Why Do You Not Study the Odes?

Compared to 2015, I’ve spent much of 2016 so far writing more about literature. Those who started following this blog last year, when non-fiction covered the bulk of my material, at least aside from comics I used largely to pad out the 75 Book Challenge, may see this as a slight change of course. However, it’s a return to what I’ve always considered my primary academic focus, and honestly I think that my discussions of literature are more important than those on history or political science.

Now, I think that much of my audience is already sold on the value of good art, and has some appreciation of beauty. I know a lot of people in my online social circles who’ve given up on television, and in a few cases even on popular music. This is very good; I and most of my readership are on the Right, and the Right stands for order, and good art is conducive to that while bad art is corrosive of it. It’s worth noting that Reactionary blogs have, to a small extent, begun to write more about the arts. Nick B. Steves noticed this trend in a recent edition of This Week in Reaction, in which he was generous enough to include a link to my post on the Cavalier poets, and he attributed it partly to Chris Gale. E. Anthony Gray’s very worthwhile series on various poets like Goethe and Coleridge published on Social Matter is worth pointing out, as well, and of course Wrath of Gnon has been encouraging an appreciation for the beautiful for a long time on both tumblr and Twitter.

Nonetheless, the lesson still hasn’t quite sunk in in many quarters. The overwhelming focus among Reactionaries is politics, some political theory, and occasional forays into history. Though understandable, since these seem to allow for more direct understanding of what’s wrong with the world and what to do about it, it creates a man with a rather inhuman, incomplete, and unpleasant outlook. The worst offenders, and I won’t specify them, are those who revel in outrage porn and finding the most degenerate news stories and social trends they can find, then blogging or podcasting about them, as though it’s something hidden that needs to be exposed. They’re like connoisseurs of crap; when most men would just step around whatever cultural dog turd they come across, these bloggers put it in a jar, label it, and insist on showing the rest of us their collection. Thank you, professor, that is indeed interesting and quite informative. Now, you are going to wash your hands before you eat anything, correct?

This obsession with finding the most dysfunctional people in the Western world and stewing in pots of outrage porn, besides being unpleasant, demoralises those who spend too much time on it, and likely contributes to the fairly high rate of burnout among online Reactionaries. A man of the Right should, of course, be aware of what’s going on in the broader culture he lives in, but he should spend more time on the beautiful than the ugly. Spend more time, much more time, on the beautiful, if only for your own sake. As I’ve discussed twice before, in “The Moral Dimension of Judging Art” and “An Experiment in Fandom Criticism,” too much bad art is unhealthy both spiritually and mentally; good art is healthy in both senses.

As for the practical aspect, the arts may have less immediate application than history or politics, but a well-rounded man will have some familiarity with both realms. No lesser thinker than Aristotle, besides writing foundational work on ethics, politics, and metaphysics, devoted an entire book to poetry, with the straightforward title The Poetics, which is still essential reading for anyone interested in literature.

Rembrandt_-Aristotle_with_a_Bust_of_Homer-_WGA19232 Moving on, there’s also a question of seriousness and legitimacy that an obviously cultured, well-educated man possesses, that any man who wishes his opinions to deserve respect should seek to acquire. It’s relatively common, and completely justified, to mock Leftists for their childish obsession with Harry Potter, Ghostbusters (2016, of course!), and the like. Yet, in the past year or so, I’ve seen Right-wing analyses of James Bond, Angry Birds, David Bowie, Star Wars, Star Trek, The Lion King, and My Little Pony, among other things.

Lest anyone accuse me of taking myself too seriously, let me emphasise that I have no problem with covering popular culture occasionally. A look at my own review index will show many reviews I’ve done on low culture, including a review of an old video game earlier this year. I’m fine with something like Bonald’s observations on how Disney films portray monarchy, since he recognises the limits of what he’s doing and doesn’t make such things a primary focus. I’d also point to Thomas Bertonneau’s articles on old Science Fiction novels and a recent Star Trek film, which he presents as primarily sharing something he finds interesting, though he also has done analysis of popular culture. I respect both men’s opinions because I know that Science Fiction and Disney films do not come close to covering the entirety of what they know. Again, it’s a good thing to relax once in a while, if only to avoid burning out on serious political blogging. The goal is to strike a balance between high and low culture, ideally weighted more towards the former.

Finally, there is something to be said for coming to people where they are. Sometimes, that can work, and some people like that the political writers they follow share a common interest with themselves. It fosters a sense of community among existing followers, and can make one seem more welcoming to those new to the writer’s primary focus. One can also, of course, use popular culture to diagnose problems in the culture that consumes and produces it. However, a writer’s goal, especially if he’s on the Right, should be to uplift his audience. This doesn’t mean acting snobbishly, of course, but does require some elitism; i.e., we should prefer the better to the worse, and not be shy about saying so. Descending to a lower level in hopes of being “relevant” is how one gets the Catholic Church’s various post-Vatican II train wrecks.

Besides public image, though, spending more time with the arts is good for oneself. Confucius said, “My young friends, why do you not study the Odes? They will stimulate your emotions, broaden your observation, enlarge your fellowship, and express your grievances. They will aid you in your immediate service to your parents and your more remote service to your sovereign. They will acquaint you with the proper names of birds, beasts, and plants.”

Like much of The Analects, that chapter is compressed and open to some interpretation, but I think the idea behind each point is clear enough. Good art does, of course, “stimulate your emotions,” which sounds a bit shallow at first, but there’s no reason why even high art can’t be entertaining. Aristotle wrote in the Poetics that he believed tragedy is superior to epic poetry in part because tragedy is able to use spectacle, which is pleasant to watch.

As for “broaden[ing] your observation,” think for a moment about history. One major benefit to studying history is that it gives one a wider range of reference in thinking about current events or larger philosophical points about human nature. It can also, sometimes with a little hagiography, serve to define a people’s culture and values. However, history must also, of course, remain grounded in literal fact. Fiction, though, serves as a synthetic history which also defines a people’s culture and values, but does so in a more concentrated way. If one reads The Analects, one will quickly notice that Confucius frequently answers questions with reference to historical figures and incidents, but just as frequently will also refer to selections from the Odes just mentioned above, which was a collection of about 300 poems and folk songs. Maleducated moderns will often do this in a degenerate way by, say, comparing Donald Trump to Voldemort from the Harry Potter series, but with the broader range of observation that history and literature give, we can draw useful analogies from works written for grown-ups, as well.

If you don’t belong to a literature club it’s not immediately obvious how literature will “enlarge your fellowship,” but consider how often, in conversations with friends and co-workers, people will talk about or at least make reference to sports, current events, and entertainment. Obviously, one can’t easily work The Divine Comedy into these day-to-day conversations, and forcing it would be socially awkward, but I at least have found one friend who can understand these things to some extent, and this shared experience has strengthened our friendship in a small but noticeable way. For what it’s worth, I’ve also found that several people find an ability to reference high culture charming, even if they can’t do it themselves, though of course reactions vary from person to person and situation to situation.

I find it difficult to explain how literature can “express your grievances;” it’s likely something you either get or you don’t. I have found, though, that reference to poetry helps me better understand my own emotions, and memorised lines are often on my mind when thinking about how I feel about something.

What about service to your parents and sovereign? In an immediate sense, for modern Westerners, literature doesn’t do this. What it can do, though, is illustrate why honouring one’s parents and having a sovereign at all are important.

Finally, “acquaint[ing] you with the proper names of birds, beasts, and plants” sounds, well, a bit odd to our ears. In Chinese, though, it was common for the same plant or animal to have multiple names in various dialects, which is also true today even in Western languages to some extent, so studying the Odes would familiarise one with the standard names for these things. The overall point for us, though, is that the study of literature encourages the precise use of language.

Of course, we can also find these same sentiments expressed in our own Western tradition. I’ll just give one example, from Ben Jonson’s book Timber, or Discoveries, where he writes:

Now, the poesy is the habit, or the art: nay, rather the queen of arts, which had her original from heaven, received thence from the Hebrews, and had in prime estimation with the Greeks, transmitted to the Latins, and all nations, that professed civility. The study of it (if we will trust Aristotle) offers to mankind a certain rule, and pattern of living well, and happily; disposing us to all civil offices of society. If we will believe Tully [i.e., Cicero], it nourisheth, and instructeth our youth; delights our age; adorns our prosperity; comforts our adversity; entertains us at home; keeps us company abroad, travels with us; watches; divides the times of our earnest, and sports; shares in our country recesses, and recreations; insomuch as the wisest and best learned have thought her the absolute mistress of manners, and nearest of kin to virtue.

So, I hope that you’ll now set out to familiarise yourself with the arts. This needn’t be a primary hobby necessarily, and you needn’t become a scholar. My own knowledge of the arts outside of literature, I admit, is rather shallow. I enjoy paintings that portray interesting subjects and look like they took some skill to produce; I enjoy music that sounds big and ambitious, or small and charming. Whatever field you choose to focus on, though, I’d urge you to take in the full canon and read a little about the theory behind it.

For literature, I can even offer a bit of a head-start. Begin with Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading, and follow his suggestions. I’ve kicked around ideas about the shortest path to literacy in the Western literary tradition, but that’s mostly as a mental exercise, since the point is to read widely. As a start, though, perhaps you could try this reading list (preferably in order):

  1. The Iliad and The Odyssey, by Homer
  2. The Bible (which translation is a difficult question for theologians, but for literary purposes it’s not: go with the King James Version)
  3. Metamorphoses, by Ovid
  4. The Aeneid, by Virgil
  5. The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri
  6. Le Morte d’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Mallory
  7. Works of William Shakespeare (which ones? You can start with say, the sonnets, HamletJulius Caesar, Othello, and Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, but the idea is to read, or better yet, watch, as many as you can)
  8. Works of T.S. Eliot (primarily The Waste Land, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and “The Hollow Men”)
    1. As a bonus, you can try The Cantos, by Ezra Pound, but I’d highly recommend reading the rest of this list first. The first couple dozen should be enough for this “introductory course”

That’s just a rough, suggested outline. In any case, even if you don’t follow my suggestions, go find something that grabs your interest. The main point is to stick to it for the long-term.