Prometheus, bounder

Today it rained. This is a good thing, just here and just now. We’ve had it mighty dry for a spell in these here parts. I think a lot of farmers got a drink too, which is, needless to say, a lot more important than the state of my lawn.

I picked up a book called Savage Spawn, by Jonathan Kellerman, the mystery writer. I’ve already told you how much I enjoy his novels, so I was interested to check out this book, which is not fiction but a book of popular psychology about children who become cold-blooded criminals.

I’ll probably say more about his conclusions tomorrow, but today I want to quote a passage that impressed me:

Psychiatrist Thomas Millar, in an eloquent essay titled “The Age of Passion Man,” written nearly two decades ago, decried the tendency of contemporary Western society to glamorize hedonism and antisocial behavior, and to confuse psychopathy, which he regards as a form of malignant childishness, with heroism….

Confusing creativity with morality and psychopathic rebelliousness with social liberation led Norman Mailer to predict that psychopaths would turn out to be the saviors of society. Mailer was as terribly wrong about that as he was when he worked hard to spring career criminal Jack Henry Abbott from prison. Shortly after his release, Abbott murdered an innocent man. Oops. What impressed Mailer were Abbott’s writings, summarized in a thin book titled In the Belly of the Beast. A coolheaded review of this volume nearly two decades later reveals it to be a crude, nasty, sophomoric collection of self-justifying diatribes—prototypical psychopathy.

Muddled thinking about evil is by no means limited to the political left. Sex murderer Herbert Smith, sentenced to execution for raping and bludgeoning a fifteen-year-old girl to death with a baseball bat, was able to turn a phrase with some skill, and he conned William Buckley into thinking he was innocent. Buckley campaigned to get Smith out of prison, finally succeeding in 1971, whereupon Smith promptly and viciously attacked another woman. Smith then admitted that he’d been guilty of the first murder. Oops again.

Kellerman identifies here what I consider a major problem in our culture today. Beginning in the days of the Romantic Movement, we began to see the titanic, rebellious, Promethean social rebel (like Shelley or Byron) as the hero, the one who would free us all from Rousseau’s chains, who would liberate us all to become the gods and goddesses we were born to be. The parallel Romantic current, the more Christian and conventionally moral Romanticism of Wordsworth and Coleridge, found few followers. That strain was less sexy. It lacked the sweetness of forbidden fruit, and was much harder work.

Thus we came to believe, first of all, that great, creative souls must always reject conventional morality. Further down the slope we came to believe that whatever was socially transgressive must by definition be a work of genius.

This has given people with artistic pretensions a wonderful excuse to live lives of selfishness and self-destruction.

It has also been responsible for a whole lot of lousy art.

4 thoughts on “Prometheus, bounder”

  1. Good application to artists. I’ve felt that pull to antisocial or immoral behavior a little bit myself, hearing a small voice telling me about the vitality or uniqueness of the artist.

  2. I could almost regard much contemporary art as “nihilist kitsch.” In other words, just as the not-very-bright old lady in the mobile home looks at her black velvet painting of Jesus, sighs, and says, “Ain’t it beautiful,” because it’s about things she believes in, so the contemporary intellectual looks at a piece of ugly, offensive junk, sighs, and says, “Ain’t it beautiful,” because it insults things he doesn’t believe in.

  3. The ‘romantic’movement goes all the way back to the garden of eden. (i.e. Lamech.)It’s the idea that the hero is the man who defies god’s law. (i.e. the rest of us are too cowardly to do it.) I find little in wordsworth and coleridge that’s christian. Wordsworth was a big fan of the lawlessness of the french revolution. For a little background on this era (and subject) I’d recommend ‘Intellectuals’ by paul johnson. (Though I disagree with him on a lot of things.)

    – Mailer simply copied the ideas of Comte.

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