On the occasion of The Dunedin School being linked to from our departmental website, a few relevant thoughts from the American journalist and novelist James Agee (who was also, incidentally, one of the finest and most intuitive film critics to ever practice the art).
In his stunning, brilliant, maddening book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a collaboration with the photographer Walker Evans, which was begun in 1936 as a reporting project on sharecroppers in the American South during the Great Depression, but which Agee could not finish until 1941, Agee wrote of his struggle to form the book into something both powerful and palatable:
As a matter of fact, nothing I might write could make any difference whatever. It would only be a ‘book’ at the best. If it were a safely dangerous one it would be ‘scientific’ or ‘political’ or ‘revolutionary’. If it were dangerous enough to be of any remote use to the human race it merely be ‘frivolous’ or ‘pathological’ and that would be the end of that. Wiser and more capable men than I shall ever be have put their findings before you, findings so rich and so full of anger, serenity, murder, healing truth, and love that it seems incredible the world were not destroyed in the instant, but you are too much for them: the weak in courage are strong in cunning; and one by one, you have absorbed and have captured and dishonoured, and have distilled of your believers the most ruinous of all your poisons … Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or as religion, or as authority in one form or another. The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike it to do fury honour. Swift, Blake, Beethoven, Christ, Joyce, Kafka, name me a one who has not been thus castrated. Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding, and is the kiss of Judas (pp. 12-15).
I’ve no desire to put any of here in the same category as Agee, though he did struggle intellectually and existentially with religion for the whole of his tragically short life (he died at 45 of a broken heart), but these words are quoted here to mislead those who will be mislead by them. They mean, not what the reader may care to think they mean, but what they say …
(if you’re confused, track down of copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and read the note on page xiii).