Art and Genocide: The Führer who Loved Only Buildings

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In this blog post, I want to attack the idea that art (including fiction) and religion are inherently good or noble.  I don’t think they’re inherently bad or evil, but I’d like to try thinking about them in evolutionary terms.

I also want to attack the idea that the concepts of racism, greed, impiety, or evil have explanatory power, though that’s only a secondary focus.

Art and religion are sometimes said to be things that distinguish us from animals, the things that make us human.  Leaving aside the aesthetic taste of bowerbirds, it would be at least as accurate to say that art and religion are the things that make us inhuman.  That word is only ever applied to humans, to describe cruelty or violence taken to levels and scales not found in non-human species.  This violence is often motivated by differences over art and religion.

SIDEBAR: Why am I grouping art and religion together?

Artistic taste and religion are both mysterious, complex systems that give us preferences or values we can’t explain.  Today, we think of religions as elaborate systems of ethical beliefs, like Christianity or Buddhism, and of art as aesthetic systems.  Values and aesthetics seem, to most people other than Nietzsche and me, to be different things.

But if we go back far enough in time, art, magic, and religion may have a common ancestor.  (Webster 1939) traces the history of how the ancient Greeks thought about art.  The oldest word for sculpture, from before Homer, is kolossos, ‘a substitute’, indicating the sculpture has a magical connection with a specific person, possibly denoting sacrifice or the deflection of supernatural attention.  The next word is agalma, which first meant ‘a source of joy’, then ‘a source of joy to a god’ or ‘an offering’, and then came to mean ‘a statue’.  This suggests statues were still ritualistic objects, but the relationship of man to god had shifted from fearful appeasement or deception to an attempt to give pleasure.  In the 5th century B.C., the time of Socrates and of the most-famous Athenian playwrights, they began using the words eikon (‘a likeness’: a statue is an object that looks like something else) and xoanon (‘something carved’: a statue is a created object).  This suggests that that was when people began making statues not only to please gods, but also to please humans.

AFAIK, every known culture has or had an artistic tradition and a religion.  Many people have argued that religion is necessary to make us good. But the hypothesis that religion makes people act morally cannot be reliably demonstrated, experimentally or historically.

The hypothesis that religion is needed make a civilization act immorally, however, has never been tested.  In evolutionary terms, genocide is often the best possible thing for us to do, as long as we’re the ones committing the genocide.  We just need to get those irksome morals out of the way when it comes to people who aren’t part of our genetic in-group.  Art and religion are good at that. [1]

If that hypothesis contains some truth, it would mean that art and religion are systems that evolved to shut down or bypass our moral reasoning.  That would require us to be unconscious of what we’re doing when we’re being artsy or religious.  It might even mean that one of the primary functions of art and religion is to sabotage our insight into the operation of art and religion.  So we might have mental blocks or short-circuits that, when it comes to art and religion, direct our attention away from obvious but uncomfortable conclusions.

Let’s talk about—

 

Art and the Nazis

The Daily Beast, Nov. 30 2014: Top Nazis And Their Complicated Relationship With Artists

[a review of Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany (Petropoulos 2014)]

In the stories shared by Petropoulos, what really stands out, however, is the shocking level of personal involvement by the top leaders of Germany in minute decisions about the lives of artists. While Hitler’s interest in art as a failed artist is well known, one would think that his top lieutenants like Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, and others would have more than enough on their hands to worry about the latest music from Strauss. …
While issues of art sometimes bubble to the surface in the American political conversation—Robert Mapplethorpe in 1989 for his homoerotic images or the trashing on Capitol Hill that Frank Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial proposal has received—it is hard to imagine President Obama or any of the former 20th-century presidents, or any of their top military and political advisors focusing so much of their time on whether dissonant sounds in music are acceptable, or how realistic painting should be.

The Daily Beast, Feb. 7 2014: Inside Hitler’s Fantasy Museum

When Monuments Men Robert Posey and Lincoln Kirstein walked into the white-washed cottage in the German forest that housed Hermann Bunjes, the Harvard-educated one-time SS officer and art advisor to Herman Goring, they learned of an elaborate plan involving the wholesale looting of Europe’s art treasures.. Bunjes… told these fellow art historians about the ERR—the Nazi art theft unit—and about Hitler’s plan to create a city-wide museum in his boyhood town of Linz, Austria: a “super museum” that would contain every important artwork in the world, including a wing of “degenerate art,” a sort of chamber of horrors to demonstrate from what monstrosities the Nazis had saved the world. …  The Monuments Men had heard rumors of art theft and looting throughout the war, but had no idea of the scale (some estimate that around 5 million cultural objects were looted, lost, or mishandled during the war), the advanced level of organization (scores of Nazi officers and hundreds of soldiers were assigned exclusively to the confiscation, transport, and maintenance of looted art and archival material), and the ultimate destination of the choicest pieces—the Führermuseum. …
Hitler’s plan for his museum been on his mind for more than a decade, at least since 1934—for Hitler had long stewed upon the idea of capturing The Ghent Altarpiece for Germany, and had even dispatched a Nazi art detective (and Hitler lookalike), Heinrich Köhn, to find the Righteous Judges panel, one of the twelve that comprises The Ghent Altarpiece, which was stolen from St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent in 1934, and has never been recovered. … An estimated 36 kilometers of galleries were included in the plan—to put that in perspective, the enormous and labyrinthine V&A Museum in London has about 8 kilometers of galleries, to display some 27,000 objects.

Consider that for a moment:  The Nazi’s first act of international aggression was to steal a 500 year-old painting from Belgium.

Why was art so important to the Nazis?

Art, literature, religion, and politics have always been closely connected.  The classical view was that reason determined art, politics, and economics.  Christians give religion priority.  Marxists gave economics priority.  No philosophical tradition that I know of takes art seriously as a driving force of social change, though it inspires people much more than reason does.

Maybe the evolutionary purpose of culture is less to give you something to love about your people than to give you something to hate about other people, and maybe this means it would be awkward to admit the role art plays in this.  You can prioritize reason and say they’re wrong, prioritize religion and say they’re evil, or prioritize economics and say they’re oppressive.  But after you’ve slaughtered your enemies, raped their women, taken their stuff, and salted their land, it would sound lame to say you did it because their art was bad.

 

Racism is Not an Explanation

The standard explanation for the Jewish Holocaust is that the Nazis were racists.  Well, yeah, the Nazis were racists.  That doesn’t explain the Holocaust any more than Rocky Marciano’s 49-0 boxing record is explained by saying that he was a really good boxer.  Thinkers today pride themselves on not being taken in by “God of the gaps” arguments that do nothing but stop somebody from asking questions, e.g., “the sky is blue because God made it blue”.  But saying “the Nazis were racist” is exactly that kind of useless question-stopping.  Why were they racist?

For Adolf Hitler, and possibly for some of his inner circle, a big part of the reason was art.

 

The Two Things that Were Most Important to Adolf Hitler

1. He hated Jews.

2. He loved architecture.

Lapham’s Quarterly. Oct. 4 2010: The Master Architect

“Hitler was an astonishing walking encyclopedia of architecture. He carried in his head the detailed plans of most of the important buildings in Europe. Look at these sketches he gave me. This is the Pantheon in Paris and Les Invalides drawn by him from his memory of plans he studied before he’d ever seen them. And here is an outsized triumphal arch and domed hall he sketched in 1925 when even he believed his political dreams were over. ‘I wish I’d been an architect!’ he often used to say. … To him, architecture was a magic word. It was his hobby and his passion.” … He disappeared into the house, reappearing moments later with a pile of paper and a few big tomes. It seemed rehearsed almost, and I guessed he’d done this before. “See here. These are architectural drawings Hitler made in his beer-hall days in Munich when he’d never been anywhere. He gave them to me: detailed drawings, models, plans. Such things he found spellbinding.”
… As he walked me to my car, he asked whether I knew what the very last photograph ever taken of Hitler was. “The very last one—the final image of the Führer—was taken in the bunker,” he said. “It shows him intently examining a model of his beloved Linz. He intended to rebuild the little city on the Danube where he’d been a boy and turn it into the culture capital of the whole of Germany. What he was staring at were Hermann Giessler’s plans, with great museums and theaters and the like. Now, with Russian shells exploding forty feet above his concrete reinforced head, and Berlin in flames, it was of course nothing but a pathetic dream. Yet there he is, like Wagner’s Rienzi, bitterly imagining what might have been.”
—Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect

We drove directly to the opera, Charles Garnier’s great neobaroque building. A white-haired attendant accompanied our small group through the deserted building. Hitler had actually studied the plans of the Paris opera house with great care. Near the proscenium box he found a salon missing, remarked on it, and turned out to be right. The attendant said that this room had been eliminated in renovations many years ago.
—Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich

The Guardian, Nov. 29 2002: Mies and the Nazis

And, of course, there was Hitler’s special commission, the complete rebuilding of Berlin, followed by every other major German city.  Hitler so adored Speer’s vast detailed model of a Berlin reborn, complete with ambitious domes and giant’s avenues, that he would gaze lovingly at what might have been while burrowed deep in his bunker in 1945, with the allies at the door.

This war will set us back many years in our building programme. It is a tragedy. I did not become Chancellor of the Greater German Reich to fight wars.
—Adolf Hitler, to his friend August Kubizek, quoted in (Wikipedia: August  Kubizek)

Art historian Birgit Schwarz said in 2009 that historians have consistently underplayed the importance of Hitler’s love of art.  But even Schwarz sees this as important only for making Hitler arrogant.  Oddly, hardly anyone says that Hitler’s decisions were in some way affected by his beliefs about the one thing in life that he seemed to care about most.

Let’s consult a seldom-cited expert on Hitler: Hitler.  Turn with me now to volume 1, chapter 2 in your copies of Mein Kampf.

 

Was Hitler always a racist?

He said no.

p. 52-53:
To-day it is hard and almost impossible for me to say when the word ‘Jew’ first began to raise any particular thought in my mind. I do not remember even having heard the word at home during my father’s lifetime. If this name were mentioned in a derogatory sense I think the old gentleman would just have considered those who used it in this way as being uneducated reactionaries. In the course of his career he had come to be more or less a cosmopolitan, with strong views on nationalism, which had its effect on me as well. In school, too, I found no reason to alter the picture of things I had formed at home. At the Realschule I knew one Jewish boy. We were all on our guard in our relations with him, but only because his reticence and certain actions of his warned us to be discreet. Beyond that my companions and myself formed no particular opinions in regard to him.
It was not until I was fourteen or fifteen years old that I frequently ran up against the word ‘Jew’, partly in connection with political controversies. These references aroused a slight aversion in me, and I could not avoid an uncomfortable feeling which always came over me when I had to listen to religious disputes. But at that time I had no other feelings about the Jewish question.
There were very few Jews in Linz… As I thought that they were persecuted on account of their Faith my aversion to hearing remarks against them grew almost into a feeling of abhorrence. I did not in the least suspect that there could be such a thing as a systematic anti-Semitism.
Then I came to Vienna. [This was in 1908. 92% of Austria’s Jews lived in Vienna in 1934, comprising 10% of Vienna’s population.]

In the Jew I still saw only a man who was of a different religion, and therefore, on grounds of human tolerance, I was against the idea that he should be attacked because he had a different faith. And so I considered that the tone adopted by the anti-Semitic Press in Vienna was unworthy of the cultural traditions of a great people. The memory of certain events which happened in the middle ages came into my mind, and I felt that I should not like to see them repeated. Generally speaking,these anti-Semitic newspapers did not belong to the first rank – but I did not then understand the reason of this – and so I regarded them more as the products of jealousy and envy rather than the expression of a sincere, though wrong-headed, feeling.

Why did Hitler become a racist?

Hitler made 7 claims that he said made him hate the Jews. I’ll spare you the quotations and summarize them:

p. 55: All Jews are secretly Zionists. (I don’t understand why Hitler would have cared.)

p. 56: They created “hideous” art, literature, and drama.

p. 57: They controlled the liberal press.

p. 57: They controlled prostitution and the “whiteslave traffic” [?].

p. 58: They controlled & manipulated the Social Democrats (SDs), whom Hitler hated.

p. 59-60: The SDs use language deceptively and debate dishonestly.

p. 61: Marx was Jewish, and Marxism would end human life on Earth [not sure if this was hyperbole or madness].

He said nothing about bankers.  This is an eccentric list of reasons to hate Jews.  The ones that seemed to be primary, and to upset him the most, were his claims that they made bad art, and that they controlled the SDs.

In my eyes the charge against Judaism became a grave one the moment I discovered the Jewish activities in the Press, in art, in literature and the theatre. All unctuous protests were now more or less futile. One needed only to look at the posters announcing the hideous productions of the cinema and theatre, and study the names of the authors who were highly lauded there in order to become permanently adamant on Jewish questions. Here was a pestilence, a moral pestilence, with which the public was being infected. It was worse than the Black Plague of long ago. … The fact that nine-tenths of all the smutty literature, artistic tripe and theatrical banalities, had to be charged to the account of people who formed scarcely one per cent of the nation—that fact could not be gainsaid.
—p. 56

His charge regarding the SDs is part of his hatred of Marxism.  This seems to have begun earlier, perhaps in 1908, though it’s hard to determine the chronology, as Hitler jumps forward and backward in time in the narrative here without giving dates.  He began a new job and was told he had to join a union.  He refused, indignant at being told what to do.  Over the next few months, the union men, who were social democrats, talked politics during the lunch hour.

But all that I heard had the effect of arousing the strongest antagonism in me. Everything was disparaged – the nation, because it was held to be an invention of the ‘capitalist’ class (how often I had to listen to that phrase!); the Fatherland, because it was held to be an instrument in the hands of the bourgeoisie for the exploitation of’ the working masses; the authority of the law, because that was a means of holding down the proletariat; religion, as a means of doping the people, so as to exploit them afterwards; morality, as a badge of stupid and sheepish docility. There was nothing that they did not drag in the mud.
—p. 43 (volume 1, chapter 1)

He began to argue with them, and they began to argue back, and eventually “ordered me to leave the building or else get flung down from the scaffolding.”  So he quit his job.

He did not say that any of these men were Jews!

There is a long discussion—too long for me to read—of the SDs and the Jews in (Jacobs 1993) chapter 4, “Austrian Social Democrats and the Jews: A Study in Ambivalence”, p. 86-117.  It begins:

The SDAP[Oe] was far less influenced by anti-Semitism than any of its major competitors and was the most important opponent of anti-Semitic political movements.  The SDAP[Oe], moreover, allowed a large number of individuals of Jewish origin to take highly visible roles within the party itself.  It ought also to be noted that the SDAP[Oe] provided both material and moral support for those East European Jewish refugees who continued to live in Vienna during the later years of the First Republic.  These facts notwithstanding, the party publicly claimed that so-called philo-Semitism was every bit as noxious to social democrats as was anti-Semitism, declined opportunities to defend individuals who had been the victims of anti-Semitic attack, and used anti-Semitic stereotypes in its publications…

… and ends…

By the final years of the First Republic, the SDs were receiving approximate ¾ of the Viennese Jewish vote.  But precisely because the SDs understood that they could count on the Jewish vote, the Austrian SD party did not engage in strenuous efforts to solicit Jewish support…  By accepting the premise that Jewish origin was a burden to the party, by allowing unflattering stereotypes to be used in socialist literature, and by refusing to defend Jews per se, Austrian SDs allowed themselves to be put on the defensive.  Precisely because there were so many Jews prominent in Austrian socialist ranks, the defensive policy on the Jewish question followed by the party ultimately tended to undercut the party itself.
—p. 117

Their founder, Victor Adler, had been Jewish, but had converted to Christianity.  And Marx, of course, was genetically Jewish.  But the SDs were not a Jewish party, and would not associate either with Poland’s Jewish Social Democratic Party or with Socialist Zionism.  The chapter says that the SDs were anti-Zionist, because their Jewish members were pro-assimilation and so against Jewish nationalism.  According to Jacobs, they were not so much pro-Jewish as they were less anti-Semitic than everyone else.  But this made them the party of choice for Vienna’s Jews, which was sufficient for Hitler.

 

What did Hitler do and think about in Vienna while he was becoming a racist?

Hitler was orphaned at age 16, and left for Vienna a few months after, in 1908.

I went to Vienna to take the entrance examination for the Academy of Fine Arts…. I felt convinced that I should pass the examination quite easily. At the Realschule I was by far the best student in the drawing class, and since that time I had made more than ordinary progress in the practice of drawing….
But there was one misgiving: It seemed to me that I was better qualified for drawing than for painting, especially in the various branches of architectural drawing. At the same time my interest in architecture was constantly increasing…. I went to the Hof Museum to study the paintings in the art gallery there; but the building itself captured almost all my interest, from early morning until late at night I spent all my time visiting the various public buildings. And it was the buildings themselves that were always the principal attraction for me. For hours and hours I could stand in wonderment before the Opera and the Parliament. The whole Ring Strasse had a magic effect upon me, as if it were a scene from the Thousand-and-one-Nights.

I went to see the Rector and asked him to explain the reasons why they refused to accept me as a student in the general School of Painting… He said that the sketches which I had brought with me unquestionably showed that painting was not what I was suited for but that the same sketches gave clear indications of my aptitude for architectural designing… Within a few days I myself also knew that I ought to become an architect.
—p. 28-29

During the years when he came to hate Jews, Hitler was occupied with art all day, every day, for work, study, and all leisure outside of books.

These were years when well-off Jews in Vienna were a major clientele for modernist designers and architects such as the Wiener Werkstätte and Adolf Loos (BedoireShapira 2016Wikipedia).  Many upper-class Viennese Jews wanted to distance themselves from Zionism and their Jewish heritage and show they were becoming culturally Viennese, and did this by prominently supporting the latest German artistic movements  (Shapira 2006).  Ironically, it was this attempt to assimilate into German culture that led Hitler to hate them—for Hitler hated those artistic movements.

Jews built, or had built for them, structures like this:


The Steiner House, by Adolf Loos, 1910

and this…


The Fagus Factory, by Adolf Meyer, 1913

Hitler was not wrong to associate Jews with the SDs, but he was wrong to identify the Jews among the SDs with the Jews who funded modern art and theatre.  The former were radical Marxists; the latter were the rich bourgeois parents they were rebelling against.

Hitler wrote that, meanwhile, he spent his spare time adoring these classical and Beaux-Arts buildings:


The Hof Museum


The State Opera


The Parliament

Lapham’s Quarterly. Oct. 4 2010: The Master Architect

“In my opinion,” Speer told me as we watched the long slow twilight settle in over the Palatine hills, “Hitler’s true architectural tastes never really progressed beyond the style of the Viennese Ringstrasse which he first set eyes on in 1907 as an impressionable eighteen year old. He arrived from provincial Linz to sit the entrance exam of the visual arts academy, and was bowled over by Null’s opera house and the other grand buildings in the center. Yes, he pretended to embrace a kind of neoclassicism later on and used it to dramatic effect. But deeper down, all his tastes, all his ideas—artistic, architectural, and political—came from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century world of his youth.”

Hitler was obsessed with art and architecture before he was obsessed with Jews.  Jews were a minority among the SDs and among modern artists.  I propose it was only because he was angry about Marxism and art at the same time that he hit on blaming it on the Jews.

 

Art and Genocide

Many of Hitler’s inner circle, notably Goebbels and Goering, were also obsessed with art and architecture.  Hitler even made his architect, Albert Speer, his Minister of Armaments and War Production, apparently so he could talk to him more often about architecture.

Did their hatred of modern art fuel their racism more than their racism fuel their hatred of modern art? [2]  I suspect so.  There was plenty of anti-Semitism in Europe at that time, but as far as I know, it wasn’t usually directed at modern art outside of the Nazi party.  Correct me if I’m wrong.

I eventually found one book that emphasized the importance of art to the Nazis: Michaud & Lloyd’s 2004 The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany.

The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany presents a new interpretation of National Socialism, arguing that art in the Third Reich was not simply an instrument of the regime, but actually became a source of the racist politics upon which its ideology was founded. Through the myth of the “Aryan race,” a race pronounced superior because it alone creates culture, Nazism asserted art as the sole raison d’être of a regime defined by Hitler as the “dictatorship of genius.” Michaud shows the important link between the religious nature of Nazi art and the political movement, revealing that in Nazi Germany art was considered to be less a witness of history than a force capable of producing future, the actor capable of accelerating the coming of a reality immanent to art itself.
—from the jacket cover

Hitler himself wrote (p. 223) that “the struggle between the various species does not arise from a feeling of mutual antipathy but rather from hunger and love.”  There is no doubt he was thinking of his own “struggle” against the Jews, and that was his way of saying that he struggled not because he hated Jews, but because he loved… well, who or what did he love?

He spoke about hypothetical other people being motivated by love of their families, yet he himself apparently loved no one.  He wrote endlessly about loving Germany and Germans in the abstract, but the only named people or things he mentioned having strong positive feelings for were certain buildings in Vienna; the city of Munich, particularly its art; and his father and his mother, who were both dead.

Hitler uses the word “friend” or its inflections 30 times in Mein Kampf: sarcastically on pages 29, 51, 54, 110, 121, 189, 223, 237, 245, 286, and 432; comically on page 71; to refer to political allies on pages 68, 89, 133, 144, 165, 276, 472, 475, 477, 483, and 521; as a very bad way of describing German demands for “Lebensraum” on p. 118; to refer to other people’s friends on p. 281; to talk about worthless friends on p. 284; to describe Destiny on p. 310; and to talk about military comrades, though only in general, on p. 144, 164, 426-427, 513.  It appears he did not, at any time between 1907 and 1924, have a friend.  He had, in fact, had just one friend, for two or more years, August Kubizek (Waite p. 41), but Hitler cut off contact with him in 1908 (Wikipedia: August  Kubizek).

Even when designing cities, he forgot the people.

He had no real interest in the rest of the plan, in residential districts, traffic plans, parks. Obviously I had to deal with those things behind his back. You can’t just have monuments. There must be an organic urban scheme as well. I can hear him now when I showed the other districts of the city I was working on. ‘But where are the plans for the Grand Avenue, Speer? …’ To him it was one gigantic operatic stage.
The Master Architect

In short, Hitler was able to hate so powerfully because he was so passionate about art and architecture.  The only possessions he mentioned in his will, written the day before he shot himself, were his art collection.  In his last minutes, he was not thinking of all the people who had died for him, but of art and of the buildings that would not be born.  One of the last things he said was, “Ah, what an artist dies in me!” (Waite 1977 p. 64) He was a monster to people because he only cared about paintings and buildings.


[1] I use “morals” to mean “values and behavior that benefit the in-group more than the individual.”

[2] The notion that all Nazis hated modern art, or that Hitler and his associates hated all modern art, is incorrect.  In the early
Thirties, there was an internal Nazi debate on the subject, with one group led by Alfred Rosenberg, the party’s ideologue on racial
matters, denouncing all Modernism as “degenerate”. But another, led by the Berlin League of National Socialist Students, argued that
Expressionism had “Nordic roots” and was an integral part of the Nazi revolution” (The Telegraph).  See also  Top Nazis And Their Complicated Relationship With Artists.


References

Fredric Bedoire & Robert Tanner 2004. The Jewish Contribution to Modern Architecture, 1830-1930. Ktav Pub.

Adolf Hitler 1926. Mein Kampf, volumes 1 and 2. Translated 1939 by James Murphy. London: Hurst & Blackett.  I’m using a differently-formatted version of this edition, which has an additional Epilogue and a different pagination, running to 525 pages.  You could probably download it from your friendly neighborhood white supremacist website, but they use huge fonts and never have page numbers.

Jack Jacobs 1993. On Socialists and “the Jewish Question” After Marx. NYC, NY: NYU Press.

Eric Michaud & Janet Lloyd 2004. The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Jonathan Petropoulos 2014. Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Elana Shapira 2006.  “Modernism and Jewish Identity in Early Twentieth-Century Vienna: Fritz Waerndorfer and His House for an Art Lover.” Studies in the Decorative Arts Vol. 13, No. 2 (SPRING-SUMMER 2006), p. 52-92.

Elana Shapira 2016.  Style and Seduction: Jewish Patrons, Architecture, and Design in Fin de Siècle Vienna. Brandeis.

Albert Speer.  Inside the Third Reich. MacMillan.

T. B. L. Webster 1939. Greek Theories of Art and Literature down to 400 B. C.. The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 3/4 (Jul. – Oct., 1939), pp. 166-179.

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The Arian Heresy and the Fall of Rome

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Before talking about the Arian [10] heresy and the fall of Rome, I should probably explain why it’s important to fiction.

The hardest problem in understanding what makes a story good or bad is figuring out what aspects of stories are important because of human nature, and what aspects are important to specific cultures. I approach this by looking for patterns in Western art across history. (I include literature, but it’s usually easier & quicker to see trends in visual art.) No properties of stories or of visual art have remained constant, but some recur continually, some usually appear together, and some never appear together.

The patterns in stories correspond to patterns in the priorities, beliefs, and hegemonic powers of the civilizations that made the stories [13]. Usually, people wrote about why they made art the way they did, and this is a good entry point into decoding the patterns. We can also form and test theories about these correspondences by looking at times when religion, art, politics, and technology had strong effects on each other. A rough summary of my conclusion is that there is an art of order and an art of chaos, and major artistic clashes represent political differences over whether society needs more order, unity, and stasis, or more freedom, diversity, and change.

This post is about one such time: the Arian controversy in the Christian church. I don’t care about the controversy itself; I’m interested in its political consequences. So I’ll spend little time on the theological disputes of the 4th century, and more on the wars of the 5th and 6th centuries.

Here I’m looking not at art, but at religion. The controversy is relevant to art because it used religion the same way art is sometimes used: it sublimated a political dispute into a dispute that was reputedly more high-minded and noble, and which, by virtue of being thought of as more noble, was ironically more able to incite people to kill.

The episode is interesting because the participants openly admitted how religion motivated their violence. Art may help inspire people to violence, as we’ll see in my posts on WW1 and WW2, but those people seldom admit it afterwards. Here we have, if anything, the opposite problem–the suspicion that people may have overstated the degree to which their violence was inspired by religion.

A cheap way of summarizing it would be to say that the Arian challenge was a bid for freedom of thought, and the Catholic response proved that they would rather destroy civilization than allow that. That overstates the degree to which it was a conscious choice, though. I still blame the Church for being unreasonable, but I don’t think the church elders meant to start a war. But when secular leaders needed (or wanted) to take military action, the links between church and state made most conflicts line up along the same axis across Europe.

By itself, this post may not seem relevant to understanding art. But with a series of similar posts, we can begin connecting the dots of art, religion, and politics. I’ve already written one giving an overview across history, one on the Iliad, one on medieval art which I need to rewrite, one on modernism and World War 1, and one on the Nazis and art. I also want to write one about the role of real numbers in the Renaissance, one on the similarities and differences between Stalinist, fascist, modern, medieval Catholic, and primitive art, and one tracing the cultures at war in America’s current political disputes back to the different cultures that colonized the United States. [12]

I’ve studied this history for a few weeks, and some people have studied it their entire lives, so this may be bollocks. But all of these posts are going to be like that.

That said, let’s look at one of the most literally epic fails in history, the story of how the Roman civilization tore itself to shreds and brought on the Dark Age thanks to a 500-year theological dispute over whether Jesus and God the Father were con-substantial, or merely of like essence.

If you don’t know what that means, don’t worry. None of the people who fought over it did, either.


[10] “Arian” and “Aryan” have nothing to do with each other, except that “Aryan” is sometimes misspelled “Arian”, and Google will often “helpfully” change “Arian” to “Aryan” in searches.

[12] I’d like to learn and write about the relationships between Romanticism and Marxism, and between the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and neo-classicism, though I’m afraid that may be prohibitively complex and time-consuming. In case I never post the one on the colonial US, I’d mostly be repeating stuff from Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. It’s like a cross between The Nine Nations of North America and Albion’s Seed.

[13] I have already concluded that the variability in literatures is greater than the variability in human nature, and that this is because hegemonic powers allow people to tell only the kinds of stories which the powers think are advantageous to them.

(The rest of the footnotes are at the end of the post.)


Rome and the Barbarians

One traditional date for the fall of Rome, that used by Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), is 476 A.D., when Flavius Odoacer deposed the Western Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus.

A problem with this date is that “Emperor” Romulus had been appointed Emperor by a rebel general, and was not recognized by the Roman Senate. Odoacer was not a Roman citizen, but was an officer in the Roman army, and had the support of the Roman Senate, and ruled Italy for many years afterwards in the name of Rome, in theory subordinate to the Senate and/or Emperor (when one existed), following Roman laws and maintaining Roman institutions. Saying Rome fell in 476 because Odoacer took over is a little like saying America fell in 1960 because an Irish-Catholic American became President.

Many history books say that the Germanic tribes became more and more important militarily in late Rome because Romans didn’t want to serve in the military anymore. This is an absurd claim which is either false, or is covering up the reason why Romans wouldn’t serve in the military. There must have been some reason–the Roman Senate couldn’t pay them, the Church said they shouldn’t, something. Possibly there were too few Romans to run an empire, or the Romans came to trust the Germans more as they became more Roman.

Anyway, the Western Roman Empire kept on Roming for many years after 476, but its people were increasingly of Germanic descent. They weren’t barbarians who burned Roman cities and destroyed their art. Often they built better buildings and made better art.

I included this famous mosaic of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian in a post I haven’t posted yet, as an example of how much better Roman and Dark Age art was than Christian representational art of the High Middle Ages.

It turns out this mosaic is as much barbarian as it is Roman. There’s a very similar mosaic in a nearby Arian basilica, made at the same time, likely by the same person, which is probably of the Ostrogoth emperor Theodoric. Both emperors are wearing not Roman crowns, but Lombard crowns, like this one:

Golden crown of the Langobardian queen Teodelinda, circa 590 [7]

The Justinian mosaic is in this basilica in Ravenna, Italy:

Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

The Romans had moved their capital to Ravenna by the time the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410. Odoacer, the barbarian of unknown ethnicity who overthrew the emperor in 476, did so in Ravenna. The Ostrogoths captured it in 493. The basilica was built during the rule of the Ostrogoths, for a Roman Catholic bishop, and paid for by a Roman citizen. It was started in 527 A.D. and finished in 547, 7 years after the Byzantine (Eastern) Romans conquered the city.

Is it Roman, or Ostrogothic? The distinction is meaningless. Ravenna was culturally Roman the whole time. The Ostrogoths were Arian instead of Catholic, but they didn’t interfere with Catholic worship.

The Ostrogoths have a more-secure claim to be the sole builders of this originally-Arian basilica:

Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

… and of Theodoric’s tomb:

The Visigoths weren’t shabby, either:

[1]

Oh, and the barbarians wrote books.

Codex Argenteus, circa 520 A.D., one of the three surviving books in Gothic

Books which have nearly all vanished today, because nobody copied them, because nobody could read them. [6] Because the people who made those buildings were replaced by the people who made… this one.

Baptistery of St. John, Poitiers, France

This was built by the Franks, the people who conquered Western Europe (except for Spain and Britain) from the other Germanic tribes in the name of defeating Arianism. It’s one of their most-impressive remaining pieces of architecture from that time.


The Arian Heresy

The early Catholic Church did not have a doctrine of the Trinity. They said that Jesus was definitely God, and God the Father was definitely God, but Jesus was definitely not God the Father. Also, Jesus was definitely God the Father’s son, but God the Father definitely did not exist before Jesus. The Arian heresy was the first of many attempts to make sense of that, all of which were declared heretical by today’s Catholic Church. It begins by saying Jesus was God’s begotten (biologically-ish fathered) son, since that was what the Bible appeared to say in several places.

The opponents of the Arians are sometimes called Athanasian, Trinitarian, Catholic, or Orthodox. Athanasian is too specific, the doctrine of the Trinity was not developed until the late 4th century, and Catholic and Orthodox effectively just mean “the winners.” I’ll use the term Nicene, because the first formulation in reaction against Arianism was the Nicene Creed. It says you have to believe the aforementioned contradictory things, and it’s a Mystery. The Nicenes say the Arians deny Jesus divinity, but that’s only if you use the Nicene definition of divinity.

Other ways of making sense of the Trinity include Monophysitism, which says that whatever Jesus is, he’s one kind of thing, can we agree on that? No; the official position is that Jesus has two natures at the same time, and it’s a Mystery. So a third position, Miaphysitism, tries to compromise between these positions…

… look, you really don’t want to know [2]. The point is that people killed each other and countries had wars and civil wars over “Christology”, the study of the ontology of Jesus, a thing not one person in Europe understood, because at base it made no sense. The Arian Wars were one part of an even larger, longer battle between people who wanted to make sense of the Trinity, and a Church which had taken a stand and would not tolerate dissent nor legitimize this dangerous “making sense” idea. A partial account is in Philip Jenkins’ The Jesus Wars, which I haven’t read, but which sounds like the most fun book ever written on 5th-century Christian theology. [8]

Fighting over it isn’t as stupid as it sounds, because one real issue at stake was freedom of thought [3]. The Arian Wars were the first conclusive test of the question, “Can Christians disagree with official Church doctrine on points that the Bible gives no remotely clear answer to, which have no effect on behavior or salvation, and that nobody understands anyway?” The Church’s determined answer [5] was, “No.” It was the principle of the thing. Arianism stood for free thought, and it had to be stamped out.


The Arian Wars

There are lots of theories over what caused “Rome’s” fall. If we restate this slightly and ask, “Why did Roman culture fall?” or “What caused the Dark Ages?”, the most-obvious answer is, “The Christology Wars.”

Googling “Arian Wars” turns up mostly pages about an online Star Wars roleplaying game. Here’s a quote from the first non-Star-Wars-related Google hit:

Gregory Nazianzen, who lived in Constantinople in the midst of the Arian wars, describes the division and hostility which this polemic spirit introduced between parents and children, husbands and wives, old and young, masters and slaves, priests and people. “It has gone so far that the whole market resounds with the discourses of heretics, every banquet is corrupted by this babbling even to nausea, every merrymaking is transformed into a mourning, and every funeral solemnity is almost alleviated by this brawling as a still greater evil; even the chambers of women, the nurseries of simplicity, are disturbed thereby, and the flowers of modesty are crushed by this precocious practice of dispute.”
–Philip Schaff, 1910, The Christian Church from the 1st to the 20th Century, vol 3, chapter 9, sections 117-119 (no page numbers)

Some more chosen at random:

The church was no fooner delivered from external opprefion, but unhappy differences were fomented within itſelf, and its concord broken by internal diffentions. Amongſt thefe, few were more fatal than the controverfies between Arius, a preſbyter of the church of Alexandria, and Alexander, a biſhop of the fame city, concerning the divinity of Jefus Chrift. This difpute confuſed, and deſtroyed, the peace of the church in almoſt every corner.
–Joseph Strutt, 1779, The Chronicle of England, part III, p. 206

The father of Constantius, Constantine the Great, is undoubtedly responsible for having communicated to Christianity that secular character, which, during succeeding centuries, gave the Church so much sway over the temporal affairs of the world, as totally for a time to submerge the spiritual simplicity of its original… The peace of the empire was disturbed by the conflicts between Arius and Athanasius. Constantius was an Arian, and, though our ecclesiastical writers were too courtly to charge on the emperor all the evils which his Arian bias occasioned, yet they spare no abuse in describing the pestilential nature of the doctrines. “The holy union,” continues Gildas, “between Christ the Head and the members of His Church, was interrupted by the Arian treason, which, fatal as a serpent, and vomiting its poison from beyond the sea, caused deadly dissension between brothers inhabiting the same house, and thus, as if a road were made across the sea, like wild beasts of all descriptions, and darting the poison of every heresy from their jaws,they inflicted dreadful wounds upon their country, which is ever desirous to hear something new, and remains constant long to nothing.”
–J. A . Giles, 1847, History of the Ancient Britons, chpt. 19, p. 313-314

Gildas was plagiarizing Bede:

The churches of Britain remained at peace until the time of the Arian madness, which corrupted the whole world and even infected this island, sundered so far from the rest of its mankind, with the poison of its error. This quickly opened up the way for every foul heresy from across the Ocean to pour into an island which always delights in hearing something new and holds firmly to no sure belief.
–Bede, 731, quoted in Rowley p. 79

The Lombard invasion [in 553] brought into the church’s territory a large number of refugees, and the Roman population recovered some of its old energy in the double hatred for barbarians and Arians.
–Williams, p. 531

Those quotes testify to a furor over Arianism in Rome and in three corners of the Roman Empire–Britain, Constantinople, and Alexandria. The city of Rome was ruled by Arian emperors from 335-378 [11] and 476-538, and had four waves of imperial persecution–three persecuting Arians, and one persecuting Niceans. Church and State were not separate; the Emperor ruled the Church and used it as a political tool–which meant schisms over doctrine were a form of rebellion against the Emperor. (The Empire during most of this time period had two emperors at the same time, which made this especially awkward when they disagreed.)

How important was Arianism and the Arian Wars?

Let’s look at a map of Europe in 500 A.D.:

Here’s a map of Europe in 500 A.D. [14], with diagonal white stripes across the Nicene territories and horizontal black stripes across the Arian territories:

europead500.jpg

Here’s another map, with diagonal white stripes across the territories of cultures that survived into the 9th century, and horizontal black stripes across the cultures that were conquered, enslaved, dispersed, or exterminated:

europead500.jpg

Notice it’s the same map.

The Arian Wars extended beyond this map. All of North Africa, and most of Syria and Armenia, were Arian or something like it–they all rejected the 451 A.D. Definition of Chalcedon, which was supposed to lay Arianism to rest. The parts of those areas that broke free of Rome were all reconquered by Justinian in the 6th century, then soon after overrun by Persians and/or Muslims.

All these people would have fought wars anyway. But it was the injection of a two-sided religious controversy into the political area that wrecked western Europe. Everyone had to line up on one side or the other of the religious controversy, and that polarization turned what had been an assortment of independent conflicts into one Great War of extermination. Ordinary conflicts would have resulted in treaties and shifting alliances, but the Arian Wars weren’t stopped until one side–the Arians–was eliminated. Some by the Franks, and the rest hung out to dry when the Muslim invasions came.

We call the Dark Age (~400-800 A.D.) “dark” because we don’t know what happened, because we have few books. History books say that classical writings fell out of use in the desperate Dark Age, only to be recovered in the 8th-9th centuries from Ireland, Spain, and Rome (Wolff), and in 12th-13th centuries from Constantinople (see e.g. Recovery of Aristotle). In other words, mostly from those areas of Europe which had not been Arian, and remained loyal to the Latin Church, and so kept copying books in Latin or Greek.

Well, maybe. But the Arians built cathedrals and monasteries. They had monks. Maybe they wrote books, and the Catholics burned the books because they were Arian, or let them rot because they couldn’t read them. Maybe the multiple cultural genocides of the Arian Wars, which saw the settled, sophisticated, Romanized, Arian “barbarian” cultures wiped out by the less-sophisticated Franks by 800 A.D., turned the centuries before them into a Dark Age retrospectively, and lost everything that had been set down in Gothic and other writing.

A civilization might make no books, or a civilization might make a lot of books–but three books? That’s like finding a civilization that made three automobiles.

“Guys, let’s make an alphabet. Then we’ll build a monastery and teach a bunch of monks how to read. Then we can train them in calligraphy, and develop parchment and inks and staining and bookbinding. Then we’ll learn how to inlay gold and silver leaf on the lettering. Then we can make a book.”

“No way, man. If we go to all that work, we ought to make, like, three books.”

It might seem unlikely that they could have written many books, and left only three–but how many Roman manuscripts are left? The Roman composition of which we have the most ancient copies, and which was by far its most-popular and most-quoted work–it’s said we could reconstruct the entire text from quotations of it–is the Aeneid, written in the first century B.C.. We have only four nearly-complete copies from the 4th and 5th centuries (Frieze & Dennison p. 24). All of our many other copies, are copies of copies of copies of copies of copies. Julius Caesar’s accounts of the Gallic Wars are perhaps the next most-famous and popular Roman writings, but there are no Roman copies of it–the oldest manuscripts are three partial copies made in the 9th century.

And how many of the writings of Arius do we have–the writings that began the Great Arian War, that were followed by all Western Europe at one time or another? Nothing but a few letters–because the Catholics burned everything else. The emperors Constantine and Honorius prescribed death for anyone who did not hand over any writings of Arius to be burnt (Penny Cyclopedia, “Office, Holy”, p. 406; many other sources as well). Emperor Theodosius also burned his writings. (I’m not sure he condemned people who hid his books to death, though that was standard Roman practice regarding books you didn’t want people to read.)

What would a good Catholic conqueror have done, confronted with a Gothic codex he could not read? Trust a Goth that it didn’t say anything Arian, and maybe risk death? Or burn it?


Emperor Constantine burning Arian books. Manuscript CLXV, Biblioteca Capitolare, Vercelli, Italy, 825.


The Importance of Pretending to be Earnest

Did any of these rulers, or their subjects, really care about doctrine?

As far as I can tell, some of them cared quite a lot about doctrine. The large fraction of emperors in the 4th and 5th centuries who adopted a position contrary to most of their subjects in this and other controversies, and so caused themselves great difficulties, suggests sincerity.

They certainly cared about what people said they cared about. Religious beliefs about things no one understood weren’t beliefs in any meaningful sense; they were political claims about who had religious authority. Why did the Byzantines ally in the Great War with the Franks, a still culturally-pagan people, against the Romanized Goths and Vandals? The only answer I’ve found in history books is, Because Clovis was Catholic. A Catholic whose subjects still sometimes made pagan sacrifices, but, hey, at least he wasn’t Arian. That was, as shown above, a Big Deal. The Byzantines couldn’t and wouldn’t ally themselves with Arians.

Let’s look at a little bit of the timeline–mostly the war parts–to see how much Arianism mattered.

 

325 A.D., Council of Nicea

This was the council emperor Constantine called to resolve the dispute between Arius and Athanasius. It produced the Nicene Creed and anathematized Arianism.

 

439 A.D., Vandal occupation of Carthage

I watched a BBC video on the fall of Carthage–the second fall, when the Vandals took it in 439–which said that the Vandals just walked into the city on a day with a really important set of Hippodrome races, and the Romans thought it was more important to finish the races than to fight them off.

This seems highly unlikely, but Wikipedia backs it up. And Wikipedia can’t be wrong!

I still thought that sounded fishy, so I looked to see if there were a religious aspect. There was. Carthage was the stronghold of Donatism, a Catholic heresy which began with “we don’t want to take communion from priests who cooperated with the persecution of Christians,” then progressed to “we won’t take communion from priests ordained by those priests,” and so on. It was persecuted severely by the Romans for over a hundred years (thanks largely to Augustine, patron saint of kicking the shit out of other Christians for obscure theological differences [9]) before the “fall” of Carthage. The Vandals were Arians, so they freed Carthage from the Roman church, which is what Carthage had been struggling for since about 313 AD. That’s probably why the Carthaginians let the Vandals walk in.

(Then the Vandals persecuted them for being Nicene.)

 

451 A.D., Council of Chalcedon, near Constantinople

This council met to try to resolve the Arian controversy. The result was a permanent estrangement between European Christianity, which accepted the council’s creed, and the Church in the Middle East and Africa, which did not. This critically weakened Byzantium and helped the Muslims conquer those regions which had split from the Roman church.

 

sometime by the 490s A.D., Franks conquer Western Roman Empire

Once Clovis had conquered all the Franks and Western Romans left to conquer, he wanted to keep on conquering his neighbors. To do that, he needed an alliance with somebody who wasn’t his neighbor, and the best candidate was the Eastern Romans (the Byzantines). This would be kind of awkward, as he’d just conquered what remained of independent Western Rome. How could he make peace with them?

 

variously reported as 493, 496, 497, or 498 A.D., Frankish king Clovis I converts to Catholicism

The pagan king Clovis suddenly converted to Catholicism, and all his people (according to Bishop Gregory of Tours) welcomed this change. So did the Byzantines. Now they had one potential Catholic ally in Europe.

 

507 A.D., defeat of the Visigoths by Clovis I of the Franks

Clovis said that he made war against the Visigoths to rescue his Germanic brethren from the Arian heresy. I have read a quote by him to this effect, but I can’t find it now, darn it. In any case, the Franks allied themselves permanently with the Roman Catholic church.

The Frankish monarchy became the ardent supporter of the papacy during the early Middle Ages. Frankish kings crossed the Alps many times to save the Roman bishop from his [Arian] enemies in Italy.
–Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, p. 123

It is evident, from the language of Gregory of Tours, that this conflict between the Franks and the Visigoths was regarded by the orthodox party of his own and preceding ages as a religious war, on which, humanly speaking, the prevalence of the Catholic or the Arian creed in western Europe depended.
–Walter Copland Perry, The Franks, from their first appearance in history to the death of King Pepin, p. 85.
This quote and many more from http://www.patmospapers.com/daniel/in508.htm

Among all the Germanic nations, the Franks alone had become Catholic from their first rise in the provinces of the Roman Empire. This acknowledgment of the Roman see had secured important advantages to the Frankish nation. In the Catholic subjects of their Arian enemies, the western Goths and Burgundians, the Franks found natural allies. We read so much of the miracles by which Clovis was favoured — how St. Martin showed him the ford over the Vienne by means of a hind, how St. Hilary preceded his armies
in a column of fire — that we shall not greatly err if we conclude these legends to shadow forth the material succours afforded by the [Nicene] natives to those who shared their creed, and for whom, according to Gregory of Tours, they desired victory “with eager inclination.”
–Williams, p. 525

The Great Arian War began in earnest at this point, as an alliance between the Franks, the Catholic Church, and the Byzantines, against all the rest of Western Europe and North Africa, and sometimes even the Persians, who synchronized their invasion of the Byzantine Empire with the Ostrogoths.

 

533-554 A.D., Justinian’s reconquista

This was the other major action in the Great Arian War. Justinian’s armies reconquered much of the Western Roman Empire from Arians in just 20 years, but the effort left his empire so weakened that it was torn apart from all sides almost immediately after he died in 565, leading directly to the Dark Age.

Justinian seems to have been genuinely interested in theology, but is usually said to have waged war motivated by the desire to recreate the Roman Empire. This was, however, in the wake of hostility between the Byzantines and the Ostrogoths created by the Arian controversy. All the monarchs in this conflict probably just wanted to fight and expand their land, but the interweaving of church and state made it impractical for anyone to ally with someone on the other side of the Arian controversy.

With the ascension of Justin I in 518, a more harmonious relationship seemed to be restored. Eutharic, Theoderic’s son-in-law and designated successor, was appointed consul for the year 519, while in 522, to celebrate the healing of the Acacian schism, Justin allowed both consuls to be appointed by Theoderic [the Arian Goth]. Soon, however, renewed tension would result from Justin’s anti-Arian legislation, and tensions grew between the Goths and the [Roman] Senate, whose members, as Chalcedonians [non-Arians], now shifted their support to the [Byzantine] Emperor.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ostrogothic_Kingdom

774 A.D., Charlemagne conquers the Lombards

Charlemagne conquered the Lombards, the last free Arians. Charlemagne was a fanatical Catholic, although his grasp of theology is questionable, as it was his practice to offer conquered people a choice between Catholicism, or death.

The Carolingian Emperor Charlemagne led a series of campaigns against the Saxons, a Germanic tribe, in order to pressure them to convert to Christianity. This included the destruction of the Saxons’ holy site at Irminsul and the massacre of 4500 Saxon captives at Verden in 782. Three years later the Saxon leadership and peoples surrendered and accepted baptism.
How Christianity came to Europe

Charlemagne called his empire the Holy Roman Empire, a name which was ridiculed in the 20th century. It is accurate, however, in that the Franks’ two main allies in the 300-year battle to create this empire were the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church.


In summary, it’s a reasonable hypothesis that Western Europe’s “Dark Age” of 400-800 A.D. appears dark mainly because Western Europe was ruled entirely by people who were wiped out, and their writings destroyed or simply not copied, in a 300-year-long war to wipe out Arianism and re-establish the Roman (Catholic) Empire.

Even if that’s not true, it seems that the Arian controversy increased the cultural destructiveness of the wars. Perhaps just as many battles would have been fought without the Arian controversy, but it does not seem likely that the large alliance needed to wipe out all six Arian kingdoms could have been maintained for 300 years if a two-sided religious dispute had not made alternative alliances impossible. What probably would have happened is that the different kingdoms would have fought each other sporadically, power-balancing politics would have favored the weak, and cultural transfer would have had more time to preserve knowledge of the period.

You might wonder whether or not people intended for their argument about religion to have these effects. If we’re asking about the “purpose” of religion, though, then this might not matter. If you think that religion is a product of rationality and proceeds rationally, then that would be a reasonable question. If you think religion evolved to serve a social function, then whether or not something was the intent of the human agents that caused it is irrelevant to whether that is its function.


[1] Lombards and Vandal architecture is, unfortunately, un-googlable, the Vandals because “vandal architecture” returns lists of vandalized architecture, and the Lombards because the region of Italy where they lived is called Lombardy and “Lombard architecture” is used for much-later Carolingian architecture built in Lombardy.

[2] If you really do want to know, start by word-searching your Bible for the phrase “only begotten”. You’ll find several verses calling Jesus God’s only begotten son, including the famous John 3:16. Here’s where that word came from:

Greek monogenes → Latin unigenitus → English “only-begotten”

Christians are still fighting over this translation. Orthodox Nicenes say that monogenes refers to something that is “the chosen one,” something in a special relationship. (The Wikipedia page on monogenes was written by such anti-Arian propagandists.) Evil heretics point out that ancient Greeks only used the word to refer to sons or daughters or metaphorical fatherings, so “genesis”, a kind of creation, is still part of the meaning in any case, so the word still imples that Jesus was a creation and the focus on “the special one” (the “mono” part) is a smokescreen. St. Jerome, who chose the word “unigenitus”, did so in the middle of a fierce Arian war in Rome itself in 383 A.D., and may have chosen that word to be anti-Arian, though I see it as pro-Arian. On the other hand, it’s the obvious literal translation of monogenes. It has been dropped from many modern translations–according to some Christians, for being pro-Arian, and according to others, for being anti-Arian.

The Arians have been dead for over a thousand years, so this continued vigilance against them might surprise you if you aren’t familiar with the Catholic Church. A better discussion of the issues re. the translations is here, and a reasonable defense of the orthodox view is here, and you can find many others, though honestly I don’t advise reading any of them. The discussion itself is ultimately nonsense–a twisting of words trying to find some way of resolving Bible passages that are either contradictory, or so metaphorical that they shouldn’t be interpreted in such corporeal ways. What’s important is its consequences.

[3] It may also have been a political power-play. Some contemporary historians think that the “Arian heresy” was the majority view of the original Church, and that the now-“orthodox” view was a doctrine that a radical group used to take over. Citation needed, but I’ve got to finish this and you can look it up yourself if you care. Personally, I think that the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were Arian, while the book of John and the writings of Paul were Nicene. I have a very high opinion of the authority of Mark; I think it’s the only book in the New Testament which might have information about the historical Jesus. I have a low opinion of the book of John and the writings of Paul; I consider them to be full of fanciful, invented theology, apparently written in ignorance of the events and the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels, and they contain most of the objectionable parts of the New Testament. Together with Revelations, they are the parts of the New Testament which should not have been included. So perhaps I would be Arian if I were Christian.

[5] It’s only fair to note that the people who turned the Arian controversy hot and dangerous were a series of Roman emperors–Constantine (mostly Nicene), Valentius (Arian), and Theodosius (Nicene).

[6] There are still some northern Italians who call themselves Lombards today, but AFAIK no Goths, Vandals, Burgundians, or Huns since the 7th century. What happened to them?

The Romans dispersed the Vandals. The Ostrogoths joined up with the Lombards. The Merovingian and Carolingian (Frankish) kings constantly raided their neighboring kingdoms for slaves (Wolff 1968), so it’s a good guess that the Franks enslaved the other tribes they conquered, which was all of Western Europe except Britain, Spain, and the heel of Italy. That may have been how serfdom originated. Procopius of Caesarea, a historian who travelled with the Roman general Belisarius, wrote that the Franks

began to sacrifice the women and children of the Goths whom they had found at hand and to throw their bodies into the river as the first fruits of war. For these barbarians , though they had become Christians, preserve the greater part of their ancient religion; for they still make human sacrifices and other sacrifices of an unholy nature, and it is in connection with these that they make their prophecies.
–(De Bello Gothico, 6.25.1-18)

However, he also wrote that Justinian was a demon whose head sometimes vanished, so take that with a grain of salt.

[7] This is weird, since neither the Romans nor the Ostrogoths were Lombards. Possibly Odoacer was. If anybody can clear this up for me, please do.

[8] In between the time when the Western Roman Empire tore itself apart over Christology, and the time when the Western and Eastern Church ruptured over Christology, the Eastern Roman Empire nearly destroyed itself over whether drawing pictures of saints was evil.

[9] Also patron saint of kicking your common-law wife and son out into the street in order to be ordained as a bishop.

[11] I’m counting Constantine I’s last 2 years as pro-Arian, because he recalled Arius from exile and exiled Athanaius.

[14] Based on one from timemaps.com.


References

The Venerable Bede 731. Ecclesiastical History. (Latin; Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum)

Earle E. Cairns 1954. Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church.

Henry Frieze & Walter Dennison, editors, 1902. Virgil’s Aeneid, Books 1-12. New York City: American Book Company.

J.A. Giles 1847. History of the Ancient Britons, from the Earliest Period to the Invasion of the Saxons. London: George Bell, 186 Fleet Street.

The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge 1840. Penny Cyclopaedia, vol. 16: Murillo–Organ. London: Charles Knight & Co., 22 Ludgate St.

Walter Copland Perry 1857. The Franks, from their first appearance in history to the death of King Pepin. London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts.

Sharon M. Rowley 2011. The Old English Version of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica. D. S. Brewer.

Philip Schaff 1910. The Christian Church from the 1st to the 20th Century.

Joseph Strutt 1779. The Chronicle of England; or, A compleat history, civil, military and ecclesiastical, of the ancient Britons and Saxons, from the landing of Julius Caesar in Britain, to the Norman conquest. London: Printed by Joseph Cooper for T. Evans in Pater Noster Row and Robert Faulder No. 42 New Bond Street.

Henry Smith Williams 1907. The Historians’ History of the World, vol 8: Parthians, Sassanids, and Arabs; the crusades and the Papacy. London & NYC: Hooper & Jackson.

Philippe Wolff 1968. The Cultural Awakening. New York: Pantheon. (A book on several key figures of the early middle ages.)

Writing: Plotters and pantsers in other walks of life, and Commedia dell’Arte

Standard

To plot, or not to plot?

You know about the eternal feud friendly debates between plotters and pantsers, right?  Plotters make a plot outline or at least know how a story will end before they write it.  (Seat-of-the)-pantsers don’t, saying they need the spontaneity to make characters come to life.

I have a book on management called Maestro: A surprising story about leading by listening.  It’s a story of an executive learning how to manage from a great orchestra conductor.  Partly, it’s about how the leader communicates a grand vision without micro-managing and in a way that allows the input of the players to influence the vision.

I just saw the title of another book, Organizational Jazz: Extraordinary performance through extraordinary leadership.  Presumably this is about an executive learning how to manage from a jazz band.  Presumably, this executive will not learn how to communicate a grand vision to his team, but how to train his team to work improvisationally.

It struck me that symphony orchestras are plotters, and jazz bands are pantsers.  (And, apparently, executives can be plotters or pantsers, too.)

This is a significant clue–that an entire genre of music may lend itself to either plotting or pantsing.

Computer programmers can also be plotters or pantsers.  A plotter makes a complete requirements specification, then does a top-down design.  Now, a coding pantser doesn’t just sit down and start writing code at the beginning, stop when she reaches the end, and try to compile it.  (Well, I started out writing code that way, and now I’ve written enough code that sometimes I can do it that way, but only to show off.)  A code pantser might not write down a list of requirements, but might instead start coding up little object classes that he’s pretty sure he’s going to need, in a bottom-up approach.  A code-pantser will probably use an incremental design, first developing the simplest version of the program that can run, maybe with lots of functionality dummied or stubbed.

People in other occupations can also probably be plotters or pantsers.  Parents, military leaders, and pickup artists can all plan what they’re going to do in detail, or wing it.  I don’t know, but I’m going to guess that not only are different people more inclined toward one approach or the other, but also one approach or the other is better for different kinds of kids, battles, and women.

 

Commedia dell’Arte

For an example closer to writing, consider live theater.  A performance can rely on plotting or pantsing actors.  Shakespeare wrote down every word for every actor.  At the same time, the most-popular performances on the continent were Italian Commedia dell’Arte. These were improvisational plays (usually comedies) in which the actors would, without the aide of a writer, construct by mere permutation one variation on a standard plot structure using a standard cast of characters, maybe rehearse it once, then jump on stage and improvise.

In a basic commedia scenario, there is an initial conflict between the older generation and the younger generation about the choice of a marital partner.  Through machinations of the old and the young, carried out by their servants, the conflict is eliminated, predominantly through the actions of the servants.  Additional complications occur through the middle of the plot, but all is eventually settled, ends happily, and the young people get married.

–Dina Ternullo,  Characters & Scenarios of Early Commedia dell’Arte (2016, The Compleat Anachronist #172), p. 33

Typically, the story would involve two noble houses, and at least one young man and young woman from opposite houses who fall in love over the objections of both houses’ patriarchs (C&SoECdA p. 38).  (The story would not involve love between people of the same gender or of different social classes.)

CdA operated in a time when the Italian Church and state were simultaneously weak and at odds with each other, and could be played off each other to avoid censorship and control.  The Church still forbade women to perform on stage, but the commedians just did it anyway, and this–having beautiful women perform in public–was one of their main appeals.  The improvisation was partly to evade censorship. The authorities couldn’t censor a script that didn’t exist.

The character of these two types of plays are radically different.  A Shakespeare play is tightly controlled; the actors, even in a farce, walk naturally and act somewhat like real people.  CdA, on the other hand, resembles a Keystone Kops show: rapid, out-of-control farce.  The pace is faster.  The actors exaggerate every line and every action wildly, stomping about on stage, shouting and being as emotional as possible.  The stomping and shouting of Commedia actors was one of the regular background noises at Pennsic.

The reason Shakespeare comedies are so bad is that Shakespeare was trying to adapt the Commedia for the English stage, as shown by the fact that many (most?) of his comedies are commedia scenarios using commedia characters, often set in an Italian city-state.  Commedia troupes were very popular, but weren’t allowed to perform in England because they used female actors.

According to Characters & Scenarios of Early Commedia dell’ArteTwelfth Night, which I think I’ve mentioned two or five times is a terrible play, was based on a 1532 commedia erudita (early Commedia dell’Arte) named Gli inganniti.  But the plot of a Commedia is farcical, and only goes over right with a farcical, pantser performance, not with naturalistic acting and Shakespearian elevated speech.  Shakespeare was possibly the worst possible playwright to try to adapt the Commedia.

On the other hand, changing a Commedia plot into a tragedy gave him Romeo and Juliet.

So a big part of the answer to “Plot or pants?” is probably, “Depends what you want to write.” I mean, obviously you want to plot a mystery novel. But some styles of story probably benefit from coming off the cuff. Say, a wacky absurdist comedy like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which Douglas Adams wrote like a fanfiction, writing each episode after broadcasting the previous one.

(Okay, that’s a lame and obvious conclusion. Mostly I wanted to tell you about Commedia dell’Arte.)

Pretentiousness comes from modern art comes from Plato

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Ross James just posted a great essay, Annihilation — on Pretentiousness in Media. I feel like he’s saved me a blog post; I would’ve had to have written something similar eventually.

It’s on his Patreon site, but if I’m reading the tags right, it’s free to read. Some excerpts:

… if being entertaining was the primary objective of media, The Room would be a fantastic movie. We can say that The Room is a terrible movie while also being entertained by it, so we need to understand what other criteria we are thinking about when we call a movie ‘good’ or ‘bad’. … The danger is that when your meaning isn’t clear, when your story isn’t well delivered, the criticism doesn’t get directed at the work. …

A symptom of this is, strangely, a certain style of debate about the analysis of your movie. In a well-constructed movie, ideas about what something means are tied back to elements of the movie as evidence. [Analyzing?] Movies that fall into the pitfall of pretension — or the kind I have roughly laid out in my mind — are more about explaining what a scene had to mean by tying ideas to it. Think about the debate about the spinning top in Inception; they focus on trying to debate what scenes were actually trying to say first before they can work out what they actually meant.

In other words: If you’re spending more effort trying to figure out what the story said than you are re-evaluating your beliefs in light of what the story said, the story may be pretentious. If the story is difficult because the subject matter is difficult, that’s legit, but if it’s difficult because the author didn’t try to make it clear, or deliberately made it unclear, that’s pretentious.

(I’m okay with the spinning top in Inception, because the question left unanswered, as to whether the final world is real or not, is a question the characters are themselves asking. It’s not something you have to answer to interpret the story; it’s part of the story.)

James’ essay elaborates on this. He doesn’t, however, explain where this trend over the past century for “great” art to be pretentious came from. It’s actually deliberate.

Persian Flaws

There’s supposedly an old Persian tradition that every carpet made must have a deliberate flaw in it, because “only Allah makes things perfectly, and therefore to weave a perfect rug or carpet would be an offence to Allah.”

Hopefully you see the flaw in the reasoning: If only Allah makes things perfectly, you don’t have to worry about creating something perfect. This alleged tradition has always struck me as tremendously arrogant–an artist supposing she or he could create a perfect work.

Modern (20th-century) art and literature suffers the same arrogance. We see this first in the great stress that modern artists and modernist writers placed on reminding the viewer or reader that their art was not reality, but just a picture of reality.

Caption: “This is not a pipe”

The most-common justification for this obsession was the idea that art was a tool of the bourgoisie, used to suppress the proletariat by showing them false images of reality. Creating revolutionary consciousness required first making people aware that the paintings they looked at weren’t actually real things, and that the novels they read weren’t true life stories. You can find examples of this argument in Bertolt Brecht’s director’s notes for The Threepenny Opera (1928), in Lennard Davis’ 1987 book Resisting Novels, and an especially paranoid lunatic version of it in Theodor Adorno’s 1944 “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”.

So many modernist writers add deliberate “flaws” to their works, disruptive elements to break the reader’s immersion and keep the reader detached and at a distance.  In The Threepenny Opera, Brecht broke up the play’s continuity and immersiveness by having actors intersperse narration with raised billboards, of the type that separated scenes in silent films, by using these billboards to break dramatic tension by telling the spectator what was going to happen, and by directing the actors to act in a manner meant to break the fourth wall. “In drama, too, we should introduce footnotes and the practice of thumbing through and checking up… Thinking about the flow of the play is more important than thinking from within the flow of the play,” he wrote. “The spectator must not be misled along the path of empathy.”

In other modernist literature, breaking the reader’s immersion is done by breaking up and re-arranging the story in ways that confuse the reader and destroy rather than heighten drama, such as the tedious circling about the actual story, bouncing back and forth between past and future, in Arundhati Roy’s 1997 Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things, or the way David Mitchell split all his stories in two and inserted the pieces inside each other in his critically-acclaimed Cloud Atlas (2004).  You would be hard-pressed to find a critically-acclaimed novel from the past 20 years that told a straightforward story using a traditional structure that was meant to heighten rather than dispel drama. Chapter 1 of Annie Dillard’s 1982 Living By Fiction, “Fiction in Bits”, is about this phenomenon, as is much of “A Reader’s Manifesto” (2001).

One modernist technique for breaking immersion and creating distance is ambiguity.

Ambiguity

I’m not complaining about the kind of ambiguity where you can’t decide whether an artwork’s message is right or wrong, or the kind where the subject is difficult, or the kind where the subject is ambiguity itself. I mean ambiguity that is added to the story to obstruct your attempts to figure it out. That’s the kind of ambiguity Ross James is calling pretentious: ambiguity that makes you argue over what a work of art is trying to say, rather than about the thing it’s saying. The claim that this sort of ambiguity is good comes from modernist philosophy.

The informational content of a work of art, like the information in a sentence, comes more from how its parts are combined than from the meanings of the individual parts, e.g., “the dog bit the man” doesn’t mean the same thing as “the man bit the dog”.

But Modernism is based on ancient Platonist metaphysics, which claims that meaning exists only in the essences of individual things, not in how those things are combined. So modernists have difficulty conceiving of the information content of a representational work of art as being significant. They tend to think the significance of a representation is just the sum of the significances of the things represented. A representational work of art only shows you a collection of things you’ve seen before; therefore, it contains no new essences, and (they would argue) you can learn nothing from it.

This is why modernists imagine they could produce perfect art if they wanted to; they’re blind to the art part of a work of art, and see only the technique. They’re reverting to the medieval and ancient Greek conception of “art”, which meant about the same as our “craft” or “technical skill”. (You can read a post-modernist whining about how the Enlightenment led people to invent the artificial concept of “Art” in Larry Shiner’s 2001 The Invention of Art.)

To make a work challenging or interesting, dedicated modernists believe it must do one of these things:

– It must give us new views of essences.  This means either giving direct access to transcendental essences never perceived before, or depicting essences more truly than they have been depicted before.  Either option requires not using a realistic style. This is the primary purpose of modern art. You can find this spelled out in, for instance, various writings by Cubist painters circa ~1920, e.g. (Gleizes & Metzinger 1912 p. 195).  The description of cubism in ancient and primitive art in (Boas 1927 p. 351) gives the same explanation.

– It must use a new style or technique.

– The challenge can’t lie in the meaning of a work of art, but it can lie in the challenge of discovering that meaning. That is, art can’t lie in the interpretation of a work of art–an interpretation merely spells out what is being represented–but it can lie in the difficulty of discovering an interpretation. Nothing the artist has to say can be very interesting, but figuring out what the artist is saying–or producing your own meaning from a Rorschach-blot-like work of art–can be fun and interesting.

The Alleged Insufficiency of Language

Another theme of modern literature and philosophy is that language is incapable of communicating meaning, and actually serves to mislead people more than to enlighten them. You find this, for example, in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, in which he said that “Language disguises […] thought; so that from the external form of the clothes one cannot infer the form of the thought they clothe, because the external form of the clothes is constructed with quite another object than to let the form of the body be recognized.” You also find it in Derrida’s “infinite chain of deferral of meaning” (Derrida 1967). This belief comes not from any actual failure of language, but, again, from Platonist metaphysics, which says that meaning resides in a transcendent realm which words can never reach.

In modernist literature, this sometimes results in authors trying to prove that language can’t communicate meaning by writing stories which fail to communicate clearly.

William Faulkner is a good example. Just today I heard a lecturer (David Thorburn, Masterworks of Early 20th-Century Literature, lecture 21, “Faulkner’s World–Our Frantic Steeplechase”) say that one of Faulkner’s themes was “the treacherous limitations of language as an instrument for describing and understanding experience.”

But Faulkner never demonstrated this legitimately, by showing a failure of language. He deliberately obscured his meaning, for instance, by using phony stream-of-consciousness in which he imagines that the interior thoughts of a mentally subnormal person, or of a child, are simply the things that person or child might say out loud if asked about his thoughts. Or, in many instances in As I Lay Dying, by again using stream-of-consciousness dishonestly, having a character’s interior monologue not say things that the character already knew–always the most crucial elements in figuring out what that character was thinking about–to give the impression that true inner experience was incommunicable.

A survey of modernist literature would turn up more instances of stories written in a deliberately obscure style specifically to prove that language is incapable of communicating meaning. I’ve given at least one example in a previous blog post, but I don’t remember what it was right now.

Conclusion: Blame Plato

So ambiguity of interpretation–what Ross James calls “pretentiousness”–came to be seen as inherently good, because people can argue over the meaning of an ambiguous work of art, and because ambiguity “proves” that language can’t communicate meaning and that we need to find a transcendent source of meaning. It’s deliberately cultivated by modernists, as a consequence of their belief that representational content is unimportant and the real (physical) world is unimportant, as a consequence of their Platonist metaphysics.


Franz Boas, 1927. Primitive Art. Oslo: H. Aschehoug & Co. Page numbers reported from Dover 1955 reprint.

Bertold Brecht, 1928, transl. Eric Bentley 1949, exigesis Eric Bentley. The Threepenny Opera. First performed in Berlin. New York: Grove Press.

Lennard Davis, 1987. Resisting Novels: Ideology & Fiction. Methuen, Inc., NYC NY.

Jacques Derrida, 1967, transl. 1976. Of Grammatology. Extracts in Leitch 2010 p. 1688-1697.

Annie Dillard, 1982. Living By Fiction. NYC: Harper & Row.

Albert Gleizes & Jean Metzinger, 1912. “Cubism.” In Harrison & Wood 1992, p. 187-196.

Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, eds., 1992. Art in Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

Max Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno 1944, transl. 2002. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” In Dialectics of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, Stanford U. Press, 2002.

Vincent Leitch et al., eds. 2nd ed. 2010, The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. New York: Norton.

B. R. Meyers, 2001. “A Reader’s Manifesto”. The Atlantic, July/Aug 2001.

Larry Shiner, 1990. The Invention of Art: A Cultural History. U. of Chicago Press.

Near and Far–Construal and Psychological Distance

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Near and Far

A current area of research in psychology called “construal-level theory” (CLT) is—I promise—relevant to literature.  It talks about a very general phenomenon called “psychological distance”.  In popular accounts, it’s called the “near / far” distinction.  Robin Hanson summarized it on Overcoming Bias.  The more-detailed review (Trope & Liberman 2010) calls these things Near and Far:

Abstraction and idealism appear to make up the dominant dimension:  Far things are more abstract and more idealized.  Distance seems to me peripheral; only near / far in space and in time relate to distance [1].

CLT claims that:

  1. Every object of thought has many different attributes (rows of the table) which distance can be a metaphor for.  Distance itself, of course; and distance in time is similar.  More metaphorical distances include level of familiarity (familiar = near, strange = far) and abstraction (detailed = near, abstract = far).  The distance metaphor has even been stretched to include color (red = near, blue = far) and transactional direction (buy = near, sell = far), though I’m not convinced.
  2. In all [2] experiments reported in (Trope & Liberman 2010), being shown anything from the Near column of the Near / Far table makes people think in Near terms for every other row of the table. Similarly for things from the Far column. For example, subjects asked to mark points far away from each other on a graph, and then asked how close they were to their family, reported being “farther away” socially from their families than subjects who were asked to mark points that were close together on the graph (Trope & Liberman 2010 p. 443).  Many experiments used a Stroop-effect task to show interference (longer reaction time) when the priming attribute was near (far) and the tested attribute was far (near).
  3. Therefore, near / far is, or can be regarded as, a single mode of human thought.  Perceptions of nearness of one attribute are not merely correlated with perceptions of nearness of other object attributes; they cause other attributes to be perceived as near, or to be approached or thought about (construed) in the manner one would if they were near.  Near / far is thus a mode of human thought, and while a person can be in a mode between near and far, a person cannot perceive some attributes of a mental object in far mode, while simultaneously perceiving other attributes or other mental objects in near mode.

Near and Far in Art & Culture

I claim, additionally, that Near and Far characterize not just how individuals think at a given moment, but characterize artistic movements, literary genres, and entire cultures.  These works, artists, genres, and cultures can be classed as usually endorsing or displaying either Near or Far values:

Far: The AeneidBeowulf, Chaucer’s Troilus and CriseydePilgrim’s Progress; John Milton; heroic fantasy, superhero comics; Christianity, Nazism

Near: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; Robert Frost, Raymond Chandler; realist and naturalist novels, hard-boiled detective fiction; empirical science

The history of European art, science, and culture from 1300 up until 1900 was, excepting the 18th century, one of moving gradually from Far to Near mode.  The first-person POV in fictional narrative was (I think) an invention of the 18th century, and the 20th-century dictums “write what you know” and “show, don’t tell” are both commands to write in near rather than far mode.

The novel that began Modernist literature, James Joyce’s Ulysses, is all about confusing the Near and the Far.  It takes a narrative that is very, very Far—an Archaic Greek epic poem about an idealized, overconfident, noble hero—and superimposes it on a protagonist who is very Near—an irreligious Irish Jew whose mundane, pathetic, and comical inner thoughts and bodily functions are described in more detail than anyone had ever described any character’s before.

Near and Far will be important concepts in understanding the history of art and culture.  They are so important that they were discovered independently several times before.

Using Near and Far in Writing

Ursula LeGuin wrote an essay called “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” which I think is pretty awful.  She tried to pin down what made something fantasy rather than ordinary fiction with dragons and swords, and she started out right—

Let us consider Elfland as a great national park, a vast beautiful place where a person goes by himself, on foot, to get in touch with reality in a special, private, profound fashion.

The phrase “get in touch with reality“, used to talk about something that is definitively unreal, is instantly diagnostic of philosophical realism, also called Idealism.  That’s the belief that reality isn’t real, but instead some fantasy world of yours, an imagined ideal world such as Plato’s cave, is real.  Plato, Jesus, Hegel, and Heidegger are probably the most-famous Idealists.

Idealism is indeed the basis of classic heroic fantasy, although now, in the age of democracy, we’ve got hobbits as heroes.  Idealism seems to mean nearly the same thing as Far mode.

However, she goes on to say…

What is it, then, that I believe has gone wrong in the book and the passage quoted from it? I think it is the style.

Not heroism, idealistic principles, or karma in the world, as Tolkien would have said.  No; LeGuin says true fantasy is anything written in a genuine phony archaic style.

I think style is certainly not the causative or definitive feature we want to find, but it is not as useless a conclusion as it first appeared to me. For a style specifies how one approaches the objects one writes about.  Does one describe them concretely or abstractly? Does one focus on the physical details, or on purposes and meanings? Does the wording create distance or intimacy?  All the choices presented in the “Near / Far” table could be called stylistic.  A style, then, positions a text on the Near / Far continuum.

Knowing what is Near and what is Far will therefore help you keep your style more psychologically plausible, by not mixing Near and Far stylistic elements.

(Trope & Liberman 2010) mentioned some research on Near vs. Far style.  Here “dispositional” means saying someone did something because of their character, versus “situational”, which means saying someone did something because of the situation they were in.

It has been shown, for example, that personal memories of behaviors that were recalled from a third-person perspective (e.g., “try to remember your first day at school, as if you are now watching the kid you were”) rather than from a first-person perspective (“try to remember your first day at school, as if you are a kid again”) tended to use dispositional (as opposed to situational) terms (Frank & Gilovich, 1989; Nigro & Neisser, 1983). In a similar vein, Libby and Eibach (2002, Study 4) found that imagining performing an activity (e.g., rock climbing, playing drums) from a third-person perspective produced less vivid and rich reports of the activity than imagining the same activity from a first-person perspective. In terms of CLT, this means that a third-person perspective, which imposes more distance than a first-person perspective, induces a higher level of construal. Indeed, Pronin and Ross (2006) showed that taking a third person perspective rather a first-person perspective on one’s own behavior promoted attribution of the behavior to personality traits rather than to specific situational factors.  — Trope & Liberman 2010 p. 447-8

All this means that your choice of first or third person point of view should take into account the construal mode you want to invoke in your reader.  If you want to work in high fantasy, and have your reader concerned with romantic ideals and to see codes of ethics as absolute and inviolable, you should write in third person.  If you want to confront your reader with unpleasant or messy truths and shake them out of dogmatic complacency, or bring them into close empathy with a unique individual, first-person would do better. This is why Tolkien and LeGuin’s fantasies are in third person, while Glen Cook’s Black Company and Roger Zelazney’s Chronicles of Amber, both subversions of heroic fantasy, are in first person. It’s also why Raymond Chandler’s gritty, cynical detective novels are in first person.

These are not absolutes. Third person is extremely flexible.  Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine is in a third person that is so close-in to the protagonist that it might as well be first-person. Hemingway’s third person is so objective and concrete, and carefully stripped of Far-mode subjective judgments and abstractions, that it probably puts the reader in Near mode rather than Far.


[1] Even many of the experiments that attempted to measure distance also measured familiarity and abstraction, as they contrasted  a nearby, well known place with a distant, unknown place which the subjects could only envision abstractly.  So we should really call this the concrete / abstract dimension.  But near / far is a more concrete way of describing it.

[2] Trope & Liberman report on about 100 experiments, and in every case the results agreed with the predictions. This is literally too good to be true.  Either the authors, the journals, or the reviewers consistently filtered out all adverse results.  One important study has been retracted for being fraudulent.


References

Yaacov Trope & Nira Liberman, 2010. Construal-Level Theory of Psychological DistancePsychological Review117(2): 440 – 463.

Writer’s Block

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What I mean by “writer’s block” is when someone stares at the paper / screen & can’t think of what happens next.  This should never happen.

If you’re ever reduced down to just one interesting thing that could happen next, it means you’ve written your story onto train tracks, and your story is now boring, because only one interesting thing could happen next.

If you’re down to zero interesting things, that means you didn’t stop when you had just one interesting thing.  You need to back up at least to the last point where you had to choose between two interesting things that could happen next, because everything after that point is no good.

But even focusing on what happens next is weird.  Why are you staring at the last word on your page?  What about the setting of scene two–should it move to a different location to symbolize progress from scene one?  Is the level of omniscience you gave character A in scene 3 inconsistent with her puzzlement in scene 1?  If your story isn’t finished and you don’t still have a dozen different issues to reconsider, something has gone wrong.  Either your story is too simple, or you’re an incomparable genius, or you’re not being demanding enough.  Stories don’t drip out of the pen in an ordered, final state.  It just can’t happen that you’re stuck on the last word you wrote, yet have no questions about anything that came before or will come after it.  There should always be problems throughout the story all shouting for your attention.  The particular point in the story where you last stopped writing should not be so prominent in your mind.

Why are you writing the story from start to finish?  Seriously–why would anybody do that?  Do you not know how it’s going to end?  That means you’re not writing a story, because you don’t yet have a story idea.  A scenario is not a story.  If you don’t know which direction to go in because you don’t know where you’re going, I don’t think we should dignify that with the term “writer’s block”, as if it were an aberration rather than exactly what you’d expect to happen.

The normal state of writing is not staring at the last word on the paper and wondering what could happen next, but thinking about the entire story, the entire set of possible stories, characters, and events you considered while writing it, and choosing where to strike next, what to change, and which alternative to use, to hammer the thing into one unified story.  The normal state is to have too many possibilities, not too few.

If I have a dozen scenes that need to take place then I should be able to work on them in any order.  I could have written scenes 2, 6, and 1, in that order, because those are the longest scenes, (and it’s easier to start with scenes that have some meat to them.)  Even then I might have a lot of issues up in the air:  How much should Character A know about what’s going on?  How much humor do I get from her being oblivious versus being sweetly nefarious?  Same question for Character B.  Should Character C appear in the scene related to her interests, or should Character B stand in for her?  Have I got too many people in scene 1?  I have a weak transition marked in the middle of scene 1, around a joke that doesn’t really work.  Can I punch it up and make it funnier, or rip it out?  Can I substitute a similar joke?  Can I delete the entire opening and so not need that transition?  Is scene 6 too long — it should be picking up steam as we head into the final scene, not dragging out its joke.  Etc.

My point is that even though this hypothetical story is a very short one, I could easily reel off twenty issues in the first 2,000 words demanding my attention.  Issues that any story is going to have and any writer should be thinking about.  If I were stuck, I’d start working on these 20 issues, and I guarantee that at least one of them would open up a path forward where I was stuck.  To get writer’s block, first I’d have to resolve all these issues to my satisfaction, and that never happens.

There are always dozens of issues that could go another way in a story, even when it’s “done”.  If you’re staring at the screen and don’t have even one issue demanding your attention, something went badly wrong long before you got to that point.

Most likely, the problem is either

(A) you don’t know how the story ends, or

(B) you’ve eliminated tension by closing off too many possibilities earlier in the story, or

(C) you haven’t got enough awareness of craft, technical issues, and how life works to detect the problems in what you’ve already written, and to focus your attention on what the unwritten sections of the story need to accomplish and to avoid.

Writing: Subtlety

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The biggest single thing I’ve learned from public book review sites, such as goodreads.com, is probably how subtle not to be.  Before, when the only feedback I got from my stories was in writers’ groups, I thought I was pretty good at being subtle, yet still getting my point across.  The other writers understood what I’d written most of the time.

Let me restate that.  When people who’d spent years writing and analyzing stories, and were familiar with my style and way of thinking, had an entire week to study and make comments on a short story of mine which I’d usually already talked over with them before writing it, they were able to understand it slightly more than half of the time.

That’s not as good as it sounded at first.

Subtlety became a thing in the 20th century.  Before that, authors would write in the omniscient point of view (POV), and tell the reader everything everyone was thinking, in long sentences full of clarifying adjectives and adverbs, like Jane Austen.  There was little room for doubt about what the characters were thinking.

Then around 1880, Henry James popularized the 3rd-person limited POV, and readers were cut off from the minds of protagonists.  This was perhaps necessary after Freud, when characters don’t always know why they do what they do, and might respond to the connotations of a particular word or phrase, or to implications not made logically, but by association.  It makes it possible to show protagonists who don’t realize that they’re ridiculous.  “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (the story, not the movies), the narrator had to keep interrupting and explaining how Walter’s fantasies made him feel, and how his wife’s micro-management made him feel, and why the sound pocketa-pocketa-pocketa signified masculine mechanical or scientific competence to him, and then explain that actually Walter felt differently deep inside about all of it but wasn’t letting himself admit that, though he was dimly aware of how silly he looked to others…

Subtlety means writing down enough cues that the reader who knows how people work can figure out what’s really going on, even if it’s long and complicated and not really logical, and even if none of the people in the story figure it out.

But subtlety is a trade-off between story power and popularity.  More subtlety, even when done right, makes a story more powerful for a smaller number of readers, and weak or forgettable to a larger number of readers.

I was shocked when I started reading reviews from the populous that readers so often failed to read my mind.  I used to play the blame game, trying to decide whose fault each misunderstanding was, mine or theirs.  But eventually I realized that, while I do want to understand why things weren’t clear, it’s always my fault.  It’s my fault if a subtle point was ambiguous, but it’s still my fault even if it would be perfectly clear to a careful reader, because I knew when I wrote it that readers aren’t careful all the time.

Using subtlety is a strategic decision to lose some readers in order to have some extra effect on those who remain.  It’s a choice I make, not a random reader failure that I have no control over.

The typical famous author isn’t even in a writing group.  She usually doesn’t even read reviews of her stories.  She has an editor who spends a year corresponding over details in each book.  She probably thinks she’s doing well if her famous editor, who’s probably analyzed books for 40 years and has spent an entire year thinking about this one, understands it half the time.  Without feedback from real readers in the wild, professional authors vastly overestimate how easy it is to understand them.  So they’re much too subtle.  They write beautiful stories that, sometimes, nobody understands.

 

“The Chrysanthemums”:  Too Subtle

Sometime in high school or college, I read “The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck, published in Harper’s Magazine in 1937.  I seem to recall my teacher praising the story’s subtlety.  I thought that was the way to write.

You might want to read the story right now, through this link.  It’s a good story, and short.  I can wait.

You didn’t read it, did you?

Okay, I’ll summarize:  Elisa is stuck at home on the farm, out in nowhere, by herself, forever.  Her husband Henry is a good guy, treats her well, but he has workers to supervise, men to do business with, while Elisa has nobody to talk to all day.  She raises chrysanthemums, which as far as we know are the one thing in her life that’s hers, and that she does well.

A tinker comes by looking for work.  Elisa says she hasn’t got any for him, and waits for him to leave. Instead, he asks her about her chrysanthemums.  She talks, and warms to him.  He takes her seriously, which nobody else has that we’ve seen.  She ends up giving him some chrysanthemum sprouts in a pot, with instructions on how to take care of them.

Now that they’re friendly, Elisa has a spot of work for him after all.  He mends a couple of useless pots, she pays him 50 cents, and he drives his wagon off down the road.  Then Henry comes home to take her out for dinner in his roadster.

The story ends like this.  No point spoiler-blotting it, because I’m gonna talk about it in detail after.

The little roadster bounced along on the dirt road by the river, raising the birds and driving the rabbits into the brush. Two cranes flapped heavily over the willow-line and dropped into the river-bed.

Far ahead on the road Elisa saw a dark speck. She knew.

She tried not to look as they passed it, but her eyes would not obey. She whispered to herself sadly, “He might have thrown them off the road. That wouldn’t have been much trouble, not very much. But he kept the pot,” she explained. “He had to keep the pot. That’s why he couldn’t get them off the road.”

The roadster turned a bend and she saw the caravan ahead. She swung full around toward her husband so she could not see the little covered wagon and the mismatched team as the car passed them.

In a moment it was over. The thing was done. She did not look back. She said loudly, to be heard above the motor, “It will be good, tonight, a good dinner.”

“Now you’re changed again,” Henry complained. He took one hand from the wheel and patted her knee. “I ought to take you in to dinner oftener. It would be good for both of us. We get so heavy out on the ranch.”

“Henry,” she asked, “could we have wine at dinner?”

“Sure we could. Say! That will be fine.”

She was silent for a while; then she said, “Henry, at those prize fights, do the men hurt each other very much?”

“Sometimes a little, not often. Why?”

“Well, I’ve read how they break noses, and blood runs down their chests. I’ve read how the fighting gloves get heavy and soggy with blood.”

He looked around at her. “What’s the matter, Elisa? I didn’t know you read things like that.” He brought the car to a stop, then turned to the right over the Salinas River bridge.

“Do any women ever go to the fights?” she asked.

“Oh, sure, some. What’s the matter, Elisa? Do you want to go? I don’t think you’d like it, but I’ll take you if you really want to go.”

She relaxed limply in the seat. “Oh, no. No. I don’t want to go. I’m sure I don’t.” Her face was turned away from him. “It will be enough if we can have wine. It will be plenty.”

She turned up her coat collar so he could not see that she was crying weakly—like an old woman.

Now, I love “The Chrysanthemums”.

But how many of you feel like you understood “The Chrysanthemums”?

First there’s that stuff at the end about “the fights”.  That calls back to this part from the start of the story:

“You’ve got a gift with things,” Henry observed. “Some of those yellow chrysanthemums you had this year were ten inches across. I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big.”

Her eyes sharpened. “Maybe I could do it, too. I’ve a gift with things, all right. My mother had it. She could stick anything in the ground and make it grow. She said it was having planters’ hands that knew how to do it.”

“Well, it sure works with flowers,” he said.

“Henry, who were those men you were talking to?”

“Why, sure, that’s what I came to tell you. They were from the Western Meat Company. I sold those thirty head of three-year-old steers. Got nearly my own price, too.”

“Good,” she said. “Good for you.”

“And I thought,” he continued, “I thought how it’s Saturday afternoon, and we might go into Salinas for dinner at a restaurant, and then to a picture show—to celebrate, you see.”

“Good,” she repeated. “Oh, yes. That will be good.”

Henry put on his joking tone. “There’s fights tonight. How’d you like to go to the fights?”

“Oh, no,” she said breathlessly. “No, I wouldn’t like fights.”

“Just fooling, Elisa. We’ll go to a movie.”

Then, at the end, she brings up the fights, as if she’s thinking about going, thinking maybe she’s strong like a man.  But his answer frightens her, and she gives up on being that strong, forever.  I didn’t figure that out.  That’s what this essay says.  I was just puzzled.

This essay says that when Henry admired her flowers, it made her feel a little manly or powerful for a moment, but then he offered to take her out for dinner, and made a joke about how different she was from men, both emphasizing her girliness.  That sounds consistent with the rest of the story.  The problem is that he suggested she could work in the orchard instead of just with flowers, and she liked the idea, but didn’t do anything about it.  She changed the subject.  She let it drop.

Or maybe he let it drop.  If she thought that he wasn’t being serious, that would make all the pieces of the story fit together, and the ending would make sense.  But if he was serious and she let it drop, which was how I read it, then it wrecks the story.  It makes her isolation with her flowers, and her not being taken seriously, self-imposed.

A lot of essays claim that Henry didn’t understand Elisa, her pride in her flowers, her desire for independence, and/or her need to be taken sexually.  That would make sense, too, if it were in the story, but I don’t see it.  He admires her flowers (perhaps symbolizing fertility); he admires how nice she looks, and how strong she looks; he takes her out to town—he specifically addresses each of the insecurities the critics say she has: lack of fertility, not enough femininity, too much femininity, loneliness.  He appreciates out loud every aspect of her that’s at stake.  The only one who could be at fault for him not understanding or appreciate her better is Steinbeck, for not giving him time to say more.

Let’s break it down.  Here’s two interpretations of some things Henry says and does:

“You’ve got a gift with things,” Henry observed. “Some of those yellow chrysanthemums you had this year were ten inches across. I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big.”

Favorable:  Henry compliments Elisa on her competence, and invites her to join the working men, a sign of masculine power.

Unfavorable:  Henry demeans Elisa’s chrysanthemums, and symbolically, her fertility and femininity, by saying apples are more important.

“And I thought,” he continued, “I thought how it’s Saturday afternoon, and we might go into Salinas for dinner at a restaurant, and then to a picture show—to celebrate, you see.”

Favorable:  Henry respects and desires Elisa’s feminine side, and also sees that she’s lonely for other people.

Unfavorable:  Henry sees Elisa only as a silly woman who desires only pleasure and escape from reality.

After a while she began to dress, slowly. She put on her newest underclothing and her nicest stockings and the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness. She worked carefully on her hair, pencilled her eyebrows and rouged her lips. …

Henry came banging out of the door, shoving his tie inside his vest as he came. Elisa stiffened and her face grew tight. Henry stopped short and looked at her. “Why—why, Elisa. You look so nice!”

“Nice? You think I look nice? What do you mean by ‘nice’?”

Henry blundered on. “I don’t know. I mean you look different, strong and happy.”

“I am strong? Yes, strong. What do you mean ‘strong’?”

He looked bewildered. “You’re playing some kind of a game,” he said helplessly. “It’s a kind of a play. You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon.”

For a second she lost her rigidity. “Henry! Don’t talk like that. You didn’t know what you said.” She grew complete again. “I’m strong,” she boasted. “I never knew before how strong.”

Favorable:  Elisa wants to look nice.  Henry says she looks nice, complimenting her feminine side, but also that she looks strong, meaning masculine power.

Unfavorable:  Henry says she looks nice, denying her masculine power, and that she looks strong, denying her feminine side.

The critics make Henry’s admiration fit their narrative only by always making the unfavorable interpretation:  criticizing him for not admiring her masculinity when he admires her feminine qualities, and for not recognizing her femininity when he admires her masculine qualities.  He can’t win.  I don’t doubt that the critics are right about Steinbeck’s intent, but it doesn’t work.  If Steinbeck had been less subtle, he would’ve noticed he was sending conflicting signals.  Having her feel insecure both for not being feminine enough, and for being too feminine, can’t work on a first reading.  You have to read the story iteratively, doing energy minimization over all your interpretations until you converge on a set of interpretations of story elements that all fit together.

It’s plausible.  A real woman might feel insecure about being too feminine and not feminine enough at the same time.  And she might interpret everything her husband says in the worst way possible.  That’s why reality isn’t art.  Reality is confused and ambiguous.  Art can sometimes be ambiguous, but not if one possible interpretation makes a satisfying story and another does not.  In that case the unsatisfying interpretation is what we scientists call “wrong”.

Exercise for the reader:  Supposing all of the above unfavorable interpretations, why does Elisa ask for wine, and then say, “It will be enough if we can have wine.  It will be plenty.”

But how about that dark speck?

How many of you realized what it was?  ‘Coz if you didn’t, the story wouldn’t make any sense at all.  Steinbeck probably didn’t even realize he was being subtle there.

“No Place for You, my Love”:  WAY Too Subtle

Eudora Welty wrote a story called “No Place for You, my Love”, published in 1955.  That same year she wrote an article for the Virginia Quarterly Review on how she wrote it.  The story and her article are both reprinted in the 3rd edition of Understanding Fiction, the book I keep telling you to buy.

The story is about a man and a woman, strangers to each other, who meet at a luncheon among friends in New Orleans.  They leave together and drive south, possibly planning a fling.  They don’t seem to know themselves what they’re doing.  We find out gradually, across 5000 words, that they are both married; that he is from Syracuse; that she is from Toledo; that they are both almost-thinking about having an affair.  They say and see many things.  We never learn their names, or if they learn each other’s names.  Then they come to the end of the road, and turn around to go home.  At 6000 words, he stops the car and kisses her once.  Then they continue.  At the end of the journey, after 7000 words, when it becomes clear that they’re not going to have sex, two sentences fall out of the sky, perhaps from some gothic fantasy in a nearby chapter of the book:

Something that must have been with them all along suddenly, then, was not. In a moment, tall as panic, it rose, cried like a human, and dropped back.

Not one word of context before or after illuminates these words.  It’s a mysterious, sudden injection of personification and mysticism into an otherwise realistic story. It was obviously meant to have some meaning, but none that I could find.

It was meant to have meaning.  A whole lot of meaning.  It was the point of the whole story.  The entire 7000-word journey was an accumulation of minor details and stray thoughts that were all supposed to hint that their relationship was fleeting and meaningless, yet somehow significant to them both—a relationship that would destroy them if they consummated it, and unsex them if they did not, because—

—well, I don’t know.  Here, let Eudora Welty explain it:

The cry that rose up at the story’s end was, I hope unmistakably, the cry of a fading relationship—personal, individual, psychic—admitted in order to be denied, a cry that the characters were first able (and prone) to listen to, and then able in part to ignore. The cry was authentic to my story and so I didn’t care if it did seem a little odd: the end of a journey can set up a cry, the shallowest provocation to sympathy and loves does hate to give up the ghost. A relationship of the most fleeting kind has the power inherent to loom like a genie—to become vocative at the last, as it has already become present and taken up room; as it has spread out as a destination however makeshift; as it has, more faintly, more sparsely, glimmered and rushed by in the dark and dust outside.

Okay, that was way too goddamn subtle.

Seriously—they go on a road trip, encounter a shoeshine boy and a family walking down the highway, cross a river on a ferry, meet shrimp truckers, an alligator, drive through a cemetery, see a priest in his underwear, join a party in a beer shack, almost get into a fight—I’m skimming here; lots of stuff happens, and the only purpose of it all was to show that this man and woman were on an adventure together and thinking about screwing, then decided not to and felt relieved but also a little sad about it.

That paragraph of strained, metaphoric explanation she wrote was a point the reader had to understand from those two sentences to make sense of the story. Even though it took her an entire paragraph and was barely comprehensible when she tried to explain it plainly, she felt that those two sentences made it “unmistakably” clear in the story.

If she’d left those sentences out, maybe somebody would’ve sort of grokked the whole experience emotionally.  But with those two sentences from outer space screaming “LOOK AT ME!  I’m important!”, even the reader who would have gotten it is going to sit there wondering what was with them all along that cried like a human and dropped back when it found out he was going to drop her off at her hotel.

That’s a perfect example of what not to do.

My advice is, Try not to be subtle about anything critical to your story.  It’s probably okay if the reader doesn’t catch that Julia’s fear of dogs is a symbol for her discomfort with men, or that she has cats to replace the children she never had.  It’s not okay if the story is about how her discomfort with men has led to her childlessness, and those are the only clues given that she’s uncomfortable with men or that she cares about being childless.

In “The Chrysanthemums”, the reader has to understand that the tinker threw out the flowers; she has to understand each problem Elisa is struggling with (powerlessness?  loneliness?  not being taken seriously?  not being one of the guys?  loss of fertility or sexual potency?); she has to match up each of Henry’s lines, and the wine, and the fights, to the correct insecurity, to understand why Henry’s kindness and admiration makes things worse rather than better, and to understand what and why Elisa gives up in the end.  Miss any one of those, and the story makes no sense.

And Eudora Welty was on crack.  I doubt any reader ever understood that story.

Everything is more subtle than you think it is.  If you wonder whether something is too subtle, it’s too subtle.  And every time you’re subtle, some readers will miss it.  Even if you do it well.  Even if they’re smart.  It’s a numbers game.  Every critical point not spelled out is a roll of the dice, and even the best reader’s out of the game if it comes up snake eyes.

This post took 8 hours to write.