Sex Pistols and the Counter Culture

I’m having a discussion with John Bonnett (Guelph) on counter-cultural attitudes in the fine arts. He asks:

“Why is it that artists today seem so bereft of wisdom and a moral compass?  They pretend to possess both.  They pretend to say profound things. They in fact offer obscurities that say nothing, the sorts of polysyllabic banalities George Orwell condemned in “Politics in the English Language.” Have there ever been wise artists, or is it their perpetual lot to be troublemakers who stomp on conventions, social and moral, and make wrecks of their personal lives?”

Good question! A good observation. But I’d argue that the artists who stomp on convention offer more than banalities. They are drawing on a tradition of social thought with powerful philosophical precedents: the tradition of the European counter-Enlightenment, which dates from the late eighteenth century. It’s poisonous, yes, destructive of settled middle-class convictions, destructive of the social and political order. It attacks ideas of personal responsibility while encouraging extreme ideas of personal freedom. Nevertheless as argument it’s disturbingly convincing. I make the beginnings of an attempt to analyze the counter-Enlightenment in The Once and Future Canadian Democracy (2003).

There’s a more or less helpful article on the subject by Fred Siegel in the current Commentary magazine (“The Anti-American Fallacy”). It begins: “In 1928, D.H. Lawrence wrote a poem entitled “How Beastly the Bourgeois Is” in which he compared the middle class to a “fungus, living on the remains of a bygone life / sucking his life out of greater life than his own.”

Taking his cue from Bernard DeVoto’s The Literary Fallacy (1944), Siegel races through an analysis of Sinclair Lewis, H.L. Mencken, F. Scott Fitzgerald and their successors. I can’t supply the complete list of famous names. He doesn’t forget their English predecessors and contemporaries: Lawrence, John Ruskin, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, T.S. Elliott.  But he slights the social and political philosophers and as result gives us only a glimpse of the counter-Enlightenment’s seriousness and the threat it poses for a liberal democratic politics rooted in the seventeenth-century.

He contends that DeVoto illuminated the anti-bourgeois thrust in American literature “as no one had before or since.” But recent and comparatively recent American critics come to mind, first among them Lionel Trilling. And for  goodness’ sakes, Siegel is making his assertion about DeVoto’s preeminence in a journal of political ideas founded by Norman Podhoretz, author of The Bloody Crossroads: Where Literature and Politics Meet?

I think of Leo Strauss, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Allan Bloom, Jean Bethke Elshtain. All describe the subordinate and subversive thread of thought that is the counter-Enlightenment’s legacy in our day. I won’t go further afield, except to say that I am just finishing Victor Klemperer’s diary of the Nazi years, I Will Bear Witness. It’s book that will still be read centuries from now. Klemperer was a literary critic and historian of ideas. He knew what he was seeing in the collapse of Europe.

Added note: Today’s National Post (April 9), offers an obituary of Malcolm McLaren, manager of the punk band, the Sex Pistols. His art college “manifesto” called on people to be “everything this society hates.” He wrote: “All I have ever felt is disruptive – I don’t know any other way


2 Responses to “Sex Pistols and the Counter Culture”

  1. 1 John April 12, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    Your concluding comment about the Sex Pistols manager’s nihilism reminds of Barry Cooper’s analysis of the importance of punk music for the Canadian regime.

  2. 2 Colin Pearce April 14, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    A library would have to be cited in order to detail Nietzsche’s impact on subsequent thinking and writing. The writings of Nietzsche are directly linked to such names as Stefan George, Max Scheler, Nikolai Berdayev, Oswald Spengler, Thomas Mann, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Andre Gide, Gottfried Benn, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Herman Hesse, W.B. Yeats, G.B. Shaw, Henri Bergson, A. N. Whitehead, Sigmund Freud, H. L. Mencken, Theodore Dreiser, Andre Gide and Virginia Woolf.

    Karl Lowith notes: “D.H. Lawrence did nothing but yearn for a transcendent faith in something more than the all ¬too-human. (His) blasphemies are therefore nearer to the Christian faith than to the decency of the gentleman whose supreme standard and concern as self-respect and self-perfection.” (Nature, History and Existentialism [Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press,1966],p.211).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: