Writing (and composing): Mahler, Beethoven, Faulkner, House of Dawn, & the Wundt curve

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The first part of this post is long, and explains how bad mathematics can lead to bad music. The second part is short, and uses the first part to explain something that I think Beethoven did right in his Moonlight Sonata, and that Faulkner and Momaday did poorly in As I Lay Dying and House of Dawn.


Music and the Wundt curve

In Thoughts on listening to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony three times in a row, I talked about how artists had come to praise complexity, failed to distinguish complexity from unpredictability, and so idolized randomness. I mean “idolize” (or “fetishize”) literally; they made a shoddy graven image of what they worshiped, and worshiped the image (randomness) instead of the original thing (complexity). I used Mahler’s Fifth Symphony as an example:

It seemed like a good rule to say that the less-predictable music became, the more complex and better it would be. And in fact, the commentaries on Mahler’s Fifth are full of references to the “complexity” and “interest” generated by its dissonances and irregularities.

But after some point, increasing unpredictability makes music less complex. Instead of complexity, we get mere noise. [Assuming other people use the word “complexity” the way I do.]

That’s what happened. Composers internalized the theoretical belief that unexpectedness made music more complex and interesting… They kept making things less and less predictable, even after passing the point where complexity was maximal.

Once they’d passed that point, unpredictability only made the music boring, not complex. Like Mahler’s Fifth.

A few months after posting that, I read the first chapter of Muses and Measures: Empirical research methods for the humanities (M&M). It talked about the Wundt curve. In its most basic form, the curve plots enjoyment against signal intensity.  The data comes out like a bell curve:

This applies to things like the pleasantness of a particular temperature, or the appeal of music at a given volume (low to high). M&M said that this curve applied in general to human aesthetics, and also used Mahler’s symphonies as an example:

Suppose you ask people to listen to a simple song. Chances are high that most people will find it of medium to high hedonic value. Now have them listen to a Mahler symphony. In all likelihood, the ratings for hedonic value will be lower. The explanation for these different ratings lies in the different complexities of the two pieces of music. For various reasons, we must call the Mahler symphony more complex than the song: It is much longer, is executed by a much larger orchestra, containing more different instruments that build, moreover, ever–changing combinations, and its melodic patterns are more intricate and unusual (hence it is also more “novel”). …

Suppose we expose listeners to the song repetitively, and we do the same with the Symphony. What one will observe is that after several trials, the hedonic value ratings for the song will start falling, while those of the Symphony may start rising. The complexity of the sound texture of the Symphony makes it nearly impossible for most untrained listeners to be appreciative on a first or second hearing: its richness is simply not taking in. With repeated exposures, listeners may begin to grasp its variations of melodic and orchestral patterns, it’s structure of repetitions and contrasts, and its multilayered levels of tone and rhythm.

In this standard view, complexity equals unpredictability, which equals the opposite of novelty; and where the peak in the curve is depends on how novel the stimulus is to the observer. In my view, the peak appeal in the curve is at the amount of unpredictability (or, equivalently, information) where complexity (relative to the listener) is maximal.

So far we just use different terms: the standard view uses the word “complex” to mean “unpredictable”, and says that people have some arbitrary level of unpredictability that they like best. I use the word “complex” to mean “aesthetic appeal as a function of unpredictability.”

The difference is nominal, but not trivial. I’m naming the amount of appeal some artwork has due just to its degree of unpredictability “complexity”, to make it a thing we can study. If we can reliably predict where its maximum will be, we will thereby know, if not understand, part of what makes good art good [1].

In practice, the disagreement is worse. Instead of teasing out the relations between complexity / appeal, randomness, and novelty, people using the standard view usually simply declare they all mean the same thing [2], as van Peer absent-mindedly does in the paragraphs above, and as (Berlyne 1970) and (Heyduk 1975) do as well–as if the curve were simply appeal = randomness. (In which case it would not be a curve, but a straight line. The labelling of the Y-axis on the figure above makes it not an axis at all, but a mysterious mixture of two components–all to preserve the absurd belief that “complexity” means “randomness”.)

This leads to bad music. It says that, if you start with something random enough, it starts out sounding ugly, but every time you play it, it becomes less novel, and thus more beautiful, until after some number of exposures it becomes…

the most beautiful thing ever.

Becoming an art connoisseur then means training yourself to like more and more noise and randomness. No justification is ever offered for why we don’t stop liking the canonized noise-art after hearing or viewing it enough times.

It’s true that people will come to better like a Mahler symphony, or noise by Ferneyhough, the more often they listen to it. But if we take this as proof of beauty, it would mean that anything we dislike at first is beautiful, while the things we used to call beautiful–songs, paintings by Dutch masters–are so ugly that they rate a zero on the objective scale of artistic merit. Mathematically speaking, the fraction of all possible songs or paintings that are less than or as random as those songs and those paintings, and hence no more beautiful than they are, is zero.

 

Complexity Structure

As I explained in that post, in the bad old days before 1992, “complexity” meant computational complexity, and “complexity” measures like entropy and Kolmogorov complexity are actually measures of information. They say that random sequences of numbers have the most bits of information (which they do), but it sounded like they were saying they have the highest possible complexity.

Mathematicians in the study of complex systems knew that was wrong. “Complexity”, if it means the adaptability or interestingness of a system, is maximal at a point between between the realms of boring, dead stasis and random chaos.

Coming up with a definition of complexity that didn’t give random sequences high complexity wasn’t hard. The hard thing is that there are lots of measures that do that, and it isn’t obvious that one is more right than the other. (Feldman & Crutchfield 1997) concluded that we ought to stop using the term “complexity”, and say more specifically what we’re trying to do and what we want to measure. Feldman & Crutchfield suggested using the term “structure” instead.

“Complexity” had always seemed intuitively clear to me before, but it derives from Latin “complex” (a collection of parts). It’s an interesting comment on how new our notions of structure and organization are, that we had to appropriate the word “complex” to mean a thing with an intricate causal structure and many behaviors, when in the Middle Ages it just meant a thing with many parts. “Complicated”, perhaps a related word, meant “things folded together”, which again does not have any notion of complex function or causality. “Structure” meant “to build”; “organism” and “organization” come from “organ”, which means “an instrument”. “Elaborate” is from the 16th century; “mechanism” from the 17th. Latin and Middle English had an abundance of synonyms for “complicated”, including “intricate” and “perplexing”, but neither medieval Latin nor Middle English seem to have had any word for productive complication, in which the number of behaviors, or the sophistication of behavior, grows faster than the number of parts. (I’m making a big deal of this because it’s another indication that the medievals didn’t understand creativity.) The closest they had to a word for describing complex organization was “hierarchy”, from “hierarch” (sacred ruler), meaning a top-down chain of command like that of the angels and heavenly beings.

This may be why, as I argued in Modernist and Medieval Artone of the tenets of modern art and modernist writing is the rejection of structure in art. The purpose of structure, once we get past the Renaissance with its mystical principles of composition in paintings, is to combine parts in relationships that multiply rather than merely add their power. Examples include the structures and dynamic arcs built out of repetitions, inversions, and variations on the theme in a Bach fugue, or the interlocking plots, themes, and character arcs in a novel. If modernism is a reversion to medieval thought patterns, which focused on timeless, hierarchical relationships between abstract essences or types, rather than dynamic interactions between real individuals, then modernism will be similarly less interested in structuring components in space and time.

This prediction is confirmed by Schoenberg’s modernist 12-tone music. Its basic principle is to use all the tones in a scale before re-using any of them. This tends to maximize the entropy and randomness of the music. It’s as if he designed his theory specifically to make structure in music impossible.

 

Maximal musical complexity: Already attained

Let’s say music can be complex in three ways: Melody, rhythm, and harmony. Consider the first movement of Beethoven’s moonlight sonata:

Melodically and rhythmically, this music is dead simple. Why did Beethoven write such a boring, simple melody and rhythm?

Because harmonically, it’s crazy. Here’s the chord progression in the first 13 measures:

c#m c#m7
A D G#7 c#m G#7 Cdim c#m/E c#m
G#7 c#m f#m
E B7 E em
G7 C em F#7 bm

I’ve never heard any other tune use the chord progression C#m F#m E B7 E Em G7 C Em F#7 Bm. Pick any equally-long pattern using C, F, G, Em, and Am, and you could find thousands of songs that used it.

The melody and rhythm are simple because otherwise you wouldn’t even be able to tell what the chord transitions were. You wouldn’t know where the transitions between chords are (they’re played one note at a time).

Beethoven decided that the chord progression was so unpredictable that it used up all his allowable unpredictability. He simplified everything else so that people could perceive the chord progression.

Similarly, a Bach fugue will have great polyphonic novelty, with perhaps eight different voices at the same time, but based on a repetitive melody, with a constant rhythm and few key changes. Negro spirituals and ragtime usually have simple tonality and melody, but complex rhythm and timing. Dixieland and some other forms of jazz alternate between complex and simple stretches. Pushing the novelty envelope in one way to achieve a distinctive effect always requires scaling back the novelty somewhere else.

 

Faulkner and Momaday: Not Enough Structure

Which brings us to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Momaday’s House Made of Dawn. Both of them had all of the following:

– strangely-styled, strangled sentences
– connections between events that were not revealed until much later
– chapters narrated by tertiary characters whose relevance to the story wasn’t revealed until later

I realized this was too much unpredictability when I was trying to figure out whether I bought popular explanations of the second passage I quoted in my review of House Made of Dawn. In most novels, I’d have been able to guess whether his interpretation was correct by how well it fit the events that led up to the passage, and what the old man did afterwards. But I couldn’t do that with HMoD, because there was no continuity in time between the scenes. One person does one thing at one time in one place, then some other person does something else in some other place at some other time. If the meaning were clear, I could use it to figure out the connections between the scenes. If the connections between the scenes were clear, I could use them to figure out the meaning of each scene. As nothing was clear, it was difficult to figure out anything.

I think that these modernist books, like Mahler’s Fifth, have objectively too little structure for contemporary American readers. They are so unpredictable that, though this high unpredictability means they convey many bits of information, they convey less meaning than they could with less unpredictability–where “meaning” is, as with “complexity” or “structure”, information minus randomness.


[1] Did you think it was odd that I said we might “know, if not understand” something? Later, I’m going to talk about the difference between rationality and empiricism. (It’s super-important, honest!) One of the non-obvious ways of distinguishing them is that rationalists believe you must understand things before you can know anything about them. This is epitomized by the obsession that Socrates and medieval scholastics had with defining terms. Empiricists, by contrast, believe you must begin with a collection of known facts, some of which might use unanalyzable terms you just made up, before you can hope to understand things. A classic example is gravity. Isaac Newton just made it up to name a force in his equations, with no understanding of how it worked. We know a lot about gravity, but we still don’t understand it. (This observation is from Popper 1966, vol. 2 chapter 11, “The Aristotelian Roots of Hegelianism”, part 2. Its truth is due to the scientific practice of operationalization, which means you create terms as shorthand for what you can measure rather than as shorthand for definitions of what you want to measure. When I say complexity is what the Wundt curve measures, I’m operationalizing complexity rather than defining it.)

[2] With novelty being 1 – randomness, or 1 / randomness, or some other inverse measure of randomness.


References

Berlyne, D. E. “Novelty, Complexity and Hedonic Value.” Perception and Psychophysics 1970, 8: 279-286.

David Feldman, James Crutchfield 1997. Measures of statistical complexity: Why?

Heyduk, Ronald. “Rated preference for musical compositions as it relates to complexity and exposure frequency.” Perception & Psychophysics 1975, Vol. 17(1), 84-91.

Karl Popper 1966. The Open Society And Its Enemies, 5th ed., Princeton University Press. 1st ed. 1945.

Willie van Peer, Jemeljan Hakemulder, & Sonia Zyngier 2007. Muses and Measures: Empirical research methods for the humanities. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

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Modernist Manifestos & WW1: We Didn’t Start the Fire—Oh, Wait, we Totally Did ·

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Literary history is written by the winners, who in recent years have been people who don’t believe in truth, so it shouldn’t be much surprise that contains lies.  You can’t trust a literary history written after 1960; you must check the original sources.

One example, which I’ll blog on later, is the agreed-on misrepresentation of the ideas of the New Critics.  Another is the myth, promulgated by musical modernists, that the music of the great Classical and Romantic composers was thought to be just as discordant in their day as modernist music is today.  Another is, arguably, the claim that post-modernism is a thing that both arose later than modernism and can be usefully distinguished from it.  Today, though, I want to talk about the revisionist story that World War 1 was a critical influence on modernism.


1. The Big War and the Big Lie

Some quick Googling tells me about “the galvanic impact of World War I” on modernism (New York Times) and “how World War I gave birth to the modern” (CNN).  Wikipedia says, “Among the factors that shaped modernism were the development of modern industrial societies and the rapid growth of cities, followed then by reactions of horror to World War I.”

English professor Jarica Watts said,

This was Modernism, a reaction against the conventions of liberal, bourgeois, material, decadent, Western civilization. It’s what we might call the avant-garde, or bohemian or abstract today. But for the lost generation of post-war Europe, it seemed to be the only way out of either depression or suicide. In a world now proven to be without values, what else was left but experimentation—to try, by putting the pen to the page, what had not yet been accomplished before.

The Los Angeles TImes wrote,

ART FOREVER CHANGED BY WORLD WAR I

Along with millions of idealistic young men who were cut to pieces by machine guns and obliterated by artillery shells, there was another major casualty of World War I: traditional ideas about Western art. …

“It created an epoch in art,” said Leo Braudy, a USC professor of English and author of “From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity.” “The question is, what was on one side and what was on the other?”

The simple answer as to what lay on the near side of World War I is Modernism, that slippery but indispensable term denoting a wide range of new sensibilities and aesthetic responses to the industrial age. Modernism took shape decades before World War I, but its clamorous arrival was vastly accelerated by the greatest collective trauma in history to that point.

The Amazon blurb for Susan Cole’s 2012 At the Violet Hour: Modernism and Violence in England and Ireland says,

Literature has long sought to make sense of the destruction and aggression wrought by human civilization. Yet no single literary movement was more powerfully shaped by violence than modernism. As Sarah Cole shows, modernism emerged as an imaginative response to the devastating events that defined the period, including the chaos of anarchist bombings, World War I, the Irish uprising, and the Spanish Civil War.

[Ezra] Pound felt the best part of his generation had been ravaged by an absurdly wasteful war, and he expressed some of his bitterness in his most powerful poem of the period, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”: … He loathed Western civilization because it had no room left for its artists, and because it seemed systematically bent on its own extinction through warfare.
— (Tytell 1987 p. 6)

In visual art, Surrealists and Expressionists devised wobbly, chopped-up perspectives and nightmarish visions of fractured human bodies and splintered societies slouching toward moral chaos….  Amy Lyford, a professor of art history and visual arts at Occidental College, said that Surrealism developed partly from artists’ desires to depict the massive traumas the war inflicted on individual human beings.
Art forever changed by World War I, page 2

Yet, looking for these pictures, the closest thing I find is Hitler-inspired paintings by Dali.

“Hitler turned me on in the highest.”
–Salvador Dali, the most-influential postwar Surrealist painter, quoted in The New Statesman

The accepted narrative about the development of Modernism, as shown above, is that it was created as a humanistic reaction against the mindless violence of World War I.  There are several problems with this theory:

– An inspection of easily-available facts shows that modernism was already fully-formed before the start of the war.  I have searched in vain for any style, technique, doctrine, or attitude in any of the many variations of modernism which can be traced to an origin in the events of World War 1.

– What you’ll find instead is that the founders of modernism were often pro-violence and anti-humanistic, and did not react to the horrors of war because few of them went to war.  Modernists were more excited than most people about the revolutionary potential of violence, less likely than other young people to go to war, less likely to write about or make art about the war, and much more likely to rush to embrace the violent solutions of fascism or Stalinism almost immediately after the war.

– War veterans who wrote about the war did not usually use modernist techniques.  Modernists stole their legitimacy by declaring that writings about the war were by definition modernist.


2. Pictorial History of Modern Art

Modernism was fully-formed before World War I started.  It had some growing left to do, but its adult shape was already clear.  Frank Lloyd Wright had been building “prairie houses” for a decade. Chicago, Buffalo, and New York City were already sprouting glass-walled skyscrapers. Arnold Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire was already famous, though he didn’t invent 12-tone music until 1915.

John Cage’s supposedly post-modern masterpiece 4′33″ (1952) is an exact duplicate of Alphonse Allais’ Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man (1897), except for having a different duration [1].  The Red Badge of Couragewas published in 1895.  And it’s hard to say whether anyone has ever written a more post-modern novel than Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759).

Rather than a long argument, here’s a series of paintings I collected by googling “art 1890”, “art 1900”, “modern art”, and “modern art 1920s”.


Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Doctor Gachet, 1890 (link)


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge, 1890 (link)


Monet, Wheatstacks, 1891 (link)


Edvard Munch, Jealous, 1895 (link)


Henri Matisse, Le bonheur de vivre, 1906 (link)


Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907 (link)


Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907 (link)


Picasso, Girl with Mandolin, 1910 (link)


Francis Picabia, 1912, Tarentelle (link)


Franz Marc, Fate of the Animals, 1913 (link)


Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle), 1913


Wassily Kandinsky, Color Study: Squares with Concentric Circles, 1913 (link)


Fernand Léger, Contrast of Forms, 1913 (link)


Piet Mondrian, Composition XIV, 1913 (link)


Lyubov Popova, Air Man Space, 1913


Amadeo Souza-Cardoso, Untitled Still Life, 1913 (link)


Fernand Léger, Discs, 1918 (link)


Piet Mondrian, Composition With Gray And Light Brown, 1918 (link)


Piet Mondrian, Composition III, 1917 (link)


T. van Doesburg, Simultaneous Counter-Composition, 1930 (link)


Pablo Picasso, Tête de Marie-Thérèse, 1932 (link)


Joaquín Torres-García, Locomotora con casa constructiva (Locomotive with Constructive House), 1934 (link)


Picasso, The Weeping Woman, 1937 (link)


Georgia O’Keeffe. White Shell with Red, 1938. (link)


Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue, 1942 (link)


Jackson Pollock, The She-Wolf, 1943 (link)


Stanley William Hayter, Cinq Personnages or alternately Atelier 17, 1946 (link)


Jackson Pollack, Summertime Number 9A, 1948 (link)


Hans Hofmann, The Gate, 1959–60 (link)


Seb Farrington, Venus Isle, 2010 (source)

 

I think it’s clear that the inflection was between 1907 and 1913, not 1913 and 1930.  This wonderful chart gives a good picture of modern art’s genealogy, which shows that all that was added after the start of the war was Dadaism, Surrealism, and architecture.

Although personally, I think this is a better summary of its progress:


Alphonse Allais, Negroes Battling in a Tunnel, by Night, 1884 (source)


Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915 (source)


Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Print, 1966 (link)


Robert Ryman, Allied, 1966 (linkGuggenheim)


Dimitris Tragkas, Circle, 1988 (linksource)


Robert Ryman, Connect, 2002.  Recently sold for $10,775,500.

Robert Ryman is a good figure to end our survey of modern art on.  He has painted nothing but white squares for the past 50 years, and is now #5 of the list of most expensive living American artists, with sales of on average $14 million per year.  The fact that he can reliably sell paintings which Google image search classifies as bathroom tiles for over $10 million is perhaps not as disturbing as the fact that modern art, a movement whose two most-often stated aims are to fight bourgeois capitalism and to make art more pure, has resulted in an art world that ranks artists by how much money their paintings sell for.


3. English Literary Modernism

Literary modernism in English did appear mostly after the start of WW1.  Not entirely; Gertrude Stein had already written Three Lives, for instance [2].  But Modernism was already fully-formed on the European continent, including its philosophies.  Either English literary modernism is the migration of European modernism to England, or it is not Modernism.

I think there is some distance between English literary modernism and “modern art”, but still–all the important English modernists met each other in Paris, not in London or America, where they looked at French paintings together in Gertrude Stein’s apartment, or met at Shakespeare & Co. or one of Ezra Pound’s other hangouts, and discussed French art and artistic philosophy.

Considering that they were young people writing immediately after the close of a World War, who had little adult experience but the war years, what’s striking is how little some of them wrote about the war.  Joyce, Fitzgerald, and Stein never mentioned it in their work that I know of.

The most-notable books that fit the “war art” narrative are The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane, 1895), All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Remarque, 1928 or 1929), and A Farewell to Arms (Ernest Hemingway, 1929).  Aside from the question of whether these books use any modernist techniques–I would say the first two are Naturalist [7.5], and only Hemingway is Modernist–we have problems with the timeline.  Stephen Crane didn’t go to war, and his book came out 30 years after its war, and 20 years before WW1. Remarque and Hemingway went to war, but didn’t publish their books for 10 years. We can hardly say modernism received a formative impact in 1929. [3]  And if Hemingway was so traumatized by the war, why did he volunteer for both the Spanish Civil War and WW2–and spend much of the time in-between travelling around the world to shoot big animals?

And let’s look at some poems by the most-famous “modernist war poets”.  I’m adding one from WW2 just to show that the pattern continues.

The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes
Till beauty shines in all that we can see.
War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,
And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.
Horror of wounds and anger at the foe,
And loss of things desired; all these must pass.
We are the happy legion, for we know
Time’s but a golden wind that shakes the grass.
There was an hour when we were loth to part
From life we longed to share no less than others.
Now, having claimed this heritage of heart,
What need we more, my comrades and my brothers?
–Siegfried Sassoon, “Absolution”, 1917

Why are they cheering and shouting
What’s all the scurry of feet
With little boys banging on kettle and can
Wild laughter of girls in the street?

Oh those are the froth of the city
The thoughtless and ignorant scum
Who hang out the bunting when war is let loose
And for victory bang on a drum

But the boys who were killed in the battle
Who fought with no rage and no rant
Are peacefully sleeping on pallets of mud
Low down with the worm and the ant.
–Robert Graves, “November 11th”, 1918 (first published in 1969)

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
–Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum”, 1921

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
–Randall Jarrell, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”, 1969

In what sense are these poems modernist?  The first would be called kitsch if it weren’t about the war; it is exactly the sort of Victorian or Georgian poem the modernists hated [4].  Also, it’s the sort of pro-war YOLO jingoism that Kipling would have written; WTF? The others are sentimental poems with clear, concrete meanings and regular or nearly-regular meter and rhyme.

These, by contrast, are modernist poems:

A lea ender stow sole lightly.
Not a bet beggar.
Nearer a true set jump hum,
A lamp lander so seen poor lip.
–Gertrude Stein, “Yet Dish” #2, 1913

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches Tigers
In red weather.
–Wallace Stevens, “Disillusionment Of Ten O’Clock”, 1915

Tumbling-hair
picker of buttercups
violets
dandelions
And  the big bullying  daisies
through the field wonderful
with  eyes a little  sorry
Another  comes
also picking flowers
–e e cummings 1923, Tulips and Chimneys #3

She, then, like snow in a dark night,
Fell secretly. And the world waked
With dazzling of the drowsy eye,
So that some muttered ‘Too much light’,
And drew the curtains close.
Like snow, warmer than fingers feared,
And to soil friendly;
Holding the histories of the night
In yet unmelted tracks.
–Robert Graves, “Like Snow” [I can’t find the year]

The war poems aren’t modernist in any way [5].  Heck, (Jarrell 1942) said modernism was dead 27 years before he wrote that poem.

There is, as far as I can see, a less-than-expected intersection between poems about the war or poets who wrote about the war, and poems or poets showing modernist techniques.  Modernist poems were less about the horrors of war than other poetry.  The first-rank modernists were notable for not going to war and for seldom writing about or painting about the war.  Calling the war poems “modernist” is a PR coup in which the 4Fs, rich kids, and draft-dodgers stole the legitimacy of the war veterans by saying “We’re angsty, too–you’re one of us!”

TS Eliot seems on the surface to be talking about the war in “The Waste Land”, but it doesn’t resemble the poetry of war veterans as much as it resembles the weary, angsty, disillusioned poetry of TS Eliot before the war [6].

And, wait–Graves again?  Well, I put Graves in the first batch as a ringer.  Could you tell him apart from the “modernists”? He’s not considered a modernist at all, despite writing more-modernist poetry.  Graves was a model modernist poet in the 1920s–he came back from the war traumatized, and (allegedly) rejected patriotism, marriage, conventional morality, modernity, and reason.  The problem was that, unlike other WW1 poets, he didn’t die and he didn’t stop writing poems. He began to get better, instead of staying in the permanent state of disillusionment and near-psychosis so conducive to modernism, and as he did, he found himself more and more at odds with other modernist poets.  In (Riding & Graves 1927) he disapproved of their reliance on technical gimmicks, their focus on style rather than content, and their focus on social and political issues rather than on the poet’s experiences and vision. He tried to introduce a more-nuanced view and use of modernism, which was not at all what the other modernists wanted.  Graves disliked modernity, but simply returned to classical studies and to humanistic optimism about the possibility of improving society rather than tearing it down and starting over. (Quinn 1999, see esp. p. 44, 52, 54) Rather than being remembered as a dissenting modernist, he has been cast as the arch-anti-modernist, to keep modernism ideologically pure, and, I suppose, to avoid drawing attention to the fact that the only major WW1 poet I know of who kept writing abandoned modernism.


4. The Two Families of Modernism

At the start of WW1, “Modernism” in the sense I wish to use it–as a term describing a set of artistic approaches that all claimed the same influences, all looked pretty similar to each other and vastly different from everything else, and were advocated at the same time by people who all had the same sort of background and behaved pretty much the same way–included groups with opposite attitudes towards modernity.

Architectural modernism tries to “be modern” by finding beauty in forms that are rational and efficient (“form follows function”).  Futurist modernism originated in Italy and celebrates the power of the machine. Constructivism originated in Russia, inspired by Marx & Engels’ writings against the fine arts (Shiner 1990 p. 236) and by Futurism (theartstory.org, “Constructivism“) and art in France.  It supported modernity in the service of communism, though it was close to anti-modernity Dadaism in its anti-art stance.

The mostly-victorious branch of artistic and literary modernism, on the other hand, reacted against being modern, rational, and efficient.  That branch is what people mean by “modernism”.  They often call Futurism and Constructivism “avant-garde”, an umbrella  term which means anything descended from weird French stuff developed after 1850 that most people didn’t like, but is generally reserved for the period before 1900.  However, both are much more like the rest of modern art that they were contemporaries of than they are like the many forms of avant-garde art that came before 1900.

Virginia Woolf, writing in 1924, said English modernism began in 1910.  People in 1910 said “the revolution” began in the 1890s with the French avant-garde movement.  People in the 1890s said it began in the 1870s with Rimbaud’s poetry, or maybe with the Paris commune of 1871.  People in the 1870s said it began with Gustave Courbet’s realist paintings of 1849-1851 or the French Revolution of 1848, and people in 1848 said they were completing the French Revolution of 1793, which Wordsworth (Vondeling 2000) and Beethoven were both enthusiastic about at the time.

Randall Jarrell wrote an excellent essay in 1942 which used this continuity of revolutionary spirit from modern art back to the French Revolution to argue that modernism is better seen as the next stage of romanticism.  The key qualities they had in common were:

  • a disdain for all art that had come before
  • fetishizing “originality” and constant change
  • calling ugly, discordant, or senseless things “art” as long as they were new
    • this makes more sense if you’re familiar with late 19th-century French Symbolist poetry–I’m not, but I’ve read articles about it; basically the French were writing proto-modernist poetry in the 1870s.  (See below on Stéphane Mallarmé. Also see Martindale 1990 chpt. 3, “Crucible in a Tower of Ivory: Modern French poetry”.)
  • hatred of science, industrialism, humanitarianism, and the notion of progress
  • a desire to return to an idealized past that is literary, theological, and personal

GhostOfHeraclitus has just posted a short companion piece on Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898).  Its conclusion is:

“In summary, a lot of what was supposedly purely Modernist was written by Mallarmé first, and this penchant for experimentation suffused with the vision of art as new religion for a world that’s gone and killed God was transmitted to the Modernists either through Mallarmé’s fame or through his famous salons. This ‘new religion’ business is especially vital as it speaks to the (more paleo- than neomodern) notion that meaning had gone from the world and that Art-with-a-capital-sodding-A must put it back.”

1914 is a ridiculous date for the birth of modernism.  The 1890s would be a better date. But moving the date up to 1914 has several advantages to the winners.  It makes modernism seem newer, gives its perpetual childish outrage and arrogance an excuse, and, perhaps most importantly, lets them kick out the Futurists, who had split from the rest of the modernists by 1910.  Saying modernism began during WW1 is thus akin to saying that the Russian Revolution began when Trotsky was expelled from the Politburo in 1926.

(If you want to read a counter-argument, the New York Times published a piece in 1996 defending the official date of 1914 or later against a book by Peter Stansky arguing that “in 1910 England was belatedly introduced to the modernism that was already taking the Continent by storm.”)

The futurists didn’t adopt the anti-modern modernists’ nihilistic doctrines such as the unimportance of the artistic subject or content.  Also, their art was a little more popular because it was representational and energetic.

Umberto Boccioni 1912, Elasticity (link)

Giuio D’Anna, 1930 (link)

The surviving modernists are, amazingly, still hurling invective at Futurism’s corpse over 100 years later, as shown by this 2012 Smithsonian article calling Futurists a dark and dangerous set of artists whose influence we should be wary of, conveniently ignoring the equally loathsome political views of most non-futurist modernists.

The artistic and philosophical revolution, as often happens, preceded the military one.  (The Renaissance, for instance, can be seen as the artistic half of a long revolution against the iron grip of medieval feudalism, while the Age of Enlightenment was the scientific and political continuation of it.)

The modernists weren’t reacting against a devastation caused by the callous indifference of science to the plight of real people, because the modernists came first.  If anything, the poison of their own fanaticism, their screams for rage, violence, and destruction, and their loathing of those ordinary people, cheered on the coming devastation.


5. Modernist Manifestos and World War One

Many people have tried to define modernism, but they mostly observe its products rather than giving it what it’s crying for–psychoanalysis.  A glaringly obvious characteristic of modernism, which people are now so used to that they don’t even notice, is its furious, political, totalitarian nature.  Most famous modernists (I haven’t counted, but I’m pretty sure it’s most; see for instance Will 2012 [7]), were political extremists, either fascist or Stalinist.  The two most-important literary modernists, in terms of organizing modernism into a movement, were Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein.  The same Pound that Tytell said was bitter about “an absurdly wasteful war” signed the Blast Manifesto in 1914 with its calls for a great purgative violence, and later made radio broadcasts for the Italian fascists during World War 2.  Stein supporters claim that she was just being ironic when she said “Hitler deserves the Nobel Peace Prize”, but she supported the Vichy regime too consistently to make this excuse.

There were modernist manifestos going at least back to the Symbolist manifesto in 1886, but from 1909-1921 modernists competed to see who could crank out the angriest, craziest manifestos.  I don’t know how many there were. Enough that “manifesto studies” is now a thing.

From F. T. Marinetti​’s “The Futurist Manifesto” , 1909:

2. The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, daring, and revolt.
3. Literature having up to now magnified thoughtful immobility, ecstasy, and sleep, we want to exalt the aggressive gesture, the feverish insomnia, the athletic step, the perilous leap, the box on the ear, and the fisticuff.
7. There is no more beauty except in struggle. No masterpiece without an aggressive character. Poetry must be a violent attack against the unknown forces, summoning them to lie down before man.
9. We want to glorify war — the only hygiene of the world–militarism, patriotism, the anarchist’s destructive gesture, the fine Ideas that kill, and the scorn of woman.
10. We want to demolish museums, libraries, fight against moralism, feminism, and all opportunistic and utilitarian cowardices.

It is in Italy that we launch this manifesto of tumbling and incendiary violence, this manifesto through which today we set up Futurism, because we want to deliver Italy from its gangrene of professors, of archaeologists, of guides, and of antiquarians.

I think you all know how that went.

This next bit is a long quote, but I think it’s worthwhile.  It shows the violent and political atmosphere of the European art world in 1912, and one account of how modernism came from a Hegelian synthesis of classicism and romanticism.

Also notice that Hulme, the modernist, is rabidly pro-Christian and anti-scientific, and skeptical of ‘Progress’ (hence the snide uppercase P).  (He says he’s anti-rationalist, but he’s using the term to mean something like “science”, without regard for how it and its cognates were used during the previous 2000 years.  Christianity is rationalist, while romanticism is anti-rationalist.) This is a point I’ll hopefully get to sometime this year: modernism and post-modernism are religious, theocratic, rationalist, anti-scientific movements.  Post-modernism in particular is very Catholic, and looks back to the Middle Ages to find ancient philosophies to replace modern scientific beliefs. (This shouldn’t be surprising, as it arose in France from people with classical educations but no scientific understanding.)  Hulme’s view is that romanticism needs an injection of God.

From a speech by T. E. Hulme, 1912, published in 1924 as “Romanticism and Classicism”:

I know that in using the words ‘classic’ and ‘romantic’ I am doing a dangerous thing. …  I ought really to have coined a couple of new words, but I prefer to use the ones I have used, as I then conform to the practice of the group of polemical writers who make most use of them at the present day, and have almost succeeded in making them political catchwords…  If you asked a man of a certain set whether he preferred the classics or the romantics, you could deduce from that what his politics were.
The best way of gliding into a proper definition of my terms would be to start with a set of people who are prepared to fight about it–for in them you will have no vagueness. …
About a year ago, a man whose name I think was Fauchois gave a lecture at the Odeon on Racine, in the course of which he made some disparaging remarks about his dullness, lack of invention and the rest of it. This caused an immediate riot: fights took place all over the house; several people were arrested and imprisoned, and the rest of the series of lectures took place with hundreds of gendarmes and detectives scattered all over the place. These people interrupted because the classical ideal is a living thing to them and Racine is the great classic. That is what I call a real vital interest in literature.  They regard romanticism as an awful disease from which France had just recovered.
The thing is complicated in their case by the fact that it was romanticism that made the revolution.  [I suppose he’s talking about one French Revolution or the other.]  They hate the revolution, so they hate romanticism.
I make no apology for dragging in politics here; romanticism both in England and France is associated with certain political views
People of all classes, people who stood to lose by it, were in a positive ferment about the idea of liberty.  There must have been some idea which enabled them to think that something positive could come out of so essentially negative a thing. There was, and here I get my definition of romanticism. They had been taught by Rousseau that man was by nature good, that it was only bad laws and customs that had suppressed him…  This is what made them think that something positive could come out of disorder… Here is the root of all romanticism: that man, the individual, is an infinite reservoir  of possibilities; and if you can so rearrange society by the destruction of oppressive order then these possibilities will have a chance and you will get Progress.
One can define the classical quite clearly as the exact opposite to this. Man is an extraordinarily fixed and limited animal whose nature is absolutely constant. It is only by tradition and organisation that anything decent can be got out of him
… the classical view … is absolutely identical with the normal religious attitude…  That part of the fixed nature of man is the belief in the Deity.  This should be as fixed and true for every man as belief in the existence of matter and in the objective world.  It is parallel to appetite, the instinct of sex, and all the other fixed qualities….  The repressed instinct bursts out in some abnormal direction. So with religion. By the perverted rhetoric of Rationalism, your natural instincts are suppressed and you are converted into an agnostic. Just as in the case of the other instincts, Nature has her revenge. The instincts that find their right and proper outlet in religion must come out in some other way.  You don’t believe in a God, so you begin to believe that man is a god. You don’t believe in Heaven, so you begin to believe in a heaven on earth. In other words, you get romanticism.

Hulme is a rabid conservative, on the anti-liberty, monarchist, Classicist side, and was a Catholic convert.  Classicists or Catholics who became modernists became High Modernists (or paleomodernists), like Joyce & Eliot, and often supported the fascists after WW1.  Romantics who became modernists became neomodernists, like Stein, and often became Marxists if they were not Catholic.

We all know that modernism is about God being dead, right?  So why does theology keep entering into it? Well, modernism and post-modernism are both movements that believe God is dead, but desperately want Him back to give the world a firm footing.  Modernism is what happens when romantics acquire a purely intellectual atheism, but still have a God-shaped hole in their hearts.  Futurists and paleo-modernists searched for replacements for God. More conservative and backwards-looking modernists, like TE Hulme and TS Eliot, decided they must have just had the wrong God, and would try out the Catholic one instead.  Post-modernists gave up and said reason only leads to contradictions because there is no God. (Not directly, but it becomes clear if you notice that their arguments come from rejecting scientific understanding and instead falling back on medieval beliefs about reality, which were carefully designed and selected to lead to contradictions if there were no God.)

If, as Hulme said, classicists were conservatives and romantics were progressives, what were modernists?  I’m going to call them radicals. I’ll explain why in a later blog post, “Conservative, progressive, and radical art.”  But I think this next selection from the Blast manifesto will make the point equally well. It was written mostly by Wyndham Lewis (who in 1931 visited Berlin and wrote a book praising Adolf Hitler, a fact not mentioned on the Wikipedia page dismissing charges against him of Nazi sympathizing), and signed by Ezra Pound.  Lewis said the name “Blast” meant “the blowing away of dead ideas and worn-out notions.” The strange |6/ is supposed to represent a bomb exploding (as suggested by other words in the manifesto).  The messages of Blast were that (1) Futurists are bad; and (2) art is inherently violent, and springs from the same sort of thuggish vitality that the Futurist Manifesto praises.  It characterizes art as an explosive energy, like a bomb, so an artist must be “savage”, “primitive”, “violent”, and find his stimulus in “a chaos of imperfection, discord”.  It was published on June 20, 1914, 8 days before Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated by a Yugoslav nationalist, triggering World War 1.

From “Long Live the Vortex!”, Blast (1), June 20 1914  (Norton Anthology of English Literature, 8th edition, vol. 2, p. 2010-2012):

The only way Humanity can help artists is to remain independent and work unconsciously.
WE NEED THE UNCONSCIOUSNESS OF HUMANITY—their stupidity, animalism and dreams.
We believe in no perfectibility except our own.
Intrinsic beauty is in the Interpreter and Seer, not in the object or content.

WE ONLY WANT THE WORLD TO LIVE, and to feel it’s [sic] crude energy flowing through us.
It maybe said that great artists in England are always revolutionary, just as in France any really great artist had a strong traditional vein.
Blast sets out to be an avenue for all those vivid and violent ideas that could reach the Public in no other way.

AUTOMOBILISM (Marinetteism) [Futurism] bores us. We don’t want to go about making a hullo-bulloo about motor cars, anymore than about knives and forks…
Wilde gushed twenty years ago about the beauty of machinery.  Gissing, in his romantic delight with modern lodging houses was futurist in this sense.

[from here on you need to see the typography]

I realize that the Archduke was killed by a nationalist, not an artist.  The point I’m making is that those times were full of political violence by nationalists, Marxists, and anarchists–and the modernists thought that was totally cool.  They wanted to be a part of the violence. The anarchists, nationalists, Marxists, and modern artists were all part of a revolutionary culture of anger that glorified explosive energy and violence.

Look back at that sequence of paintings up above.  It looks like I selected a whole bunch from 1913 to show you what art was like immediately before the war started, doesn’t it?  I didn’t. It just happens that if you randomly select a bunch of paintings from the history of modern art with probability proportional to how many web pages there are about them, a large number of the important paintings were made in 1913.

The years immediately preceding World War I witnessed two parallel developments in the arts: landmark works and innovate styles appeared in such rich profusion as to make this period (1910-1914) one of the apogees of modernism; and, far more than in preceding years, artists in nearly all media formed and joined groups of fellow artists… the group structure intensified modernist innovation by enabling otherwise isolated artists to develop aesthetic ideas collectively… and… to dare to present their innovative art to a hostile, yet potentially curious public…. So aggressive were these modernist groups, so eager for combat, that fighting spilled over into their competition with each other for survival and prominence.
–Cohen 2004 p. 1-2

In other words, modern art was bursting with energy and action, at its peak strength, immediately before WW1 started.

And yet, I haven’t got a single painting from the 1920s.  But I tried. I searched for “modern art 1920s”, and all the images I clicked on turned out to be from before or after the 1920s, or didn’t have a specific date given, except for a bunch of Mondrians which all looked the same [8].  Modern artists didn’t emerge from the war energized to create new art in response to their experience. Modern visual art was apparently dormant immediately after the war.  Modern art wasn’t a reaction against violence, it was a violent reaction–and people were tired of violence.

World War 1 broke out at just the time that all of Europe’s upper and middle class was burning with rage over art–classicists, romanticists, and modernists all denouncing each other as barbarians.  The classicists were not a serious threat. The French modernists were hard-pressed to decide who they hated more, the German Romantics (their old enemy), or the Italian Futurists (the heretical modernists).

Wait, I’m not going to argue that World War 1 was split along artistic lines, am I?

No; Wyndham Lewis will.  In Blast issue 2, July 1915:

Germany has stood for the old Poetry, for Romance, more stedfastly and profoundly than any other people in Europe. German nationalism is less realistic, is more saturated with the mechanical obsession of history, than the nationalism of England or France.

This paper wishes to stand rigidly opposed, from start to finish, to every form that the Poetry of a former condition of life, no longer existing, has foisted upon us. It seeks to oppose to this inapposite poetry, the intensest aroma of a different humanity (that is Romance) the Poetry which is the as yet unexpressed spirit of the present time, and of new conditions and possibilities of life.

Under these circumstances, apart from national partizanship, it appears to us humanly desirable that Germany should win no war against France or England.

… and a few pages later:

A fact not generally known in England, Is that the Kaiser, long before he entered into war with Great Britain, had declared merciless war on Cubism and Expressionism.  Museum directors, suspected of Cubist Ieanings, were removed from their posts. Exhibitions that gave shelter to Pablo Picasso or even Signac, were traitorous institutions. … This good Emperor smells the Divine, the Sober and Sheet-Iron puritanism underneath these art-manifestations, and he feels his trade would suffer. …

(Do note that Blast 2 describes modern art as divine, sober and sheet-iron puritanism.  That will become important in later posts.)

I mentioned earlier that Arnold Schoenberg didn’t invent 12-tone music until 1915.  That was a major development in modernism. So… maybe that was his response to the mindlessness of WW1?

Schoenberg drew comparisons between Germany’s assault on France and his assault on decadent bourgeois artistic values. In August 1914, while denouncing the music of Bizet, Stravinsky and Ravel, [Schoenberg] wrote: “Now comes the reckoning! Now we will throw these mediocre kitschmongers into slavery, and teach them to venerate the German spirit and to worship the German God!”
–Wikipedia on Schoenberg, citing Ross 2007, p. 60.

Schoenberg said later that he suffered terribly from the corrosive effects of war.  But at the time, he was enthusiastic about it, enlisting in 1914. He only finished his training in the autumn of 1916, and was released from service in November 1916 (Ewans 2004 p. 309-313).  As far as I can tell, he never saw action, thanks to the efforts of “his colleagues” to keep him out of danger (Roshwald & Stites p. 140).

Schoenberg, the German, identified France with the bourgeois, while Wyndham Lewis identified Germany with the bourgeois.  “Bourgeois” allegedly meant “upper middle class”, yet it was by then used only as an insult, and only by members of the upper middle class.  By 1914 it had already come in artistic circles to refer not to any economic class, but to anyone who did not appreciate avant-garde art.  By intersecting revolution and avant-gardism, It expressed in one word the sentiment that people who did not like modern art must be killed.

Is the idea that a fight over art made people eager to fight WW1 any more ridiculous than the current teaching that they fought it for no reason at all?  Is it any more ridiculous than the idea that one major reason Rome fell and Europe plunged into the Dark Age was a religious internal and external war lasting from 300-800 A.D. over exactly how literally to interpret the phrase “God’s only begotten son” in John 3:16? [9]  Or that disagreements over art helped cause the Holocaust?

But the modernists quickly saw the error of their ways, right?  During the War they began to draw some link between their cries for mindless violence, and mindless violence, right?

Like Dada.

Dada was born out of negative reaction to the horrors of World War I.
–Dona Budd 2005, The Language of Art Knowledge Cards

Dada was an art movement formed during the First World War in Zurich in negative reaction to the horrors and folly of the war.
The Tate Gallery’s website

Dadaist artists expressed their discontent with violence, war, and nationalism, and maintained political affinities with the radical left.
–Wikipedia, Dada

Dada emerged amid the brutality of World War I (1914–18)—a conflict that claimed the lives of eight million military personnel and an estimated equal number of civilians….

For the disillusioned artists of the Dada movement, the war merely confirmed the degradation of social structures that led to such violence: corrupt and nationalist politics, repressive social values, and unquestioning conformity of culture and thought. From 1916 until the mid-1920s, artists in Zurich, New York, Cologne, Hanover, and Paris declared an all-out assault against not only on conventional definitions of art, but on rational thought itself. “The beginnings of Dada,” poet Tristan Tzara recalled, “were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust.”
The Museum of Modern Art’s website

There are no world-renowned Dadaists on the scale of a Hemingway, or a Shostakovich, or a Picasso, and no Dadaist produced a particularly large body of work– not least because so many of the good ones killed themselves as the ultimate expression in Dadaist performance art….  Dada was a fully-realized, soulless expression of Dionysian excess. A howl of existential despair. And a casualty of war.

… The Dada movement is believed to have begun on October 6th, 1916, at the Café Voltaire in Zurich, part of neutral Switzerland, where Ball and others… congregated in order to discuss art and vent their spleen against the war lighting the sky all around them…. Their outrage was real, a genuine reaction to the horrors of the war.
History of the Dada Movement, dadart.com

So the Dadaists were, like, hippies, right?  They just wanted to give peace a chance. Get people to be reasonable.

A small part of Tristan Tzara’s “​​Dada Manifesto​“, 1918:​

The principle: “love thy neighbor” is a hypocrisy. “Know thyself” is utopian but more acceptable, for it embraces wickedness. No pity. After the carnage we still retain the hope of a purified mankind… All pictorial or plastic work is useless: let it then be a monstrosity that frightens servile minds, and not sweetening to decorate the refectories of animals in human costume…

I assure you: there is no beginning, and we are not afraid; we aren’t sentimental. We are like a raging wind that rips up the clothes of clouds and prayers, we are preparing the great spectacle of disaster, conflagration and decomposition….

What is divine in us is the awakening of anti-human action. … Morals have an atrophying effect, like every other pestilential product of the intelligence. Being governed by morals and logic has made it impossible for us to be anything other than impassive towards policemen – the cause of slavery – putrid rats with whom the bourgeois are fed up to the teeth, and who have infected the only corridors of clear and clean glass that remained open to artists.

Let each man proclaim: there is a great negative work of destruction to be accomplished. We must sweep and clean. Affirm the cleanliness of the individual after the state of madness, aggressive complete madness of a world abandoned to the hands of bandits, who rend one another and destroy the centuries. Without aim or design, without organization: indomitable madness, decomposition. Those who are strong in words or force will survive, for they are quick in defence, the agility of limbs and sentiments flames on their faceted flanks.

Morality has determined charity and pity, two balls of fat that have grown like elephants, like planets, and are called good. There is nothing good about them. Goodness is lucid, clear and decided, pitiless toward compromise and politics. Morality is an injection of chocolate into the veins of all men.

What is Dada and what does it want in Germany?  The international revolutionary union of all creative and intellectual men and women on the basis of radical Communism.
–the Berlin Dadaist Manifesto, 1920, quoted in Egbert 1970 p. 633, as cited in Golomstock 1990 p. 59

Dada is German Bolshevism.
–Carl Richard Hülsenbeck, founder of German Dadaism, quoted in Egbert 1970 p. 633, as cited in Golomstock 1990 p. 59

To make literature with a gun in my hand had for a time been my dream.
–Carl Richard Hülsenbeck, En avant Dada, 1920. Translated and cited by Wikipedia: Richard_Huelsenbeck

After 1923 “Die Neue Sachlichkeit” was born from the meeting of Dadaism and Expressionism; this was probably the most pointedly social movement in the art of its time…. Some saw in it the highest manifestation of the German or Nordic spirit, others were attracted by its aesthetic extremism, its refusal to accept bourgeois tastes and morality, and its open criticism of the capitalist system. Among those who sided with it where the communists George Grosz and Hans and Lea Grundig, the Soviet sympathizers Käthe Kollwitz and Max Pechstein, together with Emil Nolde, the father of the movement and one of the first to join the national Socialist party.
–Golomstock 1990, p. 60

The Dadaists weren’t hippies complaining about violence.  They were radical left-wing draft-dodgers who wanted a different kind of violence.

It’s not easy to make sense of the Dada Manifesto–sense was one of the things it rejected–but we can note consistencies in it:

– It uses the language of racial or religious purity, comparing people who disagree with their theories to disease, vermin, decay, and filth that must be wiped out.
– It speaks not of persuasion but of strength and violence.
– It continues the modernist association of art with madness.
– It speaks against compromise, morality, charity, and pity, insisting that only total destruction of the bourgeoisie and their culture is acceptable.
– It says little about the war.  Mostly just the part in the quote above.
– It says a lot about the basic principles of post-modern theory: subjectivity, relativism, amorality, the non-existence of truth, the inapplicability of logic and rationality, the deconstruction of arguments as having ulterior motives.
– It’s not outrage against violence; it’s outrage that it isn’t the violence they wanted.

In other words, this “reaction against the mindless horrors of war” is panic that the pent-up rage they were hoping to unleash for their vaguely-Marxist revolution is getting wasted.  They’re trying to get in on the mindless violence, before it’s too late.

Also notice that the wartime Dadaists were in Switzerland.  None of them went to war.

What about the famous modernist writers of the 1920s and 1930s?  James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald [10], William Carlos Williams, D. H. Lawrence, Wallace Stevens?  Despite all being of draftable age, only Hemingway went to war–and he seemed to like it pretty well; he went back for two more. (In WW2, Hemingway was court-martialed for fighting too much–he organized unauthorized operations against the enemy.)

Same with the other artists.  Picasso, Le Corbusier, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp–none of them fought in the war.  (BLAST artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska went to war, found trench warfare “great fun” (Moody p. 259-260), and was killed in 1915.)  In a Europe where most young men went to war, modern art was very noticeably practiced mostly by young people who did not. If it was a reaction to the horrors of war, why were people who didn’t go to war so much more likely to have this reaction?  (It’s not because everyone who went to war died. About 1 in 6 did.)

And if these modern artists were shocked by the horrors of war, why were they so eager to embrace or cooperate with Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin so soon after WW1? (Note that article lists only the fascists, and still they outnumber the moderates.)  Marinetti-Mussolini (Tryphonopoulos & Adams 2005 p. 191), Picasso-Stalin [11], Dali-Hitler, Pound-Mussolini, Gertrude Stein-HitlerKnut Hamsun-Hitler, Dadaism-communism, Surrealism-communism. There are too many cases of famous modernists praising fascism or Stalinism, and too many books asking why, for me to bother enumerating them; just Google the subject on your own.  The interwar history of modernism contains a great deal of politics, often as farce [12], as both fascist and leftist modernist extremists strove to win over a proletariat who found them both, frankly, revolting [13].


Picasso’s portrait of Stalin, drawn in 1953 “as a token of respect and affection” (link)

But artists were done with revolutionary violence after WW2, right?  Genocide wasn’t cool anymore. No more allying modern art with radical purges against the bourgeois and/or the fascists, right?

​From ​George Maciunas’ “Fluxus Manifesto“,​ ​1963:

Purge the world of bourgeois sickness, “intellectual”, professional & commercialized culture, PURGE the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art, illusionistic art, mathematical art, — PURGE THE WORLD OF “EUROPANISM”!

PROMOTE A REVOLUTIONARY FLOOD AND TIDE IN ART.

Promote living art, anti-art, promote NON ART REALITY to be grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals.

[Theodor Adorno’s Philosophy of Modern Music (published posthumously in 1973)] argues that music must expunge all familiar sounds and conventional notions of the beautiful. In a world of triumphant kitsch, composition can justify its survival only by becoming a mirror image of physical and spiritual destruction…. Stravinsky, who, at the time of the “Philosophy,” was still working in the neoclassical mode, stood for falsehood and regression. There was, of course, something fascistic about Stravinsky. Adorno did not base this argument on the fact that Stravinsky himself voiced sympathy for Mussolini in the nineteen-thirties; instead, he felt that a Fascist mentality was ingrained in the music, simply in its reassertion of tonality after Schoenberg’s putative annihilation of it…. Merely by choosing to write in the key of A minor, Stravinsky is acting like you-know-who.
–Alex Ross, “Ghost Sonata: Adorno and German Music”, The New Yorker, March 24 2003
(Adorno was an extremely influential Marxist art critic and cultural theorist)

The Modernists had no reason to feel bad about WW2–they were the only winners.

It was thought that no music resisted the Nazi taint more thoroughly than the modernist school that Hitler detested. Thus did Arnold Schoenberg, the inventor of atonality and of twelvetone composition, become a heroic figure in the post-war years; he had stayed, it seemed, absolutely pure. After 1945, a new morality of music evolved, based on two questionable but potent syllogisms: (1) if Hitler liked it, it must be bad; (2) if Hitler hated it, it must be good.
–Alex Ross, “Ghost Sonata: Adorno and German Music”, The New Yorker, March 24 2003


6. Modernism Today

Okay, but all that batshit insane revolutionary madness is irrelevant now, right?

“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”  — The Matrix, 1999

…sounds like a reference to a (postmodern, deconstructionist) passage in Tristan Tzara’s “​​Dada Manifesto​”:

With the blue eye-glasses of an angel they have excavated the inner life for a dime’s worth of unanimous gratitude. If all of them are right and if all pills are Pink Pills, let us try for once not to be right…  There is no ultimate Truth. The dialectic is an amusing mechanism which guides us / in a banal kind of way / to the opinions we had in the first place.

What am I saying–that the Wachowski brothers (now sisters) were secretly deconstructionists referring to an 80-year-old radical manifesto–that the point of the Matrix wasn’t (as the first film suggested) that there was a reality beneath the simulation, but that it was simulations all the way down?  How deep does the rabbit hole go?

So the first movie is sort of classical in its approach. The second movie is deconstructionist, and it assaults all of the things that you thought to be true in the first movie, and so people get very upset, and they’re like “Stop attacking me!” in the same way that people get upset with deconstructionist philosophy. I mean, Derrida and Foucault, these people upset us. And then the third movie is the most ambiguous, because it asks you to actually participate in the construction of meaning…
— Lana Wachowski, Movie City News, October 13, 2012

I don’t believe in the Wachowski’s rabbit hole, but the modernist movement hasn’t hit bottom yet.  That’s not surprising; it’s just one part of a very old pseudo-intellectual tradition. That tradition began at least as far back as the Arian Wars and runs through medieval scholasticism, splits across continents between the Puritan and the Hegelian / Marxist traditions, then rejoins in modernism, and continues through post-modernism, right up to the Social Justice Warrior contingent of today’s left–and it goes straight through America’s English Literature departments.  But that’s a topic for future blog posts.


7. Why were modern artists so combative and so totalitarian?

This table shows the number of artworks chosen to be shown at the Paris Salon Exhibition, and the population of Paris (the city) at the time.

Year    # artworks  Population of Paris (census year)
1740      127
1750      151     565,000
1761      157
1771      320
1781      318     630,000 (1789)
1800      537     546,856 (1801)
1810     1120     622,636 (1811)
1819     1615     718,966 (1817)
1831     3182     785,862
1840     1349     935,261 (1841)   The entry notes that artists were protesting that the Salon jury was rejecting too many works.
1850     3915   1,053,262 (1851)
1861     4097   1,696,141
1870     5434   1,851,792 (1872)
1880     7289   2,269,023 (1881)

Modern artists had to fight for attention.

A young artist can’t be easily recognized for being “good”, since art is so subjective.  As the number of artists kept growing, in order to get shown at exhibitions, to distribute their little magazines, to get reviews in newspapers, young artists had to form herds, draw up doctrinal manifestos, and act like a political party to promote their work (see Cohen 2004). Art, like academia, developed its own politics.  Romantics were individualists. Most modernists could not be.

Meanwhile, between the French Revolution and WW2, the spread of democracy and the West-wide loss of faith in religion was breaking up totalitarian culture, which had previously thrived among monarchists and the Catholic Church.  People with a totalitarian nature require hierarchy, order, stasis, uniformity within their culture, distinctness from all other cultures, doctrine, and some guiding transcendental logos such as Church or Crown.  Europe in the latter half of the 19th century was full of totalitarian souls in search of a new God, and the options on offer were Marx, nationalism, and art.  Like pagans throughout history, many played it safe by creating a syncretistic religion combining 2 or all 3 of them. Artists of a totalitarian bent could colonize or organize the new orderly herds of modernists, and replace religion or the crown with a religious devotion to art.  This explains the fanaticism, and the consistently totalitarian politics, of modern artists.

Between WW1 and WW2, the various new Gods shook out into a few new totalitarian systems, which each settled on their own compatible artistic style by the end of 1934, plus today’s mainstream anti-modern modernism, which attached itself to academic culture among Germany and the Allies.  And so totalitarian culture, whose God had lost face and whose monarchs had lost their thrones, found new footholds among the Nazis, Stalinists, fascists, and in academia.

All this did not cause WW1.  No kind of modern art was then popular in any country.  Furor over art did not cause the mobilizations of Russian and Austria, the bungled diplomatic reactions to them, nor the unforgivable use of the Schlieffen Plan.  The jingoism of traditional art probably did more damage than the factious rage within modern art.  But modern art was on the same side. If, as Kant said, the social conscience is a product of art and education, modernism helped silence that conscience in the lead-ups to WW1 and WW2, by convincing progressives that instead of opposing violence, they should try to ride the tiger themselves.


Footnotes

[1] Honestly.  Not one note is different, because there are no notes.  Okay; seriously, I realize Cage’s stated intent was different.  I still want my 4’33” back.

[2] Three Lives has a plain style which probably influenced Hemingway.  The relationship of Hemingway to modernism is an interesting question: his style is minimalist, and in that sense modernist, yet the typical “modernist” literary style is more the opposite of Hemingway: convoluted, difficult to follow, dry, symbolic arguments, rather than Hemingway’s literal, sentimental, non-articulated sensory real-life experiences.  Hemingway’s main qualification as a modernist is his bleak view of life, as in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

[2.5] All Quiet on the Western Front has been called part of the German “New Objectivity” in order to somehow claim it for Modernism.  But New Objectivity wasn’t even a literary movement, and a glance at New Objective artworks shows they’re not realistic.  They’re just representational (not completely abstract):


Helmut HerzfeldHurrah, die Butter ist Alle!, 1935


George GroszThe Eclipse of the Sun, 1926

All Quiet is straight-up 19th-century Realism, which is a literary style.

[3] We see the same pattern in Word War 2 and Vietnam:  the books expressing the trauma come out 10-30 years after the end of the war.  The most-notable books deconstructing World War 2 were Catch-22 (1961) and Slaughterhouse 5 (1969).  The first Vietnam book that comes to mind for me is The Things They Carried (1990).

[4] I agree.  With respect to the author’s experience, it is a bad poem.  “Horror of wounds and anger at the foe, And loss of things desired”, etc.–it’s half histrionic hyperbole, and half cliches and bland, generic infodumps.

[5] Inb4 someone says they’re modernist because they’re about the futility and pointlessness of war: No; that’s my point. Modernists didn’t write about that more than anyone else did. War veterans did. Then modernists claimed the war veterans as modernists, because “everybody knows” that modernism was shaped by the experience of veterans in WW1.  Now they hold up the poems by war veterans, who were stamped as modernists for writing about the war, as proof that modernists wrote about the war. It’s circular logic.

[6] Although “Prufrock” was published in 1915, he wrote the first version of it in 1911.

[7] Those who’ve read T. S. Eliot’s political views may argue with his presence on that list.  I expect that he’s listed as an authoritarian because he longed for a return to a powerful medieval-style state Church.

[8] Mondrian painted the same painting repeatedly from 1917 (“Composition III”) to 1942 (“Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue”).  Way to milk it, Piet.

[9]  Like Modernism, Arianism was hopelessly tied up with politics (Hilaire BellocNew Advent).  And just as Modernists today still hate the Futurists even though they’re all dead, Christian scholars today, especially Catholics, are still angry at Arianism, calling it “debasing” and a “plague” (Gwatkin 1900) or a “taint” (New Advent’s online Catholic Encyclopedia), and writing extremely biased “reviews” of it.  Christianity Today published an argument against Arianism in 2005, writing, “If the Arian belief in Christ as an exalted creature won the day, the gospel itself would be lost.”  Father Longenecker wrote a joint condemnation of Arianism and humanism in the National Catholic Register in 2015, saying that “Today Arianism takes a different form, and comes to us in the guise of humanism.”

[10] “Near the end of his life, Fitzgerald wrote that the two greatest regrets of his life were not having seen overseas combat, and not being big enough to play college football.” (Schmoop)

[11] It is educational and entertaining to read this attempt to interpret Picasso’s drawing of Stalin as critical: “Only step by step I started to grasp Picasso’s idea of Stalin – moral monstrosity is not something exceptional to human nature and to human beings. It is enough to be rude and instinctive, to perceive the world as a place of fight, not to be emotionally warmed up by the disinterested contact with other human beings, to have ambitious and rivaling predisposition, and not to be educated – to be prone to behave indifferently, hatefully and destructively. It is enough, like Stalin, not to be nurtured by the serious art, and to be a believer in power over life and other people – to become a relaxed lout and brute, and a silent murderer.”

[12] As, for instance, Ezra Pound’s failed attempts to write popular verse plays to teach the proles high culture (and good luck finding any mention of them on Google), or the time when the Parisian Dadaists dragged a token workman off the streets to pose with them for a group portrait.

[13] Sorry.


References

Theodor Adorno 1973. Philosophy of Modern Music. Seabury Press.

Dona Budd 2005. The Language of Art Knowledge Cards. Menlo Park, CA: Pomegranate Communications

Milton A. Cohen 2004. Movement, Manifesto, Melee: The Modernist Group, 1910-1914. Lexington Books.

Donald Egbert 1970. Social Radicalism and the Arts in Western Europe: A cultural history from the French Revolution to 1968. New York: Knopf.

Michael Ewans, Rosalind Halton, John A. Phillips, eds. 2004. Music Research: New Directions for a New Century.

Igor Golomstock, translated 1990 by Robert Chandler. Totalitarian Art in the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy and the People’s Republic of China. Harper Collins.

Henry Melvill Gwatkin 1900.  Studies of Arianism: Chiefly referring to the character and chronology of the reaction which followed the council of Nicæa.

Richard Huelsenbeck.  En avant Dada: Eine Geschichte des Dadaismus.  Hanover: Paul Steegemann Verlag, 1920.

Randall Jarrell 1942. “The End of the Line.” The Nation. Reprinted in Praising it New: The best of the new criticism, p. 213-220.

Wyndham Lewis, ed., 1914. BlastNo. 1, June 20 1914.

Wyndham Lewis, ed., 1915. BlastNo. 2, July 1915.

Colin Martindale 1990. The Clockwork Muse: The predictability of artistic change. Harper Collins.

A. David Moody 2007. Ezra Pound: Poet: I: The Young Genius 1885-1920. Oxford University Press.

Patrick J. Quinn, ed., 1999. New Perspectives on Robert Graves. Susquehanna University Press.

Laura Riding & Robert Graves 1927. A Survey of Modernist Poetry. Haskell House.

Aviel Roshwald, Richard Stites, eds. 2002. European Culture in the Great War: The Arts, Entertainment and Propaganda 1914-1918. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Alex Ross 2007. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, ISBN 978-0-374-24939-7.

John Tytell 1987. Ezra Pound: The solitary volcano. NYC: Doubleday.

Tristan Tzara 1918. “​​Dada Manifesto​“.

Johanna Vondeling 2000. “The Manifest Professional: Manifestos and Modernist Legitimation.” College Literature 26(2): 127-145.

Barbara Will 2012. “The Strange Politics of Gertrude Stein.” HUMANITIES, March/April 2012, Volume 33, Number 2.

Review: House Made of Dawn

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House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday (1968)

I’m trying to read all some of the Pulitzer winners; this is one.

Momaday is a Kiowa, and this short book is very Native American. I don’t know if a book could have been “Native American” before the homogenization of Native Americans thru movies, historical revisionism, pow-wow culture, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but today there is a Native American way, and even a Native American accent, which I’ve found everywhere from the Creek of Florida, to the Iroqouis of New York, to the Hopi in New Mexico.

The book is in four parts, and four is the number of wholeness to the Navajo (and perhaps to the Kiowa as well), just as three is to whites. More “Indian”, though, is the reluctance to exclude or explain thing.

I remember trying to learn to make blowgun darts from an old Creek in Georgia. I told him the seed-fluff I was using for fins was too tangled, and he turned his back on me and started doing something. I was angry until I noticed he was making a tool to straighten them. He was trying to solve my problem; he just didn’t want to explain in words.

Momaday uses lots of words, but in the Indian way, of observing and pointing things out, rather than the “white man” way, of categorizing and summarizing. By the end of the novel, I wanted some white man words.

Realist, modernist, and especially post-modernist writing assumes that there is something unsavory about authorial intent, and that the job of the novelist is to record what is there. Along those same lines, this book is not an instantiation or proof of a theme, but a gestalt, and so it moves in expanding circles, from Abel, to his father, to the white woman who fucks him, to the priest who doesn’t realize he wants to fuck the woman, to the dead priest whose diary that priest reads.

But can a novel work simply by reporting lifelike events, and trusting there is something worthwhile in them? No. If so, we would live life, or perhaps read newspapers, instead of reading novels. The author must know, or at least sense, some themes.

Are these stories connected thematically? Most of the narrators want something from Abel, or from the Native Americans. Is that important? No commentator seems to think so, and I don’t think so. Why are Father Olguin, Angela, and the other priest in the story? They have no narratively-significant connection to anything else in the story, yet take a third of the book. Possibly they are to illustrate other ways of failing to connect with others. The priest does not acknowledge his own desire and deliberately isolates himself; Angela desires Abel and has him sexually, yet fails completely to touch or understand him in the way that she wants to.

Many people say the story is about Abel’s inability to connect with either the Kiowa or the city. But there is less than one paragraph in the entire book about Abel’s difficulty going back to the reservation after prison. If the story were about Abel’s alienation from his own people, it would have to have something in it about why Abel is alienated from his own people, but it doesn’t. If it is supposed to make a general point about the Native American condition of alienation from modern society, it would have to make a better case for why Abel is alienated from the city than the fact that he killed somebody and so is hassled by parole officers and social workers. Most Native Americans haven’t killed anybody lately.

This book would have made a good series of poems, or one good short story. But it isn’t a novel, unless I’m missing the story.

Stylistically, it is equal parts exhilarating and infuriating. You’re either going to love or hate this stuff:

In the early morning the land lay huge and sluggish, discernible only as a whole, with nothing in relief except its own sheer, brilliant margin as far away as the eye could see, and beyond that the nothingness of the sky. Silence lay like water on the land, and even the frenzy of the dogs below was feeble and a long time in finding the ear.

It’s beautiful for one paragraph, but becomes a slog when this goes on for pages. Perhaps a fifth of the novel is description like this. When Momaday wants to show how a character feels, it’s hardcore show-don’t-tell:

Something there struck beneath the level of his weariness, struck and took hold in his hearing like the cry of a small creature–a field mouse or a young rabbit. Evening gives motion to the air, and the long blades of corn careen and collide, and there is always at dusk the rustling of leaves that settle into night. But was it that? All day his mind had wandered over the past, habitually, beyond control and even the least notion of control, but his thoughts had been by some slight strand of attention anchored to his work. The steady repetition of his backward steps — the flash of the hoe and the sure advance of the brown water after it – had been a small reality from which his mind must venture and return. But now, at the end of long exertion, his age and body let go of the mind, and he was suddenly conscious of some alien presence close at hand. And he knew as suddenly, too, that it had been there for a long time, not approaching, but impending for minutes, and even hours, upon the air and the growth and the land around. He held his breath and listened. His ears rang with weariness; beyond that there was nothing save the soft sound of water and wind and, somewhere among the farthest rows, the momentary scuffle of a quail; then the low whistle and blowing of the mares in the adjacent field, reminding him of the time. But there was something else; something apart from these, not quite absorbed into the ordinary silence: an excitement of breathing in the instance just past, all ways immediate, irrevocable even now that it had ceased to be. He peered into the dark rows of corn from which no sound had come, in which no presence was. There was only the deep black wall of stocks and leaves, vibrating slowly upon his tired vision like water. He was too old to be afraid. His acknowledgment of the unknown was nothing more than a dull, intrinsic sadness, a vague desire to weep, for evil had long since found him out and knew who he was. He set a blessing upon the corn and took up his hoe. He shuffled out between the rows, towards the dim light at the edge of the cornfield.

I’ve read that four times now and still don’t know what it’s trying to say. I think I’d have given up if I hadn’t been stuck for five hours in an emergency room with nothing else to read.

Momaday has a poet’s eye for fine descriptions, but sometimes he will describe the smoke curling from the houses before he has told us that there are houses. He throws up a barrage of details about the land without telling you where you are, and you’ll have to read four paragraphs of similes about clouds and sunsets and hills before you realize you are in the same valley he has described three times already. And he has combined Faulkner’s substitution of puzzles (scenes out of chronological order, with unidentified narrators) for depth with the affected ungrammaticality we’ll see later in Cormac McCarthy. (A couple of the scenes cannot be attributed definitely to any character, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether a scene break indicates a new narrator, but that may be a device to suggest continuity beyond the individual.)

The characters are described similarly to the scenery: with poetic detail, yet in a way that often leaves me with no clear picture. There are two entire pages describing Abel’s fight to the death with the albino, which skillfully convey Abel’s physical feelings; but very little to tell us who the albino is, what history they had between them, or why they fought, and so we learn little about Abel from this dramatic central scene.

I think the Pulitzer committee chose the book for political reasons, but I don’t think they were wrong to do so. With great power comes great responsibility. This was the first well-known novel by a Native American; many others followed soon after. If you have the power to bring attention to the literary work of an entire race, then you ought to do that sometimes.

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.

Review: William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying

Standard

As I Lay Dying is one of the most-famous novels in American literature. I came in with pretty high expectations. I wasn’t exactly disappointed: It does what famous 20th-century literary novels do, which is combine insight into characters with stylistic innovations. But it sure has a lot of flaws.

There are “spoilers” in here, but this isn’t the kind of story that relies on plot twists to keep you reading. I’d have appreciated it better if I’d known what was going to happen (and, often, what was happening).

Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy invites obvious comparison with Faulkner’s work: Both are written by country folk about country folk, are full of details of rural life, and focus at least as much on their characters’ psychology as on action sequences. Both have a unique style that combines startling poetic passages with disregard for whether the reader can tell what’s going on.

STYLE

Let me start with the style, as that’s the most divisive thing about both men’s writing, but in different ways. Both of them have a flashy big-S Style, and a precious little-s style.

By little-s style I mean the way they construct sentences, supposing someone told them what each sentence had to say and gave them a bag of words they could use. Both make unusual choices about apostrophes, speech tags, and clause-joining. In Faulkner’s case he seems to have decided to lexicalize certain contractions but not others, to avoid deliberately-ordered sentence structures such as this one, and to avoid all speech tags but “said”. In McCarthy’s case it’s just part of a rebellion against grammar, whose transparent purpose is to keep his books from being shelved together with Louis L’Amour.

The problem with Faulkner’s little-s style isn’t that it’s bad in Faulkner’s work; the problem is that it leads to Cormac McCarthy. So many critics have praised Faulkner’s style, but it’s hard to tell when they’re praising the good things about his style, and when they’re praising him merely for being weird. McCarthy learned all the wrong lessons from Faulkner, throwing out quotation marks, apostrophes, and commas as a declaration of literary intent rather than because his characters talk that way. Faulkner avoids semi-colons because his characters never plan their sentences, and a semi-colon occurs only where a speaker has thought about the structure of the sentence before speaking it and broken it down into clauses and sub-clauses. McCarthy just converts semi-colons into commas, to look like Faulkner. Faulkner uses “says” everywhere to be simple. McCarthy omits quotation marks and speech tags everywhere to be simpler, with the result that he has long dialogues with no speech tags that are literally impossible, as he lost track somewhere in the middle of who was speaking, and comes out the other end having swapped speakers.

By big-S style I mean the way Faulkner’s characters come out with sudden poetic metaphors, or the way McCarthy lingers over the landscape and then explodes into a long run-on burst of poetry. Faulkner is dazzling but distracting. He takes care to have characters say things the way country folk would say them, then ruins it by sprinkling bits in their internal monologue like “her leg coming long from beneath her tightening dress: that lever which moves the world; one of that caliper which measures the length and breadth of life,” that no farmer would ever say outside of a church, let alone about his sister. He tosses four-syllable Oxford English Dictionary vocabulary and avant-garde analogies into their internal thoughts at random, just because he thought of it at that point. These are uneducated farmers who speak in words of one and two syllables, and I had to use a dictionary to figure out what they were thinking sometimes. McCarthy uses his poetry and metaphors strategically, focusing the reader on important elements and important transitions. Faulkner jizzes metaphors all over inappropriate characters at inappropriate times, which sometimes make no sense. McCarthy is in control; Faulkner seems to be writing drunk.

Both Faulkner and McCarthy have problems with ambiguity. In McCarthy’s case, it’s mere carelessness. If you find a “he” or a “him” in one of his sentences, there’s no guarantee that you can look to the left and to the right and figure out who it is. Important dialogue might be unattributed to a specific character, or in Spanish.

In Faulkner’s case, it’s deliberate. He loves to introduce a character into a scene without telling us who it is, or whether they are male or female, or how old they are, until later; or even to slip the character in in a way designed to mislead us into thinking it’s someone else (as is done at a critical point in Addie’s chapter, portraying her infidelity in a way designed to mislead us into thinking there was no infidelity).

Ambiguity has been fetishized by literary critics. A fetish is something that has been involved in sexual pleasure frequently enough that the pleasure is associated with that thing, and it seems as pleasing to the fetishist as the original stimuli. Valid literary ambiguity is when the characters have ambiguous thoughts, feelings, or ways of describing what happened. That’s like at the climax of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, when John Singer doesn’t know what he is feeling.

Faulkner specializes in phony ambiguity created by deliberately concealing critical parts of a character’s thought. This is a valid literary technique when an unreliable narrator is deliberately concealing things from the reader. But it’s just a gimmick when Faulkner use it to create ambiguity. Dewey Dell obsesses over Peabody and thinks how he could “make everything right for her,” misleading us into thinking she has romantic feelings for him, until we find out much later that she wants him to give her an abortion. But Dewey Dell knows perfectly well what she wants from him, and isn’t aware of being a narrator, so this “ambiguity” only detracts from the story being told by fooling us into constructing some other story. When Addie narrates her infidelity in a way to conceal the fact that the man she was screwing was not her husband, this wasn’t a valid literary technique to show that Addie is deceiving herself; it was Faulkner leaving the necessary words out. Addie knew perfectly well whom she was screwing, and the words of her narrative showed that she thought of it as infidelity, which is why it was (deliberately) confusing. When Vardaman spills his stream-of-consciousness internal monologue on us in early chapters, we have no idea what he’s talking about until nearly the end of the book, at which point we learn he was thinking about a train he saw in a store window. But Vardaman knew exactly what he was talking about! This ambiguity isn’t a reflection of life’s and language’s complexity; it’s a distracting guessing game that conceals the story unnaturally.

CONTENT

When I began the novel, I thought Faulkner had the win in this regard. McCarthy tells westerns. They may dwell on the thoughts and feelings of the characters more than Louis L’Amour does, and they may be disguised by strange grammar and punctuation, but the stories themselves are westerns about strong, virtuous men thrown into bad circumstances and fighting their way out. Faulkner seemed to be writing about normal people with normal problems. But as usually happens with Faulkner, I gradually realized he had leaned a little toward a Southern Gothic freak show. If the Bundren family were here today, they would get their own reality TV show. Instead of normal people dealing with normal problems, we have a dysfunctional, disconnected family creating their own problems of flood, fire, and insanity. It’s a bunch of improbable sadfics mushed together. Cash is a good man with bad luck who doesn’t stand up to the morons around him. Jewel is his own worst enemy. Dewey Dell has lost her virtue. Addie didn’t love her husband. Etc. The characters act on each other mechanically, as weights and pulleys, rather than having emotional ties. The wordcount-eating subplot with Darl going insane, committing arson, and being taken away was one big WTF that ate up the last third of the novel and didn’t connect with anything else. I guess Faulkner just wanted to get a fire in there after his flood, for the sake of completeness.

The strength of the novel should then be in portraying each of the characters realistically. But character portrayal is always two steps forward, two steps back. The Southern Gothic problem runs through much of Faulkner’s work, making it implausible and not very relevant for people who aren’t insane or from dysfunctional families. Another aspect is the stylistic problem I already mentioned, throwing jarring academic language into the thoughts of “simple Southern folk”. And Faulkner sometimes throws one such startling metaphor into one character’s thoughts, and then throws the same metaphor in the same words into another character’s thoughts later, not only disrupting both characters but homogenizing them.

Then we have the most-irritating problem with Faulkner: Stream of consciousness. It’s what he’s famous for. As I mentioned before, he uses it to throw phony ambiguity everywhere.

Paragraphs, sentences, or words in internal monologues are italicized at random. In the worst cases, the italics indicate an intrusion into this character’s thoughts by some other unidentified character or characters. This is Faulkner being cute by not telling us things. If you want to do a stream of consciousness, fine; but give us the whole stream. If a character, during one conversation, mentally recollects an earlier conversation, he also recollects who he was talking to, and when and where it was. Faulkner just jams in the dialogue with no indication of who is/was speaking, deliberately disorienting us in a way that is not true to life.

But usually it’s just a section of their ongoing monologue that is continuous with what’s around it, but set off by italics in random places, as if Faulkner had a sticky “italics” key on his keyboard. I found it enormously distracting and time-consuming to stare at it until I concluded it was meaningless.

Another problem with his stream of consciousness is that he likes to use children and mental defectives as narrators, but has no idea how such people think. It seems like he just grabbed a fifth of whatever alcohol was nearest when he needed to write such a character, then vomited drunken meaninglessness across the page. Here’s a section that is supposed to represent the thoughts of a child:

The train is behind the glass, red on the track. When it runs the track shines on and off. Pa said flour and sugar and coffee costs so much. Because I am a country boy because boys in town. Bicycles. Why do flour and sugar and coffee cost so much when he is a country boy. “Wouldn’ t you ruther have some bananas instead?” Bananas are gone, eaten. Gone. When it runs on the track shines again. “Why aint I a town boy, pa?” I said. God made me. I did not said to God to made me in the country. If He can make the train, why cant He make them all in the town because flour and sugar and coffee.

This isn’t how little kids think. They don’t even talk quite this disjointedly, but imagining that they think like this, well, that would take someone who doesn’t interact with children and has forgotten what it was like to be one.

Here’s the way he writes the thoughts of a man beginning to go crazy:

In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I dont know what I am. I dont know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not.

Or maybe it’s just a man starting to fall asleep. Ordinarily I’d say it isn’t, since the narrator never said anything like “And then I lay down and tried to sleep,” but Faulkner wouldn’t give us plain statements of fact like that, because that would spoil the fun of puzzling out what the hell was going on.

The narrative voice in this novel is different from other first-person novels. It feels like they’re thinking, or talking to themselves, not like they’re talking to you. But it’s hard to put my finger on why. Maybe this is the good part about his stream-of-consciousness style. If so, that isn’t the part that people usually imitate when they do stream-of-consciousness. I associate it with broken grammar, sentence fragments, and thoughts that crash into each other in a heap. But maybe it also means this simple, direct, un-self-conscious first-person narration. I can’t say how he does it, but it is different.

The more that I think about it, the more I think that what makes it work is exactly what I’ve been complaining about—the lack of context or explanation. In a normal first-person story, every time the narrator gives you background or context, it shows she’s aware of you, the reader. Faulkner’s characters never give you the background or context you need to interpret them. That’s what makes them so confusing, but that’s also what makes the narrative seem like a window into their minds, which abolishes any fear of deliberate manipulation or misleading of the reader.

A person doesn’t usually think to themselves, “My ma is 45 years old,” or, “I have always hated lemons,” so you see how that makes it difficult to introduce context. Still, I think Faulkner takes it too far. There are ways to go back, recognize that certain information must be introduced, and have the characters say something that implies it. And Faulkner habitually leaves out critical information that the characters would have been thinking to themselves, which seems deliberate.

Faulkner’s “simple folk wisdom” sometimes makes his characters phony. Darl thinks too much, so he goes crazy. I reckon that’s what happens when you get too much book-learnin’, Floyd. We have genetic determinism in the horses and in the character of Jewel. (When a horse is mean, it’s because he comes from bad stock, not because you beat him every day.) And we have the “Christians are all fanatics and hypocrites” meme in Cora and the minister, and the way Anse uses the word “Christian” to manipulate people.

I had maybe more problems than I should have with simple plausibility issues.
– There’s one point where Darl says Jewel is following them 300 yards behind, and then gives a detailed description of what the folks 300 yards behind are doing and look like.
– There’s a crucial scene fording a river, which is described as being nearly 100 yards wide normally and the water so high now you can’t even tell where the river is. Aside from the insanity of trying to drive a wagon underwater through a ford after a long thunderstorm, we then have people diving into the river to retrieve all of the tools that they dropped when their wagon was swept away. Now, a river under such circumstances is wild beyond endurance, and as much mud as water; and those tools would be spread out over an area 100 feet wide, 10-20 feet deep, and half a mile long, and the description of them diving into it and retrieving the tools made me want to set the book down and laugh.
– The story is supposed to be realistic, but there’s one paragraph where a character speaks a remarkably specific prophecy that comes true later, not accomplishing anything thematically or story-wise, yet turning the whole novel into a fantasy.

Maybe my biggest problem was the lack of basic cues that would help us figure out who these people were and what their relationships to each other were. Things like what century it is, whether the town they’re in is big or small, or how old they are. The text makes it sound like Addie’s about 80 when she dies, but the ages of her children (which you don’t find out until later) imply she’s about 45. That makes a big difference to how we expect folk to feel when someone dies. We’re told lots about Anse’s reluctance to do hard physical work, but not whether he’s young or old, which would help us interpret this. Jewel bullies the brothers about and seems to be the oldest son; near the end of the book we find out he’s 10 years younger than Darl. (When someone has an entire novel about a set of brothers and we can’t tell which one is the oldest, they’ve failed.) I think Dewey Dell is a little girl, maybe thirteen, then find out near the end that she’s 17 and beautiful, and this is crucial information that would have helped me understand what she was doing all through the book.

CONCLUSION
I believe this could have been a better book if Faulkner had resisted the temptation of giving everybody their own sad story. The good stuff was diluted by too many chapters devoted to too many underdeveloped and under-integrated characters, especially Dewey Dell, who should’ve been eliminated from the book, and Vardaman, who got too much screen time, especially since his thoughts usually didn’t make sense. I also think that a book about a family should have some points where the family members understand each other and reach out to each other. The lack of that makes the novel something of a grotesque. If you want Southern Gothic, go for it.

The novel has many great things about it, mostly the way folks talk, the characters that are clearly-portrayed and interesting (Anse, Cash, and Vernon Tull), and the insights into why people do what they do. I should list a few of these:

– Anse, the father, is determined to bury his wife far away at Jefferson, when he hardly ever gets determined about anything, and it seems like he gets some sort of gratification out of the difficulty of it, as if it were a proof that he had hard luck.
– Vernon notes that Anse isn’t lazy about doing things, he’s lazy about changing what he’s doing, so that he hates to start a job, and then hates to stop it when he should.
– Vardaman, the little boy, beats the doctor’s horses because he blames the doctor for killing his ma. And he’s right. The doctor came; she saw him and decided it was time to die. The curious thing was that the father hated to call a doctor because of the expense, and yet at the last moment, when nothing could be done, the adults all believed that they had to call a doctor because that’s what one does, while only the little boy looked at the situation and saw it clearly.
– Darl is institutionalized, but Anse, Jewel, and maybe Cash are all crazier than he is.

I didn’t emphasize them because I’m so ticked off about it being admired and imitated for all the wrong reasons. It’s recognized as a classic for its use of stream of consciousness, and for its realistic portrayal of realistic people. I got more out of it than I did out of All the Pretty Horses, but I think its stream of consciousness was a gimmick, poorly done, that was part of a larger infuriating game Faulkner was playing called “confuse the reader”. The characters were not very representative of reality, and their portrayals were a mix, stylistically and in content, oscillating wildly between realistic and insightful, and fake and shallow. Most importantly, the family members didn’t seem to have a history with each other and their stories didn’t connect with each other. You could say that was a meditation on the loneliness possible in a large family, but I, having experience with large families, would call it sloppy writing. I find myself wondering whether someone in search of honest portrayals of country folk wouldn’t be better off reading a James Herriot book.

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.)