Fulfilling the Classical Ideal

As was the case with other ancient Greek art, the ideas and attributes later credited to Greek tragedy were even better than the actual thing. Regrettably, the idea of literature in the “Classic Style” is such an archaic concept that few people even know what it means, let alone produce it. Which, to give-in for a moment to the widespread misuse of the word tragedy, is a real tragedy. The ideal of literature in the Classic Style, the clear and precise expression of the profound, is worth trying to realize, for Identitarianism, and for its own sake.

First, both because it is so forgotten, and because the term is so elastic, let me explain what I mean when I describe literature in the Classic style. I am basically using the term in the same way as did so many grumpy late nineteenth century professors, who divided all serious literature into two very broad categories of style: the Classic and the Romantic. The Classic is idea-driven and clear, spare on details and dependent on plot—the Greek tragedians are the prototype; the Romantic is character-driven and is alive with superfluous details, if its whole has a meaning beyond the immediate, it is demonstrated with subtlety. Where the Romantic is a vicarious experience, the Classic is an object of contemplation. Unsurprisingly, the Romantic style has long dominated.

Some blame this on Shakespeare (and the relative inadequacy of the more Classicist playwrights who followed him) or the invention of the novel, but for me, the primary culprits are probably the democratization of literature—most people prefer a vicarious experience—and the accelerated advance of science faced by the original Romantics. Since their time, the notion of literature as a means of understanding the world has been under constant threat of obsolescence, and the general response has been art for art’s sake. Whether it was called Realism or Naturalism, the thing being offered to the reader was usually more experience than understanding. 

Social commentary novels (i.e. most serious fiction) are obviously not purely art for art’s sake or mystical or anti-modern, but they are Romantic in the sense that they tend to be character-driven and detail-oriented. And almost always, the social commentary, whether it happens to be accurate or not, is not logical. It is instead an intuitive form of sociology. The author’s every depiction—though usually not—may be informed a comprehensive scientific knowledge (this includes things like history, sociology, and population surveys), but the actual method-of-convincing works only by pushing-the-reader’s-buttons. So it only works on the naïve, who are taken-in by the power of suggestion, and on those already inclined to agree, who are gratified that their opinion has been given eloquent expression.

While not strictly logical, it is not as if serious social commentary fiction is irrational. Most of the conventions make sense: the setting is in the present or the recent past, the location is usually near the author’s past or present home, and even the illogical method of social analysis is generally plausible because the objective is not really to convince the reader of something brand new. The goal is to provide a richer picture, and maybe a new perspective, of already widely-accepted truths, to get the reader to string a few more dots to the dozens that his life had already connected for him.

There is the continuous stylistic innovation on one side, yes, but in the important realm of literary social commentary, this striking lack of ambition is the living legacy of the Romantic Revolution. The literary last man.

Instead of continuing down this dead-end, I propose a new Classical Ideal. I am not calling for reviving silly conventions like the unities of time and place, but for a return to the general Classical spirit, its seriousness, and its clarity of meaning and presentation. And especially, this means a return to a more ambitious social commentary.

I outlined most of the mechanics of this new ideal at Counter-Currents, arguing that: If personal anecdote is poor evidence of a more universal truth, fictional anecdote is even worse. Therefore, (a)side from subjective abstractions like beauty, sorrow, decadence, etc., the central story can not represent anything larger than itself, nor can it make any argument except an implicit one that it itself is beautiful or interesting or in some other way worthy of attention.

Achieving an accurate understanding of concrete social truths requires a direct, sustained, quantitative analysis. So in the social commentary novel, whether in the form of a dialogue, a straight narration, or some more inventive device, the actual social commentary/analysis should be, more or less, separate from the central story; essentially, the social commentary novel needs its own tragic chorus. The role of this chorus is to provide an accurate account of the real-life socio-historical setting of the novel’s central story (this is not necessarily a comprehensive portrait of society; only the relevant portion needs to be examined). The central story is not a fictional representation or anecdotal explanation of the setting—as the preceding paragraph implies, but it is informed by that setting. It is a response to that setting, and the subjective judgment of whether the story is “beautiful or interesting or in some other way worthy of attention,” is largely an assessment of it as a response.

This is more than a matter of mechanics though; a new Classic Ideal is also a change in style and subject. The Classic style disregards unnecessary fluff so as not to obstruct the plot, all the better to underline the fundamental nobility of the characters’ actions, and the reasons for their ultimate failings.

This combination of style and subject is often criticized as too stern, and colorless. Which, relative to most fiction, is true, but if the reader is willing to look a little deeper, beyond the lack of artifice, the Classic style tragedy (the Classic is not necessarily tragic, but that is its preeminent form) offers the paramount uplifting experience—yes, the Classic style also offers an experience. The experience is more abstract, but once you grasp it, there is no more intense pleasure in literature than the tragic pleasure of the Classic style.†

All tragic pleasure is literally wonderful, but its full expression is only possible in the Classic style. In the Classic style, the hero is more than a man of great feeling; he is also an earnest man of noble intentions, and most importantly, he does not fail because he is too weak to live-up to his ideals, or because he is unlucky; he fails because he is flat wrong.

Propaganda of the Aesthetic

Before the Alternative Right, contemporary White ethnonationalists usually sold their ideal on the basis of material convenience. There was plenty of tough-talk about “looking unflinchingly at hard-truths,” but the rationale for all of it was that their’s was the way to a society of greater efficiency and less crime. Most Whites will go through their lives hardly touched by these things, certainly not enough so as to motivate them into open heresy. I think we are now coming to the realization that we need to sell the ideal itself. And a reimagined Classic Ideal should be a small part of this effort.

Even if I would have preferred a (mostly) different emphasis, I do think pre-Alternative Right White nationalists were right not to attach themselves to Mysticism. I am not the sort of White ethnonationalist who automatically champions everything that is “authentically Western,” but it is worth pointing out that Western thought and art is at its best, and is most distinct, not when piling mystical thought on top of mystical thought, but when it is fixed on an accurate understanding of observable reality, and when its speculations are grounded in this understanding. This way is not anti-spiritual, it just looks to us, and our world, to find meaning—and so does the ethnonationalist (at least he should). The rationale for ethnonationalism is not hidden deep in some mystical realm. Ethnonationalism is a rational, humanist ideology, and has no need for extralogical, otherworldly support. Human reality is enough for the ethnonationalist soul; our great need is to understand this reality.

As I have already said, the Classic ethos is one of clarity, its entire plot driving at an idea, and in this way I believe it is an ideal literary vehicle for White ethnonationalism. The two are in-sync spiritually of course, but ultimately the justification for the Classic style is that it is just better. This judgment can only have the authority of opinion, but idea/plot-driven literature is better; literature in which the plot does adheres to the logical limits of its mandate is better††; the sincere tragic hero, whose only flaw is that he is wrong, is better; clarity is better—ideally, the author is presenting something new, which is hard enough to understand without obfuscation; understanding is better. If for no other reason, White nationalists should embrace a new Classical literary aesthetic for the simple reason that it is better.

It is also a good way to stand-out, perhaps especially to young men. It is no secret that young men have been drifting away from fiction because they think it is pointless; maybe a more logical literature would draw some of them back in, or even draw them to our side. Classical Studies is the only humanities major in which most of the students are men.

This is a natural place for the novel. Novels are not written in verse. They are not accompanied by music and dance. It is just the story. So the novelist adds to this what he can: more vivid detail, or narrative innovation. These can be good things, but an idea-driven plot is better. Narrative innovation may or may not get in the way of this, but the overflowing description of every banality always gets in the way. The novel is designed to tell a story, accurately, and the Classic Style does this better.

† There are a lot of contrived theories that attempt to account for the seemingly strange phenomenon of tragic pleasure (starting with the original critic of tragedy), but it is not really so strange. I stand with the old idea that the portrayal of the passionate soul reaffirms our faith in humanity’s intrinsic worth. Most every critic understands the suffering of the passionate to be the most basic defining element of tragedy, yet, for whatever reason, so many of them look elsewhere for an explanation of tragic pleasure.

††“Driving at an idea” does not imply any concrete social commentary; as I have said, this must be separate from the plot, but the plot can convey an abstract idea. And the plot itself should be an idea—I do not mean this in some grandiose way, just that the action is consistent with its end.

Ryan Andrews is the author of The Birth of Prudence, which was published by VDare earlier this year.