Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Offsite Post: ‘The Concern for Beauty in the South’

In the last essay, we spoke only briefly about the Southern commitment to beauty, which is in contradistinction to the general American culture of ugliness.  This commitment was not one of the abstract and theoretical kind, however.  It manifested itself in the objects that Southerners crafted for use in their everyday lives:  homes, gardens, furniture, and so on, and also in manners, dancing, oratory, literature, etc.  To give one example:

--Longwood Plantation, Natchez, Mississippi.  Photo of Carol Highsmith, https://www.architecturaldigest.com/gallery/plantation-style-houses-architecture/all

One of the foremost promoters in Dixie of the need for beauty in society was William Gilmore Simms of South Carolina (d. 1870).  Dr Clyde Wilson says of him,

Unlike the more famous Southern writer, the short-lived Edgar Allan Poe, Simms wrote voluminously and in every literary form: short story, novel, poetry, criticism, essay, history, and biography. Though his work has sometimes been considered uneven in quality, he often wrote superbly. Poe said that Simms was one of the best American writers of the time and that if he had had the self-promotion machinery of the New England literati his name would be a household word.

Does this great representative of high Southern culture still have anything valuable to say to his Southern kinsmen, or any other seekers after beauty and her handmaidens, today?  He certainly does.  One of the best places to begin is Lecture I of his three-part oration delivered in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1854, Poetry and the Practical (James Kibler, Jr., edr., U of Ark. Press, 1996).  Very near the beginning he gives a stark warning against the domination of life by its material aspect alone:

The result of all this achievement, as well in our case as in that of England, is to exaggerate in the national estimate as it did with the Assyrian, the Roman and the Macedonian, the merit of mere material acquisition.  . . .  Indulging but a single great appetite, it swallows up the rest. Sworn only to the acquisition of material things, we ignore all the endowments of the soul. In just that degree in which the one passion prevails, will be the absorption of all other attributes. They perish from non user; and the nation living thus, dies out and must die out, so soon as the waters roll back upon them—from that moment when the Genius of the people falters in the one exercise, in which it is no longer possible to advance. Here was the simple secret of Roman and Assyrian overthrow. They had but a single aim—acquisition—the spread of their empire—the seizure of foreign realms. The same passion, which, in Society, whets cunning, sharpens avarice, prompts strife and fraud, and a gnawing hunger for a neighbour's gains, is, in the case of nations, the mother of war! To this, all the wars that have vexed the world are due. The arts, the liberal exercises that delight in peace, are the only corrections of this insane appetite, and for these the people had no sympathy. The fruits of evil grew from the deficiency, leaving the one wild passion wholly in the ascendant. With this passion the tyranny had birth which ground its own people with taxation—and savaged other nations with war (pgs. 8-9).

A little later, he rejoins this theme but begins to trace a bit of the path we should walk:

We are all quite too easily persuaded of the perfection of those possessions which meet the mere wants of appetite. Our efforts, if made, are simply to multiply our treasures. Having conquered many lands we would conquer more. Having gathered much gold, we only know increasing desires for more. The appetite grows from what it feeds on! We degrade the Genius of the race into a drudge, and subject the conqueror to the labours of the miner. This, in all ages, has been the fatal error. Is it not so with ours. Have we not set our hearts upon merely external conditions? Seeking show, rather than strength;—wealth, rather than the soul's elevation—demanding power for its own sake, rather than its uses, and suffering the brave Genius to whom we owe so much, to forego all the higher uses of his wing. Our pride is much more delighted with the extent than the beauty of our dominion. We ask of Genius only those agencies by which to extend our sway. We ask of art only farther facilities for gain. All our tests of merit are those which we mistakenly consider the only useful, and our applauses are accorded to him only who shall open to us new fields of material conquest. Such is the master passion of our race! (p. 15)

Then he states more clearly the aims mankind should have:

 . . . so lift your hearts, and purge your eyes, as that you shall attain glimpses of the ineffable glories that gush in living music from the throne of the great God himself."—But we laugh at the visionary promise. What attraction is there for us, in spiritual beauties and golden harmonies, if they be celestial only. The voices of desire in our hearts do not echo to such a promise—and we answer querulously—"None of these things at present. Gold now, and Land. No matter how vast the territory, I have stomach for it all. It shall be spanned with railroads; it shall be scorched with steam. For the gold, I have measureless coffers, endless uses, and an appetite that never knows content." The benevolent Genius mournfully responds—"It is I that have given thee all these things. The time is come when thy desires should open upon better things! Wouldn't thou not have something for the soul?" "No! No! Not just yet. The soul can wait!" And the good Genius departs—flies the service which rejects his better uses, and denies him the exercise of that nobler wing, which might circle the empire with impassable barriers against which the foe would fling himself in vain. "The soul can wait!" (pgs. 15-6)

But how do we strengthen the soul?  Mr Simms’s answer is to feed it with beauty:

 . . .


Holy Ælfred the Great, King of England, South Patron, pray for us sinners at the Souð, unworthy though we are!

Anathema to the Union!

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