Thursday, February 26, 2009


There's been more talk about the humanities again recently, this time in a NYTimes article called 'In Tough Times, The Humanities Must Justify Their Worth,' fueled by a book by Anthony T. Kronman, a law professor at Yale, called Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (catchy title). There was also a review in the Sunday Book section of Proust was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer, which tries to find scientific corroboration of insights found in fiction -- in the case of Proust, insights about how memory works. That review contained a mention of E. O. Wilson's 'biopoetics' that seeks to understand the evolutionary value of literature. The upshot is that the humanities are having to justify themselves in the 'cost effective' world of economists or in the adaptive world of biologists, while also coming to grips with the fact that, surprise, humanists really aren't well adapted to market-driven rationales. And so, like dinosaurs, they're coming to seem a species that shall eventually perish.

But I also watched the Academy Awards Sunday night and the tension between movies that strive to be 'art' or to have 'a message' vs. movies that simply seek to entertain was already on my mind. Clearly, the latter get the box office, and are best adapted to the fiercely competitive economies that demand the constant headcount -- or show of hands -- of the box office. Show of hands, how many saw film X, vs. film blockbuster? The answer is obvious. And of course it extends to books -- how many have read, of their own volition, a classic vs. an entertaining page-turner? And of course there are headcounts for every discipline or field of study, how many students graduate with a degree in the humanities, how many graduate students still strive for excellence in the field?

The writing was on the wall a long time ago on this one. And unlike religion, which can sustain itself against such reliance on the money talks, rational findings of our econo-scientistic worldview, the humanities are supposed to be part of 'education,' and 'education' is supposed to help students to live in the modern world, which comes increasingly to mean, survive in whatever human endeavor is best bankrolled. Law and medicine have always been growth industries. And business majors . . . and economics . . . and lab work. And it goes further: 'Languages,' at least, was able to sustain itself as a field because it was important to understand how language affects our culture, and how language determines our worldview, and, just on a practical level, to learn languages for the sake of communication. But even there the humanities have lost ground. Does anyone need to read the poetry of a given language to understand how to speak that language, how to make deals in that language? Yes, it helps to appreciate nuance in the use of words, but how relevant is the history of the language, how necessary is familiarity with the most distinguished -- which is to say idiosyncratic, inspired, woefully underpaid -- users of that language?

Many great writers, let's face it, were horribly ill-adapted not just to the modern world with its scientistic worldview, but were even poorly adapted to 'the world of letters.' And the success of those adept at producing their product -- whether Stephen King or John Updike -- no matter how different their readerships might be, no matter how different their aims in what they write, adds up to the valuing of a hold on a certain niche, which is to say 'a market.' I mention Updike because of a piece today by Roger Cohen which, while touting 'the inner life,' is an odd blend of callous indifference, casual curiosity, and critical judgment, the latter on Ian McEwan and on McEwan's comment on the recently deceased Updike. Cohen is trying to think about what really good writing does for us, but he's looking in the wrong places: McEwan and Updike are both symptoms, examples of the kind of 'lack' that our letters have long upheld as the best we have. They are, as writers, well-adapted to readers who don't really read. They entertain us with a process that is 'like' what reading literature should be.

So when D. T. Max writes in his review of Lehrer's book on Proust and science, that E. O. Wilson would like 'to wire a reader with Madame Bovary on a gurney to see what parts of his brain light up when Emma Bovary has sex with Rodolphe and which when she commits suicide,' this notion misses the point. We could read all sorts of things which feature adultery and suicide, even 'creative non-fiction.' But what 'lights up' when we actually enter a fiction? What lights up when we encounter a truly unique and challenging use of language? What does it mean to be inside Flaubert's prose, or James', or Proust's? What goes dark when you just can't find that cerebral connection any more, at any price?

I'm reminded of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. With books outlawed, book lovers committed entire volumes to memory. One assumes that if you couldn't remember the book word for word, you could still retell 'what happens.' But what no one can retell or recapture is 'what happens' when you are actually reading the book. The problem that literature, as education, faces is that such lit courses are just a dodge: an excuse to make students read books. Show of hands: how many students who took the course did 'all the reading'? But why should they? our unbookish culture of 'light' readers continues to ask. And there's no real answer to that question, other than a curiosity about the world 'inside' books, which comes to seem more and more a copout on or escape from 'the real world' -- the one science explains to us and whose necessities require negotiable skills in fields essentially comprised of scientific modes of discourse. And in that world, what we flock to is entertainment, with the few -- mostly practitioners of some form of art or humanities -- paying lip service to and sometimes dedicating their lives to something more. Something I like to call 'the supreme fiction,' in honor of an insurance company executive who wrote 'let Be be finale of seem / the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.'

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