"I’ve always been sorry that political conservatives took up the phrase ‘the great conversation’ to mean only the books they approve of." ~ Jonathan Z. Smith
Now, insecurity is a painful emotion, but it is also an aspect of its perversity to wish to have its fears confirmed. It is a glutton for punishment. Thus the post-Vietnam intellectual marketplace saw the birth of a whole genre of conservative screed which sought to reassure us that our fears were justified: we were in fact as intellectual and morally bankrupt as we supposed. Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, Bill Bennett's The Book of Virtues, the whole "Great Books" brouhaha in its various incarnations-- these were some of the high water-marks of the craze (gosh: what, then, were the low water-marks?).
The theme common to these works was an achingly humorless belief in the sanctity of "The Canon," of "Western Civilization" and of the ideals they purportedly represent: ideals which, if resurrected, could save us from our present malaise ("decadence," quoth Jacques Barzun). The fad was for endless lists of books (good in themselves, I say-- minus the ideological agenda) which, if mastered, offered one a final, consummate release from cultural insecurity. It was supposed by Clifton Fadiman, the Blooms (both Harold and Allan), Barzun, Mortimer Adler and the other inflictors of the Great Books series, that if one simply sat down with Plato and Aristotle and read all the way through to Tolstoy and George Eliot, then one would have dispelled all one's embarrassing Americanisms by the time one came up for air. This fed into the second theme of the craze: the hunt for "objective criteria" and "absolutes" in the study of literature-- epitomized, not coincidentally, by the New Criterion.
There is a certain awkwardness, for lack of a better term, in seeing a meticulous cultural conservatism attempt to resurrect Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, Kafka and the other 19th- and 20th- century heresiarchs as victims of "modern decadence." One wonders what James Joyce, say, would think if he leaned that the country that banned Ulysses had later exhumed and cemented it as a pillar of "The Values of Western Civilization." It would probably have been an unsolicited acknowledgement, to say the least-- rather as if Gore Vidal had been elected an honorary member of the Elks or the Rotarians for services to Christian morals.
This is only to gesture at a deeper incoherency in this type of Neoconservatism. The movement was "conservative" in its attempt to hold on to certain ideals and aspirations threatened by the New Left. It was "Neo-," however, in that the values it sought to conserve were in large part the ones typically associated with liberalism and modernity: equality before the law, personal autonomy, representative government, and the like. Now, some version of this "conservative liberalism" is possible-- indeed it has a proud body of thought behind it. But American Neoconservatism is not a proper keeper of its flame, mostly because fanning it would require making much more frank discriminations between incompatible sets of values. The Neocon votaries of "The Canon," by contrast to "conservative liberals" and straight-up conservatives (no neo- required), wanted to have it all ways: they wanted their Adam Smith alongside their Scholastics-- their Thomas Paine with their Plato. The impracticable solution was to jumble all these together under the label of "The Western Tradition" and set the whole package up as an inchoate adversary of identity politics and the counterculture, however little sense this made.
This quest-- that of marshaling all of Western thought, Classical, Medieval, and Modern, into a chaotic alliance against the New Left-- was so quixotic and evidently futile that many Neocons appear never to have attempted it in earnest. This accounts for one of the greatest ironies of the movement's record: the fact that, for all its bluster about "tradition, "the classics," etc., Neoconservatism appears not to have been especially interested in history. Nor, for that matter, in Western literature, or in "the past" in any sense as it actually, and not polemically, unfolded. The thing about people in "the past," you see, is that they didn't think they were in "the past"-- they thought they were in the present: more, they thought they were steering a path toward the future. The ones we recall most vividly from their number were those who stood out from their own time and place, who questioned its prevailing values, and who were willing to face public opposition for what they believed. They are therefore not likely-- even at a temperamental level-- to win the sympathy of ideological Culture Warriors and American jingoists.
Thus, the women and men of "the past" were adored by the Neoconservatives in a rather glib, abstract and distant way. Gertrude Himmelfarb, for instance, in The De-Moralization of Society, settled on the Victorians as her historical paragons, yet it is clear by page two of the book that her true sympathies lie with Maggie Thatcher, and with the roster of the "Victorian values" she once rattled off in full Polonius fashion ("You were taught to work jolly hard; [...] that cleanliness is next to godliness" and so on, interminably, these Poor Richard-isms). Meanwhile, it is difficult to imagine Himmelfarb, given her reliance on Neocon clichés, having any real sympathy for the more interesting and memorable Victorians (i.e., the ones who actually lived in the Victorian era). One could not find in the writings of John Stuart Mill, Carlyle, William Morris, Disraeli, George Eliot, or any of the rest the sort of shallow amalgam Thatcher concocted of pat modern and traditional moralisms. It becomes clear that what Himmelfarb really admires is not the Victorians themselves, but the stereotyped view of their society that has come down to us: a society that combined the bumptious confidence of industrial, "progressive" civilizations (on a mission to "save" the rest of the world against its will) with a niggling, provincial, and invasive morality characteristic of a blinkered type of "traditionalism". Rather the worst of both worlds, you might think-- but it was precisely the admixture the Neoconservatives had in mind for the recently deceased "American Century." At any rate, it was an idea of "the past" embraced not out of an affection for history, but out of ideology.
Something similar is going on, one suspects, in the case of the Neocon obsession with "objective criteria" in literature. In other words, they appear to have far less interest in literature itself than they do in pugnaciously reiterating the need for "objective criteria" in evaluating it.
Literature in general suffered a loss of status in the second half of the 20th century, as it became less and less often the chief interest and occupation of intellectuals, being subsumed by technical debates over the welfare state and the ever more nebulous and suspect dealings of the U.S. government abroad. Novels in this era came to be seen as little more than otiose and cumbersome means of conveying political ideas-- ones of the sort that really ought to end up in double-columns in The Public Interest. As Gore Vidal complained as early as 1967, "In the highest intellectual circles, a new novel by James Baldwin or William Gass or Norman Mailer-- to name at random three celebrated novelists-- is apt to be regarded with a certain embarrassment, hostage to a fortune too crudely gained, and bearing little relation to its author's distinguished commentaries."
As such, for those thinkers with a stake in the political debates, the justification for literature came increasingly to reside in invoking it-- abstractly-- as something to be defended in the Culture Wars. And not in-- say-- reading it.
But wielding "literature" as a blunt instrument of this sort precludes an earnest enjoyment of it. The reason is simple: a positive experience of art or literature tends not to convince one of the "objective value" of its contents, of "criteria" which can thenceforth be drilled into generations of students through coursework until everyone ends up with the same taste and culture, and hence impervious to rock music and hippies and such. Most genuine encounters with literature, by contrast, are of a sort that immediately reveals to one their subjective and deeply personal nature.
This is not to say some books or poems really aren't better or worse than others. It is simply to say that our sense of beauty is inextricably linked to a private worldview, and not to some intrinsic property of the language. If there is beauty in flowery descriptions of nature for their own sake I have never had a sense for it. The much-sought thrill of beauty comes rather from an experience of recognition we have with the text. We see something in it we have thought or felt before. We marvel to learn that our impression was more universal than we realized. Such aesthetic recognition becomes all the more powerful the more secret and private (perhaps shameful) a feature of our worldview it reflects, for we are consoled to find that someone had the courage and acuity to express something we only dimly and embarrassedly found in ourselves.
I include two passages with which I had this chilling and most uncomfortable resonance, chosen basically at random. What strikes me about them both is that they enclose ideas about myself or the world to which, for one reason or another, my superego would never allow me to consciously commit myself-- suggesting that art can convey a type of truth that the rational argument of a philosophy paper or the "official" stances detailed in a memoir cannot. John Barth: "[M]y whole life, at least a great part of it, has been directed toward the solution of a problem, or mastery of a fact. It is a matter of attitudes, of stances -- of masks, if you wish [...] During my life I've assumed four or five such stances, based on certain conclusions, for I tend, I'm afraid, to attribute to abstract ideas a life or death significance." Martin Amis: "Without a care in the world, as they say. Although of course no one [...] is without a care in the world. [...] Everyone is right up there at the very brink of their pain limit. That was one of the reasons why it was so easy to hurt people: they were never ready. More pain? Nobody needed that. Nobody thought they could possible have room for any more, until it came."
Maybe these lines don't seem beautiful to you, reader-- perhaps they seem clumsy or clichéd or puerile or ugly. I see no way of proving to you that they "really are" beautiful-- the point is I had something unexpressed in me that these passages-- oh so eerily and astonishingly-- put a name to before I was able.
Surely, though, some lines of prose or poetry are more genuinely insightful and universal than others-- and therefore more likely to inspire this sensation of alarming intimacy between reader and unknown author. But the point is that even the best of them cannot sound a musical note on a wooden board. If we have not had the experiences or formed the -- invariably subjective and personal-- worldview that allows us to resonate with the words in question, then they will mean nothing to us.
Some Neocons might know this, but to the extent they were guilty of the Great Books phenomenon, they did not act upon their knowledge. For the whole Great Books series was premised on the idea that if everyone could just study all these tomes from grade school up, starting with Plato, then everyone would have taste and cultural confidence. Insecurity be gone.
Now, it is true, in my experience, that being forced to read the classics, especially the Western Classics, has a certain distinct value-- but mostly as a barometer whereby one can begin to measure which authors appeal to one's sensibility and seem to one most deeply true. You can afterwards explore those particular authors on your own time. But no external authority can compel you to have the experience of aesthetic recognition unless the material is already there in your own mind-- the life experience and background of thought-- to make it possible.
I remember as a fourteen-year-old I was briefly enchanted by Clifton Fadiman's Lifetime Reading Plan and set out to follow his instructions to the letter. Beginning at the beginning, I opened my Plato and stared at one of the early dialogues. It might as well have been written in Cyrillic. The problem was not that I couldn't read the words-- it was that I had not, at that age, even begun to understand why the question of "What is virtue?", say, demands an answer. Nor had I begun to construct such an answer for my own purposes. Until one has done these things, reading Plato is like learning cursive in the fourth grade-- one is told one is supposed to do it, but doesn't know why.
If such is the case with writers (like Plato) who deal with rather fundamental and universal human concerns, such as the nature of morality and the puzzle of life and death, then it is all the more the case with acknowledged masters in more technical fields which the Great Books curriculum also sought to include-- good, I'm sure, for what they do, but utterly useless to someone who's scientifically or mathematically tone-deaf like me. Dwight MacDonald, no intellectual light-weight, once asked of the makers of the Great Books series "what benefit the reader will get from a hundred and sixty double-column pages of Hippocrates." He illustrated the point with a few Hippocratic nuggets; words of advice to ancient physicians which indeed seem to take the reader rather far afield of the "Great Conversation": "'We must avoid wetting all sorts of ulcers except with wine, unless the ulcer be situated in a joint.' 'In women, blood collected in the breasts indicates madness.' 'You should put persons on a course of hellebore who are troubled with a defluction from the head.' 'Acute disease come [sic] to a crisis in fourteen days'."
This points the way to a further conundrum: Just how is one justified in stuffing Hermann Melville and George Eliot alongside James Clerk Maxwell and Isaac Newton and calling the the whole package "The Classics": implying that they are articles of roughly the same value and variety. I suspect the act of doing so is the product of a confusion unique to the 20th century, which came to regard "literature" as a field which conveyed "knowledge" in much the same way as a scientific endeavor. I suppose in some sense both George Eliot and James Clerk Maxwell derive their value from the extent to which their claims are true, but the truths one can find in The Mill on the Floss will only ever be evident to someone who has thought some of the same perturbed thoughts or felt the same cramped intellectual energy as Maggie Tulliver-- and this person will of course never know for certain whether they are really true at all, or only seem so to her. Nobody could show them to her in a laboratory.
Assigned reading, whether assigned in school or assigned by Mortimer Adler, has a single virtue that I can see: In short, by thrusting so many books into the hands of young people, there is a decent chance that a few of those books will catch hold of their imagination. Cast a wide enough net and you're bound to land a fish. But If those books don't catch hold, the kids are better served by chucking them out the window-- or, well, gently setting them aside for later use-- than by laboring over them out of a fruitless sense of duty. There is nothing to "learn" from Herman Melville, apart from certain details of 19th -century whaling and the properties of whale oil. If one is not resonating with the book by the end of the first chapter, it's probably time to move on-- at least for the present. See these words from the 1971 into to Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook; probably the best advice one could give to young people (or anyone else) about reading:
"There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag-- and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or movement. Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty-- and vice versa. Don't read a book out of its right time for you."I immediately put her advice into practice by delighting in the first fifty pages of The Golden Notebook, losing the thread of it at that point, and putting it aside for some later date. Indeed, perhaps the reason I like her advice so much is that it justifies the dilettantism and lamentable attention span toward which I already incline. But despite my motives, the point stands: you can't make any sense of a book-- especially a work of literature-- unless it speaks to you (or unless it doesn't but happens to contain a few memorably gruesome details about the making of tallow from blubber).
The Neoconservatives and others who favor the "Great Books" and the "Western Civ" agenda are often sincere in their belief that the study of these texts will produce better and more thoughtful individuals. They are right to the extent that reading works that have survived from the past increases one's chances of meeting those rare authors who will strike one as intimates. They are also right that there is a "Great Conversation" to take part in, and that reading Chinese Classics, say -- valuable in themselves -- will shed less light on the intellectual background of Freud than reading Nietzsche or Schopenhauer or Kant would do.
But they are wrong indeed if they think that all these works have passed some "objective criteria" and are therefore fit to be stuffed down the throat of students until they come out looking like those (imaginary?) German teenagers Allan Bloom envied. We won't have cookie-cutter teenagers. We also shouldn't want them.
An encounter with an old author or an historical figure is made meaningful by the realization that she or he, at that great distance of time, is not quite so different or unrecognizable as one supposed-- that she or he could be a friend and provider of consolation, as living people can be. This is not the sort of relationship the "Great Books" aims to cultivate. It wishes to provide us with "Authorities" -- ever irreproachable-- and unapproachable. What we really need are companions.