Tuesday, 4 August 2009

David Bromwich: 'How Moral Is Taste?'

Here is a close-up of Edmund Burke's statue in Bristol. Notice the (bullet?) holes, which are thought to have appeared during the early months of 2008. Whether they were made by a malcontent objecting to Burke's politics or philosophy, or just by a bored teenager who took advantage of a handy target, no one seems able to discover. One correspondent, at least, seemed to approve of the vandalism. Robspierre [sic] has claimed that 'Edmund Burke is rightly not liked in Bristol as he opposed the French Revolution and its ideals'. I spent many years working in Bristol, and never heard views expressed on Burke or on the French Revolution. I conclude that I was moving in the wrong circles.

That a man whose own writings anatomised the extremes of human emotion can still provoke such a response is a lovely irony. But just as it is too early to say what the consequences of the French Revolution will be, so Burke's legacy is still shaping modern debates about art and aesthetics. Burke is, for example, the inspiration for one of the best essays of our times: David Bromwich's 'How Moral Is Taste?', collected in his Skeptical Music. The book (and the first four pages of the essay) can be sampled here. Its readings of twentieth-century poetry are nigh-on flawless.

Skeptical Music devotes little time directly to war poetry. 'How Moral Is Taste?', the book's final essay, takes as its main literary example Robert Frost's 'The Bonfire', which Frost himself described (inaccurately) as his only poem about the First World War. But even there, it is not so much the example chosen, as the potential applications for Bromwich's argument, which ought to revise (I want to say 'revolutionise') the ways in which we read war poetry. I will try to explain why, but the usual caveat applies: I can only do summary justice to Bromwich and to Burke, in the hope of directing interested readers to the essay itself.

Bromwich tests a case which Burke makes in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757). There, Bromwich explains, Burke boldly identifies the 'human taste for catastrophes' with the same taste for art. This touches on the question of why we find tragedy pleasurable; as Burke puts it, 'We delight in seeing things, which so far from doing, our heartiest wishes would be to see redressed'. Burke goes on: 'I am convinced we have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others; for let the affection be what it will in appearance, if it does not make us shun such objects, if it makes us dwell upon them, in this case I conceive we must have a delight or pleasure of some species or other in contemplating objects of this kind.' As Bromwich explains more pithily, 'what is simply repellent simply repels.'

Burke proposes, then, that sympathy has none of the benevolence which we normally associate with the term. Rather, it is merely the fascinated observance of suffering in another creature. The same instinct which makes us rubber-neckers at the scenes of motorway crashes informs our response to art. We may draw on all kinds of excuses and strategies of denial, but we take what Bromwich calls 'an active and to some degree a delighted interest in scenes of suffering'. Bromwich has little time for the argument that 'art, like no other human activity, fosters an immunity in the spectators from the contagion of example'. Art is more dangerous than we usually allow. This is still not an argument for censorship, because (Burke again) 'It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions. Knowledge and acquaintance make the most striking causes affect but little.' To censor, Burke implies, is to empower.

I hope that I have not too badly travestied the essay in this brief account. Its relevance to war poetry (and, for that matter, all artistic representations of war) is profound. Think of the de rigueur teaching of 'Dulce et Decorum Est' in hushed tones to sombre teens. We need to acknowledge, as Owen himself acknowledged, that war can be (among other things) exhilarating, that we take pleasure in its portrayal, that the successful transformation of atrocity into art is necessarily delightful. Until we recognise the ambiguous motivations of a sympathy which is always spectatorial, we fail to appreciate the war poets' daring, and the reasons for our own attraction to it. The work of art, Bromwich tells us, 'matters because it brings its audience close to a scene of risk.'


  1. Very interesting and crisply expressed, Tim, as ever. Burke's comments, by the way, make me think of the maxims of La Rochefoucauld about the innate human desire to relish other people's distress. But I am sure all your readers will be looking up this essay by Bromwich.

  2. I hadn't thought of La Rochefoucauld, Nick. That's a very good point. In recent times we have Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others, which I find inspiring and infuriating in roughly equal measure.

    It's a subject which sits at the core of our experience of war poetry (and war films, etc.), and yet it's rarely discussed --- certainly not in classes on 'Dulce et Decorum Est'!

  3. I'm wondering if it's fair to generalize. Certainly for some, there is a vicarious excitement to be had "rubber necking" something as dramatic as war,but equally there are those who look to understand this streak of our nature that allows war to be viable. This quest cannot be mistaken for pleasure seeking.

    Personally, I go to war as witness, though not as partaker (i.e. as soldier). Am I seeking thrills? What compels me? I honestly can't answer. Thrills I doubt very much. This may sound corny, but I feel called to this somehow. And as a nobody, there will be little reward-no fame, no fortune at the end of it. It has already cost me far too much personally, and yet I still want to go.