Is There a Hierarchy Among the Arts?

tezuka_osamuLast weekend I wrote up a recommended reading list as a permanent page, and as I came to the end I briefly considered adding a section for comics, but decided against it because my goal was to direct people to higher art; pop culture already has enough promotion.

While thinking about some of the graphic novels I may have added, I noticed that most of them were works that I’d only really recommend to someone specifically interested in the medium. I took a look at the general fiction section and considered whether I’d encourage anyone to read them before even the relatively lighter works, like The Things They Carried or The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and the answer was no, I wouldn’t.

Why is this? It’s not as though I’m only working from a small sample size; I’ve read dozens of these works, including those that are commonly cited as the best of the medium, like WatchmenThe Dark Knight Returns, a few works by Tezuka Osamu, as well as some more niche titles like Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths or A Bride’s Story. Are comics just inherently an inferior medium? How would one even go about comparing different media?…

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Recommended Reading Page

Those of you who follow me on twitter have likely already seen me talk about it, but I’ve added a page for books that I particularly recommend.

In short, I thought the Post Highlights and Review Index page had a shortcoming in that it doesn’t indicate which books I’ve reviewed are ones that I’d actually recommend. For the recommended reading list I broadened the scope a bit, so it covers the books that I’d recommend more-or-less universally to any educated person who asks.

So next time you’re looking for something to read and would like some suggestions, check it out.…

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The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists

Salvator_Rosa_-_Démocrite_et_ProtagorasWhen one begins a study of Western philosophy, especially with a focus on the history of philosophy, Plato is the most common starting-point. That’s reasonable enough, since he was, as far as I know, the first major philosopher from whom we have a lot of material, and so influential that Alfred North Whitehead famously commented that the rest of Western philosophy is “footnotes to Plato.”

However, there were several philosophers who do predate Plato. The problem, though, is that we don’t have complete works from these men, just fragments and testimonia. Fortunately, The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists, translated and edited by Robin Waterfield, collects many of these fragments in an accessible way for a general audience. Waterfield also translated the edition of The Histories that I read and reviewed recently, and his translation is just as good here as it was for Herodotus (in style, of course, since I can’t vouch for accuracy), and his introduction and annotations are consistently helpful.…

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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.


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The Homeric Hymns

The Homeric Hymns, traditionally attributed to Homer but with much controversy over that attribution, is another one of those works that shouldn’t really need much of an introduction. Since I know I’m not the only one whose formal education has failed me, though, there’s probably no harm in offering a brief overview of this, as well.

As one may guess from the title, this is a collection of poems praising several of the Greeks’ various gods. They vary greatly in length, the first few going on for over a dozen pages in my edition, but most of them fit easily onto one or two pages. The longer ones tend to be narratives, like Hymn II (to Demeter), and Hymn III (to Apollo), usually covering the god’s birth and one or two other tales. The rest are short hymns of praise, recalling to the audience the god’s accomplishments, things sacred to him, and so on. For example, here’s Hymn XXIV, to Hestia:

you are the one
who takes care of the holy house
in sacred Pytho, the house
of the archer Lord Apollo,

soft oil
flowing forever from your hair.

Come into this house,
come, having one heart
with wise Zeus,

and be gracious to my song, too.…

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The Histories

Next to Aristotle’s TopicsThe Histories may be the most vaguely titled book ever written. I suppose you can get away with that when you’re the Father of History, as Herodotus is called, and as the author of the first narrative history it’s not like there was much room for confusion at the time. Besides, while Herodotus makes the Greco-Persian Wars his ostensible subject, he’s so far-ranging that the broad title describes the work well enough.

Herodotus could also have accurately titled it “Things that Interest Me.” Though some historians will address tangential topics in the course of their books, Herodotus revels in sharing only tangentially related anecdotes, ethnography, geography, information about landmarks, and so on. For example, while discussing Croesus’s rule in Ionia, he makes sure to add that he had donated a number of things to the Delphic Oracle, and adds that much of this is still there (at least as of when he was there last), and worth seeing; it’s as though he saw himself as a combination of John Keegan and Rick Steves. Some readers may find these digressions annoying, but personally, I find them charming, and some of my favourite stories from The Histories are things that a modern historian would likely have left out. Besides, in Herodotus’s defence, much of this information does provide background information that helps the reader understand the motivations and situation of the many nations and individuals involved, directly or indirectly, in the Greco-Persian Wars.…

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A Brief Introduction to Ben Jonson and the Cavalier Poets

Whenever I think of English poetry, the first style to come to mind is something like the Cavalier poets. For me, their work is the good stuff; no multi-page bouts of navel-gazing in free verse here. Nope, this is good old-fashioned metrical writing with regular rhyme schemes, and what does a good Cavalier write about? Put simply, the good life – the love of beautiful women, a comfortable home in the country, close friends, duty, and at times, the loss of those things.

Of course, the Cavalier poets were a fairly large group and thus did have some variety in tone and subject; Norton Critical Editions’ Ben Jonson and the Cavalier Poets, the compilation I’ve just finished reading, includes eighteen different writers, making it a solid introduction to the breadth of the school. Jonson is, deservedly, the most famous, and fairly representative for the rest. For example, here’s the first part of “To Penshurst,” which was the first “country house” poem in English:

Thou are not, Penshurst, built to envious show
Of touch, or marble, nor canst boast a row
Of polished pillars, or a roof of gold;
Thou hast no lantern, whereof tales are told,
Or stair, or courts; but stand’st an ancient pile,
And, these grudged at, art reverenced the while.
Thou joy’st in better marks, of soil, of air,
Of wood, of water: therein thou art fair.
Thou hast thy walks for health, as well as sport;
Thy Mount, to which the dryads to resort,
Where Pan and Bacchus their high feasts have made
Beneath the broad beech and the chestnut shade;
That taller tree, which of a nut was set,
At his great birth, where all the Muses met.
There in the writhéd bark are cut the names
Of many a sylvan, taken with his flames.
And thence the ruddy satyrs oft provoke
The lighter fauns to reach thy Lady’s oak.
Thy copse, too, named of Gamage, thou hast there,
That never fails to serve thee seasoned deer
When thou wouldst feast, or exercise thy friends.

That one is fairly long, but personally I tend to prefer short poems with a strong image, similar to what I discussed in the Hyakunin Isshu. Of course, Jonson could do that, too:

Swell me a bowl with lusty wine,
Till I may see the plump Lyaeus swim
Above the brim;
I drink as I would write,
In flowing measure, filled with flame and sprite.

“Lyaeus,” by the way, is Bacchus; Jonson and some of these other poets, but again, not all, are rather fond of references to Classical literature and mythology. Often context is sufficient to get the gist of a poem even if one isn’t familiar with these references, but be ready to check with footnotes somewhat often on some of these.…

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Short Thoughts on Titus Andronicus, and Two Comedies

Though I’d heard that Titus Andronicus is one of William Shakespeare’s most violent works, I wasn’t really expecting the story of Procne and Philomela via the Elizabethan Tarantino. Nothing can really shock a modern audience, regardless of how intense a story is by Elizabethan standards, but the revenge, rape, and sadistic violence was enough to make a couple scenes a bit difficult to watch even for me. It’s the type of work where, when characters consider whether they should kill an infant, it seems completely plausible that they might actually do it.

Titus Andronicus was apparently one of Shakespeare’s first works, probably his first tragedy, and often considered one of his weakest. It is weak, I suppose, by Shakespearean standards, though I’d still rather watch another production of this than any of the comedies. I don’t think “entertained” or “enjoyed” is the right word, but it certainly kept my full attention throughout. Tamora and Aaron are good villains, and I liked Titus and Marcus Andronicus. The play was very popular when it was new, and it’s not hard to see why.

The main problem, really, is in comparison to his later work. For example, Titus Andronicus includes (mostly faked) madness by one character, but this is also done later, and better, in Hamlet. Also like, and not as good as, Hamlet is the revenge theme. Aaron, a Moor, brings in a racial element to the story, but again, Shakespeare did this again, and better, later on in Othello. Conspiracies, of course, figure in a number of histories and tragedies, Titus Andronicus included, but are more interesting in, say, Julius Caesar.

I mentioned above that I actually watched this play, specifically this production by the Seoul Shakespeare Company. As I’ve mentioned here-and-there before, plays are meant to be watched, not read, and are far more enjoyable that way. An actual live production is preferable to a YouTube recording, but I’d still like to get through all of Shakespeare’s works this year, so I’m not going to wait for local productions. The only problem with this approach is that stage acting always comes across as somewhat awkward and overwrought on film, but after a few minutes I mostly got used to it, except for Demetrius and Chiron’s scenes.

Since my goal this year is to become a Shakespeare completist, I should add that I did read the first couple acts of Two Gentlemen of Verona, but dropped it. As much as I enjoy the histories and tragedies, I find the comedies a chore to get through. Maybe this means that I’ll need to put an asterisk next to my “completist” achievement, but frankly I don’t care. I also skipped over The Taming of the Shrew entirely, because I read that in college and even saw an abbreviated live production, but still didn’t enjoy it.…

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Memoirs of a Service Afloat During the War Between the States

Last year, I asked my twitter followers for good books on the War Between the States, and I was promptly informed that I would (not just “might”) enjoy Memoirs of a Service Afloat During the War Between the States, written by Raphael Semmes, captain of the CSS Sumter and, later, the Alabama. Once I got my hands on a copy, I could tell right away it would be a good one because opposite the title page the publisher, Alacrity Press, had a note saying, “This book is a product of its time. Some of the terms and views expressed by the author may reflect common values and usage of his day that are contrary to modern values. They should be viewed in that context.” A trigger warning like that is something I take as a strong endorsement.

Another good sign came in the preface. Semmes explains that, though there’s a common view that historians should be as dispassionate as possible, this approach would only give “a dead history, in other words, a history devoid of the true spirit of history.” He adds, “Such a terrible war as that through which we have passed could not be comprehended by a stolid, phlegmatic writer, whose pulse did not beat quicker while he wrote.” I appreciate this attitude, partly because it makes for more interesting reading when an author is passionate, and also because I’m suspicious of historians who try too hard to be unbiased and removed from the subject. I want to know an author’s own opinions, partly because they’re valuable, since he’s presumably an expert on the topic, and because it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to be truly unbiased, so it’s best simply to be honest with one’s own thoughts so that a reader needn’t be so on-guard against subconscious slant.

Semmes and First Lieutenant John Kell aboard CSS Alabama, 1863
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A Defense of Virginia and the South

Portrait_of_Robert_Lewis_DabneyA while back, over at Throne and Altar, Bonald pointed out that leaving the Enlightenment framework is only the beginning of thought. Once one rejects Liberalism root, tree, and branch, and embraces the Right, the rubric for judging historical figures and events is totally different, and it’s no longer clear without further investigation who the “good guys” in a given conflict were. Progressives occasionally mock the “gotta hear both sides” attitude, but once one is on the Right it becomes necessary, even in situations where the “correct” side always seemed obvious before.

So, one comes to the War Between the States, which is a major part of Progressivism’s triumphant narrative of itself, and finds that the whole thing needs re-evaluation. That the South was in the right has, frankly, always seemed obvious to me, but there are a few different ways to arrive at this conclusion, each one varying degrees outside the Overton Window. Some examples:

  • The South was right because I’m a Southerner and always support my own people. This attitude of “my country right or wrong” is the most reactionary of all in some sense; it’s certainly the least ideological, and rests purely on natural human loyalties. It’s not very satisfying intellectually, though, and we (moderns, at least) can’t help but want to know if we’re really in the right.
  • The South was right because of States’ rights. This attempts to set aside the slavery issue and focuses on arguing that because the States were sovereign they could secede for any reason. This legalistic argument is common and, I think, basically right as far as it goes in appealing to the logos, but isn’t rhetorically effective because it doesn’t address the pathos at all and only touches on ethos in the abstract issue of law, not in the more visceral slavery issue.
  • The South was right because the Union was wrong. In other words, take the fight to the Union and argue that Abraham Lincoln and company were criminals. Thomas DiLorenzo takes this approach in The Real Lincoln, and he’s a relatively neutral source since he’s a Libertarian and neither the Union nor the Confederacy were meaningfully Libertarian governments. This argument is also correct and somewhat effective; it’s far more effective rhetorically to attack than defend, but a positive defense of the Confederacy is still lacking in this approach.

Now, all three of these typically come with a disclaimer that, though the Confederate States had the authority to secede from the Union, abolishing slavery was a good outcome of the war. However, this approach is ultimately rather weak; for most people, slavery seems so evil on a visceral level that it’s near-impossible to set aside. Besides, I’ve been on the Right long enough that I can smell a concession to modern sensibilities, and this has just that distinctive odour. These positions peek outside the Overton Window, maybe even open it up and smell the rose bushes outside, but are careful not to venture too far.

Some politically incorrect positions prompt stronger reactions than others. To reject republicanism and embrace monarchism is to leap out the Overton Window with a running start, but to most observers it just comes across as eccentric. Some positions, though, are more like turning back toward the Overton Window hurling a Molotov Cocktail right at the feet of those inside. Today, we have just such a rhetorical arsonist in Robert Lewis Dabney, with his 1867 book A Defense of Virginia and the South, and the fuel for this cocktail is not even necessarily agreeing with, but simply giving a fair hearing at all to this thesis:

There is nothing inherently wrong with slavery.

Now, Dabney presents a wide range of arguments across nine chapters, so I’m going to take the simplest approach and go through the book chapter-by-chapter. As I generally do, I’ll quote heavily and let Dabney do most of the arguing for himself, and content myself with providing some context and commentary; in other words, this won’t be a full analysis and criticism, but more of an introductory sketch of Dabney’s position.…

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