CANONBALL RUN: WHAT WE READ AND
WHY WE READ IT
Somewhere in Maryland there is a small college, called St. John's, that has made its reputation by offering a counter-intuitive path to the Bachelor's degree. Instead of taking a set of core courses followed by another set of courses in a major and a few electives, all students at St. John's spend their four years reading and discussing a single set of one hundred books, read in chronological order, beginning with Homer and Aeschylus in the freshman year, and ending with Heidegger, Heisenberg, and Conrad in the senior year. It's virtually a living definition of "useless education," with no compromise made with practicality at all. Students who want to go on to medical school have to take special summer courses in advanced mathematics to qualify for admission, because mathematics at St. John's means studying the works of Euclid, Ptolemy and Leibniz, not swotting over forty-pound textbooks on integral calculus and differential equations.
At a time when college students are supposed to be utterly uninterested in anything that doesn't lead directly to a job after graduation, St. John's ought to be about to breathe its last and collapse into the infamous dustbin of history--but it's not. It is, by design, a very small school, but its admissions statistics put it in about the same league as Gettysburg or Rice, and its program is popular enough that it runs a sister campus, on the same scale as the Annapolis one, in Sante Fe. Nor are St. John's students a bunch of rich kids who don't have to worry about what they're going to do in the future. Sixty five percent of the students on St. John's two campuses receive financial aid.
But St. John's isn't alone, and reading the classics isn't reserved for a small group of eighteen to twenty two year olds with the luck to live on a beautiful campus in Maryland, or New Mexico. A number of other small colleges, most of them religious, have jumped on the Great Books bandwagon, including the College of St. Thomas More in Fort Worth, Texas, , Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, and Gutenberg College in Eugene, Oregon. Some larger colleges and universities have begun to offer a Great Books option for those on their campuses who aren't thrilled with the standard path to the bachelor's degree. The most venerable, the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame, offers a three year course of study students can opt into as sophomores instead of pursuing a traditional major, and a reading list that out-does St. John's on several levels. The William O. Douglas Honors College at Central Washington University offers a four year Great Books frame around a more conventionally designed curriculum. Some universities seem a little gun-shy, as if they're not sure their students can handle what the faculty obviously regards as difficult work. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee offers a two-year Certificate in the Study of Liberal Arts Through Great Books and comments anxiously that "the Certificate is within the ability of average students."
Out in the real world, Great Books are not languishing from lack of attention. In fact, half of everybody seems to be looking for a list, and maybe some help understanding what's on it. Amazon offers "Discover the Human Condition" by Graveyard Poet, "Read the Best Books Without Having to Endure the Bad Ones" by bel 78, and "Become a Literary Intellectual" by Reed Underwood. Something called the Great Books Foundation provides both adult and junior lists and discussion guides to go with them. David Denby has written a book about Great Books, and so has Harold Bloom. Bloom's is called The Western Canon, just so you never, ever forget that Great Literature is supposed to have more in common with Scripture than with the kind of trash people buy in airport newsstands. If that isn't enough for you, you can always spend some serious money and sign on with one of the commercial programs offering not just lists, but entire taped lecture courses by "star professors" on everything from "Medieval Heroines in History and Legend" to "No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Modern Life."
What is it that's going on here, exactly? Who buys books about Great Books, or expensive lecture courses in Literature and Intellectual History? Who applies to St. John's or opts for The Program of Liberal Studies instead of keeping the workload down so they can keep up their support of the Irish ? What's more, why is all this interest in the Great Books and the Western intellectual tradition kicking up just as American university humanities departments are imploding, with fewer students opting to major in English, history and philosophy than ever before, and fewer students willing to take even an occasional course in any of those fields? Let's face it. Penguin may not be losing any money on its long backlist of classics, and the best route to an Academy Award may be to take on the part of Helen of Troy, but in the world of formal education, the humanities are damned near dead.
Okay, I'll admit it--this is a trick question. It's like asking a first-year student of English grammar to find the subject in the sentence, "Get down off there right this instant!" The subject is there, but not there, implied, not realized. The reason for the increased public interest in reading Great Books and the decreased student interest in taking courses that study them is the same, but it's not right out in front where everybody can see it, and that's because nobody, not even professors of English and Philosophy, really understands what it is we're looking for when we decide to read Stendhal rather than watch Friends. Everybody is aware that there is, in fact, a difference, but nobody is sure of what it is.
The university humanities departments get into trouble because they suspect they know what it is, and they don't like what they suspect they know. Maybe Great Books, and the whole idea of the Western Canon, and of Western Civilization itself, is just a form of cultural oppression meant to subjugate women, minorities, and the entire third world. If all cultural standards are subjective--and why wouldn't they be? What does it mean to say that one piece of literature is "good" and another is not, except that you like the first better than the second?--then singling out some books as "literature" for study is really an exercise in excluding all the books you won't be studying, and denigrating both those books and the people who find them valuable. If they aren't careful--if they don't do something to counter the forces of right wing essentialism--departments of literature become the allies of racism and imperialism. The only way to avoid complicity in all that is truly evil in human history is to counter the very idea of the Canon, and the Great Books in it, at its very root. As Barbara Foley wrote in her essay on "Subversion and Oppositionality in the Academy" in College Literature:
...the humanist's role as the gatekeeper of tradition seems to have undergone a profound alteration. Where once we were charged with pointing up the uniqueness of works of undisputed genius and the darkness and ambiguity of the human condition, we are now empowered--indeed, encouraged--to relativize, historicize, contextualize. Subversion is the new order of the day, and we appear to inhabit a decidedly oppositional stance in relation to dominant ideology.
In case you can't quite figure out what that's supposed to mean, it translates as this: the purpose of college humanities departments is to be in active revolt against the very idea of literary "standards" and of everything else people living outside the university think is good and right and true. The student comes to the university believing that Shakespeare is a genius. He leaves believing that Shakespeare was complicit in a hierarchical construct based on marginalizing subject groups on the basis of gender, race and class.
If you think I've starting talking gibberish again, I don't blame you. I was trained in the same kinds of programs Barbara Foley was, and I find myself thinking that kind of thing is gibberish more often than not, unless I'm thinking instead that, translated into mainstream English, it's both banal and silly. There is nothing inherently wrong with analyzing works of literature, philosophy and history on the basis of gender, race and class. There's nothing inherently wrong with analyzing works of literature, philosophy and history on the basis of the way they reflect the themes in Superman comic books and The X Files TV show. The problems start when literature, philosophy, and history become nothing more than the launching pads for endless disquisitions on contemporary politics, and that's what too many courses in the humanities became in the United States in the 1990s. The situation is only made worse when the disquisitions in question are monotonal across the departments, in direct contradiction to the politics and values of the majority of the students in the classes, and delivered by people who don't feel any need to justify or even fully explain the validity of their own positions.
Literary standards and the Western intellectual tradition are bad. Marxism and feminism are good. If you don't agree--or if you think there's something else to be gotten out of The Tempest--then you're either desperately trying to hold onto your male white-skin privilege, or you're a victim of false consciousness induced by a thorough brainwashing by the hegemonic cultural discourse of the postcapitalist liberal state.
Okay, I'm doing it again. Excuse me.
The mystery here is not that student enthusiasm for the humanities has dropped off in the last twenty years, it's that any students are left in humanities courses at all. English departments have the advantage of being home to at least one course every college requires every student to take--even horticulture majors have to take a semester of Introductory Composition--but history, philosophy, comparative literature, and language departments have to compete for students across a curriculum that gets broader and more varied by the day. Colleges and universities that pride themselves on requiring a solid "core" of courses in the humanities don't demand much more than a few introductory-level survey courses in "western civilization" or "the cultural tradition." Students looking around for something "interesting" to fill an out-of-major elective hole in their schedules can take The Galileo Scandal or Psychology of Sex instead of Literature, Culture and Gender, and they do. In "What's At Stake In The Culture Wars," Foley approvingly cites John Guiillory's Cultural Capital as saying that:
...literary study is threatened with marginalization, indeed has already been largely marginalized, not because it has sent literature through the wringer of politics, or because it has been torn apart by dissension between left and right, but because it has experienced what he calls "capital flight in the domain of culture"... Where in the past the legitimacy of aristocratic and bourgeois ruling classes was shored up by these classes' possession of the skills needed to appropriate their cultures' sets of holy texts, at present the skills required for maintaining social dominance have shifted to the realm of technology.
In other words, it isn't boring courses, oversimplistic and overpoliticized approaches to analysis, or a pervasive tendency to see the teaching of literature as a mission to convert the heathen that is resulting in fewer and fewer English majors. It's that the ruling class no longer thinks an understanding of literature and the arts is of much use.
If there is one thing the Great Books movement proves--and the bestseller status of Harold Bloom's The Western Canon illustrates--it is that "literary study" is not being "marginalized" at all. It is alive and well in the American mainstream. What is being marginalized is the approach to literary study taken by most university departments of English, comparative literature, women's studies, African American studies, queer studies, and all the rest of the long laundry list of mostly makeshift "programs" that make up the modern American flirtation with "multiculturalism." And marginalized along with it are similar approaches to history, philosphy, and the fine arts.
Of course, Guillory and Foley have an answer to that--that literary study is no longer necessary to enter the ruling class--but nothing about that answer makes any sense in relation to reality. It is not plausible to suggest that all those thousands of people sending away for taped lecture courses from The Teaching Company, combing the Great Books Lists at Amazon, signing onto Usenet newsgroups about classical literature and philosophy , and attending bookstore Reading Groups on Middlemarch and Plato's Republic think they have a hope in hell of entering "the ruling class," even assuming they know what "the ruling class" is. If they wanted to enter "the ruling class," they'd be looking for a way into Harvard Law School, not spending their time in pursuits that leave no paper trail to beef up a resume.
Where Guillory gets it right, however, is in that bit about "their cultures' sets of holy texts." The word Canon, after all, applied first to the books of the New Testament. The Canon was that set of books purporting to be sacred works about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ that the Church at the time of Constantine decided were authentic, and therefore to be included in a New Testament and in Christian worship. It was Matthew Arnold who said that people should be encouraged to know "the best that had been thought and said" down through the ages, and anybody who thinks he and the people who followed him weren't thinking of that list of "bests" as "sacred texts" should look into the work of Erich Auerbach and Northrop Frye.. For over a century and a half, students in high schools and colleges in England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States were presented with writers who functioned in classrooms like gods. It's Shakespeare, for goodness sake! You can't criticize Shakespeare! There are plot holes and inconsistencies in Dante's Inferno? Don't be ridiculous! You just don't understand it! William Blake makes less sense than your brother-in-law on three beers and a joint? That's only because you can't decode symbolism!
The problem is, it's just as destructive to approach the works of Western civilization on bended knee as it is to approach them wearing red-tinted glasses. Deciding which books Count on the basis of which authors have some indefinable mark of genius makes no more sense than doing so on the basis of which authors have contributed to the revolutionary struggle of women in Guatemala. In both cases, the author's claim to free will is denied. Either an author is ruled by the biological imperatives of Great Talent, or by the economic imperatives of Historical Materialism. In neither case is the author allowed to be himself.
Yes, there are inconsistencies in Dante's Inferno. They're there because Dante's great work was first and foremost an act of literary revenge against everybody he couldn't stand in Florentine politics, and he was in a hurry to get it into circulation before some of them died off and couldn't see what he'd said about them. There's a good reason why William Blake sometimes sounds more addled than your brother in law. He was pretty damned addled, and that's even if you don't credit the stories that say he and his wife used to entertain visitors in their garden while they were both stark naked. William Faulkner was a legendary alcoholic. Samuel Taylor Coleridge took cocaine the way most people nowadays take multivitamins. Edna St. Vincent Millay treated sex as a sport and both men and women as racehorses in need of a jockey. Writers are not Geniuses, and they're not agents of White Male Eurocentric Hegemonic Discourse. They're people, and the books and poems and plays they wrote are first and foremost an expression of their own humanity.
It's that humanity we're trying to hook into, when we go looking for a list that will tell us what is worth reading.
By now, you're probably sitting there tapping your foot and going: all that's nice and everything, but there are going to be lists on this web site. You're going to tell us what's worth reading. If you're not picking them on the basis of Genius, and you're not picking them on the basis of political correctness, what's making you pick one book instead of another?
It's a fair question, and one I'm about half prepared to answer. The thing is, I don't think it's possible to make one list that would fit everybody, everywhere, that would delineate The Things Every Single Person Has to Read, No Matter What, To Be An Educated Human Being. I'm not even sure we know how to define "educated human being" at the moment, although I'd like to take one of these essays some day and try.
What I do think is that cultural literacy matters in a number of ways, and that it's possible to make a list of books, poems, plays, movies, paintings, and music that are absolutely essential if you want to understand the culture you're living in, or get a grip on who you are. It's only half true that you can't step into the same river twice. The water right around your ankles may be different, but it's coming from the same source as the water that was there before, and that source determines a lot about the nature of the water around your ankles at any given moment.
We read Great Books because they are, first and foremost, who we are. They're the reason Spiderman is the result of science gone awry and George W. Bush went to war in Iraq. They're the reason why, in spite of all the evidence, we think that if something is natural, it must be good, and that most of Boston believed Charles Stuart when he claimed a black man had leaped into his car and murdered his wife. Before Dr. Banner there was Dr. Frankenstein, and before Dr. Frankenstein there was Dr. Faustus. Both Arthur and Brutha were chosen by the forces of God and destiny to be the saviors of their worlds before Neo was. When Republicans look at Hillary Clinton, they see the Wicked Queen in Snow White.
Another good reason to read Great Books is the fact that, the fulminations of one religious fanatic or another notwithstanding, there has never been a holy book in the history of the world that could lay out all the rules for living a moral life. The morality we think we get from our religions is actually the distillation of thousands of years of inquiry and experiment into what it means to be fully human. The Greeks understood that explicitly. Even Thomas Aquinas understood that most men would never learn to be good by revelation alone. It's time that we--living in a world of stem cell research, gay marriage, justifications for infanticide, and the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison--took a shot at thinking through what it means to be good and evil, if only to stop ourselves from proclaiming that "everything is different now!" and running off to make all the same mistakes that ruined all those people before us.
The last good reason I have for reading Great Books has to do with the fact that, no matter how much of a genius Douglas Adams might have been, I can't make myself be satisfied with the proposition that the meaning of life is 42. There is something inherently chaotic, and disorganized, and rudderless, about living a life day by day. You get the laundry done and the dinner made and the kids off to school in such a press of hurry and necessity that it's easy to wake up one morning and realize you're ten years older, and have no idea how you got that way. Great Books are the record human beings have left of what it was like to live: to love and hate, to succeed and fail, to be born and to die. They're how we know that everything hasn't changed, and that there are more possibilities available to us than what we see from where we sit in our own particular corner of the world and of time.
Of course, if you've been following some of the links in this essay, you know that my idea of what constitutes a "Great Book" doesn't exactly fit the definition proffered by, say, Harold Bloom--but so be it. This area of this site is going to be full of lists, long ones and short ones, general ones and particular ones. I read a lot, and I have strong ideas on what everybody else should read, too. I can't tell you what it takes to be Well Read in some cosmic sense, but I can help with the three areas I've mentioned up above. At the very least, I can point you to the books that helped me.
Welcome to the Canon According to Jane.
Copyright © 2004 Jane Haddam. All rights reserved.
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