The Home and the World (Ghare-Baire)

It’s easier than it ever has been to find films. Cinemas, television channels, retailers (including specialists like Moviemail), film rental and streaming companies (e.g. Mubi), magazines (like Sight and Sound and Little White Lies), film festivals, degrees and other courses—these are all ways to discover new films. It’s so much simpler than it was forty years ago, when you’d have to wait and hope that a film would come out sometime in the movie theatre.

I’m still waiting for the new Béla Tarr film, The Turin Horse, to come to the big screen in England though. I don’t do pirate movies in principle, and I’d be even less likely to settle for a poor-quality or small-screen version of this movie. I was lucky to watch my first Tarr movie, the sublime Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), on a large screen a couple of years ago. See his short Prologue (to Visions of Europe) to get some sense of his work’s strength: I’ve probably watched it ten times, and it still socks me hard in the gut.

Tarr’s marginalization is one example of how screen culture is choked by commercial pressures, even though there are many new avenues to discover film, and independent cinema is apparently thriving again. Andrei Tarkovsky’s unwavering belief that film should aspire to fine art is not much closer to becoming orthodoxy. There’s much to be said for receiving an education in film and screen culture, as in literature.

The Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray would make it high on my list of master directors who don’t appear often on British TV. See Pather Panchali (1955) first, a film about how a boy called Apu struggles to maturies in a poor household in rural Bengal. Recently I watched The Home and the World (1984), based on Rabindranath Tagore‘s novel of the same name. Bimala is a wife who’s encouraged by her husband Nikhil to move outside of the rooms she’s enclosed in, and receive a Western education, learn to sing and read, and become more aware about the world. Nikhil invites his wife to meet Sandip, a hard-liner for Swadeshi, a movement to boycott foreign goods. Nikhil won’t stop the poor traders at the market he runs from selling cheap foreign imports because he knows that they can’t afford to buy local goods. Bimala has to get her bearings rapidly in this political environment, as she is forced to choose between Nikhil’s and Sandip’s values and personalities.

The film is a meditation on practical ethics that recalls my surface-scratching reading of the Bhagavad Gita, and Gandian politics: is it better to pursue principles at all costs, or compromise as situations demand? It’s also informative about Hindu-Muslim tensions, colonialism and female independence, but isn’t in the least bit abstract or beard-stroking.

Ray is a master of producing films that depict people’s relationships and thoughts from their glances, their postures, and how their bodies fill the screen, and in doing so reveal wider implications with absolute clarity. The film is immensely compassionate, humane—and watchable. The Home and the World is available in a box set that also contains Ray’s great adaptation of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People (1989). I’m optimistic his films will still be known, will be better known even, in a hundred years’ time, and studied more widely in academic programmes too.


Investigating Omeros

I helped out earlier at an ‘Investigating Options’ outreach day for Year 11 students (15 and 16 year-olds). The general aim was to help students make informed choices about their education post-GCSE and A-Level, so the thrust of my session was to think about ways that studying English in sixth form and at university differs from GCSE English. My not-very-original theme was the value of fostering a spirit of inquiry and curiosity.

My opening unastonishing point was that as I’ve taken more advanced qualifications in literature, I’ve devoted more and more time in the day to studying it until it’s become a career choice linked to my sense of identity. When you continue to study a subject, you gain breadth and depth of knowledge. To illustrate ‘breadth’ I first asked the students when the first book was printed in English (Raoul Lefèvre’s Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, trans. by William Caxton (Bruges: William Caxton, c. 1473), and to come up with a list of the earliest works of literature. Suggestions included the Bible, Greeks, Egyptians, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens, and I added Beowulf which was written down in Old English before the second millenium, and a few others. I passed on the good advice I once received when applying to university, that I should create a timeline of writers and fill in gaps where possible. English literature doesn’t start with Jane Austen or Shakespeare.

As you accumulate more knowledge of Western literary tradition, I added, you understand better how writers are working within that tradition. This led into my focus on ‘depth’, or close reading. I took a passage from Derek Walcott’s Omeros (1990), and asked the students to tell me five things they could tell me about it, and five things they couldn’t. I spent much longer asking the students for their questions. The students generally came up with interpretative problems, some of which would have made great starting points for essays, like ‘Why is Helen like a shadow?’ and ‘Why are Achille and Hector fighting over a bailing tin?’.

It also wasn’t a bad way to encourage students to participate, since if a student said ‘I don’t know’ I could ask them what they didn’t know. I encouraged them to ask questions about who the author was, where the poem was set, what came before and after this section, how the form works, what did difficult words like ‘manchineel’ (a poisonous evergreen Caribbean tree) mean and so on, and showed how these questions were all entry points to understanding the poem.

I punctuated the discussion with audio clips from a BBC World Book Club programme. When reading the passage we discussed(at 3.55-5.32 in the interview), Walcott didn’t follow the stanza breaks precisely, or even read it like ‘poetry’. In the same interview (c.16.33-17.35), Walcott remarks that a reader once told him that when reading Omeros he found himself forgetting that he was reading poetry, which made Walcott think ‘Ah! Now we’re getting somewhere’. It’s a viewpoint consistent with his loose adoption of Dante’s terza rima.

In another clip (6.12-8.00) Walcott talks about the poem’s relationship to Homer’s Iliad as being evocative and associative only, which pulls us back from taking Homer as the key to the poem. I took this idea to make the larger point that there’s no solution to the poem, just a series of encounters between readers and the poem, where we bring our own experiences and insights, and have our own questions to ask. Another student asked how the poem could be so complex, to which I replied that its difficulty arises—as so often in great literature—from small incidents in which the poet perceives deeper resonances and significance that become implicated in autobiography, colonialism, dispossession and other abstract themes.

If I’d attended a class like this one when I’d been in Year 11, I wouldn’t have spoken up much, but was probably too strong-willed to have recognized that collaboration in classes—through questioning, seeking answers from others, developing arguments—is important not just for impressing at A-Level or university, but in any pursuit of what’s true and real. It reminded me of a podcast I’d just heard in which a philosopher called Dan Sperber argued that reason’s primary function is to facilitate collaboration between strangers, and help social division of cognitive labour. By ourselves, reasoning is often rationalizing to justify our own biases, but alongside others, reason provides a basis to hear what someone says and investigate it further. Reasoning doesn’t lead us all to the same answer, but it does encourage us to cooperate and reach an agreed answer through consensus. It creates a common standard by which people can develop and question a line of enquiry pursued by others.

Academic study in general encourages such collaboration, in Britain particularly post-GCSE, where students often learn through classes and seminars. From a literary perspective, Sperber’s brief discussion immediately raised further questions about the role of intuition, who we should collaborate with, how far we should engage with strangers to pursue truth, whether it prohibits discussion if an interlocutor has little concept of reason, and if anything is lost by communicating an argument using reason.

The last question I was asked concerned libraries, to which I answered that as your studies become more advanced you don’t just use public and school libraries, you start to access repositories of knowledge where you encounter everything ever written about a topic. When applying to university, I was encouraged to take a trip to a university library (which I didn’t). As a graduate student, I’m now learning how to master topics quickly through literature reviews. As I gain knowledge in a subject, I become more critically aware of where my information comes from, and hopefully more independent too (though wisdom is another matter).


Embers of ‘Nebuchadnezzars Fierie Furnace’

I spent a successful day working in the British Library manuscripts room this week. Maybe thirty researchers were working with manuscripts when I was there, but there’s no way (other than the occasional glance at the text, or letters, or images being consulted) to know what topics people are researching, and how manuscript sources assist their enquiries. So for the curious here’s a brief account of my visit.

Background information. I’m writing a doctoral thesis called ‘British Responses to Du Bartas’s Semaines, 1584-1641′. The most widely-read English translator is Josuah Sylvester, and the Oxford edition of his translation mentions a work that was formerly attributed to him, called Nebuchadnezzars Fierie Furnace. This work was printed in 1936 in the series ‘Materials for the Study of Old English Drama’, and thought to be written by Sylvester because Fierie Furnace contains so many quotations and near-quotations from his translation. My work had already gone through the text, listing every parallel with Sylvester’s translation, which led me to agree with the Oxford editor that it was extremely unlikely that Sylvester wrote it. I also concluded that it was probably not a play intended for stage performance. However, I didn’t know what the text actually was. My best guess was that a young aristocrat had written it as an exercise, perhaps even as a piece of seventeenth-century fan fiction: Fierie Furance shows us what it’d be like if Josuah Sylvester were to write a poem about the Book of Daniel.

The text of Fierie Furnace presented in the 1936 edition is found in British Library Harl. 7578, and I’d previously taken a look for any clues. The manuscript was written in a fairly formal, seventeenth-century script, with page numbers from 321 to 368, running headers (i.e. the title at the top of each page), and catch words (a printing convention in which you put the first word of the next page at the bottom of the current one). But the crucial missing piece of information was what pages 1 to 320 contained. Browsing through every single Harleian manuscripts wasn’t really a realistic option (you can only order up ten items a day anyway), and I hadn’t come across anything when I leafed through catalogues. However, I’d overlooked a manuscript that was described in the catalogue as containing ‘Dramatic Poems’ by ‘Boise’ (Add. 34781), one of which shared the title ‘Nebuchadnezzars Fiery Furance’. So I went to the British Library this week to see if it was the same poem, and who this ‘Boise’ might be.

The manuscript contained a pasted-in note containing references to two other manuscripts and two books about Zachary Boyd. Boyd, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography told me, was a Scottish preacher and poet in the mid-seventeenth century who wrote copious amounts of poetry. He was a Covenanter, i.e. a Presbyterian who opposed Charles I’s plan to introduce bishops in Scotland (which led to the Bishops’ Wars in 1639 and 1640). The manuscript before me contained a complete text of Fierie Furnace, with over 1 000 more lines than the version I’d read. I now knew that Boyd was the author. Fierie Furnace belonged in a massive collection of similar dramatic poems called Zion’s Flowers, which survives in full in an autograph copy held by the University of Glasgow. I was looking at a seventeenth-century copy of seven sections of the work, including ‘Pharaoh’s Tyrannie’ and ‘David and Goliath’.

The other two manuscripts mentioned in the note completed the picture. The first was also a seventeenth-century copy of texts from Zion’s Flowers written in rapid, cursive hand (Add 10310). The second was a beautifully presented scribal copy in italic hand from ‘Zion’s Flowers’. This one (Harl 7178) contained a text of Fierie Furnace—with the same page numbering, headings and catch words as the text I’d originally looked at. The manuscript of Fierie Furnace that was printed in 1936 was copied from this text. The text I’d initially read was probably part of a larger copy, and was probably incomplete because this fair copy also was (unless the final sections of both works were coincidentally lost, which seems unlikely).

These findings leave much to be explained and explored. How far are these other poems based on Sylvester’s translation too? Why was Boyd such a fan of Sylvester? Who were these poems written for? How strongly does Boyd promote the anti-tyrannical message in Fierie Furnace (quite a lot, probably)? Are there manuscript texts in other libraries? Do Boyd’s printed sermons and poems also show traces of Du Bartas? Are other Scottish writers in the 1640s reading Du Bartas too? How close is the copied text to the fair copy, and both to Boyd’s autograph version? Do we have many contemporary responses to the works? These new connections produce a new cast member for my thesis’s account of writers who read Du Bartas. It provides a new insight into Boyd, about whom I have found just one article written in the past thirty years. If John Donne and George Herbert are the A-list of Renaissance religious poets today, then Boyd is less famous than someone who appeared on Big Brother four years ago. So I need to find out more about Boyd and his works, and provide a more detailed account of these manuscripts before I can come to conclusions about how he read his Du Bartas, and how his readers read him reading Du Bartas.

You may wonder why I’m being so open about these discoveries if they’re new—isn’t there a risk that another Renaissance scholar will read this blog post, replicate my research and then sneakily publish about it before I get the chance? In my field this isn’t really a risk. It’d be good for future users of these manuscripts to know about these links, and by searching around online perhaps they’ll come across this post. I could perhaps write a piece for the Electronic British Library Journal about the manuscripts, or perhaps conduct proper research on Boyd and write it up for a journal like the Scottish Literary Review. A visit to Glasgow to read Boyd’s manuscript copy would be needed too. For the time being, however, I’ll largely concentrate on using these findings as evidence for my thesis.

It’s not that uncommon for a poem like this to been published in manuscript form only, and to be distributed by being copied out many times (just as I was typing up parts of the manuscripts yesterday). Manuscript circulation provides a large undercurrent of literary publication in the seventeenth-century: for example, John Donne’s poetry was exclusively circulated in manuscript before 1633. Uncovering these embers of Fierie Furnace tells us more about the processes of disseminating poetry, tells us more about these particular manuscripts, and has opened up a new line of enquiry of how a minor Scottish poet admired Josuah Sylvester’s poetry. For a doctoral student these are exciting discoveries.


In the Kitchen

I moved into a temporary room last week in a house with a large kitchen. I’ve had a couple of interesting conversations there with people passing through. One was with a pilgrim who’d just travelled to World Youth Day in Madrid—it sounded like a true pilgrimage, memorable for the modern-day hardships of overnight coach-trips and traipsing round the city in blazing heat. While in Spain, the Pope gave an address to young professors at Spanish universities. Christianity has for centuries pursued truth, goodness and beauty through education, and the current Pope was himself a professor at the University of Bonn. His address was particularly relevant to the British situation when he spoke of the dangers of shackling universities to short-term economic and political ends:

We know that when mere utility and pure pragmatism become the principal criteria, much is lost and the results can be tragic: from the abuses associated with a science which acknowledges no limits beyond itself, to the political totalitarianism which easily arises when one eliminates any higher reference than the mere calculus of power. The authentic idea of the University, on the other hand, is precisely what saves us from this reductionist and curtailed vision of humanity.
In truth, the University has always been, and is always called to be, the “house” where one seeks the truth proper to the human person.

Intrinsic good provides a robust philosophical defense of university education (incorporating sciences and humanities), and not just for people of faith; the philosopher M. M. McCabe spoke on this topic during a recent discussion on ‘The Future of the Humanties’ (she starts speaking at 16.10). Some fly-sheets reprinted during the Cambridge vote of no confidence in the government (which ended in a dead heat), sing a similar tune. One headlined ‘Education is a public good’ states (I’m quoting from page 1132):

The current administration [government] understands universities, essentially, as auxiliaries to commerce. Its notion of higher education is that it is or should be a market; that students should be shoppers in this market; that scholars should be salesmen and saleswomen in it. Students have protested forcefully against this idea of what they are and should be. By declaring, collectively, that education is a public good, not merely a financial asset, we [academics] can repay the public’s trust in us and demonstrate that we continue to deserve it.

The second kitchen conversation was with a pure mathematician who is well-read in world literature and was cooking some pork. Our conversation kept coming back to the problem of literary canons. He was arguing that it’s perfectly valid to defend great literature—Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, writers whose first names I don’t need to write—that clearly come closer to expressing essential human truths. Slicing some green beans, I responded with general liberal arguments about the social construction of canons, the need to discover unrecognized achievement, and that as a Renaissance scholar I’m reluctant to insist that you’re a better person if you read Shakespeare as well as I can.

My friend pointed me to an interview with the American critic Harold Bloom that rails against declining standards in American literature departments due to the mingle-mangle of political niceties: ‘I do not give in to political considerations, however they mask themselves. All this business about gender, social class, sexual orientation and skin pigmentation is nonsense. I’m 81. I’m not prepared to temporise any more. I’ve been prophesying like Jeremiah since 1968, warning the profession that it was destroying itself. And it has.’ He pointed me towards a couple of other bracing reads: Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind (1987) and a polemic by Alain Finkielkraut called The Defeat of the Mind (La Defaite de la Pensée¸ also 1987). I’d not read either of these, but I quickly tracked down the latter. Finkielkraut shakes his fist at a liberal multicultural agenda that dilutes the definition of ‘culture’ from affirming pinnacles of human thought to any recognizable social practice:

In effect the term ‘culture’ now has two meanings. The first asserts the pre-eminence of the life of thought; the second denies this: from everyday gestures to the great creations of the human spirit, is not everything cultural?’ Why should we give pride of place to the latter rather than the former, to the life of thought rather than the art of knitting, or the chewing of betel nuts, or the ancestral custom of dunking one’s buttered toast in the morning cup of coffee?’ So there is a malaise in cultural life. True enough, no one from now on is going to draw his revolver when he hears the word ‘culture’. But there are increasing numbers of people who, when they hear the word ‘thought’, reach for their culture.

Elsewhere he defends Shakespeare’s importance over a pair of boots, and envisions a dystopian scenario in which fanatics (believing in high culture) combat the zombies (brain-dead consumers). I’d agree that multiculturalism has its problems. I’m particularly bothered, as Finkielkraut and others better informed than me are, that it can assign cultural identities to people artificially, and hinder genuine interactions between individuals, all the more so in a world where technologies, trade and travelling bring people into contact with one another. The argument goes that you don’t protect collective identities by defining them as fixed entities—identity must be based on individual freedoms and rights. All the same, I’d counter the dichotomy drawn here between judicious prejudice and mindless tolerance. Respect from diversity doesn’t have to be a pre-agreed pact of non-aggression signed by officials who have precious few everyday interactions that really generate culture. Equality should be thoughtful and lively.

Based on my personal experience, I’d also want to disagree with those who solely defend a literary canon, or rationality as an objective: I’ve learnt a great deal from engaging with others who don’t fit easily into traditions of high culture. Some might object to my drawing the analogy, but there’s a similarity in my defence with an old argument used against Richard Dawkins: I wouldn’t assume that evolution gives me a superior knowledge of natural processes if I met an illiterate forest tribesperson, because that person has just as much real-world experience to draw on as I have, and my sophisticated mental designs don’t necessarily equate to a deeper understanding of reality. My rational idea do have practical benefits, such as providing the aeonautical technology  that allowed me to fly there, but the whole question here is about non-utilitarian forms of knowledge. Time is another good example: I can use a watch to devise an efficient schedule for my life, and make complex calculations about past and future plans, but someone who cannot tell the time, but can accurately tell you what time of day it is from the height of the sun possesses genuine awareness of how the world works. And I see that the same goes for literature too: canonical works have been successfully tested as providing rich insights into life, but this doesn’t mean that they provide our best definitions of what it is to be human, or that I can’t find insights in other books that are less cherished by my immediate society. Political correctness isn’t the only reason to listen for neglected voices.

So how do my two kitchen conversations relate? My argument in the second is against rationality as an objective criterion for greatness, and for holistic appreciation and understanding of the world in the pursuit of truth. Both of these arguments tend towards faith-based belief systems, and both are threatened when materialist or pragmatic concerns dominate an educational environment. A separate institutional factor in play here is that literary studies have become more specialized as more work is done, and there are greater numbers of academics; consequently, literary appreciation and intellectual grandeur have become amateur pursuits somewhat separate to professional work. The literary canon, as my friend quite reasonably saw it, remains a natural home for deep humanist thinking, and from this viewpoint inclusiveness leaches away this transcendental energy. But I read the canon more as a meeting-place where people discuss and contest issues, and is itself mobile. Sensitive, committed, opinionated engagement gives energy to these interactions. Being inclusive helps literature retain its special status as a point of contact between different people, different lives—but such interactions need to be genuine and whole-hearted, not based on a vague sense of correctness.

To complete the circle. The Pope imagined what an ‘authentic teacher’ looks like: ‘Young people need authentic teachers: persons open to the fullness of truth in the various branches of knowledge, persons who listen to and experience in own hearts that interdisciplinary dialogue; persons who, above all, are convinced of our human capacity to advance along the path of truth.’ Such teachers are committed, passionate and humble. They do not accede to relativism—and especially not officially-sanctioned relativism based on artificial sense of inclusiveness—but are willing to relate whole-heartedly with their subject-matter and with their students. There is much to take heed of in these sentiments. A public good of education is, as I see it, to facilitate such direct encounters. The Jewish philosopher and educator Martin Buber is a guiding light on this topic, as on this post in general.

In literature, those works (e.g. Shakespeare’s) which have proven a valuable resource for concentrated engagement between reader and text are likely to still be read and to encourage profound cognitive and emotional engagement. But this doesn’t automatically exclude unexpected discoveries that we can make by corresponding with marginal voices and listening to aspects of reality beyond our reach. A political spin on this is that minorities should not be restricted either from gaining empowerment by studying the canons, or the methods on which the West thrives. Literature develops ‘our human capacity to advance along the path of truth’ by encouraging meaningful relationships that allow us to look outside of those systems—political, economic, institutional—in which we exist, and this is something that can be genuinely liberating.


Leonels and Fletchers

Real Madrid recently bought a young footballer called Leonel who’s being talked up as the ‘next Lionel Messi’ (non-sports fans: he was FIFA World Footballer of the Year in 2009 and 2010). Leonel Angel Coira is just seven years old though. The same story crops up every so often: last season Arsenal snapped up Fletcher Toll, their ‘new David Beckham’….for their under-7 side. These signings always come in for the same criticism, that six or seven is just too early to guess someone’s adult potential. An interesting question to ask is whether you can make a world-class footballer from a seven-year-old, rather than just find a potential star. Does training at Real Madrid aged seven really provide more opportunities to improve than playing in the street?

Think about reading instead. An Oxford-based charity called Reading Quest works with six- and seven-year old primary school students who make a bad start with reading English (perhaps they have learning difficulties, or don’t speak English at home). About one in five students leave school unable to read confidently, and this creates problems later down the line. So Reading Quest offers these students a six-week series of one-on-one sessions to make up the gap, and tries to involve parents more in their children’s education. I’ve seen their tutors at work, and was impressed by how each lesson was tailored to that particular student, how the tutor always checked that the children followed what was happening, and that the children were encouraged to find reading enjoyable, so that they’d have the confidence, interest and strategies to make improvements after the sessions were over.

I was reminded of Reading Quest at the weekend when I met up with a school-friend who’s now a primary school teacher, and co-ordinates literary teaching at his school. He gave me a lovely comparable example of teaching children to paint using watercolour. You can spend half an hour with one child, showing him or her how to hold a brush and mix paints and that person will never forget how to do it. Or you could teach a class of thirty for an hour, and at the end no-one has properly learnt that skill. Now I know why my recorder classes at school sounded so terrible.

I mentioned to him that the previous week I’d been speaking to some Teach First graduates at a party in Kilburn, who teach at secondary schools and all agreed that engrained inequalities in educational achievement were already in place before Year Seven (age twelve). Those students who didn’t have basic skills in Maths and English couldn’t catch everything in their language and science lessons, and just fall further and further behind those high-fliers who’ve enjoyed lots of individual attention and so are better at learning. Children whose parents read stories to them when they were five, and received individual attention from empathic adults at school and home are likely to do better later on. These Kilburn teachers felt strongly that debate about access to universities needs to look much further back than A-Level grades.

For Leonels and Fletchers who play a team sport where (I imagine) you just need to play lots of football and keep being told to improve, I doubt it makes that much difference whether you’re playing for Real Madrid youth teams or in the local park. Talent will shine through. But one reason it’s different for school children at that age is that it matters whether you build up basic skills, like reading, that allow you to become an independent learner, gain more skills later on and hold some kind of interest in what you’re doing. And personalized attention probably plays an important role in acquiring these skills.


In Veliko Târnovo

Veliko Târnovo is a former medieval capital of Bulgaria, tucked away in a forested hill region where the iconic Tsarevets Fortress looks out across the Yantra river. Travelling from Sofia to Varna last week, I spent a couple of nights in the town, visited nearby Arbanasi, and stayed at a guesthouse which, by chance, also happened to be an English school (Guesthouse Diel–recommended).

The hostess was extremely friendly, spoke excellent English, and was also a passionate advocate of the benefits of studying literature. She gestured to her heart when talking about the empathy that students should bring to studying Shakespeare or Byron, and spoke of the importance of advanced literary skills in modern society. In Bulgaria as elsewhere though, many students are unresponsive in literature classes and choose degrees that will ensure a decent job rather than learning to interpret classic Bulgarian works like Ivan Vazov’s Under the Yoke.

As heart-warming as this conversation was, I don’t mean to portray it as an ad hoc convention of the East European branch of the Dead Poets Society. Our conversation turned, as such conversations sometimes do, to the indifference about literature among general publics. Why do so few students feel the power of great writing! If only Hollywood would make serious Shakespeare adaptations! Would that Total Wipeout was replaced by ‘An Hour with a Sonnet’ on Saturday nights!

Literature is a fairly niche pursuit: lots of people don’t read much, and not all that many read the ‘classics’ in their spare time. That’s how it’s always been, and that’s pretty much fine. I don’t hear mathematicians complaining that more people don’t spend their time brushing up on calculus at weekends, and I probably would have heard if there was a dearth of people studying black holes or nanotechnology or painting. There is a large groundswell of cultural activity in Britain (think of theatres, museums, festivals, newspapers) and to judge from all the books on sale on street-corners, there is in Bulgaria too. Promoting, say, George Eliot‘s merits to others need not entail pillorying them if they’d rather read science-fiction, or get back to Facebook after listening to you.

It’s also natural that literature specialists advocate what interest them, and hope to spark enthusiasm in others. An education in the arts provides the opportunity, in schools and in universities, for those who are responsive to literature to receive support as they pursue their interest, and for others to have some first-hand experience with their cultural heritage whilst gaining valuable literacy skills. Education helps along the exchange of ideas within invisible global networks of like-minded people. But not everyone will be lit up by literature.


Between Technicolor and Tweed

The Public Value of the Humanities is a new collection of essays commissioned by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It is edited by the Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate, who also wrote the introduction. Bate begins by alluding to the biblical Joseph (he of dreamcoat fame) as a precursor of a ‘secular clerisy’ (i.e. bunch of scholars) who devote their energies to studying culture and making forecasts about the future. He has Samuel Taylor Coleridge in mind here, who described ‘an endowed class, for the cultivation of learning, and for diffusing its results among the community’. Bate is quoting John Stuart Mill writing about Coleridge and Jeremy Bentham, the utilitarian philosopher. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that measures happiness and benefits in numbers to work out which alternative provides ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’: it’s the end result that matters. When seeking knowledge, a friend of Bentham would ask ‘Is it true?’ and a friend of Coleridge would ask ‘what is the meaning of it?’.

Either Mill or Coleridge or Bate or all three raised the following question: ‘How can society foster those dimensions of human life that Benthamite utilitarianism cannot account for—the ethical, the beautiful, the cohesive force?’ The implicit answer is that we can only appreciate the unquantifiable by protecting a group of individuals—i.e. religious clergy or non-religious scholars—who search out and communicate those truths. This is non-utilitarian because it doesn’t make a fixed contribution to society, but it has a public value in searching out these suprarational unifying truths. There is something to this old argument, though different people will baulk at some point when it comes to giving institutional authorization to an elect group of the bespectacled.

Sandwiched between these thoughts, Bate records the answers he got when he asked some of his academic buddies to come up with an answer to the following question: A cabinet minister explains to you that she doesn’t mind ploughing lots of the budget into medical care or international aid, but she does have a problem subsidizing humanities research and teaching. Why should the state pay for the study of literature, when it wouldn’t contribute to costs of other hobbies like horse-riding? ‘I like riding my horse, but I don’t expect the taxpayer to pay for me to do so’. Bate lists ten defences (from scholars in many different fields) for why humanities are  different from horse-riding:

1. Britain is a major world centre of publishing and intellectual life, and it’s necessary to support the humanities to sustain that reputation.

2. Humanities subjects foster critical thinking.

3. History can help improve global security by reminding us, and policy-makers in particular, about the lessons of the past.

4. ‘Bibliotherapy’: books and the arts make a genuine contribution to public health.

5. If the horse-rider was of an international standard, then it’d seem far more reasonable to provide public support. In this regard univerisities, like sport, are a matter of national prestige and so deserve public support (cf point 1).

6. The formation of a ‘cultural identity’ benefits from analytical and historical perspectives.

7. The humanities help sustain cultural heritage and cultural value.

8. An academic discipline aren’t about private hobbies but the public good: research is about disinterested endeavour that helps us understand ourselves and each other.

9. Just because research is driven by curiosity, it doesn’t mean it’s a hobby.

10. It promotes cultural exchange and understanding between different traditions.

A French reader of this blog explained to me the other day that he found it fairly ‘utilitarian’, and that in France it’s more readily assumed that the arts should be promoted for their own sake—’l’art pour l’art.’ The list above tends to emphasize the public benefit of the humanities: what tax-payers get out for putting money in (1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10). The other items (2, 8, 9) are more purely intellectual, suggesting ways that the humanities contribute to understanding the world. Two common features of academic disciplines in most universities are that they offer expertise, and that they contribute to society. Conversations, teaching, lectures, publication and similar activities are the ways that expertise spreads. A ‘secular clerisy’, a unit of authorized experts on human culture dressed in technicolor tweed, might have its supporters (Matthew Arnold, F.R. Leavis and their followers), but would also rile many people with its exclusivity.

A larger issue here is the nature of the vital relationship between gaining expertise and diffusing it to others–the existence of a community of learning, and its relationship to those outside.  An important starting point is the attitude scholars take: research carried out within and for the benefit of society will have a public value, often the more powerful and sustained for not being created to be shouted about. The basic point to emerge from all this is that one function of the humanities is to examine and uphold non-utilitarian aspects of human activity (e.g., ones without a defined economic benefit), and prompt wider society to think about them too.