The Tolstoy Bailout

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MARCH 18, 2009

The Tolstoy Bailout

'In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth." So The
New York Times announced this week, in a report that made a grim
country feel grimmer. "Previous economic downturns have often led
to decreased enrollment in the disciplines loosely grouped under
the term 'humanities'--which generally include languages,
literature, the arts, history, cultural studies, philosophy, and
religion. Many in the field worry that in this current crisis those
areas will be hit hardest." The complaint against the humanities is
that they are impractical. This is true. They will not change the
world. They will change only the experience, and the understanding,
and the evaluation, of the world. Since interpretation is the
distinctively human activity, instruction in the traditions of
interpretation should hardly be controversial--except in a society
that mistakes practice for a philosophy. It is worth remembering,
then, that the crisis in which we find ourselves was the work of
practical men. The securitization of mortgages was not conceived by
a head in the clouds. No poet cost anybody their house. No
historian cost anybody their job. Not even the most pampered of
professors ever squandered $87,000 of someone else's money on a
little rug. The creativity of bankers is a luxury that we can no
longer afford. But now I read about "defending the virtues of the
liberal arts in a money-driven world," as the Times says. I would
have thought that in these times the perspective of money would be
ashamed to show itself. What authority, really, should the
standpoint of finance any longer have for American society? Who
gives a damn what Kenneth D. Lewis thinks about anything? The
president is right: we must work with plutocrats whom we despise;
but surely not with their values. The study of religion, defending
itself to capitalists? The study of literature, afraid for its
prestige? Let the SEC grovel before the MLA! I am being somewhat
precious, I know. But adversity is always a clarification: it
refines the sense of what matters.In tough times, of all times, the worth of the humanities needs no
justifying. The reason is that it will take many kinds of sustenance
to help people through these troubles. Many people will now have to
fall back more on inner resources than on outer ones. They are in
need of loans, but they are also in need of meanings. The external
world is no longer a source of strength. The temper of one's
existence will therefore be significantly determined by one's
attitude toward circumstance, its cruelties and its caprices. Poor
people and hounded people have always known this, but now the
middle class is getting its schooling in stoicism. After all,
bourgeois life was devised as an insulation against physical and
social vulnerabilities, as a system of protections and privileges
secured honestly by work; but the insulation is ripping and the
protections are vanishing. We are in need of fiscal policy and
spiritual policy. And spiritually speaking, literature is a bailout,
and so is art, and philosophy, and history, and the rest. These are
assets in which we may all hold majority ownership; assets of which
we cannot be stripped, except by ourselves. I do not mean to be too
sentimental about the humanities as they are conducted in the
American academy: just yesterday there arrived from the press of a
distinguished university the galleys of a book called Unlimited
Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking, written by
the director of a humanities center at another university. That is
not what Erich Auerbach had in mind. Still, what ails the
humanities is not as egregious as the assault on them. Regression
analysis will not get us through the long night. We need to know
more about the human heart than the study of consumer behavior can
teach. These are the hours when the old Penguin paperbacks must
stand us in good stead. It was for now that we read them then.
Barack Obama owes some of his popularity to the impression that he
read them, too; that he is trained in the arts of reflection; that
amid the wreckage he can maintain his inwardness and think.

But some humanists appear to believe the rumor about their own
superfluity. The Times brought word of a new movement to justify
the liberal arts on utilitarian grounds. It does not intend only
that the cultivation of souls is a larger good, a collaborative
preparation against the worst. It means also that scholarship and
sensibility must be proven as a social and economic benefit. "The
Association of American Colleges and Universities recently issued a
report arguing the humanities should abandon the 'old Ivory Tower
view of liberal education' and instead emphasize its practical and
economic value." Now there, as a friend of mine once said, is a
conference-building measure! There, too, is a bad idea, a craven
concession. Catullus, or Job, will never be as useful as
bio-engineering. A discovery about van Eyck or Schubert or Emerson
or Bresson will never be awarded a patent or a bonus. And the
cost/benefit analysis of humanistic instruction will inevitably
disfigure it. Here is an example of what the teaching of literature
from the slant of expedience looks like, a reading of the opening
sentence of Anna Karenina--"All happy families are alike; each
unhappy family is unhappy in its own way"--with an interest in what
works: "By that sentence, Tolstoy meant that, in order to be happy,
a marriage must succeed in many different respects: sexual
attraction, agreement about money, child discipline, religion,
in-laws, and other vital issues. Failure in any one of those
essential respects can doom a marriage even if it has all the other
ingredients needed for happiness." I take this dull and dulling
commentary from Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, one of
those books that explains everything. Of course, Tolstoy means no
such thing. The force of his observation is not social scientific.
It proposes that unhappiness is more interesting than happiness,
and establishes its claim upon our attention. It suggests that
unhappiness is not just the lack of happiness, an Augustinian
absence, but its own state of being, autonomous and elaborate and
piercing and obscure. It is, in sum, a useless observation, in the
way that wisdom is useless. What is so frightful about the
possibility of wisdom? It comes in too many varieties to be
oppressive. And why would anyone wish to refuse it, like credit,
when it is most needed? To deny the fortifying power of the
humanities in dark days is indecent. For policymakers, all unhappy
families are alike; but we are entering an era in America in which
each unhappy family will be unhappy in its own way.

By Leon Wieseltier \end

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