A professor in my History department, known colloquially as “the department anarchist”, and I spent an afternoon discussing my problems getting undergraduates to read Homer, Saint Augustine, and Dante in the same month. “Don’t let them skip the readings,” he insisted. “It’s worth it. These books are good for you!” I smiled and said, “We’re sort of cultural conservatives, aren’t we?” “Yes,” he replied, “We are the true cultural conservatives!”
It’s a job requirement. Academics have the sacred mission of serving as stewards of culture, passing the cultural patrimony on to the next generation. You’re snickering as you read that because so many of them have abdicated that role. Attending conferences, writing jargon-filled journal articles, arguing about politics; these are the things that come to mind when looking over the academic landscape.
And when you face a classroom of young people, newly paroled from the American high school system, and now stepping out of the blizzard of pop cultural nothingness, and start talking about “the canon” with them, it’s a bit like watching two alien life-forms encountering each other for the first time. There’s a total disconnect between their culture and their cultural patrimony. High culture- those elevating works of art and literature that have survived the test of time- are disdained as pretentious and elitist; and in turn seem to have been taken hostage by academics! And yet, while I am of the generation that remains steeped in pop culture, it’s hard not to feel increasingly that, in the words of David Cronenberg, “it just doesn’t feed me”.
How did enjoyment of and engagement with the canon become so specialized, narrow, professionalized, and soulless? Here the culture wars have obscured more than they’ve illuminated. Dating the “crisis of the humanities”: namely, academia’s divorce from the larger culture, only back to “postmodernism” or “the 60s campus protests” suggests that the humanities were in far better shape before that time. But reading the memoirs of people who went through the educational system in the 1800s, one hears the same complaints: slogging through dry, soul-crushing, bureaucratized and boring academic rituals with no sense of their larger value. Long before World War I, in fact, the decline had taken place: curiosity and the love of interacting with the ancients through their texts had degenerated into scholarship! By the end of the 19th century, Nietzsche is complaining that nobody would care if the philologists were crushed by a Greek statue, but they’re threatening to crush the Greek statues under the weight of philologists.
The political debates about the canon overlook the fact that back to the Renaissance roots, the humanities have gone through alternating periods of deadening specialization and thrilling revitalization; we’re just overdue for the second. Erasmus complained just as much as we do about the narrow, pedantic, professionalized and soul-deadening scholasticism of his contemporaries, none of whom had even heard of poststructuralism! Make no mistake: academe desperately needs new conservative blood (and not just to drink!); but politicizing the canon has reduced our common cultural heritage to another talking point. The culture wars rage on long after the culture has lost.
Nevertheless, entering into discussion with our forebears still helps us to escape the horrible narcissism and historical forgetting of our contemporary culture. It helps us to map out an interior landscape and, by talking with people who we have to raise ourselves up to meet, we become more fully human. The League masthead tells us the posts here “are dialogues with an aim towards sustained discussion on topics and issues that lay at the foundations of our lives.” This too lays at the foundation of our lives.
I propose to “blog the canon”; from Homer to Hitchcock, Wittgenstein to Warhol, and Plato to Passolini. I want to do is write in a lively, irreverent, and passionate way about “the best that has been said and thought in the world”, and how these works affect me, a relative pisher in many of these areas. I am no expert. (With any luck, I’ll win one of Andrew Sullivan’s “poseur alerts”!) But I do want to write about the Aeneid the way we bloggers write about Avatar– as a living part of our culture.
Here’s what I’d like to avoid if I can:
- The Casaubon approach: overly-pedantic and treating the great books as a museum piece. This is all wrong for the Internet anyway.
- The Bill Bennet approach: in which the texts are completely decontextualized and combed over for values we can apply to our lives. “What can Achilles teach us about leadership?” There’s no quicker way to kill these texts than to put them on a pedestal to die.
- The hyper critical grad student approach: the sexist/racist/hegemonic school of analysis in which classical thinkers are interrogated, beaten, and forced to give up the ghost, reduced to their worst qualities to escape an assumed “triumphalism”. I’m an enthusiast; not a vandal.
This is an experiment. I’m hoping to do 3-4 posts a week and either the idea will work smashingly, or it will crash and burn. It won’t be terribly political, but I promise not to embed any videos of cats.
Please feel free to argue (as ever!), make corrections, give suggestions and make jokes!