I have been reading a fine history of the British empire, Legacy of Violence, by Caroline Elkins, and have been impressed by the depth of the inhumanity that underlay, that was the foundation of the British empire. The levels of bloodshed, torture, and tyranny that was required by that empire were astounding.
As a result of that, I began to doubt my admiration for Jane Austen, who clearly understood that the British empire was inhuman and reflected a British society characterized by narcissism, racism, patriarchy, and oligarchy. How could she write the novels she did in light of the barbarity she knew existed? Did she cop out?
But then it struck me: Austen’s novels are a reflection of just how genuinely radical she was. Despite the barbarity that characterized Britain, society and empire, Austen saw through it, while seeing it for what it was. And by seeing through it, she also saw that barbarity isn’t the only thing that characterizes human beings and human life. In fact, amidst the barbarity, human beings are capable of love, genuine, deep love. Amidst the barbarity, human beings – genuine human beings, that is – seek beauty, seek the beautiful and even create or expose it via the arts, romantic love, or the artistic presentation of romantic love.
As a genuine radical, Austen didn’t expect her art, no matter how beautiful, to defeat or end the barbarity found, for example, in the political arena, just as Plato and Aristotle, e.g., didn’t expect their art, their creations to defeat barbarism. Genuine radicals realize that there are alternatives to the barbarism that characterizes the human situation. Genuine radicals also know how to actualize those alternatives via their arts, which arts may be characterized as inspired. But genuine radicals also know these alternatives will not, cannot change or transform the barbaric character of the human condition, except of course for those who see through that barbarity to the beauty that is also part of the human condition. Genuine radicals, like Austen, are and remain outsiders, outliers as it were, who seek to guide humans toward the beautiful and even to allow them to participate in it.
Genuine radicals seek to teach via their arts, whether that art consists of writing dialogues, writing plays, writing treatises, creating poetry, music, comedy, paintings, or buildings. They avoid the political arena because it isn’t an arena where beauty flourishes or even survives. At bottom, the political arena need not be barbaric or savage, but most often it is, even to the point that its barbarity can be made to seem glorious, e.g., in the case of the British empire headed by allegedly “glorious monarchs” from what claim to be “royal families.” Being political animals, humans are easily deceived into thinking that some people, because they are “royalty,” deserve to rule others. Genuine radicals see through these myths to see the genuinely beautiful, which is real, permanent, and fundamental even though rather impotent politically. Power, especially political power, has its uses but it is impotent regarding access to the beautiful.