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from "The Fraying of America" [by Robert Hughes]

It took a while but Time got around to reporting Nietzsche's brainstorm announcement.Time is-god-deadcover The question mark is merely a rhetorical cover-up. And here are some thoughtful paragraphs from "The Fraying of America" by the magazine's art critic, the late Robert Hughes, thirty years after he filed the article (Time, February 3, 1992). Newsmagazines are usually behind the times -- if you read of a high flying stock in a magazine, the easy money hss been made -- but Hughes was way ahead of the curve. -- WC 

The obsessive subject of our increasingly sterile confrontation between the two PCs -- the politically and the patriotically correct -- is something clumsily called multiculturalism. America is a place filled with diversity, unsettled histories, images impinging on one another and spawning unexpected shapes. Its polyphony of voices, its constant eddying of claims to identity, is one of the things that make America America. The gigantic, riven, hybridizing, multiracial republic each year receives a major share of the world's emigration, legal or illegal.

To put the argument for multiculturalism in merely practical terms of self- interest: though elites are never going to go away, the composition of those elites is not necessarily static. The future of American ones, in a globalized economy without a cold war, will rest with people who can think and act with informed grace across ethnic, cultural, linguistic lines. And the first step in becoming such a person lies in acknowledging that we are not one big world family, or ever likely to be; that the differences among races, nations, cultures and their various histories are at least as profound and as durable as the similarities; that these differences are not divagations from a European norm but structures eminently worth knowing about for their own sake. In the world that is coming, if you can't navigate difference, you've had it.

Thus if multiculturalism is about learning to see through borders, one can be all in favor of it. But you do not have to listen to the arguments very long before realizing that, in quite a few people's minds, multiculturalism is about something else. Their version means cultural separatism within the larger whole of America. They want to Balkanize culture.


This reflects the sense of disappointment and frustration with formal politics, which has caused many people to look to the arts as a field of power, since they have power nowhere else. Thus the arts become an arena for complaint about rights. The result is a gravely distorted notion of the political capacity of the arts, just at the moment when -- because of the pervasiveness of mass media -- they have reached their nadir of real political effect.

Raphael School of AthensOne example is the inconclusive debate over "the canon," that oppressive Big Bertha whose muzzle is trained over the battlements of Western Civ at the black, the gay and the female. The canon, we're told, is a list of books by dead Europeans -- Shakespeare and Dante and Tolstoy and Stendhal and John Donne and T.S. Eliot . . . you know, them, the pale, patriarchal penis people. Those who complain about the canon think it creates readers who will never read anything else. What they don't want to admit, at least not publicly, is that most American students don't read much anyway and quite a few, left to their own devices, would not read at all. Their moronic national baby-sitter, the TV set, took care of that. Before long, Americans will think of the time when people sat at home and read books for their own sake, discursively and sometimes even aloud to one another, as a lost era -- the way we now see rural quilting bees in the 1870s.

The quarrel over the canon reflects the sturdy assumption that works of art are, or ought to be, therapeutic. Imbibe The Republic or Phaedo at 19, and you will be one kind of person; study Jane Eyre or Mrs. Dalloway, and you will be another. For in the literary zero-sum game of canon-talk, if you read X, it means that you don't read Y. This is a simple fancy. So is the distrust of the dead, as in "dead white male." Some books are deeper, wider, fuller than others, and more necessary to an understanding of our culture and ourselves. They remain so long after their authors are dead. Those who parrot slogans like "dead white male" might reflect that, in writing, death is relative: Lord Rochester is as dead as Sappho, but not so moribund as Bret Easton Ellis or Andrea Dworkin. Statistically, most authors are dead, but some continue to speak to us with a vividness and urgency that few of the living can rival. And the more we read, the more writers we find who do so, which is why the canon is not a fortress but a permeable membrane.

The sense of quality, of style, of measure, is not an imposition bearing on literature from the domain of class, race or gender. All writers or artists carry in their mind an invisible tribunal of the dead, whose appointment is an imaginative act and not merely a browbeaten response to some notion of authority. This tribunal sits in judgment on their work. They intuit their standards from it. From its verdict there is no appeal. None of the contemporary tricks -- not the fetishization of the personal, not the attempt to shift the aesthetic into the political, not the exhausted fictions of avant-gardism -- will make it go away. If the tribunal weren't there, every first draft would be a final manuscript. You can't fool Mother Culture.

That is why one rejects the renewed attempt to judge writing in terms of its presumed social virtue. Through it, we enter a Marxist never-never land, where all the most retrograde phantoms of Literature as Instrument of Social Utility are trotted forth. Thus the Columbia History of the American Novel declares Harriet Beecher Stowe a better novelist than Herman Melville because she was "socially constructive" and because Uncle Tom's Cabin helped rouse Americans against slavery, whereas the captain of the Pequod was a symbol of laissez-faire capitalism with a bad attitude toward whales.,33009,974806-6,00.html

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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