Humanities Good and Bad

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- by Mark Bauerlein


Here is a question for every humanities teacher: what do we do about Aristophanes, Catullus, Milton, the Earl of Rochester, Byron, Thackeray, Wagner, D. W. Griffith, and other creators of great art but dubious morality?  Nobody doubts the cinematic genius and historic technical influence of Griffith, but who can watch the lurid race portrayals of Birth of a Nation without wincing? 

It’s a question that educators and arts advocates don’t like to face.  When I worked for a few years at the National Endowment for the Arts, I often heard someone say that participating in art as a creator or as a spectator improved a person’s moral character and civic virtue.  I heard the same kind of thing down the hall at the National Endowment for the Humanities: studying literature, languages, philosophy, and art history made for better people.

It’s still a common faith.  I just picked up the latest issue of a university’s alumni magazine, which had a forum on the school’s renewed investment in the humanities.  Two of the contributors explicitly linked the humanities to social justice aims, affirming that such creations foster tolerance and sensitivity.  When the humanities decline, the argument goes (enrollments and majors have, indeed, plummeted), so do socially conscious attitudes.  Students head to STEM and business fields where enduring questions of humanity, meaning, and purpose go unaddressed.

They’re mostly correct about those other fields, but only partly so about the humanities.  The reason is simple.  Yes, the novels of Dickens and comedies of Shakespeare encourage thoughtful minds and good conduct.  Do Byron’s poems (“Some have accused me of a strange design, / Against the creed and morals of the land”) and Nietzsche’s philosophy (“The weak and the botched shall perish: first principle of our charity. And one should help them to it”) do the same?  Can we guarantee that 19-year-olds will read them with a critical eye and not become disciples of those cynical ironists?  Byron and Nietzsche are eloquent, witty, worldly talents—that’s what makes them so treacherous.

They’re not the only ones.  The tradition is packed with bad influences. The very people who insist on the moral value of art don’t like what these works hand to impressionable minds.  More examples:

  • Aristophanes’ play The Assembly of Women, which dramatizes the ludicrous disaster that follows when women obtain political power. 

  • Paradise Lost, which assigns to Eve a forever inferior position relative to Adam, as is proper according to Milton.

  • Wagner’s great opera Tristan and Isolde, which trades in the dangerous lie that erotic love can be transcendent and has won fanatical admirers ever since (including Nietzsche, Proust, T. S. Eliot, and Salvador Dali).

  • And the opening sentence of Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon reads, “Since the days of Adam, there has hardly been a mischief done in this world but a woman has been at the bottom of it.”

Misogyny, misanthropy, bigotry, false hopes, poor role models . . . they’re all over the place.  Great literature and art have as many wrong lessons as does human history.  In fact, literature and art may be worse than real affairs precisely because of the necessity of invention.  André Gide once stated, “It is with good sentiments that bad literature is made” (“C’est avec les beaux sentiments qu’on fait de la mauvaise littèrature”), and he was right.

Again, the question: What do we do with these morally questionable works?

Answer: Teach them.  Teach them as you would the morally unquestionable works.  The humanities classroom doesn’t favor the benevolent hero of one novel over the anti-hero of another novel.  Aesthetic traits come first and last.

If the teacher does have a moral aim, it is to instill disinterestedness, which is the capacity to suspend moral, social, political, and personal judgment of the work of art, to experience it as art, to see and hear and imagine it fully, to enter the mind of Richard III and the cadences of Beethoven’s Fifth, to contemplate the form of a sonnet or the perspective of a painting before you settle on the work’s meaning. 

This is, indeed, an achievement for the student, and it is forced upon the student by objects uncongenial to his sensibility.  To exert the labor of understanding first, to get to know a fictional character, a philosophical argument, or a piece of music whose genre is unfamiliar before judging it right or wrong is a worthy habit, a mark of humanitas.  It broadens the mind, curbs the kneejerk response, and instills patience and savvy.  The dicey works do it as well as do the positive ones.  We should mix the hypocritical Tartuffe with the selfless David Copperfield, the irresponsible Pinkerton (Madame Butterfly) with the noble Violetta (La Traviata), the solemn St. Paul with the irreverent Gibbon (in his chapters on the early Christians), knowing that some students may leave class with the wrong ideas.

That’s the risk of good art.  It’s why Socrates banished poetry from the city.  I like Nietzsche, I like reading him, including the outrageous sallies.  I can disagree with the sense and enjoy the expression.  Genius sometimes goes wrong and is nonetheless genius. 

Mark Bauerlein is a Trustee at New College of Florida.

The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the New College Trustees, faculty or staff. New College of Florida promotes a climate of free expression and tolerant civil discourse according to the principles set forth in the State University System Free Expression Statement and the Board of Governors Civil Discourse Final Report.