Lex Says and, Mostly, Lex is Right

A state strong enough to enforce property rights and contracts, but which chooses not to be a predator is a rare anamoly. We are lucky to be here. Lex

Lex’s post on political music startled me & I responded in a slapdash manner. I hadn’t thought of it in quite that way. Of course, the left leaning nature of entertainment in general is hard to miss and the communist’s appeal to nineteenth century romantic folk traditions – all that singing around the fire in youth groups my ex-Iron Curtain friends describe – has paid for & encouraged groups that toured locally. Decades ago, the guy who edited the poetry magazine organized Wobbly songfests & my husband’s colleagues organized a party around Arlo Guthrie’s appearance. I was going to say I’ve found most of this politicized music as boring as it was irritating. But, then, I think, I still listen to Willie Nelson & Kris Kristofferson. Their self-indulgent & inconsistent stands are more leftish than anything – though it’s hard to consider these as consistent political arguments. They are pretty much for the underdog – whoever they perceive it to be. But that is the pull of such music – the age old narrative of the underdog, of David, as well as the communal nature of the communal political. And that may be the power that Lex rightly sees in some of that music. (I always thought “I am Woman” was that kind of a song.)

Lex concludes:

Good governance cannot be sung about. But people need things to sing about.This is a real problem for people who love freedom in a sensible, empirical, small-l libertarian kind of way. It has no songs. It does not grab the heart. Our enemies will always be more powerful in this department as a result. Too bad. But I see this as a condition to be worked with, not a problem which can have a solution.

Lex is right in general, especially if you look at the genre of political songs and eliminate nationalism. But, then, if you take out nationalism, you take out one of the ways we associate institutions with our emotions. Communism, like terrorism, was a world-wide movement – one based on a faux religion, the other on what may be a misunderstood but real one. “Onward Christian Soldiers” is in that tradition. But, the rule of law, the importance of private property, freedom of speech & religion, free enterprise – all of these must begin within a country itself. Libertarian blogs bash the EU and the UN because they recognize that state control is not going to get looser the larger the body grows. A recorder of deeds is a part of government. This is embodied in the rule of law authorized & enforced by the state. Nationalism and these values are so intertwined that taking them out leaves only abstractions.

We might note, however, the “sensible, the empirical, the small-l libertarian values” are those that undergird what most songs are about that aren’t political: the assertion of the self, the liberty to live by conscious choice. Therefore, much of American music, whether tin pan alley or country, emphasizes and reinforces individualism. Popular music is lyrical, it expresses an individual response.

The heroic center, not a communal mob, is the focus of art. But art makes mythic, makes special. And the rule of law shouldn’t be special – it should be certain, clear, consistent. Mythic narratives arise from the unusual & the transcendent. Yeats describes how the mundane becomes mythic in “Easter 1916”. A competent and restrained government is mundane, is beautifully but quietly peaceful. Few of us would like to have been in Dublin that Easter, fewer still at the Alamo. I would much prefer to live in the world of Telemachus than that of Ulysses – but I’d prefer reading about Ulysses.

But this is quibbling around the edges of his argument. I suspect I was struck by what he said because I generally dismiss proletarian art. In literature, the political arguments are deadly (even if Pound made sense, which he didn’t, poems about usury are not going to become all that popular). In a novel speaking of the group is deadly; proletarian works are generally just plain bad. The Grapes of Wrath is probably the best of that genre, but a) you’ll find few people that put it in the top range of literature; and b) sometimes it transcends its genre as Steinbeck gives us individuals. (The movie, beautiful as it is, becomes a bit ridiculous when the light pours in on the socialist worker’s camp – this may have been effective in 1939 when many pictured Russia through Duranty’s eyes, but it has not worn well.)

The strength of the realistic novel is in psychological truth, the understanding of individual characters who seem to “live” in the pages of the novel and who have a solidity and particularity that runs precisely counter the rather pinched & silly aesthetics of proletarian literature. The relation of the novel, especially the realistic novel and especially psychological realism, to democracy, free enterprise, capitalism has long been a staple of novel criticism – the correlation in time and place is fairly (though not precisely) consistent. We are often most moved by music in a communal listening. We can submit ourselves to the experience with humility (say, the King’s reaction to Handel); we can be aroused to go out and fight; music multiplies the power of a good orator because it appeals to more of our senses, blending them into a powerful emotion. Those rousing songs are often written for choruses.

The novel, as Ian Watt observed, did not become a successful genre until people could read quietly and alone. Although many novels, especially British ones, give voice to communal values, they do so within a quiet and even personal relationship with the reader. In such works, the choices of the capitalist are often treated seriously. Jane Austen, with her positive treatment of Elizabeth’s merchant aunt and uncle in Pride and Prejudice makes a strong and positive statement about the rising British middle class. The great theorist of realism, William Dean Howells, took a merchant as his hero in The Fall and Rise of Silas Lapham, which dealt with the ethical problems a manufacturer can face. While Howells, a bit of a limousine liberal, had sympathies for pretty extreme positions (on John Brown early in his life and the Haymarket incident late), he treats his middle class and business characters with respect and affection. He came from the lower middle class and spent his life haggling quite successfully with publishers for money. He understood capitalism and, generally, used it.
His attitude and aesthetic were not those of post-1980 “serious” novelists who wanted to discard character and narrative; they expected to be supported by the academic establishment rather than by sales – sales that were going to less “serious” works that did not spurn what Aristotle found compelling all those long years ago. The serious authors that retained some of those old & charming attractions (e.g., Ian McEwan and David Lodge) are now doing some interesting literary criticism as well. Their audiences may not be huge, but they are real.

Realism gave dignity to the middle class, to work, but most of all it was concerned with ethics – mundane, perhaps. The choices we make each day. But Twain and Howells and James, Wharton and Cather and Chopin made these into moving and even chilling drama. Of course, their perspective was different than the more symbolic Hawthorne & Melville – but each generation would understand the other. The conventions changed but the problems of authenticity and honesty remained. These are the dilemmas that members of a democracy face. If only the class is guilty or innocent, if only the class is responsible or not, these dilemmas have no reality, have no force.

3 thoughts on “Lex Says and, Mostly, Lex is Right”

  1. Holy smokes. I was shooting from the hip, impressionistically. Ginny, as usual, has more insight in response, by miles, than I had in initiating this conversation.

  2. Great Post, very enlightening.

    Proletarian art will always be far more appealing to the masses because the authors dishonestly presuppose an intended audience and build their works from there, into what that mass audience wants to feel and hear and see, manipulating and playing at their emotions and own corollary.
    Human nature carries on from there. Our self destroying prejudices against the individual, in favor of the collective, and of self guiltiness do the rest.

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