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The Beastly Life And

The Life Of Art


Kilby Austin

The Author’s Journal of Inventive Literature releases its first ever issue on this day, the first day of autumn. The issue has as its title and theme, ‘The Life of Beasts.’ Our contributors around the world offer new and thoughtful reflections in range as broad as the theme, from factual zoological accounts to weird and wild fantasies to serious spiritual musings. Everyone who has worked to bring you this exciting new journal has been enriched and challenged in considering the kingdom of beasts and what its subjects have to say to us, their fellows and superiors.


For it is a truism that men are the superiors of beasts as so-called ‘rational animals.’ There is in us that faculty of reasoning self-consciousness which sets us apart from the beasts, called in Christendom the imago Dei. Halfway between the gods and the animals, we are spirit incarnate, earth ennobled. We are homo sapiens.


One of the chief evidences of this is the fact of art and literature. As long as history yields us memory, we have used our reasonable intellect to produce more than practicality; this is called imagination. Imagination has taken form in images and stories and songs as long as men have walked beneath the sun, and by imagination we have explored creation, each other, and the supernatural, transcending the meanness and mundanity of life.


What I intend to consider in this brief essay is a tragedy that occurs when the very thing that elevates and ennobles us––art––becomes the means of our degradation. I would like to ask the question whether it is possible for us, by this very means, to become in a way lower than the beasts when our capacity for image, story, and song is abused. And then I would like to propose the putting of the thing right, the restoring of the artistic capacity to its proper purpose, which is the dignification of human beings.


It has been my observation that much of modern literature (which includes art, music, modern poetry and fiction, film, and the television industry) rather than imaginatively considering what elevates us above the beasts, fixates on what we have in common with the beasts––namely, sex, food, and territorial domination. Choose any recently produced television comedy and watch for any plot or joke which does not have to do with sexuality or greed. Popular entertainment is not significantly different in content from elite art in the modern world, though the mode of expression may vary. The focus of much modern poetry is the ordinary, if not the straightforwardly base (e.g., Guy Longchamps’ O Luxury).


This is a marked departure from tradition. The aesthetic philosopher Roger Scruton claims that ‘Art once made a cult of beauty. Now we have a cult of ugliness instead.’ Human art has forever been used, as I have said, as a means of transcendence. The subjects considered by our most honoured artists, poets, and musicians have been love, virtue, valour, noble suffering, the defeat of evil, and redemption. By means of the beautiful portrayal and elevated contemplation of these ideals in art, we are meant to grow spiritually and become equipped to improve the world around us. We find consolation in our pain, escape from the drudgery of the daily mundane, and faith in a world greater and more perfect than the world we experience in our flesh.


But where are those subjects now? Love has been degraded to mere animal lust; virtue is scoffed at; both valour and the nobility of suffering are irrelevant in a world of trigger warnings, micro-aggressions, and self-help therapies; both evil’s defeat and the redemptive triumph of the good are irrelevant in an age of moral relativism. In this climate, any art or literature that strives to dwell on anything better than toilet humour is seen as pretentious and preachy. It seems that we hate ourselves.


What is the effect of this departure? Hear Scruton: ‘Take away religion, take away philosophy, take away the higher aims of art, and you deprive ordinary people of the ways in which they can represent their apartness. Human nature, once something to live up to, becomes something to live down to instead. Biological reductionism nurtures this “living down”, which is why people so readily fall for it. It makes cynicism respectable and degeneracy chic. It abolishes our kind, and with it our kindness.’


Is it possible that, as I have proposed, our abuse of art has actually put us below the lower order of the beasts?


Animals fully live up to their abilities. They simply are what they should be, unless stricken by disease or crippled by cruel captivity. Their concerns for survival and pleasure are always good and proper because they have no other concerns. Predators prey, grazers graze, winged things fly, and excavators burrow through the ground: all is as it should be. This world of beasts has fascinated human observers for millennia. How many ancient proverbs teach wisdom from the behaviour of animals? Go to the ant, you sluggard! Watch the ways of the animal kingdom, learn them, adapt and improve them. How much of our modern technology has been learned from the observation of beasts? How much wonder and joy is derived from watching the splendour, curiousness, or tenuity of beasts? So humans are capable of learning from and copying creatures of less capacity than ourselves, of taking their beastliness and imbuing it with the nobility of our own humanity. We can even transform them, through imagination and even to a degree through training, into creatures more like us.


But we are also capable of degrading ourselves when we cease to learn from and enjoy the world around us and begin to impose baseness on it. While animals are ruled by instinct to do unthinking what they ought to, humans, able to rule over their own instincts with reason, thinkingly do what they ought not to do––and then use the literary and artistic capacity to obsess over these misdeeds. Art, which is supposed to be transcendent, spiritual, becomes merely a tool for the crude titillation of their vicious desires or the destruction of their virtues. Rather than fully living up to our abilities as humans in the imago Dei, we have used those very abilities to disable ourselves. Goodness and love of neighbour dwindle away as unnecessary or impossible. Invention erodes or revolves on the useless or destructive. Exploring and learning seem too much work. Even our own emotions are too daunting to indulge. Art, in its creation and enjoyment, is a disappointment. We become lazier and lazier, more and more morose. We sit like an idiot in the corner, fiddling with ourselves.


This, I think, is what occurs in so much of modern art. It is extremely introspective, but not as a consideration of inner human worth. It is the deconstruction of every indication of our worth. It is, again to quote Scruton, ‘an elaborate joke, one which by now has ceased to be funny.’ It fixates––for one may not say that it elevates, for nothing may be elevated in the contemporary mindset––on our animal urges to the exclusion of the rational and the subjugation of the will. Surely this is a worse condition than simply to be an animal!


If a departure has caused this condition, the cure must involve a return. At some point we must wake up and remember what we are, who we are, and put away our idiot entertainments and our elitist illusions. At the same time, we must wake up to the world around us, filled as it is with wisdom, significance, and beauty, offering itself always to the invention of beautiful, significant, and wise art and literature. This first issue of our Journal is something of a project in this. We follow in the ancient paths of observing our fellow beasts while conscious that we are fellows, too, of the gods. The ennoblement and enjoyment available to us in this proper use of art and the imagination is immense. We trust our readers may experience this as well.

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