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Wendell Berry

In a recent blog post, Stanley Fish proclaims that the humanities crisis has officially arrived and takes George Philip, president of SUNY-Albany, to task for axing the French, Italian, classics, Russian, and theater programs. Fish claims

it is the job of presidents and chancellors to proclaim the value of liberal arts education loudly and often and at least try to make the powers that be understand what is being lost when traditions of culture and art that have been vital for hundreds and even thousands of years disappear from the academic scene.

Fish’s strategy is political: take the debate to the floors of state senates. Yet allow me to tentatively posit that perhaps our Modern Liberal Democracy (MLD for brevity) itself may be to blame. Whether we like it or not, MLD—the American one in particular—has a hard time understanding the value of something apart from its utility, its instrumentality—McLuhan called this “know how” (for a fuller, if occasionally simplistic, explanation of this idea, check out Neil Postman’s Technopoly).

Before continuing, I probably should define “Modern Liberal Democracy.” I’m only a poet who reads political philosophy sometimes, so be nice. I also realize I’m speaking broadly, and perhaps that makes me sloppy. But I hope the general gesture of this essay will out-merit its limits. Briefly, by MLD I mean modern democratic societies which have roots in Enligthenment (particularly “state of nature”) philosophy—liberal in the classical sense.

These democracies generally value individual freedom above all: I don’t disagree with your viewpoint, but I’ll die for your right to have it. Necessarily, whatever common values there are tend to be (problematically) vague and non-threatening: equality, justice, freedom of speech, etc. And even these values are not absolute; they are held in tension with prevailing political demands of the day: torture sometimes mitigates the assumed innocence of the accused; hate crimes legislation allows justice to take off the blinders; freedom of speech covers many things, but not exposing your genitals publicly. You find MLD throughout Europe & North America, primarily, but is being strenuously exported to other continents (along with the market system).

Initially, MLD seems to be the perfect environment for the Liberal Arts: freedom of speech, no midnight raids to arrest thought criminals or moralistic politicians jockeying for votes in a culture war (well…maybe not)—even the name similarities suggest a proper convergence of values. Yet in America and other governmentally  similar environments (h/t: Daniel Silliman), the sky has been falling on the liberal arts for years.

But we should note that this is not necessarily a new thing in history. In the last few days I’ve been reading through the history of Argentina. One thing that historian Jonathan Brown points out is that as soon as Argentina transitioned from an oligarchy of political elites to a MLD, the public universities shifted focus from the liberal arts to the sciences. This makes me want to ask, are the humanities an elite interest? Do professors of the humanities work at the indulgence of the privileged? Are the humanities a societal indulgence?

I don’t think the correlation between here is accidental. It might even be causal. Consider that the sciences and related disciplines are easily justified to the public in the type of discourse allowed in a MLD: remember, no absolute claims to ultimate values systems allowed—free speech, freedom of belief/conviction, and all that. But the liberal arts are much more difficult to justify in a MLD. As Fish states, “What can you say to the tax-payer who asks, ‘What good does a program in Byzantine art do me?’” Fish goes on to say

…it won’t do to invoke…pieties…— the humanities enhance our culture; the humanities make our society better — because those pieties have a 19th century air about them and are not even believed in by some who rehearse them.

Interestingly enough, Fish (bleakly) hopes that this very defense will work with politicians who “like to think of themselves as crackerbarrel philosophers and historians.” (Talk about jaded!) And yet we live in an age when state (and probably federal) politicians refuse to use standard accounting practices and keep kicking the can of financial reckoning down the road. Unfortunately for these politicians, there are literally no more pieces of the state to sell off and rent back in order to keep the budget balanced; there are no more pension funds to borrow from. Thus it seems to me that the voters are the very people that must be convinced to sacrifice certain services and pay more taxes in order to keep the humanities—not the politicians. But how do we do that?

This emphasis on a useful education leaves little room for a more or less utilitarian education (though MFA programs flourish, interestingly) and has forced literary studies to become more scientific in their approach; college administrators expect the same kind of research from the local Miltonist (if she or he is not dead yet) as we get from a chair in research science. Robert Pippin sums this shift up well in his recent “Defense of Naïve Reading” from the New York Time’s Philosopher’s Stone series:

Philology, with its central focus on language, was once the master model for all the sciences and it was natural for teachers to try to train students to make good texts, track down sources, learn about conflicting editions and adjudicate such controversies. Then, as a kind of natural extension of these practices, came historical criticism, national language categorization, work on tracing influences and patronage, all contributing to the worry about classifying various schools, movements or periods. Then came biographical criticism and the flood gates were soon open wide: psychoanalytic criticism, new or formal criticism, semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism, discourse analysis, reader response criticism or “reception aesthetics,” systems theory, hermeneutics, deconstruction, feminist criticism, cultural studies. And so on.

Similarly, other authors like Patrick Deneen have pinned the decline of the liberal arts on the imitation of the German Research model of education, which divided disciplines “into specialized disciplines and [placed] stress on expertise and the discovery of new knowledge”:

When conservative critics of our universities nowadays lament the decline of liberal education, they usually decry its replacement by a left-leaning politicized agenda. But the deeper truth is that liberal education has been more fundamentally displaced by scientific education buttressed by the demands of global competition.

This certainly helps frame the perennial American media’s anxiety about American students falling behind the Chinese in math & science (seriously: just Google “American students falling behind”). But it is important to note that Deneen defines the “humanities” in a way that is crucial to his argument. Deneen takes the classical understanding of “the humanities,” which stands in direct contradiction to the modern era’s desire to escape “all forms of power and control, [which implies] that the ideal human condition [is] one of complete liberty—even the liberty from what was once understood to be human.” Deneen skewers modern conservatives (read: culture wars), but Deneen’s impulse is itself deeply conservative.

For Deneen, the liberal arts are the study of humanity and is aimed at making students into better people—not better citizens, mind you; there’s a difference: they’re related, but not interchangeably. Such enlightened people respect the limits of what it means to be human. (Side note: This view of human limits dovetails interestingly with Wendell Berry’s 2008 essay in Harper’s “Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits.”)

There is something fundamentally conservative (in a way that would baffle most Republicans and Tea Partiers) about Deneen’s (and Berry’s) ideal of limits. But this ideal also baffles modern liberals. This ideal implies that there should be a singular and definite understanding of humans and how they relate to both nature and each other. Somewhere the “Fascist alert” is going off in our heads. It must be said, however, that while nobody (except a fascist) admires Ezra Pound’s dedication to fascism—especially since it was probably motivated by Pound’s racial anxieties—his politics are brought into better focus if we believe that MLD inevitably dismantles the humanities.

None of this is an attempt to justify Pound’s despicable politics. Rather, it should highlight that the humanities and modern liberal democracy may be fundamentally at odds. Thus, we should expect the actions of someone like President Philip when state budgets get tight. And in the coming “age of austerity,” it’s something we should probably get used to.

In fact, if Deneen is right in his genealogy of the humanities—and I suspect he is—then the humanities are conservative in the most radical way. Ironically, it is the modern liberals who take up the cause in the state house. Deneen’s claims rattle all our categories. Perhaps this is why so many professors who recite Fish’s “pieties” don’t actually believe it themselves. The crisis of the humanities is not external, then, it’s internal. Humanities programs aren’t being attacked because the voters are cretinous philistines (though we poets & writers prefer to stroke our own egos in thinking so). The humanities are suffering an identity crisis and are being picked off as the weakest competitors for state funding.

Let’s say, however, that we accept Deneen’s genealogy, that the humanities and our modern liberal democracy are invariably at odds; does that mean that we should return to the classical understanding of humanities? Deneen is obviously suspicious of things that most poets & writers (a diverse & liberal bunch to be sure) would enthusiastically embrace. Deneen notes with palpable disgust that

one is…likely to find [in the modern university] indoctrination in multiculturalism, disability studies, queer studies, postcolonial studies, a host of other victimization studies, and the usual insistence on the centrality of the categories of race, gender, and class.

I personally tend more towards understanding things through the lens of technology (as opposed to race, gender, and class), and I wonder whether Deneen would list this category in his anathema of “victimization studies”? I’m not convinced of Deneen’s charity in this statement, and I think he engages in the very culture wars rhetoric he wants to skewer (plus there are better ways to tackle  “diversity” in the modern—particularly elite—university). But I do appreciate Deneen’s skepticism. And even one who vehemently disagrees with Deneen must admit that his characterizations of academia are eerily spot on in disturbing ways.

I suppose it boils down to this question: Is there a robust way to preserve the humanities against modern liberal democracy’s instrumental values system? Certainly in the last 50 or so years there have been valiant attempts to affirm the usefulness of the humanities in our modern political environment. But this effort is clearly failing, and before long we might not have any humanities courses left in which we are able to debate this very question.

And there is another question: are we trying to have it both ways? Both MLD and the liberal arts? Do they jive as well as we have always thought?

Wendell Berry recently decided to pull his personal papers from the University of Kentucky, and it got me thinking.

While I know this news story isn’t directly related to the topic of poetry (and this is–loosely–a poetry blog), I can’t help but feel it connects on some other level as we (poets) think about the relationship of our poetry to the world around us. Most of my exposure to the world of modern poetry has taken place through the university system. And while I know there are many poets writing and thriving outside the university system, it seems to me that the relationship of modern poetry is hopelessly enmeshed with our modern universities. Let’s admit it, the modern university (as well as the various foundations, titles, etc.) gives us poets the prestige we desperately desire. Would we be satisfied reading in bars the rest of our lives? Some of us would, but many of us would feel cheated. We want, as it were, to be “overheard.”

Most modern universities are “research universities.” I find even explicitly “liberal arts” universities cast their value in scientific terms. If you’ve been to a grad conference recently, you know as well as I do that academics dutifully toils away in a very narrow slices of their field, increasing knowledge (wherever that is stored…), writing books, gaining tenure. The language of conferences and academic panels has become scientific, calculated, professional. When you are asked about your studies, you must cast it in “pitch” it, so as to demonstrate the entrepreneurial value.

How much of this has seeped into the world of modern poetry?

Does the modern university ennoble (if I may use such an unfashionable word!) those of us (I’m still there!) who dwell in its halls? Consider Berry’s excoriation of the “research university”:

At a 2007 commencement address at Bellarmine University, Berry railed against “the great and the would-be-great ‘research universities.’ These gigantic institutions, increasingly formed upon the ‘industrial model,’ no longer make even the pretense of preparing their students for responsible membership in a family, a community, or a polity. … The American civilization so ardently promoted by these institutions is to be a civilization entirely determined by technology, and not encumbered by any thought of what is good or worthy or neighborly or humane.”

There is little doubt also that the modern university is, as one thinker put it, “the handmaiden of the military-government-industrial complex.” Certainly the poet can be the voice of conscience on the campus, but at what cost? Berry has the strength of his convictions (and the status to sustain them).

Then again, he also has a farm if it all goes to hell.

How do you know when you’re “done” a poem?

I’m not speaking about revision, but rather, the act of writing, particularly lyrical free verse. Donna Masini once described it to me (or a class I was in—can’t remember which), as a settling in the body: a literal sense in the poet’s body that there is no more to write. What a strange way to describe it—yet, I find it has been true with me. I’ll be sitting in front of a computer, write a line, and suddenly, intuitively, I know the poem is finished. It’s a sense of relief, that sighing experience when you’ve just removed a splinter (though the process of removing a poem from your body is usually more pleasurable.

Grossman speaks about the silence from which a poem comes. Silence is the place where “all men agree.” Not only this, but one must overcome silence, the gap between speech and no speech (more on that later). But once you’ve broken this barrier, how do you know when to shut up the stream of words? Often, it seems there is no end to the multiplicity. Once you’ve entered a poem, how the hell do you get out?

Grossman speaks about “closure.” Perhaps this isn’t the same as the closing of a poem, yet, once you’ve reached closure, how much further could the poem go? (Does anyone know of a poem that begins with closure and goes from there?) Grossman says:

The poem achieves “closure only when some new cognitive element has been added to the relationship of subject and object. Terminal closure is “something understood.” Closure brings the poem to an end as apocalypse (“dis-closure”) brings Creation to an end.

There seem to be couple different ideas Grossman is drawing on here. “Something understood” refers, perhaps, to an almost Buddhistic sense of Nirvana. The achievement of enlightenment brings about the end: one has finished becoming and is only being. Naturally, this seems like an ending place for the poem (especially if we understand a relationship between being and text—again, more on that in post 5, which is forthcoming).

On the other hand, there is a strong Judeo-Christian understanding of narrative here: the apocalypse, the end that must come (as the diver must eventually finish his dive). Strange to think of a poem and apocalypse as being in the same category, but it makes a certain sense: the poem is an act of a person (godlike) who breaks the silence (ex nihilo?) and at some point comes riding in on a white horse and ends the poem. On the other hand, is it fair to separate the beginning of writing from the myriad of things that inspire it?

Let’s look at an actual poem. I love David Ferry’s translations of Horace’s Odes, and it always amazes me how Horace’s poems seem to snap shut at just the right moment. (Note: I have been unable to get WordPress to get the exact formating of this poem–apologies to David Ferry.)

To Sestius

Horace (trans. David Ferry)

Now the hard winter is breaking up with the welcome coming
Of spring and the spring winds; some fishermen,
Under a sky that looks changed, are hauling their caulked boats
Down to the water; in the winter stables the cattle
Are restless; so is the farmer sitting in front of his fire;
They want to be out of doors in field or pasture;
The frost is gone from the meadow grass in the early mornings.
Maybe, somewhere, the Nymphs and Graces are dancing,
Under the moon the goddess Venus and her dancers;
Somewhere far in the depth of a cloudless sky
Vulcan is getting ready the storms of the coming summer.
Now is the time to garland your shining hair
With myrtle or with the flowers the free-giving earth has given;
Now is the right time to offer the kid or lamb
In sacrifice to Faunus in the firelit shadowy grove.
Revenant white-faced Death is walking not knowing whether
He’s going to knock at a rich man’s door or a poor man’s.
O good-looking fortunate Sestius, don’t put your hope in the future;
The night is falling; the shades are gathering around;
The walls of Pluto’s shadowy house are closing you in.
There who will be lord of the feast? What will it matter,
What will it matter there, whether you fell in love with Lycidas,
This girl or that girl with him, or he with her?

There is one clear arc through this poem that indicates the end is coming: it moves from dawn (of spring) to evening (of life). While not about a literal day, the movements of a day are naturally contained (and what a beautiful and subtle shift from the seasons to life here—one that’s been done a million times, it’s true—yet so perfect and worth repeating; c.f., Joe Weil on the Ballad. Joe’s post reminded me of a poem from Wendell Berry’s Given—the title of the poem escapes me at the moment—in which an artist states that he would be perfectly content painting the very same river over and over, that this was the ideal of every artist.). The ur-movement from morning to evening, and the association of it with the seasons (and thus life itself) is, I think, what Bly was getting at when he referred to “deep image.” I suspect such “deep images” that are arguably shared between even wildly diverse cultures have something to do with the where and when of our poems, the sense of when a poem “feels” “closed” to us.

But this movement from day to evening is not everything. If it were, the poem would not contain the “new cognitive element” of which Grossman speaks. The whole poem is an address, yet the addressee is not revealed until the very end. Indeed, grammatically, there is no clue that it is a poem of address (as opposed to private musings “overheard” by us, the audience), until the very end. The convergence of the “deep image” of day and the revelation of Sestius helps achieve, perhaps, what Grossman referred to as a “new cognitive element” that is “added to the relationship of subject and object.”

There is more going on here that indicates the ending (the repetition of words and the question are a rhythmic indication), but I suspect the address to Sestius (culminating in a question only) combined with the movement from day to evening is the basic structure of the poem. Horace is allowed to end on a question, not because it is open-ended, but it is the natural completion of the thought. Nighttime brings about both closure and anxiety (What will come tomorrow? Was today sufficient?). Thus it is entirely appropriate to end on this note, and not at all a (deliberate) incomplete ending.

On one other note, Grossman believes that the “occasion for generative speech” (i.e., poetry), is “some dislocation or ‘disease’ of the relationship of a subject and an object….Creation is not the speaking itself but the primordial disease or fall which thrusts me into a predicament in which speech is the only way.” This idea seems to conflict with the idea that Wendell Berry articulates, that a poet should be content to stare at the same river, rejoicing continually in it, painting the same thing over and over (though really, is a river ever the same?). For Grossman, poetry comes out of a problem; for Berry, ideally, poetry comes out of a sense of fullness, of completion (not to the exclusion of problem poetry). Interesting to note that in the creation narrative of Genesis, creation is sung into existence (or rather, the creation narrative itself is a hymn).

(Note I’ve skipped from Part 4 to Part 6. Part 5 is still in the works.)