March 14, 2006
I’ve been publishing Phlit for 6½ 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:
Edmundson says that today’s young people are shaped by consumerism and by the media:
Edmundson says that most of today’s students lack a “capacity for enthusiasm”:
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:
Edmundson blames this lack of enthusiasm on popular culture:
Today’s young people want to be cool, says Edmundson, and the way to be cool is to own cool products:
Time was, people respected what was old. Now people respect what’s new:
Today’s young people don’t strive to emulate the heroes of the past, they strive to be part of the group:
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:
But Edmundson admits that today’s students have some virtues; they’re decent and kind:
Today’s students are cautious and moderate partly from economic motives:
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.
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:
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
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:
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:
Edmundson’s essay picks up momentum as it approaches its conclusion:
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:
When Edmundson says that people will “live for easy pleasures, for comfort and prosperity,” I’m reminded of Tocqueville’s remark that
When Edmundson speaks of “the imitation of genius,” I’m reminded of Machiavelli’s remark,
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:
Edmundson wonders how he appears to his students, and he’s reminded
Edmundson concludes thus:
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,
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
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:
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:
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
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
|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|