Were it so… that some little profit might be reaped (which God knows is very little) out of some of our playbooks, the benefit thereof will nothing near countervail the harm that the scandal will bring unto the library, when it shall be given out that we stuff it full of baggage [i.e., trashy] books.
-- Sir Thomas Bodley, founder of the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, explaining why he did not wish to keep English plays in his library (1612).
On William Shakespeare’s birthday this year, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) issued a report, “The Unkindest Cut: Shakespeare in Exile in 2015,” which warned that “less than 8 percent of the nation’s top universities require English majors to take even a single course that focuses on Shakespeare.” Warnings about the decline of a traditional literary canon are familiar from conservative academic organizations such as ACTA and the National Association of Scholars. What increasingly strikes me, however, is how frozen in amber these warning are.
In a nation obsessed with career-specific and STEM education, there is scant support for humanities in general. Where are the conservative voices advocating for the place of English and the humanities in the university curriculum? One would think this advocacy natural for such academics and their allies. After all, when Matthew Arnold celebrated the “best that has been thought and known,” he was proposing cultural study not only as an antidote to political radicalism but also to a life reduced, by the people he called philistines, to industrial production and the consumption of goods.
We have our modern philistines. Where are our modern conservative voices to call them out? Instead, on the shrinking support for the liberal arts in American education -- the most significant issue facing the humanities -- organizations such as ACTA and NAS mistake a parochial struggle over particular authors and curricula for the full-throated defense of the humanities.
Worse, these organizations suggest that if one does not study Shakespeare or a small set of other writers in the traditional literary canon (moreover, in only certain ways), then literature and culture are not worth studying -- hardly a way to advocate for literary studies.
The requirements at my own institution suggest how misleading the ACTA position is, and how thin a commitment to the humanities it represents. With no Shakespeare requirement in the George Mason University English department, it is true that some of our majors won’t study Shakespeare. However, because our majors must take a course in a pre-1800 literature -- nearly all the departments ACTA examined have a similar requirement -- that means they’ll study Chaucer, or medieval intellectual history, or Wyatt, Sidney, Donne, Jonson, Milton, etc. (The study of Spenser, however, appears to me somewhat in decline; ACTA, if you want to take up the cause of The Faerie Queene, let me know.)
How can writers as great as these be off ACTA’s map? Is it because ACTA doesn’t really value them? Its Bardolatry is idolatry -- the worship of the playwright as wooden sign rather than living being, a Shakespeare to scold with, but no devotion to the rich literary and cultural worlds of which Shakespeare was a part. Hence, too, the report maintains that a course such as Renaissance Sexualities is no substitute for what it calls the “seminal study of Shakespeare” -- though certainly such a course might feature the Renaissance sonnet tradition, including Shakespeare’s important contribution to it, not to mention characters from Shakespeare’s plays such Romeo and Juliet or Rosalind and Ganymede.
ACTA also warns that rather than Shakespeare, English departments are “often encouraging instead trendy courses on popular culture.” This warning similarly indicates the narrowness of ACTA’s commitment to literary study. As anyone who’s ever taken a Shakespeare course should know, not only were Shakespeare’s plays popular culture in his own day (English plays were scandalous trash, thought Thomas Bodley), but also the very richness of Shakespeare’s literary achievement comes from his own embrace of multiple forms of culture. His sources are not just high-end Latin authors but also translations of pulpy Italian “novels,” English popular writers, folktales, histories and travelogues, among others. The plays remain vibrant today because Shakespeare allows all these sources to live and talk to one another.
Indeed, the literary scholars William Kerrigan and Gordon Braden point out that in this quality Shakespeare was typical of his age, for the vibrancy of the Renaissance derives in part from its hybridity. The classical was a point of departure, but neither Shakespeare nor Renaissance culture was slavishly neoclassical. Modern English departments, in their embrace of multiple literary cultures, in their serious study of our human expression, evince the same spirit.
Conservatives have suggested that the hybridity of the modern English major is responsible for declining interest in the major. That claim cannot be proved. Anecdotes and intuitions are insufficient to do so. Data on trends in the number of majors over time can only show correlation, not causation.
And in terms of correlation, here are four more likely drivers of the decline in the percentage of students majoring in English: students are worried about finding jobs and are being told (wrongly, according to the actual statistics) that the English major is not a path to one; students now have many new majors to choose from, many no longer in the liberal arts; English has traditionally had more female than male majors, and women now pursue majors, such as in business or STEM fields, from which they used to be discouraged (a good change); political leaders have abandoned the liberal arts in favor of STEM and career-specific education and are advising students to do the same (even President Obama jumped on this bandwagon, though he later apologized).
Regarding this last cause, the voices of organizations such as ACTA and NAS could particularly help, since many of these politicians are conservatives, and leaders of these academic organizations have ties to conservative political circles. In doing so, conservatives could help reclaim a legacy. In 1982, William Bennett, as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, urged colleges to support the humanities against “more career-oriented things.” By 1995, Bennett had become disgusted with what he saw as an overly progressive agenda in the humanities. Picking up his marbles and going home, Bennett urged Congress to defund the NEH. More recently, Bennett agreed with North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory that the goal of publicly funded education should be to get students jobs. “How many Ph.D.s in philosophy do I need to subsidize?” Bennett asked.
Shakespeare was generous in his reading and thinking. We can be, too. Literary scholars may disagree on many things -- on the values to be derived from a particular literary work, on the ways it ought to be framed, on which literary works are most worthy of classroom reading. But such disagreements are just part of the study of the humanities in a democratic society. When we support the humanities, we support an important public space to have these disagreements. We also support Shakespeare -- who really isn’t going away from the English curriculum -- and the study of literature more generally.
The ACTA study, as far as I can tell, was mainly met with silence. That’s because the study is a rehash of an earlier one from 2007, itself a rehash of the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s. No one cared, because most people have moved on from the culture wars, and for many of our political leaders, culture itself doesn’t much matter anymore. Culture wars have become a war on culture. In that battle, all lovers of literature should be on the same side. Advocating for the humanities, even as we argue about them, is walking and chewing gum. We should be able to do both at the same time. I appeal to conservative academic organizations that we need to. The one-sided emphasis on majors that lead directly to careers and the blanket advocacy of STEM fields are far greater threats to the humanities than sustainability studies. And without the humanities, there is no institutionalized study of Toni Morrison. Or pulp fiction. Or Sidney. Or Shakespeare.
Robert Matz is professor of English, with a focus on English Renaissance literature, at George Mason University. He currently serves as senior associate dean for George Mason’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Lost among my books, probably in a box somewhere, is a paperback copy of Bhagavad Gita As It Is, offered to me at a reasonable price by a smiling Hare Krishna devotee working the crowd in Union Square. The word “smiling” is probably redundant. What the group advertises is bliss, and it would be a pretty shoddy product if it broke down under the pressure of New Yorkers’ indifference.
I bought it -- the book, anyway -- but hadn’t noticed it going AWOL until reading Richard H. Davis’s The 'Bhagavad Gita': A Biography, a volume in Princeton University Press’s rewarding Lives of Great Religious Books series. Davis, a professor of religion at Bard College, mentions that A. C. Bhaktivedanta, “a vigorous 70-year-old Bengali,” arrived in the United States in 1965 and in short order was teaching and chanting among the protohippies in Greenwich Village. Swami Prabhupada, as he came to be known, published his own heavily annotated edition of the Gita in 1968 -- the one you can still get from his robed and shaved-headed acolytes now, 50 years after he began proselytizing.
The swami went on to his reward in 1977. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness he founded can now claim, semiplausibly, to have put out more than 20 million copies of Bhagavad Gita As It Is in some 56 languages. It is a sign of Davis’s accomplishment with his “biography” that he leaves the reader aware of how small a blip those missionary efforts are in the context of the Gita’s history -- let alone on the scripture’s own cosmic scale.
As sacred texts go, the Bhagavad Gita (“song of the Lord”) is notable for both its brevity and the relatively straightforward relationship between doctrine and narrative. It has a plot. The setting is ancient India, shortly before a war that will leave more than a million dead. Arjuna, a warrior by birth, surveys the two armies poised for battle and, turning to his charioteer, Krishna, expresses overwhelming despair at the pointlessness of the fratricidal warfare about to begin.
Krishna first counsels a kind of stoic attitude toward the performance of duty: the lot of the warrior is to fight, but without attachment, to fulfill destiny without desire or fear as to its outcome. It is attachment, the corruption of action by the passions, that keeps someone bound to the cycle of rebirth.
Then Krishna reveals that he is not just a god moonlighting as chariot driver but the Supreme Being ne plus ultra, something beyond all human imagination or understanding: “Arjuna sees Krishna’s arms and eyes, bellies and mouths, stretching out in all directions. He sees all the gods contained within Krishna’s vast body.” The vision can only be called mind melting as Krishna speaks the words that Robert Oppenheimer recalled while witnessing the first atomic explosion:
If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky,
That would be like the Splendor
Of the Mighty One…
I am become Death
The shatterer of worlds.
Returning to human form, Krishna makes what is in some ways the most powerful revelation of all. Love and devotion are Krishna’s due, and Arjuna is prepared to give them. But the relationship is not one-way. Krishna expresses his love for Arjuna and promises to be the warrior’s ultimate refuge: “I will liberate you from all sins. Do not grieve.”
With that, Arjuna’s doubts and hesitation are put to rest, and the battle is joined.
The dialogue appears as a philosophical interlude in The Mahabharata, an epic poem of prodigious scale. It is unclear which came first -- the dialogue may have been composed as part of the larger work and then extracted, or it could be a freestanding text that some ancient editor spliced in. “Some observers,” Davis notes, “have pointed to the unlikelihood, or the ‘dramatic absurdity,’ as one noted Indologist put it, of great masses of zealous warriors sitting idly by for ninety minutes while a soldier and his charioteer chat in the no-man’s land.”
As an aesthetic objection that seems fair enough. The situation doesn’t work as a realistic segment in a chronicle of war. (I can’t say, having never read The Mahabharata, or even met anyone who has.) But its “dramatic absurdity” nonetheless works in expressing the mood of terrible existential pain, the moment of facing life or death and feeling overwhelmed by the reality right in front of you. That quality makes the Gita a powerful work even for readers incapable of regarding surrender to Krishna as what William James called “a live option.”
For medieval Indian poets, artists and sages, the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna resonated with ideas and debates of long standing; they read it as a work concentrating and clarifying doctrines expressed rather more obliquely in the Vedas, a much older set of scriptures. The Bhagavad Gita’s depiction of Krishna also put pressure on the devotees of other gods to produce revelatory works of their own. “These gitas,” Davis writes, “always involve discourses conveyed from deities to listeners that constitute authoritative instruction on the fundamental nature of the world along with guidance for effective human conduct leading to worldly benefits and ultimately liberation.”
Infomercials of the gods! Still, it was Krishna’s gita that became the Gita -- a text widely, if dubiously, regarded as “the Hindu bible.” Its ascension was no sure thing. In two absorbing chapters, Davis traces a series of stages leading from the first English translation in 1785 (a byproduct of British imperial interests) to widespread fascination among the literati (Thoreau took it to Walden pond, Whitman died with it under his pillow) to a kind of rebirth as an element of Indian national identity, in part through Gandhi’s reading of Edwin Arnold’s The Song Celestial, which put the Gita into English, and iambic pentameter to boot.
Davis notes that only a very small share of early iconography of Krishna shows him in scenes from the Bhagavad Gita. More commonly depicted were legends of his mischievous childhood or his role as combative young prince. Treating the Gita as the Hindu equivalent of the Judeo-Christian scriptures probably revealed more about British Protestant sensibilities than it did about Indian religion.
But it proved to be a productive sort of confusion: with so many questions about the Bible they knew troubling the minds of Westerners, the new scripture from the East proved timely. Davis says just a little about the broad similarity between Krishna and Christ (each understood as a human incarnation of the divine, with a message of love) but clearly it was on the minds of some enthusiasts even before gurus started making trips to Europe and America.
There’s so much else to say about The 'Bhagavad Gita': A Biography -- but my karma depends upon meeting a deadline, so not today. Princeton’s Lives of the Great Religious Books continues to offer interesting titles (up soon: The Book of Revelation) and is the rare instance of a series with a concept that really works.