Monday, 11 August 2014

Beauty and Imagination

Long ramble that goes nowhere, prompted in part by recent events, partly by this. It felt like I was going to get close to a point, but the dammn thing slipped away somewhere and I'm tired of searching for it. Read at your own risk

Beauty and imagination have a lot in common

They are deep drives in the heart of mankind. They have an animating force to drive the human heart, but almost no direct tangible power. They are gratuitously unfair. There is some silent part of the rational mind that loathes them both.

(Because how can she just be better? Just a better person to be around? Why? And how can you just make a new thing? It can't be. Everything has to come from something. If everything is rational then there can never be something utterly new. Things can't just happen.)

And democracy, and meritocracy, are exceedingly rational ways of life. They are fair. That is the point. That is why we made them.

Beauty is a storm, it races through people, some are raised up and some are cast down. Too little beauty can cripple people, too much probably can too. The storm doesn't care. Imagination breaks through things. Sometimes they are bad things that keep people trapped, sometimes they are good things, that give people stability, and therefore safety, or just decency. Imagination also doesn't care what it does or who it happens to.

They are forces and there is something pure about them. They can never be fully described or pinned down. New things can always be beautiful, new beauty can always be found, you don't know where you are going to find it.And the more you try to destroy beauty the deeper and more secret its hold on you becomes. They are related to the world but they go beyond the world.

And what does the rational mind hate?

Things that cannot be described. Anything beyond its understanding.

So I read De Torqueville and Rebecca West one after the other and they don't have much in common but one thing they do is heroism and the limitations of liberalism.

Rebecca West just never seems to meet a mediocre person at all. Most of the people she bumps in to seem exceptional and heroic in some way. Artists, rebels, aristocrats and saints. The ones who aren't heroes are monsters. And they loathe order, they all (most) hate centralisation. (Much of their experience of it is bad). The Germans she meets on the train are kind, petty, vague, useless, prejudiced. Highly civilised And maybe that's just the world Rebecca West lives in 24-7 but maybe its also part of why she went there.

What I think West feels when she goes through Yugoslavia is that the people and the culture there are in some deep sense more vital more deeply felt more heroic than the people she knows at home, perhaps this is because they are not equal, and not safe. She has a little Conan in her.

When I think about things like Istvaanism, the Ugly Face Clubb and the numbers of Presidents and Prime Ministers with dead dads, its hard not to agree with her a little. Exceptional people come from stress. No stress, no exceptions.

De Torqueville talks about the fading of the aristocracy from the world. The loss of exceptional people. The more equal people are, the more weak any individual is in comparison to the whole of society, the more they desire to become like each other. Everyone is very small and very weak in comparison to a huge mass that makes up the population. The majority rules intensely and can tolerate little outside its nature. Aristocracy is fucking rough, but aristocrats are powerful individuals and can afford to be exceptional and strange, and they set the tone. So an aristocracy can be repressive, consuming, intolerant of specific differences and yet somehow still more tolerant of exceptional behaviour. A meritocracy has to be fair, that's the point. If it isn't that it isn't anything.

Most games of D&D are highly functional members of a bureaucratic meritocracy simulating the absence of that society. We call forth the hero, the mad inspiring individual. The one outside the rules, who remakes them

The superhero is another response by people shaped in a relentlessly equal society. (If you don't think our society is unusually equal then you could point out to me a period in the history of the west, or the world, when it has been more equal.) The hyper-individual created by who? By fascists? Surprisingly, no, for, while they have force and confidence and energy and worship power, they lack imagination, and you need that to create the superhero, quite a lot of it really. When Alan Moore was trying to find a theoretical replacement for superhero comics he settled on pirates. Also heroic, driven uber-individuals living on the borders of chaos.

What need do they serve? The need to be world-effecting. The need to be a heroic individual who shapes their world more than it shapes them, this comes first, then the imaginative construct is brought into being to support it.

It must be agony to be a very liberal person in this half-saved world. It must be a very hell. Almost worst than the high tide of racism in the 19th/20th century. Because at least then you were *certain*. And now?  When you have half-won? You've legally freed almost every minority group possible, you've pretty much run out of people to legally free. You can't expunge the prejudice from peoples hearts, you don't have the technology for that. Yet. But even if you did, you doctrine says you aren't allowed to do that, so..

What's left?

You've got rid of all the bad unfairness you could. It didn't seem to quite work. You don't feel like you've won.

And there are beauty and imagination, waving it in your fucking face.

So of course the war would be over beauty, and over imagination.


  1. This makes me think of zombies (mass of equals) and vampires (the aristocracy).

    1. zombies are mass of common lessers viewed from the perspective of the aristocracy - fear of mass power. death is radical otherness.

  2. "Antonin Artaud's novelised biography of the 3rd-century Roman Emperor, "Heliogabalus" is simultaneously his most accessible and his most extreme book. Written in 1933, at the time when Artaud was preparing to stage his legendary "Theatre of Cruelty", "Heliogabalus" is a powerful concoction of sexual excess, self-deification and terminal violence. Reflecting its author's preoccupations of the time with the occult, magic, Satan, and a range of esoteric religions, the book shows Artaud at his most lucid as he assembles an entire world-view from raw material of insanity, sexual obsession and anger. Artaud arranges his account of Heliogabalus's reign around the breaking of corporeal borders and the expulsion of body fluids, often inventing incidents from the Emperor's life in order to make more explicit his own passionate denunciations of modern existence."

    Don't agree on equality - good equality isn't rendering everyone equivalent, it's giving everyone the chance to flourish on their own terms. every man and every woman is a star.

    1. Are they though? It's true that the background level of talen in society seems to be well above that assumed by De Torqueville and other more conservative commentaters.

      But its also pretty far below the 'everyone's a star' crowd. Everyone isn't a star. Most people are pretty average really.

    2. You can't really talk about a "background level of talent in society". Talent according to who? And if you want to talk about potential, the fact is I have no idea what people are capable of. I have no idea what I'm capable of! So I don't make any final claims about what people can and can't do, whether or not they are or could be talented.

      Despite this I think everyone, given the chance, is uniquely talented and interesting. It's like Rebecca West - I never meet a mediocre person. It also goes back to the claim that everything is a miracle or nothing is a miracle. I'll tend to assume that everything is a miracle firstly because it's a more pleasurable way of existing and secondly because the world tends to assume the shape you treat it as having. If I treat someone as if they're interesting, they will tend to become more interesting. You are giving them a chance to build that capacity! You're giving them a way of being they can take hold of and expand.

  3. This is a really interesting post. It's such a big topic that it is hard to talk about except at great length, but here are a few thoughts:

    - the sort of dissatisfaction you describe is probably where a lot of the impulse to fascism comes from in the first place. Fascism is an enormously complex and nebulous and over-examined topic, but one of its key elements has always been a bastard Romanticism. I think point 11 on Umberto Eco's list of the traits of Ur-Fascism relates to D&D and your post quite well:

    - it is quite common for people to feel that market society does not meet their needs. Here is a recent article from George Monbiot, from a rather hippy/left-wing point of view, reviewing a book on the subject:

    - anarchists talk about creating spaces where the rules/ideals of market society and neoliberalism do not apply. This is an act of resistance, according to their ideology. By allowing the collaborative creation of an entire world, D&D can be a site of resistance regardless of the ideology of the people playing it. Perhaps?

    - you say "If you don't think our society is unusually equal then you could point out to me a period in the history of the west, or the world, when it has been more equal." But you could argue that we are currently declining back into more inequality from a high point of equality (in Western countries) after the second world war. Inequality is increasing at the moment. Historically, yes, our societies are still unusually equal, in that they are not explicitly run by a military aristocracy. But it is worth noting that our society *was more equal* in the recent past.

    - democracy vs. beauty is precisely the formulation that an advocate of fascism would want you to accept. But ancient Sparta was a highly militarised and hierarchical society (albeit with elements of collectivism) - it produced no culture beyond some pithy sayings. Ancient Athens was the most democratic society the world would see until the twentieth century (albeit for adult men). It was also a cultural power-house that produced more philosophy and great art in 100 years than most cultures do in a millennium. It was also an aggressive imperialist exporter of "democracy" to other islands in the Aegean. So the binary of unequal beauty vs rational democracy doesn't really work. In my opinion, it's ultimately just a false opposition that (ironically) works to rationalise conservatism.