Denis Dutton, R.I.P.

It was only a few weeks ago that I got the news that my friend Denis Dutton, founder and editor of the renowned Arts & Letters Daily website, was gravely ill. I didn’t quite register how gravely until two or three emails to him went unanswered. Denis was always the most prompt of correspondents, often answering within minutes of one’s having pressed the “send” button.   Then on December 28 I got the news: he had died, age 66.

I forget exactly when Denis and I became acquainted. It wasn’t long after he started ALD (his preferred acronym for the site) in 1998. We knew each other at first but virtually, via the quotidian miracle of email, which made the dispatch between Christchurch, New Zealand, where Denis taught philosophy, and Connecticut nearly instantaneous. I was delighted with his web site, which was a model of elegant simplicity. Nearly every day he and a small team of colleagues scoured the internet for items that delighted, amused, instructed, or (I use the “or” in its inclusive disjunctive sense) infuriated. Under the rubrics “Articles of Note,” “New Books,” and “Essays and Opinion” he provided a brief but provocative teaser and a link to the essay or review in question.

That was all.  But in his hands, at least, it was a winning formula. For one thing, Denis had a great talent for producing those teasers. It’s much harder than you might think: years ago he asked me to write a few: “25 words or fewer,” he instructed, “and make it pointed.” He rewrote my clumsy efforts and made them shine. But even more important was his talent for nosing out good material. If the Internet was a jungle, he showed that it was a fecund jungle, full of rare and marvelous things. Bad things, no doubt, preposterous things, too;  but Denis also showed that it was a cornucopia of interesting, intelligent, provocative things.

His own orientation was mildly libertarian, conservative in a markedly undoctrinaire, David-Hume sort of way. But ALD was very much a small “c” catholic forum.  Left-liberals were as amply represented as conservatives. But because conservatives were represented at all ALD was dismissed in some of the more fetid academic quarters as right-wing. (“Diversity” as used in academic circles means including everyone who agrees with you and no one who doesn’t.) I was pleased that Denis frequently featured my writings from The New Criterion, which I edit. The left-liberal commentariat was not pleased, however.  Denis told me one champion of diversity suggested he rename the site “Arts and Kimball Daily.”

Denis had a connoisseur’s nose for balderdash. In addition to running ALD, he also edited a magazine called Philosophy and Literature, one of the glories of which was its Bad Writing Contest. Some of the academy’s most celebrated charlatans were winners. Fredric Jameson, for example, one of the academy’s make-believe Marxists, won one year with this gem, from his book Signatures of the Visible:

The visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination; thinking about its attributes becomes an adjunct to that, if it is unwilling to betray its object; while the most austere films necessarily draw their energy from the attempt to repress their own excess (rather than from the more thankless effort to discipline the viewer).

I haven’t kept up with Professor Jameson’s career so I can’t tell you which prestigious university currently enjoys his services but you can bet your bottom-capitalist dollar that he is paid a small fortune and is fawned upon by pointless graduate students for his “transgressive” attitudes and adolescent haberdashery.

There were many other excellent winners of the Bad Writing Contest.  If I had to pick an ultimus inter pares, though, it would have to be the specialist in “queer theory” Judith Butler who burns with an even ghastlier light than F. Jameson in the academic firmament.  Professor Butler won in 1998 for this sentence from an article in the formerly scholarly journal Diacritics:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

There you have it folks: perfect unintelligibility seamlessly married to a mandarin minatory rhetoric. No wonder Butler has scooped up every prize and fellowship a grateful academic establishment can bestow!

I think I am right that Denis abandoned the contest after four years: there was just too great an embarrassment of . . . well, certainly not “riches”: just too great an intellectual and moral assault upon the English language.

I first met Denis face to face in New York early in the millennium.  We had drinks in the handsome West Room at the Century Club, which boasts splendid William Morris wallpaper and some of the century’s most celebrated paintings. One of the best is a large landscape of a scene in the White Mountains by John Frederick Kensett (1832-1872). Denis drank in the painting and then outlined his Darwinian interpretation of art.  Why is it, he asked, that we find pictures such as Kensett’s so fetching?

Landscapes with a bit of water, open spaces in the middle-distance, some low-branching trees and other greenery, and an animal or two beat all comers in the popularity sweepstakes.  Such scenes decorate calendars and greeting cards the world over.  They also inspire great pictures like that of J.F. Kensett.  Why?

My own reply would probably start with a variation of the (Kingsley) Amis Principle of Aesthetic Preference: nice things are nicer than nasty ones. But Denis acquainted me with the Darwinian answer: down through the ages, art has been adaptive, i.e., it has helped mankind survive and reproduce. Like language, Denis told me, art hones “imaginative and intellectual capacities that had a clear survival value in prehistory.” Take that Kensett: it recalls the African savanna, “the habitat,” Denis reminded me, that “meat-eating hominids evolved for.” Consider those trees I just mentioned. According to the savanna hypothesis, people prefer low-branching ones to other types because “a climbable tree was a device to escape predators in the Pleistocene.”

Those quotations are not the product of my perfect recall of a conversation that took place 7 or 8 years ago but are from The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution, the book Denis published in 2008 summarizing a lifetime’s thought about the issue.  I have a constitutional allergy to Darwinian explanations of cultural phenomena—it’s the same allergy I suffer from with respect to Freudian, Marxist, and other such (pardon the scare quotes) “explanations.”  And while I didn’t agree with Denis’s main argument in The Art Instinct, I found the book (which I reviewed for the TLS)  much like its author: witty, intelligent, pleasingly polemical. I loved everything about it except its central argument.

The Art Instinct was a labor of love and the discharge of a deep intellectual conviction. Denis had conjured for years with the ideas that went into the book and he expounded them with rare candor and articulateness. A few weeks before he died, Denis wrote to a mutual friend lamenting that he was not, after all, to have another twenty or so years but expressing satisfaction in having published The Art Instinct and living to see it succeed.  I can remember when 66 seemed almost venerable. It seems absurdly young now—younger and younger. We are told that Arts & Letters Daily will forge on under the leadership of Denis’s longtime colleagues there. I am confident they will continue to make  ALD one of the Internet’s go-to sites for anyone interested in ideas and culture. But I’ll never be able to visit it without thinking of, and missing, its creator.