Sunday, May 4, 2014

Escaping the Bubble of the Contemporary

Below I offer a passage from Magee's Confessions of a Philosopher (pp. 422-425) that really hits home as I contemplate the world of the professional humanist (or liberal artist) that I inhabit.  I thought about truncating the passage, which is rather long, but every sentence in each of the six paragraphs demands to be read, so I reproduce them all:
A familiar problem exists wherever something is taught in which creativity plays an indispensable role--be it art, or music, or imaginative writing, or whatever, and that includes philosophy.  Is it to be treated as a subject or as an activity?  One does not want to train students to be only passive admirers of the great.  It is essential that they should be trained in the activity itself, trained to perform and to produce. Yet in the nature of the case ninety-something percent of them are not going to be particularly good at that--one is not going to be able, with a straight face, to expect strangers to take an interest in their work.  Nor are any but a tiny number of people who teach them going to be all that good at the creative activity either.  The danger then is that both teachers and taught will develop standards on the basis of what they live with in daily life; and to the extent that they do they will lose touch with the aim that their activity is supposed to serve, namely the production, consumption, and appreciation of the best work there is.  They can, in fact, quite easily develop a way of life in which such work plays little part.  And from that point onward their perspective will be awry, as in the familiar case of the schoolteacher who sincerely assures his friends that the Shakespeare performances put on by his pupils are as good as those at the National Theatre.  The best way to avoid such a deep yet common corruption of standards is to teach students through the best of what there is, so that this becomes what they live with daily, and shapes the standards they form.

The two approaches implicit in what I have just said represent the parameters within which a creative activity can be taught; and an institution or university department may tend towards either extreme.  Let us for a moment take a look at an example from outside philosophy.  A music academy can conduct itself ultimately in one of two ways.  It can base its teaching on the works of great composers, encouraging its students to learn by emulation: in their composition classes they can study such music, and as instrumentalists they can perform it.  The advantages of this approach are that they become saturated with great music, getting to know some of it extremely well, deriving their standards and models from it, and developing their own skills through it.  But there will be critics of this approach who protest: "Your academy is a museum, if not an embalming parlour.  You play only music by dead people.  Your young people are slaves to the dead, and you are ignoring the fact that music is a living, breathing art.  An academy of gifted people ought to be among the pioneers of progress, at the cutting edge of musical advance.  You ought to be encouraging live composers; and your young instrumentalists ought to be playing the music of their own contemporaries.  Making music is what this is all about.  You and they ought to be breathing the air of practical innovation, the exciting and the new."

This sounds plausible and attractive, and goes hand in hand with the attitudes encouraged for the most part of the twentieth century by the modern movement in artistic and intellectual life, based as that was on the notion of sweeping away the past and starting afresh.  Because of this, the more traditional approach has been seen for most of my lifetime as old-fashioned, confined, inimical to the creativity of the individual.  Yet wherever the more "modern" approach is put into practice the students find themselves spending nearly all their time immersed in mediocre and uninteresting music--simply because all but a tiny amount of the music produced by any one generation is mediocre and uninteresting, including that which they produce themselves.  They will be incited to compose it, and also to perform it, and in these most practical of ways to set great value on it.  They will find, of course, that scarcely anyone outside the academy wants to listen to most of it, or even sustains for very long a continuing interest in what they are doing; but this is only too likely to develop in them a contempt for music-lovers in general as being unadventurous, stick-in-the-mud, past-bound, a lot of fuddy-duddies and stay-at-homes, uninterested in what real live composers are doing.  Then a gap will appear, and will widen, between full-time music students on the one hand and music-lovers on the other.  The full-time students will be blinkered and confined in their outlook by whatever happens to be the fashion prevailing at the moment, and will more and more be producing and playing such currently fashionable music for one another, and for a few trendies.  Meanwhile ordinary music-lovers will continue to listen to the best music they can find, regardless of when it was composed or of what the more fashionable set may say about it.

A generation later, when such students are at the height of their powers and professional success, they will find that scarcely any of the music they favoured in their youth is remembered even by themselves, and that when they nostalgically revive it, it is not of much interest to anyone else; while the music of the masters is as often played and as much loved as it ever was, perhaps more so, and is still the music that they are most often asked to play for others.  They will not find, if they remember to look, that what were thought to be the most modern academies have in the meantime produced more or better composers than the old-fashioned ones used to, or that leading instrumentalists are now noticeably better than they used to be.  The worst thing of all will be that they will have lived their lives marinading in the formaldehyde of fourth-rate music, which is not something anyone who loves music could possibly want to do.  Indeed, people in love with great music will by now tend to sidestep such academies as places where that love is not easy to develop, and will pursue it another way, sometimes along a path that consists mostly of individual study and working at home.

Every point in this comparison has its counterpart in the world of academic philosophy.  It sounds all very fine and large to say that philosophy if not a collection of great books, nor a conspectus of philosophical doctrines, but an activity, and therefore that teaching philosophy consists not in getting students to study the great philosophers of the past but to do philosophy themselves, and learn to think philosophically, and to engage with contemporaries who are also thinking philosophically.  The trouble with it is that most of what they then do along these lines will not be very good, nor will most of the contemporary work they engage with.  They would learn far more about how to think philosophically by studying the works of great philosophers; and furthermore these would then be valuable possessions for them for the rest of their lives, every bit as illuminating after thirty years as when first encountered--whereas if they immerse themselves in whatever happens to be current literature they will find after thirty years that most of it is no longer of interest even to themselves.  Worst of all, their continuing mental world all this time will have been a world of the third-rate and ephemeral, when it could just as easily have been a world of the lastingly valuable.

In both cases the more so-called modern approach flatters and elevates the current practitioner, who is therefore almost bound to have feelings in its favour.  It encourages him to think that what is happening in his day, and what he personally is doing, are what really matters.  It encourages him to produce, regardless of the quality of his work, and to set serious value on what he produces.  He is led to believe that he and his contemporaries stand on the shoulders of all the past, and therefore stand higher than anyone has stood before--not in personal ability, of course, but in understanding.  So their work, he will probably believe, is in advance of anything produced before.  But all this time the harsh truth is that he will be a journalist with a longer timescale than most journalists, a producer of articles on topics of current concern which will be of no interest in a few years' time.  And all this, together with its concomitant downgrading of the past, will be terminally distorting of his perspectives, and corrupting of his standards.  He will, most probably, lose tough altogether with what are in fact real standards and achievements in philosophy as they have existed and endured over long stretches of time that include his own generation (whether he realizes that or not).  He is likely to live out his life in an air bubble of the contemporary. 

Along the way to a PhD in classics, I took a series of exams (in Latin and Greek language, scholarly French and German, a particular classical author that I chose freely from a long list, and a particular classical field of inquiry that I invented with a professor to advise me: my author was Hesiod, and my field ancient astrology, for those who like to know such things).  The last exams I took were a pair known as "comprehensive"--one in Greek and Latin literature, and the other in Greek and Roman history.  I failed these the first time I took them.  When I went round interviewing folks to see what was wrong (and set a course that would let me bone up for round two), the examiners said that my failure was owing not to lack of depth or preparation, but to the fact that I kept "questioning the questions" instead of simply answering them.  I realized after talking to several of them that they shared a common belief in the integrity of their questions that I did not have.  On an existential level, I resisted the kind of questions they were asking, resisted them as offering nothing valuable (to my own idea of what constitutes humanism, an idea which I was only vaguely aware of at the time: for reasons many who read this blog will know already, I was undergoing a kind of existential crisis at the time I took these exams, a crisis which involved rethinking every conscious thought I ever had about the purpose of Life and my place in it).  I was playing Socrates to the department's Athenian democracy, and so inadvertently setting myself up to drink hemlock.  Fortunately (or not), I managed to get from my examiners a clear enough idea of what I should think as a classicist to pass "comps" (with infamy rather than distinction) and move on to the dissertation, which I finished just last year.

I currently find myself on the job market, increasingly diffident about my chances of being employed--but more importantly, uncertain about the way my desires and motivation align with those of "the field" (academic humanists, classicists, pedants).  I entered classics (the humanities) as an undergrad because I believed that they contained information both valuable (practically useful) and beautiful (aesthetically pleasing) to modern concerns.  I still believe in the practical and aesthetic utility of the liberal arts, but I am not sure that I believe in what university departments do (particularly research university departments) as representing that utility.  My favorite "class-work" in grad school involved (1) reading the classics (in the original language), (2) trying to understand them (especially when this involved doing composition work in the original language: "how would Cicero construct an argument before the US Supreme Court?"), and (3) trying to find ways to apply them to modern life (what can Homer teach us about human conflict as it exists in contemporary society?).  Reading secondary literature occasionally helped (2) my attempts to understand what classical authors were saying (usually by supplying some context that I did not know, e.g. historical and archaeological information pertinent to my text but not encoded directly into it).  But outside of that, it was often a distraction, especially when it was contemporary: every time I go to a conference and hear papers read, I roll my eyes, not because presenters are "bad" per se (I certainly would not be better!), but because I cannot for the life of me see what the point of more than half the questions is.  What is useful and beautiful in classics is the tradition as it exists historically--a collection of the best of the best (somewhat arbitrary and accidental, but people make up for this by preferring e.g. Vergil over Silius Italicus as recreational reading).  Contemporary scholarship is mostly hogwash, a trifling waste of time that might be fun (for those of us who enjoy being pedants, making up new ways to express and explain the old texts we read).  But it is not terribly serious or important, not something I want to spend the rest of my life engaging day in and day out (with the kind of dedication that my PhD examiners had, the kind of burning passion that grips you and makes you write things whose profundity arises from the depths of your own lived experience).

As I read the liberal arts, they are about giving students methods (or processes) for coping with some of Life's most intractable problems.  The humanities (art, including philosophy and literature) are about tinkering, conceiving morality as heuristics (rather than universal, unified theories), making mistakes, confronting particulars without hope of achieving definitive universals, etc.  They are not a road to wealth (they might be, but most scholars are poor). They are not a road to fixed employment (as though the point of existing as a human being were making oneself obsequiously obsessed with some limited task).  They are not a road to eternal permanence, though they can make your own road to disintegration and death an easier one to walk--slowly, thoughtfully, carefully, appreciatively, with minimum expectations and maximal gratitude for whatever goods Life brings you.  If every thought we think becomes bullshit eventually, humanities are potentially the best kind of bullshit, I think, in that they do not come with a built-in need to be comprehensive or definitive or true (in some empirically objective way). They give our mind the opium of doubt instead of the heroin of sure knowledge, allowing detachment rather than attachment, and "opening the doors" of our understanding to a world of feeling that is obviously too vast to be comprehended (by humanity writ large or small). In a world wherein knowledge is power (to misunderstand reality and cause unnecessary death), the humanities offer an antidote (giving us the chance to step back from deadly knowledge before it kills us prematurely, or something we hold dear).

The utility of the humanities is particularly evident in "society"--religion, politics, economics, the courts, the battlefield, even medicine.  Science offers increasingly little help dealing meaningfully with these arenas, which are too complex, mutable, and mutant to allow for objective, replicable solutions (that require the existence of permanence and universality where Nature simply does not grant these).  I want to write about this utility, to become a humanist (even a bad, third-rate one) rather than an academic pedant (even a first-rate one, supposing I might be fortunate enough to pull that off).  I want to write about the meaning of Life, broadly conceived, not the meaning of Silius Italicus--or even of Vergil: Vergil is a fascinating window onto Life that is larger than he is. I want to see through Vergil rather than get stuck examining every little, incidental, accidental piece of him--as though the window mattered more than the view, as though people made hoes to be hoarded in museums rather than put to use in the garden.  To me, it feels like the classics offer this incredible tool-kit for thinking about and engaging directly with the World (with Life, writ large and small)--this incredible tool-kit that almost nobody uses.  Most of us with time to see it wind up composing journalism that describes it rather than putting it to real use.  I see that as unfortunate, and I would like my life--my career--to be different.

I think Magee is right that most creative artists don't make the best stuff.  I am probably not a great artist.  But I still need to engage great art.  I want to live the kind of life wherein what art I make is made in the shadow of greatness--ancient greatness that I see regularly (when I read Homer or Vergil, etc., perhaps even Silius Italicus).  I don't want to live in the bubble of the contemporary that Magee describes.  I don't want to spend hours pouring over secondary literature that doesn't engage Life (in any way I can appreciate).  This may ruin me for classics yet, as it already almost did.                

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