All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


06 June 2011

An excellent article for high school students

Megan McArdle, economic policy blogger extraordinaire, is a woman of vast and divers talents. Today she's put up an amazing essay that I think I'm going to start recommending to students, and that I heartily recommend to high school English teachers everywhere.

The essay, which you should go read for yourself, is about the relationships among authors, their works, and their audience. Specifically, her concern is with the audience's relationship with the work in light of their moral evaluation of the author.

The main point is a really sound one: we shouldn't throw out works of art merely because the authors are, in some way, unpalatable. This is a lesson that some progressives would love dearly to teach conservatives, whom they see as discarding a cornucopia of art on the basis of racism, homophobia, etc. But it's also a lesson that some progressives could learn themselves. The fact that Mel Gibson might be a racist isn't really a good reason not to enjoy Braveheart, which is a fine film (gross historical inaccuracies and the wobbly axe aside), and I've heard well-intentioned people say that they would not watch that movie anymore. I think there's a saying about cutting off one's nose...

But there are other important lessons buried in this excellent essay. I was particularly struck by her identification of what makes art, particularly literary art, persuasive:

But when art-as-politics airbrushes out the dead people at the steel works, it can be very convincing, which is why advocates like it; Uncle Tom's Cabin did more for the Abolitionist cause than a hundred thousand lectures. The problem is, it can convince of the bad as easily as the good--Gone With the Wind reached many more people than Uncle Tom's Cabin, in part because--despite its ugly racial politics--it's a much better book with richer characters and more believable action. There are also the heroic misfires, where the author rouses fierce passions about the wrong issue. * * * *

You see the point: what makes a political narrative convincing is not the correctness of its ideas, but power of the characters and the imagery.

Literature, if McArdle is right, when it is in its argumentative rather than merely entertaining mode, is more about non-deliberative manipulation than it is about arguing a point rationally. This doesn't make literature or poetry evil or even morally questionable -- we manipulate people to good ends, and with good effect, and using permissible methods all the time. It merely underlines her point: that something is aesthetically convincing doesn't mean it's true.

That distinction is probably the source of the deepest divide between literature and philosophy, a divide that I often lament. Philosophers as a class are often not interested in poetry, likely for this very reason. The other day I said something about Winnie the Pooh's being lumpy. One of my colleagues said, "That's ridiculous. He doesn't exist. He can't be lumpy." I'm only exaggerating slightly when I say that the typical philosopher's response to "The moon was a ghostly galleon" is "False."

Anyway, that's a lot of talk for what amounts to a simple "Go read this" link, so I'll stop now and just urge you to share this essay with your students.

1 comment:

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