Just got back from a good lunch with a local Orthodox priest who is also a trained physicist, and who has a passionate interest in the dialogue between religion and science. I’m thinking about how one thing I love about the Templeton Foundation is how it’s a place where you can ask the big questions (the Big Questions) about the meaning of life, as revealed to us through science, religion, etc., and be taken seriously. What I mean is that they really do encourage serious, open inquiry, absent a spirit of cynicism, and without a sense that we have to study and talk about these things so Our Side (whatever Our Side is) can score points in the culture war.
Over the weekend I spoke with a politics professor about how burned out I had become on political questions, not because I thought they were unimportant, but because it seemed so difficult to have a meaningful political discussion anymore. So many people seem to be so sold out to their position that they cannot imagine questioning it, out of fear (I suppose) that to admit to a lack of faith or clarity is to confess weakness. We have two ignorant armies of the Potomac, clashing by night. That’s unfair to serious people of the right and the left, who are doing important thinking about where we are, and where we might go. But it’s hard to hear their voices these days, and in any case, I have nothing much to add to that conversation anymore. As real and as important as I think the culture war is, I’ve reached the sour conclusion that it has made it hard to think and to talk about some awfully important things. I’m hoping that with the online magazine I’m helping to create here, Templeton will provide a forum where the big questions can be discussed openly and in depth, from a variety of perspectives, without culture-war baggage conditioning the debate.
Along those lines, I was heartened to read this post by Rufus, a humanities professor who has just signed on to the League of Ordinary Gentleman to blog about the canon. He points out that it’s hard to make the Great Books live for contemporary audiences … but that it has always been hard to rescue the vital heart of great works from academicians’ attempts to commit taxidermy upon them. Rufus says even Erasmus complained about the pedantic ways of scholars, centuries before the first poststructuralist uttered a syllable. Here’s what Rufus intends to do:
I propose to “blog the canon”; from Homer to Hitchcock, Wittgenstein to Warhol, and Plato to Passolini. I want to do is write in a lively, irreverent, and passionate way about “the best that has been said and thought in the world”, and how these works affect me, a relative pisher in many of these areas. I am no expert. (With any luck, I’ll win one of Andrew Sullivan’s “poseur alerts”!) But I do want to write about the Aeneid the way we bloggers write about Avatar- as a living part of our culture.
Here’s what I’d like to avoid if I can:
1.The Casaubon approach: overly-pedantic and treating the great books as a museum piece. This is all wrong for the Internet anyway.
2.The Bill Bennet approach: in which the texts are completely decontextualized and combed over for values we can apply to our lives. “What can Achilles teach us about leadership?” There’s no quicker way to kill these texts than to put them on a pedestal to die.
3.The hyper critical grad student approach: the sexist/racist/hegemonic school of analysis in which classical thinkers are interrogated, beaten, and forced to give up the ghost, reduced to their worst qualities to escape an assumed “triumphalism”. I’m an enthusiast; not a vandal.
I wish Rufus well. I’ll be reading. I’m confident that there are quite a few people all over the political and cultural spectrum who would love to follow these conversations, but who get frustrated by how quickly attempts to explore ideas critically turn into us-versus-them side-taking. Look, I know that sides will get taken, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that in principle. What I’m interested in is holding one’s own convictions and prejudices in abeyance long enough to listen to what the others are saying, and to give yourself space to look at ideas and questions with fresh eyes — that is, without rushing to think how this idea can be made to serve one’s cause, or can be quickly dismissed for the sake of serving one’s cause.