The Triumph of the Literal Mind - Intercollegiate Studies Institute: Think. Live Free.

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.

Read the rest over at the American Conservative.

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