The Triumph of the Literal Mind
Christopher Hitchens once wrote that “the struggle for a free intelligence has always been a struggle between the ironic and literal mind.” The late journalist and social critic made that argument in an essay on the fatwa against his friend, Salman Rushdie—a case with stakes that were literally life and death. And while the triumph of the literal mind over its ironic competitor in contemporary American culture has not yet wrought consequences as severe and urgent as a death warrant on the head of a novelist, it has succeeded in making public debate numbingly dull and tiresome.
In his first nonfiction book, White, a mix of memoir and cultural criticism, Bret Easton Ellis devotes several chapters to the troubling prioritization, in the arts pages of major newspapers, on cable news, and throughout insipid social media campaigns, of ideology over aesthetics. Ellis speaks from personal experience, recalling his own confrontation with an asinine mob of ideologues after he had the audacity to criticize two recent films of liberal folklore, Moonlight and Black Panther. Ellis is careful to note that he both commended and condemned aspects of each film. Yet millions of people on Twitter refused to settle for anything less than worshipful adoration.
For Ellis, who has worked on several Hollywood films, aesthetics and artistry are more important than allegory and ideology. He explains that he prefers “genre films” over “message movies.” The debate regarding the social function of art dates back thousands of years, and presents a fascinating opportunity to discuss the fusion of philosophy, art history, and sociology. Most people likely fall somewhere between the two camps—not crude Marxists or religious fundamentalists who demand that art adhere to dogma, but also not libertines who rank mastery of form over all cultural considerations.
Yet the conversation about aesthetic versus ideology is no longer one that can take place in American public discourse. It appears to have become the duty, and reflexive response, of the pundit to moralize, and in doing so, to destroy nuance with political absolutism.
When Ellis recently appeared at the Commonwealth Club to discuss his new book with New York Times journalist Nellie Bowles, the audience actually gasped and booed when he said, “I didn’t really like Moonlight.” It is worth noting, perhaps, that Ellis is gay. Bowles then asked, “Who are you to decide what is good and bad art?” Ellis reacted with genuine bafflement at the question. “It is for all of us to decide, and I’m a critic,” he cried to deaf ears.
He was unable even to express an opinion during his guest interview on Real Time With Bill Maher. After he said that Black Panther was unworthy of an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, Charles Blow—another New York Times writer—became enraged, asking Ellis, “What about all of the other movies that didn’t deserve their awards?”
Blow, who is a crafty prose stylist and should have some minimal understanding of literal and figurative language, then became incensed at Ellis’s use of the pejorative “social justice warriors.” Ellis actually had to explain to Blow that he was using the term “ironically” after Blow refused to stop insisting that people who devote themselves to the causes of civil rights protections and poverty relief are unworthy of derision. “I’m not talking about those people,” Ellis said, visibly flustered and fatigued.
The moral harangue and the outcry of the “offended” is boring. And yet it appears that, at least until a dismissal bell rings, those with an interest in public debate have been left pacing the school building under the supervision of countless hall monitors.
Journalism, like criticism and entertainment writing, has also seen its form disregarded in the name of sanctimony.
Maggie Haberman recently wrote a story on Hope Hicks, a former White House communications staff member, that presented Hicks’ dilemma over responding to a subpoena to testify against Donald Trump as an “existential decision.” The question Haberman posed was: does a person act against a close friend who provided her with many opportunities for an investigation she finds dubious, resulting in an act of disloyalty, or does she obey the letter of the law?
Immediately the objections began to rain down on Haberman. “It is not an existential decision. It is a legal one!” the media masses shrieked in a full display of their literal minds. A large number of the literalists also complained that Hicks looked too beautiful and glamorous in the photo that accompanied the story, failing to grasp that she’s a woman and beauty and glamor are morally neutral qualities.
The problem with framing the Hicks story solely in legalistic terms is, of course, that it is boring. It is also unnecessary. Is anyone unaware that a subpoena is a legal writ and that anyone who ignores one will face prosecution?
Michael Wolff, author of two books giving inside accounts of the Trump administration that used Steve Bannon and other anonymous sources, recently stood in front of his own firing squad of literal-minded bores on the podcast “Skullduggery.” The discussion failed to rise above the quality of a standardized test, because hosts Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman would not stop berating Wolff over a handful of minor factual errors that appear in the last volume of his Trump series, Siege.
“Let’s talk about how to read a book,” Wolff resorted to suggesting. He then explained, in the same exasperated tone as Ellis, that his ambition is to allow readers to “feel what it is like inside the Trump White House.” He is not working or writing as a conventional journalist.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, the “new journalism” versus traditional journalism debate took place, with literary reporters like Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and Joan Didion often making the same argument that Wolff did. It was an interesting conversation, but one we can no longer have.
The triumph of the literal over the ironic, and of ideology over aesthetics, is visible in far more damaging ways than the examples I’ve provided. Publishers routinely cancel deals for authors of young adult novels, as mobs of social media users condemn books without having even read them over characters, storylines, and plot devices that they, in their infinite wisdom, deem “insensitive.” Elsewhere, mainstream publications debate whether it is acceptable to enjoy actors and musicians guilty of sexual impropriety or racism, including those who are dead, like John Wayne. At Indiana University in 2017, a group of students demanded the removal of a Thomas Hart Benton mural depicting the history of the state because it includes an image of the Ku Klux Klan. When he painted the mural, Benton explained that it is important to include both the good and the evil episodes of history in any depiction of it.
As the painter likely understood, history teaches the small number of people willing to learn that moral panic rarely ends well.
Artistic talent, the gifts of irony and satire, and the ability to tell complex stories are resources in short supply in any society. Prioritizing moral purity or political ideology above creativity will only create a culture that is flat, tedious, and without color. And perhaps that is what the self-appointed wardens really want.
Those of us on the side of the ironic mind would do well to occasionally follow the lead of Honore de Balzac, who once interrupted a conversation about politics with the suggestion, “Let’s get back to serious matters,” and then started talking about literature.