Literature understood on the model of religion

Professor of American Studies at Columbia University, Andrew Delbanco:

. . . fewer of today’s booted-up, logged-in, on-line college students are having an igniting experience with books. And professors of English have never done a poorer job than they are doing now at answering the question, “So what?”

An answer that leads back, I believe, to the core of a literary education is to be found in an entry Emerson made in his journal 165 years ago. “The whole secret of the teacher’s force,” he wrote, “lies in the conviction that men are convertible. And they are. They want awakening.” Having left the ministry two years before, Emerson was still in the process of transforming himself from a preacher into a lecturer, and of altering the form of his writing from the sermon to the essay. But his motive for speaking and writing had not changed with the shedding of his frock. Like every great teacher, he was in the business of trying to “get the soul out of bed, out of her deep habitual sleep.”

None of us who has ever been a student can fail to read this passage without remembering some teacher by whom we were startled out of complacency about our own ignorance. For this to take place, the student must be open to it, and the teacher must overcome the incremental fatigue of repetitive work and somehow remain a professor in the religious sense of that word—ardent, exemplary, even fanatic.

Literary studies, in fact, have their roots in religion. Trilling understood this when he remarked, in his gloomy essay about the future of the humanities, that “the educated person” had traditionally been conceived as

an initiate who began as a postulant, passed to a higher level of experience, and became worthy of admission into the company of those who are thought to have transcended the mental darkness and inertia in which they were previously immersed.

Such a view of education as illumination and deliverance following what Trilling called “exigent experience” is entirely Emersonian. It has little to do with the positivist idea of education to which the modern research university is chiefly devoted—learning “how to extend, even by minute accretions, the realm of knowledge.” This corporate notion of knowledge as a growing sum of discoveries no longer in need of rediscovery once they are recorded, and transmittable to those whose ambition it is to add to them, is a great achievement of our civilization. But except in a very limited sense, it is not the kind of knowledge that is at stake in a literary education.

* * *

. . . for most students, especially undergraduates, the appeal of English has never had much to do with its scholarly objectives. Students who turn with real engagement to English do so almost always because they have had the mysterious and irreducibly private experience—or at least some intimation of it—of receiving from a work of literature “an untranslatable order of impressions” that has led to “consummate moments” in which thought and feeling are fused and lifted to a new intensity. These ecstatic phrases describing aesthetic experience come from Walter Pater, who was writing in Oxford in the 1870s—at just that “point of English history,” as T.S. Eliot put it, marked by “the repudiation of revealed religion by men of culture.” This was also the moment when English first entered the university as a subject of formal study.

The idea that reading can be a revelatory experience stretches back in its specifically Christian form at least to Saint Augustine, who wrote of being “dissociated from myself”until he heard a child’s voice beckoning him to open the Gospels, “repeating over and over, ‘Pick up and read, pick up and read.”’

A millennium and a half later, Matthew Arnold wrote in the same spirit when he defined culture (in a phrase that has often been misconstrued and misappropriated) as the “pursuit of total perfection by means of getting to know…the best which has been thought and said in the world, and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.” For Augustine, “the best which has been thought and said” was to be found exclusively in scripture; for Arnold, it was more various—scattered throughout all works capable of leading readers beyond the “bounded intellectual horizon within which we have long lived.”

Like any religion that has been codified and institutionalized, this “religion of culture” (as Arnold’s detractors called it) has been susceptible to deformations—proselytizing the impressionable young, degenerating into idolatry, clinging to rituals long after the spirit from which they originally arose is attenuated or gone. Yet something like faith in the transforming power of literature is surely requisite for the teacher who would teach with passion and conviction. It is a faith expressed uncommonly well by Emerson some thirty years before Arnold:

Literature is a point outside of our hodiernal [present-day] circle through which a new one may be described. The use of literature is to afford us a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it.

This large assertion links aesthetic response with moral (or what Kernan prefers to call “existential”) knowledge, and even with the imperative to take reformist action in the world. For Arnold, culture had nothing to do with the motive “to plume” oneself with “a smattering of Greek and Latin,” or to wear one’s education as a “badge” of “social distinction.” To acquire culture was, instead, to become aware of the past and restless with complacencies of the present, and to be stirred by the “aspiration to leave the world better and happier than we found it.” As long as teachers of literature acknowledged their responsibility for transmitting culture in this sense, they held a dignified position in the university. In fact, since the decline of classics and theology, and the takeover of philosophy departments by technical analytic philosophers, they have stood, along with those historians who continue to practice narrative and cultural history in the grand nineteenth-century style, as the last caretakers of the Arnoldian tradition.

* * *

One irony in the marginalizing of English studies is that they enjoyed their greatest prestige in the secular academy when they held most closely to the tradition of scriptural exegesis from which they derive. In the immediate postwar decades, when English departments were flourishing, intellectual energy was concentrated in something called the New Criticism—a reductive term often taken today to designate a narrow formalism and stipulative method. In fact, many who accepted the rubric were engaged in a broad resistance to what one of their leaders, Cleanth Brooks, called the “quixotic desire” of humanists “to be objective and ‘scientific.”’ The New Criticism was still, and unashamedly, driven by an essentially religious impulse—as expressed in the quasi-theological title of Brooks’s notable essay “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” which argued that trying to distill “‘a prose-sense’ of a poem” as if one could build “a rack on which the stuff of the poem is hung” amounts to a kind of blasphemy. As his Yale colleague W.K. Wimsatt explained in another famous essay, “The Intentional Fallacy,” the poet—the mind behind the creation—remains an inscrutable creator whose intention can never be fully known, but in whose handiwork one may glimpse something of the sublime idea to which the poem gives form.

* * *

The field of English has become, to use a term given currency twenty-five years ago by the redoubtable Stanley Fish, a “self-consuming artifact.” On the one hand, it has lost the capacity to put forward persuasive judgments; on the other hand, it is stuffed with dogma and dogmatists. It has paid overdue attention to minority writers, but, as Lynn Hunt notes in her essay in What’s Happened to the Humanities?, it (along with the humanities in general) has failed to attract many minority students. It regards the idea of progress as a pernicious myth, but never have there been so many critics so sure that they represent so much progress over their predecessors. It distrusts science, but it yearns to be scientific—as attested by the notorious recent “Sokal hoax,” in which a physicist submitted a deliberately fraudulent article full of pseudoscientific gibberish to a leading cultural-studies journal, which promptly published it. It denounces the mass media for pandering to the public with pitches and slogans, but it cannot get enough of mass culture. The louder it cries about the high political stakes in its own squabbles, the less connection it maintains to anything resembling real politics. And by failing to promote literature as a means by which students may become aware of their unexamined assumptions and glimpse worlds different from their own, the self-consciously radical English department has become a force for conservatism.

English, in short, has come to reflect some of the worst aspects of our culture: obsessing about sex, posturing about real social inequities while leaving them unredressed, and participating with gusto in the love/hate cult of celebrities. (At the conventions these days, resentment is palpable, as celebrities hold forth before colleagues frightened about their chances of getting a job or keeping the one they have.) English today exhibits the contradictory attributes of a religion in its late phase—a certain desperation to attract converts, combined with an evident lack of convinced belief in its own scriptures and traditions.

* * *

. . . full-scale revival will come only when English professors recommit themselves to slaking the human craving for contact with works of art that somehow register one’s own longings and yet exceed what one has been able to articulate by and for oneself. This is among the indispensable experiences of the fulfilled life, and the English department will survive—if on a smaller scale than before—only if it continues to coax and prod students toward it.

— “The Decline and Fall of Literature” (The New York Review of Books)


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