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Artillery Row

Political correctness contra aesthetics

Public life is becoming uglier, duller and more soul-destroying

I’ll give you two choices. Which of the following pieces of writing strikes you as more powerfully and thoughtfully crafted as a piece of literature?

You start to die the moment you are born. The whole of life is cutting through the pack with death. So take it easy. Light a cigarette and be grateful you are still alive as you suck the smoke deep into your lungs. Your stars have already let you come quite a long way since you left your mother’s womb and whimpered at the cold air of the world.

Or …

Birkett was an ex-Tory MP, famous for promoting covid/vaccines/mask-wearing/5G conspiracy theories, which had spilled over into the usual anti-immigrant, anti-EU, anti-BBC, anti-MSM, anti-cultural Marxist, Climate Change Denial pronouncements.

The first extract is taken from Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die, as the heroic James Bond contemplates the transiency and fragility of life on this cruel earth. The second is from the novelist Charlie Higson’s pale imitation of the original Bond — a reincarnation in which Fleming’s womanising, boozing, thrill-seeking secret service operative is transformed into something more akin to an overpaid diversity, equity and inclusion professional working in a local council.

Aside from the tiresome, low-grade and boring depiction of an “evil conservative”, what struck me most about the modern Bond novel is simply how shit it is as writing. Putting politics to one side, such crimes against literature, which achieve nothing apart from descending into didacticism and symbolism of the most simplistic and tedious kind, prompt the question: is it even possible for literature to be both woke and beautifully written?

The evidence suggests this is unlikely to say the least. whenever a piece of literature is rewritten to make it “more inclusive” or “less offensive”, it always gets worse. Think about the recent reworking of the Roald Dahl novels. Pettier amendments include the changing of James and the Giant Peach’s “Cloud-Men” to the much clumsier and less rhythmic “Cloud-People”. Then there’s The Witches and more intrusive revisions, such as the absurd addition that now accompanies Dahl’s description of his sorceresses. A paragraph that reveals the villains as being bald underneath their wigs is now — oh so subtly — caveated with the politically correct disclaimer: “there are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.” How poetic.

This trend is also evident in other, non-literary contexts. Footballers are no longer presented with “Man of the Match” awards but the inclusive equivalent, “Player of the Match”. The latter doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue in the same way as its evocative, alliterative predecessor — but then even the most basic literary techniques must always be surrendered in pursuit of the more noble goal of inclusivity and diversity.

Does this say something important about the woke movement? For one, there’s the argument that bad writing is often the result of bad thinking. As the novelist Christopher Isherwood once remarked: “bad writing is bad not just because the language is humdrum, but the quality of the observation is so poor.” Whilst it would be a logical leap to suggest that one inevitably follows the other, bad thinking is likely to be part of the problem.

Artists used to see beauty as an antidote to the suffering of life

There’s also the (perhaps scarier) possibility that this isn’t just an accidental consequence of shoddy thinking. What if it’s deliberate? One does get this sense whenever encountering somebody who insists on using gratingly woke language (the ridiculous “Latinx” term is one of the most annoying for me) that comes naturally to nobody. Perhaps it’s about power: the ascendant politically correct managerial class imposing its tedium and gracelessness on the rest of us, simply because it can.

Taking this argument one step further, their dogged insistence on using such language and disregard for literary beauty might reveal something sad about how they perceive their societies at large. The late Sir Roger Scruton frequently used to make a similar point in the context of art and architecture.

Sir Roger argued that modernist art and brutalist architecture is uglier than, say, renaissance paintings because contemporary artists no longer believe beauty to be something worth striving towards. Whilst artists used to see beauty as an antidote to the suffering of life, the modern “cult of ugliness” is about simply displaying the chaos and randomness of the human experience. The implication is that the world is intrinsically meaningless and the human experience irredeemably bad.

Consciously or otherwise, are such feelings driving the politically correct mob as they continue to obsess over the crimes of our desperately unjust society that is hurtling inevitably towards climate catastrophe? Do they therefore see no value or meaning in beauty and consider a “cult of ugliness” more apt for our times? It’s hard to know for sure, but there does seem to be something terribly fatalistic in the motivations of those who seek to de-beautify literature and the world more generally.

Whatever the root cause, there’s little doubt that the English-speaking world is becoming an uglier, duller, more soul-destroying place. The diminishing amount of beauty in our written and spoken word is a sad testament to a society that appears to have lost all confidence in everything it used to value.

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