miércoles, 7 de octubre de 2015

“A people that no longer remembers has lost its history and its soul.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Literature and the Foundations of the West

by Jeffrey Hart

The sensitive intellectuals should have learned about force from the humanities, such as Homer and Thucydides, for example. “A people that no longer remembers,” wrote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “has lost its history and its soul.”

In the early twenty-first century the liberal arts curriculum at our universities is in a peculiar condition of uncertainty. No one is willing to say what it should consist of or what it should accomplish. The auspices, however, may be better than they seem in that we have come through a very difficult phase and there are some signs of a willingness to return to serious work on the part of both faculty and students, perhaps especially students.

The students today are generally purposeful, take a serious view of life and its opportunities, and usually can distinguish between substance and frivolity in the curriculum.

During the 1960s, future Secretary of Labor Robert Reich led the way to the founding of an Alternative (non-credit) College at Dartmouth, offering a variety of rebellious marginal courses. Such an entity would now draw next to no participants. In comparison with the later 1960s and most of the 1970s, drug use is minimal, the sexual revolution has had its Thermidor, common sense having prevailed, and clothes, hair, manners, and other indicators have normalized. During the period of the Great Liberation, my students were drug-glazed in class, some walked out of upper-story windows afloat on LSD, and communication was much impaired. I seriously considered resigning and devoting full time to writing. Today students are not much different from those who came before the Upheaval and, like them, are ready to take their university work seriously.

Yet they find themselves culturally at odds with some of the faculty and much of the administration, whose formative years were those the 1960s and 1970s. A residue of this generation remains in some degree, often extreme, of rebellion against mainstream culture, which it regards as racist, homophobic, and greedy. This residue is more broadly hostile to America and the West, which it regards as exploitative and racist. Faculty and administrators with this orientation regard the students as needing their consciousness raised by submitting to deracination. The courses they generate do not seek to transmit Western culture at its best, but rather to insult it, expose it, and–fancifully–destroy it. In the 1950s, widely thought to have been boring, we young professors competed with one another in a usually friendly contest to know as much as possible. The professors today who were formed by the sixties and do much to set the tone of the universities, compete in generic suffering. That is, they talk about themselves as much as possible, even if only as suffering witnesses to the presumed suffering of others. If you are a woman, black, or sexually unusual, the university is Valhalla. This really is pretty boring.

The central problem is that the university at the present time has few institutional defenses against this project. It is porous to courses that are essentially polemical rather than cognitive. It has been disarmed because the university is not informed by any consensus on the aims and shape of liberal arts education, and it is such a consensus that needs to be argued about and recovered. In its absence, “transgressive” and propagandist courses make their way without resistance through the faculty committees, are ratified by complacent or enthusiastic administrators, and are inflicted on undergraduates as well as on the university budget.

Interestingly, most of these courses no longer take a directly political form, since in the United States today, and indeed among the advanced nations, there is little opportunity for radical politics. There is not a single socialist economist today in any first-rate economics department, and admiration for such socialist states as do survive has a crank character. Rather than taking political forms, alienation and rebellion are located in the liberal arts and the social sciences, where actual consequences in the visible world are thought to be less checkable. And there they take the form of sexual and racial propaganda. With regard to the latter I should point out that “Affirmative Action” affects not only admissions policy but also faculty and administration hiring and promotion, and, most important, curriculum, where group “representation” often takes precedence over importance and perspicacity, “Nicaraguan Lesbian Poets,” propelled by sufficient institutional chic, displacing Donne, Herbert, and Marvell. The good news is that today the junk courses enroll few students and fewer still of the best students; the bad news is that they consume substantial institutional resources, dilute the curriculum, and distract from the real work of the university.

I will cite one example of such a course, though not an extreme one, and let it stand here as representative of the entire genre. I have just mentioned that, in the absence of any possible radical politics, one form that alienation and rebellion takes today is sexual. A phalanx within the faculty is exclusively interested in “transgressive” sexuality, kinkiness, fetishism, gender-bending, sado-masochism, homosexuality, fantasy, pornography, bestiality, pornography, and other “cutting edge” expressions of eros. Needless to say, all this is not investigated in the scientific spirit of a graduate course in abnormal psychology, or in a medical school, but in courses in the liberal arts.

I have to say that the sexual preoccupation of many university faculty members strikes me as odd. If you grouped together the members of the Departments of English, Comparative Literature, Romance Languages and so on, and tried to imagine them engaged in sexual activity, the effect would be hilarious or depressing depending upon your temperament. But many of them have “sex in the head,” as D. H. Lawrence called it, and they also like it in the classroom.

The course I will put forth here as an example was written up in the June 1999 number of The New Criterion, and is offered at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, a supposedly reputable institution, indeed an “independent Ivy,” to which a student pays $30,430 per year of residence. COL 289 is an “interdisciplinary” course in the College of Letters entitled “Pornography: Writing of Prostitutes.”

The professor’s description of her course in the Wesleyan catalogue is a perfect snapshot of academic scandal, and of course is written in turgid academic prose which does not conceal its malice and impotent revolutionism: “The pornography we study is an act of transgression which impels human sexuality toward, against and beyond the limits which have traditionally defined civil discourse–defined that is, by regimes of dominance and submission, inclusion or exclusion, in the domains of organ and emotional pleasure. Our examination, accordingly, includes the implications of pornography in so-called perverse practices such as voyeurism, bestiality, sadism and masochism, and considers the inflections of the dominant white-heterosexual tradition of alternative sexualities and genders,” etc. Notice here that sexual intercourse with animals, “bestiality,’’ is considered a “so-called” perversion, no doubt defined as such by that “dominant” and “excluding” “white-heterosexual tradition.”

The students in this course read, naturally or unnaturally, the Marquis de Sade and move on to Hustler magazine and much other pornography. Then theory becomes praxis, and the students are obliged to create their own active pornography, that is, become sexual rebels against norms. The New Criterion quotes one account of the course to the effect that the professor in charge describes this practical assignment by saying, “I don’t put any constraints on it. It’s supposed to be, ‘Just create your own work of pornography.’“ She also says reassuringly that she would never push a student beyond what she perceives as emotional personal limits. Unpushed, the student projects come up with videos of oral sex, of sexual intercourse, masturbation, and sado-masochism-as in the example of a “scantily clad” female student being beaten with whips.

Nothing about this “transgressive” course suggests that it has a place in Wesleyan’s liberal arts undergraduate program. Everything about it, including its description in the course catalogue, suggests that it is ideological nonsense, and an irresponsible invasion of powerful and–as all literature attests–potentially dangerous emotion.

President Douglas Bennet of Wesleyan, perhaps a perfectly decent fellow, did circulate a memo to his faculty questioning the “appropriateness of this course in the Wesleyan curriculum.” But the official Wesleyan position held that Professor Weissman is “one of Wesleyan’s most dedicated, serious and effective teachers.” One hopes that this is a lie.

There is no need here to attempt to analyze why this abysm has opened beneath the liberal arts curriculum, and why such a curriculum has so few willing to define and to defend it, or why the great Liberation of the 1960s-70s was so devastating to it. Not long before he died in 1996, the eminent sociologist E. Digby Baltzell observed to me that the year 1968 resembled 1848 in the international character of its rebellion against existing authority and established institutions throughout the advanced nations. The assault was especially virulent in the great universities, and possessed an intensity that the assorted local conditions do not credibly account for. Nor could it have succeeded in wreaking the devastation it did if the norms and institutions under assault still possessed their longstanding authority.

What seems to be evident, however, is the devastating effect our “short century,” 1914-1989, from the outbreak of World War I to the fall of the Soviet empire, had on the moral confidence of the West and, derivatively, on confidence in the liberal arts and in the institutions connected with them. The high bourgeois civilization of the Enlightenment had masterfully protected our freedoms and our well-being, but even before 1914, Joseph Conrad felt that he was writing its elegy in the great opening dirge of Heart of Darkness (1898):
The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.


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