Friday, October 14, 2005

Democracy and Excellence.

Harold Bloom, The Western Canon (New York: Riverhead Books, 1994), $17.00
Saul Bellow, Herzog (New York: Viking Press, 1964), reissued by Penguin Books, 1976, $9.00.

An on-going debate in American intellectual life concerns the validity and scope of the Canon (capitalized for purposes of self-importance), that is, the list of great works that all persons may be expected to know as a result of completing a university education.

It is certainly true that political considerations have always been a part of the judgment that some works are better than others, so that they deserve this Canonical status. More recently, the issue has been complicated by concerns over social justice both in academia and society. Formerly excluded persons wish to be heard and to make it clear that they also have a tradition of cultural achievement, which may be defined somewhat differently than mainstream notions of aesthetic excellence.

Saul Bellow's regrettable response to this controversy was to anounce: "When the Zulus produce a Tolstoy, we will read him." Ironically, as a younger man, Bellow had been assured by his instructors at the University of Chicago that no Jew could become a Canonical American writer, since the American idiom would always remain "foreign" to him. This is something that, I am sure, Moses Herzog would dismiss as "bullshit."

(Now for a little detour into the Forest of Arden.)

I was with Herzog in the loony bin, by the way, right next door to Robert Lowell and Delmore Schwartz. (Herzog and Delmore looked alike.) "It's your turn to pontificate, kid." Herzog would say such things with a smile, as he wrote long letters to Nietzsche. He sometimes received a reply from Niezsche, in red ink and bold script. I've written to Nietzsche too, but have never received an acknowledgment. Lowell preferred to exchange poems with Whitman; and Delmore wrote only to himself, and rarely received a reply. ...

Genius is not a democratic right. Genius is more like a bizarre accident. Some people have it and others don't, and no one knows exactly why. Niceness or goodness may have little to do with it. In addition to his charm and serenity, good looks and diffidence, Gore Vidal was endowed with the gift of genius -- and like Norman Mailer, he was too modest to refuse it. When asked whether his first sexual encounter was with a boy or girl, Vidal answered that he "was too polite to ask." This is the sign of a true gentleman. When we encounter genius, it may be best to enjoy it and not ask were it comes from or what it means.

I don't know the answer to this question of whether politics is necessarily a part of such judgments of artistic merit. I cannot say whether social justice is a legitimate consideration in deciding to promote or ennoble some texts or works of art over others as Canonical, demanding the attention of the cultivated public. This assessment of value may be a determination that should be left to the market anyway. I mean this not in an economic sense, or we will all be studying Steven King -- which may not be a bad idea, since I enjoy his books and wouldn't mind it at all -- and Agatha Christie (no comment). This "value judgment" concerning quality should be left to the intelligent reading public. In practice, I think that it is.

No matter what academics say, in the end, people who read a lot of books will be pretty good at deciding for themselves what is good or great, worthy of special attention or safely ignored. They should. Helping students to achieve that capacity for individual judgment is the goal of higher education. By the way, Steven King's work will survive for at least one quality that he has in common with Vidal, Mailer, Updike, Styron, Baldwin, Jong, Franzen and the other usual suspects: He's fun to read. (I got The Colorado Kid on Tuesday and I can't wait to start it!)

One way of formulating the issues in this debate is to ask: 1) Can we say that some works of art are simply better than others with any degree of confidence, meaning in a pretty objective sense? 2) Is such a determination fundamentally political? 3) Should everyone be required to have some familiarity with such works, even when they are the works of persons whose social or non-aesthetic values we now find reprehensible?

I think that we can say with great confidence that some works of art are better than others. We all do anyway, all the time. And yes, Shakespeare is the best. Politics may often enter into judgments of artistic merit and it may be one criteria to consider, but aesthetic achievement can be identified accurately, I think, apart from such political or social considerations. Some knowledge of the contents of the greatest works in the history of our civilization is essential for everyone. In the words of Professor Harold Bloom, who was an occasional resident at that same asylum:

"To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgment, to read at all. The reception of aesthetic power enables us to learn how to talk to ourselves and how to endure ourselves. The true use of Shakespeare or Cervantes, of Homer or Dante, of Chaucer or Rabelais, is to augment one's own growing inner self. Reading deeply in the Canon will not make one a better or a worse person, a more useful or a more harmful citizen. The mind's dialogue with itself is not primarily a social reality. All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one's own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one's confrontation with one's own mortality."

Bloom concludes, as I would:

"I am your true Marxist critic, following Groucho rather than Karl, and take as my motto Groucho's grand admonition, 'Whatever it is, I'm against it!' ... "

Why bother to read at all? Moses Herzog provides an answer to this question in one of his last letters to Niezsche:

"I also know that you think great pain is ennobling, pain which burns slow, like green wood, and there you have me with you somewhat. But for this higher education survival is necessary. You must outlive the pain. ... You want us to be able to live with the void. Not lie ourselves into good naturedness, trust, ordinary middling human considerations, but to question as has never been questioned before, relentlessly, with iron determination, into evil, through evil, past evil, accepting no abject comfort. ..."

Civilization, reading freely and bravely the best that has been thought and said, is what allows us to do this questioning and face what comes without flinching, for it gives us a sense of that which endures in the human spirit and of what humanity is still capable achieving, however briefly, even as the darkness engulfs us.

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