Time and Western Man
Posted on March 30, 2014 by Steven Hayward in Literature
Pardon me while I intrude on Scott’s turf as Power Line’s official literary studies director. Time and Western Man is the title of an obscure Wyndham Lewis book that I’ve always found impenetrable despite several attempts to struggle through it. A more approachable book on the theme of time is Gary Saul Morson’s Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time. (Morson, the Frances Hooper Professor of the Arts and Humanities and professor of Slavic languages and literature at Northwestern University, was featured in the Power Line 100 roster several months back.) I started reading Morson’s book over the weekend because I’m fixed up to have dinner with him in Chicago later this week, arranged by our mutual friend Daniel Lowenstein of UCLA. And now I can’t put it down.
My great teacher Harry Jaffa, still going at age 95 (he recently held forth for a day and a half with friends—and friendly critics—on a wide range of subjects; see the nearby photo) reminds us in his American Mind interview with Charles Kesler that he majored in literature at Yale, but was interested also in political philosophy and decided to study that subject in graduate school. But he might have done it the other way around (that is, major in political science at Yale and study English literature for a Ph.D), in which case instead of being the great interpreter of Lincoln, he might have become one of the great interpreters of Shakespeare instead. Except that he is a great Shakespearean, having co-authored (with Allan Bloom) Shakespeare’s Politics, and many other fine essays on the permanent political wisdom to be found in Shakespeare.
The point is, literature, like history, offers profound windows into political life, and not necessarily by the direct route of so-called “political” novels like Darkness at Noon or 1984. Morson notes in his introduction that “criticism, like fiction, was intended and understood as philosophy by other means.” Morson’s study examines the great Russian novelists, especially Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, whose works I haven’t cracked open in more than 30 years, alas. So I have some remedial reading to do. But in light of my recent posts about the climatistas wanting to arrest climate skeptics because the climatistas have a monopoly on truth, the closing passage of Morson’s introduction bears note: We live at the end of a terrible century, one that has witnessed the horrors produced by utopians in power. We have seen the unprecedented tyranny practiced by those who, believing they possess the key to history, imagine their values to be final. In their world without loopholes, they admit no sideshadows. I think there has been too little serious reflection about what is wrong with this style of thinking.