Politics and the Creative Imagination 2

Were individual rights to be protected against the state? Who could define them?
Conscience was declared to be free. But was not religion, and specifically Christianity, the ultimate source of morality and probity and hence of justice and fairness? So should Christianity not be enforced as a matter of state policy?
There was no end to the problems, and there was never any cer¬tainty in the outcome. Some of the problems in the course of time would be solved, some persist to this day and will never be fully resolved. But what strikes one most forcefully in surveying the strug¬gles and achievements of that distant generation is less what they failed to do than what they did do, and the problems that they did in fact solve. One comes away from encounters with that generation, not with a sense of their failings and hypocrisies—they were imper¬fect people, bound by the limitations of their own world—but with a sense of how alive with creative imaginings they were; how bold they were in transcending the world they had been born into.
How did that happen? What accounts for their creative imagina¬tion? What conditions made it possible?
I do not know the answers to those questions. But surveying that lost, remote world, one comes repeatedly on a distinctive element that seems to have played a significant role. It does not account for indi¬vidual genius, for the sheer power of intellection or for the inspired capacity to reconfigure familiar elements into new patterns and struc¬tures. These are the ultimate qualities of the creative imagination. Yet there are circumstances, underlying conditions, that have an empow¬ering force on latent capacities that otherwise would remain inert.
In a brief but brilliant essay entitled “Provincialism,” the art critic Kenneth Clark commented on the differences between metropolitan and provincial art. Through the centuries, he wrote, metropolitan art, emerging from dominant centers of culture, has set the grand styles that have radiated out into the world, creating standards and forming assumptions that only idiots, Clark wrote, would challenge. But in time metropolitan art, for all its successes—and in part because of them—becomes repetitive, overrefined, academic, self- absorbed as it elaborates, polishes, and attenuates its initial accom¬plishments. A kind of scholasticism sets in, while out on the margins, removed from the metropolitan centers, provincial art develops free of those excesses. Artists on the periphery introduce simplicity and common sense to a style that has become too embellished, too sophisticated, too self-centered. The provincials are concrete in their visualization, committed to the ordinary facts of life as they know them rather than to an established style that has taken on a life of its own. And they have a visionary intensity, which at times attains a lyrical quality, as they celebrate the world around them and strive to realize their fresh ambitions.
There are dangers in the provincial arts, Clark points out: insular¬ity; regression into primitivism; complacence in the comforting familiarity of local scenes. But the most skillful provincial artists have the vigor of fresh energies; they are immersed in and stimulated by the ordinary reality around them; and they transcend their limited environments by the sheer intensity of their vision, which becomes, at the height of their powers, prophetic.
Thus Kenneth Clark on provincialism in art. To a remarkable degree I believe the same might be said of provincialism in politics and the political imagination—particularly the politics of Revolu¬tionary America.
The American founders were provincials—living on the outer borderlands of an Atlantic civilization whose heartlands were the metropolitan centers of England, France, the Netherlands, and Spain. The world they were born into was so deeply provincial, so derivative in its culture, that it is difficult for us now to imagine it as it really was—difficult for us to reorient our minds to that small, remote world. We cannot avoid reading back our powerful cos¬mopolitan present, the sense we have of our global authority and our expanded social consciences—reading back all of that into that small, unsure, preindustrial borderland world. Language can mis¬lead us. The vocabulary of politics in eighteenth-century America was metropolitan, transcultural, European if not universal; but the reality of the Americans’ lives, the political and social context in North America, was parochial, and the provincialism of those bor¬derland people had, I believe, in political thought precisely those cre¬ative qualities that Clark describes in provincial art.
How provincial were they? There is literary evidence, some of it eloquent. William Byrd II, returning to Virginia in 1726 after ten years of intense striving in England’s literary and political circles, called his native land a “silent country,” in which at times he felt he was “being buried alive.” Though surrounded by “my flocks and my herds,” he wrote back to England, “my bond-men and bond- women, and every soart of trade amongst my own servants,” he was lonely. There was no one to respond to his wit, his satire; no one to acknowledge his intellectual achievements, no way to establish his worth as a man of letters, as a man of the world. He was no longer in the world. Nostalgically, he kept his rooms in London, practiced his languages—every day some Greek and Latin and a bit of Hebrew— read diligently, remorselessly, in several European languages, built up his library into a formidable collection of over three thousand titles, and continued to write, for his own satisfaction, while pouring out to his diary his longings for a greater world.

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