Cross as Two Sticks
I’ve been re-reading Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s Southern Honor and W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South. Wyatt-Brown wrote the introduction to a new edition of Cash’s book in 1991 – and a very good introduction it is. I particularly like this comment (p. xxxvi):
We need to appreciate how the malady from which he suffered [depression] contributed to his special vision of the South…and provided the seemingly necessary sense of alienation and distance that the subject required. We must also ask ourselves this question: ‘If he had been less angry with himself and his surroundings, if he had lived the ordinary life of a newspaper reporter, how likely was it that he could have broken away, as he did, from the traditions of his childhood and discovered the underlying forces that had so long bedeviled the white South’s ethical history?’
How likely indeed. That’s a subject that interests me a lot: how entangled our ideas, thoughts, political views and commitments are with sub-rational aspects of ourselves like temperament, personality, psychic health or its absence in general. How mottled and patched what we think of as cognitive choices are by emotions, reactions, habits, aversions and attractions. How dependent our principled, committed decisions may be on what seem like irrelevancies or even intrusions.
A friend remarked jokingly to me the other day that he is an iconoclast in an immature kind of way – anti-everything. Well of course you are, I thought and said. We wouldn’t be friends otherwise. I never am friendly with people who are too much at ease in Zion.
It’s perfectly true, I’m not. I tend to think there’s something actually wrong with people who never think there’s much of anything to get exasperated about. It’s a state of mind so alien to me that I can’t really imagine it very well. It’s like trying to imagine what it’s like to be a bat.
It’s the same problem Lizzy Bennett has with Jane in Pride and Prejudice, and that Emma has with Mr. Weston in her eponymous novel – he’s too agreeable, he won’t join her in her dislike of Mrs Elton, and in fact he’s so horribly agreeable that he ends up inviting Mrs Elton along on the trip to Box Hill, exactly what Emma didn’t want. It’s no good laughing, it is a problem. If you like me but you also like that awful person, what good is your liking me? If you like absolutely everyone indiscriminately, what good is that? Not everyone deserves to be liked, and nor does everything. Some institutions, ideas, systems are very terrible and have to be said to be terrible. People who are too comfortably embedded in them, too cheerful and placid and optimistic, may not be very good at seeing beyond them. Oppositionists, nay-sayers, mockers, satirists, teasers, even angry or noisy or irritating or boring ones, even ones who are wrong, are necessary. One doesn’t have to be depressed for that, fortunately; hostility and irritation will do just as well, if not better. In fact I for one find hostility and irritation the very opposite of depression – more like exhilaration really.
I wrote one of the first N&Cs on this subject back when B&W was an infant. How it’s grown since then. Here we are celebrating its second New Year, the dear creature. It has a slight tendency to iconoclasm too, one might say.