The Poet’s Place


For lack of anything new to say, I choose to reblog an old post that was widely ignored.

Shelly is supposed to have said that poets are the legislators of the world. Ernst Cassirer later said that poets create culture — using the word “poet” in the broadest sense possible. I assume Shelly was speaking about poets like himself; Cassirer was speaking about artists who could create with words and pictures and thereby help us look at the world anew.
I think Cassirer was right, though I’m not sure about Shelly. But soon after Cassirer made his pronouncement the poets became journalists who wrote stories and in writing helped us see our world as they saw it and to make it into something new whenever they got tired of the old way of seeing things. Recently the print journalists have been replaced by media journalists of the entertainment variety. Our world is now created for us by those in the entertainment industry and consists almost entirely of pictures, moving and still: films, TV, radio,electronic devices of all shapes and sizes, and the internet. And we are pounded relentlessly.
In any event, the world they are creating is one that centers around the self. It is a theme I have developed before, but it is worth mentioning again in light of recent events. We are so much in the middle of a world of self-absorbed individuals we may not be aware of it. But just listen and watch: note how many popular songs refer to “me”; watch the TV commercials closely as they stroke the viewer; note how many reality TV performers will resort to any trick to grab the spotlight (and how many thousands want to be on stage); note how many politicians talk about themselves and see themselves as the center of the political world (especially you-know-who), how the sense of entitlement is ubiquitous, and how the internet is full of images and words telling us about those who post them. Or just consider U-Tube. Note also how materialistic we have become and how fame and wealth have become the center of so many young lives in our culture.
All of these are sure signs of a narcissistic personality. And this desire for fame, which triggers millions of words and images on Facebook and My Space and the millions of U-tube episodes involving self-absorbed people who want to be seen and heard, is spreading like the plague. In fact, it has been argued that the craving for fame at any cost is the major reason for much of the violence that has become alarmingly commonplace in this society, such as the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. The kid who takes (his mother’s) guns to school and kills several teachers and twenty young children may simply want to be seen and heard: a wasted life for a few minutes in the limelight. It seems unlikely, but studies have shown that our cultural narcissism runs that deep.
As readers of my blogs will recognize, I am drawing on Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell’s important book The Narcissism Epidemic. They make a very strong case that what started as a push to make kids feel better about themselves in our schools and in their homes has blossomed into a pervasive sense of entitlement and even cultural narcissism. We have become a society in love with itself, just as Narcissus in the Greek myth fell in love with his own reflection upon seeing it in the water. If they are right in their assessment of the situation, the repercussions are serious indeed.
The two main features of narcissism are the inability to build interpersonal relationships and what Freud called a weak “reality principle.” What this means is that we are becoming increasingly unable to get close to one another and we tend to live fantasy lives. Our electronic toys make this easy as they keep us from making human contact and push us deeper into a make-believe world where everything that happens is all about us.
As Miranda says in The Tempest, “Oh, brave new world that has such people in’t!” In Shakespeare’s day Miranda was filled with wonder; if she said that today she would be snickering. And the major player in this drama is the entertainment industry that creates fictional worlds, invites us in, and tells us we are the most important part of the drama. And we lap it up.

Fear Itself

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the young hero tells his friend “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Now, I know that “philosophy” in Shakespeare’s day meant “natural philosophy,” or science, as we would say today. None the less, as a professor of philosophy for forty-one years, I always balked at this statement. I dismissed it as the faulty insight of a poet, not to be taken seriously. But as I have grown older, and “crawl toward death,” as Shakespeare would have it, I realize that, like so many things the poet said, it is a profound truth. There is much more to life than can be found in philosophy, or in reasoning about life and drawing conclusions from syllogisms, no matter how valid. There is mystery and there is passion which refuses to take a back seat to reason. Thus, while I taught logic for so many years and sought to help young people learn how to reason cogently and reject the bloat and rhetoric around them, all important things, to be sure, I realize that Shakespeare was right — as was Pascal, David Hume and William James, among others.

In his remarkable book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, for example, William James recounts numerous personal experiences reflecting the power of religious feeling and the fact that, as he put it,

“The truth is that in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion. . . . Our impulsive belief is always what sets up the original body of truth and our articulately verbalized philosophy is but a showy translation into formulas. . .Instinct leads, intelligence does but follow.”

Indeed, I am of the opinion that the strongest “instinct” is that of fear. In the infant it is the fear of falling or the spontaneous cry at the sound of the door slamming shut. In our youth we fear separation from our mother (“separation anxiety” as Freud called it), we fear the unknown and the unexpected. As we grow older our fears start to mount: the fear of flying, the fear of failing, the fear of debt, the fear of inadequacy, the fear of rejection, and above all, the fear of death. As we age we are a nest of such fears that we try to shield ourself from in a verity of ways that depend upon our personality and our ability to face our fears without flinching. Some people are better at this than others.

Fear of hellfire and damnation was used throughout the Middle Ages by the Church to keep its adherents close to home. Fear was used by Hitler and Stalin to control their masses of zealots who trusted no one. And, one might suggest, it is even used in this country today to maintain control of the thought and action of American citizens who are constantly reminded of the danger of “terrorism” and the need for security in the form of massive “defense” systems. Fear permeates our thinking on many levels.

Take the case of global warming. Clearly, this is an issue where fear and strong passions rule supreme. Some accept the evidence provided by science that the threat of climate change is very real, but this seemingly rational acceptance is perhaps nothing more than the fear of what will most assuredly happen to the planet if we continue to ignore the warning signs. Opponents of the notion of climate change find solace in the spurious reasonings of those who reject science because they find in those “arguments” a safe haven from the fear that global warming may indeed be a fact. Like all of us, they fear the unknown and in this case find themselves unable to allow that the threat might be very real indeed. They seek reassurance for those beliefs they hold dear. In both cases, our reasoning is led by our feelings, especially that most powerful of all feelings, fear.

Shakespeare was right. There are more things in heaven and earth than can be found in our philosophy. Reasoning can take us only so far — and it does tend to be led by the “instincts,” as James would have it. But this does not mean that we should ignore reasoning altogether. Or the findings of hard science, either. It means that we should allow for the pull of the strong emotions, but at the same time seek to temper them with the calm influence of reason which can be reassuring. It can reassure us that the sound we heard in the night was only the cat, not a burglar, for example. It can assure us that there is a way home when we are lost deep in the woods. Reason can calm our fears — up to a point. And it can show us a way to solve our problems which, if ignored, may overcome us altogether.

Hippocratic Oath

I’m not totally convinced by this argument, but I want to put it out there to see what others think.

Supposedly the so-called “Hippocratic oath” was written by Hippocrates (“the father of Western medicine’) or one of his students in the early part of the fifth century B.C.E. It is widely recognized and is an oath that is taken by most, if not all, practitioners of the science (art?) of medicine, though in this country a more modern version is sworn to rather than the antiquated version. The modern version was written in 1964 by Louis Lasagna, Academic Dean of the School of Medicine at Tufts University, and used in many medical schools today. So far as I know it does not require the swearer to pay allegiance to the almighty dollar, but many physicians seem to have taken that oath as well. In any event, the oath, as written by Dr. Lasagna is (in part) as follows:

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.

I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.

I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.

In a word, the physician vows to take “all measures which are required” to preserve and enhance the lives in his or her care. The question I have is ethical, if not moral: should physicians be required to take this oath in this day and age — given the fact that the world population as of this writing has exploded to 7 billion 319 million (and counting). The growth of the human population so far this year is 34,962,750. Many theorists who have studied this phenomenon insist that the earth has already reached its carrying capacity. And with global warming making future food production problematic, at best, one needs to seriously ask whether it is ethically right to prolong life when it is attacked by a deadly disease. I admit that there are serious questions about who chooses to terminate life and when the decision should be made, but I shall ignore those questions to simply ask the central question: why prolong human life?

The spiritually certain, of course, insist that human life is sacred and they abhor such things as abortion (while at the same time a great many of them support war and capital punishment). Many of us on the fringes of Judeo/Christian belief might agree. But just because large numbers of people think that human life is sacred doesn’t make it the case. It may simply be a strong feeling we have all grown up with and we have been unwilling to question. I question it here, not to be facetious but because I do believe that such hard questions will soon be forced upon us by factors beyond our control — such as major storms, drought, famine, and super viruses that attack living organisms and which are not treatable. Indeed, at some point physicians may not be able to prolong life. The question before us is whether it makes any sense today to be blindly embracing a policy that may increase, rather than decrease, human suffering on this earth.

I’m not advocating a program of enforced euthanasia — though if such a program were in place I would suggest we take a page from Shakespeare and start with the lawyers, or at least the politicians! But we need to keep an open mind about the possibility of euthanasia for the terminally ill; take a more vigorous approach to family planning, including the promotion of the virtue of having small families; keep in mind that abortion is the woman’s choice; and accept as a given fact that there are people in this world who do not want to have children (or shouldn’t have them if they do) and may even want to choose a partner of the same gender. Our thinking about the so-called “sanctity of human life” is little more than a deep-seated prejudice — not shared by many other cultures, as it happens, and relatively recent if we take history in the large. Think about it: why should human life be considered any more sacred than that of other living creature?

So we might want to alter the Hippocratic oath to simply ask physicians to seek to prolong life as long as reasonable, rather than keeping folks alive at huge expense to their families and with little or no hope for recovery in a world where increasing numbers of people are crowding their way to a rather small table.

Tolstoy As Artist

Leo Tolstoy, the author of Anna Karenina and War and Peace, once said in an essay on aesthetics that the Bible was the greatest work of literary art ever written. He was wrong. The Bible is a truly remarkable piece of literature, but it is not art at all. It is the opposite of art: it is pure didacticism. It is designed to teach, whereas art is designed to delight. We engage didactic works with our intellect, we engage works of art with our imagination and our heart.  William Gass saw this clearly, and he should know as he is not only a philosopher who writes readable essays (which sets him apart), he is also an author of novels and short stories. He once insisted that when novels succeed as art they don’t tell, they show. Theirs is not discursive language, the language of the philosopher or the psychologist, it is metaphorical and poetic; the novelist seeks to present characters and events in their full presentational immediacy, as much as possible.  Gass provides a most apt example from Shakespeare:

“Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus walk upon the castle platform awaiting midnight and Hamlet’s father’s ghost. Hamlet says, “The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold,: and Horatio answers, “It is a nipping and an eager air.” Hamlet and Horatio do not think of it as cold, simply. The dog of air’s around them, shrewd and eager, running at heels. The behavior of this dog is wittingly precise in their minds. It nags — shrewishly, wifelike. The air is acidulous, too, like sour wine. Hamlet and Horatio, furthermore, are aware of the physical quality of their words. Horatio not only develops Hamlet’s implicit figure, he concludes the exchange with the word that began it, and with sonorous sounds. The nature of the weather is conveyed to us with marvelous exactitude and ease, in remarks made by the way, far from the center of action, so that we find ourselves with knowledge of it in just the offhand way we would if, bent on meeting a king’ ghost, we too went through the sharp wind. Yet Hamlet’s second clause is useless. “The air bites shrewdly” is the clause that tells us everything. It is cold. The wind is out. The wind is alive, malevolent with wise jaws. The two clauses have a very close relation. The first is metaphorical, the second literal. Both are about the weather, but the one is art, the other not.”

In the case of Tolstoy — especially in War and Peace — the novelist  cannot resist the temptation to philosophize and engage in polemics and even criticism (usually of historians who regard the telling of history as a science), which detract from the novel considered as a work of art. Indeed, the second part of the Epilogue is a lengthy and somewhat dry philosophical treatise on power, history, and free will. Interesting though it is in many ways, it has no literary merit whatever. Tolstoy’s novel is also disconcertingly jingoistic and given to inaccuracies and contradictions. He seems at times to simply be musing. This makes the novel far too long, though it remains, on the whole, a great literary work and even a fine work of art. How is this possible?

It is possible because despite its many flaws, Tolstoy is insightful and a masterful wordsmith; he is no Shakespeare, but he is able to lean convincingly on historical events (and bend them to his purpose); provide precise and moving descriptions of events, places and people; portray his main characters with great sensitivity and care, including penetrating insights into human motivation and feeling; and, for the most part, allow the novel to have its head. When the man takes control, as he does on many occasions, the artist takes a back seat and the novel fails as art. The novel taken as a whole is a fascinating struggle between Tolstoy the man and Tolstoy the artist. But there are enough moments when the artist is in full control to judge the novel as a remarkable work of art — if one can say that the novelist ever truly controls the novel. And those  moments are full of beauty and passion, fully able to engage the reader on a visceral level as well on the level of imagination and intellect. When the man, Tolstoy, writes there is much to think about; when the artist takes pen in hand, the reader is touched on a deep, human level.

So, on balance, despite the fact that Tolstoy needed a good editor who could have shortened the 1200 page novel to about 800 pages and helped the author work out some of the blemishes, no editor could have done what the novelist himself did and that was to write a novel that is also a masterful work of literary art — in spite of the fact that Tolstoy himself didn’t seem to know what art is.

Legal Advice

In a recent issue of Sports Illustrated, the Bible of sports fans across the country, an attorney by the name of Michael McCann wrote that Jameis Winston should quit Florida State and wait for the NFL draft where he will assuredly be a high pick and will then become another spoiled millionaire football player (I added the last caustic comment). You remember Winston, surely? He was investigated for raping a fellow student a year or so back and in the brief police cover up investigation it was determined that there was no case against the young man. He later stole some crab legs from a grocery store, claiming he “forgot” to pay and was summarily released. He then stood on a table in the cafeteria and shouted obscenities at the top of his voice — for which offense he was suspended one game by the football coach. He is a real jewel. Each time he screws up he faces the camera with an earnest expression on his face and swears it won’t happen again.

In any event, McCann’s professional advice is for the young man to quit school because the university has decided to investigate the alleged rape on its own and could bring charges against Winston, and possibly suspend him, on the grounds that he violated the rights of one of his fellow students. Indeed. McCann’s idea is that if Winston leaves the university, the investigation will never surface. If he remains enrolled evidence might come to light that would not only lead to his suspension from the university but also provide grounds for a possible civil case later on. As McCann puts it, it’s a question of what is in Winston’s “best interest.”

And there’s the rub: it’s what is in the young man’s “best interest” in the eyes of this lawyer. The young man should quit and not face the possible consequences of his actions. He should quit school and lie low, making sure he commits no further atrocities, until the NFL comes calling and he can sign on for the big bucks that surely await him. Given his past behavior this is more easily said than done, of course: he seems to lack self-control. But McCann doesn’t mention that. Be that as it may, the issue of what is morally correct is not considered by Mr. McCann, who chooses to focus attention on legal and practical matters. The fact that the young man would be ducking his responsibilities as a citizen and member of the university community is apparently irrelevant according to Mr. McCann. What is important here as this lawyer sees it is the issue of saving face and making big money later on.

In a follow-up issue of Sports Illustrated one reader wrote, with tongue in cheek, that McCann is right and that Winston should quit and go back to third grade where he would learn “that stealing is wrong, swearing is not acceptable, and that women should be treated with respect.” Another reader put is more seriously: “I was disappointed with McCann’s article. He basically wrote a blueprint for how Winston could avoid disciplinary action for his alleged heinous acts against a female student.” Spot on! What was it Shakespeare said? We should kill all the lawyers. He knew a thing or two, even if McCann doesn’t.

In any event, the entire episode underscores once again the rotten state of things at the heart of big-time college football and basketball. As I wrote years ago, the athletes should be regarded as semi-professionals and paid a decent salary to play — even allowing them to form unions to make sure they get a fair share of the millions of dollars at stake in college sports these days. Then, those who actually want an education can enroll in classes and pay like all the other students, thereby learning what those students are learning every day —  that after graduation it will be hard to find a job and there will be huge debts to be paid to the colleges and universities when they finally do find one. The things in this life that are most worth having are not those things that are simply handed to you: they are the things you work hard to earn.


One of the sobering consequences of the revolution that has placed electronic toys in the hands of everyone who can hold one is what I would call “D.I.C.”  — diminished imaginative capacity. By coining this term I join with others who seem to love to make up names, and especially acronyms, for common events and phenomena in order to seem more learned. (We need not dwell on the acronym in this case!) The electronic toys the kids play with today and the movies they see do not require that they use their imaginations at all: they are loud, graphic, vivid, and present themselves to a largely passive audience. All the person has to do is sit and watch, or play with a joy stick, and their world is at their finger-tips with all its violence and noise. And because they read far less than their parents and grandparents and visit fewer art galleries, dance recitals, or symphony performances, this is of considerable concern: it is symptomatic.

To begin with, the appreciation of all great art and literature requires an effort of imagination. Take Joseph Conrad, for example. Despite working in a second language, his vocabulary is very rich. Further, He is what many have called an “impressionistic” writer and this causes problems for many readers for two reasons. Thus, Conrad’s rich vocabulary requires an extensive knowledge of words on the part of a reader. But more to the point, Conrad leaves gaps and spaces in his writing that require an imaginative effort on the part of the reader in order to engage his writing fully. And the effort is one that a great many people are unwilling or unable to make, especially given their shrunken vocabularies of late. The same might be said of the highly imaginative Shakespeare whose language is rapidly becoming foreign to growing numbers of young people. But the list of writers who demand an effort on the part of their readers could be added to endlessly. And the same could be said for art and music: they require an effort of imagination to engage the works fully. So, the question before us is: Why should anyone make the effort when they can pick up an electronic device, push buttons, sit back, and let the thrills begin? The answer is that very few are, in fact, willing to make the effort.

The results of all this have been analyzed and cataloged by a number of psychologists who have shown that the young, especially, are going forth into a complicated world with short attention spans and what amounts to a form of brain damage. They cannot attend to any subject, especially one that doesn’t interest them, for any significant length of time; further, portions of their brains are simply not developed. There is, indeed, quite a controversy among so-called experts about whether these people will or will not be able to cope in the future. I have written about it in previous blogs and choose not to repeat myself here. But the evidence suggests that it will be increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for these people to think their way through complex issues or use their imaginations to consider alternative consequences of future actions. And this is serious, indeed.

Moreover, I worry about the loss of capacity to imagine when it comes to great literature and great art because it means that these things will simply slide into oblivion, pushed aside by a growing number of people whose interest is focused on the immediate present and the graphic nature of the images and sounds that issue forth from their electronic toys that require no effort whatever. It may not be a problem on the scale of global warming, but coupled with that problem — and others of major proportions — it does not bode well for the future. Those who solve the problems we face now and in the future will have to use their analytic powers and, above all else, their imaginations. So, on the growing list of things that ought to have our undivided attention, we most assuredly should add D.I.C. and insist that the schools continue to require literature and art and that teachers discourage the use of toys as a substitute for those activities that will fully engage their minds and hearts. If only the teachers would….

Why Great Books?

Many years ago when “Rosemary’s Baby” was the talk of the country the movie appeared in the town of Marshall near where I live. The local paper was full of letters to the editor from local zealots who were urging people to stay away from the movie — including at least one who proudly admitted that he hadn’t seen it himself and was determined not to do so. That same sort of closed-mindedness is reflected in the outspoken criticism by a great many college teachers of literature in this country who are promoting postmodern literature and trashing the “great books” which they insist are the work of “dead, white, European males” and thus not worth reading. Like the letter-writer, a number of them have apparently not even bothered to read the books they condemn! One might expect closed-mindedness of small-town zealots but one would hope for a broader view from supposedly educated people who are responsible for opening the minds of the students in their charge.

The criticism of the great books tends to center not only on those who wrote them but also on the notion of “greatness” which, it is said, cannot be attributed to any works — except in an arbitrary manner. I have always disagreed with this claim, since there are criteria of greatness which some works of art and literature exhibit and the majority do not. Great books, especially great works of literature, are exceptionally well written, with a rich vocabulary, vivid descriptions, engrossing plots, and characters we recognize immediately. Further, they are rich with insights into the human condition and often contain profound reflections on the world we share in common. They are not just “stories;” they exhibit a kind of intuitive truth that simply cannot be found anywhere else. They make us pause and reflect. And there are great books in philosophy and science which may not be as well written, but have provided us with some of the seminal ideas that have helped shape our world, not to mention our nation’s Constitution — and even brought about revolutions.  Such books are classics in the sense that they are seminal and they ring true today no less than they did when they were written, no matter who wrote them. They are the books that have been read by the exceptional minds that have preceded us; we seem determined to marginalize them — which is our mistake.

I have blogged about the wisdom of George Eliot so I won’t repeat here what I have already said. But Eliot was a superb writer, recognized in her day as one of the brightest and wisest of women who spent her declining years responding to letters from innumerable readers seeking her advice. But there are a great many authors of novels and plays who have exhibited remarkable insight and wisdom as well — and humor, such as Shakespeare’s famous line in Henry VI, Part II where we are told “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Or this, in King Henry V, “The saying is true, ‘The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.”‘  And also Edith Wharton, whose sometimes biting satire leaves one’s head spinning — as in this description of a type: “Mrs. Ballinger is one of those ladies who pursue Culture in bands as though it were dangerous to meet it alone.” Wharton, who knew whereof she spoke, was able to strip the New York upper crust if its pretense and leave it shivering in the cold.

From his remarkable novel, Lost Illusions, I add Balzac’s characterization of a fop who “always behaved with distant politeness, cold, a little supercilious, like a man not in his proper place and waiting the favors of power. He allowed his social talents to be guessed at, and these had everything to gain by remaining unknown.” Pure genius (even in translation!). Like so much humor, these descriptions have the ring of truth in them. We all know women like Mrs. Ballinger, for example. But there is also the disturbing observation about the rapaciousness of humans by writers like the extraordinary Joseph Conrad, writing in a second language, in Heart of Darkness:

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. . . . The Eldorado Exploring Expedition . . .was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world. To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.”

I hesitate to cite passages in the great works of philosophy, but one cannot do better than reflect on the early dialogues of Plato to which John Dewey said the rest of philosophy was mere footnotes. And there is Alexis de Tocqueville who visited this country for nine months in the early nineteenth century and then wrote the most perceptive book on Democracy in America that has ever been written, showing us all our warts and flaws along with the remarkable strengths that arose from the experiment we were then engaged in, such as the following: “I think that the democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that they still call for equality in slavery.” Or Mark Twain who had so many penetrating insights into the human condition: “The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot.” And so it goes.

The pages of great books are filled with such insights and well crafted, profound words that cannot but change those who read them and take them to heart. And that is what ultimately comprises greatness in art: the power to change those who come into contact with it, a power it does not lose as the years pass. Great books, like great art, invite and reward repeat visits. Thus, those who would displace the works of Dead White European Males on the grounds of political correctness had better make damned sure that after reading those works they can find words of equal power and worth in the writings they substitute, because it is a zero-sum game. For every work chosen one is ignored.

Lacking In Sympathy

In her novel Daniel Deronda, George Eliot provides us with a portrait of a thoroughly despicable man (dare I say a thoroughly evil man?) in the person of Henleigh Grandcourt. He has managed to persuade the very young and beautiful Gwendolen Harleth to marry him, despite the fact that he had previously fathered four children by another woman whom he then refused to marry. The single characteristic that stands out about the man is his complete lack of sympathy toward his fellow humans. He is all cold intellect, of a calculating sort, and treats his young wife as an appendage whom he parades before others in order to make them think more highly of him. He simply figured “that she was his to do as he liked with and to make her feel it also.” He is an emotional bully. Toward her he shows only disdain and even contempt as he relentlessly pressures her into bending to his will. He is incapable of love because he is incapable of thinking of anyone but himself.

In one of those stunning observations that this author makes seemingly without effort, she suggests that such a lack of sympathy is often allied to stupidity, as evidenced by Grandcourt’s subsequent behavior toward his wife. As Eliot notes in passing, “There is no escaping the fact that want of sympathy condemns us to a corresponding stupidity. Mephistopheles thrown upon real life and obliged to manage his own plots, would inevitably make blunders.” The reference to Mephistopheles is not accidental, of course, since one of Eliot’s favorite characters in Goethe’s Faust is such a personage — a creature totally lacking in sympathy. It is what defines him as the incarnation of evil. He leads Faust through a series of adventures in the first part of Goethe’s tragedy that culminate in the deaths of a young woman Faust has seduced along with her infant whom Faust had fathered. Mephistopheles is not only unsympathetic, he is stupid: he fails to understand what sort of man Faust happens to be and fails totally to envision consequences. The relationship among the three concepts — stupidity, a lack of sympathy, and evil — are strongly suggested both in Goethe’s poem and in Eliot’s novel.

It is interesting in this regard to consider Hannah Arendt’s study of Adolph Eichmann whose trial in Israel she attended and reported on later in her examination of Eichmann — a study in “the banality of evil.” That man, too, was a bit stupid and lacking in sympathy, a total bureaucrat treating his victims as so many cubic yards of cargo. He worried only that the trains might be delayed and the schedule for the executions be interrupted. He never once thought of the people he was sending to the gas chambers as human beings. Reports from the camps later on suggest that this was not at all uncommon among those who guarded and actually turned the gas on the prisoners. Of course, for many years the Germans had prepared themselves for the blatant racism that accompanied Nazism by deep-seated prejudices against the Jews that they shared with most of the rest of the world. And, as the most astute propagandists have come to realize, the best way to work on those deep feelings and convince people to kill someone is to reduce them to non-human status. Goebbels, the ace Nazi propagandist, was an expert at this sort of thing. In writing his propaganda and stirring hatred among his countrymen, he was deaf to that most eloquent plea for sympathy written by Shakespeare three centuries before. It is, of course, in the words of the Jew, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice:

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”

Given the fact that Eliot’s immensely attractive hero discovers toward the end that he is a Jew and is then able to declare his love for the remarkable Jewess he rescued and has come to treasure, one might argue that her novel expands on Shylock’s speech above. In any event, we all have our prejudices and tend to reduce our enemies to ciphers; not just the Nazis. During the Second World War Americans referred to the Japanese as “Japs,” and the Germans were called “Krauts.” By calling them names, they became less than human and their deaths seemed necessary and even a good thing. We now call our enemies “terrorists” and lump together human beings of varying nationalities and beliefs in one cluster so we can rationalize their deaths — even the “collateral damage” that our drones cause in the Middle East. After all, if they are not human beings we feel no sympathy for them and it is easier to dismiss their suffering and death, to stupidly take steps that lead invariably to evil.

Barbarian Incursion

O gentlemen, the time of life is short;

To spend that shortness basely were too long,

If  life did ride upon a dial’s point,

Still ending at the arrival of an hour.

                                                                                                                                                                Shakespeare: Henry IV

Jacques Barzun, the great humanist and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003, told us more than 50 years ago to lock up the treasures of the West because the barbarians were about to take over our world. He was a bit premature. It didn’t happen quite as fast as he thought it would, but it certainly has happened, though the barbarians didn’t attack from without: we bred our own. You can recognize the new barbarians all around you by their boorish behavior, the loud music emanating from their cars as they pass by and their halting speech patterns, piercings, and tattoos. They also come armed with their iPods, iPads, iTunes, iPhones, Xboxes, Walkmen, smartphones, and an occasional concealed weapon. But their takeover is not a violent one, for the most part, though it is loud and unsettling.

In any event, contrary to Barzun, I would judge that the treasures of Western civilization are probably not threatened by this takeover, because these barbarians couldn’t care less about them! The treasures will not be destroyed; they will simply wither away because the young are otherwise occupied — listening to their tunes, earphones clamped securely to their heads;  gazing at their handhelds; and generally ignoring the world around them as they focus on electronic communications with their friends. Books and works of art don’t interest them in the least. They boast of the fact: they have other fish to fry and seem to have complete confidence in themselves and their abilities to catch and fry those fish. But it is sad, because what they are unaware of is that they don’t even know where the fish are hiding or what bait to use. In any event, they will no longer pick up thick books, like George Eliot’s magnificent Daniel Deronda, where they might read this sublime passage about the need for roots and the benefits of a geographical and psychological center to our lives:

“A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth, for the labours men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, and kindly acquaintance with all neighbors, even to the dogs and donkeys, may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as the sweet habit of the blood. At five years old, mortals are not prepared to be citizens of the world, to be stimulated by abstract nouns, to soar above preference into impartiality, and that prejudice in favor of milk with which we blindly begin is a type of the way the body and soul must get nourished at least for a time. The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one’s own homestead.”

And, irony of ironies, Eliot might have been describing one of the new barbarians when she describes her spoiled, self-involved heroine Gwendolen Harleth who, despite the havoc of Civil War across the Atlantic and the suffering of her fellow countrymen due to the loss of imported cotton, can think only of herself:

“Could there be a slenderer, more insignificant thread in human history than this consciousness of a girl, busy with her small inferences of the way in which she could make her life pleasant? — in a time, too, when ideas were with fresh vigor making armies of themselves, and the universal kinship was declaring itself fiercely: when women on the other side of the world would not mourn for the husbands and sons who died bravely in a common cause, and men stinted of bread on our side of the world heard of that willing loss and were patient: a time when the soul of man was waking to pulses which had for centuries been beating in him unfelt, until their full sum made a new life of terror or of joy.”

Indeed, it may well be that even if the young people of the present and the future had the least desire to read the elegant prose of a writer such as George Eliot (which, admittedly, takes time to read and savor), they would not understand whereof she speaks and writes. They have no idea what they are missing, which seems to be the heart of the matter. She was an eminently wise woman, but her wisdom would be lost on those who will not, or can not, listen or read her words.  It is just possible, also, that even if they did read and comprehend the meaning of her words they would have no idea what she is referring to since so many of these young people, immersed in themselves and enslaved to their digital toys, do not realize that they, too, may well lack consistency and rootedness in their lives and lack a place to call “home” — this “blessed persistence in which affection can take root.”

Foreign Languages

Over a year ago I wrote a blog about “useless subjects” that are no longer taught in our colleges and high schools. Following the attack on fundamentals in education during the turbulent 60s, the shift toward practical subjects that could guarantee students jobs began. And it has persisted to this day, even though the jobs just aren’t there when the students graduate from college, and, strictly speaking, colleges have lost their sense of purpose altogether and have no idea whatever how to “sell” their programs to their “customers.” The notion that there are certain subjects that every educated person should know has been lost in the kerfuffle, and probably would be lost on most high school students today. But it deserves a moment’s reflection: what has been given up?

Back in the day (as we say) when I went to high school, two years of foreign language, usually Latin, were required for graduation. Even the tiny high school I attended in Bethel, Connecticut required two years of Latin for graduation. And we diagrammed sentences in English classes, we had to memorize poetry, and we had few, if any elective courses. The idea was that the teachers knew best what their students should learn. Further, all colleges worth their salt required two years of a foreign language for entrance — along with subjects like civics and American history, math and lab science. And in order to graduate from college, I was required to take four years of foreign language in which we studies grammar and syntax, translated from the foreign language (Greek, French, and German) into English, and came to know our own language a bit better. But after the assault on education in the 60s when we began to let the kids decide what they would like to study and basic requirements were replaced by “cake” courses, or those that were largely geared for guaranteed employment after graduation; the notion that certain courses were essential passed by the boards.

If foreign languages are taught any more in college or high school it is usually in the form of “conversational” language– designed to allow the student to get by in a foreign land, find the rest room or the nearest hotel, perhaps. Despite the studies that show that other animals communicate with one another, there is no evidence that any of these animals have a “language” in a formal sense of that term. The notion that one studies a foreign language in order to come to know his or her own language better has been lost in the clouds of rhetoric that have surrounded education in recent years. If we consider that language is perhaps the one thing that separates humans from the other animals  the loss of close studies of English and Latin, at least, may have cost us a great deal.

Much has been said about the dumbing down of the curriculum at the high school, college, and even the post-graduate levels — where remedial courses are now the norm and language requirements have gone by the boards. And it has been said by me in previous posts and by a number of very bright and concerned writers in recent years. But it is a message that falls on deaf ears, in many cases ears of those who have never studied their language very closely and who have no idea what they are missing. How could they? As the downward spiral continues, and we proceed along the path of vocational training and abandon altogether the ideals of educating the young, we will have fewer and fewer voices expressing concern about the things that really matter in bringing up the young and helping them take possession of their own minds. And just as Shakespeare’s English has become a foreign language for the typical college graduate these days, the ability to read and express one’s ideas coherently will be diminished to the point that we are all lost in a sea of mindless babble and we will have become less than human. Or has that horse already left the barn?