April 04, 2008

Return to literature as literature

Roger Shattuck - Candor & Perversion
, our fearless leader over at POLYSEMY, recently requested an update on what the staff are reading these days. One of the books I am reading is Roger Shattuck's Candor & Perversion: Literature, Education, and the Arts. Shattuck died in 2005, but I wish he were still writing -- what he had to say was important for the future of the arts.

This will be a long post because I want to present Shattuck's Nineteen Theses on Literature, a sort of manifesto for studying the classics. All of this was reprinted at the New York Times Book Review when they excerpted the book. The book itself is a collection of essays loosely grouped into three sections, but the essays really having little to do with each other as far as content is concerned. However, they all argue, in one way or another, directly or indirectly, for a classical liberal arts education. This is from the introduction to Chapter One, The Nineteen Theses on Literature:

At the close of the twentieth century, we should reasonably expect a liberal education in our high schools, colleges and universities to serve two principal goals. The first goal is to present the historic basis of our complex culture and the political and moral standards that have evolved from it. The second is to offer students the intellectual basis for an evaluation of that culture, its ideals, and its realities. The first explains and even justifies the status quo. The second questions it. In a democracy, both are necessary.Those two opposed functions can take place together, almost simultaneously, thanks in great part to a collection of written works that both provide a basis for our Western tradition and challenge it. For instance, we find variations on the dialogue form in Plato, in Montaigne's essays, in Swift's imaginary voyages, and in Dostoevsky's fictional conversations. These supple works do not pronounce; rather, the probe and reflect. The shared reading of such foundational books gives us a basis for finding the principles and the precedents by which we can live together as one country and one culture containing many parts and divisions, many classes and races.

After providing some examples of how the "canon" has adapted and changed over the years -- and agreeing that, with many exceptions (that there are some books everyone should read), we should always be engaged in a discussion of which books constitute the core of the canon -- he then turns his attention to the current state of affairs in the majority of humanities departments.

In recent years, however, other considerations have begun to usurp the place of literary status and quality. It is a simplification, but not a distortion, to refer to two categories of interests that tend to displace literature: politics (including race, class, feminism, minority and cultural studies, gay and lesbian studies) and theory (reliance on a prior methodology or approach by which to read all works). These interests, perfectly legitimate as adjuncts to literature, have become increasingly dominant, specialized, and doctrinaire. Their cumulative effect is to eliminate the very category of literature. Current fashions favoring "interdisciplinary studies" also tend to weaken the basic disciplines of history and literature."Nineteen Theses" was written as a response to the attempts to dismiss literature as a central field of study and personal reward.

I would like to point out that he does not wish to do away with the various approaches of politics and theory, but only to return them to their rightful place as adjuncts to the study of literature rather than their current status as the focus of study. When reading a novel (or whatever), we should first focus on the work itself and what it wishes to say, and only later, as a possible aid to understanding, engage in various theoretical approaches that may or may not help us understand the work more clearly. After all, a critical approach that does not elucidate the text itself is useless. OK then, having presented the introduction, here are the Nineteen Theses on Literature:

The post at the NYT Book Review also contains Chapter Two: PERPLEXING LESSONS: IS THERE A CORE TRADITION IN THE HUMANITIES?, which is certainly worth the read. I'm sure some readers will take issue with my support for a classical liberal education in the arts and literature as somehow being conservative, to which all I can say is,"Yep!"

A classics based literature education is not sexist, racist, classist, or any other "ist." It simply recognizes that there are many works that nearly all of us can agree are great, and that these works should be the foundation of an education in the liberal arts. We do not wish to exclude works that are not fully agreed upon, nor do we want to ignore the fact that many fine works were written by those who were not part of the dominant culture, and that those works are also worthy of our attention.

What those of us who support an education in the classics most want is a return to literature as literature, without theory and politics dominating and/or limiting how we many study it and learn from it. That's not too much to ask -- and that's all Roger Shattuck sought with his very eloquent Nineteen Theses.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , Labels: , , , posted by WH @ 3:17 PM 4 comments links to this post Friday, March 28, 2008 Integral Options Cafe > Roger Shattuck and the 19 Theses on Literature
from The Daily Goose by Matthew

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