[These remarks formed one part of the total contribution to a panel on “English and Literature Programs” at the 1 November 2003 Pope Center Conference on Academic Standards, held in Raleigh, North Carolina. Bonald’s latest post prompted me to revisit the text.]
I would like to begin with two brief preambles. The first one is that I authored what I believe to have been the prototype of what later became a spate of reports on degraded curricula in the state college systems – my Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities, published by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in October of 1996. I mention this to indicate that I well understand the whole range of curricular, administrative, pedagogical, and political criticisms that conservatives and traditionalists characteristically bring against our existing distorted institutions of higher education. The other preamble is that, in my remarks today, I shall be departing in style and content from what I might call the standard technical admonitions – that ninety-nine per cent of humanities professors voted for Bill Clinton, that they have bounced Shakespeare in favor of Toni Morrison, that students now run a four-year gauntlet of tawdry, Marxisant propaganda – in order to take up another, as I insist a prior, issue.
Indeed, sufficiently different from the standard technical admonitions are the remarks I propose to make, that I should give a fair warning in advance. You should be prepared not to believe more than every other word that I utter, although I myself have come to believe it all quite implicitly, and it now informs my entire activity as a college literature teacher. Allow me to urge, then, that if I were you and you were me I should probably take me for a lunatic, and I shall lay no blame should you follow suit in so doing…
Socrates, the great teacher of Greece and of the West, once explained to a group of half-drunk party-goers that the beginning of philosophy lies in adolescent infatuation. Socrates had learned this doctrine from his teacher, the rather scary Diotima of Mantinea, an expert in Eros, or “Love,” a prophetess, and a caller-down of demons. According to Diotima, the transcendent principle of the Good and the Beautiful, with which philosophy properly concerns itself, first speaks to us in the form of the contingent individual person in respect of whom we experience our awakening to sexual attraction. In my own case, at Malibu Park Junior High School in October of 1966, it was Miss V__________ T__________, or rather the rear view of her, walking with stately grace down the corridor to Mr. Vincent’s Civics and Government class, where I had hitherto shamefully failed to notice her. As I closed my locker door, a small voice, possibly speaking with a Greek accent, said to me: “There is a divinity that shapes our ends.”
I was abruptly convinced of it, as I was convinced of it again, in rapid succession, in the case of Miss J__________ M__________, and again in the case of Miss E_________ R__________, and so on and so forth. It was fall, not spring, but I felt the proverbial “young man’s fancy” all a-stirring. Eventually, I found myself in graduate school immersed in Plutarch’s essays on the godhead of Isis and on the nature of oracles, Byron’s poetry and Baudelaire’s, Old Norse grammar, the novels of Henry James, Harry Martinson’s Aniara, William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, and a clutch of other unlikely interests, each one of which had (as it has) a direct relation to Miss T____________’s vanishing loveliness. How could this be so?
Youthful fatuity normally befalls us, unrequited, so the same youthful fatuity is also normally quite fickle, but this very fickleness can itself serve for instruction. When we have noticed the cosmetic beauty of more than one cosmetically beautiful individual, as Diotima told the young Socrates, we begin to notice that all cosmetically beautiful individuals have a quality in common – or rather that a quality possessed uniquely by none nevertheless endows all with like attractiveness. After our false starts in love have stung us more than once, and we yearn for constancy, we begin to understand that the real loveliness is not cosmetic, but ethical. We see that it is better to love a spiritually than a cosmetically beautiful person – although the boon of their coincidence never exceeds possibility.
Once we can see beauty in the decorum and generosity of good people, we become capable of seeing it again in the institutions that preserve such ideas as decorum and generosity across the ages and from which, under favorable conditions, the masters imbue those qualities in each rising cohort: I refer to law, art, lore, piety, and education. Finally, supposing that we persevere in philosophic rigor, we gain a glimpse, after many dialectical stages, of the essence of what is good and beautiful in both persons and institutions – the Absolute Beauty, ensconced in a Heaven above the Heavens, towards which our Eros has been goading and guiding us all along.
One important function of education in the Platonic scheme is to seize on the adolescent mind at the moment of its erotic awakening and so divert its incipient passion away from contingent persons to other, more stable and rewarding objects. As the divine Miss T__________ never returned my awkward interest (still less the others), my passion needed other objects. I lived, fortunately, in the age of the fifty-cent science fiction paperback, and I began a lifelong affair, as it were, with the imaginary worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose Martian princess offered much consolation, E. E. Smith, Leigh Brackett, H. G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, and their peers. The order in which I list these writers corresponds not only to the order in which I came under their successive spells, but, from left to right, to the order of their ascending literary quality. Once I had graduated to Last and First Men and Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon, which I did in high school, I could pass naturally to the Platonic dialogues, to Dante, and to the fantastic poems of Keats and Shelley.
Along the way of this path, I received significant encouragement from a number of teachers who also navigated the sea of life by the star of passion. G__________ J__________, a remarkable English instructor at Santa Monica High School in the 1960s and 70s, plied his students not only with Greek literature, but also with the novels of Mann and Hesse, with the operas of Wagner, and with the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler. A correspondent who passed through J__________’s classroom a few years before I did recently described him to me as “Socrates, Eros and all.” Many of my contemporaries in high school responded, as I did, to a still healthy curriculum, as mediated for us by enthusiastic mentors like J__________. A kind of divine madness touched us, a craving for beauty and for intellectual stimulation.
I wish to issue a challenge to the college students who, as the organizer of this conference tells me, are in the audience today. This challenge takes the form of an observation, which I report with candor and honesty, about my classroom. When I ask my students nowadays what they love in the arts or literature, or simply what they read for pleasure, I rarely get an answer. Few report that they have ever read a novel or a poem voluntarily, and the number of novels or poems that they have read under mandate is always small. Even when I ask them what movies they like, silence usually constitutes the answer. They have seen plenty of movies, to be sure, but they rarely admit to liking, much less to loving, any of them. They listen to music constantly, too, over their headsets, but they never admit to love in that respect either; although, absent love, it is difficult to explain their obsession.
The word love seems to embarrass them. This embarrassment tends to be true even of the self-described conservative students whom I sometimes, although only rarely, meet. They tell me that they have read Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, by Ayn Rand, or How to Argue with a Liberal, by Ann Coulter, than either of which a book more bereft of love or beauty can hardly be imagined.
Had anyone asked me, in my freshman year, what I cherished in music or the arts or what I or read for pleasure, I might have filled many a blank page. I might have said that I loved Lucian, a Greek satirist, and Robert Sheckley, a Brooklyn satirist. I loved The Glass Bead Game, by Hesse, and re-read it obsessively; I loved The Research Magnificent, by Wells, and re-read it obsessively. I took a girl to the Hollywood Bowl to hear Brahms’ Second Symphony and she said to me afterwards, “that was a really pretty song.” She lacked the requisite musicological vocabulary to describe her experience, it is true, but she responded forthrightly to it with what resources she had, and without prejudice, and I have never ceased admiring her for it. I noticed afterwards that when she mentioned the occasion, in my presence, to her friends she did so in positive terms; it did not embarrass her to have taken a stab at adult culture, nor to have enjoyed it.
As I am talking about the relation of Eros to learning, I call to your attention those important absences in the educational experience, as the naively appreciative girl and I had undergone it, in what seems in retrospect to have been the idyllic age of the 1960s and 70s.
Here is the list: At no time in elementary or secondary school had our preceptors forced on us anything like the explicit, often semester-long, programs of so-called sex-education that have featured in middle and high school for the last twenty years, and which steadily grow more explicit, antinomian, and perverse; at no time had our preceptors forced on us anything of the so-called sexual harassment training, on the assumption that all men are inveterate aggressors; nor had the propaganda of so-called date-rape panicked the girl or turned her against men; although the adults in our lives, including teachers, had mildly admonished us about smoking and drinking, we were not surrounded by the vehement, official rebuke of these things that is now omnipresent in the academic environment; nor had we heard – as it was still possible in those days to be free of such things – that the poems and plays and stories that we read, or the old movies that we went to see at the revival house, served as secret codes for racial or sexual or class-based oppression.
I knew the young woman in question from my Swedish class, where she impressed the teacher, Professor S__________, and everyone else by her enthusiasm, her love, I daresay, for the language. Her presence improved the work of the whole class of learners.
Where are the flames of yesteryear? My winsome Hollywood-Bowl date followed a teacher-education major and wanted to coach girls’ athletics in high school. It never struck her that her language and literature courses meant nothing in respect of that goal. Body and mind were one. I would describe her – that shapely, lively girl – as having an intact Eros, capable of effective kissing and groping, but by no means confined to them; clearly, at the right moment, the secondary education of those days had launched her passion in a higher, spiritual direction. Painful though it is to say so, I rarely see such passion nowadays although of course it might be prudish and therefore invisible. (We should not underestimate how prudish the present moment is.) I can only conclude that something prevents its development. As one student wrote last spring by way of a course-assessment, “I would give Professor Bertonneau’s class a higher recommendation, but I don’t like reading books.”
Another student wrote with certainty that, “Professor Bertonneau, like all foreigners, puts too much of emphasis on thinking.” The “foreign” professor also gave offense to this second student by “acting like he knows stuff.” The shoddy diction is all too typical. Unlike the lyric persona of Keats in the “Ode to a Nightingale,” the majority of my students seem sadly not to have chosen for delight, for the sweetness of the unseen song, but for an anti-spiritual detachment that distances them from the buffetings, so unpredictable, so scary, of awakened passion.
We might talk in existential terms about anhedonia or alienation; or we might cite Lyotard’s “post-modern condition” or MacLuhan’s “cool communications”; or we might invoke, with some justification, “the dumbed-down curriculum.” I prefer the Socratic diagnosis, as recorded by Plato. I say that we will never understand contemporary classroom reserve, or the disintegration of the vital curriculum, without the vocabulary of soul, beauty, Eros, and Heaven.
I argue that a jejune and deforming paideia, the modern one, has deprived many young people of the chance to develop the enthusiasm requisite to a genuine edification of their souls. In consequence of their deprivation they lack the ability to recognize the fiery allure of Heaven through the earthly phenomena of good and beautiful things. I think I know the specific measures in the deformed paideia that have blurred student acuity and blunted student response.
Here is the list: A perniciously secular and culturally anemic curriculum, from Kindergarten right through college, in which everything that might provoke the real Eros has been stripped away, while what remains is trivially empirical; the imposition on young people of a two-sided, and therefore contradictory, program of sexual indoctrination, one half of which anathematizes sexual relations as the evil of patriarchal oppression, the other half of which urges them to “hook up,” as they say, serially and unsentimentally, with free prophylaxis available from the campus clinic; and finally, a cult of ugliness, especially in music, which now thoroughly dominates popular culture. This is a formula for killing Eros.
The education-crisis in the humanities is real and it is severe, but it is not strictly a crisis of “policy” or “economy” or even of a de facto quota that only allows for one Republican English professor out of every ninety-nine Howard Dean-type Democratic ones. It is a crisis of the soul, of a debilitated and moribund Eros. In saying this, I mean to indicate that those responsible for the crisis are even wickeder than they would be were they merely the perpetrators of bad policy or bad economy or bigoted party-quotas. By “those responsible,” I mean in turn to indicate not only the academically dominant Left, especially the sex-hating feminists, but those among traditionalists and conservatives who have, in effect, adopted the Left’s purely immanent and entirely materialistic view of human nature, and who therefore venerate a defectively instrumental idea of education as mere training for purely banausic ends.
I predict, although it is only barely a prediction, that traditionalists and conservatives, including my old friends at the National Association of Scholars, will make no headway in the reform of higher (or any other) education until they see past policy, economy, and quotas – and learn once again to talk about the soul – and about the Good and the Beautiful and the True and the essential image of those qualities in the Heaven above the Heavens. Has it occurred to anyone that the “higher” in higher education might actually refer to Diotima’s Absolute Beauty, which speaks first to us as much in our loins as in our brains, but which, under the proper tuition, as Goethe put it in Faust Part Two, “leads us on high”? Has it occurred to anyone that a bit of Dionysiac intoxication might animate an increasingly gray-haired traditionalist and conservative program, not to mention students?
Has it occurred to anyone that the codes that brutally suppress speech, or brand all sexual interest as predatory prior to any fact, or banish those things, like great art and literature, which might awaken passion in students – has it occurred to anyone, I ask, that these wretched devices are all manifestations of hatred, which is the opposite of love, and of impotency, which is the opposite of capacity, or that they are all first and foremost assaults on the soul?
Socrates, on one of his few sojourns outside the walls of Athens, once told a pupil that God had charged the philosopher with the mission of fanning the ember of his own Eros, so that he might kindle fiery contagion in other demonic souls. He also issued a warning: The one who learns to love the Good and the Beautiful and who concerns himself with the soul will likely appear a madman to those who know not of such matters. I fully expect that I now appear to you as a madman, and I have even given you the origin of my madness – that blessed knowledge – for in Miss T__________’s absolutely beautiful end was my own fateful beginning.
Incipit curriculum. (TFB)
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Thank-you for posting this
Reblogged this on ReactionaryThought.
My Dear Professor Bertonneau,
This quite smashing essay demands a more substantial response, but for now I’ll just say this:
Frolicking bikini-babes at the Orthosphere! Who’da thunk it?
[It’s OK. They’re for educational purposes.]
It’s the universe: It’s all one and every part is connected to every other part!
Dear Prof. Bertonneau,
I respectfully object to the presence of this photo, which I consider unjustifiable. I write as a young woman who upholds modesty according to the standards of traditional Catholicism and who has very intimate knowledge of a man recovering from a pornography addiction. Such a photo is entirely capable of triggering sinful thoughts in men and leading them in search for more. Hence, it is offensive and a sin for it to be posted.
Great essay and something that needs to be hammered home again and again. Traditionalists and the greater alt right community stand for something real, something beautiful. We oppose the death cult of modernity in favor of living joyously, securely, and with contentment.
Our foes have done a good job characterizing us as stodgy dinosaurs who are “on the wrong side of history,” and this essay is an excellent rebuttal.
It is only those who are on the “wrong side of history” who… make it.
Dear Revanche — Thank you for your generous assessment.
PS. No one has commented on the photographic self-portrait from the mid-1990s. It’s “Evil Bertonneau” from the Classic Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror.”
I was too stunned, speechless. Still regrouping…
Those glasses. Handsome kid, though. You can tell that he knows stuff.
Nah. Just acting like he knows stuff.
The essay is very convincing until it begins to touch on policy. It’s very hard to see how speech codes or the fear of false rape accusations impair one’s ability to love Bach or Minority Report. Perhaps the thing that is broken is actually broken inside the students’ heads. You mention anhedonia, but I think too briefly.
Getting to the top of a hard climb feels good. Understanding a hard argument feels good. Seeing, though concentration, the beauty of a painting feels good. Being swept away into a piece of music feels good. Entering deeply into worship feels good.
There is a great difference in the amount of stimulation a typical student of today has experienced compared to one three or four decades ago, though. They are addicted to everything. To popular music, To video games. To porn. To Adderall. To Xanax. To attention and approval. To sex. To instagram. To shopping. To texting. It’s all of a piece. Fast, powerful, easy stimulation. But, you become anhedonic. Too much stimulation is no stimulation.
You present them with something which should call forth Eros. But Eros is tired. Maybe later. Or not.
I’ll give you an example of how speech codes suppress student responses to intellectual stimulus. It is part of the structure of Plato’s Symposium, which I frequently teach, that the two earliest speakers, Phaedrus and Pausanias, make speeches in which they explicitly say that only homosexual love is humanly dignified; later, Aristophanes indirectly refutes this argument by making it explicit that, in his view, the three types of of sexual attraction are equally dignified, thereby denying the thesis of homosexual exclusivity. Still later, Socrates, quoting Diotima, calls procreation the “mortal immortality,” raising it even further in dignity. Students are terrified to identify the dubious assumption on which the first two speeches of the Symposium are based. They can only think that to criticize the argument of a homosexual man is to criticize homosexuals, which they have been taught is a punishable offense. Nor do they want to say that, given everyone’s debt to procreation, Diotima’s assertion is prima faciae more plausible than Phaedrus’ or Pausanias’ common assertion.
Dr. Bill: On cell phones — I have made the argument in my essay on “The Ontological Sickness,” which anyone may access at The Brussels Journal, that cell phone obsession is not an instance of desire, but a symptom of the total depletion of desire. Before anyone acquires a cell phone, his, or her, desire has been depleted. The cell phone is an attempt to regain desire.
Michael: The relation of the Cultural Marxists to Plato’s Symposium is semi-comical. Platonism is metaphysics and Marxism is pure physicalism. The Left never ceases to mock and denounce metaphysics — and indeed to mock and denounce Plato — but because, on a poor reading, the Symposium strikes some tendentious readers as vindicating an ideological prejudice, that dialogue suddenly becomes enormously important and “true.” I believe that a tendentious translation of a passage from the Symposium was actually cited in a court-case involving “gay marriage.”
One real irony of Symposium is that in the explication of Eros among an Athenian male elite, the radical nature of desire is presented by a foreign (i.e., non-Athenian) woman, a priestess of Zeus. This is a very important point, and one that ought to be carefully considered as to its implications, and its meaning. It is usually a fact that is glossed over–at least that is my impression from some readings on the topic.
Any expectation for the introduction of a natural education is a lost cause. We understand that the goal of state-sponsored education is to produce citizens who will uphold the regime (using that word in its traditional, not only its political, sense). Thus, what we now have is pretty much whatever can be expected. To play off the words of one former Colorado “ethnic studies” teacher (who lost his job after a series of professional scandals–the guy turned out to be a professional plagiarist, and probably not even a real Indian**), our schools now produce “Little Liberals” whose main concern appears to center around grotesque narcissistic indulgence, often directed toward a goal of becoming Social Justice Warriors.
In schools governed under the stern rule of women (and feminized men) boys are viewed as defective girls. As such, boys are mostly unfit for modern co-education.
A “natural” program for education would demand segregated schools. Boys would be taught apart from girls. Curriculum would never be “standardized,” but developed in order to develop natural inclinations (group inclinations at first, then, as students progressed and demonstrated intrinsic talents, individualized lesson plans would be devised). Generally, men must teach boys, and women girls, but all would be under the aegis of men responsible for the regime. Strict discipline would be maintained, of course, to include corporal punishment as required (mostly for the boys, as girls usually do not require this sort of severe discipline).
Boys would learn to interact with girls through controlled and well-managed events supervised by adults.
Obviously all of the above has to be considered nonsensical to the mind of the modern man and the modern woman. However, inasmuch as we live in a nonsensical age, I’m thinking that it could possibly make perfect sense.
**Today one doesn’t have to be a real anything. One just has to “identify” with whatever it is one wants to be. Desire is all that matters.
The stand-alone, knowledgeable lecturer has been denounced by some feminists as the epitome of patriarchal oppression in the academy; I once attended a lecture at UCLA during my grad-student years when an angry feminist made exactly that point in her lecture!
Michael: Another important aspect of the Symposium that gets glossed over is that the year of the dinner-party, 416 BC, is also the year of the infamous Melian Massacre, when the Athenians, to prove that they were “tough guys,” killed off all the male inhabitants of the island of Melos, which had declined admission to the Athenian League, and sold the women and children into slavery. The fatuous elites making nonsensical (for the most part) speeches at Agathon’s soiree are people of note, a segment of the ruling class, of the city-at-war. This fact places a double-underline beneath what you notice — that the voice of reason in the dialogue is a woman and a foreigner.
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Very interesting piece,professor.Before reading this one,I was familiar with the concept of Eros from the greek mythology,but never actually made the connection between it and the modern world,let alone higher education.Being an Eastern Orthodox,the fact that the spirit of the modern world lacks any grace and love was very clear to me,since modernism is clearly against the traditional way of life that has always been supported by our Church.Looking forward to your future articles.
Mulțumesc, Simion. Am participat la o dată o liturghie de seară într-o biserică ortodoxă românească. Am fost impresionat de frumusețea icoanelor. Acestea sunt sesizări ale Frumusețea Absolut, așa cum mi se pare.
Cu stimă, TFB
Thank you, Simion. I once attended an evening liturgy in a Romanian Orthodox church. I was impressed by the beauty of the icons. Those are intimations of the Absolute Beauty, as it seems to me.
Good to see someone else of the Orthodox persuasion visiting the Orthosphere. There are a relative small handful of us Orthodox Reactionaries, but its growing.
https://mailadreapta.wordpress.com is a Romanian Reactionary but he hasn’t posted much recently.
I must salute your icon as well. The Capitanul remains perhaps the greatest inspiration for my own work.
The “joy” that sprung so naturally to the minds of Wordsworth, Keats, Schiller, and Beethoven has been banished from educational and public discourse. What replaced it? The drudgery and grim determination of “social justice,” and the hysteria of “microagressions.” I fear all is lost.
I used the word “prudish” in my talk. I often invoke the term Puritanical, in its precise, non-denominational sense, to describe the regnant Left. Of course, “Gnostic” is also a serviceable word. A paradox of the “social justice” university is that the more “sexually liberated” it has become, the less and less sexy it has become, until it is about as sexy as dried up husks in an abandoned acre.
You’ve redefined Eros. Eros was love of man toward an actual physical woman, not an idea. You’re doing a bit of Eros killing yourself.
Check out the discussion over at Dampiers. Very Pertinent.
It’s not I who redefined the term; it was first Socrates and then Plato. In a world of minimal meanings, Eros might be what you say; but, as Plato’s Twentieth Century follower Owen Barfield explained, meanings can increase. And thank God! Is the love of the Saints the “love of man toward an actual physical woman”? What should we make of Francis of Assisi? Or Julian the Hospitaler? Or Hildegarde of Bingen? How should we interpret Anton Bruckner’s dedication of his Ninth Symphony: “To the loving God”?
Barbara Thiering claimed that Christ secretly escaped crucifixion and lived out his life married to Mary of Magdalene on the Cote-d’Azure, producing a number of children. Your insistence on the minimal definition is entirely consistent with Thiering’s claim and that is what it does to theology.
See “funkyphd’s” remark above.
but, as Plato’s Twentieth Century follower Owen Barfield explained, meanings can increase. And thank God!
Yes. The Left is always redefining words to be “ever more inclusive”. Gay, for example, has quite a different meaning to what it had before. Likewise, the words Tolerance and Hate. Concept conflation is the Devil’s work.
Is the love of the Saints the “love of man toward an actual physical woman”? What should we make of Francis of Assisi? Or Julian the Hospitaler? Or Hildegarde of Bingen? How should we interpret Anton Bruckner’s dedication of his Ninth Symphony: “To the loving God”?
It ain’t Eros. Francis, Julian, Hildegarde and perhaps Bruckner loved by the mechanism of Caritas, NOT Eros. Caritas and Eros are two distinctive things.
BTW, when I looked at that picture of the girls dancing on the beach (great picture) the thought of God was not in my mind. There was a lot of Eros though, but I had to shut that down quite quick as I was going to Church.
Slumlord, you write that when you saw the beautiful young women in the photograph you had no thought of God. I believe you, absolutely. Abundant luck in your quest. (TFB)
I am not a humanities expert. I have read far more essays than literature. This is probably why I have no idea what this article is about.
But it seems to me humanities can be reduced to Faulkner’s “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself”.
A bigger quote, just to put into context: “Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed — love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”
I developed this idea after I’ve read Eliezer Yudkowsky’s example that a scientist can explain to you what happens to a human body when thrown out from a spaceship into vacuum, but only a good sci-fi writer can make you _feel_ it to the extent you get goosebumps. And that is the writers trade and social utility. What I added to the example is that the writer cannot simply just convey the subjective physical feelings, like suffocating. That would not be realistic enough. He should also make the reader feel the psychological feelings, like the regret felt over the choices that led to this situation. Describing that situation with physical sentiments only would be incredibly sterile and un-lifelike. Hence, Faulkner’s human heart in conflict with itself. Because writing fiction without this element does not feel so personal and probably just ends up being a sterile philosophical or scientific thought experiment.
Let’s suppose Faulkner is right and I interpreted the whole thing correctly. Let’s suppose humanities are all about the human heart in conflict with itself. What does the Eros point toward, then? Beauty as such or loftier ideals are not enough for that conflict.
There is no transcendence in Faulkner. At the end of Light in August, Lena marches barefoot down the road, never having risen from the earthly plane, but triumphing in her pregnant, Darwinian way, while leaving numerous dead behind. Elsewhere Faulkner cites Shakespeare on history as “a tale told by an idiot,” as though it summed up his theory of existence. Whatever Faulkner’s virtues, which I concede to be many, he could not overcome the “immanentism” of the modern condition even though he was a critic, in some ways, of that condition.
In Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony, which I have assigned to my Western Heritage students to read, I came across this passage, which concerns the influence of Angelic apparitions on the sensitive soul: “Our mind [witnessing such things] is no longer disturbed but becomes gentle and calm, illuminated by the angels’ light; then the soul, aflame with desire for heavenly rewards, breaks out, if it is able, from its dwelling in the human body. It hastens towards heaven together with those whom it sees departing.”
The passage is fascinating for a number of reasons. For one thing, it could be exchanged for a passage in the Symposium or the Phaedrus without disrupting either text; and sentences from those two Platonic dialogues might be substituted for sentences in the Life, also without disrupting the text. Being a metaphor, Athanasius’ description of meditative ecstasy is literary, in the irreducible sense.
Where does Eros point? In Goethe’s phrase, “Das Ewigweibliche zieht uns hinan.” In a single syllable – Up!
Shenpen, I urge you, as has Kristor all of us recently, to be wary of facile reductionism.
This essay (speech) took me back to college and to Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, a book that opened more doors for my mind than I knew I had. Both the book and the man are thoroughly misinterpreted by contemporary alternative right types, who harbor a pathological hatred for Leo Strauss yet practically worship the Chief Deconstructionist, the vindicator of the mob and Cave – Nietzsche.
Anyway, Bloom died my first year at Chicago, but for a brief period of three years, I lived the divine madness you speak of because he opened those horizons and Chicago still had enough gravitas about it to foster such adventures. That period (1992-1994) changed me permanently. Though I have had deeper influences that formed my habits and perhaps my subconscious (e.g. attending an all-boy Jesuit school; having European parents; living between here and Europe, etc.), I think back to my days of at Chicago as my happiest moments except for the present. Though I went on to earn an M.A. and law degree, I certainly never experienced such intellectual excitement again. It has made subsequent inter-personal experiences a bit lame.
Interactions today are simply inhuman. The United States is, to quote a British artist, a charm-free zone. I refer to them – your students – simply as androids, which raises the question: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Dear Night Porter: Thank you for the comment. “Charm-Free Zone” is an apt attribution. Your concluding question is rhetorical (and much appreciated), but I hope you won’t mind my treating it as open for a response. If the android ever dreamed of electric sheep, he would have crossed the threshold into humanity. With most of my kids, I am at the rudimentary stage of trying to get them, not so much to wake up, as simply to dream in their sleep.
The life of your “Chief Deconstructionist,” not incidentally, was an erotic catastrophe.