Friday, February 11, 2005

A NATION OF NAHUM TATES*. Lance Manion challenges my harsh response to what I considered an overwrought moral attack on a children's cartoon by one Kate Marie . He does so at length and with great fairness and wit (God, how exhausting that must be!); one of his passages is so well-turned that Terry Teachout almanac'd it:
First off, following your heart is a really bad idea. This is why we have civilization, so people don't do that.

Hearts are like pirate caves. They are reputedly full of hidden treasures but usually when you open one up a whole lot of bats, spiders, and angry bears come rushing out, and there's no gold.
Now, who can argue with that? But here is Lance's thematic money shot:
…to have this ["Follow Your Heart"] message keep popping up again and again and again and again and again and again and again in children's movies and TV shows is very frustrating to parents… Good parents talk themselves blue in the face trying to convince their kids not to follow their hearts. Followed hearts generally do not lead children into good grades, good company, decent colleges, and stable marriages…
All respect to Lance and my many childbearing friends, but if this discussion were really exclusively about what makes the most edifying kid's entertainments, I would have stayed well out of it. As a non-breeder, I have no more business or interest in that than I have in the best brand of pacifier or busy-box, or the most nutritious strained pea formula.

Even if it were about whether adults should Follow That Dream, I would have let it slide. You all have enough trouble without personal advisement from a broken-down poetaster like me.

I don't care about Mulan II, or that someone thinks it is Not Appropriate -- I guess that's the clinical term -- for her kids. Chacun a son goo-goo. But when she pulls Sophocles and Edith Wharton into it, she's walkin' on the fightin' side of me.

People can go their own way, or to hell (frequently the same path), but I think it's worse than a crime when they abuse the arts -- in this case, whittling it into a moral measuring stick for kidflix -- to advance their dreary agenda. Because they're not just hurting themselves. They're fucking with our cultural currency. And I don't mean making Sean Penn look bad; I mean spreading an idea of art that is so narrow, juiceless and stupid that if enough people come to believe it -- and I fear we are approaching critical mass there -- then you can forget about getting any masterpieces anytime soon, or maybe ever, because no one will remember how or why to make them.

Art, like God, is so much bigger than our notions of it that the more insistent we are that we know its true nature, the more we misperceive it. That's why some of us approach it with a humility and respect that looks foolish to non-believers. If you want to know the mysteries, you don't come into the temple like a squad of cops on a vice raid.

This isn't to say you can't do art with politics (or teaching, or cooking, or physical fitness or a lot of other things), but you better give art first billing. You can do Macbeth as an indictment of the Oil-for-Food Scandal, sure, and if the shoe fits the play will illuminate your point beautifully. But if you're just using Macbeth as a sack into which to stuff your ten pounds of shit, it won't work. Check your own experiences for confirmation.

Bad art is too bad, but what I really can't abide are the folks who are so freaking obsessed with values that they treat the great works of our civilization as lessons in deportment. It is a miracle that Sophocles call still speak to us across the millennia, but the more these nuts succeed in convincing people that Antigone and Creon are just a more hortatory version of Goofus and Gallant, the further the play's mysteries will recede into obscurity.

Nahum Tate ruined Shakespeare for his generation. I'm not inclined to give Kate Marie and her pals too much slack.

* UPDATE. Can you believe I originally put Charles Lamb when I should have said Nahum Tate, Lamb's nemesis? There goes my Pulitzer!


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