Monday, January 19, 2009

The Sense of an Ending

This being the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday here in the States, I was going to extend my Pre-Inaugural Poetry Break for another day, but a typically unsentimental commentary by Stanley Fish in the Times warrants notice. Fish has long advocated for the self-sufficient, thought-for-thought's sake status of the humanities in education; that is, a la Harold Bloom, he decries any notion that the humanities make us "better" people in any broad or conventional way, but he sees this as their great merit, that they are (in ways that I would view as quasi-spiritual) ends in themselves and not means to (allegedly greater) social ends.

He likely still thinks this about the general nature of the humanities, but he has decided that their place in the contemporary university is all but gone, except for a view lonely redoubts that he quaintly terms "museums." Universities are increasingly blatant in their roles as essentially customer-friendly vocational schools, aiming to endow students with the "skills" necessary for "today's economy." Because the arts, literature and philosophy do not obviously or simplistically provide such skills, they are increasingly dispensable and barely even demand lip-service.

So I am reminded not only of my post of a few days ago, in which reading in general threatened to become an "arcane hobby," but also of a couple of trends in medical education. One is the inevitable erosion of psychoanalytic and, in a wider sense, humanistic thought on psychiatry and psychiatric education over the past twenty years or more. This is convincingly analogous to the process Fish describes.

The second and ironic evolution or, rather perhaps, reaction, has been the attempt to restore interest in narrative to medical education and discourse. This quixotic project, in which I played an exceedingly obscure role in the past, seems a bit like trying to open a lending library inside a video arcade, but stranger things have happened. Yet in general the sense is that we have entered a more crass and mercantile age--but this too shall pass, even if after our lifetimes. Meanwhile, enclaves of enlightenment will go on.

But, for the poem I had in mind for today, befitting this final day of a dank, dim, and dispiriting age in American politics, I summon that sour, dour Californian Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962):

Shine, Perishing Republic

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening
to empire,
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the
mass hardens,

I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots
to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and
decadence; and home to the mother.
You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it
stubbornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains: shine,
perishing republic.

But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the
thickening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster's feet there
are left the mountains.

And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant,
insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught--they say--
God, when he walked on earth.

(Note: poem format, but not content, altered to fit blog platform).

If this republic was "perishing" in 1925, what is it now--darkest undead? Is resurrection possible, by degrees? Perhaps eight years will suffice.


Anonymous said...

The connections you make to your post on reading and to psychoanalysis are insightful.

What does all this mean about American culture, if anything? Are we becoming a more utilitarian culture or are these trends a symptom of an increasingly histrionic collective life? In other words, are we simply becoming more "practical" or are we in a phase of increasing collective repression?

The possibilities aren't mutually exclusive, but I do wonder about the primary driver, assuming there is one.

Anonymous said...

I was just talking with my son who is a first year student in an MSW program. He was complaining long and loud about the dumbing down of everything in his program, about the minimal intellectual standards and absence of serious thinking about mental health. He is receiving the kind of education Fish describes and is hating it. He wants to engage in humanistic thought and be required to think deeply and rails against what he is receiving. It's hard to be encouraging when I know what lies ahead when he graduates.

Some days I feel like the buggy whip makers must have felt when automobiles came along.

Anonymous said...

Unhappy and poor are those whose intellectual inclinations are at odds with the pragmatic imperatives of life that scream utilitarianism and money, and more money for the sake of more money than the person next to you.

Humanities is like a guilty indulgence relegated to the spare space between ends that rarely meet; not something you can actually consider making a viable career out of - not least because of the silent scoffing it attracts in light of the alluring pull of technology and capitalism. Just a quaint pass-time.

In an ideal world, an edifying balance would churn out more humane beings that pilot their own minds. But such as it is, I think it's in our best collective interests to become mostly machine, and fractionally human so that we will no longer have the capacity to ruminate on the emptiness of existence - in effect, we'll be mindlessly stable and 'happy'...and useful!

Novalis said...

One would think that the massive hangover, i.e. recession that we have entered would prompt some reflection, among some at least.

Bury the books, bar the monastery gates, the vikings are marauding. Fortunately they need psychiatrists too...

Anonymous said...

The role of the humanities is, in my opinion, one of the most crucial--if poorly understood--issues facing our culture. A few months back The Wilson Quarterly ran a piece about the responsibility of the humanities to essentially be a force of depth and reflection against a tide of shallow utility, commerce and consumerism. No matter how that argument is framed, it always sounds a bit idealistic, and maybe that's just fine. To paraphrase from "Moral Clarity", we can use a dose of grown up idealism these days.