Recently in The Great Themes Category
A recent NY Times article
on the urgent need for humanities departments at universities to justify themselves in light of tough economic times closed with this dispiriting quote:
As money tightens, the humanities may increasingly return to being
what they were at the beginning of the last century, when only a
minuscule portion of the population attended college: namely, the
province of the wealthy.That may be unfortunate but inevitable,
Mr. Kronman [a law professor at Yale] said. The essence of a humanities education -- reading the
great literary and philosophical works and coming "to grips with the
question of what living is for" -- may become "a great luxury that many
Reading the great books can be done for free, if you don't mind reading them online at Google Books, or if you're Neanderthal enough to use a library. As for grappling with, as another scholar put it, "what it means to be a human being," you don't need money for that, either. In fact, being utterly impoverished is perhaps the best prescription for wrestling with the meaning of human existence.
The "great luxury" is not the inquiry that animates any humanities curriculum, but rather a course of study at an elite university. It's typical of the myopia of professors at such institutions to confuse graduating from an ivory tower with getting an "education." Such snobbishness also feeds growing perceptions (incorrect, in my view) that education in the humanities is useless.
On the contrary, what's of decreasing use in our ever-more-globalized world is the silly notion that wealth and prestige protect one from the vicissitudes of life. This lesson is one that Americans (and especially American hedge-fund managers) are loathe to learn. A genuine education in the humanities would rectify that mistake.
In the past month, I've had may opportunities to feel fear. I've feared running out of money, of course; a constant fear in my hand-to-mouth existence these days. I've feared having an ulcer, the most recent manifestation of another underlying fear of mine: cancer; or, more generally, physical degeneration in disease. I've feared for my physical well-being and, specifically, being raped, another fairly stable baseline in my life, especially when I find myself (as I did recently) careening around Mumbai, at night, with a stranger at the wheel and no idea where he was taking me.
I don't enjoy feeling frightened, and I don't find much social support for the experience of fear. Just two weeks ago, I attended a training on maintaining security in disaster operations, where I was surrounded by men who were described (or who described themselves) as "impervious" to fear and who equated being "strong" with being fearless. I, on the other hand, was the person who cried during the hostage-taking simulation; no one congratulated me on being strong.
I therefore savored two passages in recent reading selections. In Gone with the Wind
, Grandma Fontaine warns Scarlett,
Child, it's a very bad thing for a woman to face the worst that can happen to her, because after she's faced the worst she can't ever really fear anything again. And it's very bad for a woman not to be afraid of something. . . . [T]hat lack of fear has gotten me into a lot of trouble and cost me a lot of happiness. God intended women to be timid, frightened creatures and there's something unnatural about a woman who isn't afraid.
(p. 430.) While I'm the last person to believe that God intended me to be timid or frightened, Grandma Fontaine's warning -- that a lack of fear has gotten her into trouble and cost her happiness -- resonates. Danger, of course, is alluring, and once the deterrent fear wears away, the magnetic attraction of dangerous situations is less resistible. Nor have I observed great happiness among people who are war junkies; once hooked on the adrenaline rush of conflict situations (or disasters, or other high-stakes danger), enjoying the pleasures of ordinary life is a challenge. Most people I've seen "solve" this challenge with booze.
And, of course, women war/conflict/disaster junkies are especial outcasts. Whether I buy in to Grandma Fontaine's standards or not, most of the rest of society does; and I haven't met a man yet who wants a war/conflict/disaster junky for a wife.
But there are worse fates than being an outcast, and Isak Dinesen describes one in "The Dreamers," the sixth tale in Seven Gothic Tales
Alas, [says the famed story teller, Mira Jama, who now can tell stories no more], as I have lived I have lost the capacity of fear. When you know what things are really like, you can make no poems about them. . . . I have become too familiar with life; it can no longer delude me into believing that one thing is much worse than the other. The day and the dark, an enemy and a friend--I know them to be about the same. How can you make others afraid when you have forgotten fear yourself?
(p. 274.) I had never before considered the relationship between fear and fiction, that the fearless hero is always the subject, and never the narrator. Isak Dinesen's insight seems right: fearlessness atrophies the imagination. (Indeed, Rhett often describes Scarlett -- who has become fearless -- as lacking imagination.) Also, an absence of fear diminishes compassion for those who do feel fear. (For example, the "impervious, strong" men with whom I was training couldn't relate to my fearful despair during the hostage simulation.) And without imagination and compassion, you can't tell a story.
Perhaps, then, I should be more respectful of my own fears, should bolster myself against shame in feeling them, and protect my fears from erosion by experience. Because to lose the capacity to tell stories -- the means by which I comprehend the world, process my experience, and comfort myself and others -- would be a true horror.
David Orr discusses in this week's NY Times Book Review
the crisis of "greatness" in the current American poetry scene. "Poetry needs
greatness," he explains, because poetry remains "the highest of High Art." And while Orr recognizes that the concept of "greatness" can be "strategy for concealing predictable prejudices," he also argues that without it, "we stop making demands on the few artists capable of practicing the art at its highest levels."
His argument reminded me of a passage in "The Deluge at Norderney," the first tale in Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales
. In it, a Cardinal and an eccentric older woman, Miss Malin Nat-og-Dag, are stranded during a flood and, to pass the time, they discuss theology. Miss Malin asks the Cardinal if he believes in the fall of man, and he replies:
I am convinced . . . that there has been a fall, but I do not hold that it is man who has fallen. I believe that there has been a fall of the divinity. We are now serving an inferior dynasty of heaven. . . . [N]o human being with a feeling for greatness can possibly believe that the God who created the stars, the sea, and the desert, the poet Homer and the giraffe, is the same God who is now making, and upholding, the King of Belgium, the Poetical School of Schwaben, and the moral ideas of our day.
at pp. 55-56 (emphasis added). Just as the Cardinal intuits an inferior dynasty of heaven, today's poets perceive an inferior muse: how can Billy Collins and Kay Ryan answer the same Apollonian call as Lord Byron?
But from my perspective, the Cardinal (and perhaps, by extension, Isak Dinesen) got it wrong: it's not the God who has changed, but the worshipful. "Greatness," in the sense that Orr uses the term, relates not so much to achievement in an absolute sense, but to achievement within a certain context, specifically a society in which an aristocracy (in the sense of a superior class) exists.
Just as Aristole limited tragedy to a fall by an aristocrat from the pinnacle to the depths, "greatness" is similarly confined to a feat of glory by nobility. In Aristotle's day (and for centuries thereafter), society widely accepted those categorizations. But we no longer do so. In Death of a Salesman
, Arthur Miller claimed tragedy for those who don't have far to fall. And in Elizabeth Bishop (to take an example that Orr discusses), poetry finds glory without aristocratic pedigree.
The Isak Dinesen who scripted the Cardinal's "inferior dynasty of heaven" was, beneath her nom de plume
, a woman mourning the waning of the artistocracy. She'd married into nobility and clung to her title (Baroness) long after her husband, the Baron, divorced her. She associated aristocracy with a set of values, like honor, that she seems to have felt wouldn't exist after the aristocrats expire.
But aristocracy was the bastion of unearned privilege, exploitation and cruelty, as much as it was the crucible of beauty, and art at its "highest levels" is as possible without an aristocracy as tragedy is.
Perhaps what's lacking in American poetry is not greatness, but confidence. We are not inferior humans to our ancestors, simply because the god we serve is more humane, meritocratic and accessible than in years past. We are not less because we reject the fall of man altogether. Our belief in progress, a gradual rise as opposed to a precipitous fall, is an attribute. When American poetry has the moxy to stop apologizing for society and get on with the harshly difficult job of writing poems, then we will witness a democratic greatness.
I was greatly saddened to learn today that, earlier this week, Tayeb Salih died
. Salih wrote Season of Migration to the North
, a book that is, in my estimation, the 20th century's most perceptive work about power dynamics (West and East, white and black, male and female, Christian and Muslim). It is also gorgeously written (as rendered in translation by Denys Johnson-Davies).
Born in Sudan, Salih's views were nuanced and complex, suggesting that he had personal experience striking a balance between traditional, even pre-modern, roots and a contemporary urban existence. In his writing, he was neither ideological nor romantic; in Season
, he didn't glorify the simple peasant life or uniformly condemn colonization. Sex, like birth and death, humiliation and anger, is an aspect of human behavior without which you cannot understand the whole; and as such, he wrote openly about it.
Contrast Salih's writing, and his legacy, with the unfortunate situation
of surrounding the Emirates Airlines International Festival of Literature in Dubai. After the Festival declined Geraldine Bedell's new book, The Gulf Between Us
, because it contains a gay character, Margaret Atwood announced that she'd be boycotting the Festival, consistent with her obligations as vice-president of International PEN
Conference organizers objected that the topic of homosexuality would offend readers in the region, but this reason seems inadequate. People who might be offended, after all, are free not to read the book. In any event, ideas that offend may nonetheless have value.
Homosexuality, like the forced marriage, subsequent rape, and murders that occur in Season
, is a part of human experience. Whether we acknowledge it or ignore it, whether it offends us or attracts us, homosexuality exists. Without examining it openly, we impoverish our understanding of the whole.Season
, which was originally written in Arabic, is widely-acknowledged as one of the foundational works of modern Arab literature. A literary festival in Dubai has options as to the traditions on which it wants to build, and Salih's legacy is one of them. I am profoundly grieved that, in the wake of Salih's death, it is not doing so. An Arab literature grounded in, and expanding upon, the richness of Salih's understanding of humanity would be a resource for the whole world.
(Photo from Canadian Broadcasting Company
Back in October, Horace Engdahl, then the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, earned the indignation of American commentators when he observed
that American writers are "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture. . . . The U.S. is too isolated, too isular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining."
Given the proximity of the remark to the announcement of the 2008 Nobel Prize in literature (which went to JMG Le Clezio, a French writer virtually unknown in the U.S.), the remark seemed a (taunting?) forewarning of yet another snub of Philip Roth and any other Nobel-worthy American writer.
Yet the remark contains an unpleasant truth, one that I felt starkly when I recently read the poet Charles Simic's review
of new poetry collections by Ron Padgett and Ellen Bryant Voigt. In it, Simic writes, "We have become a nation of self-absorbed individuals who care little about the lives of the underprivileged, and that attitude has even affected our literature."
Outside of the context of the Nobel prize, and the tiresome politics -- literary and otherwise -- that accompany it (and, perhaps, coming from the mouth of a fellow American, rather than a superior European), the critique reveals a sad, pathetic state of affairs. Insularity and self-aborption appear a bulwark against the tribulations of underprivilege: out of sight, out of mind. But that denial leaves us limited, ignorant -- restrained, to use Engdahl's word.
We've become a different sort of underprivileged, and of a type that cannot be relieved with a mere increase in income.
I love reading novels for three reasons, primarily. The first is relief of boredom. The second is the pleasurable stimulation I experience when I'm engaged in a story. And the third is the comfort I derive from novels. Learning from Turgenev's Fathers and Sons
, for example, that the contours of generation struggle
have changed remarkably little since the nineteenth century made me feel wonder at the consistency of human travails throughout time and the support we can find in the written records of our forebears.
That said, I didn't expect to find comfort in novels for the irritation and insecurity occasioned by the current state of the publishing industry. The decline in reading rates, the competition from the Internet and video games, the market preference for memoirs/how-to's/biz books, the current economic downturn -- these harbingers of the death of the novel I took to be burdens I'd have to shoulder without aid from authors of an earlier era. How often I'd thought my publishing woes would be solved if only I'd been writing during the heyday of Grove Press, in the years of Max Perkins . . .
But Jane Austen set me straight. "[I]f the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. . . . Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body," Austen writes, taking her stand in Northanger Abbey
. "Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers."
Ah me. To be assuaged with such thorny balm -- the assurance that writing novels would be a miserable pursuit whenever I'd be born; to be comforted with the knowledge that reports of the death of the novel are greatly exaggerated -- and have been so for some two hundred years; I can only love reading novels even more.