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Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World
By David Denby.
Simon & Schuster, 468 pages, $30

The “culture wars” over what should be taught and read have been going on in the universities for some years now, and many of the terms of the debate are familiar to the wider public: “political correctness,” “Western hegemony,” “patriarchy,” and so forth. What is probably not quite so familiar to Americans outside the university is what it all has to do with the Greek poetry and Enlightenment philosophy they struggled through years before to fulfill their required courses. Many have no doubt told themselves they ought to read those old books again, to see what all the fuss is about, and some perhaps have. Few, however, will have considered returning to school and sitting through those courses all over again. But David Denby has done just that, and his new book, Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World, is the result.

Denby, a long-time movie critic for New York magazine, found himself depressed by “the debate about the nature of higher education in this country.” The complaint of the academic left that women and minorities are obliged to study a patriarchal curriculum seemed to him, while perhaps not unreasonable, simply adolescent: “It now seems hard to believe that anyone above sixteen could possibly have used, as a term of blame, the phrase ‘Dead White European Males.’” Equally, however, the conservative claim that “if we ceased to read the right books, we could not keep communism or relativism”or whatever threatened the Republic––at the gates–– appeared to be so much alarmist polemic. And so, in the fall of 1991, after an absence of thirty years, Denby went back to Columbia University to take for the second time “Contemporary Civilization” and “Literature Humanities,” the core curriculum courses Columbia requires of all its students.

But Denby’s quest had also a more personal function. He had, he tells us, grown “sick at heart, sick not of movies or movie criticism but of living my life... lost in the media,” a condition which had left him––as, he believes, it is leaving us all––with “information without knowledge, opinions without principles, instincts without beliefs.” Seeking relief, he set himself to re-experience the dead white European males and (a few) females of the “Western canon.”

Great Books is largely given over to twenty-eight chapters in which Denby recreates, often minutely, the experience of reading and discussing the books, from Homer and Plato to Conrad and Woolf, that have been so fought over in the last twenty years. In these chapters Denby discusses his own sense of the books themselves, often quoting from them generously, and recreates many episodes from classroom discussion that illuminate the ways in which they are being taught.

Along the way, Denby inserts seven interludes that take up directly the question of the canon. Here, Denby reports on, among other things, meetings called to discuss student concerns with the curriculum, and a conversation with a “dissenting voice” (a professor leaving Columbia for a more congenial post at England’s Sussex University, a campus distinguished in my own recollection as a place impossible to leave without buying a copy of the Socialist Worker ). In a third, much less developed, strand of the book, Denby discusses his fears for the effects on American society of the media, which he takes to be the central expression of American capitalism. Here, Plato sparks a meditation on the difficulties of bringing children up in a world of violent video games, while Hobbes provides a vision of the “war of all against all” (in which Denby tries to connect what he calls President Reagan’s “praise of greed” and the current crime-ridden situation in South Central Los Angeles). Finally, little touches along the way bring Denby’s experience to life: the rising anxiety of falling behind in the reading, the terror of the examination, and so forth.

The bulk of Denby’s book is a sustained hymn of praise, both for the great books of Western culture and for the sensitive and intelligent way in which they are being taught. Whenever the question of the canon comes up Denby is, almost without exception, confirmed in his initial instinct that the criticisms of the left are wrong. To be sure, he is quick to distance himself from conservatives who, he claims, defend Western literature as an “ineffably noble but essentially static body of values that could, and should, be inoculated into every generation of American students.” But in the face of his unstinting praise of the canonical texts, such remarks feel like the knee-jerk reflex of the pagan who continues to offer ritual obeisance to gods he is beginning to suspect might indeed be crazy. Denby’s greatest testimony to the power of the canon is that it provides him with the spiritual and mental renewal he went in search of. One day, perhaps half-way through the first semester, as he sits reading Aristotle, “I felt, to my amazement, a sense almost of well-being.... The sensation came from the text itself, a small hum of pleasure, nothing great, but steady.” This episode is the first in a series that culminates in his difficulties with Hegel. Slogging gamely through material which seems, at first, “on the verge of gibberish,” he finally discovers that the experience of strenuous intellectual struggle with these books has set him free.

Denby’s seasoned experience as a film critic has made him a fine story teller, and one of the pleasures of Great Books is the skill with which he evokes the sheer narrative power of the great creative works of Western culture. His lively account of Oedipus’ parricidal rise and fall in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and Marlow’s journey into the African interior in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, will draw readers new and old back to the books themselves; and the generous and often well-chosen quotations provide the reader with something of the pleasures of a good anthology.

The detailed report Denby offers us of his and the students’ experience of each book is in one way problematic, in that the genuine excitement of classroom intellectual give-and-take can seem banal on the page––Homer shows both the heroic and the appalling sides of war; Plato’s Republic is powerfully anti-democratic; blindness is the organizing metaphor of Oedipus Rex, and so on. The detail does, however, help demonstrate the importance of the canon to the intellectual lives of these students. For courses such as these offer perhaps the only arena in which Americans are obliged to grapple with the central questions of our political culture:

If the Contemporary Civilization course––an introduction to political philosophy––had a single theme, it might be “What holds a civil society together? Is it fear? Or loyalty to an ideal? Honesty? An unseen and unsigned contract? Could a society exist if its members were not in some way committed to justice?”...  The old schoolroom questions had a terrifying immediacy.... The common notion of what the truth looked like and felt like... had all but vanished under the pressure of race, class, and gender loyalties.

It is disappointing that, in the face of this clear understanding of what is tearing our society apart, Denby’s liberalism sets him so much against what conservative solutions might offer. Never in his meditations on the effects of the media and capitalism is a failure of institutionalized liberalism mentioned without a corresponding snipe at “conservative ‘realism.’”

But the biggest surprise in the book is how little anyone worried about the state of higher education will find to complain of. True, we hear of the African-American student who objects to studying Mozart instead of African drumming, of English professors at a conference who speak of literature in a “coldly disgusted” tone, and of a “Take Back the Night” rally Denby accurately skewers as “exhibitionists performing for voyeurs.” Notwithstanding all this, it seems that, whatever the ferment over the canon in America today, it has hardly touched Columbia University. With the exception of Sappho, Simone de Beauvoir, and Virginia Woolf, the courses as Denby experiences them look little different from what they must have been thirty years ago, and the teaching is intelligent, balanced, rigorous, and sympathetic. Can it simply be, as Denby concludes, that “the ideologues on both sides of the debate [are] talking nonsense”?

It cannot. First, as Denby acknowledges, Columbia University is now one of a dwindling number of institutions that have maintained relatively traditional core curricula in the face of the depredations of multiculturalism, and it offers, therefore, little opportunity of witnessing multiculturalism’s worst effects. Second, Denby’s characterization of the cultural left’s attack on the canon is in an important respect inaccurate.

Early on, Denby describes the cultural left as “academic insurgents eager to unseat the illusion of Westerners that their ideas and institutions amounted to a universal norm.” Similar remarks appear throughout the book. But this representation of the conservative position is simply a parody, and the insistence of those on the left that all they seek is its overthrow is a kind of Sunday-best version of their critique, invariably wheeled out in all injured innocence when they are under attack. Their real argument is that, because there are no universal norms, standards, or truth, all truth claims are merely covers for the operations of power. This is nonsense: as one of Denby’s professors points out, “It doesn’t follow that we have no standards just because we have no absolute standards.” All undeterred, the radical critique takes a subsequent, genuinely wild step, setting up arbitrarily in place of the now-unseated illusions a set of “truths” of their own––the shibboleths of race, class, and gender––which are then enforced by whatever means necessary.

To be sure, Denby does, on scattered occasions, seem to realize this. “Might not,” he says at one point, “academic talk of hegemony and logocentrism really amount to a glib way of gaining control, and even precedence, over an immense legacy of fiercely oppositional thought?” Indeed it might; it does. But in not recognizing or connecting with this insight the radical intellectual incoherence of the critique of the canon, Denby makes it seem as if the situation is not so very dire. In this he runs the risk of undermining the very courses he so much loves. The “great books” will always be great, but they may not always be read.

Saul Rosenberg is Associate Editor of Commentary

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