Monday, June 26, 2006

Great Books (II): Homer, Shakespeare

One of the themes of Great Books is pedagogy, which Denby struggles to describe, and – with Pride and Prejudiceto undertake. Thus, his chapter on the Odyssey begins with a teacher's rhetorical challenge:
You are all Telemachus, aren't you?
Teaching is a dirty business: how far can one wade into the swamp of compromise, before it is too late to get back? Denby's starting point reminds me of a talk by John Fleming, in which he described a student's excited reaction to Hamlet:
Oh, Hamlet is just like me – because, like, I can't decide what to major in, either.
Have you driven your girlfriend to suicide? Coldly arranged the execution of two childhood friends? Perhaps Hamlet is not quite so much like you – for which we give thanks. Ditto for Telemachus.

Denby is eloquent about the "unreachably alien" in Homer: the shock of Achilles' speech of refusal in the Iliad, and of Odysseus' bloody return. It would be perverse to confine these books to what is already in oneself – the opposite of reading well. But you can see the temptation. (Denby succumbs to it at length only once, when his mother turns out to be a synthesis of Lear and Oedipus; more briefly, Denby himself is Faust and Elizabeth Bennet.)

I assume that his professor was actually very good: successful teaching is hard to represent. Thus, the suggestion that Hamlet is "just like you" was offered as a moment of pedagogical brilliance in NBC's dismal new sit-com, Teachers. And I still cringe to recall the "philosophy class" that opens The Life of David Gale.

Has skilful pedagogy never reached the screen? It has, in documentaries. If you get a chance some time, watch a tape of C. Roland Christensen, his gestures drawing thoughts from mouths like exhaled mist, almost involuntary. (An old jedi mind trick.) Even then, I'm not sure how much one can imitate. Teachers are performers, with their distinctive masks and styles; not everything is adaptable. And teaching is specialized. Although it may seem otherwise, there is no irony in watching the best of teachers teaching badly how to teach.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Great Books (I): Introductory

To invert a blurb by Peter Watson, on the back of David Denby's engaging book, this series of posts will be the least original response to the "culture wars". Where Denby went back to school at Columbia to take the demanding year-long primers in Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, I am reading Denby's book and lazily consulting classics I already know, while picking out a few of those that I do not.

One of the enviable features of the American academic system is the breadth of undergraduate education, and the lack of it is something I regret about studying in England. It isn't that, like many, I was unready to choose a discipline; I knew I wanted to read philosophy, and almost knew that I wouldn't want to stop. But it was never my desire to study nothing but.

Near the end of his first semester, Denby interviews a British professor who is leaving Columbia for the (allegedly) more radical halls of Sussex. (A time before Spivak?) She dismisses the "canon" as "a modern American invention […] a shopping list […] some fantasy of control." He attributes her resistance in part to the fact that "an Oxbridge undergraduate, better educated at high school than his American counterpart, would likely have read many of the books before arriving at university." I don't believe it, and it certainly wasn't true of me.

Nor does it seem right to scorn the "fantasy of control", so long as it is not a fantasy of controlling students, but a fantasy that shares their anxiety about the lack of it, fear of being out of one's depth. The open secret of academia is that almost everyone almost always feels this way: not waving but drowning, an intellectual fraud. It may be a fantasy for it to be otherwise, but the vertigo is real, and the fantasy can be productive.

There are other complaints about the "great books" course, both political and pedagogical. Denby is pretty impatient with them. He is sold on the enterprise: suspicious of capital, but not the cultural kind. In any case, the main argument of his book is surely implicit: Denby will defeat the critics of the canon by torturing them with envy. Going back to school is an academic's dream.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

An Ontological Puzzle

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Age of Reason

One of the more likeable books I have read in recent months is Paul Levy's study of G. E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles, now unforgivably out of print. It is an attempt to explain Moore's anomalous influence outside philosophy, on the artistic and intellectual giants of his time: Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, John Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf. The answer is meant to lie in the purity and innocence of his attachment to the truth – a force of character paradoxically combined with shyness and modesty, and reinforced with boyish good looks.

Moore does seem innocent in Levy's account, and quite appealing – but not especially impressive. In fact, Moore's early attempts at philosophy, in papers presented to the Apostles, are gratifyingly similar to the efforts of any beginning undergraduate.

In his debut, he argued that "we can know absolutely nothing", but boldly embraced his result: "this universal scepticism will no doubt produce the dissolution of society, which I should welcome." This is the sort of thing that make makes the teacher of freshmen roll her eyes.

In his first paper, of May 12, 1894, Moore defended – by equivocation and confusion – the truth of ethical and psychological hedonism. Levy's response is comically over-generous:
It is obvious that Moore was trying to reconcile the Epicurean hedonism he had absorbed from his reading of Lucretius, with McTaggart's reading of Hegel, which assimilated the egoistic principle of self-realization to 'being in harmony with the World Spirit'.
The defects of hedonism ought to have been apparent in the question with which the meeting closed: "Are all martyrs voluptuaries?"

Moore followed up these efforts with a paper endorsing Plato's apparent argument in the Protagoras that no-one errs willingly. Not until February 4, 1899 do we see in Moore the "great advance" of rejecting egoism.

Such humble origins give hope to us all: how the mighty have risen. Less than ten years later, Moore published Principia Ethica, and Lytton Strachey wrote these words:
I date from Oct. 1903 the beginning of the Age of Reason.
Even after reading Levy's book, it is hard to see how someone could have felt this way.

In truth, the anecdotes that give the greatest sense of Moore's adorable qualities do not concern his intellect, at all. They focus rather on moments of vulnerability, as in Keynes' priceless description of Moore, waking from "a nightmare […] in which he could not distinguish propositions from tables"; and in Moore's note to himself in a diary entry of December 7, 1915:
Feel very incapable of thinking, so read Mind.