Monday, September 30, 2013

misery, popular culture and crime fiction

During the 1920s and 1930s the idea started to take hold that serious art should have one of two objectives. It should either make us feel bad about ourselves and bad about our society, or it should deliver a political message. Preferably it should do both. By the end of the 30s this dogma was fairly well established. In the 60s this attitude started to infect popular culture. Serious films should be exercises in misery and/or political indoctrination. In the world of letters the idea spread into genres such as horror and crime, and even started to gain a foothold in science fiction, a genre once characterised by a generally positive attitude towards our civilisation and its future.

This approach to art and literature is bogus and adolescent even when applied to areas like “literary” fiction. There is no valid reason why paintings should not exalt beauty and truth rather than ugliness and horror. There is no valid reason why books should not celebrate our culture and focus on the positive sides of human nature rather than on the negative. Wallowing in self-pity and self-loathing are activities that teenagers find very attractive. Part of the process of growing up is growing out of such adolescent self-indulgence. Teenagers tend to assume that they know what is wrong with society and they could fix it if only they were given the power to do so. Grown-ups realise that life is more complicated and that happiness and contentment come from adapting to reality rather than complaining about it. Grown-ups realise that cynicism is a fancy word for arrested psychological development.

The misery and politics approach started to gain a significant following among crime writers in the 1960s although it had already exerted its baleful influence on the American hardboiled school of the interwar years. This was also an era in which crime writers started to dislike being described as writers of detective stories. That just didn’t sound serious-minded enough. They started to prefer to call themselves crime writers.

From its beginnings with Poe’s stories in the 1840s through to the golden age of the 20s and 30s detective fiction had been generally optimistic. There was nothing naïve or simple-minded about this. Detective stories acknowledged the existence of evil and the existence of vicious dangerous people. On the other hand detective stories operated on the assumption that crime was an evil that could be combated. Criminals posed a threat to society and to the individual. The task of the detective was to identify the criminal so that he could be brought to justice.

Very few of the detective fiction writers of the century between Poe and the Second World War were gullible enough to think that fighting crime was easy. It was an activity that demanded constant vigilance but through a combination of courage, determination and intelligence crime was a problem that could be contained to a sufficient extent to allow people to get on with their lives without having to live in constant fear.

From the 1960s onwards a change occurred. The new very serious-minded crime writers treated crime as a problem that not only could not be effectively fought, crime was also a symptom of the wickedness of society, the worthlessness of western civilisation and the depravity of human nature. Everything was hopeless and justice was an illusion. And it was all our fault for allowing injustice to flourish. The criminal was not a deviant who needed to be dealt with; he was a victim and deserved pity.

These changes were symptomatic of the rise of the culture of self-loathing and self-pity, what Australian art critic memorably described as the Culture of Complaint.

Having understood this it’s easy to see why so many modern crime writers and commentators disparage the detective stories of the past. How can writers like Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie be taken seriously. Their stories are not overtly political and they are not miserable and sordid. Therefore they are not serious literature. Even worse, their stories are entertaining, a fault that automatically disqualifies them from serious consideration.

In the past few decades another factor was entered the equation. Art and literature must now conform to a very narrow, very restrictive and very oppressive range of politically correct doctrine. How can the detective writers of the past be taken seriously when they fail to address issues of gender, race, class and sexuality? Or even worse, when they include characters who on occasions utter sentiments that are outside the narrow confines of political correctness?

These faults can of course be corrected in television adaptations. The necessary quota of lesbians, persons of colour and other approved victim groups can be added and the stories and the characters can be twisted in order to make them acceptably PC.

Personally I do not care for the modern approach at all. I do not care for crime stories that wallow in the gutter and seek to demoralise the reader with graphic violence and an unrelentingly negative view of our culture. I happen to be rather fond of western civilisation. The only solution I have found, from a strictly personal viewpoint, is to avoid modern popular culture altogether. Luckily this is rather easy to do. The popular culture of the past still exists. The literature of the past is in fact very easily accessible.

These days I confine myself entirely to reading books that were published prior to 1960, and I confine myself almost entirely to movies made no later than the early 60s although I am happy to indulge myself with some of the very enjoyable genre movies made as late as the 70s. As far as television is concerned my cut-off point is, with few exceptions, the late 70s. Since I made the decision to reject the modern world of popular culture and all its works I have been a considerably happier and more contented person. We do have a choice. We can say no to the literature of self-pity and self-hatred and squalidness. I do not feel that I am missing anything at all since I made my decision. I do not find the literature of the past to be simplistic or naïve. In fact I find it to be sophisticated, well-crafted, intelligent and complex. It works for me.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

a prescription for happiness

Perhaps it’s true that human beings have always had a tendency to prefer delusions to reality. It seems to be more true today than ever. One of the saddest of modern delusions is the idea that happiness can be obtained by taking a pill.

It does of course fit in quite well with the modern obsession with entitlement. Nothing has to be paid for and no-one ever has to face the consequences of their actions. If someone is unhappy than that is intrinsically unfair; it’s a violation of their human rights. They can’t possibly be unhappy because they’ve made bad life choices or because their only belief systems are a confused tangle of hedonism and nihilism. No, it can’t be anything like that. It must be a malfunction of the brain. They must be sick. And if you’re sick you go to a doctor.

So unhappy people no longer try to work out what they may have done wrong with their lives. They no longer examine their belief systems to find out if they are actually viable or not. They simply go to their doctor, announce that they are unhappy, and wait patiently while the doctor writes them a prescription for happiness.

Of course we don’t call it unhappiness any longer. We call it depression, which sounds more like an illness. An illness can’t possibly be the fault of the individual. We don’t blame a person for coming into contact with a virus that gives them a cold. Depression works the same way. Somehow or other we catch this illness, possibly from sharing a crowded train with someone who has the illness and is breathing the virus into the air. Then we go to the doctor to get it cured.

Aldous Huxley predicted all this in Brave New World back in 1931 (except that he called it soma and we call it Prozac), and he also predicted the social consequences. It’s one of the many ways in which Huxley turned out to be far more accurate in his predictions than Orwell. Huxley understood that the totalitarianism you have to fear is not the hard totalitarianism of Stalin, Hitler and Mao but the soft totalitarianism in which the state becomes a warm caring mother substitute. It’s not Big Brother we have to fear but Nanny who will make everything safe for us as long as we’re good children. It was one of Huxley’s most brilliant insights that social control is exercised much more effectively when a population is infantilised rather than terrorised. And a pill that makes us happy is one of the most potent tools to bring about the infantilisation of the population.

Happiness pills have not been a government conspiracy. They are a result of the medical profession’s desire to extend its empire into every aspect of our lives. For the Left this has been a happy accident. When everything from unhappiness to gambling is an illness then no-one has to take any responsibility for anything. Which inevitably means that the government steps in and takes the responsibility for us. Nanny has no need to rule us with terror because everyone understands that Nanny knows best and that everything Nanny does is for our own good.

If we still feel that there is something wrong somewhere we just need to take another soma tablet.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Election 2013 - will anything significant actually change?

Australia's new PM Tony Abbott - will he be up to the challenge?
While the defeat of the catastrophic Rudd government is certainly very good news indeed it remains to be seen whether anything significant will actually change. Will new PM Tony Abbott have the guts to follow his own instincts (which are unquestionably conservative) or will he be forced to back down to the sniveling lily-livered cowards in his party who are terrified of being seen as even slightly conservative?

Will Abbott have the intestinal fortitude to scrap outrageous wastes of money like the Department of Climate Change? Will he stand up to the hand-wringing prophets of doom who will tell him the sky is falling and it’s all our fault for putting carbon into the atmosphere? Will he stand up to the greenie thugs who want to destroy our country?

And will he be prepared to grasp the nettle and reform the ABC? Public broadcasters like the ABC are dinosaurs, relics of an era when governments thought they were necessary to bring culture to the huddled masses. Today the ABC is entirely irrelevant and has been hijacked by the far left to the extent that it is little more than the propaganda arm of the loony left. There is only way to reform the ABC. Defund it. If it then dies, so be it. The real world is a tough place and if the ABC can’t survive in the commercial marketplace then the sooner it dies the better. It has long since ceased to live up to its charter. It is a national disgrace and doing something about this truly cancerous travesty of a broadcaster should be a priority.

And will Abbott accept the reality that countries that are running a budget deficit have no business giving money to other countries in the form of “foreign aid” - money that does nothing in any case other than to encourage a culture of dependence in the recipient countries?

And most important of all will the Abbott government stop wasting money funding lavish lifestyles for bogus refugees who are in reality merely illegal immigrants, which by definition makes them criminals?

Last not least, will the Abbott government accept that governments should not be funding the extravagant lifestyles of the “arts community” - writers who write books than no-one wants to read, artists who create paintings no-one wants to buy, theatre companies that stage productions no-one wants to attend and other assorted worthless bludgers? Government funding of the arts is not only a waste of taxpayers’ money, it is positively unhealthy for the arts.

All of these vitally necessary reforms would reduce the budget deficit in addition to being very good things in themselves.

Maybe the Abbott government will have the guts to do these things, but I wouldn’t count on it.