The Proust of the Papuans

If one were looking to uncover the evolution of neoconservatism as a cultural attitude or cast of mind, one could do worse than imagine Saul Bellow's Augie March growing up to become Saul Bellow's Moses Herzog. An inner-city Romantic — … Read More

By / September 15, 2007

If one were looking to uncover the evolution of neoconservatism as a cultural attitude or cast of mind, one could do worse than imagine Saul Bellow's Augie March growing up to become Saul Bellow's Moses Herzog. An inner-city Romantic — a Columbus of those near-at-hand — gobbles up Western literature and feels his lungs expand with the air of radical hope. He then morphs, after a series of punishing defeats, into a hard-bitten pessimist clapping out angry but unsent letters to statesmen and public figures.

Augie is whiling away his time in Mexico when he encounters the haunted and hunted figure of Leon Trotsky:

I was excited by this famous figure, and I believe what it was about him that stirred me up was the instant impression he gave–no matter about the old heap he rode in or the peculiarity of his retinue–of navigation by the great stars, of the highest considerations, of being fit to speak the most important human words and universal terms. When you are reduced to a different kind of navigation from this high starry kind as I was and are only sculling on the shallow bay, crawling from one clam-rake to the next, it's stirring to have a glimpse of deep water greatness. And, even more than an established, an exiled greatness, because the exile was a sign to me of the persistence at the highest things.

Herzog is slowly losing his mind (and that's all right with him), surveying a different source of marine tranquility:

His breathing had become freer. His heart was greatly stirred by the open horizon; the deep colors; the faint iodine pungency of the Atlantic rising from weeds and mollusks; the white, fine, heavy sand; but principally by the green transparency as he looked down to the stony bottom webbed with golden lines. Never still. If his soul could cast a reflection so brilliant, and so intensely sweet, he might beg God to make such use of him. But that would be too simple. But that would be too childish. The actual sphere is not clear like this, but turbulent, angry. A vast human action is going on. Death watches. So if you have some happiness, conceal it. And when your heart is full, keep your mouth shut also.

It's easy to judge these two passages as the before and after outlooks of a man who was strongly influenced by the late classicist Allan Bloom.

Author of The Closing of the American Mind, a finely written if slightly overwrought manifesto on behalf of tradition’s army in the "culture wars" of the 1980's, Bloom had argued that the Western canon was a monument to human achievement that should never be threatened with demolition by the impending forces of relativism or identity theory. He was a student of Leo Strauss and a champion of the Athens-to-Jerusalem school of philosophy, which means his trenchant analysis of the ever-lowering standards of university education was therefore informed by a Hellenized Judaism that was itself the synthesis of competing traditions.

A well-intentioned but reckless attempt to open young minds to self-criticism, Bloom argued, had instead welded those minds shut to ancient wisdom and truth. “Truth” itself was now a scare-quoted controversy, a shibboleth invented by “cultural imperialists” looking to plunder the heritage and resources of other no less august civilizations. In this context, all human knowledge was relegated to sociology, the brute aggregation of facts, which could never be assigned moral values.

Bloom further inveighed against specialization within the academy – freshmen going premed and foregoing Plato or Rousseau – because he saw it as a deadening side effect of materialism. (For a conservative, Bloom was no fan of big-money careerism; he thought a life of the mind was its own return on tuition.)

I bring this all up because Rachel Donadio has got an interesting essay in the New York Times Book Review about how the culture wars have terminated 20 years on. I was most struck by one aspect of her research: Both the left and the right now agree that the dilution of the classical liberal arts curriculum came at too high a price.

We all know of David Horowitz’s proposed bill of Academic Freedom to ensure that Adam Smith and Bill Buckley get as much as classroom time as the Vagina Monologues. But consider the following:

Martha Nussbaum hated Bloom’s book, but now concedes the very problems he alerted us to have resulted in the “loss of respect for the humanities as essential ingredients of democracy.” She adds, “Our nation, like most nations of the world, is devaluing the humanities vis-à-vis science and technology, so constant vigilance is required lest these disciplines be cut” – sentiments with which the ghost of Abe Ravelstein, Bellow's fictionalized Bloom character in the last novel he wrote, would no doubt be nodding along.

Louis Menand says: “The big question for humanists is, How do we explain why what we do is important for people who aren’t humanists? That’s been tough, really tough.” Hasn’t it, though?

Even the dean of postmodernism, Stanley Fish, who tells Donadio that “the message the neoconservatives were putting out, that universities are hotbeds of atheism, sexual promiscuity, corrosive relativism and a host of suspect philosophies being imported from France and Germany, actually took quite strongly with the intended audience,” is hard at work on a book entitled Save the World on Your Own Time. What’s that book about?

[It] argues that academics should teach, not proselytize. In his view, “the invasion of political agendas” into the classroom in the ’60s and ’70s was “extremely dangerous,” since it meant classrooms could become battlegrounds for political demagoguery.

The hell, you say! (As a sidenote, Fish fails to account for Bloom’s atheism, his open-secret homosexuality, and his fluency in French and German philosophy – from Rousseau to Nietzsche – which he wrote had been muddled and misunderstood upon importation to the U.S.)

For my own part, I never bridled at the multiculturalist esteem granted to Toni Morrison or Chinua Achebe, writers that are typically met with as much venom by conservative critics as Dostoevsky was met with by Nabokov.

Defenders of the canon should go back and read what the canon had to put up with in its own time and place. Standards were by no means universal. Byron thought Wordsworth was a hack, Pope had his famous rivalry with Dryden. These were equally febrile “wars” that lasted decades but eventually petered out before the more discerning eyes of posterity. The one crucial catch then was that Byron, Wordsworth, Pope and Dryden all knew about the Greeks, the stories of the Bible, and had a common arsenal of literary references with which to combat one another. Not so today's readers of Beloved.

However, there is cause for optimism in a cultural landscape in which Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is "adapted" for a Caribbean setting, as it was in my old college. One of the blessings of globalization is that it has made Western literature the gold standard of those cultures whose native literature the West is now instructed to exalt, perhaps to unwarranted degrees. You have to read the dead white males before you attempt to unhorse them.

And for those who do pay tribute to a border-neutral literary heritage, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipal and Haruki Murakami would be unimaginable without Flaubert, Balzac and Dickens. (Where is P.G. Wodehouse nightstand reading? In India.)

Bellow’s scabrous line against the multiculturalists was: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?'”

The answers have become increasingly clear: Tolstoy and Proust.

Revisiting the Canon Wars – Books – Review – New York Times

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