My Cardus colleague Josh Reinders makes a brilliant argument in yesterday's blog for literature's powerful formative role in creating a culture of saving grace.
In this morning's Globe and Mail, columnist Lynn Crosbie takes the case a step deeper and challenges literary creators to respond with essential grace when their creations go damnably wrong.
I have every confidence, given his self-evident perspicacity, that young Mr. Reinders has the capacity to develop into a top-notch cultural observer in the years ahead. At the moment, though, the bar for culture critique in Canada is set by Ms. Crosbie. Her regular Pop Rocks column is consistently the most engaging, rib-prodding read around.
In contrast to the harrumphing galumphers who churn out endless pure political commentary, she works from the assertion that the electoral, parliamentary, and policy cliques are to our lived meaning as WWE wrestling is to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot: a bombastic sideshow relation to the authentic theatrical absurdity of contemporary life.
Crosbie's role, then, is not as public stage pontificator but as epidemiologist of the every day. She tracks the malarial swamps of modernity for the winged demons of popular cultural that bite, incite, excite, and affect us. In place of the self-appointed media sage's certainty, her typical approach is the ambiguous uncovering of vectors of cultural affliction.
In today's column, Crosbie dispenses even with such ambiguity. She dives head on into the horror of the literary world's moral failure following the nightmarish shootings at that movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. Courageously, hyper-intelligently, she calls out key figures of that world for refusing to demand the withdrawal of the movie that was the occasion for the slaughter of 12 innocents and the wounding of scores more. She wants the creators of The Dark Knight Rises to do the right thing—or be pressed by their peers to do the right thing—and cancel further showings as acknowledgement of its contribution to the culture that made the real life killings imaginable.
"Is it possible that on occasion—perhaps just this once—a film and the ethos surrounding it should be treated as a volatile substance and removed from our sight?" she asks.
The implication takes her question far beyond the rote responses, the one-size-fits-all villainizing, the obfuscated excusing of correlation from causality, that are as ubiquitous as throat phlegm whenever such murderous acts re-occur. Her query bluntly presumes there are times when literary creators have a human responsibility to accept the true and full power of their creations.
She quickly underscores the critical need for her bluntness by pointing out in the very next paragraph the very impossibility of raising it seriously. The inevitable response, she rightly predicts, would be manufactured protests against censorship—even self-censorship—that would, in truth, be mere cynical cover for two deep pathologies.
The first pathology, and perhaps not even the worst, is simply good old-fashioned franchised greed. The Dark Knight Rises earned $160 million in its opening weekend. What would be the economic domino fall of withdrawing it now? If it isn't incalculable, it is inconceivable.
"This is what happens when the unstoppable force of violence meets the immovable object that is money, the making of this cold, hard mass," she says.
The second pathology is our culture's dogmatic insistence that literary license absolves all before it. Artists must be free, willy nilly, and the rest of us just need to learn when and where to duck.
No, Crosbie says. There are times when public anger at an artistic outcome should lead to the "graceful shutting down" of that art.
"And by shutting down, I mean censorship, an occasionally good act," she writes.
Lest, for that heresy, she is unceremoniously tossed onto the sky-high scrap heap of silenced right wing nut bar totalitarian social conservative know-nothing rubes, boobs, and scatologically impacted moral obsessives, let the record show that her sentiment bears the journalistic pedigree of no less impeccable a progressive than George Orwell.
In a brilliant 1944 essay about Salvador Dali, Orwell argues for the necessity of acknowledging that even great art is sometimes so morally bestial that no sane society would allow it to be publicly displayed.
"One ought to be able to hold in one's head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being," Orwell writes in Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali. "The one does not invalidate the other. The first thing we demand of a wall is that it stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp."
Whether in painting, literature, or any other creative endeavour, Orwell says, we can acknowledge the aesthetic achievement and still say "it ought to be burned by the public hangman."
Not that Orwell, any more than Crosbie, argues for the outright suppression of art. Rather, both press for the cultural clarity to see art as so powerful and so foundational that, at times, its creators must exercise their self-restraint by refusing to inflict on society. If they will not exercise such restraint we, through our patronage must demand its graceful shutting down.
"The point is you have here a direct, unmistakable assault on sanity and decency," Orwell says of Dali's work. "Some of Dali's pictures tend to poison the imagination—or life itself. A society in which (artists like him) can flourish has something wrong with it."
That was in the days when the limit on free speech was shouting fire in a crowded theatre. Now, we have young men opening fire with automatic weapons on theatre crowds.
Even acknowledging Josh Reinders' rightful claim for the saving grace of literature, how much more damnably wrong must we go before we listen to Lynn Crosbie's wisdom?