Monday, September 29, 2008

A man of unmistakable intellectual breeding

Secularists: hopelessly tone deaf.

The BBC is "thinking" about Brideshead, and wondering why everyone still thinks its so great, now that no one cares about all that Catholic stuff:
For author Evelyn Waugh, a Catholic convert, the central theme of the book was religion. As he put it, "the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters". In an era that celebrated the Catholicism-infused novels of Graham Greene and others, there was nothing strange about such a leitmotif.

In today's Britain, the Catholic aspect is no doubt lost on many, and yet the grip of the story remains.

"There is so much in it apart from that Catholic theme," says Alexander Waugh, grandson of the author, and writer of the Waugh family biography Fathers and Sons.

"It is a very rich book - nostalgia, of fading youth, beautiful language, a bit of sentiment. We all look back with a mixture of regret and pleasure. It is very beautiful and very warming.

It is a peculiarity of the "post-modern" mind, one that cannot accept the existence of any objective or "real" or "true" viewpoint, that it cannot understand literature. Pomo literary criticism is all that is taught in universities now and students are instructed to interpret for themselves, according to whatever political paradigm is being used, whatever piece of literature they are reading. Thus we get the "LGBTQ" or the "feminist" approach to Waugh's characters in which students are instructed to "read in" the various political causes to the characters' motivations. For our postmodern barbarians, the idea of trying to find out from the text the "real" or "objective" meaning of what they are reading, what the author intended, is merely laughable, archaic. A notion that died out in academe with academic gowns and Latin grace at the college dinner and evensong in the college chapel.

To the PMBs, there is no such thing as an external reality to apprehend in literature, and therefore all literary study and criticism is entirely a matter of subjective interpolations rather than objective interpretations. I have tried to read postmodern literary criticism and found it is not only so heavily jargoned as to be incomprehensible, but also, once the meaning is excavated from the piles of gibberish, intolerably shallow. It is ironic that the modern interpolators criticised the old school as being narrow-minded. The idea that one can actually learn anything from literature has been swept aside.

I was reading Sir Arthur last night on the reason one should read and understand English literature and I realised that what he believed about literature, and truth, would have made it impossible for the great man to have been given employment in the academic field today. Examining the difference in approach to literature between this, what we must now call the "old school" represented by Sir Arthur and the new post-modern interpolative criticism, can give us a great many hints as to the difference in character and outlook between what has elsewhere been called the "Newfangled Person" and the "traditionalist", in every field of life, whether religion or politics, in grammar and usage or in table manners.

Sir Arthur was taking the then-new chair of English literature at Cambridge in 1913, and gave a speech to the learned gentlemen assembled, expounding how he would approach this nascent field of study:
"Let me, then, lay down two or three principles by which I propose to be guided. For the first principle of all I put to you that in studying any work of genius we should begin by taking it absolutely: that is to say, with minds intent on discovering just what the author's mind intended; this being at once the obvious approach to its meaning, and the merest duty of politeness we owe to the great man adressing us. We should lay our minds open to what he wishes to tell, and if what he has to tell be noble and high and beautiful, we should surrender and let soak our minds in it. [italics in the original]


As we dwell here between two mysteries, of a soul within and an ordered Universe without, so among us are granted to dwell certain men of more delicate intellectual fibre than their fellows - men whose minds have, as it were, filaments to intercept, apprehend, conduct, translate home to us stray messages between these two mysteries, as modern telegraphy has learnt to search out, snatch, gather home human messages astray over waste waters of the Ocean."

A man reading a great work of literature knows by instinct that something True has been uncovered. The purpose of studying literature is the same as that of studying anything True, therefore: to make a better man.

"If, then, the ordinary man be done this service by the poet, that (as Dr. Johnson defines it) 'he feels what he remembers to have felt before, but he feels it with a great increase of sensibility'; or even if, though the message be unfamiliar, it suggest to us, in Wordsworth's phrase, to 'feel that we are greater than we know,' I submit that we respond to it less by anything that usually passes for knowledge, than by an improvement of sensibility, a tuning up of the mind to the poet's pitch; so that the man we are proud to send forth from our Schools will be remarkable less for something he can take out of his wallet and exhibit for knowledge, than for being something , and that 'something' a man of unmistakable intellectual breeding, whose trained judgment we can trust to choose the better and reject the worse."
Can you imagine a modern university anywhere saying that its purpose is to create a man of "intellectual breeding" capable of distinguishing good and evil?

Didn't think so.


Anonymous said...

Agonisingly, even the home of lost causes has succumbed. No. 2 son, going up this October to read Eng. Lang & Lit, has to do a Critical Theory [read Pomo] as one of his four Mods papers.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Tell him to do a critique of postmodern criticism using Sir Arthur as the primary source.

That'll drive 'em nuts.