Category Archives: book reviews
Steppenwolf is an easy book to write about; the semiotics are so strong, the tropes are so plentiful, and the plot so powerful, that a critic has a wealth of material to seize on. At the same time, like all great works, it contains paradoxes and ambiguities which make it difficult or impossible to sum up the “meaning” or main idea of the book. Hesse himself, who lived to see the age of postmodern criticism, wrote that it was a “poetic work” in which the reader should find his own meanings. In the same author’s note, however, he states,
Yet it seems to me that of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was more frequently and more violently misunderstood than any other, and frequently it is actually the affirmative and enthusiastic readers, rather than those who rejected the book, who have reacted to it oddly.
By these words we can infer that he did indeed have an objective message in mind and that he felt that at least some readers would be able to discover it.
The book is set in Weimer Republic Germany between the World Wars. It is a time of political and cultural uncertainty in which many of the old ideals and cultural norms no longer seem relevant. While the bourgeoisie, the class least affected by ideals and culture, continue their stolid lives, relatively unaffected, the rest of the society is adrift and devotes their lives to vice and transient material pleasures–living for the day because they know that the next war will start soon and be even more horrible than the last one. In this setting we find Harry Haller, a middle-aged intellectual who is almost completely alienated from his society, thoroughly lonely, and deeply depressed. Unable to form lasting relationships and convinced that the high culture he loves is dead, Haller repeatedly considers suicide but lacks the courage to go through with it. Haller’s life changes when he meets a “courtesan of moderately good taste” named Hermine. Hermine makes it her project to teach Haller to enjoy life, forcing him to learn to dance and engage himself with the beau monde of the city, associating with party girls, jazz musicians, and others whom he would never have approached on his own.
The book can be understood in various ways. Most literally, it is the story of a man’s mid-life crises. Like all of Hesse’s novels, it is partially autobiographical. Hesse wrote the book when he was fifty years old an “dealing with the problems of that age”. And so, the book is at least partially the story of a man who is approaching fifty who feels like his life has been wasted and compensates by dating younger women and trying to fit in on the modern musical scene. On a slightly deeper level, it is a case study in paranoid schizophrenia. Haller is far from “sane” in the conventional sense. Right up to the end of the book it is unclear which characters and events are real and which exist in his own mind. The word “schizomania” appears several times in the text and Haller himself excuses himself at one point by explaining that he is a “schizomaniac”. The parallels with other works treating with schizophrenia, such as A Beautiful Mind are quite obvious.
Beyond these interpretations, however, Steppenwolf is fundamentally an investigation into the concept of personality. All men, particularly men of genius, have personalities made up of many facets or aspects. Haller, who is still dealing with his divorce, is having trouble with his long distance relationship, has recently been fired from his writing job for his political views, and has moved to a city where he has no close friends, is clearly under massive stress. In this situation he is forced to integrate the various aspects of his personality or go mad.
This is far from easy, because his mind is occupied by a number of “people” who aren’t necessarily compatible. One of these is Harry Haller The Man, who is the somewhat artificial personality that Haller tries to present to the world. Shaped by bourgeoisie norms and long education, The Man is the least flexible (and likable) of Haller’s personalities. Opposed to The Man is The Steppenwolf, which represents both Haller’s animal nature and his individuality. The Steppenwolf is dangerous, because there is no place for him in civilized society but he gives Haller the strength to stand up for his convictions about the war and other issues. The beautiful and sensual Maria represents the part of Haller that loves freely and lives for pleasure, as well as the feminine part of his nature. This personality is initially completely suppressed, but waxes stronger as the book goes on. The wise and androgynous Hermine is Haller’s aspirational self. She represents mature sexuality and a balance of sensuality in which one pays for one’s pleasures but enjoys them unreservedly. She also represents religion, which used to be a factor in his life and will be again. Pablo, the brilliant young jazz musician who never talks about music but only plays it, represents Haller’s artistic soul–true art, not The Man’s dry intellectual analysis of art–and his emotions. He keeper of the “Magic Theater” i.e. Haller’s subconscious mind. Only by “meeting” each of these aspects and following the relationships between them through to their conclusions can Haller integrate the best parts of each of them into his core personality.
Major Tropes and Themes
Unification of Eastern and Western Thought – Like most of Hesse’s middlew and late works, Steppenwolf is infused with several ideas from Buddhism. Haller himself is represented as being a scholar of Eastern religion and it is implied that the ultimate end of his process of self discovery is to extinguish the self so as to become one with the all, a very Eastern concept.
Man is Never the Same Over Time – Haller at first seems like a static character, who has always been as he is now. It soon becomes apparent that he has changed greatly over time and is still changing. As Horace said, “Non sum homo eram” (I am not the man I used to be). His quest for self awareness and actualization is thus a never-ending process.
The “Real Man” – Society creates artificial men who are conformist and hypocritical. Real men are individualist and pursue their drives, particularly sexual drives, naturally and without guilt. Compare T.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, from the same period, particularly the character Oliver Mellors. The real men often feel that they should have been born in a different time and place.
Conflict Between Intellectuals and the Bourgeoisie – Intellectuals can see the way things “ought to be” but the bourgeoisie won’t listen. As much as the intellectuals rebel, they can never completely escape their own bourgeoisie roots.
The Fine Line Between Genius and Madness – One of the most memorable monologues of the book contains the lines, “[M]any persons pass for normal, and indeed for highly valuable members of society, who are incurably mad; and many, on the other hand, are looked upon as mad who are geniuses.”
Substance Abuse to Suppress the Personality – Many of us writers, especially, have chosen to sedate our personalities with alcohol and other drugs rather than dealing with them, as Haller does early in the book.
The Inevitability of Death (and War) – Everyone dies, and all societies eventually go to war. It is useless for men to try to oppose these forces; they must learn to accept them.
Suicide as an Ongoing Process – Suicide has bad and good sides. On the one hand it can be a cowardly escape. On the other, it can represent killing the ego to seek enlightenment. In either case, it represents and ongoing decision or commitment to kill ones personality and actual physical death is strictly ancillary.
Siddhartha is Hermann Hesse’s best known novel in the English speaking world. Unlike his earlier works which are semi-autobiographical and describe young men in dealing with crises of faith in contemporary Europe, Siddhartha is set in ancient India during the lifetime of the Buddha. When the book came out in 1927 it gave many westerners their first exposure to Eastern philosophy and religion. It is frequently included on lists of influential books of the 20th century and is a good candidate for inclusion on a Great Books reading list.
The full name of the “Supreme Buddha”, the founder of Buddhism was Siddhārtha Gautama. In Hesse’s book, however, he is represented by two discrete characters: Siddhartha, the protagonist, and Gotama, the founder of the religion.
Please note that the remainder of this post contains spoilers.
Siddhartha is a gifted son of a brahmin who is being groomed for a career in the ancient Vedic religion. In his twenties he becomes disillusioned with his fathers’ faith, which he believes is unlikely to lead to enlightenment. He and his friend Govinda leave their village and join a band of Samanas, wandering ascetic holy men who reject the teachings of the brahmins. Historically, by the time of the Buddha, their were numerous Samana sects with widely differing philosophies and practices. As portrayed by Hesse, they are very similar to the Cynic philosophers of the ancient world, who rejected all materialism and lived in voluntary poverty under a strict moral code. This is only one of the points where syncretism creeps in between Hesse’s “Eastern” novel and the Western philosophy of his literary background.
After three years Siddhartha and Govinda become frustrated with the Samanas’ program. Hearing that a new spiritual leader, Gotama, has achieved enlightenment they decide to seek him out and hear his teachings. Govinda is soon convinced and becomes a Buddhist monk. Siddhartha finds he has tremendous respect for Gotama Buddha and truly believes he is enlightened. However, he concludes that it is not possible to learn wisdom from a teacher, but only through personal experience. The split between organized religion and received authority, symbolized by Govinda and individual spiritualism and inquiry, symbolized by Siddhartha, becomes the most important theme for the rest of the book. Readers of my blog will also recall that the question of whether virtue (wisdom) can be taught was also of preeminent importance to Socrates and Plato–another incidence of Hesse’s syncretism.
After taking leave of Gotama and Govinda Siddhartha has an epiphany in which he decides to embrace materialism and accept the beauty of the universe in all its myriad forms, rejecting the idealistic philosophy of the Vedic and Buddhist religions, in which the world is seen as illusion. The parallels between his internal dialogue and the writings of the Epicureans, like Lucretius, are obvious. The practices that Siddhartha adopts are more like the bourgeoisie Epicureanism of Claudian Rome than the pure philosophy of Epicurus; he follows his new acceptance of materialism to the nearest city. Here he immediately embarks on a love affair with a high-profile courtesan, goes into business, and spends the next couple of decades making himself a wealthy self-made man. In the process he picks up a drinking problem and a gambling addiction. Finally, disgusted with himself, he walks away from everything and becomes a simple ferry-man on the banks of a river. Here, under the tutelage of a wise older ferryman he finally achieves inner peace.
The idea that philosophers should experience the world in their youth also shows up frequently in Plato, particularly in The Republic where the Guardians were not to be taught philosophy until they were thirty, and afterwards were to be turned adrift to make their way in the world for fifteen years, at which time they could assume their roles as philosopher-rulers.It is natural that Hesse, who was raised in the Western tradition and educated in a European seminary (until he suffered a crisis of faith and dropped out), would interpret Eastern philosophy through the lens of his own background. It is also probably that I, raised in the same tradition, would criticize his work through a similar lens–particularly since I have been working with Plato and Lucretius recently and their writings are fresh in my mind. It is also true that authors, once they have created an individual style and enjoyed some commercial success, tend to follow it in subsequent works. So is this just a “typical” Hermann Hesse novel, but simply told in a new setting? I thought so until I read the final two chapters, in which Siddhartha’s personal philosophy reaches an ultimate formation which is distinctly, unarguably Asian.
The opposite of every truth is just as true! That’s like this: any truth
can only be expressed and put into words when it is one-sided.
Everything is one-sided which can be thought with thoughts and said with
words, it’s all one-sided, all just one half, all lacks completeness,
roundness, oneness. When the exalted Gotama spoke in his teachings of
the world, he had to divide it into Sansara and Nirvana, into deception
and truth, into suffering and salvation. It cannot be done differently,
there is no other way for him who wants to teach. But the world itself,
what exists around us and inside of us, is never one-sided. A person or
an act is never entirely Sansara or entirely Nirvana, a person is never
entirely holy or entirely sinful. It does really seem like this,
because we are subject to deception, as if time was something real.
Time is not real, Govinda, I have experienced this often and often
again. And if time is not real, then the gap which seems to be between
the world and the eternity, between suffering and blissfulness, between
evil and good, is also a deception.
The acceptance of paradox is one of the major traits which sets Eastern thought apart from Western thought. Westerners have always sought to categorize the universe, to break it down into ideas which are either one thing or another. Easterners except that a concept can be two, apparently contradictory, things at once. Even the most famous and enduring paradoxes in Western thought, the doctrine of the Trinity, was a product of Eastern thinkers and has never sat entirely comfortably with the West.
Likewise, the acceptance of nonlinear time is a hallmark of Eastern thinking. In the East, time can be circular if not completely illusory,
The sinner, which I am and which you are, is a sinner, but in times to come he will be Brahma again, he will reach the Nirvana, will be Buddha–and now see: these ‘times to come’ are a deception, are only a parable! The sinner is not on his way to become a Buddha, he is not in the process of developing, though our capacity for thinking does not know how else to picture these things. No, within the sinner is now and today already the future Buddha, his future is already all there, you have to worship in him, in you, in everyone the Buddha which is coming into being, the possible, the hidden Buddha. The world, my friend Govinda, is not imperfect, or on a slow path towards perfection: no, it is perfect in every moment, all sin already carries the divine forgiveness in itself, all small children already have the old person in themselves, all infants already have death, all dying people the eternal life. It is not possible for any person to see how far another one has already progressed on his path; in the robber and dice-gambler, the Buddha is waiting; in the Brahman, the robber is waiting. In deep meditation, there is the possibility to put time out of existence, to see all life which was, is, and will be as if it was simultaneous, and there everything is good, everything is perfect, everything is Brahman.
When I read this last chapter I realized that everything which proceeded it was part of Hesse’s design to, masterfully, lead his Western readers to a place where they might be able to appreciate these viewpoints.
Last week I wrote about free speech in a democracy and how Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War may have been a revisionist attempt aimed at changing the dominant historical interpretation at the time. Just now I finished reading another exercise of free political speech, Oliver Stone’s and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States, which also attacks a dominant historical narrative. The authors tell a story in which 20th century United States followed a relentless course towards imperialism, dominated by right leaning plutocrats, as opposed to the “history in the textbooks” which frames the US as the heroes, struggling against Nazis, Communists, Islamic terrorists, and other evil bogey-men.
Before proceeding, I should disclose that I read the “young readers” edition of the book, mainly because the original edition was checked out when I went to the library. While I obviously wasn’t able to compare, it seems that the total page count is about the same, but the young readers version is broken into two volumes and does away with footnotes in favor of additional illustrations.
The book is just as biased as one might expect, given the nature of the project and who the identities of the authors. Oliver Stone is well known both in and out of Hollywood for his leftist tendencies and fondness for conspiracy theories. Kuznick is a history professor whose main areas of study are the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and the Cold War. He is so heavily involved in anti-nuclear activism that it must be hard for him to remain objective when he publishes on these matters. Still, wishing to avoid succumbing to an intentional fallacy, I tried to clear my mind and judge the book on its own merits, even though it was clearly written to support the authors’ previously developed platforms, rather than in a spirit of true scholarly inquiry.Untold History is actually a fairly interesting read. Other reviewers have pointed out a lack of academic rigor and over-reliance on secondary sources. I was unable to find any major misstatements of fact, however. I also think that it is appropriate for a book of such broad scope to draw from secondary sources, especially if it is intended as some sort of “anti-textbook”. No one does archive research to write a history textbook. Rather, they synthesize each chapter from several well regarded books by previous authors.
Still, there is no question that the authors picked out the facts that happened to justify their positions. They also repeatedly ascribe thoughts and motivations to various people which they could not possibly know for certain, one of the classic “tells” of the revisionist. And they were rather more blatant about it all than Thucydides, for example. Then again, some of the facts are rather telling, even when picked out in isolation. Did you know that Henry Ford published an antisemitic newspaper and used to have antisemitic literature translated and shipped to Germany, that most of the army trucks used in the Blitzkrieg were supplied by Ford and GM, or that Hitler kept a picture of Ford in his office? Did you know that the Japanese were ready to surrender before the US dropped the bomb, provided only that they were given a guarantee of the emperor’s personal safety? Things to think about, to be sure.
The book was exactly as advertised, and is rather entertaining. For us writers, it stands as a good example of how not to write history if we want to be taken seriously in the scholarly community. If, on the other hand, our goal is the sell a documentary series to Showtime, along with a companion book and other merchandising tie-ins, then this is apparently precisely how to do it. It worked for Stone and Kuznick, anyway.
My partner and I just returned from a rather lovely holiday up the Oregon coast. While I was gone, this website was migrated from the WordPress.com server to a self hosted server. If you are a subscriber, the transition should have been nearly seamless. My first day and half back was spent fixing bad links and tweaking my setup (I’m a writer, not a web master, so I’m slow at that sort thing). It seems like I have things in order now, but if you run into any missing pages or bad links, please let me know in the comments or by sending a quick email to longhunt at yahoo dot com.
During the part of my holiday when I wasn’t birdwatching or eating sea food, I had time to get some reading in. One of the books that I finished was The Vintage Mencken, which is a collection of essays from H.L. Mencken’s newspaper columns and books. Mencken (1880-1956) was a prolific journalist and author throughout the first half of the 20th century. He is particularly known for deflating the literary and political figures of his day with stiletto-like wit and criticism. In his later career he also translated Nietzsche and wrote books on philology. Many of his works are now available either from Project Gutenberg or in various online archives. For those who have never read him, however, The Vintage Mencken, edited by Alistair Cooke, is an excellent sampling of the best pieces over his entire writing career.
Mencken came up in the golden age of newspaper journalism, when print was nearly the only form of mass media. In his later writings he evidences a distaste for radio and motion pictures, which he obviously felt were hopelessly low-brow. Had he lived a century later, however (which would, coincidentally have made him about my age) he would surely have been a blogger. His mature style would have been perfect for it–compact, yet thoughtful, incisive, and relentlessly snarky. I think that any modern blogger could learn a great deal from reading his columns and essays. While doing so, however, it is hard not to be struck by how many issues have changed little in a century: education is still going down hill, Americans are still boorish when it comes to culture, letters, and foreign policy, and politicians are still far too influenced by money and lobbying groups. As bloggers in the 21st century we tend to assume that we are breaking new ground and that the issues we confront are new an unique. It does us well to remember that, while the names and media have changed, the nature of our work really hasn’t.Nothing and no one were safe from Mencken’s iconoclasty. His favorite targets were populism, plutocracy, modern art, religious fundamentalism, and especially the bourgeoisie. Mencken himself came from a comfortable upper-middle-class background, he decided early to pursue the unpredictable life of a writer. While he never hesitated to poke fun at artists, there is no question that he considered himself one of their number. Like most of us who reject the comfort and stability of our bourgeois roots, he had little or no respect for the middle class. His true admiration was for an aristocracy that did not exist in the United States. He repeatedly warns against confusing plutocrats with true aristocrats,
…[P]lutocracy, in a democratic state, tends inevitably, despite its theoretical infamy, to take the place of the missing aristocracy, and even be mistaken for it. It is, of course, something quite different.
Bourgeoisie of “the country club and interior decorator stage of culture” have no understanding of art, fear new ideas, and are hopelessly conformist. True aristocrats, on the other hand, protect culture and tradition, yet are willing to accept eccentricity. Most importantly of all, according to Mencken, the bourgeoisie are cowardly. Personal courage is the highest virtue to an aristocrat but the middle class idolizes stability and security,
The one permanent emotion of inferior man, as of all the simpler mammals, is fear–fear of the unknown, the complex, the inexplicable. What he wants beyond anything else is safety. His instincts incline him toward a society so organized that it will protect him from all hazards, and not only against perils to his hide but also against assaults upon his mind–against the need to grapple with unaccustomed problems, to weigh ideas, to think things out for himself, to scrutinize the platitudes upon which his everyday thinking is based. (p. 105)
Me may or may not agree with Mencken’s views. Those of you who have been reading my blog know that I tend to agree with him. Even if you don’t buy into his platform, this book is a delightful view into the events and idiosyncrasies if early twentieth century life, and an excellent all-around example of expository writing.
I am currently reading historian John Lukacs’ At the End of an Age. I only discovered Lukacs’ work fairly recently, after reading a review of one of his other books on David Withun’s blog. He is an insightful and very readable author whose platform happens to match my own in several interesting ways; I’m sure I will be mentioning him again in the future.
I will probably do a full review of the book as soon as I finish it. At the moment, however, I would like to respond to one of the ideas which he discusses multiple times in the first half of the book: intellectual bureaucratization. The main thesis of At the End of an Age is that the modern era of history, which began around the end of the fifteenth century, is now drawing to a close. One of the main attributes that Lukacs points out as differentiating the modern era from previous eras is a the massive growth of bureaucracy in every area of human existence. This trend is even evident–in fact especially evident–in the pursuit of knowledge. Lukacs points to the increasing tendencies towards specialization, the need for credentials, and the drive to place intellectuals within some sort of larger organization. He points out that the words “writer”, “scholar”, “philosopher”, and “intellectual” were once essentially synonyms but have not come to mean very different things. The word “scientist”, meaning a philosopher who cultivates scientific knowledge, did not even appear in print until 1840. Now “scientist” usually implies a practitioner of the natural sciences who has little or no connection with philosophy.
In many ways, this parallels an argument in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which I reviewed in back in December. Like Bloom, Lukacs infers a connection between the growth of Democracy and academic specialization. Bloom, however, argued that the preeminence of Democracy was itself the result of the concerted efforts of philosophers from Machiavelli on to ensure their own comfort and survival. Lukacs, so far at least, has identified no such causal relationship.
Like Bloom, Lukacs points out that education is increasingly concerned with credentials such as specialized college degrees which are designed to fit students into particular pigeon holes in society and assign them a label (e.g. “physicist, business analyst, journalist”) that equate what they are with what they do.
Thinking on my own career, I realize that I have often chaffed against this phenomenon of intellectual bureaucratization. My “official” academic specialty is operations research, the field which is concerned with using certain techniques of applied mathematics to find optimum solutions to problems in management and engineering. I have succumbed to societal pressure and acquired certain credentials on this area, such as my MBA degree with a concentration in operations. In my final terms in graduate school I was strongly urged by my adviser and others to continue to a PhD program so I could become a “real” operations researcher.
But I never wanted to label myself that way. I don’t think of myself as an operations researcher. I am an intellectual. Operations research is a set of useful tools which I use to understand the world and create knowledge; it isn’t what I am. Nor do I think of myself as a scientist, a philosopher, a scholar, or even a writer, though I do think that each of these are important facets of the intellectual life. Even the label of “intellectual” is limiting. If I am an intellectual, does that mean that I’m less of a worker, or an artist, or a homemaker, or any of a dozen other roles which I fill?
Society though, at least in this age, is very uncomfortable with anyone who doesn’t wear a label. If someone at a cocktail party asks me “What do you do?” they become flustered when I don’t have an easy answer.
At the beginning of the modern era a PhD, or “doctor of philosophy” degree was a general degree, because philosophy was the discipline that included all of the others. A PhD was someone who had achieved a breadth and depth of knowledge in all areas of philosophy sufficient to provide a liberal education to students. Nowadays, though, PhDs are incredibly specialized. The professors and PhD students I knew at school were entirely focused on publishing in the “hot” areas of their own disciplines, to the extent that they would refuse to consider or comment on questions in other fields. Many operations PhDs will not even answer a student’s question about economics or finance, even though these are closely related disciplines. Many of them teach the same two or three classes year after year and become offended when asked to take on a course which is outside their own research interests. I enjoy both research and teaching, but was horrified at the idea of doing either at that level of specialization. Lukacs is right: an intellectual who is willing to be labeled and limited in such a way has become a bureaucrat, a cog in machine which is supposed to create knowledge, but mostly just produces citations and degrees.
For a few months now I have been reading my way through the Great Books and publishing my responses to them on this blog. One of the things all of the authors of the Great Books have in common was that none of them allowed themselves to be cogs in a machine or limited themselves to considering one narrow area of study. As a writer, there is only a slim chance that I will myself produce the next great book. On the other hand, if devoted the rest of my life to being a professor in some narrow area of operations research, there is no chance I would write such a work at all.
Perhaps things will be different in the next era of history, and people will be able to just be people, without labels that fit them into a bureaucracy. Perhaps Lukacs is right and that next era is coming soon. I rather hope so.
I ask that you bear with me as I continue my detour of discussing books about Great Books. Reading the great books to improve myself as a writer is likely to be a pretty long project–probably even more time consuming than the time I decided to watch all 726 Star Trek episodes in chronological order. Before I get started too far into it, I want to be sure and examine some of the motivations for someone to launch on a Great Books reading program. Next time I will return to discuss the Odyssey.
I just finished reading The Closing of the American Mind: How higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (1987) by Allan Bloom. Allan Bloom was a Great Books veteran, having produced well respected translations of Plato’s Republic and Rousseau’s Emile, as well as two books on Shakespeare. The Closing of the American Mind, written a few years before his death, is his magnum opus of popular nonfiction and is one of the last articulate 20th century pleas for greater integration of the Great Books in education.
The book covers quite a bit of ground, since Bloom was trying to trace a complete intellectual history of the purpose of a liberal education in our society. He brings up quite a few interesting points, any one of which would make a good blog article, but I will try to keep this post brief.
Bloom argues that in a liberal democracy, which by definition has no aristocracy or powerful established religion, the university is the only place where young people have a chance to experience a larger world of ideas and possibilities before going back to the “vulgar bourgeoisie” world of their future careers. Furthermore, a university is the only place where dissenting or new ideas are allowed to thrive, free from a democracy’s moral consensus. However, the fact that modern universities exist within a democracy means that they have been under pressure to encourage “openness” to different ideologies, lifestyles, values, etc. This has caused the academy to fragment into a “Chinese restaurant menu” of different disciplines, depriving students of any commonality of experience or deep exposure to the core ideas that make up our civilization. Also, the wide acceptance of Neitzeism and other German philosophies has led to a new nihilism in both the academic Right and the academic Left, causing them to abandon teaching about The Good and instead teach a vague sort of value theory where nothing is good or bad and a dangerous relativism where all lifestyles and philosophies are equally valid as long as their proponents exhibit a proper level of commitment, leaving students adrift with no means to evaluate anything in terms beyond simple utility.
Bloom’s solution is a return to the wellsprings of Western Civilization, i.e. “the good old Great Books approach.” However, he admits that this is unlikely to happen now that the humanities have been stripped of their traditional prestige and allure, the physical sciences have decided they don’t need the other disciplines, and an increasing number of undergraduates are shameless careerists, intent only on getting the prerequisites they need to get into professional programs. He points out, however, that even if there is no solution to the problem, the problem itself is eminently suitable as a subject for study by philosophers.
I honestly am not sure whether I agree with Bloom. Many readers have detected overtones of elitism in his argument. If we were to reset the curriculum to what it was in, say, the Victorian period, it would again create a massive advantage for upper-class, white males. On the other hand, I would embrace any program that could teach undergraduates to read and think, two things which very few of them now do well. Also, as a member of Western Civilization, I do think that it is important to protect and cherish our own intellectual and cultural heritage. On my most recent trip through college I was frequently shocked to learn what little awareness my fellow graduate student had of Western culture, literature and history. There education had failed in that respect, and there must be a better system.
One section of the book which I found very interesting was Bloom’s discussion about the role of the philosopher in society (pp. 268-293). The philosopher, Bloom says, is an inherently vulnerable individual because he is different from the rest of the society and his contribution is not measurable in terms that regular people can necessarily understand. Very seldom has a philosopher been a ruler. In fact, most of them have lived in poverty. Philosophers are thus subject to all sorts of persecutions, starting with Socrates’ execution. I was reminded of Spinoza’s excommunication from the Jewish community and Galileo’s censure by Catholic church. Because of vulnerability, philosophers have “engaged in a gentle art of deception” to woo the aristocracy for protection and support:
In sum, the ancient philosophers were to a man proponents of aristocratic politics..They were aristocratic in the vulgar sense, favoring the power of those possessing wealth, because such men are more likely to grasp the nobility of philosophy as an end in itself, if not to understand it. Most simply, they have the money for an education and time to take it seriously. (p. 284)
However, by the 17th century, philosophers had come up with an even better scheme: Enlightenment. This plan was Machiavellian in the truest since of the word, given that Machiavelli was the one who thought of it. By simultaneously showing the world the fruits of scientific inquiry while teaching a theory of rights, the philosophers inspired revolutions which led to liberal democracy and allowed the existence of the modern university–an institute dedicated to teaching and protecting philosophy. Once the rule of Reason was firmly established, the philosophers no longer needed aristocratic patronage and switched to”the party of democracy”.
Now, if we return to Bloom’s main argument, the universities are in a state of decline and philosophy is no longer central to education, yet philosophers are now unable to survive outside the university. Bloom would like to change the university back to what it once was, if possible.
For my own part, I must ask if it isn’t time for philosophers to come up with a new plan. If the aristocracy is gone, and universities are now more of a hindrance than a help, perhaps it is time to move on. To where? I don’t know; I’m no Machiavelli. It seems, though, that this too is a good question for philosophic inquiry.
In this post I will detour slightly from my exploration of the Great Books to discuss a book about the Great Books. More specifically, Alex Beam’s A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books (2008) is the story of the “Great Books Movement” which started as a teaching fad in the 1920’s and grew to become a pop culture phenomenon in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World, housed in their specially made bookcase, was a fixture in our house when I was a child. Yesterday I visited my father for Thanksgiving and noticed that it still occupies a prominent place along one wall of his guest bedroom. As a youngster I took its presence for granted. Except for one abortive attempt to read the Iliad when I was twelve, I don’t think I ever opened them. Much later I learned that my father had bought the set second hand before I was born. For him I believe the books were a symbol that even though he had not been able to finish college he has never stopped working to educate himself. In this respect, I think he is like most people who ever bought the set. They were always marketed as a way for middle class Americans, denied the sort of liberal education available to their social “betters”, to improve themselves.
The books in the Britannica set were nearly unreadable–heavy hard backs set in a tiny font with no footnotes. Most of the translations are dreadful. To make matters worse, because they were so expensive, no one felt like it was OK to underline in them or take notes in the margins. A paperback Penguin edition of a classic was almost always the way to go, if you were actually going to read and study it.
Beam’s book tells the story of how the set came to be, and why there are still so many copies around. With humor and insight he takes us from the first Great Books courses at Columbia and Chicago, through the genesis of the idea to sell a single collection that would encapsulate the entire western cannon, through the hard-sell door-to-door marketing of the 1960’s, and finally to the state of the Great Books movement today. I found the book delightfully readable.
A Great Idea at the Time mostly avoids bias, except in one area. It is clear from the first page that while Beam acknowledges Mortimer Adler’s brilliance, he truly doesn’t care for Adler, as a person. The book is sprinkled with comments such as “…to be reading Mortimer Adler’s two autobiographies and watching his endless, self-promotional television appearances was a nightmare from which I am still struggling to awake.” (p. 5) He paints a picture of Adler as a hilariously pompous, egomaniacal huckster. I myself have read enough of Adler’s writing and seen enough of his videos to conclude that he probably was rather full of himself. Certainly, Beams ability to describe such a powerful character lends strength and color to his story. Still, once must be aware that his opinion of one of the main personalities in the story has clearly slanted the narrative.
Reading this book as made me more aware of the ways in which my own relationship to the Great Books differs from that of Mortimer Adler, his mentor Robert Hutchins, or their many disciples. Their interest started as an attempt to shore up a higher education system which they saw as fragmenting into overspecialization. The Great Books were seen as a vehicle to teach reading and critical thinking to undergraduates. I myself, as a teaching assistant, worked for two professors who successfully incorporated great books into their respective undergraduate business courses. These days, however, I am no longer involved in post secondary education.
Over time, the Great Books project became a business venture for Encyclopaedia Britannica and an exercise in platform building for Adler, yet I don’t see any way that I will personally make money by studying the Great Books, or even by blogging about them.
The customers who bought the books mostly did so out of an appeal to their own insecurity and feeling of educational inadequacy. As a published academic author with a terminal professional degree, it is hard for me to seriously claim that I feel inadequate. There are still plenty of things which I would like to learn about, but that isn’t the same thing.
So if none of the motivations which have driven other people to embrace the Great Books affect me, then why am I doing it?
It’s because I am a writer, and a writer functions by inputting a large amount of other people’s writing, filtering and processing it through a mind shaped by his own life experience, and then outputting a relatively small amount of his own writing. If I had to guess, I would say that I probably read at least 500,000 words for every 1,000 words of finished prose I write. For me reading The Great Books, or at least good books, is a way to ensure a higher quality of inputs to the system which will, hopefully, lead to a higher quality of output. Any further posts I write about the Great Books will be written, and should be read, with that in mind.