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The madness of the poets

James Matthew Wilson | Friday, April 13, 2007

In the middle of the seventeenth century, the divorcee, propagandist and future regicide, John Milton, claimed that would-be poets should mold their own lives in the form of virtue before daring to represent it in poetry. He “who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things,” Milton asserted, “ought himself to be a true poem; that is, a composition and pattern of the best and most honorable things; not presuming to sing high praises of heroic men, or famous cities, unless he have in himself the experience and the practice of all that which is praiseworthy.”

To lay such a burden on scribblers of verses must seem madness to us, so far is it from the common assumptions of our society. This is not only because we live in a half-literate age where even the nominally well educated neither read poetry nor could identify it if they heard it. Rather, our time lacks poetry in another sense. Our “popular poetry” is in fact the endless spectacle of mass entertainment, and we demand of that entertainment not that it be “honorable,” not that it be a “pattern of the best” to which a human being might aspire. Instead, we insist that it recreate, in as apparently unmediated a form as possible, the basest and worst aspects of our experience: sometimes to justify it, and sometime merely to affirm its pathos, validating the misery in which we wallow.

In the greatest works of art, however, we discover what the philosophers intend when they say all things possess truth, goodness, and beauty insofar as they exist. In the madness of Achilles, we encounter the very form of courage, seeing that the practicing of a virtue takes narrative shape, and that shape we discover as beautiful. In Achilles also we discover a certain blindness, a failure to distinguish courage from pride. The thin veneer of Christianity that has been brushed over most of us helps us to see that Achilles’ lack of mercy proves at times a deficiency, an imperfection in the form of his life that betrays his adherence to a false system of truth.

In most societies and times this identification of the beautiful with the true and the good holds in art and in life. Of ours this cannot so confidently be asserted. The vast majority of us consume mass entertainment and that alone. We devour the crude banalities of rock or hip-hop as quickly as possible, requiring the music to be simple yet intensely emotional so that it provides satisfactions closer to those found in brothels than in the sacraments of enduring love.

The complications of orchestral music render it unintelligible to us, as if we can believe that the only excuse for assembling so many instruments must be that they are going to bleat one, loud explosive noise while some airplane blows up an asteroid at the end of this week’s box-office smash. We justify this scorn of the sophisticated and saturation in the squalid by saying that the music of mass entertainment speaks to our experience. This is partially true. The sulfurous auditory secretions of Trent Reznor, I’m sure, originate in the bowels of a painful adolescence no less than “Ms. Jackson” translates some of the sorrows of a country where illegitimacy and estrangement are commonplace.

Some of us dabble in the decayed forms of the fine arts, justifying our practice on the authenticity of the suffering or sentimentality that inspired it, rather than on any actual achievement. We have no “mute inglorious” Miltons, but we have mobs of millions looking to express their all too legitimate sufferings in the sincere but incompetent lineated prose they call “poetry.” They speak of the “healing” printing their pain brings about, but that is no excuse for bad art. As many of us have witnessed, one can have fantastic success as a playwright, no matter how ugly and vulgar the play, if one can convince enough college students that they are being “liberated” by acting or viewing it. This therapeutic justification serves not to better the world or the lives of its audience, but to assure those still maturing that they are just fine the way they are and to short circuit any serious critical thought.

All art has some aboriginal contact with the foundational emotions of human experience. All great art engages dialectically with that experience, representing it truly, calling forth its actual form. In that dialectic, great art also calls forth the potential forms of experience, to show us how life should be and how we should live. We find in it what we already know as well as what we ought to desire, what we lament as well as what we ought to praise.

In this respect, art frequently acts as a kind of goad, which suggests why human beings have always assigned an “edifying” element to art even as they fail time and again to explain it. Sometimes this “goading” can smack of pedagogical arrogance. How many school children of past generations came to loath Mozart or even poor Longfellow, because their knuckle-rapping schoolmaster said they ought to love “The Requiem” or “The Song of Hiawatha”? The sublimity of a poem should not make one feel like a court jester staring ruefully up at his king; it rather threatens to absorb us in that sublimity.

True poets and artists must indeed be mad, as in angered, to live in a time when the craft of making a beautiful thing is either ignored or patronized as therapeutic “self-expression.” The more numerous charlatans who manufacture the monstrosities that pass for much of contemporary art, however, are prone to a peculiar madness. They march about the ruined colonnade of the fine arts, believing themselves to be its king making great works. What they in fact produce – in film, print or music, on canvas or in “installation art” – is a mirror, ugly yet rose-tinted to flatter our culture in the midst of its own deprivation. They are Miltons who helped murder a king and wrote lengthy tracks to “validate” the blood on their hands. They are not the Milton who wrote an epic about Christ, capable of praising the beauty of a life he might not succeed in imitating, but to which he might still aspire.

James Matthew Wilson is a Sorin Research Fellow, and knows all shall be well in his great taskmaster’s eye. Roundheads may contact him at jwilson5@nd.edu

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