Engineers of the Soul Edition
Celia Paul and Lucian Freud, Tunisia’s Moufida Tlatli, and why drowning in information only makes us more anxious about the future.
This is my occasional review of what’s on my mind and my desk. I am starting with a bit of longer form and then getting into fun tidbits. Catch up on what this newsletter is all about. Or subscribe here if you like.
Otherwise, welcome friend, and read on.
Post-Soviet Realism. Justin E.H. Smith, a philosophy professor based in Paris, churns out long, erudite essays and reflections at a fairly astonishing pace, a trait which stirs up within my ox-like nature a mix of admiration and consternation. Recently he took up the exploration of various easy questions, like the relation between art and artist, and between art and society. What is art for? How should it be judged? Why are artists terrible people? Who cares?
On these points, Smith stakes out a strong anti-utilitarian point of view. He warns of the temptations embodied by figures such as Andrei Zhdanov, the Soviet mastermind of what came to be known as socialist realism. Zhdanov, and ultimately Stalin, saw art as needing to be disciplined into its true purpose: to serve the revolution. Artists must put down the absinthe and the opium and become “engineers of the soul.” They must give up their meager ambitions to describe reality (“realism” being pressed into service here with truly revolutionary irony) and instead embrace “optimism” and “ideological transformation.”
Smith prefers a celebration of art’s seedy, decadent, depraved, experimental, pessimistic, aimless, and—some darkly allege—bourgeois qualities. And who am I to disagree? Amoral art may be a bit disorderly at times, but it results in the murder of fewer poets.
However, he’s also trying to avoid a lurch all the way in the other direction, toward a hermetic Formalism that totally separates the art from any consideration of the artist. Instead, we should seek a recognition that art and artist are indeed intertwined—shall we call it a dialectic? Or invoke the audience and recognize it as a trinity?—in ways that are often singular, sometimes baffling, and usually interesting.
On Heidegger, for instance, he wants neither to absolve the philosopher of his fascism nor to pile his oeuvre in the dumpster behind the library, but rather to use the author’s place in history as a doorway into deeper questions:
The whole challenge of dealing with Heidegger and his legacy is to figure out how Western philosophy developed in such a way that when Nazism emerged it made sense for at least one of its greatest expositors to offer his services as a handmaiden to this ideology. It is precisely for this reason that reading and understanding Heidegger is so urgent.
And art and literature, and criticism of art and literature, must similarly be left free to grapple with evil, either the evil of their visions or of their authors. Because that is our realism—in the world as it is, we all in our ways see, inhabit, commit, cooperate with, and celebrate evil. To externalize the responsibility for the world’s evil—to in effect make scapegoats of artists that express it—is to slyly absolve ourselves.
Engineers of the human soul would wish to deal with this evil by suppression; literature, real literature, deals with it through the power of imaginative sublimation. It is dark and wrong, to speak with Moshfegh, and we understand ourselves through it.
From a slightly different angle, I’m reminded of Zadie Smith’s essay from a while back on the memoirs of British painter Celia Paul. As a student, Paul became a muse and lover of the much-older Lucian Freud, one of the world’s most famous portraitists. She was inevitably wounded by his infidelity, but their conflict went deeper than that. Freud failed to see her ambition to be a painter in her own right, and expected her, like other muses in history, to abandon herself to him and his purposes.
Certainly, as Zadie Smith affirms, Freud’s attitude is misogyny, an ingrained and unexamined false assumption about the relative worth of female artistic endeavors. But how should it affect our viewing of his art? Shall we strip his work from gallery walls? Or shall we mercifully separate the art from the artist? Or perhaps neither?
Can I still love X great artist given that he or she behaved in Y way? Or must I shun them?...Lucian Freud’s art, whatever its merits, contains within itself the fundamental limitation of misogyny, which is a form of partial sight....This is not to claim that Freud’s portraits of Paul are either ‘wrong’ (whatever such a word could mean in this context) or even bad, but simply that they are notably partial, being blind to so much, indeed, to the essential quality of the subject in question.
“A form of partial sight”: Freud, for all his talent and perception and voracious energy, was too wrapped up in his self-story to see what was right in front of him. And this fault, though it may proceed from a moral failing, must from a critical perspective be judged aesthetically, that is, according to its effect on the truth of his art. A pinched and caricatured view of women was a defect in his artistic vision, a note of falsity. And yet even that falsity can serve a purpose, by more fully illuminating the power and depth of Paul’s lifelong struggle to seize control of her narrative, both in the eyes of Freud and, more importantly, in her own.
One more example. Flannery O’Connor, the often-celebrated, sometimes-cancelled chronicler of the cruel, strange, and grotesque, faced pressure from her own religious circles to, you know, chill with the blood and gore. For her critics, art should engineer the soul by being uplifting and Christian and...nice.
She responded in a series of wonderful essays and speeches on the craft of writing. For her, artificially uplifting art—whether the utilitarianism is of a Catholic or Zhdanovite flavor—fails in its very premise.
The writer...sees his obligation as being to the truth of what can happen in life, and not to the reader—not to the reader’s taste, not to the reader’s happiness, not even to the reader’s morals.
…Poorly written novels—no matter how pious and edifying the behavior of the characters—are not good in themselves and are therefore not really edifying… Our final standard for him will have to be the demands of art, which are a good deal more exacting than the demands of the Church.
Any art that hopes to move or persuade or—heaven forbid—ideologically transform anyone must be, before anything else, good art; and good art must be true. True to human possibility, true to human evil, true to fertile boredom, profound absurdity, thwarted desire, unexpected nobility... but most of all true to the standards of art itself.
I understand—I feel it myself—that it’s hard for many of us raised in the take-your-medicine culture of modern education to accept that the purpose of art is not primarily didacticism or moral formation or becoming a good citizen. Then what is the purpose? In a real sense, it has none in particular. But it’s a good thing: art is an end in itself. A form of play, play being that which is done for its own sake. O’Connor calls it truth. Smith calls it revelry. And por qué no los dos?
Apropos art as play, Salman Rushdie on the fables and tales that led his childhood-self to fall in love with literature. Especially One Thousand and One Nights, which over a millennia migrated from India to Persia to the Middle East to Europe and Hollywood, accumulating new valences at each turn.
Didion-posting will continue until morale improves. From her new collection of (old) essays, Joan on being rejected from Stanford. Her description of the anxiety of the upwardly mobile—written in 1968 about 1952—is both relatable and somehow quaint compared with the monster that achievement culture has become since then. Fortunately for her, and for us readers, she had a father who, eschewing the Pygmalion project, simply shrugged and offered her a drink.
I am altering the deal… James Rebanks, a British farmer, shepherd, and author, decries the just-agreed UK-Australia free trade deal for betraying the opportunity to better support sustainable farming. A critic of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, Rebanks had hopes that Brexit would allow for higher agricultural standards, an impression the government at times found it convenient to encourage. Instead, the Australia deal is the opposite, exposing UK farmers to global competition and doubling down on the high-intensity industrial model.
This gets at the various and often contradictory impulses for Brexit. There’s the “Global Britain” libertarian vision of a swashbuckling UK thrown open to the world, slashing regulations, flinging off the fetters. There’s the “Take Back Control” vision of a self-sufficient island with more national regulation of trade, immigration, and agriculture. Then there are the remains of an older left-Labour tradition of anti-capitalist opposition to the EU common market. These all represent not only different views on the desirability of globalization, but also on whether the EU is primarily understood as a driver of it or a buffer against it.
Small is beautiful. In other farming news, Maine is the only state that allows its cheesemakers to forgo the expensive federal pasteurization process, which is in turn causing a renaissance of experimentation, small-batch production, and local diversification. (The milk is still pasteurized; just in a lower-tech way.) Limiting the cost and complexity of capital goods, what E.F. Schumacher called “appropriate technology,” is one under-discussed way to encourage broader ownership of means of production. Farmer co-operatives perform a similar function by spreading fixed costs over a large group of co-owners.
The alternative is pretty well on display in the Midwest, meanwhile, where dairy farm consolidation continues at a rapid pace, as small operators get overwhelmed by capital costs, debt, and overproduction and cratering prices.
Neither signal nor noise. Michael Sacasas with a lovely reflection on why friendship helps us make hard decisions better than additional information:
Believing that everything will be better if only we gather more information commits us to endless searching and casting about, to one more swipe of the screen in the hope that the elusive bit of data, which will make everything clear, will suddenly present itself...If I must bear the consequences of my choices alone, if there is no one whose counsel I trust, then it becomes especially tempting to seek both perfect knowledge and certainty before acting, and find myself paralyzed in their absence.
After Tunisian director Moufida Tlatli died earlier this year, I went looking for her work. In her debut 1994 film, The Silences of the Palace, a young singer named Alia returns to the wealthy estate where she spent her childhood, the daughter of a servant woman. As she revisits the scenes of her girlhood in the 1950s, Alia grapples with an increasing realization of the patterns of abuse that shaped life in the palace, even as the stirrings of the Tunisian independence movement threatened to crash through its walls.
The full film is available on YouTube.
Here’s the full clip, from the Ireland Sacred Harp convention.
Smudging the newsprint
like the half-print of a hoof in the snow
with my forefinger, I am asking him
to trace the ideograms as far back as they go.
But he is a poor hunter—I know that now.
He is poor at many things.
Once, he called my bruises to their names.
As if he could name the world to its knees.
With a daub of bister or a pat of wax, he
used to show some dexterity. Some pull to form.
If his hand angled like a palette knife
beneath our roof—that was just the slant
of truth. The arc of justice.
I too pulled to form, some ultimate geometry
whose law was to bend
as far back as the line allowed. Then
curving like a shaving of cedar,
shivering in my own warm breath like a fern,
I proved his sternness a practice, an espalier.
How could I not forgive him? I do. I must.
Given the powder blue branching in his wrist.
His heavied brow,
his diminished gift.
Understand—he is a dovecote in disrepair,
housing the ghosts of minor masteries.
I no longer plea for minor mercies
but advance them, slowly,
like feathery pages in an heirloom dictionary.
—Stephanie Yue Duhem, Father Poems
What I’ve been working on.
In my other realm, I finished this painting and have several more in the works I am excited about, which feels good.
The liturgical life.
This week’s readings on the nature of death, suffering, and healing hit home especially after this past year. From the Wisdom of Solomon, we repeat, perhaps incredulously, the ancient teaching that mortality is not an original part of the created order:
God did not make death,
nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.
For he fashioned all things that they might have being;
and the creatures of the world are wholesome,
and there is not a destructive drug among them
nor any domain of the netherworld on earth,
for justice is undying.
For God formed man to be imperishable;
the image of his own nature he made him.
Oceans of ink have been spilled on the problem of suffering, and it is a topic that is too easy to be glib about, especially if you're not the one doing the suffering. This week I read this heartbreaking essay by the late Beth Haile upon her diagnosis of terminal cancer at age 34. Taking stock of her life, which had been reduced but not diminished, Beth writes, “The Jesus I am coming to know is not so much a healer or a moral teacher or a miracle worker, but a sufferer... He came to suffer, not to show us a way out of it, but to offer us solidarity. And eventually a triumph over suffering that never lets the suffering be forgotten.”
The 14th of the month is also the feast day of St. Kateri Tetakwitha, the first Native American saint recognized by the Church. My friend Ben has done a good introductory talk on her life, and how it illuminates the interplay of faith and culture.
Stay frosty, everyone.