The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Triumph of the Philistine

I have recently been reading The Chronicles of Wasted Time, the memoirs of the curmudgeonly British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. I was first introduced to Muggeridge over twenty years ago by my maternal grandmother, who lent me his Jesus Rediscovered a few months after I announced my intention to study theology. Muggeridge, who had been raised in an agnostic, socialist home – his father was a Labour MP – and who married into the leading family of the Fabian Left – his wife was the niece of Beatrice Webb – grew disillusioned with Marxism, seeing the reality of Stalinist state-terrorism first hand as correspondent for the Manchester Guardian in Moscow in the early 1930s and later in life converted to Roman Catholicism. I picked up a copy of his memoirs in a used book store over ten years ago and was inspired to finally read them when I came across Anthony Powell’s recollections of Muggeridge in his own four volume autobiography, To Keep the Ball Rolling. In The Green Stick, the first volume of The Chronicles of Wasted Time, I found the following interesting observation:

As I see it, in the twentieth century the genius of man has gone into science and the resultant technology, leaving the field of mysticism and imaginative art and literature almost entirely to charlatans and sick or obsessed minds. The result has been that, whereas in the last half century more progress has been made in the exploration of man’s material circumstances, and in the application of the knowledge thereby gained, than in the whole of the rest of recorded time, the corresponding contribution to art and literature has been negligible and derisory. The circumstances of the age are just not conducive to such activities, and those who nonetheless pursue them tend to become unhinged or junkies or alcoholics, if not all three. (pp. 208-209)

Muggeridge does not elaborate further on this at any great length – unless the theme of belonging to a doomed civilization in its dying days that underlies his entire autobiography is regarded as such an elaboration. It seems to me that it is an observation that deserves further consideration.

There are those, of course, who would contest Muggeridge’s assessment of the state of art and literature in the twentieth century. I am not one of those, and would say that if anything, he understated his case and that in the twenty-first century in which we now live, things are abysmally worse. Consider poetry, as just one example. English poetry of all sorts and levels flourished in the nineteenth century. It was the century of Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth, of Shelly, Keats and Byron, of Scott and the Brownings, of Swinburne, Macauley, and Tennyson. Kipling and Housman survived into the twentieth century, the early decades of which gave us Auden and Owen, Pound, Eliot, Yeats and Frost. Since World War II, however, English poetry has come to resemble nothing so much as the title of Eliot’s most famous poem, “The Wasteland”. The fact that the late Maya Angelou is today considered to be a great poet is all the evidence we need to show that English poetry has gone from its zenith to its nadir within less than a hundred years.

If man’s twentieth century achievements in the realm of science and technology are linked, as Muggeridge suggests, with the decline and degradation of arts and literature, the question that then arises is one of how the two are related to each other. Are science and art somehow mutually incompatible with one another? Are the mental facilities of man so limited as to allow him to only achieve in one of these two areas at a time?

I think that it is to be explained by the shift in the way the Western world understands civilization. Traditional Western civilization was built upon the idea that human activity is directed towards certain ends. Some of these ends are defined by material needs and desires such as the need for food, clothing and shelter. Others are goods which are transcendent, which exist in a higher realm beyond that perceived through the senses. The ends of human activity are not equal but arranged in a hierarchy of importance in which the transcendent goods – goodness itself, truth, beauty, justice, etc., are higher and more important than the lower, material goods. Therefore, whether a society is civilized or not, and the level of its civilization, is determined by the extent of its pursuit of these higher goods, of which its arts and literature are indispensable indicators.

The foundation of this way of looking at things – the idea that there is something beyond the world as perceived through the senses – has been subjected to a steady process of erosion for almost a thousand years beginning with William of Ockham’s denial of the reality of universals. The less men came to believe in a world beyond the material, the less important the higher goods became to them and the more important the lower goods. Hence man turned his efforts more and more towards science, the means whereby he gains knowledge of and mastery over the physical world and so obtains his every material desire.

In a very real sense, the eclipse of art and literature by science and technology represents the triumph of the spirit of the philistine. I do not mean philistine in the literal sense of the people that ancient Israel fought against but in the metaphorical sense. The metaphorical philistine is the man who looks for nothing in life, beyond material security, other than the comforts and amusements, themselves material, that distract him. He sees no purpose in schooling beyond getting a job, and no purpose in higher education beyond getting a better paying job. He sees no need for a higher life of the mind and spirit for himself, and responds to those who seek such for themselves, with scorn and derision.

In previous centuries, philistinism was associated with certain versions of Protestantism. The Protestant Reformation had begun with Martin Luther re-asserting the Pauline doctrine that salvation is God reaching down to man in Christ and giving us His grace to be received through faith. Some Protestants drew from this the conclusion that all human pursuit of higher goods was “religion” and offensive to God and sought to purge their churches and often their lands of it. English Puritanism, which cancelled liturgy, smashed church organs, and stripped churches of beauty and decoration in the name of “simplicity”, which judged art not by the standards of aesthetics but of a very Pharisaic morality, is an obvious example of this.

The basic essence of philistinism, however, is materialism rather than Protestant theology. That human intellect has been poured into science and technology in the twentieth century at the expense of the arts and literature represents the ultimate triumph of philistinism, its having conquered its ancient enemy, the life of the mind, and forced it to pay tribute. Meanwhile, the world of arts and literature has been taken over by those so aptly described by Muggeridge as “charlatans and sick or obsessed minds” as to make the philistine seem more appealing. While the man who sees no point in the paintings of Michelangelo, El Greco, Titian and Poussin, the plays of Shakespeare and Racine, or the verse of Donne, Dryden, Goethe and Baudelaire, and treats those who do as objects of ridicule, was obviously a fool, there is something to be said for the man who sees no point in trying to read the unreadable verse of Angelou, the woman who cannot sit through a production of an Ensler play, and the person, man or woman, who, unable to make the insane equation of nihilistic subversion with aesthetic value, walks away in disgust from most of which is produced as “art” today. So perhaps even the cloud of the triumph of philistinism has its silver lining.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Portrait of a Canadian Storyteller

Robertson Davies: Man of Myth by Judith Skelton Grant, Toronto, Penguin Books, 1994, 788 pp.

First published twenty years ago, Judith Skelton Grant’s Robertson Davies: Man of Myth is the definitive biography of its subject. Written in the last decade of its subject’s life and with his co-operation is an exhaustive portrait of the man who is usually and deservedly thought of as our country’s most distinguished man of letters.

It is as the author of three popular and critically acclaimed trilogies of novels that Robertson Davies is most widely known. His career was a multi-faceted one, however, and Grant presents us with each facet in intricate detail. From his childhood, Davies’ earliest ambition was to be a stage actor, an ambition he actively pursued through participation in many and various amateur productions during his student days and which was ultimately rewarded with Tyrone Guthrie invited him to join the Old Vic Company after his graduation from Balliol College in Oxford with a Bachelor of Letters degree. It was during his two years with the Old Vic Company, where Australian Brenda Newbold, later Mrs. Robertson Davies, was stage manager, that Davies’ realized that his future did not lie in acting and turned his ambition towards playwriting.

It was with the intention of becoming a playwright that Davies returned to Canada with his new bride in 1940 and over the course of his life he did write, direct, and produce many plays. To pay the bills, he began writing columns for his father’s newspapers, the Kingston Whig-Standard and the Peterborough Examiner, under the pen-name Samuel Marchbanks. He created this nom de plume by combining the first name of his great-grandfather with the maiden name of his great-grandmother. Under this name, Davies’ wrote the column which ostensibly dealt with literary, artistic, and other cultural criticism, as a witty and erudite, eccentric curmudgeon. The column became very popular and during the years Davies’ wrote it the journalistic facet of his career expanded as he became literary editor of Saturday Night and then the editor of the Peterborough Examiner.

Davies continued to edit his father’s newspaper until 1962 when he took on a new and more illustrious position as Master of the newly founded Massey College at the University of Toronto. During his time as editor, however, he had also written his first trilogy, the Salterton trilogy. He had been writing plays all along but his efforts had not met with the response he was looking for, either in Canada or abroad, and he decided to try his hand at a new genre. He drew inspiration from his stage experience for the first novel, which is the story of an amateur production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and from his experience as an editor for the second novel, which tells of the consequences than ensue when a man submits a false engagement announcement to the newspaper in a malicious effort to embarrass both the editor and the couple named. The trilogy is named after Salterton, the city in which the first two novels and much of the third are set. Salterton is a fictional depiction of Kingston, to which Davies’ family had moved after living in the villages of Thamesville and Renfrew, and where Davies’ had studied at Queens College after graduating from “Canada’s Eton”, the Upper Canada College (1) and before applying to Balliol. Each of these places and institutions makes its way into Davies’ novels in one form or another – Thamesville becomes the “Deptford” of his second trilogy, Renfrew becomes the “Blairlogie” of the third trilogy, while Upper Canada College becomes the Colborne College that appears in the second and third trilogies.

Although the first trilogy sold well and firmly established his reputation as a novelist it was the second trilogy that won him international acclaim. Davies had a recurring vision in which two boys on a village street in winter, one throwing a snowball that contained a rock. In his novel Fifth Business, this vision becomes an incident in which the snowball hits a pregnant woman instead of the intended target, and the narrator of the novel, the boy who the snowball missed, traces the impact of the snowball through his own life and the lives of the woman hit, her son, and the boy who threw the snowball. Further consequences of the incident are discussed in the second novel, in which the son of the boy who threw the snowball undergoes Jungian psychoanalysis in Switzerland, and the third in which the son of the woman hit by the snowball, tells the story of his life and how he became the master magician Magnus Eisengrim.

Davies’ wrote this trilogy while he was Master of Massey College, a position for which he was personally chosen by Vincent Massey, life-long Canadian diplomat, the first Canadian born Governor General, and heir of the family that had made its fortune in farm equipment. Massey and Davies, both of whom had been to Balliol, had similar ideas as to what the residential graduate college should be. Davies was a popular Master and remained in the position for twenty years until his retirement in 1982 after which he wrote his third and final trilogy, in which Massey College appears as “The College of St. John and the Holy Ghost”, or “Spook.”

It was during the years that Davies wrote this third trilogy that Grant researched and wrote his biography and this influenced both the trilogy and the biography. In Grant’s biography, the Salterton and Deptford trilogies have a chapter each, whereas the Cornish trilogy is given one chapter per novel. Meanwhile in the trilogy itself, the character of Simon Darcourt is engaged in writing the biography of the late Francis Cornish.

In her biography of Davies, Grant explores the man Robertson Davies, and the influences that made him who he was. His father, Rupert, had left his native Wales while a young man, and came to Canada where, starting out as a typesetter, he became a successful newspaper publisher and editor, and eventually a Senator. In Canada, Rupert met and married Florence McKay, a descendant of United Empire Loyalists, ultimately of Scottish and Dutch extraction. Grant gives a detailed account of both family lines, including the ancestral stories that later made their way into Davies’ writings, as well as the strained relationship between Rupert and Florence, and later between mother and son, that was to have a huge impact upon his writing – think of the relationships Solly Bridgewater and Dunstan Ramsay have with their mothers in the first two trilogies.

Rupert and Florence, who met in a Congregationalist Church and later brought their family up in the Presbyterian Church, practiced a severe, Puritan, form of Calvinism. Robertson rejected this form of theology and was confirmed in the Anglican Church at Christ Church Cathedral by the Bishop of Oxford while he was a student at Balliol. The Calvinism he rejected while acknowledging its lingering influence, the traditions and ceremonies of Anglicanism, and his own idiosyncratic and somewhat heterodox theology, can be found throughout his writings, both under his own name and as Samuel Marchbanks.

He was not a very political person, especially in the partisan sense of the word. At various times Grant describes him as a “small l liberal” and a “small c conservative” and he came from perhaps the last generation in which it would make sense to apply both of these terms to the same person simultaneously. His father, who was appointed to the Senate upon the recommendation of Mackenzie King, was a Liberal, the party for which Davies usually voted. His liberalism can be seen in the anarchistic individualism on display in his writings as Samuel Marchbanks, and his conservatism in his love for ceremony, ritual, and tradition, as well as his contempt for the cult of the “common man”. Through his father’s press credentials he was able to be present at the coronation of King George VI, which took place in his Oxford days, and Grant quotes him as having written in the Whig-Standard that the event made him “a Monarchist for life” commenting that “He is still a monarchist, valuing the Crown as a tradition and symbol of permanency that stands above temporary governments”, an admirably conservative sentiment.

Davies was a man of broad classical and humanist learning, with immense knowledge of many arcane subjects. This provided him with ample resources, in addition to his own experiences and those of his forebears, to draw upon as a writer. It also formed his view of what constituted civilization that it was something more than what laws and markets provide. Grant quotes him as saying “Only greatness in the things of the mind and spirit brings lasting reputation” and describes both his belief in Canada’s artistic and cultural potential and his frustration that so few of his countrymen shared his vision. Nevertheless, he continued to do what he could both as writer and educator, to contribute to the artistic and cultural life of Canada and we are a richer nation for it.

Robertson Davies’ novels are well worth reading and for those who wish to know more about the man behind them, there is no better place to turn than to Judith Skelton Grant’s marvelous biography.

(1) The principal of Upper Canada College at the time was W. L. Grant, the son-in-law of another famous Canadian educator George Parkin, brother-in-law of Vincent Massey whom Davies would come to regard as a kind of spiritual father, father of conservative philosopher George Grant and grandfather of liberal philosopher Michael Ignatieff. I do not know if Judith Skelton Grant is related to this family, but she writes of W. L. Grant as being very influential on and supportive of Davies. She also records a dance to which Davies took Grant's daughter Allison (who would become Michael Ignatieff's mother) as his date.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Cave of Our Own Construction

Addicted to Distraction by Bruce G. Charlton, Buckingham, United Kingdom, University of Buckingham Press, 2014, 163 pp., £10

Among traditionalists, reactionaries, paleoconservatives and the rest of us who comprise what is usually called “the Right” it is customary, when the mass media is discussed, to maintain that it is heavily biased towards the Left. Our progressive opponents deride this claim, pointing to the television news channels, radio talk shows, and printed publications that offer an editorial perspective that is widely thought of as being “conservative”. In response we might point out that such media outlets offer a “neoconservative” perspective which is actually a form of liberalism – it is all about how democracy, capitalism and individualism are the hope and salvation of mankind, to be brought to the uttermost corners of the world by the force of the American military if necessary. A defense of actual conservative ideas and institutions, from a perspective that is critical of the modern assumptions that neoconservatives shared with the progressive and liberal Left is avoided by the media like the plague.

Recently, however, I encountered the following sentence which offers a rather different assessment of the relationship between the mass media and the Left:

Leftism is the Mass Media, and the Mass Media is Leftism, inseparable, the same thing: this of course means that Leftism (in its modern form) depends utterly on the continuation of the Mass Media (depends on itself!), stands or falls with the Mass Media. (bold indicates italics in original)

This remarkable sentence can be found on pages 26 to 27 of a fascinating new book entitled Addicted to Distraction. The author is Dr. Bruce G. Charlton, a physician and psychiatrist who is Professor of Theoretical Medicine at the University of Buckingham. He is also a Christian and a prominent blogger in that right-wing sector of the internet known as the “Orthosphere” in the broader sense of the term that includes not just the website by that name but various others with a similar right-wing, traditionalist Christian perspective, including Dr. Charlton’s own site, where the term was originally coined, and this one.

The quoted sentence would elicit from many, probably most, people the response that it confuses the distinction between that which is neutral – in this case the technology of large-scale communication – and that which is charged – the thoughts and words conveyed by that technology. This is a conditioned response, one which is made without much if any thought being put into it, and it raises the question of how valid this distinction actually is. Canada’s greatest conservative philosopher, George Grant, did not think it was valid and devoted much of his thought and writing to demonstrating that technology was anything but neutral. It was another Canadian of Grant’s generation, a pioneer in the study of media communications named Marshal McLuhan, who famously remarked that “the medium is the message” and it is from the launching pad of this insight of McLuhan’s that Dr. Charlton’s own reflections on the nature of the mass media take off.

This does not mean that the mass media that he equates with the Left consists merely of communications technology. Dr. Charlton distinguishes between two senses of the expression mass media. There is the technology itself – print, radio, television, internet, etc – and then there is the system into which all this technology is integrated, the “unified network of communications”. It is the latter which is the focus of his discussion.

Another important distinction he makes is between the Old Left and the New Left. The Old Marxist Left of the trades unions and socialist parties was revolutionary but it was also utopian and visionary. It sought to overthrow the institutions of the existing order but with the idea that it would replace them with a new order that would be a Paradise on earth. The New Left is the Left of “Permanent Revolution” or “perpetual opposition”, which Dr. Charlton describes as the idea that:

The true revolutionary – such as the avant garde artist or radical intellectual – was intrinsically subversive; and would always be in revolt against whoever was in power, changing sides as necessary to achieve this. (p. 18)

If the New Left is always seeking to subvert, oppose, and to overthrow then its agenda is entirely negative. It seeks nothing but destruction and is essentially nihilistic. This, Dr. Charlton argues, is also the essential nature of the mass media.

He describes several specific techniques by which the mass media subverts the good. For example, when Anders Brevik killed all those kids in Norway a couple of years ago the media initially reported that he was a right-wing Christian. Brevik was not a professing Christian at all but the initial reports that contained the falsehood created a far deeper impression than subsequent retractions. Dr. Charlton calls this “first strike framing”, a technique whereby the media subverts something positive – in this case Christianity – by creating a false association in the first reports of an atrocity from which the lasting visceral response is derived. (pp. 71-75)

The subversiveness of the mass media does not lie merely in certain techniques, however. Nor is it to be found in some cabal of conspirators who pull the levels of the media behind the scenes, Dr. Charlton insists, but in the very nature of the system itself. The mass media, as he describes it, is an integrated network of communications technology that has so permeated society that it envelops and surrounds us. It generates a pseudoreality of image and opinion that distracts us from the real world in which we live. The images and opinions it generates are subject to change at any moment and may completely contradict those that preceded them but are presented to us as absolute truths disagreement with which renders a person a dangerous, crazy, outsider. This combination of short-term absolutism with long-term complete relativism, Dr. Charlton labels “Opinionated Relativism”. By distracting us from the real world, common sense, and personal experience and bombarding us with dogmatic but ever-changing opinions and images it subverts our confidence in that which is true, good, and beautiful. His characterization of it as evil and demonic seems entirely appropriate.

So what do we do about it?

While Dr. Charlton does not proffer a plan as to how the mass media system can be defeated as a whole – he indicates that the system will have to collapse on its own before there can be a large scale return to reality – he offers some helpful suggestions as to how we can deal with it as individuals. We are addicted to the false reality the mass media presents us, he argues, and rather than try to wean ourselves off of it, for those who think that they can pick out what is good from the mass media are the most deceived and deluded, we ought to quit it cold turkey. While the process of “detoxing”, by which we stop seeking out, paying attention to, and believing the media and turn our attention back towards reality is one that will involve failure – for we are immersed in the media in societies where everybody is an addict – there is hope, he says, at least for the Christian, because reality is superior to the falsehoods of the media.

Addicted to Distraction is a short book but one that is packed with insights the surface of which I have only begun to scratch in this review. I heartily recommend it.