Ross Douthat Is Wrong and Right

Here is an odd, half-year-old post on the great The Wire from the New York Times’ youngest op-ed man. Although Douthat shares with David Simon his evident sad anger at the fall of America’s (or Baltimore’s) printed journalism, it seems he doesn’t approve of how season 5 addresses it. Douthat would rather Simon had retreated in both emotional and narrative terms from the experience on which we know he drew in making the episodes. He wants the whole equation or a wholer one.

(Now there is a perplexity in that I cannot really tell from the post whether Douthat would prefer that such a retreat be in the service of jeremiad or of elegy. Does he want Simon gaily to talk up the branching fracture as if it were a matter of accident and quick setting, or to make broader an already sincere analysis, hairline crack at a time? This I will overlook.)

My rejoinder is simple. I don’t think realism works like that. Providing The Wire is realist and -istic art, to wish it would give a dissertation-strength retelling of the papers’ fall is to assume a theoretician’s role, as against that of the practising maker of television. Is it not obvious that representation has to compress? These are
ancient trade-offs: the programme will gain in pungency what it loses in comprehensiveness; the chosen detail will stand for many but necessarily not most; the narrative will falsify, and falsify more at the margins, as it works the diffusion of life into a coherence that compels; and ethics, vitally a matter of case after individual case, of nuance and texture, as brought to bear upon a scenario prepared already and to other ends will seem less a set of principles behind articulation (of applicability as manifold as there are minds to imagine them) than the instrument of a streamlining, oligarchic or unitary intelligence. The trade-off in art is between fact and value, roughly: the cited intelligence has to decide which bits of irreducible reality to cast off or underplay in shaping an efficient vector of delivery to scarce attention. Accordingly as it has a dogma it wants to push — and Douthat I venture is adumbrating that Simon does — it will shift emphasis between the value-informed, hierarchic sorting of reality and the value-determined, aesthetic shaping of the results: that is, a dogmatic writer will not pay to elisions of fact his critical due, being glad of his settled outlook, and where the less dogmatic writer prunes conscientiously he will present arrestingly the facts he got going with. Douthat’s criticism falters on this ground. Where he claims to want, so to speak, rather landscape than portrait footage, he shows his dissatisfaction with the sector of the landscape Simon chose to magnify as a representative one. But in his turn Simon believed this story that ‘really happened’ was a representative story — for one thing, I’d guess, for the resonance of its detail with the theme of lies and their prestige. In gesturing to the false exit of a realism that is not art, Douthat betrays the art of his own commentary, which has been to shape an inadequate aesthetics into a determining frame. Simon’s priorities in season 5 of The Wire may well be clear, but in criticising the work in formal terms the critic must say how he believes an alternatively trimmed reality that he should specify would have represented better the less trimmed reality we can sometimes force ourselves to see; in so doing, it is true, he will have fumbled the way to a thicket where it becomes apparent that the variability of ‘priorities’ from person to person is a stiffer problem that it had seemed in the commentator’s repose: nevertheless these are the terms that he set for himself. The exercise would certainly not be futile. It might in fact constitute what Geoffrey Hill has called, in different context, an ‘exemplary failure’. For by that fumbling Douthat could, would have to, submit his ‘conservative’ premises to the same new reconnaissance and testing against fact to which Simon had to submit his, of whatever variant of liberalism, when he showed with such ruthless clarity — this clarity enmeshed of course with a sentimentality that compensates for and fuels it — the death of a thing he loved.

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