Wilde Serial, #12

Previous episodes: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI.

“The Soul of Man Under Socialism” by Oscar Wilde, Part the Twelfth

In England, the arts that have escaped best are the arts in which the public take no interest. Poetry is an instance of what I mean. We have been able to have fine poetry in England because the public do not read it, and consequently do not influence it. The public like to insult poets because they are individual, but once they have insulted them they leave them alone. In the case of the novel and the drama, arts in which the public do take an interest, the result of the exercise of popular authority has been absolutely ridiculous. No country produces such badly written fiction, such tedious, common work in the novel form, such silly, vulgar plays as England. It must necessarily be so. The popular standard is of such a character that no artist can get to it. It is at once too easy and too difficult to be a popular novelist. It is too easy, because the requirements of the public as far as plot, style, psychology, treatment of life, and treatment of literature are concerned are within the reach of the very meanest capacity and the most uncultivated mind. It is too difficult, because to meet such requirements the artist would have to do violence to his temperament, would have to write not for the artistic joy of writing, but for the amusement of half-educated people, and so would have to suppress his individualism, forget his culture, annihilate his style, and surrender everything that is valuable in him. In the case of the drama, things are a little better: the theatre-going public like the obvious, it is true, but they do not like the tedious; and burlesque and farcical comedy, the two most popular forms, are distinct forms of art. Delightful work may be produced under burlesque and farcical conditions, and in work of this kind the artist in England is allowed very great freedom. It is when one comes to the higher forms of the drama that the result of popular control is seen. The one thing that the public dislike is novelty. Any attempt to extend the subject-matter of art is extremely distasteful to the public; and yet the vitality and progress of art depend in a large measure on the continual extension of subject-matter. The public dislike novelty because they are afraid of it. It represents to them a mode of Individualism, an assertion on the part of the artist that he selects his own subject, and treats it as he chooses. The public are quite right in their attitude. Art is Individualism, and Individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. Therein lies its immense value. For what it seeks to disturb is monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine. In Art, the public accept what has been, because they cannot alter it, not because they appreciate it. They swallow their classics whole, and never taste them. They endure them as the inevitable, and as they cannot mar them, they mouth about them. Strangely enough, or not strangely, according to one’s own views, this acceptance of the classics does a great deal of harm. The uncritical admiration of the Bible and Shakespeare in England is an instance of what I mean. With regard to the Bible, considerations of ecclesiastical authority enter into the matter, so that I need not dwell upon the point.

[To be continued, though possibly not for a few days…]

The Sounds of Silence

While eating curry last night I was reading Stephen Davies’s very interesting article from the Australasian Journal of Philosophy a few years back on “John Cage’s 4’33”: Is It Music?”, and was entertained to learn that the piece exists in two versions: in the published score, the movements are 30″, 2’23” and 1’40” in duration; but in the manuscript presented to Irwin Kremen, the movements are 33″, 2’40” and 1’20.

So are there in fact two pieces, one of which might better be called 4’33″‘?

Blunkett and the Philosophers

Crooked Timber highlights yesterday’s bizarre choice of front-page lead in the Guardian about the fact that one of the Home Secretary’s special advisers, Matt Cavanagh, once wrote a D.Phil thesis and then a book arguing that a lot of the arguments made about so-called equality of so-called opportunity are a crock of shit.

All the Guardian journalist had to do to turn this into a newspaper story was to find the most provocative things that Cavanagh wrote about race discrimination laws, treat them as if they were soundbites rather than steps in complicated theoretical arguments, and then find a rent-a-quote Labour MP to say that anyone who disagreed with the party line on this kind of thing must be “psychotic”. And there’s your story — which will probably remain an exclusive, in the strict sense that other media outlets are highly unlikely to think it’s worth running with.

I flicked through the book, Against Equality of Opportunity when it came out, liked parts of it, didn’t like other parts of it, and occasionally tell students to look at it if they’re writing essays on related subjects. Since I remember a section on why racism is very bad because of the kind of contempt racists express when they behave in a racist fashion, it’s not clear to me that the Guardian is onto a winner here in trying to paint Matt Cavanagh as some kind of right-wing nutter (though he may be that, and it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that right-wing nutters were working for David Blunkett).

Although Matt Cavanagh and I are both the kind of people who have spent too much time in Oxford, we’ve never really had much to do with one another: he was working on his doctorate and teaching Philosophy in Oxford in exactly the period that I was living in the States, and I returned to Oxford at the same time, I think, that he left academic life altogether. And my main memory of Matt isn’t of anything he’s done in academic philosophy, I’m afraid, but of his attempt in the Balliol junior common room a decade ago when we briefly overlapped as undergraduates there to try to stop the Chapel ringing its bell for a few minutes before 6pm in order to remind people to turn up to the evening service. (The attempt failed.)

But I did want to use this post to say something about the surprising number of political theorists who do seem to end up dealing with David Blunkett. Blunkett is Bernard Crick’s most famous student from years ago at Sheffield University — there’s a funny, though probably apocryphal anecdote about how Blunkett’s then guide dog would bark every time Crick mentioned Karl Marx in lectures — and the lucky Crick was rewarded many years later by being made the Britishness Tsar (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms) and getting to draw up projects for how to teach “citizenship” in schools and to bring in “citizenship tests” and the like.

(I vaguely remember one pilot paper saying that school children should be asked to write essays reporting their reactions to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, as part of “citizenship” training, though that may be my overheated imagination at work, again. I also remember the lovely line in the Government’s [mostly horrible] white paper on citizenship and immigration which tried to say what the most distinctively “British” values were, and concluded that they were the values enshrined in the European human rights charter…)

But Crick and Cavanagh aren’t the only ones: there’s also Dr. Mads Qvortrup, who has worked for the Referendum Institute, and who seems to have some Blunkett connection, possibly as some kind of adviser or other. Qvortrup thanks Blunkett in the Acknowledgments of his new book, The Political Philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and implausibly says of Blunkett in the Preface that he has “further elaborated” the arguments of Machiavelli, Rousseau and Alexis de Tocqueville about civic nationalism. And Blunkett has clearly returned the favour, blurbing the book as follows:

No society can survive without mutuality. Dr Qvortrup’s book shows that rights and responsibilities go hand in hand. It is an excellent primer for anyone wishing to understand how renewal of democracy hinges on a strong civil society.

Now who would have thought that Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a forerunner of the politics of New Labour? (And who could have guessed from this blurb that this book was a study of Rousseau?) Have I missed any others?

UPDATE [2pm]: Alright: so I was wrong about the exclusivity of the Guardian‘s report: page four of the Sunday Telegraph is devoted to the same story, with a spokesman for the Home Secretary quoted as saying, “Mr Blunkett is aware of the book and thinks it is quite cleverly argued, but he does not agree with a lot of it. The point is, do people want ministers to be surrounded by yes men or do they want extremely bright philosophers and political thinkers who grapple with difficult issues?” The general defence of MC’s continuing employment seems to centre on a claim that “he was trying to make his name in academia” four years ago, and so decided to publish a bunch of things he never really agreed with, but which sounded provocative. Ho hum.

What’s a Stoa?

Everyone’s favourite super-anonymous British politics pundit British Spin has posted a reciprocal link back to the Virtual Stoa, for which I’m happy and grateful, and the people in his comments box seem to be wondering what the title of this blog refers to.

Well, not a lot is the answer. But back in 1997 or so when I created my first webpage I was beginning to write a Ph.D. dissertation on arguments about Stoicism in early modern European philosophy and political thought. So I called the page The Virtual Stoa. And then a decent chunk of time ago I realised that it was a much better name for a weblog than for a homepage, and revived the name for this page.

(I seem to like names that puzzle people: people also email me reasonably frequently to ask me why on earth this site is called The Voice of the Turtle.)

For information, a stoa is a the kind of building pictured here, and the Stoa of the Stoics — the Stoa Poikile in the middle of Athens, where they gathered, talked, taught, etc. — might have looked like this once upon a time, and now looks like this.

No Justice

So I have to blog for two and a half years before I get honoured with a normblog profile; my brother Michael’s been going for less than two and a half months, and he gets one, too

… which is — of course — richly deserved: Mischievous Constructions is (in my entirely unbiased opinion) an excellent addition to the World of Blogs, and well worth a visit (if there’s anyone here who doesn’t visit regularly already).

Wilde Serial, #11

Earlier instalments: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X.

“The Soul of Man Under Socialism” by Oscar Wilde, Part Eleven

Now, I have said that the community by means of organization of machinery will supply the useful things, and that the beautiful things will be made by the individual. This is not merely necessary, but it is the only possible way by which we can get either the one or the other. An individual who has to make things for the use of others, and with reference to their wants and their wishes, does not work with interest, and consequently cannot put into his work what is best in him. Upon the other hand, whenever a community or a powerful section of a community, or a government of any kind, attempts to dictate to the artist what he is to do, Art either entirely vanishes, or becomes stereotyped, or degenerates into a low and ignoble form of craft. A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or a dishonest tradesman. He has no further claim to be considered as an artist. Art is the most intense mode of Individualism that the world has known. I am inclined to say that it is the only real mode of Individualism that the world has known. Crime, which, under certain conditions, may seem to have created Individualism, must take cognizance of other people and interfere with them. It belongs to the sphere of action. But alone, without any reference to his neighbours, without any interference, the artist can fashion a beautiful thing; and if he does not do it solely for his own pleasure, he is not an artist at all.

And it is to be noted that it is the fact that Art is this intense form of Individualism that makes the public try to exercise over it an authority that is as immoral as it is ridiculous, and as corrupting as it is contemptible. It is not quite their fault. The public have always, and in every age, been badly brought up. They are continually asking Art to be popular, to please their want of taste, to flatter their absurd vanity, to tell them what they have been told before, to show them what they ought to be tired of seeing, to amuse them when they feel heavy after eating too much, and to distract their thoughts when they are wearied of their own stupidity. Now Art should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself artistic. There is a very wide difference. If a man of science were told that the results of his experiments, and the conclusions that he arrived at, should be of such a character that they would not upset the received popular notions on the subject, or disturb popular prejudice, or hurt the sensibilities of people who knew nothing about science; if a philosopher were told that he had a perfect right to speculate in the highest spheres of thought, provided that he arrived at the same conclusions as were held by those who had never thought in any sphere at all — well, nowadays the man of science and the philosopher would be considerably amused. Yet it is really a very few years since both philosophy and science were subjected to brutal popular control, to authority in fact — the authority of either the general ignorance of the community, or the terror and greed for power of an ecclesiastical or governmental class. Of course, we have to a very great extent got rid of any attempt on the part of the community or the Church, or the Government, to interfere with the individualism of speculative thought, but the attempt to interfere with the individualism of imaginative art still lingers. In fact, it does more than linger; it is aggressive, offensive, and brutalizing.

[More soon]

Wilde Serial, #10

Earlier instalments: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX.

“The Soul of Man Under Socialism” by Oscar Wilde, Episode Ten

Now as the State is not to govern, it may be asked what the State is to do. The State is to be a voluntary association that will organize labour, and be the manufacturer and distributor of necessary commodities. The State is to make what is useful. The individual is to make what is beautiful. And as I have mentioned the word labour, I cannot help saying that a great deal of nonsense is being written and talked nowadays about the dignity of manual labour. There is nothing necessary dignified about manual labour at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading. It is mentally and morally injurious to man to do anything in which he does not find pleasure, and many forms of labour are quite pleasureless activities, and should be regarded as such. To sweep a slushy crossing for eight hours on a day when the east wind is blowing is a disgusting occupation. To sweep it with mental, moral, or physical dignity seems to me to be impossible. To sweep it with joy would be appalling. Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by a machine.

And I have no doubt that it will be so. Up to the present, man has been, to a certain extent, the slave of machinery, and there is something tragic in the fact that as soon as man had invented a machine to do his work he began to starve. This, however, is, of course, the result of our property system and our system of competition. One man owns a machine which does the work of five hundred men. Five hundred men are, in consequence, thrown out of employment, and, having no work to do, become hungry and take to thieving. The one man secures the produce of the machine and keeps it, and has five hundred times as much as he should have, and probably, which is of much more importance, a great deal more than he really wants. Were that machine the property of all, everybody would benefit by it. It would be an immense advantage to the community. All unintellectual labour, all monotonous, dull labour, all labour that deals with dreadful things, and involves unpleasant conditions, must be done by machinery. Machinery must work for us in coal mines, and do all sanitary services, and be the stoker of steamers, and clean the streets, and run messages on wet days, and do anything that is tedious or distressing. At present machinery competes against man. Under proper conditions machinery will serve man. There is no doubt at all that this is the future of machinery; and just as trees grow while the country gentleman is asleep, so while Humanity will be amusing itself, or enjoying cultivated leisure — which, and not labour, is the aim of man — or making beautiful things, or reading beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight, machinery will be doing all the necessary and unpleasant work. The fact is, that civilization requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralizing. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends. And when scientific men are no longer called upon to go down to a depressing East End and distribute bad cocoa and worse blankets to starving people, they will have delightful leisure in which to devise wonderful and marvellous things for their own joy and the joy of every one else. There will be great storages of force for every city, and for every house if required, and this force man will convert into heat, light, or motion, according to his needs. Is this Utopian? A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias.

Self-Parody Alert!

Well, there are two today. And they’re from the usual suspects. First, Stephen Pollard explains why he’s not going to be soiling himself with the Guardian any more. Second, Melanie Phillips takes issue with Jonathan Freedland’s piece in today’s Guardian. This is a more complicated effort. I’ll just note that in her second sentence she mischaracterises Freedland’s use of the “McCarthyite” label, and that she never engages with his main claim about rightist views of the Spanish elections, which is their implication “that when terrorists strike political choice must end”. The rest of the post is the usual hyperbolical nonsense.Oh, except that Stephen Pollard has said that this is a “withering response” to Freedland.

So there must have been something in there that I missed.