A Contemporary Literary Odyssey
by Becket Knottingham
"We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage. What we lack is a liberal Utopia, a program which seems neither a mere defense of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism..."-- Fredirich Hayek
Truth is the most fundamental form of private property. To deny that words harbor intrinsic meaning, as has become fashionable upon the postmodern campus, is to deny students their right to own the private property which provides the cornerstone of classical liberalism-- the Western Heritage as embodied in the context of The Great Books. Concerning the truth Fredirich Hayek stated in The Road to Serfdom that, "The moral consequences of totalitarian propaganda which we must now consider are, however, of an even more profound kind. They are destructive of all morals because they undermine one of the foundations of all morals: the sense of and the respect for truth." And without morality, as Locke professed and Jefferson agreed, freedom cannot exist.
Russel Kirk stated that "men of imagination, rather than party leaders, determine the ultimate course of things," and in that spirit, I, along with two colleagues, launched BeaconWay Press and The Jolly Roger on the WWW just over two years ago. Today, with over 15,000 subscribers on the monthly mailing list, The Jolly Roger has become one of the world's largest literary journals. Built with "Oak planks of reason, riveted with rhyme, designed to voyage across all of time," The Jolly Roger (www.jollyroger.com) is dedicated to pirating the profound and communicating the ideals of classical liberalism via contemporary poetry and prose written in the context of the Western Canon.
It is not enough to merely defend the classics, for as Jefferson pointed out, the living own the world, not the dead. While the contemporary author must harbor veneration for all the Greats who have walked before him, he must also have the courage to set out on his own and strive to perform today's truth in the living language. In the closing paragraphs of Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver also calls upon the contemporary writer to boldly venture forth into the postmodern fog:
Yet it is the duty of those who can foresee the end of a saturnalia to make their counsel known. Nothing is more certain than that we are all in this together. Practically, no one can stand aside from a sweep as deep and broad as the decline of a civilization. If the thinkers of our time cannot catch the imagination of the world to the point of effecting some profound transformation, they must succumb with it. There will be little joy in the hour when they can say, 'I told you so.'While charts, graphs, and statistics will do little in the way of awakening my generation's moral imagination, contemporary shots fried from the Western Canon will. And thus my "program," my "intellectual adventure," and my "deed of courage" is calling on my peers to enjoy a contemporary literary renaissance.
Both economics and literature concern themselves with value, and the marketplace of ideas and the marketplace of material goods exist in a symbiotic equilibrium. If peoples' sensibilities, hopes, and dreams are degraded by a crass culture, their standard of living will be degraded, as no matter how hard they work, they will not be able to purchase decency, loyalty, honesty, respect, and justice. Thus a free marketplace requires a moral literature to resound throughout society's soul. Regarding a purely materialistic interpretation of the free market, Richard Weaver said, "Let it be added that there is a close correlation between the growth of materialism and the expulsion of languages from curricula, which is a further demonstration that where things are exalted, words will be depressed." And where words are depressed, so is meaning, for promises shall not endure and marriages will not last if the very words by which we define our social contracts and souls are devalued.
These days many educational experts blame the free-market system for the vapidness and crassness of contemporary culture, but I believe that it is both wrong and dangerous to imply that the individual is incapable of choosing a noble popular culture. I contend that the source of the decline of values can be attributed to the reality that many of the traditional institutions which once emphasized the concepts of truth, individual responsibility, and freedom have stopped performing their vital task. The dependency of contemporary educational institutions on government bureaucracies has rendered them independent of those they were designed to serve-- the people. And although the free-market continues to operate with great success in the Western world, the free marketplace of ideas in the modern academy has suffered from regulation by tenured postmodern and socialist prejudices. I do not believe that the solution to cultural decline resides in government programs nor in government censorship-- rather I believe that the solution is a popular literary renaissance. I believe in what Edmund Burke deemed, "the wisdom of the species." I share the fundamental optimism that resides at the foundation of all free societies-- that when presented with all the options, people are capable of independently choosing that which is best. I believe that the best way to inspire people to read is to reward them with the truth in exchange for their efforts, to echo the profundities they sense in their souls, and to crystallize their heart-felt sentiments with words. I believe that the members of this generation must make the revitalization of the rational soul a deed of courage. We must boldly venture forth into uncharted literary territory, risk the disapproval of the postmodern editorial experts, pirate the profound which has been buried 'neath nihilism, and pen the truth.
As it is futile to criticize nihilism, so too is it futile to battle the postmodern fog, for one ends up lashing out at that which has no form to absorb the criticism. Instead, the noble way to counter the mist is to erect a beacon. Satire, poetry, prose, plot, and character are some of the literary devices by which we may draw the sword of the imagination. The Jolly Roger is armed with the Western Canon, and she's prepared to deliver broadsides of the truth so as to defend the ideals of classical liberalism.
My generation stands at a critical juncture, where popular postmodern philosophies have gutted much of the univeristies' traditional core curriculum, leaving many campuses bereft of works to deconstruct. While communistic regimes have fallen all about the world, and socialism has been discredited by the success of free-market economies, the rich context of the Western Heritage, from which classical liberalism's ideals spring and endure, is being allowed to dissipate. Locke and Jefferson both contended that individual rights require individual responsibility, and as their hard-earned wisdom is preserved within the printed word, so it follows that students hoping to participate in a free society must become readers and lovers of literature. It is up to my generation to resurrect classical liberalism's reflective heritage, to not only defend and teach the Great Books, but to embark on an intellectual adventure of our own, and aspire to pen new works in the context of the classics.
New contemporary works written in the context of the Great Books will play a fundamental role in reforming society and saving our institutions from being subject to further decadence. I believe that no medium is superior to that of the printed word in nurturing the rational part of the human soul. With the liberal politicization of institutions of higher learning, and the steadily declining standards of popular culture, the rich context of Western Culture, from which Great Literature in the past has sprung, is in a state of decay. I believe that a New Literature, written by independent thinkers committed to artistically expressing contemporary truths felt deep in their souls, will provide an intellectual and spiritual beacon. Guided by this beacon, the rising generation can unite and build a fleet of frigates that are committed to returning poetry to the people.
Thomas Jefferson, while reflecting that great literature provides an unparalleled means of providing a moral education, stated, "A little attention to the nature of the human mind evinces that the entertainments of fiction are useful as well as pleasant. A lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics and divinity that ever were written." And indeed, nowhere else but in the United States' founding documents does one find words glorifying democracy so eloquently as those found in Herman Melville's Moby Dick:
But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!
The printed word, and thus literature, reside at the root of culture. A decadent literature will be reflected in a decadent culture. In the same way that many postmodernists claim character is of no significance in a President, so too is character impossible to discern in their contemporary neon novels. By the written word we establish justice, by the written word we define character and moral behavior, and by the printed word we acquaint ourselves with God. Thus to say that words are meaningless, and to enforce this point of view upon college campuses, is to deny the celebration of the Great God absolute. And being that God is, "the centre and circumference of all democracy," as Herman Melville wrote, to deny God is to deny freedom.
No longer is Shakespeare required reading for English majors at many of America's leading universities, including Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, and Stanford. As tuition sky-rockets, and the student takes out more and more college loans to fund the deconstruction and socialization of the campus, the institution which provides morality's primary classroom, the family, is allowed to dissipate. In Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver calls for a literary renaissance to fill the cultural void that has been generated by the aimless drift of rudderless educational institutions, "Here, then, is a call for a fresh appreciation of language-- perhaps, indeed, a respect for words as things. Here is an opening for education to do something more than make its customary appeal for 'spiritual revival,' which is itself an encouragement to diffuseness and aimlessness. If the world is to remain cosmos, we shall have to make some practical application of the law that in the beginning was the word." And now, as I have briefly outlined the multiple events which call out for us to embark on an intellectual adventure that will resurrect the word and strengthen traditional values by which the ideal of freedom is perpetually born, I shall elaborate on my own personal plans to do so.
This fall I plan to embark on a literary odyssey, during which I will complete a novel entitled Misty's Light. The novel details the adventures of a young man who has set out searching for meaning in the contemporary postmodern fog, where many of classical liberalism's ideals have become obscured. The novel takes place just before Christmas, as Becket Knottingham sets out on his way home to Nantucket from Cape Fear, North Carolina on a windsurfer. Along the way he visits friends also coming of age in a value-neutral world, where the traditional family is decaying, college curriculums are being gutted, popular culture is becoming ever more vulgarized, and the divorce rate is rising along with taxes. Becket "roughs it" along the way, camping out in the North East winter, and reflecting on the hopes and dreams of all those who first greeted America's shores seeking political, economic, and religious freedom. While out on the city streets Becket witnesses the dangers of contemporary society firsthand, all the while contemplating the historical significance of cities like D.C. and New York, and their decline. By documenting the living feelings of my peers, I hope to offer them a mirror where they might look to reflect upon the state of the contemporary soul.Ideas have consequences, and as the ideas upon which our free society is founded are rooted in the written word, every generation must pen a living literature of its own, so as to capture the contemporary imagination and ensure the continuity of Burke's community of eternal souls. The WWW is a profound salute to the United State's first constitutional amendment, and I'm keeping busy rising to the occasion, representing the cheerful free-thinkers of this prematurely-labeled "slacker" generation-x.
I believe that words mean things, and that there is a difference between thought and feeling, and that when the two meet, in minds like Shakespeare's, beautiful literature results. I consider myself a modern conservative because I believe that the Western intellectual heritage, embodied in the written words of the Western Canon, is worth preserving for our children. For the printed word deepens the rational part of man's soul, and it is only within the context of this deeper realm that the concept of freedom can exist in harmony with moral responsibility.
I do not share the pessimism found in the corporate conglomerate publishing houses that the common citizen is not capable of quality literature, but rather I feel that those in the elite editorial circles have lost touch with the deeper needs of present-day culture. Their politicized, watered-down literature does little to fill the contemporary spiritual void. They are incapable of providing the common man with a literature that means something to him, which is why they write for themselves. Russel Kirk, in the introduction of The Permanent Things, stated "Another cause of literary decadence has been the centralization of writing and publishing, which has tended to reduce diversity and discussion in the realm of letters, has put powerful influence into the hands of a very small circles of writers, reviewers and publishers, has ignored the literary interests of the great part of this population, and has forced those outlanders to conform their tastes to the notions prevalent in the literary capital. In these United States, the hegemony of New York literary circles and publishing firms is nearly absolute. T.S. Eliot said once that the worst form of expatriation for an American writer is residence in New York City. Yet it is New York's book reviews in major newspapers and magazines that determine the fate of nearly every new book published in this country. A major reason why the writings of nihilists and people possessed by the diabolic imagination sell well is that the New York book-review media consistently puff up such books and authors, apparently on principle, in part, a principle politically perverse."
There are subterranean fields in our souls that lie far deeper than what is portrayed on MTV, there are vistas of the common man's intellect that are far higher than what is alluded to in Rolling Stone, and there is a reality of our souls that is far vaster than what has been captured by Hollywood. There is the printed word, and the postmodernist does not respect it. In popular culture the postmodernists have overlaid the subtle in the human soul with the vulgar, and eroded the romantic nobility of rational, enduring love with the crass. In the University they have buried the Greats of the Western Canon beneath layers of bureaucracy and nihilism. They have confiscated the treasures that since the beginning of civilization have given the young scholar something to live for, and hidden them, replacing the gold's gleam with their dull bureaucracy. Greatness must be absent from the postmodern institutions, for the works of the feminists and multi-culturalists are dwarfed in such a context, and their lack of significance is exposed.
Life, like literature, is a piece of art. In life we define character by our actions, and in literature we define character with words. But even in life thoughts precede our actions. Thoughts are anchored in words, and thus private words become our deeds, and so it is that the art of life and the art of literature are not so dissimilar. And a moral framework is necessary for Greatness in both.
My intellectual adventure will consist of lighting a light in the postmodern fog so that the straight and narrow might be navigated, communicating the traditional values of classical liberalism, and inspiring this generation to redeem the time and redeem the dream. When this summer is long past, I hope that Misty's Light will continue to offer consolation and inspiration. Towards the end of the novel, when Becket nears Nantucket, he comes to realize that the things that one seeks one finds within one's will, and thus by relentlessly following the ideal of freedom, we can hope to remain free.
Mountain peaks amidst October's glory,
I pause at the pinnacle, touch the point,
I tread lightly, leave with but a story,
with the fleeting view these words I annoint.
A field of rasberries, fourth of July,
For a moment I lose her amongst the rows,
Serene green 'neath the Carolina sky,
Silent, windless still, in my heart it grows.
Surging Hatteras surf in December,
Standing beyond the breakers on my board,
I often voyage here to remember,
The tranquil sublimity of the Lord.
These are the places I pause, stand in awe,
Of man's freedom under Natural Law.
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