Europe that is unquestionably more tolerant and respectful of diversity than at any other time in history -- reflecting the success of the American point of view (American propaganda). Of course, for nazis, that's a disaster.

As for what does and does not belong in art, I think morality is one of the endpoints of truth. Therefore, my commitment to morality in art is about truth in art. As for beauty, first of all, I reject Keat's lovely cliche -- truth is beauty, beauty truth. The first half is questionable, the second half is false. But in any case, there are many forms of beauty, for which there need not be general agreement. In my world, kindness, compassion, wisdom, and morality are all pinnacle forms of beauty. I know many young people for whom kindness is associated with geekiness and weakness -- ie ugliness. On the other hand, there are many kinds of beauty, such as the beauty of many movie stars and pop culture figures, that embodies no truth that I can perceive, or worse, that masks profound ugliness.

Stephen Berer said...

Concerning part 2 of your response, re Secular Europe:
Chris, I must say that in this post I find your thinking very sloppy. I’m sorry to say that. The US is a conglomeration of a vast selection of the world’s religions, all of which are afforded profound respect, both officially, and in large measure by the population. Are there bigots and intolerant asses here? Absolutely; many. Do forms of hatred and racism diminish us as a nation? Unquestionably. But on a day to day basis, this is a country where people do not live in fear because they are Jews or Muslims, or Buddhists, or wikkan, or whatever. Perhaps your news feeds never provided you with this story, one that was publicized with great pride on this side of the ocean:
It is not a unique story here.

As for Europe’s ability to understand its Muslim population, the facts are on the ground and you can decide for yourself what they imply. I see this: Europeans imagined Muslim guest-workers and immigrants would assimilate readily. Some have, but many have shown a profound, even militant resistance to any kind of assimilation, to the great dismay of secular Europe. Western Europe is a battleground for a vast religio-ideological conflict with Islam, not unlike the Christian-Jewish conflict that culminated in the Holocaust. The Holocaust has generated Europe’s post WWII attempt to acknowledge its shame and failure, and to now accept Jews as cultural and religious equals with Christians. But Europeans have learned little, and are managing their relationships with Islam little better than they managed their relationships with Judaism.

As for your saying “The last christian-islamic interaction on a large scale was the crusades.” Shame on you. Christian-Muslim relations have been intense, dynamic, complex, and ongoing from the beginning of the collapse of the Byzantine Empire in the face of Islam (Muslim colonialists, to be specific) in the 8th century, if not before! A few notable moments in that history: The Muslim conquest of much of Spain from C11-12; the Spanish defeat and expulsion of Muslims in C14-15; the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans in C16; the Ottoman army standing at the gates of Vienna in 1683; Byron supporting the Greek rebellion against the Ottomans in the 1820's; Shelley’s Revolt of Islam, written in the 1820's; Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt and carting off of vast numbers of artifacts; massive European investment and exploitation of the Ottoman Empire from the mid C19; the Orientalist obsession in the arts and travel from late C18; European Allied powers divide the Middle East after WWI, creating, approximately, the countries we think of today, none of which existed under Muslim rule from C8-C20 (!!!); and Ataturk’s revolution and Westernization of Turkey and the Turkish language after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.

And finally you say, “I don't think europe is in danger of a muslim flood anymore than they were from a jewish one 100 years ago.” Europe was, indeed, not ever in danger of a Jewish flood. Jews were about 2-3% of Europe’s population, and were never more than about a quarter of 1% (.0025) of the world’s population. That makes Judaism a totally inappropriate comparison with Islam. Islam is, today, the faith of about 1/6 (17%) of the world’s population, and its numbers are growing more rapidly than any other religion in the world today. European Christianity has been contending with Islam for well over a millennium, and the battle has swung back and forth many times. I am saying, Europe is now ripe for a dramatic reassertion of Islamic ideology in its midst, to fill the religious void created by the widespread abandonment of Christianity. I am not suggesting the Muslim world will invade Europe militarily. Economic enticement has accomplished what would be impossible militarily. The battle will be ideological, altho I expect not a little bloodshed.

god-free morals said...

Steve, I think you missed my point about propaganda (state or otherwise). That when it is promotion of ideals as THE answer and only answer then I would call it propaganda. To call all statements of belief, propaganda, is therefore misleading. Only if you believe that your ideals are the only correct ones and everyone else must see it your way, can an expression be considered propaganda.

Can multiculturalism be expressed via propaganda? In that it would wish those with extreme views to integrate into society (but not to be dissolved rather become more accepting of others) then perhaps it is an expression of AN answer, but the answer is not ONE way but a multitude.

Are you really saying that Allied (which seems to mean the same as American to you) propaganda was successful or 'good' because we won? Isn't this the point that morality shifts, if history had been different we would call the other good.

Art-truth-morality, there is a lot to be said here, but i'll be brief and post something myself later. I disagree (not about Keats though, it is a naive expression). When you talk of morality you seem to speak of the Good, of something objective, I conside it to be something subjective, in flux. As for (a) Truth, i'm not sure, I don't think that morality has much to do with it however.

god-free morals said...

And I find your response somewhat patronising.

Thanks for the history lesson, but I consider those meetings between the 'West' and Islam, I mentioned the crusades as I think it was the Church and the Muslim world meeting in an attempt at individual dominance (both failed). It seems inevitable in how both operate (or did then).

If the US is like how the Billings story reports then this shows a better way to relate to each other. I could (i'm sure) find a story like that in Europe. Are you suggesting that only in America than people live without fear? Europe isn't in bits yet, nor does one story (from 1993) mean everything is sorted.

You seem to have a very low opinion on how Europe is dealing with Islam (or very much of anything). And what are the facts of this failure? Also, that only post-Holocaust were Jews accepted in Europe. I don't quite know what to make of this. I expect you don't suggest a similar resolution for the current situation.

"Europe was, indeed, not ever in danger of a Jewish flood", but that's how it was portrayed on the early 20th century and how the growth of Islam is now being portrayed. I don't think the worldwide growth of Islam shows any cause for concern, but that doesn't mean we should ignore it. To be a multicultural society is about working together after all.

There's a difference between the interaction of Europe and Christian-Europe with another religion (which I failed to make explicit). It's the first i'm interested in and the second I worry about.

David van Dusen said...

I will hazard a post-script to this interchange, if I may. Very briefly,

(i) 'Europa, Europa' is a powerful song --- a vision, a prophecy. (& if I may say so, your stooping here to conventional spelling has served you well. Served the song.) I have no issue with it, though I would not write it. To my mind, 'propaganda' as a concept or a phenomenon would have to be much more rigorously investigated, to come to any clarity as to the relation --- or separation, if possible --- of 'propaganda' from 'art'. (& I, myself, would not even call this poem 'art'. I have little use for that nineteenth-century concept.)

'Ideology' is also a nineteenth-century concept, & 'propaganda' I believe a twentieth-century one. (Though it surely emerges as a phenomenon in at least the nineteenth century.) But what are the specific sociological & philosophical sources for these concepts ?

Is the Aeneid propaganda ? is the Aeneid art ? --- or the De rerum natura ? One serves the imperial mythos of Rome, the other Epicurean philosophy. But all these terms (art, propaganda, ideology) seem inappropriate here.

They also seem inappropriate with regard to 'Europa, Europa'.

(ii) Its scorn for Europe may, however, fall under the condemnation you later lay on Eliot & Pound: 'like an old cistern that is filled with trash' --- is this not a malign ? I think C.G.M. detects this, & reacts to it. You are saying 'you' here, not 'we' --- as you identify or predict or insist on the decay, sinking, overthrow of Europe. & the Muslims here are not even a 'you' --- they are a faceless, shapeless 'they'.

(iii) With regard to the future of Europe & the future of Islam, I agree with C.G.M. There is no imminent threat of an Islamic ascendancy. The church --- indeed, all the 'gods', even the strictly imperial 'gods' of Europe --- have suffered a humiliation in Europe since the sixteenth century. It perhaps first became self-evident as precisely this --- a humiliation of the gods, or more precisely, of the pretensions of priests --- in the eighteenth century; but it commences with Luther. I reckon that all the forces that worked this humiliation, & all the methodologies (historical criticism, textual criticism, &c.) that inspired it & arose out of it, will work the same humiliation on, & within, Islam. The imams of radical Islam are the cardinals & Cromwells of seventeenth-century Europe. They should serve us, simply, as reminders of what we ourselves have come from, & come out of. & we --- the 'decadents', the 'seculars', the 'infidels' --- should serve them, simply, as portents of what they will become.

I reckon, indeed, that this is so. They recognize, already, their overthrow, their decay, their humiliation in us --- it is this that terrifies them, it is this that drives them to fury.

Islam will have its Feuerbach, its Julius Wellhausen, its Nietzsche. ALLAH IS DEAD. Ataturk is the future of the Muslim man --- the first harbinger of this future. Islamic radicalism will survive --- but in the pathetic & peripheral state in which neo-Nazis, white supremacists & such survive in Europe & the United States.

Perhaps this sounds naive to you ---- but it is, perhaps, rather profoundly cynical. Regardless, I believe we are not seeing the last stages of the humiliation of secular states, but the first stages of the humiliation of atavistic Islamic states.

This is the 'abomination of desolation' that the prophet Muhammed failed to prophesy, to fore-see for his people --- whereas the prophets of Israel & Jesus of Nazareth promised it to theirs.

It is this promise that we are living --- the question is, what new promise can arise out if it ? what should we do with the vacant churches, if they are not to become night-clubs or mosques ?

The day is coming when the new mosques will also become night-clubs & bars --- I predict it.

Regardless, peace!

David van Dusen said...

& I shd also say this --- I agree with you, Steve, that on some level a creedal Christianist is better positioned to understand & to resist radical Islam than is a secularist --- but with this qualification: than a secularist who lacks a strong historical sense. & most secularists do lack a strong historical sense.

But I believe that a secularist with a concern for the past, & a recognition of the lines of force from our religious past that still live in us --- a sense for the conflict, the war that was necessary to establish a secular space & a secular peace --- this secularist is better positioned to understand a radical Islamist & a creedal Christianist, than the Islamist or Christianist are to understand themselves. This is true, at very least, in terms of the political sense & future of 'belief'.

So I wd argue that the greatest threat to Europe is not the weakening of its religious institutions & the attenuation of its faith, but rather the weakening of its historical sense that is attendant on --- perhaps co-constitutive of --- the modernist project as such, first proclaimed by Francis Bacon.