Teaching Beauty

Jennifer Green-Lewis and Margaret Soltan celebrate literature professors unafraid to share their love of authors' artistry with students.

April 21, 2008

When his turn came to speak at Norman Mailer's recent memorial service in New York, the novelist Don DeLillo began by simply holding up his creased and worn 50-year-old copy of Mailer's first novel, The Naked and the Dead.

All lovers of literature understand the nature of DeLillo's gesture; they understand that behind the little paperback that he lifted for the audience to see lay years of private aesthetic pleasure in its pages -- from the college student marveling at its prose to the venerated author of Underworld marveling at the same thumbed passages. That's the sort of writer Mailer was, DeLillo meant to say: He wrote novels you're never finished with; and the scuffs and scratches and stains you put in them over the years add up to the archaeology of your own literary life.

Alexander Nehamas says that beauty of any kind is "a call to look more attentively." Readers of poetry, lovers of music, gardeners gardening -- all people who engage actively with beauty by paying close and lasting attention to it know this to be true. Yet because, in recent decades, we have misperceived the value of beauty, literary scholars have neglected the crucial work of thinking through our relationship with beautiful forms, and have failed to teach our students about the way that relationship sustains and enlightens us.

Who would ever enter a classroom and invite their students to consider the beauty of a work because, as Nicolas Malebranche puts it, "Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul"? The word "soul" doesn't get much exercise in English departments any more, and neither do concepts associated with it -- inspiration, consolation, communality, transcendence, love. What do these have to do nowadays with the study of literature? In our public neglect of such concepts in favor of the political and the material, our answer is clear: nothing.

Of course, literature professors who graduated from English departments in the past 30 years can defend their neglect of matters related to the soul, since in their studies no one talked much about these things either. An English professor recalls the facile "contingency" arguments of her day, which did so much to undermine judgments of aesthetic value: "I felt I had to hide or smuggle in my humanist convictions about 'what sustains people' -- my faith for example in some quality of shared humanity that makes literary experience meaningful.... I was writing about [James] Joyce's insights into the touching human need to bury, burn, or otherwise take care of the bodies of the dead -- an impulse that is universal, however differently loss and the communal response to it are experienced across cultures. I was afraid I'd be attacked for 'essentializing' -- for supposing that there are features, shared across cultures, that constitute the essence of being human."

Surely "essentializing" -- a poor choice of word for an acknowledgment of shared humanity -- is necessary in the imaginative work involved in recognizing the existence of someone else. As Iris Murdoch argues, that recognition is difficult and demands a leap into the sort of empathy which the imaginative demands of literature encourage. When Murdoch expresses her admiration for T.E. Lawrence because he "let the agonizing complexities of situations twist [his] heart instead of tying his hands," she reminds us that the real-world value of great and complex art can accustom us to the intricate and often painful ambiguities of the world.

The aesthetic disposition, we argue in our book, Teaching Beauty, is actually much less quietist than theoretically convoluted dispositions which see everything as "always already" inscribed; much less quietist, indeed, than a social constructivism which regards individuals as importantly or even definitively constrained by the particularities of their race, class, and gender.

Indeed the experience of beauty cultivates confidence in one's own perceptions and preferences, expressing itself, for instance, in the "oddness" that Henry James's Strether, in The Ambassadors, praises in Chad, whose shabby but singular Paris apartment seems to Strether part of his "small sublime indifferences and independences, [his] odd and engaging dignity." Nehamas has the same accomplishment of individuality in mind when he writes that a life of aesthetic experiences and choices is one in which he has been able to "put things together in my own manner and form." The judgment of beauty, he writes, "is a judgment of value," implicating us "in a web of relationships with people and things." The conscious choices behind this implication "lead toward individuality." In that achieved
individuality, with its bracing sense of independence, authenticity, and personal agency, resides beauty's promise of happiness. For implicit in this accomplishment of autonomy and agency is a larger reassurance about the ability of humanity in general to shape and improve the world.

Critics of aesthetics tend to dismiss the "better world" orientation that often accompanies a serious interest in beauty as sentimental, religious, and naïve, an indulgent distraction from the hard truths of our time. But they are mistaken in this dismissal. The ability to establish strong personal agency, and then project certain futures, certain human potentialities, as novelists often do, and the ability to enter into and respond emotionally to those projections, as strong readers do, is a realistic and mature way of expressing faith in the possibility of humanity's capacity to improve itself.

Dmitri Tymocko, in describing Beethoven's brilliance, evokes precisely this disposition of passion and reason: "[We] can have tremendous, Beethovenian passions without losing all sense of our own limitation. (As one can have powerful political convictions while still recognizing that reasonable people may disagree.) Beethoven himself may not have achieved the perfect synthesis of these two, complementary qualities. But the evidence of both his music and his life suggests that he tried. Passionate maturity, neither resignation nor moderation nor fanaticism: that, perhaps, is what is truly

The display of "passionate maturity" may be in fact the best that we could ever hope for in our teaching of literature. The centrality of aesthetic experience in the struggle toward adaptation to a world forever changed by the particular political traumas of our time, and in the struggle toward the creation of a more humane world, means that professors of literature have in fact a special, even extraordinary, responsibility. In conveying the fullness of powerful aesthetic gestures, they must convey more than the form and content of particular poems, plays, and novels. They must embody in their very mode of teaching the paradox of passionate control which so often characterizes the greatest works of art; and they must embody the moral value for each individual of this dynamic act of balance.

As William Arrowsmith writes: "[The] enabling principle [of the humanities is] the principle of personal influence and personal example. [Professors should be] visible embodiments of the realized humanity of our aspirations, intelligence, skill, scholarship.[The] humanities are largely Dionysiac or Titanic; they cannot be wholly grasped by the intellect; they must be suffered, felt, seen. This inexpressible turmoil of our animal emotional life is an experience of other chaos matched by our own chaos. We see the form and order not as pure and abstract but as something emerged from chaos, something which has suffered into being. The humanities are always caught up in the actual chaos of living, and they also emerge from that chaos. If they touch us at all, they touch us totally, for they speak to what we are too."

A student of Wayne Booth's at the University of Chicago remembers an independent study on Joyce's Ulysses that he and eight other students had with Booth: "Each week the nine of us gathered in a tight circle in his office at the top of the west Harper tower, surrounded by walls of books and a window looking out over the quad. We read aloud from each chapter and Mr. Booth guided our conversations through that great maze of a book. During our last meeting, Mr. Booth read the final section of Molly's
soliloquy. As he approached the end, his voice began to tremble. I looked up from my text to see Wayne Booth crying as he read "yes I said yes I will yes."

Weeping's not required, of course; but there's nothing wrong with professors expressing in their own skin the way in which sustaining fictive truths suffer into being. For those who have carried their literary affections with them through a long life it may even be impossible to keep one's private emotion at bay when a work recalls vividly moments from that life. Paul Fussell has written movingly about the difficulty of keeping his emotions checked when teaching certain works: "During my final years of teaching, I had to be very careful what I talked about, and quoted, in front of a class, for I found I could not navigate unmoved through certain things."

In the age of distance learning, downloaded lecture content, and Death by Powerpoint, it's all the more important that humanities professors resist the ugly mechanization of the classroom, the new and primitive industrial age we're in, and take more seriously than ever their function as living embodiments of the power of beauty. Raimond Gaita, a moral philosopher, puts the matter most strongly: "To be more than a high-flying dilettante you need more than intellectual skills. You must develop a certain kind of moral seriousness: you must try to overcome vanity, to have courage, to care more for truth than for status, and so on. That's as obvious as the need to be kind and just if you are to be a good person and it's just as hard. Critical thinking can be taught. How and why really to care for the truth can't be, not, at any rate, in the same way. For that you need examples in your teachers and in the texts that you study. The examples won't all come from the humanities, but only the humanities can give what you need to reflect on their significance."

It is an interesting idea that the humanities might nurture "moral seriousness," and that such seriousness is in fact required if one is to be more than merely clever, or well versed in one's subject. The return of beauty to literary studies, which we think to be both underway and overdue, is one step toward the revitalization of the liberal arts. That will be its grand, social, public accomplishment.


Jennifer Green-Lewis and Margaret Soltan (known to IHE readers as the proprietor of one of its blogs, University Diaries) are the authors of the just-released book Teaching Beauty in DeLillo, Woolf, and Merrill (Palgrave Macmillan), from which this piece is a revised excerpt and appears here with permission of Palgrave Macmillan. They are English professors at George Washington University.


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