Elvis vs. Julia: A Lesson from the Liberal Arts

David Clemens

The liberal arts and humanities lie in education’s ICU surrounded by the triage team:  Dr. Slo, Dr. Outcombe, and Chaplain Jobe Reddie.  This is not news; the liberal arts have been wasting away, unable to thrive because their rewards are subtle, slow, and cumulative, not easily packaged and marketed, and not obviously related to the workplace.  So why should anyone have to study them? 

Anthropology studies human origins and the ways humans have devised to live.  The humanities, however, study why humans live and what it feels like to be alive.  The ways humans live are varied and visible; why humans live and what it feels like to be alive are mysterious and internal.  Anthropology can be written about scientifically; life itself can only be presented by stimulating the imagination, creating emotion, or performing life’s continual unfolding.  W. B. Yeats’s famous formulation is “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”   

Still, the liberal arts and humanities have enormous practical value and importance because they develop knowledgeable, reflective citizens with minds well-furnished with reference points that allow them to envision the consequences of actions.  Those exposed to the humanities have, of necessity, thought about humans.  Consider this current example:  the Obama campaign employs a PowerPoint series of cartoons called “Life of Julia” which follows Julia, a faceless paper doll character, through her frictionless life.  Cradle to grave, swaddled in President Obama’s social policies, Julia’s life proceeds free from conflict or failure.  Julia is also free from men other than a son who simply appears in one slide, then disappears from the rest of Julia’s life.  Without a husband, Julia seems married to the Federal government, enjoying various presidential allowances of tax dollars that ease her way through the coming decades. 

The right wing commentariat was in stitches about Julia (who resembles an international symbol for “Ladies Room”), but really, her story is not funny at all; it is chilling to someone who has experienced the liberal arts.  The practice of the liberal arts, especially literature, involves comparison, contrast, allusion, resonance, recognition of irony, suggestion, implication—all the artistic architectonics of meaning and sensation that arouse in us what it is to be human.  Julia is only a cartoon but what is so unfunny and repellant about her is that she represents what her creators think about human beings.  Let me explain by contrast and allusion.   

In a much different, thornier world than Julia’s, there is a Paul Brady song called “Nobody Knows.”  The chorus runs

Nobody knows why Elvis threw it all away
Nobody knows what [Jack] Ruby had to hide
Nobody knows why some of us get broken hearts
And some of us find a world that’s clear and bright
You could be packed up and ready
Knowing exactly where to go
How come you miss the connection?
No use in asking…the answer is nobody knows

I don’t know what Ruby had to hide, and I never expect to know, but because of literature, drama, and poetry, I do have an idea “why Elvis threw it all away.”  I think I know why people who are “packed up and ready” will “miss the connection.”  It’s something Julia doesn’t know, something the “progressives” who dreamed her up don’t know.  

Elvis threw it all away to be free

Literature tells this story over and over because it always rings true.  William Faulkner’s Isaac McCaslin relinquishes his inheritance and his land so that he can be free of the South’s anguished history.  The much envied Richard Cory surprised everyone when he “one calm summer night/Went home and put a bullet through his head.”  Edgar Alan Poe called this impulse to act against what is seemingly in our own best interest “the imp of the perverse.”  He thought it human and universal.  Literature (which can never successfully contradict the world) agrees—the desire to let go, to relinquish, to walk away, is part of the way we are.  Humans chafe at any collar or shackle, even success.  Having it all (McCaslin, Cory, Elvis) and being able to throw it away could be the only way to be free.  Otherwise, to paraphrase Joan Didion, the dream will determine how the dreamer must live.  That’s why Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man insists that “there is one case, one only, when man may consciously, purposely, desire what is injurious to himself, what is stupid, very stupid—simply in order to have the right to desire for himself even what is very stupid [my emphasis]."  The Underground Man concludes that “suffering is the sole origin of consciousness,” the suffering that follows from making risky, painful, unpopular, even irrational choices because “the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key!” 

This is why selling the Julia concept frightens me.  She doesn’t yearn to be free, like a human; she yearns to be kept.  Julia embraces the piano key life that the president offers, and like W. H. Auden’s Unknown Citizen, she will act and behave predictably, she will choose and think correctly

But in literature (and life) we recoil from those who trade freedom for safety nets and soft landings. The great anti-utopian novelists warned us over and over what happens when we make that bargain: George Orwell’s Winston Smith, Aldous Huxley’s John Savage, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s D-503 would rather suffer or die than join the Party, take the soma, or blend into the One State. 

So what I find most chilling about the Julia ad concept is its creators’ cynical view of Americans, particularly women.  And what if her creators are right?  As Michael Walsh writes, “It’s tough to accept that perhaps a majority of our fellow Americans would cheerfully trade liberty for a false sense of security.”  That is, how many workforce-ready but literature-free voters see The Life of Julia and find her flat, subsidized, feckless life desirable?  With the liberal arts in decline, how many “miss the connection?”  One must have been exposed to Orwell, Huxley, and Zamyatin in order to see their relationship to Julia and hear the warning.

A perennial question that divides the political left and right is this: what sort of beings are we?  Do we have an immutable, perhaps transcendent, nature that will surrender everything utopia for autonomy, agency, and freedom (Elvis)?  Or is there no inherent nature, and humans are just socially constructed, plastic, seeking nothing but safety and a reliable sense of well-being (Julia)?  Political Science, Psychology, and Anthropology cannot answer that question, and the sciences can only measure what is measurable.  The liberal arts and humanities, however, insist that we are like Elvis, and that those who trade liberty for comfort always live to regret it.  

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