Stealing Beauty

Better ideas.
Sept. 18 1996 3:30 AM

Stealing Beauty

The joy of reading returns to the classroom.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

If a college-level survey of Western thought and literature sounds dull, an almost 500-page account of sitting through such a survey threatens real tedium. But miraculously enough, David Denby has endowed his paean to the classics, Great Books: My Adventures With Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World (Simon & Schuster) with the qualities of an engrossing novel. The story begins with a middle-aged movie critic, "sick at heart" and fed up with life inside the media machine: "I couldn't quite see where it ended and I began." Some people in this condition might sell their VCR. Denby enrolls in Columbia College's core curriculum, where he learns to appreciate Hobbes' "methodically exact style of unpleasant pronouncement," discovers that reading Hegel for the first time is like trying to solve "a puzzle made of mud," and finds that St. Augustine encourages him to confess an involuntary erection. By the end, Denby has returned to his life, ecstatic about the intellectual delights he has discovered and the ideas he has accepted and tested out and rejected.

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Denby's record of his reeducation is in part autobiography and in part an argument for restoring pleasure and imagination to their rightful place in the act of reading. And though his quarrel is largely (and understandably) with the pleasureless and imaginatively challenged academic left, Denby's book actually echoes the works of that despised fraternity more than he might think. In the past few years, prominent literary critics such as Stephen Greenblatt, Henry Louis Gates, and Frank Lentricchia, among others, have also woken up to the fact that the canon debate as we know it is an intellectual scandal: While the left denounces the great books as instruments of exclusion and indoctrination, the right praises them as bedrocks of character and virtue. In the meantime, hardly anyone pays attention to what Denby calls the "solitude and rapture" of reading.

Back in 1985 Robert Scholes, a distinguished literary theorist at Brown University, claimed that "the worst thing" a professor could do was foster "an attitude of reverence before texts." The mid-'80s were an intoxicating time for Theory with a capital T, and the task of superstar literary professionals like Scholes was to demystify the "aesthetic ideology," to show how the spell cast by a work of art obscured the machinations of power and the treacheries of language. Since any act of discrimination had to be either arbitrary or self-interested, reverence was at best unprofessional, at worst reactionary. Making value judgments was a grubby business, gratefully conceded to the ignorant army of journalists.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before this imperious position became untenable. After all, once the aesthetic ideology had been successfully exposed, literature professors had little to do but dissolve their discipline into the amorphousness of cultural studies. Some welcomed the prospect. But many did not. If they didn't know how to judge books, what did they know?

One of the first to lapse was Berkeley's Stephen Greenblatt. As the inventor of New Historicism, Greenblatt had developed a method of reading that cleverly related well-known literary works to obscure historical anecdotes, thereby turning literature into a glorified branch of history. But in "Resonance and Wonder," which appeared in a 1990 collection of his essays, Greenblatt celebrated an artwork's ability to "stop the viewer in his tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention." He insisted that such a capacity to provoke wonder had complex historical origins; it involved a particular kind of "enchanting looking" which had tangled roots in Western culture, some of them traceable to the "wonder cabinets" of the Renaissance, others to the plunder of imperial conquest. But just because the aesthetic attitude was contingent and culture-bound was no reason to scoff at it: It was "a distinctive achievement of our culture" and "one of its most intense pleasures." The new historicist had also become a chastened aesthete.

Others have emulated Greenblatt's apostasy, though not necessarily his ideas. Neo-pragmatists Stanley Fish and Walter Benn Michaels have little to say about the joys of reading (Fish prefers to discuss the pleasures of professional success), but they have mounted a scathing attack on politically minded criticism. If every act of interpretation is historical and political, they argue, then no interpretation is any more historical and political than any other--which means that the effort to make criticism more historical and political is senseless. Harvard's Henry Louis Gates and the University of Chicago's John Guillory have challenged one of the cornerstones of multiculturalism--the notion that the canon must be expanded to "represent" excluded groups. (It's an idea that cropped up only last month in Lawrence Levine's The Opening of the American Mind, which treats the question of literary quality as a "debate over the culture and over the direction that culture should take.") The problem with this, Gates and Guillory point out, is that an author does not "represent" the groups with which he is identified, any more than a book "represents" its author. Since only a tiny number of books by authors of any social group are ever canonized in the first place, any book granted that rare honor must possess, first and foremost, a distinguishing aesthetic quality--not some conspicuous dollop of crowd-pleasing politics.

Perhaps the most dramatic turn in the academy is the one toward the frank appreciation of literary pleasure. Duke University's Lentricchia and the University of Pennsylvania's Wendy Steiner have each explicitly disavowed their earlier work as theorists, and investigated, Denby-style, the emotions of reading. In the '80s, Lentricchia authored an encyclopedic guide to postwar literary theory. These days, he gripes, "I've pretty much stopped reading literary criticism because most of it isn't literary. But criticism it is of a sort--the sort that stems from the sense that one is morally superior to the writers that one is supposedly describing." In her book The Scandal of Pleasure, Steiner describes a similar conversion experience. Before, she saw literary criticism as a "science." Now, she is forced to admit that "the thrust of criticism is the 'I like,' ... at the heart of any critical act is a subjective preference."

Steiner's book ends with a call for a new, liberal aesthetics--a welcome thought. But it's hard to say just what these liberal aesthetics would look like. Liberal humanism may be the sturdiest and most trustworthy approach to art we have. But, like any effort to balance joy and benevolence, it risks collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. Rather than rest her case on pleasure alone, Steiner insists that art will make us "tolerant" and "mentally lithe." Greenblatt, who cites Albrecht Dürer's lavish praise of Native American artifacts, suggests that aesthetic understanding involves a "respect and admiration" for the accomplishments of others. These are reasonable assertions. But has Dante promoted the cause of tolerance? Will a reader of Céline come away with a newfound respect for his fellow man?

Well aware of the past, Steiner, Lentricchia, et al. are neither aesthetes nor formalists. They're not trying to make art into a religion; nor do they dismiss the relevance of contextual information. They do believe, though, that art has its own joys, and that there must come a moment when secondary knowledge drops away, and a work speaks for itself. Criticism is worth doing, but should know its own limits. There is always a gap between the critic's "knowingness" and the reader's experience of "awe" or "inspiration."

But awe and inspiration for whom? That's the problem underlying the whole "great books" debate. It would be a pity if the revival of literature in the academy coincided with the shrinking of what Wendy Steiner calls the "aesthetic suffrage," but the fact is that on most college campuses, there's no debate over the core curriculum because most students have neither the time nor the money to worry about it. While liberal-arts schools are ethnically more diverse than they used to be, they're also starting to become more stratified by income. Very little that the academic right or left is saying is likely to change that. William Bennett and Lynne Cheney urge students to "reclaim the legacy" of the Western tradition even as their political allies take aim at student loans. And even now, the left's version of "academic politics" involves more talk of canonicity than the declining value of Pell Grants. Perhaps a debate over higher education should focus less on what gets taught, and more on who shows up to learn.

Alexander Star is editor of Lingua Franca.