Friday, March 28, 2008

Roger Shattuck - Candor & Perversion

Matthew, our fearless leader over at POLYSEMY, recently requested an update on what the staff are reading these days. One of the books I am reading is Roger Shattuck's Candor & Perversion: Literature, Education, and the Arts. Shattuck died in 2005, but I wish he were still writing -- what he had to say was important for the future of the arts.

This will be a long post because I want to present Shattuck's Nineteen Theses on Literature, a sort of manifesto for studying the classics. All of this was reprinted at the New York Times Book Review when they excerpted the book.

The book itself is a collection of essays loosely grouped into three sections, but the essays really having little to do with each other as far as content is concerned. However, they all argue, in one way or another, directly or indirectly, for a classical liberal arts education.

This is from the introduction to Chapter One, The Nineteen Theses on Literature:

At the close of the twentieth century, we should reasonably expect a liberal education in our high schools, colleges and universities to serve two principal goals. The first goal is to present the historic basis of our complex culture and the political and moral standards that have evolved from it. The second is to offer students the intellectual basis for an evaluation of that culture, its ideals, and its realities. The first explains and even justifies the status quo. The second questions it. In a democracy, both are necessary.

Those two opposed functions can take place together, almost simultaneously, thanks in great part to a collection of written works that both provide a basis for our Western tradition and challenge it. For instance, we find variations on the dialogue form in Plato, in Montaigne's essays, in Swift's imaginary voyages, and in Dostoevsky's fictional conversations. These supple works do not pronounce; rather, the probe and reflect. The shared reading of such foundational books gives us a basis for finding the principles and the precedents by which we can live together as one country and one culture containing many parts and divisions, many classes and races.

After providing some examples of how the "canon" has adapted and changed over the years -- and agreeing that, with many exceptions (that there are some books everyone should read), we should always be engaged in a discussion of which books constitute the core of the canon -- he then turns his attention to the current state of affairs in the majority of humanities departments.

In recent years, however, other considerations have begun to usurp the place of literary status and quality. It is a simplification, but not a distortion, to refer to two categories of interests that tend to displace literature: politics (including race, class, feminism, minority and cultural studies, gay and lesbian studies) and theory (reliance on a prior methodology or approach by which to read all works). These interests, perfectly legitimate as adjuncts to literature, have become increasingly dominant, specialized, and doctrinaire. Their cumulative effect is to eliminate the very category of literature. Current fashions favoring "interdisciplinary studies" also tend to weaken the basic disciplines of history and literature.

"Nineteen Theses" was written as a response to the attempts to dismiss literature as a central field of study and personal reward.

I would like to point out that he does not wish to do away with the various approaches of politics and theory, but only to return them to their rightful place as adjuncts to the study of literature rather than their current status as the focus of study. When reading a novel (or whatever), we should first focus on the work itself and what it wishes to say, and only later, as a possible aid to understanding, engage in various theoretical approaches that may or may not help us understand the work more clearly. After all, a critical approach that does not elucidate the text itself is useless.

OK then, having presented the introduction, here are the Nineteen Theses on Literature:


Literature in General

I. A real world of material things, sometimes called nature, exists around us. Nature includes us, and we share it imperfectly with one another through perception, action, memory, language, love, and wonder.

II. Material nature has gradually helped shape human behavior and consciousness into patterns we recognize as cultures and as common sense. Across millions of years under a great variety of social behaviors, we have evolved a fairly stable sociogenetic compound we refer to as human nature. Human nature contains an elusive element of freedom: freedom from blind chance and determinism, freedom to choose our actions.

III. There may be more than material nature and human nature. Words like spiritual and transcendent and ineffable may refer to more than mere yearnings. Much around us remains unknown.

IV. Works of literature, through their amalgam of representation and imagination, of clarity and mystery, of the particular and the general, offer revealing evidence about material nature and human nature and whatever may lie beyond. This is why we read and study and discuss literary works.

V. Literature ranges from simple songs and sayings to elaborate and extended tales of human deeds. The most compelling literature concerns persons whose feelings, thoughts, and actions engage us in the lived time of mortality. Ideas and abstractions, which systematically separate themselves from persons and from time, do not form the essence of literature and do not surpass it.

VI. Works of literature are written by individual authors using an existing language with reference to material nature and human nature. The doctrine known as textuality makes a triple denial of these entities. Textuality denies the existence of the natural world, of literature, and of authors.

VII. No author has a claim to final authority. However, we do well to acknowledge, as all cultures do, sheer seniority. Works that have survived for centuries cannot be dismissed out of hand as stiflingly traditional, as part of the status quo, needing above all to be usurped by the modern.

VIII. In order to affirm literature in its full humanist sense, let us eschew the freestanding word text. Its indiscriminate use today provides evidence of deadening stylistic conformity. Rather, let us take advantage of the full range of terms like book, work, poem, play, novel, essay, passage, chapter, and the like. There is no need to modify serviceable expressions like "the text of" a work, and "sacred texts." But let us refrain from endorsing, indirectly and inadvertently, the doctrine of textuality by chanting "text" in every other line of what we say and write.

IX. Like our terrestrial environment, our literary, intellectual, and moral environment needs to be wisely cultivated and protected. We have as many strip miners and clear-cutters operating in the areas of literature, philosophy, and history as we have operating on the planet Earth. You know their names and their schools. Some of them believe that we who devote ourselves to literature and inquiry are an endangered species—and should fade away. We, for our part, are resolved to survive and to flourish.

Interlude—Partially Plagiarized

X. "Our lives are a fierce attempt to find an aspect of this world not open to interpretation" (David Mamet, Kafka's Grave).

XI. In the fullness of time a poet-oracle came forth upon the mountaintop, whence one could see a great distance in all directions. To the innumerable questions put to this fierce yet gentle seer, only two answers have come down to us:

1. "Everything exists in order to end up in a book."

2. "Nothing will survive unless it has been uttered."

XII. To those preparing to be shipwrecked on a desert island, I offer a miniaturized library of world literature that can be memorized in a few days. It consists of 3,001 bulls—not Papal: Irish. Bulls combine succinct style, compacted logic, and a sharp (if blunted) point; for example:

At your age Mozart was dead.
Reader's report to a textbook publisher: "This book does nothing for
the nonreading student."
No one goes to that restaurant anymore. It's too crowded.
We teach what we hope to learn.
Count no man happy till he dies.
Freedom is the absence of choice.
Stop it some more.
I can never kiss her properly. Her face always gets in the way.
He died cured.
Don't go near the water till you've learned to swim.
This book fills a badly needed gap.

XIII. The world scoffs at old ideas. It distrusts new ideas. It loves tricks.

XIV. Everything has been said. But nobody listens. Therefore it has to be said all over again—only better. In order to say it better, we have to know how it was said before.

XV. A friend in Missouri recently sent me a book-length manuscript. In the past, she has written intense studies of the relation between German and French philosophy as it has influenced literary theory since 1950. In her letter, my friend declared that she has undergone a profound change of heart. She now rejects the reigning schools of literary theory and attacks them in this manuscript. It is time for a more direct and less abstract approach to literature. Would I write an introduction to her book?

My friend's new book vehemently rebuts Heidegger and Adorno, Barthes and Derrida on their own ground. It reads like her earlier books—with all the signs changed. She has without question changed sides; she has not left the battlefield. As before, her discussions do not refer to any primarily literary works. The only authors she mentions from before 1950 are Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel.

I wrote my friend that I applaud her change of heart. When is she going to change her reading accordingly? I could not write an introduction to a book still transfixed by her earlier theoretical concerns, even though she has joined the other side.

I did not write to my friend that I would like to know the titles of the books she keeps within easy reach around her desk or workstation. Does she still work surrounded by Saussure and Foucault? Or does she keep beside her again now the works she loved as a graduate student: Stendhal and Balzac, George Eliot and Dickens, Hawthorne and Melville?

XVI. In literary study as in everyday life, we have entered the Age of Appliances. More and more scholars and critics write and teach by applying an ideology or a methodology to a cultural "text." This reliance on appliances tends to eliminate the experience and the love of literature.

Literature in Education

XVII. We have brought ourselves to great perplexity about the basic role of education. Should education socialize the young within an existing culture and offer them the basic means to succeed in that culture? Or should education give to the young the means to challenge and overthrow the existing culture, presumably in order to achieve a better life? Here I shall appeal to analogy.

Almost immediately after fertilization, the human embryo sets aside a few cells that are sheltered from the rest of the organism and from the environment. These cells retain a special ability to divide by meiosis into haploid cells needed for sexual reproduction. Our gonads represent the most stable and protected element in the body and are usually able to pass on unchanged to the next generation the genetic material we were born with. In this way, the sins of fathers and mothers during their lifetime are not visited upon their children. Except for radiation and a few diseases, the life we live does not affect our gonads.

No such biological process is built into cultures. But all cultures have discovered something similar—an activity, sometimes developed into an institution, we call education. By education, we pass on to the young the customs, restrictions, discoveries, and wisdom that have afforded survival so far.

There is good reason to maintain that, unlike many other institutions—political, social, and artistic—which may criticize and rebel against the status quo, education should remain primarily a conservative institution, like our gonads. We are overloading education when we ask it to reform society, to redesign culture, and to incorporate the avant-garde and bohemia into its precincts. In a free society, original and disaffected minds will always find a platform. The university need not provide the principal home for political, social, and artistic dissidents. The primary mission of a university is the transmission of a precious heritage. As the heritage is passed along, both teachers and students will test it, criticize it, and seek to improve it. That healthy modification should not supplant the essential process of transmission.

XVIII. Out of the 1960s and 1970s, one item we should not forget is the counter slogan to relevance. It reads: Curriculum kills. There was great merit in the nineteenth-century ground rule for college programs that specified: no living authors. Students can read them perfectly well on their own. Why invite stuffy old professors to paint contemporary authors over with interpretations and theories? We need scholars in the classroom to help students with the genuine otherness of the past. We need cultivated readers and discriminating critics to deal with contemporary literature. But not in the classroom. Curriculum kills.

XIX. In planning the day-to-day work of education, we shall forever be selecting curricula and programs. In so doing, let us desist from referring to "the canon," or canons or—God save us—canonicity. The term canon was smuggled out of theology into education and literature only a few years ago by those who desperately need something to attack and subvert, something to transgress and deconstruct. Otherwise, what would they do? But they are talking about a figment of their own making. Who knows if Pilgrim's Progress or The Parallel Lives or Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea is in the canon? No one. We deal primarily with the curriculum that lies before us in the courses we teach. Here lies our path through knowledge, a path we may choose over and over again, like love in marriage. Our love of literature does not remain the same. Yet its constancy sustains us.

The post at the NYT Book Review also contains Chapter Two: PERPLEXING LESSONS: IS THERE A CORE TRADITION IN THE HUMANITIES?, which is certainly worth the read.

I'm sure some readers will take issue with my support for a classical liberal education in the arts and literature as somehow being conservative, to which all I can say is,"Yep!"

A classics based literature education is not sexist, racist, classist, or any other "ist." It simply recognizes that there are many works that nearly all of us can agree are great, and that these works should be the foundation of an education in the liberal arts. We do not wish to exclude works that are not fully agreed upon, nor do we want to ignore the fact that many fine works were written by those who were not part of the dominant culture, and that those works are also worthy of our attention.

What those of us who support an education in the classics most want is a return to literature as literature, without theory and politics dominating and/or limiting how we many study it and learn from it. That's not too much to ask -- and that's all Roger Shattuck sought with his very eloquent Nineteen Theses.


Anonymous said...

I never know quite how to engage with arguments like these ... sometimes I feel like a double agent whose true allegiance is obscure now even to himself ...

On the one hand: I read and love and promote to other readers (especially to politicized, educated, alienated outsider friends who have come to reject it) literature everyone would recognize as belonging to the canon.

On the other hand: I have to recognize that those same works have been used very often--subtly or with blatant force--to deny the revelance of literary production (or even the relevance of existence) by women, gays, and people of any color other than white.

The ascension of theory over literature has been feuled, at bottom I believe, by the simple human desire not to be destroyed psychologically (and, of course, literarily) by the covert and forthright attacks of the culturally elite wielding the guns of Wordsworth and the cannons of Shelly and the nukes of Shakespeare.

I appreciate that that hasn't been at all your experience, Bill, but I don't think we'll get to the other side of the present impasse until both sides of the discussion can admit and modify their ugly excesses.

Kai in NYC

MD said...

Great post, Bill.

WH said...

Hey Kai,

Good to read you again.

I think that Shattuck nails the biggest issue by agreeing that "the canon" is always evolving in some sense or another. It's clearly more diverse than it was 100 years ago, and will be even more diverse 100 years from now.

I agree that "the canon" has been sexist in the past, and has excluded people of color and/or gay and lesbian authors. But it has gone too far in the other direction I think. The politics of race, gender, sexuality, etc. has become more important than the literature -- to me, that's a problem.

I think the dominance of (post-modernist) theory grew largely out of pluralist ideals, but was quickly lost in severe navel-gazing. A good idea gone wrong.

However, as much as the politics of race, gender, sexuality, and so on have taken over the humanities in recent decades, it needed to happen to break the middle-aged white guy hold.

If "the canon" was the thesis, and the theory/political movements were the antithesis, we now need the synthesis that brings it all together again in a more whole form.


WH said...

Thanks, MD,

I look forward to reading thoughts on this.