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Reading a new edition of Allen Tate’s collected essays (Essays of Four Decades, ISI Books, 640 pp., $29.95) is at once a stimulating and dispiriting experience. In encountering (or re-encountering) the mind behind this rich and varied collection, one catches a pleasing glimpse of the days when professors studied what they called “man,” and did so with confidence, discipline, and energy. The pleasure quickly evaporates, though, when one recalls the stark contrast between that state of affairs and our own day, when it has become verboten even to invoke the generic term “man.” Seldom if ever have the humanities been in such slack and confused shape as they are now.

Everyone knows about “the humanities,” and most everyone has a vague sense that they are probably “a good thing”—one of those intrinsically good things, like soup kitchens and animal shelters, that decent, civilized folk should feel obliged to support. But in our day such an attitude is little more than a sentimental reflex. Truth be told, almost nobody has any idea of what the humanities are. Least of all the practitioners themselves. They tend to regard the term itself with some embarrassment, and if asked to define it, are likely to take the question itself as a hostile or impertinent act, unworthy of a serious response.

But this routine may not work much longer. Even intelligent and sympathetic observers are getting dubious about the emperor’s wardrobe. The late Robert Nisbet used to tell a story about the academic scientist who was angrily accosted by his humanist colleague for “speaking against the humanities” at the previous day’s faculty meeting. Au contraire, said the other; he was doing nothing of the kind. “I love the humanities! I would die for the humanities! All I asked was—what the hell are the humanities?” A good question. The day may be coming when it will be not only unanswered, but unanswerable.

In fact, that day may already have arrived. Take a look for yourself at the website of the National Endowment for the Humanities (, which perfectly illustrates the point. One would have thought that a publicly funded, and perennially embattled, government agency devoted to the sustenance of the humanities would be especially keen about setting forth a clear and rousing rationale for them. Indeed, one would think that the formulation of such a definition or description would be an essential part of the agency’s mission, and that the agency’s website would be a perfect place to educate the public about that mission.

But the questing websurfer, seeking to discover just what the humanities are, will find only the following description on the site: “The term ‘humanities’ includes, but is not limited to, the study of the following: language, both classical and modern; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism, and theory of the arts; those aspects of the social sciences that have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life.” And that is that. Ask the U.S. government what the humanities are, and you get a lawyerly list of academic constituency groups in response.

Such a statement undoubtedly has procedural uses for the agency itself. But it certainly doesn’t illuminate anything for the rest of us. It presumes that we already fully understand the concept being defined, because that very word, as both noun and adjective, is used in propounding the definition. So of what use can such a definition be? The statement rightly asserts that social sciences may or may not be “humanistic.” But how are we to discern the difference, unless we already know what the humanities are? And what can it mean to define the humanities as including “the study of . . . the study and application of the humanities to the human environment?” Is this postmodernist hyper-reflexivity, or just careless proofreading?

Such language may be par for the course for legislators. But it is strange that, in its thirty-five years of existence under both Democratic and Republican administrations, the NEH has not seen fit to formulate a better statement of its own. A laundry list merely defers the question rather than answering it, pretending that an enumeration of means will automatically disclose the ends in view. But it doesn’t, and can’t. One doesn’t articulate the mission of the Department of Defense merely by listing all the divisions of the armed forces, and the armaments and personnel at their disposal. One doesn’t capture the animating goals of a manufacturing firm merely by listing all of the firm’s discrete activities, from procurement of raw materials to collection of accounts receivable. In both cases, the task of definition requires that some overarching purpose be taken into account. To say that “the humanities” are merely the sum of the current activities of all those working in the humanities is not only evasive. It all but denies the possibility that the humanities have an intrinsic meaning and an ultimate purpose.

Of course, in this evasion the NEH is merely reflecting reality rather than shaping it. There is nothing even remotely approaching a consensus anymore about what the humanities are, what they are for, and why we should value them. That does not mean they are likely to disappear anytime soon. But their persistence at this point seems more a matter of institutional inertia than of any positive sense of mission, and the erosion of their standing in recent years has been alarming. The humanities reached unprecedented heights of prestige and funding in the post-World War II era; they can only dream of such status today. Now they are the Ottoman Empire of the academy, a sprawling, incoherent, and steadily declining congeries of disparate communities, each formed around one or another credal principle of ideology and identity, and each with its own complement of local sultans, khedives, and potentates.

Yet even this arrangement cannot last too much longer. The danger is especially visible in the English departments of leading research universities, which have nearly lost any plausible rationale for their existence, as their faculties, in their commitment to highly ideologized forms of literary theory and cultural studies, have not only been refusing to teach writing, but have lost interest in literature itself. Other disciplines, though not yet quite so “advanced,” have followed the same path. Empires, like other institutions, can stand for a long time without a visible foundation. But not forever. And sometimes the collapse, when it comes, arrives with breathtaking swiftness.

Those who love the humanities, then, have to pay heed to the scientist’s question, and be willing to say with more precision what it is that they love. This is not so impossible as it might seem. The starting point, at any rate, is clear. The distinctive task of the humanities, unlike the natural sciences and social sciences, is to grasp human things in human terms, without converting or reducing them to something else: physical laws, mechanical systems, biological drives, psychological disorders, social structures, and so on. The humanities attempt to understand the human condition from the inside, as it were, treating the human person as subject as well as object, agent as well as acted-upon. Such a manner of proceeding is not entirely dissimilar from the careful and disciplined methods of science, at least not in all respects. But it is distinctive, for it begins (and ends) with a willingness to ground itself in the world as we find it and experience it, the world as it appears to us—the thoughts, emotions, imaginings, and memories that make up our picture of reality. The genius of humanistic knowledge—and it is a form of knowledge—is its commensurability, and even consanguinity, with the objects it helps us to know.

Such knowledge can avail itself of the full range of analytical tools. But it utterly violates the spirit of literature (for example) to reduce it to something else. Too often, there seems to be a presumption that the only value of Dickens or Proust or Conrad derives from the extent to which they confirm the abstract propositions of Marx, Freud, Fanon, and the like, promote the proper political attitudes, or lend support to the identity politics du jour. Few in the academy admit to such reductionism, but it is everywhere massively in evidence. Meanwhile the genuine, unfeigned love of literature is hard to find—except, thankfully, among the brave but invisible underclass of devoted teachers across the land. Strange, that an era so pleased with its superficially freewheeling and antinomian qualities is actually so distrustful of the literary imagination, so intent upon making its productions conform to preordained criteria. Why bother asserting the autonomy or integrity of the imagination, unless one genuinely respects the imagination, and admits that there might be forms of knowledge unique to it?

In this dismal state of affairs, one has to be doubly grateful to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute for making available a new edition of the distinguished poet and critic Allen Tate’s rich and varied collection, Essays of Four Decades, which first appeared (what seems an eternity ago) in 1968, and now arrives on the scene as water in a parched land. It would be hard to think of a book that better illustrates the famous adage that our books read us, rather than the reverse. To which one should add that these essays, read today, many decades after they were written, also “read” our age, in ways no one could have anticipated. Tate and his allies in the New Criticism are too often casually brushed aside as captives of excessive formalism and textualism, qualities that have the effect of denying literature’s historical embeddedness. This charge, which was always superficial, appears very different today, when the very raison d’être of literary study appears to be disintegrating.

The first thing one notices is Tate’s peculiar voice. It is a voice of high intelligence, classically reserved and slightly archaic in diction, seasoned with touches of quiet but acerbic wit. It is a voice animated by reverence for language itself, thoroughly at home in the realms of “symbolic imagination,” and charged with an intense, Augustinian yearning for meaning, truth, and transcendence. It is a voice so old as to be almost ancient—and therefore entirely fresh, and strangely rejuvenating. The voice reminds us of the high seriousness with which it was once possible, and may yet again be possible, to approach literary studies, and by extension all the humanities. It is especially notable how many of the essays deal with issues of responsibility: the responsibilities of the man of letters, of the poet, of the critic, of criticism, of the quarterly journal. All these were matters Tate viewed with utmost seriousness and steadiness. Is it possible to imagine our era’s feckless brand of postmodernist pranksters doing the same?

Consider some of the responsibilities Tate thought that literature was meant to shoulder. The man of letters, for example, is obliged “to recreate for his age the image of man,” and to “propagate standards by which other men may test that image, and distinguish the false from the true.” In the twentieth century, writers and critics bore the additional responsibility of restoring “the vitality of language,” and protecting “the culture of language, to which the rest of culture is subordinate,” thereby ensuring that language retains its capacity to “forward the ends proper to man.” In a lovely essay on the responsibility of the poet, Tate insisted that the poet’s chief task is that of being a poet, of exercising “the virtue proper to him as poet,” which does not mean dabbling in politics, or seeking a substitute for religion, but to stick to his last, concentrating upon “the mastery of a disciplined language which will not shun the full report of the reality conveyed to him by his awareness.” The social function of the artist is best fulfilled strictly as a byproduct of excellent work. The task of the literary quarterly was not “to give the public what it wants,” but rather what “it ought to have.” Nor did Tate quail and quake before the juggernaut of the imperious sciences. Instead he calmly responded, as in “Literature as Knowledge,” that “culture, which is the study of perfection and the constant effort to achieve it, is superior to the scientific spirit, because it includes and passes beyond it.”

Such a statement indicates not only that Tate had confidence in the humanities, but also that he understood their rationale. Only the humanities could speak of human beings in their wholeness, because only the humanities were conversant in what he called rhetoric, his term for “the figurative language of experience as the discipline by means of which men govern their relations with one another in the light of truth.” In other words, one could not get at the truth about man through the abstractions of the pure intellect (which he called “the angelic imagination”), because such abstractions failed to address themselves to the texture of lived experience. One had instead to look to the products of “the symbolic imagination,” which affirmed the particularities of the flesh, and yet used the figurative resources of language to reconnect those particularities to the cosmic order of which they are part, and from which they draw their ultimate meaning. Literature, he declared, is “the complete knowledge of man’s experience,” a “unique and formed intelligence of the world of which man alone is capable.”

This last assertion probably goes too far, at least in the “completeness” department. Tate, like Matthew Arnold before him, may have expected too much of literature and art, and been disappointed as a consequence. A refined idol is still an idol. As Louise Cowan reminds us in her introduction to the ISI edition, Tate was a lonely, restless, marginal man, whose beautiful projections of an orderly, rooted way of life were completely at odds with the alienated and disordered way he actually lived, and who never found enduring satisfaction in his lifelong religious peregrinations. He was highly susceptible to the same “angelic” intellectuality that he deplored—and he knew it.

But such personal failings need not detain us here. What remains enduringly impressive in his work, and especially valuable in the present day, is the sturdy rationale it still provides for the humanities. We need to recover Tate’s commitment to the unity of human experience, and to the worth of the imagination, when harnessed to the rational faculties and coupled with a sense of moral responsibility. He saw the humanities, not as an indiscriminate grab bag for all nonscientific human endeavor, but as highly disciplined forms of inquiry meant to explore “the experience of man as man”—rather than man “as vertebrate, biped, mathematician, or priest.” We could hardly do better than to begin right there.

Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Chair of Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

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