March 14, 2006

1. Mark Edmundson

I’ve been publishing Phlit for 6 years. Though I’ve often discussed my reading, I’ve never said “Ya gotta read this, ya just gotta read it.” Our book group recently discussed Mark Edmundson’s 1997 essay, “On the Uses of a Liberal Education.” It was a popular choice — lively, humorous, deep. It teaches you things about contemporary society that the classics can’t teach you (since the classics pre-date contemporary society). Ya gotta read this, ya just gotta read it.

Edmundson discusses the evaluations that his students at the University of Virgina write about his class. He says that most of his students enjoy his class, but he wants more than that:

I want some of them to say that they’ve been changed by the course. I want them to measure themselves against what they’ve read. It’s said that some time ago a Columbia University instructor used to issue a harsh two-part question. One: What book did you most dislike in the course? Two: What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to? The hand that framed that question was surely heavy. But at least it compels one to see intellectual work as a confrontation between two people, student and author, where the stakes matter. Those Columbia students were being asked to relate the quality of an encounter, not rate the action as though it had unfolded on the big screen.

Edmundson says that today’s young people are shaped by consumerism and by the media:

University culture, like American culture writ large, is, to put it crudely, ever more devoted to consumption and entertainment, to the using and using up of goods and images. For someone growing up in America now, there are few available alternatives to the cool consumer worldview. My students didn’t ask for that view, much less create it, but they bring a consumer weltanschauung to school, where it exerts a powerful, and largely unacknowledged, influence.

Edmundson says that most of today’s students lack a “capacity for enthusiasm”:

Whether the students are sorority/fraternity types, grunge aficionados, piercer/tattooers, black or white, rich or middle class (alas, I teach almost no students from truly poor backgrounds), they are, nearly across the board, very, very self-contained. On good days they display a light, appealing glow; on bad days, shuffling disgruntlement. But there’s little fire, little passion to be found.

Kierkegaard, who wrote around 1840, was the first to analyze the modern soul, and his analysis agrees with Edmundson’s. Like Edmundson, Kierkegaard noticed a lack of passion:

Let others complain that the age is wicked; my complaint is that it is paltry; for it lacks passion.... The thoughts of their hearts are too paltry to be sinful.... My soul always turns back to the Old Testament and to Shakespeare. I feel that those who speak there are at least human beings: they hate, they love, they murder their enemies, and curse their descendants throughout all generations, they sin.1

Edmundson blames this lack of enthusiasm on popular culture:

How did my students reach this peculiar state in which all passion seems to be spent? I think that many of them have imbibed their sense of self from consumer culture in general and from the tube in particular. They’re the progeny of 100 cable channels and omni-present Blockbuster outlets. TV, Marshall McLuhan famously said, is a cool medium. Those who play best on it are low-key and nonassertive; they blend in.

Today’s young people want to be cool, says Edmundson, and the way to be cool is to own cool products:

Naturally, a cool youth culture is a marketing bonanza for producers of the right products, who do all they can to enlarge that culture and keep it grinding. The Internet, TV, and magazines now teem with what I call persona ads, ads for Nikes and Reeboks and jeeps and Blazers that don't so much endorse the capacities of the product per se as show you what sort of person you will be once you’ve acquired it. The jeep ad that features hip, outdoorsy kids whipping a Frisbee from mountaintop to mountaintop isn’t so much about what jeeps can do as it is about the kind of people who own them. Buy a Jeep and be one with them. The ad is of little consequence in itself, but expand its message exponentially and you have the central thrust of current consumer culture — buy in order to be.

Time was, people respected what was old. Now people respect what’s new:

One of the lessons that consumer hype tries to insinuate is that we must never rebel against the new, never even question it. If it’s new — a new need, a new product, a new show, a new style, a new generation — it must be good.

Today’s young people don’t strive to emulate the heroes of the past, they strive to be part of the group:

The pervading view is the cool consumer perspective, where passion and strong admiration are forbidden....2 Most of my students seem desperate to blend in, to look right, not to make a spectacle of themselves.... The specter of the uncool creates a subtle tyranny.

In an earlier issue, we discussed Riesman’s analysis of the modern soul. Like Kierkegaard’s analysis, Riesman’s analysis agrees with Edmundson’s. Riesman describes the modern soul as “other-directed,” eager to blend in, and afraid of standing out:

Instead of referring himself to the great men of the past and matching himself against his stars, the other-directed person moves in the midst of a veritable Milky Way of almost but not quite indistinguishable contemporaries.... To shine alone seems hopeless, and also dangerous.

But Edmundson admits that today’s students have some virtues; they’re decent and kind:

Praise for my students? I have some of that too. What my students are, at their best, is decent. They are potent believers in equality. They help out at the soup kitchen and volunteer to tutor poor kids to get a stripe on their resumes, sure. But they also want other people to have a fair shot.3

Today’s students are cautious and moderate partly from economic motives:

Of course, the current generational style isn’t simply derived from culture and environment. It’s also about dollars. Students worry that taking too many chances with their educations will sabotage their future prospects. They’re aware of the fact that a drop that looks more and more like one wall of the Grand Canyon separates the top economic tenth from the rest of the population. There’s a sentiment currently abroad that if you step aside for a moment, to write, to travel, to fall too hard in love, you might lose position permanently. We may be on a conveyor belt, but it’s worse down there on the filth-strewn floor. So don’t sound off, don’t blow your chance.

Edmundson says that today’s universities are eager to build fancy fitness centers and fancy dorms, eager to attract students/customers. Students get the impression that the university exists to entertain them, to serve them, not to challenge them.

Given the way universities are now administered (which is more and more to say, given the way that they are currently marketed), is it a shock that the kids don’t come to school hot to learn, unable to bear their own ignorance? For some measure of self-dislike, or self-discontent — which is much different than simple depression — seems to me to be a prerequisite for getting an education that matters. My students, alas, usually lack the confidence to acknowledge what would be their most precious asset for learning: their ignorance.

This reminds one of Nietzsche’s remark that modern man can no longer despise himself. In an earlier issue, I pointed out that Ruskin expresses this idea of self-discontent:

For us of the old race — few of us now left — children who reverence our fathers, and are ashamed of ourselves... we, who are every day recognizing some inaccessible height of thought and power, and are miserable in our shortcomings....

Self-discontent is a consequence of reverence for hero-figures, reverence for great men. Both self-discontent and reverence are lacking in the modern soul, as I once argued in my book of aphorisms.

Today’s professors, Edmundson says, aren’t prone to admire genius; rather, they

call the concept of genius into question.... It’s too bad that the idea of genius has been denigrated so far, because it actually offers a live alternative to the demoralizing culture of hip in which most of my students are mired. By embracing the works and lives of extraordinary people, you can adapt new ideals to revise those that came courtesy of your parents, your neighborhood, your clan — or the tube.... If we teachers do not endorse genius and self-overcoming, can we be surprised when our students find their ideal images in TV’s latest persona ads?

I’m glad Edmundson speaks of “works and lives.” Too often, English professors focus on the work and ignore the life. Also, professors are prone to focus on old classics, and overlook contemporary works, but Edmundson calls for a culture that encourages contemporary creativity:

A democracy needs to constantly develop, and to do so it requires the most powerful visionary minds to interpret the present and to propose possible shapes for the future. By continuing to notice and praise genius, we create a culture in which the kind of poetic gamble that Whitman made — a gamble in which failure would have entailed rank humiliation, depression, maybe suicide — still takes place.

As I mentioned in an earlier issue, Edmundson specializes in 19th-century literature — Whitman, Emerson, and the Romantics. His thinking often reminds me of how I thought fifteen or twenty years ago. Instead of looking for new approaches to religion, he turns his back on religion, and tries to make The Classics a kind of religion. He prefers rational thinkers like Freud to spiritual thinkers like Jung. Instead of turning to Eastern philosophy, he turns to Western geniuses.

Throughout his essay, Edmundson repeatedly says that today’s students are “a touch depressed,” “melancholy.” Near the end of his essay, Edmundson suggests that this depression may be related to the rejection of genius:

A world uninterested in genius is a despondent place, whose sad denizens drift from coffee bar to Prozac dispensary, unfired by ideals, by the glowing image of the self that one might become. As Northrop Frye says in a beautiful and now dramatically unfashionable sentence, “The artist who uses the same energy and genius that Homer and Isaiah had will find that he not only lives in the same palace of art as Homer and Isaiah, but lives in it at the same time.” We ought not to deny the existence of such a place simply because we, or those we care for, find the demands it makes intimidating, the rent too high.

Edmundson’s essay picks up momentum as it approaches its conclusion:

What happens if we keep trudging along this bleak course? What happens if our most intelligent students never learn to strive to overcome what they are? What if genius, and the imitation of genius, become silly, outmoded ideas? What you’re likely to get are more and more one-dimensional men and women. These will be people who live for easy pleasures, for comfort and prosperity, who think of money first, then second, and third, who hug the status quo; people who believe in God as a sort of insurance policy (cover your bets); people who are never surprised. They will be people so pleased with themselves (when they’re not in despair at the general pointlessness of their lives) that they cannot imagine humanity could do better. They’ll think it their highest duty to clone themselves as frequently as possible. They’ll claim to be happy, and they’ll live a long time.

When Edmundson says that people will “think of money first, then second, and third,” I’m reminded of Kierkegaard’s remark, “In the end... money will be the one thing people will desire, which is moreover only representative, an abstraction. Nowadays a young man hardly envies anyone his gifts, his art, the love of a beautiful girl, or his fame; he only envies him his money.”4

When Edmundson says that modern men are “pleased with themselves,” I’m reminded of Ortega’s Revolt of the Masses, in which Ortega argues that the mass man of today is “satisfied with himself exactly as he is.”5 Ortega contrasts the mass man with his opposite, with the man who is dissatisfied with himself:

The select man, the excellent man is urged, by interior necessity, to appeal from himself to some standard beyond himself, superior to himself, whose service he freely accepts.... Contrary to what is usually thought, it is the man of excellence, and not the common man who lives in essential servitude. Life has no savor for him unless he makes it consist in service to something transcendental.6

When Edmundson says that people will “live for easy pleasures, for comfort and prosperity,” I’m reminded of Tocqueville’s remark that

Every American is eaten up with longing to rise, but hardly any of them seem to entertain very great hopes or to aim very high.... Of his own free will [the inhabitant of a democracy] limits himself to paltry desires and dares not face any lofty enterprise; indeed, he can scarcely imagine such a possibility. Thus, far from thinking that we should council humility to our contemporaries, I wish men would try to give them a higher idea of themselves and of humanity; humility is far from healthy for them; what they most lack, in my view, is pride.7

When Edmundson speaks of “the imitation of genius,” I’m reminded of Machiavelli’s remark,

A prudent man should always follow in the path trodden by great men and imitate those who are most excellent, so that if he does not attain to their greatness, at any rate he will get some tinge of it.8

Today’s students aren’t likely to “follow in the path trodden by great men,” and Edmundson deserves credit for pointing this out.

What to do? Edmundson realizes that changes to the curriculum can’t accomplish much, the problem lies too deep: “One can’t simply wave a curricular wand and reverse acculturation.” The only hope, says Edmundson, is the solitary individual communing with other individuals:

Ultimately, though, it is up to individuals — and individual students in particular — to make their own way against the current sludgy tide. There’s still the library, still the museum, there’s still the occasional teacher who lives to find things greater than herself to admire.... Universities are inefficient, cluttered, archaic places, with many unguarded corners where one can open a book or gaze out onto the larger world and construe it freely. Those who do as much, trusting themselves against the weight of current opinion, will have contributed something to bringing this sad dispensation to an end.

Edmundson wonders how he appears to his students, and he’s reminded

of an old piece of newsreel footage I saw once. The speaker (perhaps it was Lenin, maybe Trotsky) was haranguing a large crowd. He was expostulating, arm waving, carrying on.... To my students, who mistrust enthusiasm in every form, that’s me when I start riffing about Freud or Blake.

Edmundson concludes thus:

When it’s time to praise genius, I’ll try to do it in the right style, full-out, with faith that finer artistic spirits (maybe not Homer and Isaiah quite, but close, close), still alive somewhere in the ether, will help me out when my invention flags, the students doze, or the dean mutters into the phone. I’m getting back to a more exuberant style; I’ll be expostulating and arm waving straight into the millennium, yes I will.9

2. Conrad’s “Secret Sharer”

When I discussed Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” I said that, according to the critics, it wasn’t “as clear, readable, and popular as Conrad’s other famous novella, ‘The Secret Sharer’.” Praise for “The Secret Sharer” inspired me with a desire to read it, and this desire increased when I learned that there was a Jungian essay on “The Secret Sharer,”10 Esther Harding’s “The Shadow.” The story proved to be as enjoyable to read as the critics had said, but the Harding essay wasn’t a good commentary on the story, since it devoted only one paragraph to it.

[Spoiler Warning: If you’re thinking of reading “The Secret Sharer,” you may want to stop reading, since the next paragraphs give away the story.]

The story is about a sea captain who shelters a wanted man, and eventually sets him free. (A common figure in Conrad’s work is the stranger, the outcast, the quasi-criminal.) According to the Jungian view, the wanted man is the captain’s shadow, the captain’s dark side. And indeed, Conrad often refers to the wanted man as the captain’s “shadow”, or “double,” or “reflection.” At the beginning of the story, the captain admits to being young and inexperienced: “I was somewhat of a stranger to myself.” By the end of the story, however, the captain has become wiser, perhaps because he has encountered his own shadow. According to the Harding essay,

Not infrequently consciousness of the shadow side of our own personality is forced upon us when life presents us with some new demand for which we do not feel ourselves entirely adequate. If the new task needs a bigger man than we are, obviously other parts of the psyche beyond the conscious ego will have to be called on to fill out the need. This was the case with the hero of Conrad’s story, “The Secret Sharer.” There a young man who had so far only acted as first officer was called upon to take over command of a strange ship whose crew were quite unknown and who were rather suspicious of him as a newcomer. The first night on board he decides to take the first watch himself in order to get acquainted with the ship, as he says, but really to try himself out, face to face with his new task. Then, in the darkness, a stranger, a naked man, swims to the side of the ship, and he takes him aboard. The man tells him that he is an officer from a ship anchored on the other side of the bay, but that he killed a seaman, who had shirked his duty during a storm when the ship was in great danger, and now “they” are after him for murder. The captain lends him a sleeping suit and talks with him in whispers. “The shadowy, dark head, like mine, seemed to nod imperceptibly above the ghostly gray of my sleeping suit. It was, in the night, as though I had been faced by my own reflection in the depths of a somber and immense mirror.” He hid him in his cabin and there he stayed until the young captain had put his ship and incidentally himself to the ultimate test and brought her through. Then and then only, the shadow went back to the ocean from which he had so mysteriously come, and we are given to understand that the strange tension which had hung over the whole ship and her untried captain, dissolved and they sailed for home with a fair breeze. This story is well worth study. Conrad’s deep insight into the unknown side of the human being has led him to portray the shadow unerringly, not only in its manifestations but also in its meaning. For this young man lacked that self-confidence which comes only through the experience of life and the knowledge of oneself which that gives.

Since the wanted man is a reflection or shadow of the captain, he resembles the captain in innumerable ways. Both he and the captain are, like Conrad himself, from the upper class of society. This created some tension on the wanted man’s original ship, the Sephora. The Sephora’s captain, who comes looking for the criminal, says

I did not engage that young fellow. His people had some interest with my owners. I was in a way forced to take him on. He looked very smart, very gentlemanly, and all that. But do you know — I never liked him, somehow. I am a plain man. You see, he wasn’t exactly the sort for the chief mate of a ship like the Sephora.

Conrad himself was a gentleman who doubtless felt somewhat out-of-place on many ships.

Before he fled the Sephora, the wanted man had killed a seaman, perhaps accidentally. But he had also saved the ship in a time of danger. Conrad describes his action thus: “The same strung-up force which had given twenty-four men a chance, at least, for their lives, had, in a sort of recoil, crushed an unworthy mutinous existence.” The phrase “unworthy mutinous existence” reminds me of the contempt that Conrad pours on Donkin in The Nigger of the Narcissus (I discussed Donkin in an earlier issue). Surely Conrad was no stranger to contempt and hatred, and perhaps no stranger to homicidal impulses.

When the captain speaks of his inner struggles, one suspects that Conrad experienced similar struggles. The captain says, “I think I had come creeping quietly as near insanity as any man who has not actually gone over the border.” Such inner struggles provided Conrad with the material for great introspective literature.

Because the captain is divided within, he lacks wholeness and harmony, and thus he lacks spontaneity. This affects his performance as captain:

There are to a seaman certain words, gestures, that should in given conditions come as naturally, as instinctively as the winking of a menaced eye. A certain order should spring on to his lips without thinking; a certain sign should get itself made, so to speak, without reflection. But all unconscious alertness had abandoned me. I had to make an effort of will to recall myself back (from the cabin) to the conditions of the moment. I felt that I was appearing an irresolute commander to those people who were watching me more or less critically.

Although the Harding essay doesn’t discuss “The Secret Sharer” in detail, it’s a good general treatment of The Shadow, and could serve as an introduction to this important Jungian concept. Harding concludes thus:

Until a year or so ago there lived among the Navajo a wise man who had to go on all fours because of a congenital lameness. His people called him “He-who-walks-close-to-his-shadow,” a name that does indeed denote a wise one. We, too, would do well to walk close to our shadow and then it would not cause so many difficulties in our daily path.... By the acceptance of the black substance which adheres to the shadow, the first step in the individuation process, which the alchemists rightly call the Magnum Opus — the Great Work, will have been accomplished.

3. Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits: Sonnet 7

A few months ago, our book group read Shakespeare’s Sonnets. I didn’t finish the book, so ever since our meeting, I’ve been turning to the Sonnets from time to time, hoping to eventually finish. I’d like to share with you the sonnets that I’ve enjoyed most, beginning with #7. Like most of the early sonnets, this sonnet urges the young man (the Third Earl of Southampton) to marry and beget a child. Like many sonnets, this sonnet refers to the young man’s beauty, and says that he is stared at, he “turns people’s heads” and is “shot at with fair eyes.” But the poet warns the young man that he won’t always be stared at; when he grows old, people will “look another way,” and he’ll die “unlooked on.” The poet compares the young man’s life to the rise and setting of the sun:

Lo! in the orient when the gracious light
Lifts up his burning head, each under eye
Doth homage to his new-appearing sight,11
Serving with looks his sacred majesty;
And having climbed the steep-up heavenly hill,
Resembling strong youth in his middle age,
Yet mortal looks adore his beauty still,
Attending on his golden pilgrimage.
But when from highmost pitch, with weary car,
Like feeble age he reeleth from the day,
The eyes, ’fore duteous, now converted are
From his low tract and look another way.
   So thou, thyself outgoing in thy noon,
   Unlooked on diest unless thou get a son.

4. Kyoto

The Bush Administration is often criticized for not cooperating with international organizations, and for not following international agreements, like the Kyoto treaty. But even before Bush became president, both Congress and the White House were cool toward environmental treaties. “In 1997 the Senate adopted the Byrd-Hagel Resolution by a vote of 95-0, warning then-President Clinton not to sign any climate-change agreement that ‘would result in serious harm to the economy.’”12 President Clinton, far from aggressively promoting Kyoto, “refused to submit the Kyoto Protocol to the Senate for ratification.”13

Foreign governments are acting in a similar manner. Kyoto stipulates that a country’s greenhouse gas emissions in 1990 are to be reduced 9.3% by 2010. “Italy, Japan, Ireland, Canada, and Spain have so far shown no sign of being able to cut their emissions by anything like that amount: all are actually producing greenhouse gases in excess of, rather than below, the 1990 baseline levels.”14 As for developing countries, they seem unwilling to participate in the Kyoto accord; “it is unlikely that the major developing countries such as India, China, South Africa, and Brazil will sign on to Kyoto as it is now drafted. These countries have shown no inclination to stifle their growth in order to accommodate the richer nations who have signed the Kyoto treaty.”15 Tony Blair summed up the situation thus: “The blunt truth about the politics of climate change is that no country will want to sacrifice its economy in order to meet this challenge.”16

© L. James Hammond 2006
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Footnotes
1. Either/Or, Part I, “Diapsalmata.” Elsewhere Kierkegaard says, “Give a man energy, passion, and with that he is everything.”(Either/Or, Part II, “Aesthetic Validity of Marriage”) Kierkegaard says that a passionless age is united (in a negative way) by envy: “Just as in a passionate age enthusiasm is the unifying principle, so in an age which is very reflective and passionless envy is the negative unifying principle.”(The Present Age) Kierkegaard felt that religion requires passion, and therefore modern man couldn’t be religious: “Not only does Christianity not exist, but... men in our times [are] not even so much as in a condition to have religion, but are strange to, unacquainted with, the sort of passion which every religion must require.”(Attack on Christendom, VII, 9) back
2. Edmundson quotes the Roman poet Horace: “To stand in awe of nothing... is perhaps the one and only thing that can make a man happy and keep him so.” As Nietzsche says somewhere, Horace often swam against the tide of Roman culture, so his thoughts don’t represent typical Roman thinking, but rather the opposite of typical Roman thinking. So when Horace says “stand in awe of nothing,” that’s a clue that Romans were prone to reverence and awe. back
3. Tocqueville says that kindness grows with equality: “We see that for several centuries social conditions have been getting more equal and notice that at the same time mores have become more gentle.”(Democracy in America, II, iii, 1) back
4. The Present Age back
5. ch. 7 back
6. ibid back
7. Democracy in America, II, iii, 19 back
8. The Prince, ch. 6 back
9. David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, wrote a column on education that resembles Edmundson’s essay. He notes that today’s students often lack basic knowledge, core knowledge, and their primary concern is often with their career. Education once focused on history’s heroes, but that focus has been lost: “now you’ve got to find your own ways to learn about history’s heroes, the figures who will serve as models to emulate and who will provide you with standards to use to measure your own conduct.”(March 2, ’06) back
10. “The Shadow,” by Esther M. Harding, Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture, 1945 back
11. That is, when the sun rises in the east, all eyes are on it, and do homage to it. back
12. “Power Play: What is the future of energy policy in America?” by Irwin M. Stelzer, Weekly Standard, 12/12/05 back
13. ibid back
14. ibid back
15. ibid back
16. Ibid. This situation has been called The Tragedy of the Commons: people are unwilling to sacrifice their short-term self-interest in order to promote the long-term interest of the larger group. back