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Robert asked, back there somewhere, why, if we’re only worried about cultural importance, we should have to put poor John through the pain and suffering of actually reading Paradise Lost.  Wouldn’t a synopsis or an outline do as well?

The answer is no, but it’s no for two reasons.   The first reason is that Paradise Lost is one of the great achievements of Western Civilization.  Witnessing John Milton recreating the narrative of how sin (and death) came into the world is important for the same reason as witnessing the moon landing is, or even watching Michael Jordan play basketball.  For all the blithering silliness we get from people trying to convince us that man is “just another animal” (I really will get back to that at some point), the fact is that he isn’t.   He creates things no other animal creates.  He achieves things no other animal achieves.   He is capable of excellence in a sense no other animals is.

It’s not a small thing to be reminded of all this, because there are consequences, nearly all of them bad, that come from forgetting it.

The second reason a synopsis won’t do is that art doesn’t just deliver ideas, it delivers them in a particular way that a synopsis cannot replicate.   To beat my particular horse again:  literature creates a moral universe and makes us live in it.  But it’s the living in it that’s important.

Ideas and abstractions matter.  They have consequences.  But we don’t experience them in the same way we experience the  Sistine Ceiling or The Divine Comedy.

A writer I like a great deal, named Walker Percy, once summed up Kierkegaard’s explanation for why the humanities are important as that the humanities concern themselves with “what it means to be a man living in the world who must die.”

It’s the “what it means” that matters in that sentence, because meaning is osomething that science not only doesn’t “do,” but that it forthrightly proclaims it can’t do.  And I don’t agree that the fact that meaning is not a scentific question should mean that it is thereofore a question we should just stop asking, or relegate to the realm of the “subjective,”  as if the best we can say about it is that we all have different opinions, and we should let it go at that.

Narrative is a way of understanding the world and what we mean in it, what it means to be human in it.  Narrative is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, ways of approaching such understanding, and it remains the most powerful.  Scripture does not deiver a set of dogmas, either in the Old or the New Testaments.  It delivers stories.  It creates a moral universe and makes us live in it.

I feel like I’m tripping over my tongue here, but the best I  can say it is that there is a difference between hearing about something and experiencing it.  Art–and not just literature–tries to make you experience it.  If a book (or a painting or a piece of music) is important for the impact it has had on the culture, that impact is an impact of experience, not of abstractions.

If Margaret Mitchell had written a little philosophical tract about how slavery wasn’t really as bad as those Northerners made it out to be, nobody would have paid the least attention to her, and we’d still think of the Old South as Simon Legree and daring slave escapes across the ice floes.

That fact that narrative drive is difficult to understand–is not really understood, as of yet–is no reason to ignore it, or to declare that it isn’t really real.  We don’t understand why some people are charismatic and others are not, either, but we don’t deny the existence of charisma or stop talking about it.

And charismatic books have a lot in common with charismatic people, especially the thing where such charisma, no matter how strong, is in no way indicative of quality.   Some very bad people are charismatic.  So are some very vacuous ones.  Like books with terrific narrative drive, we still find it impossible to ignore them.

The problem, of course, is that cultural impact is a variable thing, and it is affected by the very decisions we make when we call something culturally important.   In a world where most people do not read much of anything, what we do and do not decide to teach in classrooms becomes enormously important.  It becomes, in fact, “literature” as far as most people are concerned, representative of the entire endeavor across the entire length and breadth of human experience.  

That is, assuming they remember anything about it at all.  It’s remarkable how much students can be forced to read and yet still manage to retain absolutely nothing.

I’ve been very nervous, throughtout this blog, about the idea that “education” is about what happens in schools.  I’m not saying I don’t think schools are necessary, only that they are what they are, and are therefore limited.  The things we read and retain are almost never the things that are “taught” to us, because being “taught” is in itself a structured way of experiencing literature, and that way is different from what happens to us when we just read.   John Milton did not write with one eye on the future academics who would expound his “ideas” and “allusions” to posterity.

And yet.

The problem with cultural impact is just this:  that cultures change, and the changes may make it difficult for us to experience some work, no matter how important to the development of this civilization, whose immediate contexts have passed into history.

I’ve got a lot of trouble reading Tolkein, and of reading a lot of the New Testament, as well, because I just don’t think in monarchical terms.  Giving me Jesus Christ or Aragorn as my “king” simply does not compute.  I don’t have a king.  I don’t want a king.  I’ve never had a king.  And I’ve never had a relationship to anybody  like the one the New Testament assumes I should have with Christ.   I am, literally, incapable of thinking of myself as somebody else’s “subject.”  I don’t mean that I object to the idea intellectually.  I do, but it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t.  I just can’t make the imagery feel real to me.  At best, the idea of looking to somebody (even God Himself) as “my king” just feels silly to me.  At worst, it feels fake.

Many of my students have a different problem–they find it impossible to understand why Dorothea doesn’t just divorce Mr.  Causabon if she’s so disappointed in him, or just walk out.  They do sort of vaguely understand why she doesn’t become a Great Intellectual on her own–they’ve heard of “discrimination,” when people were bad and wouldn’t let women have “careers”–but the idea that divorce would be nearly impossible to get and that a divorced woman would lose all her friends and become unemployable, maybe even be shunned by her own family, is simply beyond them.

Marriage, as far as they’re concerned, is about “love.”   If two people don’t love each other any more, then there’s no excuse at all for telling them they have to stay together.   No one has ever even suggested to them that marriage is anything other thana private act meant to make two people “happy.”  The idea that marriage might be a public act in which the happiness or unhappiness of the two parties is largely irrelevant isn’t just something they haven’t heard of.   It’s literally inconceivable.

It’s because of problems like this that there is any argument at all about “relevance.”  Why force students to read Middlemarch, when the problems it deals with are in the past, when it has no connection to the problems of men and women today, or in the future?

The answer, of course, is that the proembs of men and woman today do have some connection–the dilemma of the woman who, instead of making her own way in the world, invests her ambition in a husband’s career didn’t disappear with the founding of NOW–and that even the apparently irrelevant bits are more relevant than they look.  Are we really better off defining marriage as a private matter concerned with “happiness?”  What happens if we try to think of marriage as it used to be thought of, if we envision our world without the assumption that any two people who come together for a while are just as likely to split up as stay together, whether they get married or not?

What happens if we try to think of the world as not about us?

If my students share one unshakeable conviction, it is that the world is all about them.  Literature is good or bad depending on whether they “like” it, or find it “interesting.” 

And we, of course, having spent the past several decades declaring that excellence in the humanities in general–and the arts in particular–is all subjective, just a matter of “taste,” have no means by which we can explain to them why they should read Vanity Fair instead of watching Paris Hilton’s My New BFF.

Written by janeh

November 2nd, 2008 at 7:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Charisma'

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  1. I think I see what you are getting at. I think you are arguing for a wider vision; for the value of knowing different ways of looking at the world so that even if (like with you and kingship) some individuals don’t experience what is described, we all know that a range of beliefs and ways of life have and/or do exist. And I agree that there are people whose view on life is extremely individual so that their view on anything depends on how it impacts them personally.

    But what then? If we agree that people should have a broader and deeper cultural knowledge than is now the case, how on earth do we – or anyone – show that the acquisition of such knowledge desirable?

    I’ve been hearing a good bit of the ‘Well, everyone has their own opinion, and that’s right, isn’t it?’ lately, which frankly baffles me. I don’t really mind if someone thinks my opinion is wrong, but I didn’t accept the ‘If you ask me for my opinion, you have to give full marks for whatever I say’ thing back when I was teaching, and recently I couldn’t resist murmuring ‘Right to have the opinion, yes, but not all opinions are right’ before I lost my nerve and interest in prolonging the conversation.


    2 Nov 08 at 1:12 pm

  2. With regard to women sublimating their own careers for their husband’s, just look at Silda Spitzer. She probably thought she was on track for First Lady and instead she’s stuck in the train wreck of her husband’s arrogance and stupidity.


    2 Nov 08 at 6:41 pm

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