Allow Me to Introduce Myself…

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:

  1. The Casaubon approach: overly-pedantic and treating the great books as a museum piece. This is all wrong for the Internet anyway.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!

Please do be so kind as to share this post.

62 thoughts on “Allow Me to Introduce Myself…

  1. “We are the true cultural conservatives!”


    I look forward to these (though, personally, I hope you spend more time with the Fathers than their bastards… Warhol… seriously? Warhol?).

    The request I have is that you give us (if necessary, of course) the translator you prefer (and why) when you give us someone who has to be translated.

    Again: I really look forward to these!


    • Good idea on the translators. In general, I really am fond of the Penguin Classics editions, or at least the recent ones.

      I`d actually like to start with Aeschylus, `The Suppliants`- sometimes called`The Suppliant Maidens`. I will try to find a good online translation to link to. Obviously, the Iliad is an inescapable beginning to Greek literature, paired with Hesiod`s Theogony. I`ll look for good translations.


  2. If your proposal has merit, and it does in my view, you have have picked a fine home in which to grow it. But the audience here, and on any blog, is self-selecting, I fear the readers that need what you propose go elsewhere for their blog sport. You will have no problem getting us to read and discuss the the assignment.


  3. This sounds fantastic! I look forward to reading what you have to say. (I agree that the translation is an important aspect of the experience of reading.) Are we to try to read along?


  4. That’s all well and good. But is this, like, going to be on the test?

    There you go. Thought we might start out the same way as all my undergrad classes.


  5. Bravo! Hope you include some poets, definitely Homer, Dante and Chaucer, Milton, Donne, Crane, Wilbur. I do miss the Sunday poem.


  6. Mildly distressing that you begin by getting Pasolini’s name wrong. More to the point: “the” canon? Surely the academy agrees that there is no longer a unified canon, with either laments for the forgotten past or cries of triumph at the bright new day.


    • In my grad school experience, there were two takes on whether a unified canon exists. One group of people thought it should exist, but doesn’t, so we all do postmodern analysis of sitcoms instead while we watch America die.

      The other group thinks the canon should not exist, but still does, resulting in everybody acting like drunken frat boys as they watch America die.

      Me? I went to college in the early-mid 1990s, right in the teeth of the culture wars. I had no idea it was raging around me. I read Chaucer and Pope. No Shakespeare. The result? I chased girls and did a bunch of stupid crap.

      I wonder what guys in college do now?


      • I think there’s a potential first topic for Rufus. Is there a canon? Should there be? Does it change over time? What are the criteria for it, and what books are surprisingly present/absent on it?

        I know that’s not an original topic, but it’s one that I’ve never seen hammered out to my satisfaction.


        • That’s the point: I’ve never seen it hammered out to my satisfaction either. That’s my main motivation for undertaking this project; I hope I’ll find the answer as I go along. Most academics I know claim there is no canon, while acting like there is- particularly when it comes to assigning readings. Certainly, it doesn’t seem like there is a single unified canon, or at least nothing like an unchanging and fixed set. The doors have clearly been blown open. And yet, if we try to choose the greatest novels yet written, for instance, I think we’re still very unlikely to exclude À la recherche du temps perdu. If we ask 100 cinephiles for the greatest films, we’d expect The Godfather to score highly. Great works endure.

          In terms of the academy, it’s still a controversy. In my own department, at least half the professors would argue for a canon, albeit a constantly-evolving one. Even those academics I know who say that there is no unified canon seemingly hope more to expand the canon than to bury it. I’m in agreement- I’ll likely include works that nobody agrees on, or that are still up in the air. I think it should be changing; yet I see no reason to toss Homer just yet. As for Pasolini, that will likely be the least of my misspellings.

          But the overall answer is that, while I tend more towards the “shouldn’t be, but still is” side of the argument, I want to finish reading everything that’s still (if grudgingly) considered “great and required reading” and then decide if there’s anything like a canon or canons, or even if there should be. My guides will be the Saint John’s list and the Penguin Classics editions. I’m also open to any and all suggestions.


      • They chase girls and do a lot of stupid crap. I think this is one of the universal constants, like Planck’s or Boltzmann’s; it’s what we did when I was in college in the late 1960’s, and it’s what medieval university students did in Paris or Oxford, or wherever.


  7. I am glad to make your acquaintence, Rufus, and look forward to the series. The fine folk over at Crooked Timber do some of this as well, but often with a bit much of a post-modern bent.


  8. The German youth groups in the 19th century turned away for the pedantic ways in favor of communes, nature and music, until the last of the youth groups were ignorant enough for Hitler — so, hopefully, your series will avert another holocaust. No pressure, though.


  9. Just a general note: I will post very soon about “The Supplicants” and try to start on “the Iliad” by the end of this week and into next week. I will try to find the best translations available.

    Also, I have no Internet access during the day- because otherwise, I’d never get any work done! So, I’ll respond to questions, comments, and complaints in the evening. Please don’t be offended if there’s a lag.


  10. I might add that David Denby made some waves a while back with “The Great Books,” in which he re-enrolled at Columbia to retake the school’s great books class.

    Some interesting stuff in there.


    • Thanks. It looks like Denby had much the same idea. I’d like to see how it turned out for him.

      Personally, I was raised with grandparents who swore by the Great Books series they’d purchased and sort of inculcated their belief in its goodness by steady persuasion. When I got to university, I heard some criticism about the idea of the great books. (Not as much as many students do. I went to William & Mary, which is a very traditional college.) Nevertheless, whenever I’d ask professors what older books I absolutely must read, they’d always suggest stuff that was in my grandparent’s library!


  11. Is the Causabon approach supposed to refer to Edward Causabon from Middlemarch and how he approached writing his great literary work? This should be interesting to see these posts. I already enjoy reading the great works, but maybe these posts will engage some readers for whom the great works are just boring, dead works.


  12. Great idea and for me, a great help. I’m a homeschooling mom and I have a hard time finding solid resources that I can use to provoke thoughtful conversations with the kids about what we’re reading, especially since their first exposure to Homer and Ovid and such is usually my first real exposure. Denby’s book has helped as has Bruce Meyer’s The Golden Thread but I’m really looking forward to watching the dialog this is going to produce.


  13. It’s a great idea and you seem gung-ho to make it real. More power to you.

    Here’s a so-called question: Is Longinus part of the Canon? Is his notion of the sublime as the criterion for criticism ever been surpassed? The sublime elevates the spirit, according to Longinus. It consists of, “great thoughts, strong emotions, certain figures of thought and speech, noble diction, and dignified word arrangement.” Is this just more “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like”? Or is there something there for students to learn from, meaning, learn to love art and not learning to follow what you call the Bennett approach of learning about life from art? Loving art means perceiving the sublime and having the capacity to articulate why and how etc etc.

    Is studying Longinus something your students could profit from at all?


    • Yes, I’d put him in my canon at least. I don’t know if he’s been surpassed, but I do think Burke sort of flipped the Longinian sublime: in Longinus, it’s a characteristic in certain works of art, while in Burke, it describes an experience of the individual. He flips it from being a cause to an effect. I definitely agree that art appreciation really boils down to more refined articulations of the experience of the sublime or the beautiful, which are quite different. So, I’d say that Burke expanded the sublime: in Longinus, a waterfall can’t be considered sublime, but of course it can in Burke. The Romantics certainly made much of it. One fascinating writer is Chateaubriand, who made the experience of the sublime evidence of Providence. Harold Bloom has said that we are all Romantics now; that our consciousness is thoroughly informed by Romanticism. If that’s true, then I would say we’ve absorbed Longinus even if we don’t realize it.

      It’s perhaps unfair to pick on Bennett. I’m not exactly in disagreement with him. What I was thinking of was the report he did in 1984 called “To Reclaim a Legacy”, which I felt was agitating for renewed engagement with the Great Books in a sort of decontextualized way that takes modernity as a norm throughout history. The past is a foreign country, as they say. I think it’s good to trouble modernity, and understand its troubles in a historical context. We don’t study the past in order to congratulate ourselves about the present.

      In general, though, I’d agree that Longinus is an important guide to the experience of art and should be read. I’d like to post about him in terms of his later epigones.


  14. I second all the previous comments about how much fun this is going to be. As a physician educator, I’m frequently distressed by how little of “the canon” the young physicians and students are familiar with (let alone comfortable in discussing). I think that one of the flaws in medical education is this very absence of the humanities in the curriculum. Physicians need to know how to be human beings and how to relate to human beings, how to cope with the human condition, as well as having all the scientific and technical knowledge essential to modern medicine, and I fear that the idea of the physician as an educated person (cf William Osler) has fallen by the wayside.

    … and, FWIW, I also like the Penguin Classics translations (esp. Dorothy Sayers’s translation of the Divine Comedy); Oxford Classics are also pretty good.


    • Friend of mine went to Medical school and did his residency in Philadelphia – it was expected that residents would attend opera and orchestra performances. They did get free tickets from the deans and senior professors. That was back in the 50’s.

      That said, it’s easier for someone with technical and scientific training, especially medical, to learn about literature and writing (other than reports and journals), than for liberal arts types to learn the basic scientific and technical information that I think is necessary for life now.


  15. “Make no mistake: academe desperately needs new conservative blood (and not just to drink!); ”

    Of course, one needs some nice, chewy blood sausage :)


  16. This should prove interesting, especially with approaches you are trying to avoid. I grew up in the old colonial capitals of South America and Rome, read Dante and Don Quijote in the original. I was steeped in history, but my kids, who grew up in the US got a lousy education in history, and only approached literature in college. What I found helped, for me and for them, was having the work contextualized in terms for contemporary culture (for the author), and how the ideas/thoughts have changed over time – i.e. defining “happiness” today, v. “happiness” by the writers of the Declaration of Independence, v. happiness as defined by, say, Aristotle – eudaimonia. This is much harder to do than say – but I look forward to your work.


    • Well, I’ll do my best! I’m not too far past the undergrad years myself and certainly I’m filling a lot of gaps in my own knowledge left by that US educational system. What I’m hoping, though, is we’ll get a good conversation going and all learn from each other. Please fill us in when we get to Dante and Cervantes!


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