Silliman's Papers

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Wednesday, April 24, 2002

Humanity, Rendered in Ink:
The pathos of life and the glories of New Journalism

By Daniel Silliman

I was sitting in a small-town, Midwest courtroom wearing a red tie at 8:35 a.m., Wednesday. I’m not used to wearing a tie on weekdays—I just don’t have to—I’m not used to being somewhere at this time of day, and it’s been nine months since I’ve been in a courtroom. I was there, at that hour wearing that tie in a place that looked like a model of 1950s décor, waiting to hear the sentencing of a fellow student charged with stealing two credit cards and trying to buy two gold necklaces and a bracelet.

In 20 minutes, before the college day began, I saw four men—two young, two old—appear before the court for destroying their lives and I saw them swear that everything was different now, and promise to change everything. Drugs, alcohol, driving with a four-year-old girl in the front seat of a pickup truck unbuckled while running a red light and drinking the fifth beer—these men were confessing their sins and testifying to their salvation.

“I’m starting intensive counseling tonight” … “I understand, sir” … “I had to look in my little girls eyes” … “Yes sir” … “This is the fifth time you’ve been arrested for this” … “You’re getting older. The next time you come through here won’t be easier” … “I don’t want to see you in here again in a month” … “Lay off the hard stuff. Have a pop with your kid” … “You need to change.”

What I saw, on the way to the story, was humanity.

Not that humanity was good to see. Humanity had a dumb look in its eye and had forgotten to shave and its suit didn’t fit and it was lying and it knew it was hurting others and didn’t care. I know because I saw it Wednesday morning before class while sitting in a courtroom in the middle of a Midwest town waiting for a guy named Ed who had blown his future when he decided to buy a gold chain with somebody else’s credit card.

Tom Wolfe, the New Journalist (pretty much the definition of New Journalism) and now a famous novelist, said writers should never cover politics. They should avoid the world of Associated Press reports; releases stripped of humanness and filled with “information” as they can be. Writers who were good and writers who wanted to be good should turn to features: they should cover crime, or culture, describing the life of men and the world we live in.

“All I ever did was write about the world we inhabit, the world of culture, with a capital C, and journalism and the arts and so on, with exactly the same tone that I wrote about everything else,” Wolfe said in an interview with Rolling Stone.

Wolfe didn’t discover this New Journalism, reporting the vivaciousness of life by representing it vivaciously, sitting in a little courtroom. He took to New Journalism (or literary journalism or gonzo journalism or parajournalism or whatever journalism), after years of playing with the ideas and tendencies. He was covering a hot-rod and custom car show in New York City. It should have been a dull story. Car shows—along with animal shows and old men’s hobbies and drunk driving charges and local fires—are for the cub reporters, the young punk who still needs to show he can handle a story. Wolfe looked at the car show and found a subculture. On the way to a story, a typical story written too many times, Wolfe found humanity and in the discovery found a way to render humanity in newspaper ink.

Wolfe wrote of LSD trippers, Manhattan high-class groupies, tough astronauts, rock tycoons, teenage lovers, high-powered real estate brokers, stockbrokers, meat packers, and politicians. Wolfe wrote of all them, using the medium of journalism and the technique of realistic novel. Recognizing the natural drama of life, Wolfe—and the others that took the same style—transported the techniques of fiction into feature writing. They built the stories scene by scene, recorded full dialogues with all the variances of speech and thus involving the reader in the nature of the character, introducing the narrator to the story, and recording everyday gestures.

The techniques are interesting, but they aren’t the key to New Journalism—the thing about New Journalism, the thing that made it “new” and the thing about it that was really old, was putting people on the page. This was the thing that every feature writer in every paper in every town wanted to do but couldn’t get past stories that were all syrup and the novel. The feature writers and an awful lot of the news writers were looking at the newspaper as a motel, as Wolfe put it, a stopover to build up some experience and work the fat of your writing while you prepared to write The Novel. But, Tom Wolfe showed the world that humanity doesn’t need The Novel, all it needs is a few more inches and black ink and a good eye for detail. Then it will come spilling onto the page—lazy, aggressive, weeping, grinning, laughing, playing, waving its hands and doing all the things that make it human, right their on the printed page.

Thursday, April 18, 2002

Carter fails to appear for sentencing
Student admits guilt; plea bargain would have reduced charges

By Daniel Silliman
Collegian Staff Writer

Hillsdale College student and former basketball player Edward James Carter, 23, failed to appear in court Wednesday for sentencing.

Failure to appear in court could result in a contempt of court charge. It is not clear how the failure to appear will affect the plea bargain.

Originally facing five felonies and one misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of 21 years imprisonment, prosecutors agreed to drop the felonies if Carter, a Detroit native who finished his course work in December and planned to graduate in May, pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana and assuming false pretenses, the business equivalent to perjury.

The sentence recommended by the probation officer for the reduced charges was one month imprisonment and a suspended license for 18 months.

Before graduating Carter will have to fulfill all civil requirements in addition to the school requirements he has already met.

Carter was arrested on March 9 when he visited the room of Adam Schaper, who the police were talking to at the time about the possibility that Schaper’s credit cards had been stolen. When the police interviewed Carter they found the two credit cards belonging to Schaper, a baggie of marijuana, and Zig-Zag rolling paper in his pockets.

In a handwritten statement Carter confessed to stealing two credit cards from Schaper and buying alcohol with one card and attempting to buy two gold chains and a bracelet, costing $1,482, from Meyer’s Jewel Box.

Carter returned to campus with $600 to pay the college money he owed them so he could graduate in May, he said. He stayed the night at an off-campus house. Saturday morning, Carter wrote, he drank vodka and stopped by Simpson to see some friends, suite mates of Schaper. He stepped into Schaper’s room to see if his friends were in there. No one was there and the two credit cards were on a shelf.

Carter took them.

“This was not planned,” Carter wrote. “Didn’t know what to do with the cards. So I went to the jewerly (sic.) store to purchase jewerly (sic).”

When interviewed by police Carter told them he had bought the two cards for $300 from a stranger at the jewelry store, court documents say. The officer told Carter he thought Carter was lying and wanted to hear the real story.

The officer told Carter an armed robbery had taken place in Jackson and the suspect was seen driving from the scene in a vehicle identical to Carter’s, a white four-door Buick. Under pressure Carter changed his story and wrote out the statement describing how he came upon the credit cards and, without thinking, took them.

Clerks at Meyer’s Jewel Box grew suspicious after “a tall black man” started to sign his name Edward Carter, crossed it out and wrote Schaper. When asked for more identification Carter decided not to buy the jewelry and the store manager called the police, giving them a description of Carter, including details of his tattoo and his clothing.

The prosecution agreed to drop the felonies for the lesser charge if Carter pleaded guilty to the lesser charges Wednesday.

Carter’s lawyer, Hillsdale resident Jack Barker, suggested Wednesday to the judge that Carter was having car trouble or was stuck in traffic. Barker said in court he was unable to contact his client but his office had sent Carter a notice of the court appointment in addition to the court’s notice.

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

The End of the Soul and the Cold Emptiness of Science:
The dilemmas of the modern in the choice between reason and faith

By Daniel Silliman
April 17, 2002

The 20th century saw the maturation of Modernism, man turning to science for explanations of the world around him and seeing faith as irrelevant. Theology and religion, central to all the understanding and all of life to the pre-modern man, is lost for the modern turning to science. Faith is no longer integrated with the reason, in the tradition of Aquinas; now the two are seen as competing for exclusive dominance. Knowledge has deprived man of his faith; God and knowledge of God has become of no importance. Modern man has stuck his head outside the inverted bowl of order, seen the functioning chaos of the universe, and found he did not need God. The cosmos runs distinct of and independent from a sovereign Being, and God is painfully irrelevant. In this departure from faith, this retreat of God from the world, man has lost the things that made him human. Man, in the modern world of reason, logic, and the ultimate judge of science, has lost poetry, myth, and religion. In the modern world man has gained a mind and lost a soul. He seemingly faces two options: he must choose his mind or his soul. If he chooses his mind he looses poetry, myth, and religion—the things that make him human. If he chooses his soul he looses logic, science, and rationality—his ability to know and his reason for belief. History has placed the two in conflict, and men must either accept or reject modernism, seeing no other options. This is the dilemma of man in American society in the beginning of the 20th century, he must choose between reason and faith, science and theology, modernism and anti-modernism.

Joeseph Wood Krutch, writing in 1929 on the challenges faced by modern Americans, said that the progress of knowledge has carried man into this dilemmas with no way to turn back (420). Man has been taken by his intellect, his pursuit of knowledge, and moved himself from a place of comfortable ignorance to uncomfortable—even destructive—knowledge. Krutch wrote: “Thus man seems caught in a dilemma which his intellect has devised. Any deliberately managed return to a state of relative ignorance, however desirable it might be argued to be, is obviously out of the question” (420). Our knowledge, our intellectual curiosity has slowly and gradually deprived us of our God, and allows us no return. God had, for the ancient man, had complete and sovereign direction of the universe. With the Copernican and Newtonian revolutions God retreated, surrendering his complete direction of the cosmos for the modified role of Uncaused Cause, the Clockmaker, or the Author of natural laws. The men of the early 20th century saw God loosing even this modified and limited role. Darwinism forced the final step of God’s retreat. Krutch described the retreat and man’s uneasiness of man watching God loose all significance:

God, instead of disappearing in an instant, has retreated step by step and surrendered gradually his control of the universe. Once he decreed the fall of every sparrow and counted the hairs upon every head; a little later he became merely the original source of the laws of nature, and even to-day there are thousands who, unable to bear the thought of losing him completely, still fancy that they can distinguish the uncertain outlines of a misty figure. But the role which he plays grows less and less, and man is left more and more alone in a universe to which he is completely alien (471).

The lessening relevance and significance of God in the universe leaves man alien, alone in a world he does not know and cannot cope with. God has exited the scene and man is left with the emptiness. Science, reason and the pursuit of knowledge, has stripped the world of myth and poetry. Man now sees clearly but he sees a world he does not want to live in, deprived of the things that made him human. The world he had lived in and the world he now saw were, Krutch claimed, irreconcilable (416). The orderly world was destroyed and man was left with the maddening emptiness and pointlessness: “For the cozy bowl of the sky arched in a protecting curve above him he must exchange he cold immensities of space, and, for the spiritual order which he has designed, the chaos of nature” (416). Modernism presented man a world without an order or a greater purpose; it deprived him of a soul, of anything making him human. Man, accepting the progress to the early 20th century, lost his soul—his faith, his poetry, his myths. “The mind leaps,” Krutch wrote of the barren landscape of modernism, “[b]ut the world of modern science is one in which the intellect alone can rejoice” (419). Man didn’t know how to cope with the new, barren, and empty world. Deprived of God (417), order (417), and ethics (418), he has nothing to stand on, nothing to bolster his humanness. Man is a still lover, Krutch explained (419), yet he believed that love was no more than a function of the intricacies of psychology. Man wanted to, and attempted to, maintain his society while the ground beneath everything dear was lost.

The trial of John Thomas Scopes trial, famously named the “Monkey Trial” and characterized in the play Inherit the Wind, was the meeting of modernists embracing science as it deprived them of faith and poetry and the anti-modernists rejecting reason that they might retain their past. The Scopes trial was the long and public debate the past and the future, faith and reason, science and poetry. The trial was a weighing of faith and reason, determining which would be subjugated and which would be elevated. The anti-modernists failed the debate and theology was placed under science. The Bible is privatized, reduced to the sphere of personal opinions or convictions and excluded from the public. Malone tells Bryan, the court, the audience, and the listening world that they should not discard their Bible in this new future that is upon them:
And we say “keep your Bible.” Keep it as your consolation, keep it as your guide, but keep it where it belongs, in the world of your own conscience, in the world of your individual judgment, in the world of the Protestant conscience that I heard so much about when I was a boy, keep your Bible in the world of theology, where it belongs, and do not try to tell an intelligent world and the intelligence of this country that these books written by men who knew none of the accepted fundamental facts of science can be put into a course of science (408).

The Bible, faith, and theology must be, according to Darrow and Malone, subject to science (406). The poetic and mythical beliefs of man from an earlier, pre-scientific age can be kept, if we cannot do without them, privately where they will not influence anything.

The American philosopher William James, a Darwinist proposing “easy-going ethics,” with his theories sliding into an American version of nihilism (Reader 380), pronounced the triumph of science and the end of the conflict (James 385). Science has explained the world and Theism has lost: “Darwinism has once for all displace design from the minds of the ‘scientific,’ theism has lost that foothold” (385). The triumph of science, the eradication of faith and poetry, creates a dilemma for modern man: keeping a mind but loosing his soul, retaining his reason but letting slip the things that make him distinctly human.

The dilemma of modern man, faced in the early 20th century and still with debated today, has been the conflict between faith and reason, pitting one against the other but not knowing what to do without either. Science seemed to have taken us beyond faith, leaving us in a void without foundations. Of course, the conception of the conflict, the two choices the only competing options, is oversimplified. This division is a false dichotomy. The spirit and tradition of Thomas Aquinas was not as dead as modernists and anti-modernists believed. Neither the side in the Scopes trial could have conceived of the recent work to rectify modern science and the Bible, or even the intelligent movement. The divisions between believers of science to the exclusion of poetry and the believers in poetry to the exclusion of science are still with us, but they are not all there is, those sides are not the only possible angles. The dilemma of modern man, as Krutch sees it, is a misreading of the ramifications of faith, myth, poetry, science, and reason. Faith is not the enemy of reason, nor is science the destruction of poetry. The medieval picture of the priest and scientists has not completely passed. The hope of synthesizing modern concepts of faith and reason, the 21st century Aquinas equivalent, is alive, present in our modern world.

Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Response to my paper (posted March 13) by Dr. Stephens:

"Grade: B

"Generally: there's a lot to like about the paper--which makes it the more unfortunate that you made things much more difficult for yourself that they needed to be. It's easy to get lost in the intricacies of Kant's argument, which is why you weren't asked to reconstruct it at all, let alone to try to reconstruct it in its entierty. It's hard to know how close to the mark you might have come had you limited yourself to the issue--whence the advice that next time you make very sure you know what question you're being asked and then limit yourself to answering it and it only."

In the first paper I didn't pay close enough attention to the text, now I completely reconstructed the arguements in the text (and he never said I misunderstood Kant, quite a feat with his contorted prose) but that I misunderstood the question. Overall it was a nice Dear John, letter. Maybe I'll try to deal with the question and the text next time.

March 29, 2002
Art Response: holding forth on my theory of art
Dear Dr. Arnn,

Thank you for your letter. I appreciate the way you have handled your disagreement with me both in our discussion and in your letter. The way you have responded reaffirms my choice in Hillsdale College. Even if we disagree I appreciate that this has been discussed with openness and reason.

You asked me how is art progressive and how progress is to be measured. I am afraid the answer will not be as brief as the question.

From my study of art history I understand art to be progressive in two ways. First, art is progressive in that the artist is seeking a new way to express his ideas. No artist worthy of the name seeks to replicate art of the past, to say the same things in the same way as they were said before. The artist produces his own work; he does not reproduce the work of the past. This has been called seeking the new metaphor. Whether expressing new or old ideas the expression is ever new, ever untried, and experimental. Picasso may be the quintessential example. Cubism tries to express more than had been expressed before. Cubist painters sought to depict all aspects of the object—sides, the profile, its position in space, its relation to other objects—and not just the prima facie appearance of the art. Whether or not you believe they should have tried to depict more, or if they succeeded or failed, the example is one of progressivism, trying to find a new way to express something, even something as apparently straightforward as a portrait. Second, art is progressive in that the great artists, almost without exception, change the genre in which they work. The only exception I am aware of in the history of recognized great artists is N.C. Wyeth. Among artists, Wyeth is the only one who is both great and didn’t either change his school of art or create a new one. Consider Rembrandt. He established his career by astonishing his clients, by doing something with his work that no one had done before. In Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, he breaks the traditions of the formal, stiff and evenly lit group portrait. Rembrandt violated these rules and won instant renown, establishing himself as a serious artist. Rembrandt is an example of both forms of progressivism in art. Rembrandt found a way to express himself as no one had been expressed before and he his changed the school of art.

The question naturally following, the one you asked, is in an ever-changing world of art, what makes a piece of art good? In order to answer this we have to deal with fundamental questions about the nature of art; we have to define it. It is hard to speak of art, what art is, and what makes it good, because it is so progressive. The definitions have always been nebulous and are being constantly pushed around and rearranged. Historically, definitions of art have been hard to come by. Last semester a presentation was given at Fairfield trying to determine a universal standard for good art. It is impossible to know what good art is, art that has succeeded in its purpose, when art itself is so ill defined. The presentation was disappointingly inconclusive, leaving one feeling that art is indefinable and good art is elusive. Following the presentation, I commented on the how the progressive, ever changing, nature of art (with artists establishing themselves by changing the genre or the field and by finding new ways of expressing their ideas) made classifications and definitions difficult.

In the following days I tried to find a broadened and simplified definition of art. I was looking for something that was “progress proof” and wouldn’t be overturned by the next new idea in the art world. I ignored the question of good art because I think good equals successful and success is defined by the definition. The definition I arrived at was: “Art is the expression of ideas through form.” This is similar to Hegel’s definition. He said, “Art is the fusion of idea and form.” I think we are saying the same thing as Hegel, but I am avoiding the convolution Hegel gets when he uses the word fusion. The word makes me think of physics with atoms and particles and explosions, so I avoided it. I think this definition is broad enough to encompass all breeds of artists and genres of art and withstand all changes in the field. I think the definition is broad enough to include Classical sculptors and Modernist and Postmodernist painters. Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, Michelangelo’s David, Picasso’s cubist portraits, Rembrandt’s Night Watch, and Piss Christ all fall under this definition of art no mater how great or poor we personally think these works are. This definition is the only competent definition I have found and deals with the issues of art and good art sufficiently.

This definition separates the ideas and the expression of the ideas. The artist seeks to express ideas with his work, thus his success can be gauged by the quality of the expression. Inherent in this definition of art is the concept of successful art, good art, being the art that clearly expresses the ideas of the artist through the work.
Warhol’s art was supposed to express the idea lack of beauty in the modern world, the ugliness and conformity of a disposable pop culture. When I or another conservative respond to Warhol’s Brillo Boxes as trash we are getting what he intended, understanding, if in a limited way, Warhol’s idea. This means, using my definition of art, this is good art, that is, his ideas have been successfully expressed through the form. Of course I think his ideas are lousy and thus I do not prize his art, but I am making a distinction between good ideas and ideas expressed well. When we spoke over lunch I used the example of Mario Cuomo’s speech to the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. While I disagreed with almost every phrase and certainly every idea he expressed, it was the best speech I have ever heard. I only mentioned Piss Christ in a passing reference in a single line of my opinion piece. I was trying to discount the objection that offensiveness was only a component of modern work and support the claim that art has often or always been controversial. In mentioning the crucifix inverted in a jar of urine I found myself on wrong side of an intense culture war. I have had many second thoughts about mentioning the work and probably could have won a few more readers to my point of view if I had seen fit to cut that seven-word sentence. Nevertheless, I can and have defended Piss Christ as good art. Given the above definition, art is the expression of ideas through form, then in gauging art we must look at its success in expressing the ideas of the artist. Using the example of Piss Christ, the idea of the artist is very clearly portrayed. Men have hated God since the fall. I know of no clearer portrayal of man’s hatred toward God than Piss Christ. As such it is good art, as good as anything created by Michelangelo. It is blasphemous and it is depraved, but it is a clear and distinct expression of these ideas. The cultural battles over art, as seen in the controversy about Piss Christ, have been misplaced. We must confront the ideas expressed and not the expression. For me to attach Mario Cuomo’s speech on oratorical grounds would be ridiculous. His speech was fine even though his ideas were awful. The battle is over the ideas, not the expression of the ideas.

You asked if art should be measured by its conformity to or offense against popular opinion. I don’t believe either option is correct. Art is not politics and should not be dealt with on a democratic or aristocratic measure. Art, to be successful, should be a clear expression of an idea. Neither offense nor agreement is a good measures of artistic quality. At the same time, art cannot weigh into the ideological war without causing some to agree and others to disagree. If art is expressing something then some people will take issue (or one side has already won the ideological conflict). Many have interpreted my article to read that offensiveness equals good art. I don’t mean that and don’t believe I said that. However, enough people have interpreted my opinion piece in this manner that I wish I had taken more time to clarify the point in my original piece. I do not believe in offense for offense sake, but it is certainly part of the war of ideas. As Hillsdale has been fond of saying, ideas have consequences. Piss Christ is a prime case. As a Christian, I believe this ideological battle is the battle of history. Man’s relationship to God and God’s law is the implicit question of all other ideological questions. Piss Christ is the clear and distinct depiction of one sides claim in this argument. No idea has greater consequence than the ideas expressed by that piece of art. The counter art to Piss Christ, the crucifix, expressing the opposite claim, is also offensive. The death of Christ is offensive to everyone in rebellion against God. The art is not good because it is offensive but is offensive because it clearly expresses an important idea.

You said your concern in this matter was in my ideas and my education. I hope you see that though my opinion piece was provocative and aggressive, it was not unfounded. The dialogue I have had in response to my piece has been a good education. In defending my points, I have expanded my knowledge of art and its history. Disagreement, argument, and dialogue are a solid and beneficial part of a liberal arts education that I am actively partaking in here at Hillsdale.

I apologize for the length of this letter. I have attempted to be clear and thorough, and that seemed to require me to broaden the issue and fill in the surrounding landscape. I will be speaking on art at the Fairfield society on Monday, April 15 and would like to invite you to that presentation. I definitely welcome any further discussion in any forum that will best accommodate our dialogue.
May God bless you and your family,

Daniel Silliman


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