Oh, the humanities! : a response to Nicholas Bourbaki


(Note: all the posts that I mention below are linked here.)

The only real people are the people who never existed, and if a novelist is base enough to go to life for his personages he should at least pretend that they are creations, and not boast of them as copies. 
-Oscar Wilde

It comes down to this: Do books make readers better people? If not, why do we torture children and young adults with them?

In a brilliant series of posts about the humanities, Nicholas Bourbaki takes on such questions, the same ones that have plagued the Op-Ed section of The New York Times since at least the second Bush Administration. It’s pretty audacious, and ultimately refreshing, that he does. So many people have tackled this issue, and it is remarkable how completely they have failed.

I haven’t strayed too far from the position I took on this blog, a while back, when I pretended to begin addressing the question (again), and then just stopped — with an em-dash, and (as far as I can remember), the phrase “wait, I don’t care!” Because in a sense, to engage the question at all, particularly with that sort of breathless urgency that Martha Nussbaum (etc.) employs, is to automatically lose. It’s like arguing with Creationists. To even hold a debate with Creationists legitimizes their attempt to substitute religious ideology for scientific theory. Similarly, to act like the humanities are on trial — even if one defends them brilliantly — automatically sets them apart from, and below, all other academic disciplines.

At the same time, a good explanation of the humanities has some value independent of its unknowable “success” as a defense. It is, for a worthwhile moment, a defense of the humanities within one’s own life, as well as in the larger world. Bourbaki articulates the pleasures of reading well and writing well; it is only fair to join him and…oh, boy, here we go again…enter the fray.

In “Why are defenses of the humanities so weak?”, Bourbaki explains (indirectly, but correctly) what happened to the English major:

To say that the world needs departments of English, Philosophy, or Art History because they help teach students how to write critically invites obvious objections such as: if the goal is teaching critical writing, why not just teach critical writing? Why spend so much time reading Milton?

…If the point of literary study is improving readers’ morality, then what is the point of reading the kind of challenging formal innovators that Marjorie Perloff has made a career of analyzing and promoting? Why analyze literature at all, rather than just watching deeply moving documentaries? (Especially considering that these documentaries are much more likely than obscure poetry to provoke actual concrete good actions, and take much less time, training, and effort to enjoy than a long poem by Charles Bernstein.)

This, of course, sketches out what has now happened, all over the country. English Departments are being replaced, seemingly daily, by “critical thinking” pure and simple — i.e., rhetoric and composition. The moral highground — to which English never, in truth, had an exclusive claim — has shifted to cognitive science, political science, history…even cultural studies can put on a better show, especially during TED talks.

Bourbaki’s alternative defense is two-pronged. First, he describes books as a kind of thick description of life. Literature captures life as experience, phenomenologically, as it is really lived by human beings. The text bears witness:

Let’s say you want to write a short story about an NCO in the Marine infantry returning home from Iraq around 2005. You want the story to sound plausible to someone who was actually in Iraq around that time. You want them to read the story and think things like “I bet whoever wrote this spent some time in Iraq,” not things like “a First Sergeant would never say that.”

No, there are really only two ways to gain the understanding that might allow you to write this story, or to be someone who can reliably judge whether a story like this is faithful to the experiences it tries to represent: have the experience, or read enough literature about it that you can tell what rings true and what doesn’t.

Second, Bourbaki argues that the process of “reading” a book, in the academic sense, is a valuable cognitive exercise:

[Critic Joshua Landy] defends the study of literature as a kind of mental and emotional training or exercise. But I also think that the study of literature can be defended on what he would describe as a “cognitive” basis – something he rejects.

Third, practically speaking, there is a difference between struggling to make sense of a literary work thematically, and being handed themes on an essay-shaped platter. Especially when reading difficult works of literature – works in which the author’s choices are hard to understand – the struggle to make sense can result in a sense of revelation when a plausible meaning finally coheres. A theme arrived at through such struggle will often have a greater salience for the reader than a theme delivered ready-made in a critical essay.

I happen to agree with all of this. It will not, however, stand up to critiques like those Bourbaki quoted in his first post. Literature is not the only field in which masses of “raw material” are assembled, epiphany by epiphany, into coherent wholes. All kinds of mathematical and scientific breakthroughs have happened in this same way. There’s probably some cognitive difference between literary revelations and mathematical ones, but at that point we’re dealing in pure speculation.

The lines blur when it comes to “thick descriptions,” too. The term isn’t even a literary one — Clifford Geertz was an ethnographer, and he was talking about his own writing. It’s true that MFAs probably could write better Iraq War short stories than amateurs, even if those amateurs served in the war. All it proves is that writing short stories is a very specific task, one that can be learned and practiced.

Moreover, it’s impossible to say what the portrait of a war, or a life, is actually worth. Why should we care what it feels like in Baghdad? So we can feel sorry for the troops? That’s more easily accomplished by other means — it’s the moral argument all over again. In order to see our own lives in the same rich way? If so, why route self-understanding through Baghdad, for crying out loud?

What is Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba
that he should weep for her?

Separated from everything else that writing contains, the experiential virtues of literature become a means of dissimulation, nothing more. A good fantasy writer can make a dragon seem real, but it’s not, and good luck trying to distill knowledge, real-world knowledge, from its red and scaly hide.


Bourbaki hints at something more than “thick description,” however. In these essays, he winds the clock back to the 1920s and 1930s. He throws more recent criticism overboard. He does away with deconstruction, tout suite. It’s more than the impatience of an outsider. Isn’t the problem with all “pragmatic” defenses of literature really the same problem, in different forms? They advocate for some aspect of literature. They deconstruct what they seek to defend.

Instead of thinking of a novel as a slice of life, as we (or someone) lived it, what if the truth is that novels are, like poems and paintings, themselves a form of life? As such, they are a Gestalt. They have their own temporality, which we admit when we use the present tense to describe what they contain. You can explain them, but they are never identical to the explanation. They are indifferent to their “real life” sources, too, in a way that can be almost terrifying.

Because there are birds, there are ornithologists. Because there are novels, there are literary critics. It really is that simple. The debate over the humanities is a shadow play that has little to do with the humanities, and everything to do with America’s deepening economic divides.

Bourbaki mentions Joshua Landy. I don’t know what got into Landy. Books are training? For what? Personally, I really hope he is right, because I read a lot of Cormac McCarthy books at one point, and I now know a lot about the specifics of horse maintenance and saddle repair. This has yet to come in handy even once.

“Training! Preparation! Carefully sharpened minds! To bed, gentlemen, for tomorrow we ride at dawn!”

…Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun.

That’s one text I taught this year.

“The king should try to appreciate his daily life more,” said a student.

“He will,” I said. “But not until Thursday. Tonight you have an essay to finish.”