[lit-ideas] Re: Helen Vendler and the Humanities

  • From: John McCreery <john.mccreery@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx" <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sun, 9 Aug 2015 09:15:40 +0900

"Quixotic" is an interesting word. Don Quixote is admirable in the way that he
clings to knightly ideals. He only appears a fool because a world that once at
least pretended to embrace them had left them behind. From this perspective,
Vendler is, indeed, quixotic. Her thinking has much in common with such 19th
century predecessors as the Art and Crafts Movement and the founders of English
as an academic discipline. All were searching for a secular replacement for
religion as a source of aesthetic and moral values. The great wars, the Cold
War, and the rise of first television and now digital entertainment have
reduced this group of true believers to a scale so small and harmless that the
world is amused by their foolishness when it happens to notice their existence.


Sent from my iPad

On 2015/08/08, at 20:34, Lawrence Helm <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx> wrote:

On page 14 of The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar, Helen Vendler writes, "The
larger problem for critics, professionally speaking, is that American culture
is as yet too young to prize poetry -- or, for that matter, any complex form
of intellectuality except perhaps science (because science 'works,' and our
New World history has made us pragmatists). America, having sloughed off
Europe, is still too raw and ignorant to be proud of its own native
achievements in art and poetry and music. A student can graduate from high
school in the United States without knowing that that there ever was an
American architect or composer or painter or sculptor or philosopher, and
without reading any of the more complex poems written by our American

In her chapter 1, "The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar," subtitled "How the
Arts Help Us to Live" she writes, "When it became useful in educational
circles in the United states to group various university disciplines under
the name 'The Humanities,' it seems to have been tacitly decided that
philosophy and history would be cast as the core of this grouping, and that
other forms of learning -- the study of languages, literature, religion, and
the arts -- would be relegated to subordinate positions Philosophy,
conceived of as embodying truth, and history, conceived of as a factual
record of the past, were proposed as the principal embodiments o Western
culture, and given pride of place in general education programs.

"But this confidence in a reliable factual record, not to speak of faith in a
reliable philosophical synthesis, has undergone considerable erosion
Historical and philosophical assertions issue, it seems, from particular
vantage points, and are no less contestable than the assertions of other
disciplines. . . ."

"I want to propose that the humanities should take, as their central objects
of study, not the texts of historians or philosophers, but the products of
aesthetic endeavor, art, dance, music, literature, theater, architecture, and
so on. After all, it is by their arts that cultures are principally
remembered. For every person who has read a Platonic dialogue, there are
probably ten who have seen a Greek marble in a museum; or if not a Greek
marble, at least a Roman copy; or if not a Roman copy, at least a photograph.
Around the arts there exist, in orbit, the commentaries on art produced by
scholars: musicology and music criticism, art history and art criticism,
literary and linguistic studies. At the periphery we might set the other
humanistic disciplines -- philosophy, history, the study f religion. The
arts would justify a broad philosophical interest in ontology, phenomenology,
and ethics; they would bring in their train a richer history than one which,
in its treatment of mass phenomena, can lose sight of individual human
uniqueness -- the quality most prized in artistes, and most salient, and most
valued, in the arts."

COMMENT: There is always a tendency when one sees a provocative post like
this one to think the poster is doing so because he agrees with it. That is
not the case here. I knew of course that poetry and the study thereof was
not highly regarded in the U.S. or as far as I knew any place else, but I
never dreamed that something ought to be done about it. My predisposition
was to think that poetry and all the other disciplines involving
intellectuality, except for science (I agree with Vendler here) were of
marginal interest to the world at large because few people were
intellectuals. I didn't imagine that anything could be done about that
either. But if, as Vendler seems to believe, a huge segment of society is
smart enough to appreciate aesthetics, with the right encouragement from
academia, she may be right. But what could bring that about? Perhaps
Vendler thinks she can contribute mightily to that goal. From other things
I've read by and about her, she may be right. She is an extremely dogged,
brilliant, and perhaps influential lady. But at this point, early in her
book, her goal strikes me as quixotic.


Other related posts: