I sometimes find myself in what might be described as a blogging cycle. On one hand, light, upbeat – even frivolous. On the other, when something wrenches guts hard enough, a meatier, sugar-free post, rather like today’s.
People often admire literary intellect, irrespective of expressed moral view and the notion gains credence that excellent facility with prose in some way excuses sins. Christopher Hitchens, the champion of vitriolic atheism has left this world, perhaps to discover that most of his tightly reasoned theories about God, the afterlife and the permanence of the soul have been set at naught. His style was excoriating and passionate, some might argue grossly offensive, even repellent – in his own words he once remarked that he ‘ought to carry with him some sort of rectal thermometer’, presumably to measure how rapidly he was turning into an old fart. The influence of such writers on popular culture, the axis of leverage which they are able to command over the mind of the reader is almost impossible to calculate. I was seduced, but not captivated.
I don’t believe that the humanities are necessarily humane – in other words, shape our moral perceptions for good rather than evil. Indeed, I would go further: I think it more than conceivable that the focusing of consciousness on a written text diminishes the sharpness of our actual moral response. Because we are trained to give psychological and moral credence to the imaginary, to the character in a play or a novel, to the condition of spirit we gather from a poem, we may find it more difficult to identify with the real world, to take the world of actual experience to heart. The capacity for imaginative reflex, for moral risk in any human being is not limitless; on the contrary, it can be rapidly absorbed by fiction, consequently the cry in the poem may come to sound louder and more urgent than the cry in the street outside. The death in the novel may move us more potently than the death in the next room. Is there, I wonder, a covert, betraying link between the cultivation of aesthetic response and the potential for personal inhumanity? As we succumb more and more to the fantasy of aesthetics, we fail to realise that the moral plumblines keeping us upright have been twisted into grotesque, unrecognisable shapes. Thus, the more aesthetically refined we imagine that we have become, the more our internal moral structures decay until we become a satyr, a Dorian Gray.