Liberal Politics and Literary Education

Article excerpt

According to the German romantic poet and thinker Friedrich von Schiller, the condition of civilized man is quite as unsatisfactory as it is depicted by Jean-Jacques Rousseau; the latter is mistaken only in believing that humanity can somehow recover the innocent or "naive" state of nature. Schiller proposes, instead, that it is the function of the literature of civilization, of "sentimental poetry," to alleviate the inevitable discontent of civilization by nurturing the idea of primordial innocence amid the "corruption of civilization":

  For the individual who is immersed in civilization, infinitely much
  therefore depends upon his receiving a tangible assurance of the
  realization of that idea in the world of sense, of the possible
  reality of that condition, and since actual experience, far from
  nourishing this belief, rather contradicts it constantly, here, as in
  so many cases, the faculty of poetic composition comes to the aid of
  reason in order to render that idea palpable to intuition and to
  realize it in individual cases. (1)

Here we see the displacement of the classical understanding of literature as the representation of reality by the romantic notion that literature is the projection of the poet's ideal fantasy--the lamp of self-expression thus supersedes the mirror of mimesis.

Because romanticism arises in an era of radical social change, it is hardly surprising that this theory of poetry as expressive fantasy anticipates and resembles much in progressive politics. Political movements are not epiphytes--air plants--they grow in the soil of culture. The effect of progressive politics on the reception of literature is, however, largely deleterious. As a result, the old-fashioned political liberal, who typically loves literature and sees himself as part of a cultural elite of more refined taste and sophisticated thought than the conservative "Babbitts" of the bourgeois business community, confronts a dilemma. Surely thoughtful liberals experience an uncomfortable sense of discord in the realization that as progressive political interests have increasingly assumed virtually exclusive control over the nation's cultural institutions, they have become--if you will forgive the pun--progressively more mercenary, self-seeking, and vulgar.

It is not stodgy, uncultured Republicans who have all but banished classical music from public radio stations and substituted endless political chatter with interspersed "cultural features" generally involving interviews with rockers, rappers, and assorted "performance artists." The ambitious academic administrators and aggressive researchers who have turned universities into credentialing facilities for the benefit of high-tech, multinational corporations are vociferously liberal and vote overwhelmingly for political progressives. It is hardly traditional conservatives (arguably an endangered species in English departments) who have eliminated required courses on canonical authors and the historical development of literature in favor of a focus on various manifestations of popular culture.

I was struck with the poignancy of this situation for at least a few of the more thoughtful liberal academics when I stumbled upon a copy of Mark Edmundson's Why Read? in a used bookstore. The book is a defense of the moral and spiritual value of reading great books in the face of the blase, knowing professionalism--not to say, cynicism--of the academic establishment that controls the study and teaching of literature in the contemporary university, as well as of the obliviousness and indifference of the general public.

"However much society at large despises imaginative writing," Edmundson asserts, "however much those supposedly committed to preserve and spread literary art may demean it, the fact remains that in literature there abide major hopes for human renovation." (2) Unlike many who have lamented the decline of reading and the diminishing attention afforded great books in recent years, Edmundson can by no means be dismissed as a nostalgic reactionary. …