Tuesday, January 6, 2009

John Crowe Ranson: A Sad, Strange Little Man

Bierce Ambrose once said that, "A conservative is one who is enamored with existing evils. A liberal wishes to replace them with new ones."

One conservative "enamored with existing [or formerly existing] evils" was undoubtedly John Crowe Ransom. Before I trash him, I should point out that I did agree with him on one issue: that if a liberal, or "progressive," were to actually find Utopia, they would then have to protect it from all programs of change. That would make them conservative. It's an interesting paradox, one that demonstrates the fluidity of labels.

Yet Ransom is also, I feel, guilty of grotesquely misrepresenting an archaic and repressive culture. The man was a literary critic, and his essay "Reconstructed but Unregenerate" (originally part of the 1930 manifesto I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition) makes the mistake of trying to see the world through the lens of such literary and artistic modes as sentimentalization, elegaic reminiscing, and the Gothic romance of ancient and ruined grandeur, which he seemed to think was somehow attractive in real life. I get the feeling that, instead of actual historical and political research, Ransom simply read a few antebellum Southern plantation romances, was utterly entranced by the language and the evocation of mood and setting, and decided that these were accurate portrayals of Southern life before the Civil War. When Ransom asserted that slavery was "human in practice" I wanted to shove Frederick Douglass' autobiography The Life of an American Slave under his nose. That book affected me even more than Elie Wiesel's Night. (No, I didn't like Night. Yes, I do have a soul.) Not for nothing did one of my English professors advise us against obtaining our political views from poets by pointing out that Ezra Pound once mistakenly and misguidedly believed he could do for Benito Mussolini what Walt Whitman did for Abraham Lincoln.

(Hey Ransom! What about that whole lynching thing?)

Furthermore, Ransom looks to Europe, specifically England, as an example. But we do not live in Europe, genius! You see, young John, different peoples have different cultures and values. This diversity is a virtue. To try to make everyone the same is a very bad idea. Not only would resistance be fierce, but even if by some miracle you did achieve it, the world would be extremely boring. Honestly, Ransom's romantic notion of an "establishment" culture is really quite sad. As Immanuel Kant puts it better than I ever could in his essay "What is Enlightenment?":
But would not a society of clergymen . . . be justified in obliging itself by oath to a certain unchangeable symbol in order to enjoy an unceasing guardianship over each of its memebrs and thereby over the people as a whole, and even to make itself eternal? I answer that this is altogether impossible. Such a contract, made to shut of all further enlightenment of the human race, is absolutely null and void even if confirmed by the supreme power . . . An age cannot bind itself and ordain to put the succeeding one into such a condition that it cannot extend its (at very best occasional) knowledge, purify itself of errors, and progress in general enlightenment. That would be a crime against human nature, the proper destination of which lies precisely in this progress; and the descendants would be fully justified in rejecting those decrees has having been made in an unwarranted and malicious manner.
First off, Kant and all his fellow Enlightenment thinkers came from such cultures as Ransom wholeheartedly desired: ancient, established, fixed, resistant to change. If such a culture is to be preferred, then why this outburst of discontent in the eighteenth century? Come to think of it, Kant, Voltaire, Rousseau are even older than Southern culture. Doesn't that make them even more established than antebellum aristocracy?

Luckily, Ransom eventually saw the light at least somewhat and ditched the whole agrarian movement thing. He admitted at the beginning of "Reconstructed but Unregenerate" that the "unreconstructed Southerner" is a political and social outsider, and all I can say is, thank God!


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