The English Department
Mark Bauerlein’s account of the English department’s decline in “Truth, Reading, Decadence” (June/July) makes for good reading. It is true to my experience in the field of literary study and helps give the tragedy our discipline has undergone intelligible structure. For those unfamiliar with late-twentieth-century theory and its conservative critics, Bauerlein’s account will be illuminating.
The upshot of his essay, that “literary study needs to be about literature,” is exactly right, and the heart of any adequate response to the problem. Indeed, it is because schools like Hillsdale College and the University of Dallas insist on this point that their English majors are booming: The energy thrown off by a text like the Odyssey is astonishing in its power, and I can attest that undergraduates really allowed to feel it in class have a hard time resisting further literary study.
At the same time, one danger to Bauerlein’s narrative, as with genealogies of decline as a genre, is the faintness with which it sketches the path forward. The pathos of nostalgia is powerful and, I think, important to feel, but it gives us nothing to do tomorrow morning. Besides the all-important return to the text, we also need a fresh philosophical and theological account of the discipline, one pulsating with confidence, explaining power, and love for the real: We need this because new life in the discipline will require persuading both the students and the teachers, and the latter will need some sort of theory going forward. There is no simple return to the 1960s, or the 1930s, or any previous era of literary study. We cannot throw out recent history or pretend it has not happened.
The way back to flourishing will mean not the abandoning of theoretical frameworks, but a fresh and compelling philosophy of art’s place in life. It will have to be capacious enough to hold what was good in Derrida, Foucault, and even the identitarians, find ways of affirming those goods within a broader vision of reality, and move forward out of love, not fear. I would suggest that there are resources for such a development in recent French phenomenology of the “theological turn,” as well as the Communio and “Radical Orthodoxy” schools of thought, each of which have yielded rich new approaches to art and its living, moving place within our world. The present century, as Bauerlein says, is “intellectually miserable,” but the path out of misery is ever old, ever new.
In reading Mark Bauerlein’s “Truth, Reading, Decadence,” I felt like he must have been there in the classroom with me when I began my PhD in English in 1987.
I was one of those typical undergraduate English majors he describes in his essay, one who cared about “literature, literature as literature, with its own genus of truth.” And so, I shuffled off to grad school with the naive expectation that I would be immersed in more of the same, just deeper and richer, you know, more literary.
But, alas, it was not to be.
I didn’t know Lacan from Lyotard when I entered a program where René Girard, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida had once taught. The canon wars were just revving up. In one of my first seminars, we read The Postmodern Condition. In one of my last, my classmates complained to the professor that they couldn’t write the assigned paper because it required them to judge a work, and they had no basis upon which to do so. That’s when I knew we were in trouble.
There’s some comfort, perhaps, in recognizing that today’s calls to cancel the canon and question the great books have been percolating all these decades, and still haven’t won—yet. In fact, these seem like smaller battles in a bigger war.
English—indeed, perhaps all of higher education—is going the way of the Rust Belt. Fleets of seasoned professors are being replaced by newer, cheaper adjuncts, classroom teaching is being outsourced to the World Wide Web, the art of fiction is edged out by fan culture, and content (as opposed to “writing”) is king.
But in the sanctum of some classrooms—not just mine, but here and there, if not everywhere—students are hungry for something, something they don’t even know they want. Introducing them (and not just students, but family, friends, and fellow congregants, too) to the pleasures of the text, we can invite them to “taste and see” that it is good.
Ironically, then, there’s something inspiring about Bauerlein’s dire retrospective. Something good in seeing clearly that we have so lost our way that we need to turn around and start again. To get back to the books. To the beginning. Ad fontes.
Here, there really are “wonders that will change your life.”
Karen Swallow Prior
southeastern baptist theological seminary
wake forest, north carolina
Reading Mark Bauerlein’s piece “Truth, Reading, Decadence” brought back memories. I experienced the “French invasion” he describes.
From 1967–71, I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins in the department of Romance languages. My major was Italian, my minor French. I had been an English major at the University of San Francisco, where I started out in psychology, but switched to English after I realized that artists and writers know more about, and express better, the human condition than people who concoct theories about it. I’ve never lost this belief.
When I arrived at Hopkins in the fall of 1967, everyone was talking about “the legendary conference on structuralism.” I lived the “French invasion” firsthand. From the start, I thought it was hogwash. I remember thinking that it would be interesting to research why American scholars were so attracted to French thought. The European “stars” were all nice people, or so I found them. I sat in on Roland Barthes’s seminar on the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola and had a beer with him at the Hopkins Graduate Club. Paul de Man appeared to be a shy, soft-spoken, somewhat gentle soul. At least that’s the way his students described him to me. Derrida came to Hopkins after I had finished my French minor, so I never took a class with him. But the Hopkins graduate students who took his classes thought they were the cat’s meow. I asked one of them to tell me what Derrida said. He couldn’t. He just held his thumb and forefinger together, waved his hand, rolled his eyes, and said, “You just have to be there.” I guess that’s the kind of energy that Bauerlein says electrified English departments. (As he put it: “Stanley Fish once told me that in those heady years, fresh PhDs felt the air in the departments crackling with ideas.”) I could never understand how you could be attracted to something you couldn’t explain!
The graduate students in French laughed at those of us who were studying Italian with Charles Singleton because they said Singleton still believed in “meaning.” One day in class, Singleton remarked that the goal of most of his colleagues at Hopkins was to begin with a theory, lead you into a work of literature, and then pull you out at the other end in order to confirm that theory. Singleton’s goal was to lead us into Dante’s Divine Comedy and leave us there. I liked that.
I’m retired now. I’ve been blessed with an academic career that let me teach the Divine Comedy to undergraduates every year for over forty years. I’ve tried to do what Singleton did: ask the kids to assume a willing suspension of disbelief, lead them into Dante’s medieval Christian journey—and leave them there!
new london, connecticut
Mark Bauerlein replies:
Karen Swallow Prior says that English is “going the way of the Rust Belt.” I agree. Despair is a sin, perhaps the hardest to resist, and I regret not being able to take Professor Lindley’s advice for “the way back to flourishing.” He says that we can preserve “what was good” in the best theorists and in the “identitarians,” too, as we form a “fresh and compelling philosophy of art’s place in life.” But I have no faith. Now that the identitarians are in near-total control of the humanities, they will not allow that to happen. They guard the doors scrupulously, much more closely than the Old Boy Network did. Those putatively oppressive figures of earlier times didn’t like the Young Turks and hotshot theorists of the sixties and seventies, but they still let them in the room. Professor Proctor mentions Charles Singleton as a case in point of a professor committed to literary meaning and critical of the deconstructionist wave. It is also true that Paul de Man’s most renowned essay, “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” was first published in a volume of essays edited by Singleton himself. How many identitarians today would publish something by a traditionalist thinker pushing traditionalist points?
Proctor and I are retired. We watched the discipline collapse. Lindley and Prior still teach, and they are, indeed, meeting the student “hunger” that Prior rightly mentions. I presume that is why enrollment trends at Hillsdale College and University of Dallas (cited by Lindley) are booming, and I bet the same is happening in Prior’s classrooms. Indeed, I would wager that the same thing is happening with applications and enrollments in general at Hillsdale and at seminaries with teachers such as Prior. They aren’t in the U.S. News & World Report top twenty, but when we recall that the fall of English has been presided over by eminences at Yale, Berkeley, Chicago, and others, we have to reconsider the value of those rankings, at least in areas of the humanities. As Proctor notes, they drew English down into a tedious, uninspiring commentary on social conditions. Lindley and Prior generate the opposite: the joys of reading and adventures of interpretation. Where will one’s children be happier and more spiritually fulfilled? My son will be applying to colleges soon, and we’ll ask that question very carefully.
Rabbi Shalom Carmy’s “On Creativity and Serving God”(June/July) reminded me of two contradictory statements in the Talmud: “There is no study hall without novel ideas (chidush)”; and “‘These are the commandments’ (Lev. 27:34)—and from now on, no prophet is permitted to innovate (le-chadesh).”
The religious personality is torn between these two dialectical views of chidush, a Hebrew word encompassing novelty, creativity, and innovation. Belief in divine revelation entails the belief that the content of that revelation is unalterable. Yet paradoxically, even if revelation contains everything, it need not be limiting. Our job is not to just mine for what is already there—but to build on what is there and create something that isn’t there yet.
We view creativity with both suspicion and zest. Thirst for the new overtakes us, while we tremble at the thought that a novel idea may be commingled with error or, even worse, heresy.
Creative acts may sometimes lead to mistakes, but without them, religion ossifies. The challenge of this generation is to discern truth from error, and to have the confidence to put forth innovative ideas and interpretations that cohere with, and build upon, tradition.
teaneck, new jersey
Shalom Carmy’s characteristically eloquent comment on creativity within a religious framework suffers from a problem that commonly vexes discussions of this nature: semantic boundaries. An amorphous, subjective term such as “creativity” may be defined expansively or cautiously, depending upon who cares to do the defining. In one paragraph, Carmy seems to equate creativity with those epiphanous “lightning bolts” that lie at the heart of truly impressive artistic and literary achievements, while in the next paragraph he assures the reader that small, evanescent acts of social amiability—such as forgiving or comforting one’s fellow—require a similar creativity. While Carmy’s message is well-intended, pretending that the kind of creativity necessary for a well-placed apology is “not inherently inferior” to the creativity of a Goethe or a Mozart amounts to a semantic shoehorning that is ultimately self-discrediting.
Carmy reserves his most philosophically significant point for his opening and closing lines—the venerable notion that imitatio Dei is best carried out through productive creativity and ingenuity. Like most contemporary Jewish teachers, he associates this idea with the towering figure of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who extruded much scholarly ink in emphasizing the centrality of creativity in both human and religious endeavors. What Carmy neglects to mention, however, is that for Soloveitchik and his ilk, creativity must be firmly circumscribed by the borderlines of Jewish law and creed. While Soloveitchik was indeed a masterful Hadshan, a profound innovator within Judaism’s legal, exegetical, and philosophical traditions, he remained utterly immovable on what he perceived as the bounds of authentic religiosity: the authority of the canonical legal texts and the inviolability of Orthodox dogma. Any kind of creative endeavor that transgressed these boundaries was instinctually rejected as illegitimate. Rather, the kind of creativity encouraged and exemplified by Soloveitchik took place within a carefully curated sphere, and thus maintains little appeal (aside from academic) to those who do not share his axiomatic assumptions.
Therefore, when Carmy and other followers of “the Rav” wax lyrical about the religious value of human creativity, they ought to clarify that their conception of this term is far narrower and more specialized than its general usage. Perhaps it is for this reason that Carmy seeks to expand this category to include the rather banal intricacies of everyday human interactions.
J. J. Kimche
Shalom Carmy replies:
J. J. Kimche is right to note that creativity, to religious people and to others with strong principles, is not an absolute value. Creativity is most valuable when it serves to elaborate truth and to promote a good way of life. That is why religious people who esteem creativity do so when it is conformed to the truths that matter most. Likewise, creative productivity in religiously and ethically crucial areas is more highly valued than in other areas. For Orthodox Jews, this would involve such activities as properly motivated study of Torah, development of ethical personality, and our treatment of other people—regardless of whether it is manifested in acts that seem “small” and “evanescent” from other points of view.
Paul Kingsnorth’s “The Cross and the Machine”(June/July) was a gripping read. It reminded me that conversion still happens in adults—and cynical ones at that. Yet, the social scientist David Voas reports that people typically experience little change in their religious beliefs and practices once they reach their early twenties. The great majority of Christians in the U.K. were born into Christian families, and yet the prevalent mentality that Kingsnorth describes—the belief that religion is an irrelevant artifact sensible people have long since cast aside—feels immutable. Those who are hostile to faith are relatively rare; more common is an attitude of polite disinterest or slightly mystified indulgence (“If it works for you, fine, but we’d rather you kept it to yourself”). It is difficult to know whether Kingsnorth’s deep-seated experience of an “abyss” is a common one.
As I reached the end of his essay, I realized that I had been trying to extract lessons for the Church. What could we be doing differently? If the clergy who had gone into Kingsnorth’s school had taken a different approach, would it have made a difference? What should we make of the fact that it never occurred to him to talk to a vicar? On reflection, I regard his testimony as an important reminder that conversion is always a work of God, and that faith is a gift. This is not to say that we have no role to play in bringing people to Christ—Paul describes in 1 Corinthians how he and Apollos planted and watered a seed that God then made grow. But Kingsnorth’s powerful, candid descriptions of his dreams, premonitions, encounters with strangers, and transcendent experience of overwhelming empathy are such important reminders that the Holy Spirit is at work today in the twenty-first century. Kingsnorth’s account of this work, unencumbered by rationalization, embarrassment, or apology, was a much-needed tonic.
In my late twenties, while in the crucible of graduate school, I developed panic disorder. I endured frequent bouts of sanity-ravaging anxiety which on two occasions landed me in the hospital. The idea of suicide became comprehensible. I remember lying trembling on the floor of my bathroom, feeling—no, apprehending—that I was suspended over a cold, implacable void, that love and communion were illusory. And yet I also knew God was there; I knew that, impossibly, I was loved. The contradiction was maddening.
For these reasons, Paul Kingsnorth’s essay resonated deeply: “What was this abyss inside me . . . and why was something chiming in it now like a distant Angelus across the western sea?”
Christ, in his mercy, sustained me, like Kingsnorth, through that hell, transfigured its fires into implements of refining grace. “The Cross and the Machine” reminded me that the void of unbelief is the same void faced by believers—even cradle evangelicals like myself—when in crisis or doubt. Moreover, even after salvation, one may return to the abyss—in which case, the chiming awaits.
The abyss is a compelling image of desolation. Yet, Kingsnorth writes of the Angelus chiming within that abyss. Then later: “The Angelus that was chiming in the abyss is silent now, for the abyss is gone. Someone else inhabits me.” That “someone else” is also an abyss.
Bernard of Clairvaux, commenting on Psalm 42:7, wrote that “the luminous abyss calls out to the abyss of darkness, the abyss of mercy to the abyss of misery, because the human heart is deep and impenetrable.”
God is always already there in the abyss. Or, rather, he is there within and behind it. This is more terrifying than the idea of unbounded emptiness. An immanent void may possess no boundaries, but it is not truly infinite. True infinity requires transcendence. The immanent void is, finally, a nameable horror. It is not truly other. To approach God, however, is to approach the altogether untamable. It is to be faced with an unbridgeable ontological chasm and also with the fact that this chasm was indeed bridged by Christ. It is to discover that the heart of reality is an abyssal paradox.
Kingsnorth, although temporarily deceived by witch lights, was never wrong to seek the divine in nature: While God is indeed our true home, that home is wondrous and strange beyond our comprehension. God is love, yes. He is also wildness.
Justin Dean Lee
university of california, irvine
newport beach, california
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