Writing and Social Dialectics

MIT: The domed Maclaurin Building, as seen from Killian Court. aka Building 10.

When I first began dating my wife, she was reluctant to tell me that she has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from MIT; I’m not sure why. Eventually, she decided to come clean. When she told me, I rolled my eyes and replied, tongue planted firmly in cheek, that MIT was not a very good school. She was shocked, a bit afraid that I had confirmed her concerns about me, a fellow who had arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to go to graduate school in Philosophy, wearing overalls and driving a 1965 red and white Ford pickup truck with two (empty) gun racks. She more or less screamed “What?” in response to what I had said. “Well,” I continued, “they don’t have a football team.”¹

I was joking, of course, though she seemed not to realize it. What I had said was a silly example of applying an inappropriate critical criterion to an educational institution—maybe. I do have friends in Mississippi who would have taken my side concerning good schools and football teams. To talk about the number of PhDs on the faculty, or the size of the library, or the student to teacher ratio, or the placement of MIT’s graduates in science and technology fields would have been deemed appropriate. But criticizing the school for not having a football team?

Yet, we do this sort of thing all the time. We make critical evaluations using inappropriate criteria, especially when judging works of art and literature. What are the appropriate standards to apply to the arts? There is a branch of philosophy called axiology, or, sometimes, value theory. It has two primary divisions—ethics, or moral philosophy, and aesthetics often referred to as the study of beauty. Moral philosophy wrestles with the question of what is good; aesthetics with what is beautiful. Critics muddy the water at times by applying an ethical criterion to an artistic work or, less frequently, judging a moral action by aesthetic principles—saying things like “That book is evil” or “What you did was beautiful.”

In the preface to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde writes: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” So, what is he doing? He’s taking a determined stance concerning aesthetic criteria, maintaining that ethical values do not apply to literature. Period. Books are not good or bad, according to Wilde, they’re simply well written or poorly written. 

In the last sentence in the preface Wilde says: “All art is quite useless.” Try saying this to someone who hands you a poem they have just written, or a novel they’ve completed after five years of hard work and research. Then duck, and run out of the room. Wilde’s claim that all art is useless is the clarion call for an artistic view called “Aestheticism.” In his book, Aesthetics, Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, Monroe Beardsley, the late American philosopher of art, offers a definition of Aestheticism. “It is,” he writes, “the view that aesthetic objects are not subject to moral judgment, that only aesthetic categories can be, or ought to be, applied to them….the side effects of aesthetic objects, if any, need not be taken into account.” Whoa! A whole trainload of contemporary writers, according to Aestheticism, has hopped aboard the wrong train. The topics of politics, racism, gender bias, abortion, environmentalism, and so forth, have been the sole subjects of a lot of writing, its purpose, its driving force.

And no less formidable a critic than Yale’s Harold Bloom comes down on the Wilde side. In his book, The Western Canon, Bloom says: “Art is perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who was right about everything. He also told us that all bad poetry is sincere. Had I the power to do so, I would command that these words be engraved above every gate at every university, so that each student might ponder the splendor of the insight.”

Engraved above every gate at every university. Indeed! Even those with active MFA programs? So it would seem.

“All bad poetry is sincere.” Unfortunately, I have found this statement too often to be true. Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. In an Author’s Note to his book, The Collected Short Stories, Singer says that when creating his stories, he became aware of many dangers facing a writer of fiction. He lists three of them. The first one is the following: “The idea that the writer must be a sociologist and a politician, adjusting himself to what are called social dialectics.” He concludes that “The zeal for messages has made many writers forget that storytelling is the raison d’être of artistic prose.” Not teaching. Not preaching. Storytelling.

Now, who doesn’t enjoy a ripping good yarn! Let’s see, where did I put my copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes?

Happy writing! Happy reading!


¹At the time, neither my wife nor I knew that MIT does have a football team. Interesting that she attended MIT and didn’t know about its football team. See http://news.mit.edu/2014/from-cancelled-to-champions-strange-history-mit-football-1119


Photo: By InSapphoWeTrust from Los Angeles, California, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

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