Tag Archives: literature

All for the Now—or the World Well Lost?

Costume designs for the libation bearers, London Globe production of “Oresteia,” 2015.

Riding with my middle-school daughter a while back, I heard one of her favorite pop songs on the radio and called it to her attention; she sighed and said, “Oh, mom, that’s so two minutes ago.” Apparently, the song was popular last year and, therefore, no longer qualifies as one of her current favorites. Then, she added, in exasperation, that the expression itself was outdated. It was popular a year ago, back when she and her friends used to parody the lingo of certain “popular, mean girls” from film or TV. So, a year ago is now “old”? Or two minutes? The whole conversation made me wonder: What kind of a sense of the past do our children grow up with today, and how does it shape our attitudes toward history?

That question emerged in a different way when my son started high school this year. As an academic observing his orientation, I was keenly interested in this introduction to the curriculum. Of all the things I learned, however, the most surprising was that his curriculum requires only one year of history to graduate. Three and a half years of physical education are required. Three to four years of English are essential, as are three years of math. But students at my son’s school can graduate with only one year of history, and US history at that. Even in his first-year English course, where students are required to read only three literary works during the entire academic year, two of the three were written in the last sixty years. In other words, there’s not much distant history in his English curriculum either.

This also squares with trends at the small liberal arts college where I teach. Enrollment in history courses is down. The history department’s faculty allocation has recently been cut. Even in the English department, where enrollment numbers are strong this year, our historically-oriented Renaissance literature line is being suspended due to budgetary adjustments, no doubt to make way for faculty positions in programs like biochemistry, molecular biology, and business. What this means is that my department will soon be without a permanent member who specializes in the period of the greatest flowering of literature in English.

And this dearth of expertise in the historical humanities is evident across the College. When I count the total number of pre-nineteenth century historical humanities positions at my college, considering fields such as art history, philosophy, theater, and religion, I find that only five percent of all full-time, permanent faculty members have expertise in such areas.

Is it any wonder then that young people often have a limited sense of the past, unable to place even watershed events such as the Protestant Reformation or the French Revolution or identify major historical time periods? Not long ago, my son returned home from middle school to boast that, unlike his peers who were hooked on techno-pop, he’d suddenly become interested in “more medieval music”—“You know, Mom, like Simon and Garfunkle, the Beatles, ELO.” I’ll give him a pass for being only twelve at the time, but I’d suggest that this historical illiteracy is more common—and more costly—than we might think.

Why should teaching the past matter? It matters because teaching any pre-modern culture exposes students to ways of being that may be alien to them, a form of ontological diversity just as important as the more familiar kinds we hear so much about today. Many years ago, in a lecture at my college, the classicist Danielle Allen argued that education is fundamentally about knowing the foreign. Like Allen, I share that conviction and, in my own courses, daily ask students to explore the foreign battlefields of Homeric Troy or to inhabit the psychological terrain of Augustine. Both the Iliad and the Confessions offer examples of imaginative mindscapes as foreign to many students as any far-flung land they might visit on a study-abroad trip. And such foreign intellectual encounters, so familiar in early literature and history courses, help students cultivate virtues such as empathy and tolerance.

Tracing the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, distant as it may be, reveals the dangers of overreaching imperial powers, the perils of resources stretched thin, and the consequences of growing economic disparities—none of which are problems confined only to the ancient world. As the historian Timothy Snyder observes in his brief wonder of a book On Tyranny, “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”

Although Aeschylus’s Oresteia brilliantly dramatizes the triumph of democratic processes of justice over vendetta-style retribution, it also displays the pernicious roots of patriarchy, with the Olympian gods themselves legitimizing male rule over female, as Apollo exculpates Orestes by claiming that the mother isn’t really the parent, only the seed bed, while Athena chimes in, professing to “stand by the man” despite being a woman. Likewise, Shakespeare’s Shylock, a comedy that turns on a act of mercy, also illuminates darker themes such as anti-Semitism and ethnic stereotyping.

History also teaches us that the pursuit of knowledge is often a digressive process. Unlike the natural sciences where knowledge and learning are generally linear, experimentation and research leading to new insights and replacing previous conclusions, humanistic knowledge proceeds haltingly. In the natural sciences, one often draws the conclusion that new knowledge is better than old knowledge. In the humanities, we value the ancient, the antique, the quaint, and the outmoded all in the interest of thickening and enriching our understanding of human life.

While much of that life has involved regrettable episodes, history reminds us of what it means to be questing and creative and to transcend the limits of our human predicament, as Julian of Norwich or Galileo or Mary Rowlandson once did. Studying the past has been shown to remove feelings of isolation that many young people in contemporary America report as their greatest fear. Further, today’s younger generation may learn resilience, courage, and fortitude through an imaginative engagement of the people of the past.

I have been haunted by the lines from a poem I recently read in a book, Cruel Futures by Carmen Giménez Smith,that playfully extols “Disorder in exchange/for embracing the now.” Although Smith’s short poem vindicates that disorder by focusing on personal rather than collective, historical knowledge, those lines have left me wondering about the public implications of such an “exchange.” When, as a society, we “embrace the now,” at the expense of the past, what sort of disorderly deal might we be making? I’m thinking here of, for example, the generally low level of civic participation in the United States. Might this indicate that we have become complacent about our history, forgetting the arduous efforts of a small group of patriots and visionaries, preferring instead the promises of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and charismatic “thought leaders”?

In the academic world where I work, I often hear “That is the way of the past; this is the way of the future,” as if the past were to be regarded as a mere discarded image, disconnected from the priorities of the omnipresent “now.” As educators, we ought to remain wary of such facile dismissals of the past and be vigilant in refuting this kind of chronological snobbery, to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield. The wisdom and well-being of our young people and our civilization depend on historical knowledge. Otherwise, we may one day find ourselves victims of a “cruel future,” one in which ignorance of past problems condemns us to inevitable repetition of them, and where blindness about historical insights prevents us from seeing wiser paths forward.

Carla Arnell is associate professor of English and chair of the English Department at Lake Forest College.

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Black Oxygen: Suttree Reconsidered

suttree mcwilliams

Yes, there’s Blood Meridian. But it’s Suttree, published six years earlier (in 1979), that stands as Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece. At first pass, it hardly seems so. Suttree is a novel in which Homeric language appears to do little more than adorn a plotline that moves slower than the Tennessee River around which much of the story takes place. During my initial reading, twenty years ago, I thought: Wait a second. McCarthy is asking me to grapple with nearly 500 pages of thick, idiosyncratic blocks of wordplay without even offering up some cheap narrative excitement? Who does he think he is? Joyce? Faulkner? Melville?

Well, yes. McCarthy, especially in his Tennessee novels, invented a literary idiom to explore questions bearing on existence, place, sex, and death. But the quality worth admiring most isn’t the language driving his explorations of these universal phenomena. It’s rather how language and storyline fuse to create characters who viscerally negotiate violence, loss, hope, and love. McCarthy’s tight weave of prose and plot makes a novel that, after several readings, appears to be the twentieth century’s Moby Dick, and perhaps even a viable transatlantic counterpart to Ulysses. Continue reading

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The Best Case for the Humanities

Many years ago, a friend of mine was asked what she planned to do with her English degree after she graduated from university. Her reply was terse but only partly ironic: “I plan to read novels.” I continue to find hers the best of all possible replies to that dreaded question, and not only because I know this person went on to have a successful life that included the practice of law, a happy marriage, many friends, and much richly rewarding reading. It would be going too far to say that her success and happiness resulted from her long engagement with good novels and other works of literature and thought. After all, we’ve all known avid readers of literature whose lives have played out disastrously, sometimes in seeming imitation of a tragic fictional plot or character. But in this friend’s case, a sense and sensibility sharpened by steady attention to demanding books gave added richness to her life, even what I would be tempted to call added meaning. Who she was, who she became, and who she still is all strike me as the strongest justification of a lifelong engagement with what we capaciously call the humanities.

All that is prelude to a subject broached in one of my past THR blogs on the declining status of the humanities in the academy. There I discussed what I and others see as failure on the part of most humanists to make a compelling case for what they do. I stand corrected. Several outstanding humanists (mainly scholars of literature)  contributing to the winter 2014 issue of Daedalus have done just that.  And they have done so in the most compelling of ways.  Followingdaed_2014_143_issue-1_largecover the directions of guest editor Denis Donoghue, a redoubtably shrewd specialist on Irish, British, and American literature, each contributor to “What Humanists Do” was asked to pick and discuss a text that has meant much to him or her. (Donoghue, exercising editorial prerogative, examines the texts of several formidable humanist-critics, including F. R. Leavis, Northrop Frye, and Jacques Derrida, but gives most attention to T. S. Eliot and one of his typically astringent critical judgments on how literature, in a very indirect way, gives us knowledge of life.)

J. Hillis Miller, now emeritus professor at the University of California, Irvine, begins his contribution with a few wry comments on Donoghue’s assignment.  First, he notes,

Such an issue of Daedalus would not be needed if the social utility of what humanists do were not the subject of widespread doubt. That utility used to be taken for granted. It is hardly necessary to rehearse the evidence for this doubt.

Rehearsing some of that evidence, Miller proceeds to describe the depressing reality of what too many humanists actually do these days. To begin with, many who find any employment at all end up as adjuncts, “typically teaching three or four composition courses a semester, often at several different colleges, for a poverty wage and often no benefits.” But even those lucky few who land on tenure track quickly find they have precious little time to devote to the careful reading and teaching of texts:

From graduate school until achieving status as a senior professor, literary scholars, like those in most academic fields, spend a great deal of time these days sending and answering email messages; serving on time-consuming departmental and university- or college-wide committees; writing seemingly innumerable letters of recommendation; serving as a departmental or program administrator,,,,

And on and on the list of duties and distractions goes, making it fully clear why Miller framed the title of his essay as a question, “What Ought Humanists To Do?” He then gets down to the business at hand, using a close reading of two poems, one by Tennyson and one by Yeats, to discuss the vexedly hard business of making sense out of figurative language. And the instrinsic worth of such an exercise? Well, if literature is figuration at a high level, and if all language is largely (if not entirely) figurative, then, Miller believes, those who “learn about the real world by reading literature” are well armed against the dangers of “taking figures of speech literally.”

That, in a way, is what many of the better essays in this volume illustrate: that dedication to a deep attentiveness to works of humanistic excellence profoundly alters us in relation to ourselves and to others.  It does so, among other ways, by challenging  the smugness of our natural egoism.  Here is Patricia Meyer Spacks, a professor emerita at the University of Virginia, on George Eliot’s masterpiece, Middlemarch:

We rise, ideally, from moral stupidity to moral clarity, Middlemarch tells us. Moral learning consists in the perception and development of relationships and the experience of their obligations. The study of literature, which renders relationship in all its multitudinous and complicated aspects, contributes to such learning—not by providing precepts; often by making problems of responsibility more perplexing than ever….

Scott Russell Sanders’ lapidary essay on his 50-year-long relationship with Henry David Thoreau’s Walden shows not only how we read a great book but also how it reads us, pushing us to look unflinchingly at our ideals, our ambitions, our achievements, and our shortcomings.

Besieged as we are by advertisements and the cult of consumerism, racing to keep up with our gadgets, rushing from one sensation to the next, we need more than ever to ask the questions posed in Walden: What is life for? What are the necessities of a good life? How much is enough? Do we own our devices or do they own us? What is our place in nature? How do we balance individual freedom with social responsibility? How should we spend our days? Whether or not Walden speaks to your condition, I tell my students, there are other books that will do so, giving voice to what you have felt but have not been able to say, asking your deepest questions, stirring you to more intense life.

Is this vision of a transformative engagement with great works of literature, art, or thought sufficient justification of a humanistic education? Is it the best justification? I wonder how many leaders of institutions of higher learning would be willing and able to affirm that it is both.

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