Arts, literature, history – and the good life

Wrapping up – for now – recent comments on the relation between the humanities, philosophy, and the academy, let’s consider putting an end to the hope of a special sensitivity to the arts and literature, and consider rather if we should be thinking along broader social lines.

I’ve never doubted that many academic professionals believe in what they do; one of my two best friends is such. But there are some, and I’ve met too many of them, who, faced with the disappointment over the failure of realizing their motivating dreams in the academy, simply see it as a job (and my other best friend is such).

But don’t miss my previous comments’ main points: The universities produce too many researchers; the stronger claim for public support would emphasize teaching and learning as inherent goods; this claim is often set aside in favor of attracting research funding. I see that as a problem.

We have to take these issues outside the university. Otherwise we are chasing our tails around institutional politics that cannot be resolved institutionally (although they will be decided legislatively in due course). The university is not what needs preservation, but the cultural goods it was established to care for and maintain.

This cannot be done by arguing for some wonderful collection of eternal truths and values that we all should share. We never have shared these values, universally, and we never will – now less so than in any time in our history.

I doubt any love Shakespeare and Aristotle much more than I do. And I understand the sense of meeting great minds through the artifacts of the past – this is exactly why I consider myself so fortunate, coming from the working poor but at last receiving an advanced education.

But the fact remains that a writer or artist composes for a particular audience. It oft takes considerable hermeneutic interpretive skills to draw out just what older texts mean. (That is one of the arts of research we learn in universities.) And there are many truths that are only truths for a given time and a given culture.

Shakespeare has Hamlet remark that foreigners think of the Danish aristocrats as drunkards because of their love of carousing. This remark was probably intended as a sly dig at the Elizabethan court – the Queen herself was known as rather fond of ale. Reading it this way, I’ve always found the remark amusing. But what is the eternal truth here? The wealthy and powerful should practice moderation? Don’t drink heavily in front of foreigners? Do we really seek such banalities from Shakespeare? But the banalities are there, coated in wonderful Elizabethan English, that most people can no longer read or understand.

Is art an end-in -itself? (And one has to get all German Romantic, Kant/Hegel/Schopenhauer, to get there.) Or is it just what people do, because they are people – human beings – and it is just inevitable to our species?

In The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. DuBois wrote:

““I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.”

There is no resolution to the means-ends dilemma – every end can be argued to be a means. If DuBois wishes to “dwell above the veil,” the literature of which he writes is a means to that end; and why would he want to “dwell above the veil?” Answering that question reveals the end that dwelling above the veil is a means toward achieving. And so on.

Literature cannot be defended with the claim that somehow it stands as an end to itself that naturally enriches human experience; there’s too much literature that simply does not do this, and, on close examination, cannot. The Satyricon – the punk rock of literature, so to say – is a story of two gay lovers competing over a beautiful boy. It mocks everything the Romans believed in, including their cultural dependence on the poetry they claimed (as conquest booty) from Greece. It’s frequently hilarious, and, one might say, viciously insightful.

Is it art? is it “Literature”? There can be no doubt that, within its idiom, it is exquisitely executed. Where is the eternal truth in it? Whenever I read it, I do not ask that question – it is what it is, with all its pornographic details, its attacks on ‘literature’ professors, its reveling in the excess and self-indulgence in an empire already too old and too corrupt for its own good.

So I suppose that’s what it ‘teaches’ us. But that was Rome; and that was then.

The notion that great art will somehow make our lived experience somehow ‘sacred,’ is simply false; we might feel that in response to it, but the art itself does not do this. Truly great art will simply leave everything as it is, and let the audience sort it out.

So the notion that art and literature reveal ‘eternal truths’ to us is readily dispelled. Defending inquiry into the arts of the past requires a different approach.

I suggest such a different tact – one that has concerned me for some time: namely that in America, having accomplished vast amounts of wealth and power, never previously dreamt, we have virtually no ongoing public discussion of what might constitute ‘the good life;’ a discussion the Athenians were very good at; and which is implicit in a great many religiously informed societies (albeit decided in advance by ‘sacred text’); but it only gets indirectly raised, as hint, in commercials (as instant gratification of sensual desires – most of which are generated by advertisers themselves), and in arts critical of commercial culture (usually suggesting that the solution is to be found in some sort of ‘spirituality,’ never specified; or, ironically, in some sort of ‘alternative’ hedonism – drugs rather than alcohol, for instance). But what would really constitute a ‘good life’ – enjoyable but not excessive, conditioned not by perceived desires but by some sense of achievement and fulfilled responsibility – remains marginalized and even deprecated, in both mainstream and alternative media. Why not? Such a discussion would threaten the very fabric of consumer-targeted investment capital.

But while commercial culture and it’s ‘anti-establishment’ mirrors provide kinds of life, an existential living, they remain somehow unsatisfactory. And it has been my experience, although widely denied, that Americans, despite wealth and power, remain the most unhappy people in history. Others suffer greater physical suffering, of course, but none experience angst, dissatisfaction, frustration, hopelessness, depression, disappointment, more deeply than we (excluding the highly successful socio-paths in business and politics, of course). Our power and our wealth should assure us of peace and leisure, achievement and enjoyment. Instead, all we get are worries, insecurities, raw fear – and stupid television.

One would assume the inheritors of Western Civilization could do better. And that should be the discussion to engage in. But how to raise a sustainable open discussion on this issue remains unclear; however, every effort is certainly welcome


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