Saturday, April 11, 2009

Books, books, books

A prominent feature in the intellectual landscape of my youth was the set of Great Books in 54 volumes, produced under the auspices of the University of Chicago. Ostensibly, the following three criteria determined eligibility for inclusion in this august company: “the book has contemporary significance; that is, it has relevance to the problems and issues of our times; the book is inexhaustible; it can be read again and again with benefit; and the book is relevant to a large number of the great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last 25 centuries.”

The origins of the project stemmed from the realization, during World War I, that many young Americans were entering college without any common culture. Further discussion among American academics and educators was launched by John Erskine of Columbia University, who advocated improving higher education system by returning it to the western liberal arts tradition of broad cross-disciplinary learning. Among these academics and educators were Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Stringfellow Barr, Scott Buchanan, and Alexander Meiklejohn. They held that the emphasis on narrow specialization in American colleges had lowered the quality of higher education by failing to expose students to the most salient monuments of Western civilization and thought. In this way these thinkers were at odds both with much of the existing educational establishment and with contemporary educational theory. Educational theorists like Sidney Hook and John Dewey challenged the crossover premise in education, which maintained that a study of philosophy, formal logic, and rhetoric could advance one’s understanding of, say, medicine and economics.

The Great Books started out as a roster of 100 essential texts held to constitute the Western Canon. Supposedly, this list was always intended to be tentative. Still, some skeptics considered it presumptuous, perhaps even laughable to prefer 100 Great Books to the exclusion of all others. This demarcation problem remains a serious issue with all such lists.

At all events, several colleges adopted the Great Books as the basis for their curriculum. A friend went to a college of this type, an experience he has continued to treasure in later life, but I was never tempted to do so. One of the drawbacks of this curriculum is that one was supposed to address the Great Books without consulting any commentary or notes. Yet many of the editions chosen reflected outmoded or even erroneous translations.

For a long time, the collection comprised only the notorious DWEMs (dead white European males); gradually a few African American and female authors gained access to the Elysian precincts. By definition, of course, Islamic and Asian classics were omitted. This deficiency has been supplied in some competing lists, but the foundations of the endeavor remain shaky, as the boundaries between the “classics” and the rest are necessarily fluid. Probably, they always will be. Still, this problem should not deter individuals from making up their own “lifetime reading plan.” At any rate, I have done so, and am very satisfied with the results--though I admit that housing all the books that make up my expanded canon is something of a strain in a smallish urban apartment

The context for the Great Books program in what might be termed Cold War America emerges in a recent book: “A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books” by Alex Beam I gather that this volume (I have only read the reviews) is something of a debunking.

At all events, before I had heard of the Great Books, I had come to understand, in junior high school, that to become a truly educated person, one had to master certain major works: Homer, Vergil, Dante, and Shakespeare above all. For a time, Goethe was a favorite. I had been bored by having to read prescribed works of the New England Renaissance, so I tended to gravitate to European classics.

At the same time, I began to create for myself an alternative canon. Rabelais, a favorite of my stepfather, was a crossover figure. Friedrich Nietzsche appealed to me as an archetypal rebel. Following the example of his hero Zarathustra I aspired to retire to a remore location where I could meditate as a hermit. I lasted about a week in a desolate mountain cabin. Back at home, I saw a magazine ad hailing Ezra Pound as “the most antisocial writer of our time.” That was for me--for sure!--but first I turned to Pound's Establishment acolyte, T. S. Eliot, then much in vogue. Later I visited Pound in his lair in an insane asylum in Washington DC--surely the epitome of the antiestablishment stance.

Together Pound and Eliot were emblematic of much modernist literature and painting. I had some commerce with Baudelaire and Rimbaud then; more later. In graduate school, I took time out from my rather conventional studies in art history to immerse myself in the works of the Beatnik triumvirate Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac. In this way the counterculture began to run in a parallel track to my more respectable culture-vulture interests (Homer, Dante, and the rest).

Related, indirectly at least, to the countercultural trend, were books about my “variant” sexuality. I tried Gide and Proust, but found that their highfalutin' stance did not address my situation very well. More modest guides were needed. In college I managed to locate, with some difficulty, two books that shaped my nascent gay consciousness. The first (I think) was a novel, “Quatrefoil,” by James Barr, about a liaison between two naval officers. The second was an nonfiction effort, quite comprehensive for its time, to survey the whole field: “The Homosexual in America” by Donald Webster Cory (Edward Sagarin). In later years I devoured literally thousands of books and articles on the subject: many of them are listed and profiled in my “Homosexuality: A Research Guide” (1987). I learned much from this vast harvests of works. All the same, a kind of “first-past-the-post” principle has prevailed. Those first two gay books, highly flawed though they were, had a formative influence over my thinking in these matters.

I became interested in the comparative study of languages through dabbling with Esperanto in high school. I soon learned that there were other auxiliary (or artificial) languages, some better in my view, but none with any real resonance. Among these competitive efforts was Interglossia, devised in the early forties by the English scientist and popularizer, Lancelot Hogben. Together with a man named Bodmer, Hogben wrote a kind of primer called “The Loom of Language,” which I devoured compulsively. From the German Neo-Grammarians I learned something of the mysteries of Indo-European. My favorite linguistic scholar, though, was the Dane Otto Jespersen, author of “The Growth and Structure of the English Language.” Today I try to keep up with reading in French, German, Italian, and Spanish. I find that writing in Internet sites in these languages is a great help. I am still struggling with Chinese. Arabic is a lost cause, I fear, though I have made some progress with Hebrew.

As a kid I seemed destined for a career in one of the natural sciences, following in the footsteps of my biological father, a physicist and (if you will) rocket scientist. Astronomy was my favorite, and much of my leisure reading was taken up with science-fiction pulps. Gradually, though, I reoriented to the humanities, first literature and then increasingly art history. Somehow I assimilated the either-or imperative: commitment to the humanities meant disparagement of the sciences. This dichotomy was later excoriated by C. P. Snow in his lecture (and broadside) on the Two Cultures. And rightly so.

At all events, my disdain for science ebbed and finally evaporated when I settled in London as a grad student in the sixties. There I had plenty of time to read on my own, and focused, for one thing, on the contrast between Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper in the philosophy of science. In a nutshell, Kuhn held that science mostly puttered along and then suddenly changed when a revolutionary new paradigm appeared. Popper’s view was more gradualist. But he too rejected the idea that natural science was concerned with unveiling eternal truths. All truth is asymptotic: we approach closer to it, but can never be certain that we have reached THE truth. Influenced by Popper’s forceful speaking style--I attended some of his lectures at the London School of Economics--I took the side of the Austrian polymath.

In London I also returned to an old favorite: Arthur Koestler, whose “Darkness at Noon” had helped during my teens to wean me away from the preposterous Communist faith inculcated by my parents. Now I read Koestler’s masterpiece “The Act of Creation,” where he sought to show that scientific discovery often proceeds by accident and serindipity. This book put another stake in the heart of the conventional wisdom that scientific discovery is the product of an almost endless accumulation of tiny, painstaking observations. Instead, what usually happends is that we form hypotheses and try to substantiate them. This finding made the sciences seem closer to the humanities, bridging the gap detected by C. P. Snow.

In the peaceful precincts of the Warburg Institute in Woburn Square, where much of my London years passed, I got another insight into science. This derived from the work of a brilliant Warburgian, Frances Yates. Beginning with her book on Giordano Bruno, she showed how in the early modern period much scientific advance was tied up with the hermetic tradition. Not only could one not detect a bright line between science and the humanities, science also turned out to be allied with mysticism. In my own studies I began to see how the occult, especially as seen in H. P. Blavatsky’s Theosophy, played a maieutic role in much modernism--in Yeats, Eliot, and Pound in literature; and in Kandinsky and Mondrian in painting. Later I sought to integrate these insights into my teaching, attracting flak from colleagues at Hunter College who thought that I believed in this stuff. Of course I do not, but honesty compels me to acknowledge its historical influence. The paths of intellectual history are almost infinitely varied

My parents were atheists, who sought to exclude any religious influences from our home. Much to my disappointment, we rarely celebrated Christmas. Not surprisingly, this taboo incited my curiosity, and in high school I began to visit various churches and other houses of worship. Supported by the Henry Luce periodicals and the egregious Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen (a TV personality), a big Catholic revival was under way. It has since fortunately ebbed. But for a time Catholicism seemed the way to go. Go I did not, though I elected to focus on medieval art. I have never regretted this choice, because that field is truly interdisciplinary. Also, I have never ceased to be fascinated by the hundreds (really thousands) of important sites where these buildings survive in Western Europe. Some of these visits, many of which I took with my beloved ex, Neal, have been truly magical.

At all events, Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, the faves for catholisants, did not make much impression in those early days. Later, in London, I read Henri-Irenée Marrou and Jean Daniélou, together with a lot of technical biblical commentary. Among the protestants, Barth and Bultmann were the star theologians, though I found the latter’s connection with Martin Heidegger troubling. This study provided useful background for my doctoral dissertation on the Stavelot Bible (a major illuminated manuscript in the British Library).

When I returned to this interest at the end of the twentieth century I found the situation entirely altered. I threw out most of the learned commentaries on individual books of the Bible that I had collected: they were hopelessly credulous and out of date. First, I tackled the productions of the Jesus Seminar. Their results, questioning the authenticity of much (or even most) of the received texts of the Gospels, were not really new as they were resuming Albert Schweitzer’s quest of a century ago.

Much more startling were the accomplishments of the Minimalist scholars regarding the Hebrew Bible. Not only were Noah and Abraham mythical--an obvious truism--but so were Moses, David, and Solomon. The Exodus from Egypt and the conquest of Canaan never took place. As we know it, the Hebrew Bible came into existence only during the Babylonian exile, or even later during the Hellenistic period. In this blog these studies formed the basis for my iconoclastic remarks on biblical “origins” and their mythical aftermath.

So I continue to read books that shape my thinking. I wonder what the next ones will be?



Blogger Max Weismann said...

Argumentum ad Hominem

The subtitle should have read, Every Negative Fact and Innuendo I Could Dredge Up

Although he was not particularly unkind to me in the book, I found virtually every page to be a smart-alecky and snide diatribe of the worst order against the Great Books, Adler, Hutchins, et al. Plus the book is replete with errors of commission and omission.

As an effective antidote, I prescribe Robert Hutchins' pithy essay, The Great Conversation.

If the Great Books crusade is as bleak as Beam purports, then happily, not many will read his invective book.

Max Weismann,
President and co-founder with Mortimer Adler, Center for the Study of The Great Ideas
Chairman, The Great Books Academy (3,000+ students)

10:21 AM  
Blogger Tor Hershman said...

Books iz okay but they gotta get a video section for things such as this.....

2:12 PM  

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