Dec 20, 2007
Followup to: Rationality and the English Language
One of my less treasured memories is of a State of the Union address, or possibly a presidential inauguration, at which a Nobel Laureate got up and read, in a terribly solemn voice, some politically correct screed about what a wonderfully inclusive nation we all were—"The African-Americans, the Ethiopians, the Etruscans", or something like that. The "poem", if you can call it that, was absolutely awful. As far as my ears could tell, it had no redeeming artistic merit whatsoever.
Every now and then, yet another atheist is struck by the amazing idea that atheists should have hymns, just like religious people have hymns, and they take some existing religious song and turn out an atheistic version. And then this "atheistic hymn" is, almost without exception, absolutely awful. But the author can't see how dreadful the verse is as verse. They're too busy congratulating themselves on having said "Religion sure sucks, amen." Landing a punch on the Hated Enemy feels so good that they overlook the hymn's lack of any other merit. Verse of the same quality about something unpolitical, like mountain streams, would be seen as something a kindergartener's mother would post on her refrigerator.
In yesterday's Litany Against Gurus, there are only two lines that might be classifiable as "poetry", not just "verse". When I was composing the litany's end, the lines that first popped into my head were:
I was not your destination
Only a step on your path
Which didn't sound right at all. Substitute "pathway" for "road", so the syllable counts would match? But that sounded even worse. The prosody—the pattern of stressed syllables—was all wrong.
The real problem was the word des-ti-NA-tion—a huge awkward lump four syllables long. So get rid of it! "I was not your goal" was the first alternative that came to mind. Nicely short. But now that I was thinking about it, "goal" sounded very airy and abstract. Then the word "city" came into my mind—and it echoed.
"I was never your city" came to me, not by thinking about rationality, but by thinking about prosody. The constraints of art force us to toss out the first, old, tired phrasing that comes to mind; and in searching for a less obvious phrasing, often lead us to less obvious thoughts.
If I'd said, "Well, this is such a wonderful thought about rationality, that I don't have to worry about the prosodic problem", then I would have not received the benefit of being constrained.
The other poetic line began as "Laugh once, and never look back," which had problems as rationality, not just as prosody. "Laugh once" is the wrong kind of laughter; too derisive. "Never look back" is even less correct, because the memory of past mistakes can be useful years later. So... "Look back,
laugh once smile, and then," um, "look forward"? Now if I'd been enthralled by the wonders of rationality, I would have said, "Ooh, 'look forward'! What a progressive sentiment!" and forgiven the extra syllable.
"Eyes front!" It was two syllables. It had the crisp click of a drill sergeant telling you to stop woolgathering, snap out of that daze, and get to work! Nothing like the soft cliche of "look forward, look upward, look to the future in a vaguely admiring sort of way..."
Eyes front! It's a better thought as rationality, which I would never have found, if I'd been so impressed with daring to write about rationality, that I had forgiven myself the prosodic transgression of an extra syllable.
If you allow affirmation of My-Favorite-Idea to compensate for lack of rhythm in a song, lack of beauty in a painting, lack of poignancy in fiction, then your art will, inevitably, suck. When you do art about My-Favorite-Idea, you have to hold yourself to the same standard as if you were doing art about a butterfly.
There is powerful politicized art, just as there are great religious paintings. But merit in politicized art is more the exception than the rule. Most of it ends up as New Soviet Man Heroically Crushing Capitalist Snakes. It's an easy living. If anyone criticizes your art on grounds of general suckiness, they'll be executed for siding with the capitalist snakes.
Tolerance of awful art, just because it lands a delicious punch on the Enemy, or just because it affirms the Great Truth, is a dangerous sign: It indicates an affective death spiral entering the supercritical phase where you can no longer criticize any argument whose conclusion is the "right" one.
Next post: "False Laughter"
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