Anybody wondering how the study of the humanities arrived at its current, depressing state need only read the words of its practitioners. In a recent letter to The Wall Street Journal, James Simpson, the chair of Harvard’s Department of English, unveils the supreme and lamentable logic that now governs the field.
Simpson writes in response to a March 31 op-ed from Heather Mac Donald, wherein Mac Donald discussed the new “marginalization requirement” in Harvard’s English department. All English majors must now take a course covering authors “marginalized for historical reasons.” Mac Donald posed the question (the title of her piece), “Does Harvard consider Oscar Wilde ‘marginalized’?”
After all, she says, “‘Heteronormativity’ may have made his [Wilde’s] final years miserable, but it had no effect on the boundless success of his plays.” Mac Donald, God bless her, rehearses many of the familiar arguments against classroom identity politics: it gives students yet another excuse to ignore classics of which they are already ignorant; given their historically disproportionate access to education, it’s only common sense that “Dead, White Males” predominate; and race or sex of the author ought not to count for or against a truly sublime piece of literature.
If You Really Believe This, Act On It
These are good and familiar arguments, and they should continue to be made. But Simpson’s letter in reply on April 8 makes the exchange particularly edifying for readers concerned for the classics. Simpson tries to play the middle-of-the-road civility card. He calls Mac Donald’s op-ed “intelligent” but “mean-minded.” At first, he seems to concede: “Nothing could be more depressing than to see a literature curriculum determined by identity politics with dutiful representation from the required range of underrepresented groups.”
While the thought displeases me, I could find a few more depressing things. In fact, so can Simpson! “Nothing, that is, except a literature curriculum that betrayed the fundamental function of literature and other art forms, which is to hear the voices repressed by official forms of a given culture.” I find this claim nearly as depressing as Simpson claims the hypothetical literature curriculum depresses him.
With this sentence, Simpson supplies the asinine creed for the modern study of the humanities. The purpose of art, he says, is to “hear the voices repressed by official forms of a given culture.” That’s not a side benefit. It’s not an occasional consequence of studying art. It’s the whole point. One could wonder why Simpson is taking such half-measures at Harvard. If hearing repressed voices is truly the central purpose of literature and art, should not Simpson ensure that every Harvard class in the humanities fulfills the “marginalization requirement”?
One might also chuckle to hear a representative of the most renowned and powerful educational institution in human history, sitting atop an untaxed endowment of $36 billion—far larger than the gross domestic product of many, many nations—promoting Harvard as a champion of the marginalized. Mandating a class about marginalized authors for each Harvard literature undergrad doesn’t nullify Simpson’s immense privilege. I propose something more concrete: Might Harvard be interested in a “marginalization tax” to divert part of their endowment to historically black colleges and universities or other marginalized educational institutions?
My Dear Sir, Have You Studied Literature Much?
Mostly, however, I wonder what in the world Simpson means with the phrase “repressed by official forms of a given culture.” Is he talking about censorship? If so, that would leave Americans a paltry handful of our own works to study as “art”: Allen Ginsberg was charged for obscenity for reciting his poem “Howl,” so that’s in.
The rest of Ginsberg’s poems might follow on “Howl’s” obscene coattails, but what about that other iconic work of the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”? Well, since Kerouac originally self-censored sections of the book before publishing, perhaps we can let that in because of the way the hegemonic American state colonized Kerouac’s mind. To be safe, really only the censored sections should be studied.
That brings me to that Most American of Great American Novels, “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. Sure, the novel highlights the plight of the poor and downtrodden, but Steinbeck’s voice was hardly “repressed by official forms of a given culture.” In fact, the federal government funded this cishet white man’s work through the Federal Writers’ Project.
In Steinbeck, we find a voice not repressed but trumpeted by official forms of culture (if the federal government is not an “official form,” I don’t know what is). What right does he have to appropriate the struggle of poor, rural Americans for his own financial benefit and fame? This is cultural appropriation in its most insidious form. Like Western Civ, Steinbeck has got to go.
Two Can Play This Game of Nihilism
Steinbeck would not be the only one stricken, not just from the Harvard curriculum, but also from the rolls of what qualifies as true art. After all, according to Simpson, the “fundamental function” of art “is to hear from the voices repressed by official forms of a given culture.” If a piece does not fulfill this function, then it must not be art.
So, Greek tragedy must face the same fate, to be downgraded to the status of mere propaganda. Indeed, tragedy was sponsored by the Athenian city-state, that brutal empire of the antique Mediterranean world (just ask the Melians—whoops, too late, they were massacred!). Gothic cathedrals as well, though their stones bear the anonymous fingerprints of countless European artisans and peasants, proto-proletarians if you will, must now be seen not as architectural masterpieces, but as imperial-ecclesial projects for ideological manipulation.
The Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris may look pretty, but don’t be deceived—it’s the medieval equivalent of the J. Edgar Hoover Building. Classical music—Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn—produced under a patronage system for nobles, kings, and emperors, can likewise be dismissed; what is it but the vanguard of the Nazi Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur?
Simpson’s pronouncement on art’s “fundamental function” is a chainsaw. On the one hand, it can be used to totally decimate the vast and variegated garden of art and literature. But of course, a chainsaw can also be used to sculpt a tree into a totem. Rather than annihilate Western culture wholesale, Simpson and likeminded scholars have selectively wielded their theoretical chainsaws to disfigure art into hideous totems of ideology and politics.
Some writers from the past are hacked down. Some are carved into academic fetishes. Not only do we get ideologically driven interpretations of Greek tragedy, e.g. the de rigueur feminist readings of Sophocles’ “Antigone” or feminist defenses of Mozart, but also such works as “Chaucer’s Queer Nation” and “Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare.”
These “Dead White Males”—Sophocles and Mozart, Chaucer and Shakespeare—can continue to be appreciated only if they are studied ideologically. These artists are admirable insofar as they challenge the patriarchy, or the imperial hegemon, or whatever. They must be read as such, or completely debunked. Otherwise, scholars participate in privileging already privileged voices. It is not so different from the Soviets sculpting the reactionary Russian Orthodox Fyodor Dostoevsky into a prophet of revolution—he may be kept, but not in his current form. Either refashion him, or denounce him entirely.
Politics Is All
To switch metaphors, the modern approach pictures every artistic or literary work as a face. To the untrained, naïve observer, all of these books and cathedrals and operas seem wonderfully different and beautiful (the word trembles on my lips: are they not diverse?). But the true critic is proved by his ability to see that each book, each cathedral, each opera, is wearing a mask. And underneath each mask is the work’s true face—its ideology. In the end, politics is all we have.
“What virtue remains in the act of unmasking when we know full well what lies beneath the mask?” Professor Rita Felski asks in “Uses of Literature.” Indeed, what’s the point of diagnosing patriarchy in every single author whom we read, when we’ve decided beforehand to diagnose them with patriarchy? Continually unmasking art grows quite dull. But the act is also dangerous. In “The Abolition of Man,” C.S. Lewis pointed this out:
You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? … If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.
We have nearly come to the point that Lewis foresaw—a wholly transparent world, that is, an invisible world. A quick glance at modern art is more than enough to convince me that many artists’ materials are indeed quite transparent. Our critics and artists seem to be telling us that though the world is in fact visible, it is not worth looking at. We might as well not see it.
Art, criticism, and education in the humanities suffer deeply for our wrong turn into the critique of pure ideology. Identity politics is, however, only the latest stage, and not even the most nefarious. Even more troubling has been our refusal to grant that beauty is real, that it exists outside of our personal preferences.
In “The Abolition of Man,” Lewis makes the case that when a man calls a waterfall “sublime,” he is not just commenting on how the waterfall makes him feel. Lewis writes, “The man who called the cataract sublime was not intending simply to describe his own emotions about it: he was also claiming that the object was one which merited those emotions.”
To see that he is right, just imagine the man’s companion disagreeing: “No, the waterfall is in fact quite shabby.” Whether an argument would arise between them is hard to say, but I have no doubt that the original speaker would persist in his belief that the waterfall is indeed sublime, and attribute this not to his own unique preferences for overpowering vertical flows of water, but to his friend being in the wrong—and possessed of poor taste.
To Judge Without Destruction
The humanities are in a bad way. Simpson’s letter reminds us how far the study of the humanities has drifted from the contemplation of the beauty, truth, and goodness that our artistic tradition embodies. A passing comment from a layperson would not merit such a refutation, but a statement in a leading newspaper from a leading literary scholar—one who speaks for the discipline—requires it.
If we can learn anything from Simpson’s dubious statement on the purpose of art, it is that the time has come to put down criticism’s chainsaw. His outlook leads us into absurdities such that a “marginalization requirement” is only a foretaste. The solution is not abandoning criticism altogether in favor of sentimental appreciation, but taking up a criticism that is faithful to its Greek root, krinein, which means to separate or judge. This criticism must be done on the proper basis.
The man who comes to art or literature looking only for politics is like the man who attends the orchestra for a rousing rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and walks away complaining that the first chair’s outfit was slightly ill-fitting and a bit out-of-date. His is a case of mistaken genre—he believes he attended a fashion debut when he has in fact listened to a symphony. So with literature and art, we must grasp what it is so we will be able to look at it properly.
We must learn to see the garden through the window, without seeing through the garden. The critics with their chainsaws are wrong to imagine the trees require our carving. Our task is to krinein, to separate the sublime from the shabby, the beautiful from the hideous, the good from the bad, the true from the false. When we do this, we can then make our way outside to taste that garden’s good fruits, and delight in them. We might even discover a hitherto unknown waterfall along the way.