Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Poets as legislators

Mark Steyn

Poets, said Shelley, are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. But, grim as it is, the world would be a worse place if they were actual legislators. Like most folks, for a long time I vaguely accepted the idea that “artists” had unique insights into the human condition: that’s why the CBC will invite a novelist to expound on, say, the Iraq war while rarely extending the opportunity to a sergeant with the Princess Patricias to expound on, say, the Booker Prize shortlist. I gave up on the notion of artistic insight after watching the British novelist Fay Weldon twittering away about her “concerns” about Gorbachev’s modest reforms of Communism: “But who’s going to bring in the harvest?” she fretted, conjuring visions of bucolic collectivization unseen since those posters of burly tractor-hurling Soviet women 50 years earlier. Few groups have been so wrong on so much as the free world’s literary class of the 20th century.
Has anyone written a book on this? It must be one of the most absurd and scandalous relationships in history. I mean, that of the intellectuals of the West and Communism. It frightens me, the rubbish that educated people can believe. Steyn hints at the attraction of such beliefs. The artist.

Remember Joyce's exemplar perched on the mountainside (ie way above you and me) paring his fingernails, all the lowlands caught in his single gaze? Nazism promised the meaning of myth. Communism promised the meaning of a story with its omniscient narrator (History, aka Uncle Joe) with his absolute, inescapable viewpoint and the upcoming happy ending (for Communism was meant to be 'divine' comedy, not tragedy). But what does liberalism offer? Multiple viewpoints, uncertainty and compromise. Not the stuff for Children afraid of the night/Who have never been happy or good, children that need all the more a good bedtime story with a happy ending.

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