Many people have been discussing the merits of the humanities. One recent noteworthy book is Anthony T. Kronman’s Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (Yale, 2007). Kronman’s thesis is that academics need to get back to teaching the fundamental question of the humanities, the meaning of life. It’s not that great literary works provide an answer, but that they reformulate the question in different ways, thereby challenging facile, comfortable solutions.
Kronman believes that as universities focused more on research, humanists became absorbed with the minutiae of literary study. How the literary tradition enriches everyone’s lives is no longer taught in the humanistic classroom. Furthermore, literary research turned increasingly impenetrable, so that the reading public could no longer understand cutting-edge publications. A growing percentage of the population, therefore, ceased caring about the humanities.
Kronman’s ideas are worthy of consideration, and it is not my intention to argue directly against them. Instead, I want to illustrate the challenges inherent to Kronman’s thesis. Taken to its logical conclusion, literary classes should teach only those works which address the meaning of life, either directly or indirectly (or some variant on the question like “what is the life worth living?” or “how should people find meaning in their lives?”). Don’t get me wrong: many great works of literature touch on these philosophical questions, and challenge the readers’ own comfortable assumptions. These are works often at the heart of the canon and hence of the curriculum. But what about works that simply don’t rise to that level?
Many works of literature simply do not deal with the Truth—The Meaning of Life—or even raise questions that reflect on it. Rather, they deal with truths, finding meaning in particular experiences. Lyric poetry, for instance, often reveals the deeper significance in mundane experiences. The poetic techniques convey the everyday in almost mystical terms, thereby compelling the readers to see it in a new light.
Richard Wilbur’s poem, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” is a text that illustrates the profound meaning of a mundane experience. My brief synopsis won’t do it justice. It relates how the squeaky pulley of a laundry line awakened the poet. Half asleep, he sees that “the morning air is all awash with angels. / Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses, / some are in smocks: but truly there they are.” The poem is a masterpiece in describing the first moments of the morning. I’m just not sure that it deals with the Meaning of Life per se; discussing it in such a manner would be a stretch. But it beautifully encapsulates an experience most people have had. Before the responsibilities of the day come rushing in, the residual dream-state allows us to view our surroundings in different—special—ways.
Yet art cannot simply be treated as a delivery-device for philosophical questions. Aesthetics are not mere sugar coating, which will allow readers to swallow otherwise bitter discussions of the Truth. Wilbur’s poem doesn’t merely talk about a particular experience. By versifying it, Wilbur allows the readers to re-experience it themselves. Would anyone suggest that lyric poetry like this shouldn’t be taught?
Furthermore, even works that purport to convey the Truth can’t be reduced to just their message. In postwar Italy, when the Communists were highly popular, novelist Elio Vittorini publicly broke with the Italian Communist Party. The party leader, Palmiro Togliatti, insisted that the Italian Communists should follow the Stalinist model regarding artists; that is to say, writers should rigidly toe the party line and only convey orthodox communist ideology. Whatever we might think of Leninist-Marxism, it did provide its adherents with an answer to the question of the Meaning of Life. In his “Letter to Togliatti” (1947) Vittorini, an avowed socialist, asserted the autonomy of the arts. The role of the artist, he argued, was not merely to “play the fife for the revolution.” Following his example, numerous socialist artists demonstrated their independence from the party, giving rise to the Neorealist movement in the 1940s and 50s.
Vittorini and the Neorealists demonstrated that creativity couldn’t be constrained to the Truth or truths, even those espoused by its own authors. Something about creative fantasy makes art transcend its messages, even the most profound. Indeed, those historical periods and societies that enforced a particular form of the Truth—the Catholic Counterreformation, Soviet Socialism—rarely produced great works of art. In any of its numerous incarnations, agitprop makes claims to communicate the Truth, but it almost never amounts to more than its message. It is quickly forgotten and rightly so.
Kronman’s argument is subtler than I give it credit here. He is right to stress that literature teachers should raise relevant philosophical questions. That is part of what it means to be a good teacher. But no discussion of art should be reduced to any single dimension. Great art raises numerous questions, many of them worthy to be taught and studied.