The Bastard Muses

A quarter of a century ago, Cleanth Brooks, an avid student of all things literary warned Americans about the deceptive powers of the “bastard muses”. We think of a muse as a spirit that inspires us and gives us insight. The opposite would be a spirit that sucks the life out of us and blinds us to the truth. Brooks listed three such muses: propaganda, sentimentality and pornography. His words bear repeating.

  • Propaganda, which pleads, sometimes unscrupulously, for a special cause or issue at the expense of the total truth.
  • Sentimentality, which works up emotional responses unwarranted by, and in excess of, the occasion.
  • Pornography, which focuses upon one powerful human drive at the expense of the total human personality.

All three share the capacity to portray any subject out of context. The most artful propaganda relies not on outright lies but lies of omission; ignoring facts that are relevant but contrary to the advocate’s position. Sentimentality gives us emotional satisfaction but ultimately is just a diversion. Pornography, whether sexual or violent, is a more raw form of sentimentality and has the same effect.

It is the recurring theme of this blog that we need to be thoughtful and aware of the external and internal forces that work upon us. I think Brooks did a nice job of summing up three of the prevailing factors that lead to tunnel vision. You might want to do as I did when I read them — tally up just a few examples of the propaganda, sentimentality and pornography that surrounds us. It’s not a cheery activity but it will keep you on your toes. And unfortunately, you will find it easy to do.

Many thanks to my friend Tom Stites, who is spearheading a drive to save local journalism through the Banyan Project, for bringing Brooks’s words to my attention.



One thought on “The Bastard Muses

  1. That is a powerful list, my friend. It helped me see what’s been irking me about certain promo approaches kicking around. Thank you.

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