Outro #3: Good and Evil in the Garden of Hooks

Bruegel, Fall of the Rebel Angels detail
What does it all mean?

I don’t believe in metaphysics as a way of defining good and evil, but I do think we have a stubborn tendency to make a distinction like this:

Good = strong, shining, connecting

Evil = volatile, blind, confused, conflicted, chaotic, cutting, ripping, crying, burning, freezing, hurling, dropping . . .

Which reflects choices and conflicts we’re constantly embroiled in—the experienced reality of life. Which leads to this proposition:

Life is a mixture of good and evil (make that a loaded mixture: tending to be as good as it can be, given the bad, and as bad as it can be, given the good, depending on how you look at it, or how the dice just rolled)

And then, if we’re interested in art, a question arises about how art acts on or in this mixture, leading to a hypothesis:

Art is a conscious shaping of the life-mixture to give it, for a moment at least, an overriding good character

What do you think? Too goody-goody? I figure that if we practice art on purpose, we must be trying to improve the life-mixture. The catch, though, is that art works on life on its inside, inhabiting and wrestling with all of its elements, not simply by telling it to mind. Therefore the good vs. evil character of art is ambiguous. I know, and you may know, that the Sex Pistols are good—I hear them bring strong, shining, connecting rock ‘n’ roll moments out of craziness, perversity, contempt, etc.—but to other listeners they seem to be merely wallowing in and reinforcing those bad things.

“Anarchy In The UK”

If I find that the Sex Pistols improve the life-mixture, is that them being good or just me? Obviously it’s me. But it has to be them as well. They’re the ones making musical moments that I can experience as strong, shining and connecting; I’m not generating those good punk qualities all by myself. (I couldn’t cackle and threaten in rock time like Johnny Rotten.)

If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight.
            —William James[1]

Now for the sake of excitement and drama and for a moral tinge to the metaphysics, I’ll say that life isn’t just a mixture, it’s a fight, and art is one of our lucid ways of fighting.[2] On that view, could we define a hook as a sudden thrust of good? Enlarging on that: a sense of a victorious outcome in a struggle with the bad, a struggle that is always global as well as local?

We could very well define a hook purely in terms of gratification (“any discrete thing that makes you want to listen again,” I wrote in Introduction to Hooks). But I suspect that my hooks criticism has often been in this metaphysical and moral grain of good struggling with evil. The metaphysical and moral grain being what it is, what else could I do?


[1] “Is Life Worth Living?” in The Will to Believe (New York: Dover, 1956), p. 61.

[2] Simon Frith is hip to the combative side of music evaluation in Performing Rites. On the Value of Popular Music (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U., 1998). My favorite fightin’ aesthetics is Jean-Paul Sartre’s What Is Literature?


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Passions & Attitudes, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Outro #3: Good and Evil in the Garden of Hooks

  1. Matt Smith says:

    Or: art keeps the balance between order and chaos, and pushes in either direction, as the cultural situation demands. Which allows us to see the Pistols as doing good because of, not in spite of, their disorder, and don’t we want to do that?

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