Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Today Anthony Grafton, a scholar from Princeton -- a "Renaissance man" in the sense of a specialist in the Renaissance, but also in the sense of a humanist of the old school, the kind of mind that one has in mind when one uses the word "scholar" -- gave the first of his two Tanner Lectures at Yale. The upshot of the talk -- and he had graphs to prove it -- was that the humanities have greatly declined in numbers and importance from 1915 to 1995 (the years of the graphs), and that is due not so much to the importance placed on the hard sciences in our tech-happy world, but rather to the fact that the "social sciences" have taken over as the "new humanities." This is all too true and is reflected in the fact that linguistics, the study of speech as spoken and used, is the real basis of any anthropological sense of language, not literature which has always been specialized and in some sense elite. Add to this, as Grafton pointed out, that "the arts" pick up the slack of the creative side of things -- creative writing grows as literary studies doth shrink -- and you have no perceived need for those fussy antiquarians so fetishistic about the past, and, at that, not even the past of how people conducted themselves, did business and fought and loved and begat, but rather the past of how people controlled language in texts, creating fictional analogs of the world we are all so busily concerned with -- replicas, emblems, allegories, fictions, fables, mere words, words, words -- never facts, never things, barely even commodities!

Interesting though was the major focus of Grafton's talk: the '40s and Erich Auerbach holding a seminar at Princeton at the invitation of R. P. Blackmur, to an assembled body of 30 that included the likes of Irwin Panofsky, Ernst Curtius, Christian Gauss, Robert Fitzgerald, John Berryman, and Delmore Schwartz. In other words, the cream of a certain humanist sense of the value of discussing texts as Literature, as representative expressions in a tradition made coherent not by any inner law but by the hindsight of a present that claims it as formative, necessary, conditional, inspiring, worth mastering. As was clear from Grafton's remarks (if it isn't clear from your own exposure to the contemporary world and the college curriculum), that sense of the tradition is gone, maintained only by that shrinking posse of scholars for whom the past is the basis of what we are, in any age.

But how many of those assembled humanists listening to him "gave a fig" (to use Grafton's antiquated expression) for Auerbach, Blackmur and "the good old days"? I don't just mean were they concerned as scholars, were they challenged as intellectuals -- I mean, did the scene that Grafton recreated, only a little tongue-in-cheek, engage them as a reality? The point of the question, it seems to me, is that the undercurrent of much of Grafton's comments suggests that the humanities can only exist as a viable field if its reality can still engage minds and inspire imaginations. To vary Van Morrison's "did ye get healed": did they get inspired?

Granted, Grafton's example was one that would speak to me: Blackmur had no educational degrees whatsoever and yet got tenure at Princeton. He simply immersed himself in literature and to hell with schooling as such. A man after my own heart and, indeed, when I was in my early twenties, not yet a college student, reading a memoir of Berryman written by his first wife, I was certainly inspired by the sense of he and Blackmur as creative figures in a world of pedantry, as men who took literature seriously not as "a field of study," but as a way of life. Perhaps that promoted Princeton as my own destination in graduate school -- a sense of those glory days when such colloquy was possible. Of course I never encountered it during my time there, but that was due no doubt to the "professionalization" that was so much a part of what we were supposed to be doing, what we should become. But my question here is: was Grafton today articulating anything more than a fond dream of what once was -- and can such a nostalgia trip be received today in any way other than politically, as a way of wanting to go back to the tower where only white men -- preferably of Germanic or Anglo-Saxon or Celtic origin -- were admitted (though, as Grafton reminded us, Blackmur did also bring Jews to Princeton such as Schwartz and Saul Bellow)?

In his talk, Grafton took a potshot at literary theory as a knife sharpened on both ends that was wielded to, in effect, cut off the branch its practitioners were sitting on. Indeed, that insight occurred to me in Princeton when I perceived that the academic job market cared little for such niceties and was only desperately trying to meet the new need for multicultural plurality as, in fact, the last, best new field for the humanities: literature of "peoples" rather than literature of displaced exiles who can only find common ground in the ivory bunker that keeps the chaotic modern world at bay.

I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat
I'd give it all gladly, if our lives could be like that--Bob Dylan, 1962

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