Peter Wood

“She strews the leaves of sure obliteration on our paths.”  So writes Wallace Stevens in the most sensuous stanza of his great anti-Christian poem, Sunday Morning.  “She” is Death, but not the ominous old scythe-bearing Grim Reaper.  She is Death imagined as ripe fulfillment:

She causes boys to pile new plums and pears
On disregarded plate. The maidens taste
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.

A few nights ago, trucks loaded with trussed evergreens lined up on Broadway.  The last leaves haven’t yet littered the sidewalks, but the week after Thanksgiving seems an apt demarcation.  The Occupiers have been mostly evicted; numerous Republicans presidential candidates have fallen by the wayside; the Euro-zone crisis has settled into a long winter.

“When yellow leaves or none or few do hang, upon those boughs which shake against the cold.”  Shakespeare in Sonnet 73, pictures himself as autumnal, and then deepens the image by comparing the leafless trees to the architectural remnants of the monasteries plundered by Henry the VIII, “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.” This is austerely beautiful self-pity.

English poetry is especially rich in the imagination of the fall—the “foison of the year.”  Hopkins’ sonnet “Margaret are you grieving/ Over Goldengrove unleaving?” can stand for the rest.  But even when the trees are still in full canopy, poets treat unleaving as the signature of Death.  Milton begins Lycidas, his elegy for a young friend lost at sea, with the image of himself gathering myrtle and ivy for a funeral wreath, “with forc’d fingers rude/Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.”

This morning a friend asked me what difference it really makes if an undergraduate curriculum emphasizes contemporary popular culture and in doing so diminishes the attention it once paid to older literary tradition.  After all, if the task is to become a “critical thinker,” can’t one think critically about today’s books and movies?

One can. Presumably the student who encounters such a curriculum may be none the wiser about what he missed.  Moreover, we are always on the verge of losing something.  “She strews the leaves of sure obliteration on our paths.”  And it is not just leaves that are trod under.  These days, whole forests of culture are chainsawed and clear cut to make way for the subjects we think students want to study and the subjects we prefer to teach.

I am unabashedly among those who lament the shift to more popular culture and less immersion in the older traditions.  But I don’t see it as a simple matter, a mere substitution of the new for the old.  Ruth Benedict, the anthropologist, at the beginning of her classic Patterns of Culture, tells of a Serrano Indian named Ramon whom she interviewed in Southern California in the 1920s.  Ramon spoke of God having given each people its own ceramic bowl.  Reflecting on his people’s lost traditions, Ramon said, “Our bowl is broken now.”

The image is poignant, even more so if you know (Benedict appears to have missed this) that the Serrano marked the death of an individual by breaking his best pottery and leaving the shards out on the mountains.  The broken bowl captures the irreversibility of loss, not just of the individual but of culture.  The sense of wholeness that Ramon sensed had been broken is the great idea at the center of Benedict’s anthropology.

Anthropology today has not much use for this idea.  It is more about the fractures and indeterminacies of social life and the always unsettled struggle to create meaning from the changing flow of circumstances.  These new emphases certainly have warrant.  “Culture” is never just a finely polished bowl to be passed intact from generation to generation.  Intellectual corrections, however, often proceed to the point where they need their own corrections.  Ramon (and Benedict) may have overstated the idea of cultural wholeness, but the idea is not entirely illusion.  Something is at stake when we relinquish the idea that a tradition has internal integrity that isn’t reducible to self-aggrandizing fantasies of the powerful.

Not that this “something” is perfectly self-evident.  We can look deeply into traditions and still find them stultifying and want to escape their gravity.  Or we look into them and catch glimpses of underdeveloped elements that we want to bring to fruition.  Understanding of tradition doesn’t necessarily mean subjection to it.

Of course, very few if any college curricula are wholly about contemporary popular culture, at least in the simple sense of dealing exclusively with contemporary works.   Even curricula that lean far in this direction usually have their complement of courses on Plato, Shakespeare, and Marx, and opportunities to study various historical epochs and movements.  Perhaps the most historically unmoored portions of the modern college curricula are to be found in the sciences, business, and applied fields, rather than the humanities.  That doesn’t make me any less worried about the humanities.

The complaint that the contemporary curriculum is by and large hostile to Western civilization’s cultural traditions is sometimes met with stout denial along the lines of, “Look at the curriculum.  We’re still teaching Shakespeare, Dante, Kant, and Rousseau.  Yes, the canon shifts from generation to generation, but it always has.  The notion that some more profound disruption has taken place is just conservative polemic.”

Maybe.  But these seem to me more like half truths.  Many important texts and authors are indeed still taught, but if one looks beyond the course catalog to the syllabus or even further to what happens in the classroom, those texts and authors often seem to be straitjacketed into the interpretive preoccupations of the moment.  Even “historicist” readings come round to locating in bygone times the traces of current political perplexities.

“Goldengrove’s unleaving” in Hopkin’s sonnet is an inevitability: “the blight man was born for.”  But there is nothing inevitable about the leave-taking from Western culture that is unfolding in the contemporary university.  It may be a complicated choice, but it is at bottom, still a choice—a choice in favor of a thinner sense of how tradition works.  It works by echoes; by understatement; by illuminations and reverberations, that have to be discovered and felt—and not merely pointed out and learned.  Ramon would have ruined his point if he had explained to Benedict the pertinence of Serrano funeral customs.

We have elevated “critical thinking” as the chief and worthiest end of a liberal education.  Perhaps it is time for a reassessment.   The critical thinker who is deaf to culture’s deeper appeals is impoverished in some profound ways.  He is equipped to take everything apart but not to put anything together.  We need more minds capable of moving at ease and grasping the whole.  That’s really the answer to my friend’s question.

The fallen leaves, the tokens of our transience, don’t add up to “sure obliteration.”  But irrevocable loss is always a possibility, and it seems very odd that the contemporary university has become an institution that does more to hasten the decline than to resist it.

This article first appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on December 4, 2011.

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