Rushdieing to Judgment
At the end of Salman Rushdie’s Lucas Lecture in the Arts, a student asked why he chose to include an account from the early history of Islam in a book about contemporary London. Rushdie, in a fiery response, said a writer shouldn’t have to justify his words – it’s those who threatened Rushdie in the wake of the publication of The Satanic Verses who ought to answer for their actions.
This final question I hadn’t taken as a challenge at all, and judging from what the student mouthed to her friends after Rushdie’s answer, it seemed the questioner hadn’t intended it that way either. What she was asking for, I thought, was not a political justification of his choice but a literary one. Certainly every good writer has a good artistic justification for each of his or her choices (Plato’s so-called ‘principle of logographic necessity’). Especially for such a large choice that involves violating unity of time and place. But talking greatly at the beginning of the address about how he’d wished people would focus on the book itself rather than the surrounding controversy, his own speech dwelt almost exclusively on political topics. He made an excellent case for the power of literature, but literature itself was scarcely discussed. And so we left the Rec Center with little new appreciation for the aesthetic intricacies of The Satanic Verses.
All the hoopla about Rushdie coming to campus perhaps demonstrated at least in part the argument offered by Emily Bernard in the Viewpoint piece earlier this term – that the humanities’ embrace of the social and politically relevant has affected our study of the texts themselves. Of course Rushdie has prodigious talent (his charming conversationalism and adorably Britishish wit were on full display that Friday), but was he not invited to campus primarily because someone somewhere viewed his text as politically dangerous? If the primary thing about a work was that it was controversial, then there’s a danger (though by no means a guarantee) of us becoming totally wrapped up in the meta-discourse and leaving the text itself behind. Instead of worrying about the taxi drivers who hasn’t read his book because it was banned, shouldn’t we be more concerned about all the people in that gymnasium who hadn’t read his book because – well ... why didn’t most of us read The Satantic Verses?
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The Strife of the Mind
Carleton, apparently, is "the 2nd most intellectual campus in the country." Not that HuffPo or whoever declared that has any way of actually knowing, but I think this should be less cause for pride and more for concern about what the hell the rest of the U.S. is doing. There are many qualities of Carls that makes our campus culture so wonderfully inspiring – but I’m not sure intellectualism is one of them.
Forty years ago former President Laurence Gould proclaimed that Carleton was founded in 387 b.c. – the year Plato’s Academy opened. Nowadays, the "the Good and the Beautiful" – the words animating the Socratic pursuit that also happen to emblazon our school’s seal – are no longer the destination towards which our academic pathways point.
A strand of Western thought churned out in the Enlightenment, extended by Marx and continued by Nietzsche and the French critical theorists teaches us that "the Good and the Beautiful" things are but fictions, the products of our drive for power within finite material horizons. By the mid 20th century, it seems intellectual life has folded into itself. "There are no genuine philosophical problems," the premier Anglo thinker Ludwig Wittgenstein declared, while on the continent Martin Heidegger asserted confidently that "Philosophy was Dead."
Probably more than ever we use the political as the organizing principle for artistic and philosophical inquiries; for example the "Dangerous Literature" theme for last year’s Senior English Comps Colloquium" or the "Degenerate Music" theme this year. And it feels sometimes like Philosophy has become almost exclusively turned into "Philosophy of" – a handmaiden for other departments.
In the absence of the transcendental or eternal, academia becomes hyperpoliticized, a fancy flavor of activism for issues of race, class, gender, environmentalism and so forth (what Harold Bloom derided as the School of Resentment). If there’s nothing outside of politics, then advocating for these causes amounts only to an enforcment of political correctness.
And so while we can no longer tell our dactyls from our amphibrachs and have traded categorical imperatives for cat memes, we’ve all have ingested a robust vocabulary surrounding issues of politics and "social justice."
I attended a panel on "Secularism in the Liberal Arts" in the Weitz Center over mid-term break last spring, after which a faculty wrote that "the day took a very bad turn" when a "student suggested that if faculty did not want to teach social justice issues in the class then they should ‘perhaps…teach in a non-liberal arts school."
Our concern with social justice is of course not illegitimate; we just can’t forget our other understandings of justice that we ought to talk about as well.
It’s probably a good thing that half the senior class gets up in arms whenever someone does something -----ist in the CLAP or wherever. I just wish we’d talk about other things as passionately and as publically as well.
We’ll save the last word for Borges:
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A man who, as Voltaire wished, cultivates his garden.
He who is grateful that music exists on earth.
He who discovers an etymology with pleasure.
A pair in a Southern café, enjoying a silent game of chess.
The potter meditating on colour and form.
The typographer who set this, though perhaps not pleased.
A man and a woman reading the last triplets of a certain canto.
He who is stroking a sleeping creature.
He who justifies, or seeks to, a wrong done him.