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The Race To Unimportance Hugo on Genius

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Conservatives and the Creative Impulse: Part I

by Christopher Chantrill
February 11, 2005 at 5:17 pm

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WHAT A DIFFERENCE a year makes! A year ago Americans were digesting the rude, crude Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” of Janet Jackson. This year, twenty-something guys are sniggering over the Go Daddy Girl’s troublesome bra-strap. A year ago America got hit in the solar plexus with mindless “challenge” art. This year we got a satirical $2.5 commercial from GoDaddy.com that sashayed provocatively up to the line but not over it. (Warning: parental discretion advised here)

It is vital for conservatives to understand the difference between the bared breast and the broken bra-strap. By understanding the difference and acting on it we can win the culture war.

Raunchy TV goes back to the Sixties, “do your own thing,” and the so-called creative revolution in advertising. It made a cult out of transgression, “challenging” the conformist society of the Fifties and the Organization Man. But the cult of creativity goes back at least to Freud at the turn of the twentieth century. That’s why you’ll still hear artists and writers witnessing to the world how the scales fell off their eyes when they read Freud.

Freud’s psychology may seem to conservative Americans as a sudden, irrational outburst from Teutonic Europe. But his psychology develops naturally out of Kant’s conscious ego, Fichte’s impulsive ego, Hegel’s stage theory of consciousness, and Schopenhauer’s theory of repression. The key link in this chain is Fichte, because he isolates the key factor in human knowledge: humans.

How does knowledge come into the world? Descartes thought that knowledge came from a scientist making logical inferences from known indubitable facts to a necessary theory. But Fichte showed that facts are dead, and dead men tell no tales. It is the free imaginative act of the scientist that breathes life into facts to create a new theory. And that act comes from impulse: “All our thought is founded on our impulses,” he wrote. It was surely Fichte that gave the great generation from Einstein to Heisenberg permission to think the unthinkable and shock the world with modern physics.

Of course Fichte’s discovery applied not just to scientists. Artists and writers were delighted to think the unthinkable—and do it too. A century later, Freud taught the young artist to regard his dreams as a holy font of impulse welling up from the unconscious id and to fear that repressing it would lead to neurosis.

For the middle-class conservative, this all seems crazy. Without the restraint of rules, the impulsive ego becomes an unguided missile. The names of Hitler, Mao, and Castro come to mind. Rules and traditions are not repression, but society’s wise defense-in-depth against unrestrained egos and their destructiveness. And so conservatives brush Freud aside.

But rejecting German psychology means keeping on stage the psychology of Locke and Hume, an ageing act, any German will tell you, that lost its top billing when Kant awoke from his dogmatic slumber over 200 years ago. Locke and Hume laid the foundations of our miraculous constitution and gave a philosophical foundation to the Protestant culture of self-government that was the glory of colonial New England. But Kant cut the ground out from under them with a startling idea that resolved an argument that went back to Plato and Aristotle: Was the real world the ultimate reality, or was it the world of ideas? Kant said, simply, that we couldn’t tell. All we can know are appearances; we can never know “things-in-themselves.”

The Germans should have run the British empiricists off the stage there and then, but they didn’t. Instead they had a wardrobe malfunction. The slipup was made by Fichte and extends through Nietzsche, Freud, Sartre and all their postmodern adepts in a thousand universities, arts communities, and movies—and by cultural osmosis down to third-rate talents like Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake. As we have seen, they conceived of the genius as an impulsive ego beyond the rules. “No more rules... Genius conjures up rather than learns,” said Victor Hugo. It is the great achievement of the postmodernists to have added a corollary to this theorem. Rules are a mask for power.

It is precisely on this that conservatives take their stand athwart history, yelling “Stop!” And they are right. Rules are not a mask for power, but a defense-in-depth against power.

Conservatives need something more than a stop sign. They need a model of consciousness that can dish Fichte, Freud, and the cult of the transgressive genius by offering something better. It would extol instead the creative ego, the hero that transcends and includes the rules that have served us so well instead of trashing them.

Can conservatives create such a theory? Or perhaps has someone already developed one? Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion of “Conservative and the Creative Impulse.”

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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