Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The evil that we do

On page 11 of Consciousness and Society, The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930, H. Stuart Hughes in declaring his presuppositions prior to moving ahead into his discussion, writes, “It is extremely difficult to assess with any accuracy what the dominant ideas at any given time actually are.  The most reliable indicator is not what people say but what they do – and thus we are led directly back to the history of action rather than of thought.”

I am rereading Hughes book but don’t recall stopping at this point.  Of course Hughes isn’t going to be able to deal with anyone’s thought unless it is transformed into action of some sort.  Intellectuals are going to have to teach, preach, or write their ideas out in order for them to have any sort of effect. 

At this point I veered off on a mental tangent.  I recall that Harold Bloom some place wrote that he had read all the poets in English (if not in all languages) that were worth reading.  There was no “great” poet out there that he hadn’t read or heard about.  Bloom is here saying something very like what Hughes is.   A poet may write out his poems and put them in a folder in his desk.  He may even post them on some forum with a limited membership, but unless Bloom has read them they don’t, for all practical purposes, exist. 

Bloom is no Robert Burns who believed that many a poet bloomed and died unheard in the backward villages of Scotland. 

And a question beyond that is should a poet seek to be published if the road to publication involves catering to and genuflecting for Bloom and the other critical lights? 

I’ve been reading Christopher Hitchens, Hitch 22, A Memoir.  Hitchens isn’t a poet, but has followed the sure road to success of any writer, associating himself with influential people who got him jobs that involved publishing his writings.   Also, Hitchens loved meeting important and powerful people.  He frequently describes what a “great honor” it was to meet someone or shake someone else’s hand.  There was never any chance that Hitchens would bloom and die unheard. 

We might also ask whether it is personally “valuable” to have ideas if we don’t “teach, preach, or write” in such a way that they comprise “action” of some sort.  I take Hughes here to mean “action” that affects great swaths of people and their leaders.  Many of us well along on the road to dying unheard wouldn’t want that responsibility.  What self-critical devices, what set of presuppositions can we stand upon with such confidence that we are willing to act upon others in the way that Hughes implies?  

My impression of Hitchens is that he was an actor long before he was a thinker.  Eric Hoffer in The True Believer wrote that men of ideas precede men of action, but in a single individual such as Hitchens a pattern of action seems to be independent of the ability to think great thoughts.  If Hitchens ever managed the latter it was because he could look back on what he had done and reflect upon it with superb rhetorical ability which may or may not qualify him as an important thinker.


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