Cultural Caviar

Antagonism: The Overlooked Value

April 13, 2018

About earlier epic poets and their shared theme of war, John Milton the poet-theologian wrote: “Me, of these/Nor skilled nor studious, higher argument/Remains….” Of course, Milton was a devoted student of those poets, to whom his skills certainly owed a good deal. Still, the point remains: In his pride Milton was driven to try to outdo his predecessors. Now this sort of inner virtue is not to be obtained from an MFA program, which is little more than a networking affair for committee people and literary mediocrities.

There is not a writer alive who approaches the inventiveness of Alexander Pope or Jonathan Swift. Tellingly, those men were savage, and that made for extremely inventive work. Like athletes, the greatest writers are by nature somewhat monstrous; and Christianity does not necessarily change this, as we see from Dante and Milton, both poets whose primary characteristic is pride. The highest satire derives from a spirit of antagonism, and—as the moralist Dr. Johnson, who was wary of the genre, understood—in some cases, from sheer wickedness. There are now few editors who will publish strong satire, and almost nobody can write it. That is a reflection of our feeling-centric therapy culture, and of the fact that more and more, “literary standards” are determined by the petty prejudices of bluestockings who, on account of the maternal instinct that they are probably too anxious about status to recognize, would rather have literature represent “the marginalized” than be superbly wrought.

In our time, God knows, people are endlessly touchy. So it happened that Kevin Williamson, of whom I am quite fond, was able to write just one article for The Atlantic before Jeffrey Goldberg, typical weak American man that he is, chose to fire the writer who believes that abortion merits the death penalty in the form of hanging. In an earlier time, Goldberg would have been a yes-man. Under the Matriarchy, he is a yes-dear-man. Moral smugness and indignant cowardice, these common bedfellows, are of indispensable value for many, because they afford relief from the unspeakable dullness in which many people pass their genteel days. If, though, you want to live a higher sort of life, and to accomplish something exceptional, even, then you would do well to recognize the value of antagonism.

Besides, there is now a tragic obstruction on our neoconservative progressive path; for while I was finishing this column, sources informed me that infighting has broken out among our noble leaders. Certainly, one would not have thought that men as gentle and refined as Bill Kristol and John Podhoretz would have gotten into a tiff over the last marigold-colored bow tie at Saks Fifth Avenue, but that is just what happened. And though they followed David Frum’s terrific advice, taking their wives away with them for a weekend retreat of couples therapy, it turned out that as they endeavored to settle the dispute, the two gentlemen were diverted by their evident need to vent their “repressed Oedipal anxieties.” As I write, they remain deep in the woods of Maine, even as the caring David Frum fruitlessly calls and emails and texts them nonstop: “Please don’t hold this against me. I only meant well, you know. Come back ASAP—the movement needs you!”


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