Whew! My Dreher post comments are running kind of long. Clearly, Crooked Timber needs fresh content. OK, I just realized that two things I’ve been thinking about this week – Rod Dreher’s Ben-Op plans, and Franklin Booth’s pen-and-ink style – are kind of the same. Franklin Booth? Via Lines and Colors, I found this nice page of fairly high-quality scans. This sort of stuff (click for larger):
That’s pen-and-ink, because Booth was trying … well, I’ll just let Wikipedia explain:
His unusual technique was the result of a misunderstanding: Booth scrupulously copied magazine illustrations which he thought were pen-and-ink drawings. In fact, they were wood engravings. As a result, this led him to develop a style of drawing composed of thousands of lines, whose careful positioning next to one another produced variations in density and shade. The characteristics of his art were his scale extremes with large buildings and forests looming over tiny figures, decorative scrolls and borders, classic hand lettering and gnarled trees.
Here’s another parallel case – that of Alexander Anderson – in which the ingenuity of Thomas Bewick emanated obliquely. “At the age of twelve years he made his first attempts at engraving on copper, frequently using pennies rolled out, and on type-metal plates. He received no instruction, and his knowledge was acquired by watching jewelers and other workmen.” Later, he learned that the Bewickian effects that had inspired him were achieved in wood. You can see some Alexander Anderson work here. (Those are actual wood engravings, not stuff he did on the backs of flattened pennies.) But early missteps, later corrected, weren’t dead ends. Anderson’s apprentice, Joseph Alexander Adams, would be a pioneer of electrotyping. Once you have effects you like, it is reasonable to try to induce them via different means.
Let’s get back to Booth. What other examples of this sort of thing can you think of, from the history of art? Quite wrong-headed attempts to produce some effect, by unsuitable means, resulting in impressive stylistic breakthroughs. There must be lots of examples from the history of recorded pop music. Artists trying to mimic someone’s sound; having no idea how to do it; inventing some weird new thing. A variation on fake it ‘til you make it. Mistake it ‘til you make it.
Let’s get back to Dreher: unsurprisingly, comments to my thread have been running hot against him. I get that. I started it. But I’m honestly less worked up myself. I don’t read Dreher to boil my blood but because his way of looking at things is at such fantastic right angles to my own. Some conservatives infuriate me because 1) they seem vicious; 2) the likely effects of what they are proposing seem likely to be bad. Dreher’s stuff doesn’t seem bad in either way. To me he looks fixated on a thin yet richly variegated surface of effects, to the oddly pure exclusion of likely causes, beneath that surface. This is true both of his Ben-Op plans and his cultural criticism.
It’s tempting to snark: those who do not study history are doomed to be unable to repeat it. But, even if my criticism is quite right (I’m sure Dreher would deny it, as is his right) that isn’t right. Who knows? Maybe Dreher’s Ben-Op will turn out to have the same relation to culture as Franklin Booth’s pen-and-ink style did to wood engraving. As usual, Nietzsche got there first, in “Uses and Abuses of History”: Dreher is engaged in what Nietzsche calls monumental history (and cultural criticism.) It “will always have to deal in approximations and generalities, in making what is dissimilar look similar; it will always have to diminish the differences of motives and instigations so as to exhibit the effectus monumentally, that is to say as something exemplary and worthy of imitation, at the expense of the causae: so that, since it as far as possible ignores causes, one might with only slight exaggeration call it a collection of ‘effects in themselves’, of events which will produce an effect upon all future ages.”
This is true even of Dreher’s MacIntyre-style criticism, which seems like it should be focused on deep underlying causes, yet has a tendency to reduce to grumping about effects. I would make the same point about After Virtue itself. It’s monumental history, with the advantages and disadvantages that implies.
Anyway, I like Franklin Booth. (Wish I hadn’t missed out when Fleskes published their limited edition.)