8-1 literary2

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

8.1 (Winter 2008)


American literature



Dr. Paterson Visits the Library While the Cool People Wiki and Blog

Thomas F. Bertonneau

                                            The pitiful dead

Cry back to us from the fire, cold in

    The fire, crying out—wanting to be chaffed

                                       And cherished

Those who have written books

                                        (William Carlos Williams, Paterson, Book III )


     The “meta-crisis” of higher education belongs to, and is perhaps identical with, an epochal transition through which the civilization of the West now passes.  Because everything in this transition is connected with everything else in it, isolating one aspect or phase from the whole entails an explanatory difficulty.  The contemporary problem thus calls for a distant or altitudinous perspective to which one lays claim only with trepidation.  This problem of adequate perspective is indeed an element of our crisis.  Assuming that something called education—or, more particularly, higher education—is separable from the grand picture for the purposes of discussion, where then does one begin?

While pulling back for the grandest possible view, let us try this… From the time of Hellenism until World War Two, the civilization of the West took its bearings from—and it shaped itself, at the highest levels of knowledge and decorum, according to—a textual basis: this basis consisted (just as it ideally still consists) of the ancient Mediterranean literary and philosophical heritage and the Bible, as supplemented both by the writings of the early Church-fathers and, a few centuries later, by the inclusion of Celtic and Germanic folklore, now reconciled with Christianity.  The resulting synthesis created an identifiable Western European literary canon, the ultimate important terms of which bear the names of those two Sixteenth-Century genius-contemporaries, William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes.1  What follows them, whatever its significance, takes the form of an extended denouement.  Christianity, the content of Christendom, is a scriptural religion not only in the sense of being explicitly articulated in the settled Gospel (as opposed, for example, to Gnostic pamphlets, all of which post-date the Gospel, all of which are written in jargon, and none of which agrees with the others) but also in the sense that the Greek and Latin commentators on the New Testament and the Old brought to their fideism the impressive intellectual apparatus of the Platonic and Aristotelian philosophical schools.

Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Basil of Caesarea, in their attempts to explain the new religion in a persuasively intellectual way to the gentiles, could not help but create a synthesis of monotheisms—with Plato’s Attic mysticism as one part and the Sermon on the Mount as the other.  They were, at the same time, attaching the new faith to an old but supremely important Greek innovation, or rather two such innovations (the latter a derivation of the former): alphabetic literacy and the literary text.  Without giving the full case here, let it be said that alphabetic literacy, which could be learned by anyone, and the literary text together constitute, as the late Walter Ong, Jr., taught us to understand in Orality and Literacy (1981), a technology that radically alters the style of thinking.  The letters Aleph and Bet are for their Phoenician originators pictographic tokens of syllables whose names signify; but for the Greek adapter of them as items of the one-and-only alphabet, they are abstractions with non-signifying names that refer solely to analytical-phonemic elements of spoken language graphically reconceived.  The alphabet, as soon as it leaps into existence, functions as a tool for revealing the latent structure of that most human of traits, language; this means that the alphabet is a powerful tool of self-understanding, as are texts.

If Christianity were a scriptural religion, as it is, then the West, for being reared thereon, would be a specifically literate (alphabetically literate) civilization, one marvelous peculiarity of which would be its long collective memory.  Now this ability to recollect is not limited by the capacity of aging individuals to remember a plethora of details about the deeds of the ancestors, but only by the capacity of the community to preserve its libraries, civic and private.2  On the basis of these, and on the success of education in inculcating respect for the libraries and for the books that they conserve, an existing literate society can pass along the arts of reading and writing to the rising cohort; this bequeathal in turn permits new generations to decipher the wisdom of ages and conduct their business without starting again at the degree zero of organized existence.

A glance at Saint Augustine ’s Confessions will clarify the argument, for Augustine understands the antecedent relation of the alphabet and literacy to the civilized context in which he lived, and which he knew to be in a crisis.  The Platonic and Aristotelian schools had existed for nearly a thousand years when Saint Augustine began the composition of his Confessions early in the Fifth Century; they had bequeathed a philosophical archive that informed the civilized order by offering an intellectual regimen of dialectic and logic.  Augustine points to the built-in flaw in the civilized order: because it is order and because it does imply a regimen, it offends against the natural laziness of the human beings lifted up in its embrace whether they have asked to be so lifted up or not.  For discipline-related reasons difficult to explain to the not-yet-educated, or indeed to the not-yet-civilized, Augustine’s childhood preceptors insisted that he study the narrative and grammatical orderliness of Homer, Sophocles, Plato, and Aristotle, as he writes (114).  Augustine stubbornly preferred his native Latin to Greek and he excused himself, as best he could, from obligatory foreign-language studiousness.

Augustine therefore read Virgil’s Aeneid the way that the present writer, in the ninth grade, read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Princess of Mars (1912): that is to say, instead of the assigned text, which in Augustine’s case was Homer, probably The Odyssey, and in my case was Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities.  In the range of possibilities one might have fallen back, in a spasm of adolescent reaction, on worse things than Edgar Rice Burroughs in one of his periodic Martian moods.  I might have gotten stuck forever, as some of my classmates did, on J. D. Salinger’s smarmy Catcher in the Rye, or on Jerzy Kozinski’s smutty espionage-novels.  One can progress from Burroughs to better things rather naturally, but where save into deeper petulance or deeper cynicism does one go from Salinger or Kozinski?  Serious readers will eventually catch up with A Tale of Two Cities, as the one-time Burroughs-reader did.

Now Augustine’s recalcitrance about the Greek language, or his preference for Virgil over Homer, might seem, if we looked at it only casually, to be “no big deal”.  The saga of Prince Aeneas in the Latin original is as much “Greek to us” as Homer himself is in his Ninth-Century B.C. Attic dialect.  Augustine, in his autobiography, sees it differently and takes his own uncooperativeness with the curriculum as a profound anthropological symptom:

If I ask them [those… who buy and sell the baubles of literature] if it is true, as the poet says, that Aeneas once came to Carthage, the unlearned will reply that they do not know and the learned will deny that it is true.  But if I ask with what letters the name Aeneas is written, all who have ever learned this will answer correctly, in accordance with the conventional understanding men have agreed upon as to the signs.  Again, if I should ask which would cause the greatest inconvenience in our life, if it were forgotten: reading and writing, or these poetical fictions, who does not see what everyone would answer who had not entirely lost his memory?  (121)

     Any interpretation of Augustine’s rhetoric should take care, remarking well what the passage deliberately avoids saying, as well as what it actually does say.  Although Augustine refrains from praising what he so urgently loved as a youth, he does not reject literature as a repository of value; but, rather, he understands it as being profane rather than sacred and as having a subordinate relation to “reading and writing”, considered as epistemologically primary because they grant us the Gospel.  Augustine defines “reading and writing” as the knowledge of how “correctly” to spell out and also to read and recognize words, so that the procedure occurs “in accordance with the conventional understanding men have agreed upon as to the signs.”  The alphabet, knowable alike to the “learned” and the “unlearned”, acts as a bond of agreement between otherwise alienated segments of the society: the professors, so to speak, and those who only read The Reader’s Digest.  Precisely as a convention, the alphabet—as also alphabetic literacy—lies beyond disagreement or disputation; it partakes of the transcendentally impersonal, as all institutions do, and cannot serve as an object of personal rancor, a quality related to the phonemic-analytical abstractness of alphabetic signs.

Or rather, the alphabet cannot serve as an object of personal rancor as long as the dominant elite of the society insists uncompromisingly on inculcating impersonal respect for abstract non-personal conventions derived from an analysis of human behavior.  The alphabet in this way, as a manifestation both of the Greek and the Gospel Logos, constitutes one of the minimal but indispensable civilized achievements of Mediterranean humanity, permitting the organization of a complex society, without which the “poetical fictions”, however one assesses them, would lapse into irrelevance, as though they had never existed.

Because Augustine’s purpose in Confessions remains specifically evangelical, he demotes literature per se so that it should not distract from the Gospel, against which the learned pagans—Celsus, for example, or Porphyry—frequently lodged the complaint that it was not literary.  The pagans judged rightly in this: the Gospel was and is something else entirely than mere idle letters.  Nevertheless, the adult Augustine read obsessively; one cannot but recognize in him a profoundly literate man who never forgot the bookish adventures of his childhood and adolescence.  Quite apart from the regular Bible-quotations in every paragraph of Confessions, Augustine records devoting years of his life before his conversion to studying Platonism in its Latin vulgate.  The study was productive, for “therein I found, not indeed in the same words, but to the selfsame effect, enforced by many and various reasonings that ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’” (114).  Like Aeneas called Italy-ward by his Destiny, and in good accord with the Platonic model either of Plato’s own Symposium or Plotinus’ treatise On the Intelligible Beauty, Augustine went voyaging, not on the earthly plane, but perpendicular to it: “The mind somehow knew the unchangeable, for, unless it had known it in some fashion, it could have no sure ground for preferring it to the changeable.  And thus with the flash of a trembling glance, it arrived at that which is” (121).

Books and reading—and the ideas that these disclose—make possible the intuition of permanence in a world afflicted by catastrophic changes such as Visigoth-incursions and vandalism, the deliquescence of Imperial administration, and the epidemic démorale of sectarian contestation.  In Augustine’s thought, the classical tradition fuses simultaneously with Hebrew prophecy and with the “Good News” of the Apostles.  This fusion would create a stable nucleus of civilizational continuity in the long Time of Troubles following Augustine’s death in 430; and it would nourish the West, whose intellectual basis it established, for fifteen centuries.  Recently Pope Benedict XVI echoed that foundation by reminding what remains of Christendom that Christianity worships a rational God rather than a tyrannical cosmocrator in the style of Wotan or Baal or the bloody Allah of the Islamists.

Anticipating Augustine’s example a half a century earlier, Saint Basil (330-379) defends in Greek against an incipient Byzantine puritanism the value and merit of pagan letters for a spiritually integral life.  Basil’s polemic takes a more explicit form than that of his successor, for the Greek Father, who knew well the gentile poets from Homer onward, resolved to make a specific appeal on their behalf to the pig-headed “chuck-it-all” faction of his coreligionist contemporaries.  Basil is perhaps even more liberal, in the best sense of that term, than Augustine, being calmer, more in possession of a formal education, and less concerned than the North African that poetry might displace or contaminate the Gospel.  Basil’s essay Ad Adulescentes, or “To Young Christian Men—How They Might Benefit from the Study of Pagan Letters”, argues that, insofar as the old poetry treats of “the deeds and words of good men”, intelligent people “will cherish and emulate” the work of the old poets (387).  A precedent exists for such magnanimity, writes Basil, for “even Moses… first trained his mind in the learning of the Egyptians, and then proceeded to the contemplation of Him who is” (387).  The continuity of Heliopolitan wisdom with the “I am” of the ardent scrub-oak prefigures for Basil the not-yet-guaranteed but vitally necessary continuity of Plato with Paul that the Pontic bishop-and-professor would see secured.

When Basil chides Hesiod’s mythic accounts of Olympian adultery for their bad taste and false theology, he exercises a criterion no more severe than that of Plato’s in The Republic, which he all but quotes.  We must learn to disdain as well as to admire; we must act as the bees do and learn which flowers are the sweetest, for the supply of honey to civilized life.  On the topic of The Odyssey, by contrast, Basil waxes enthusiastic.  He avers in a lapidary sentence that Homer’s poem of fractured society in the aftermath of irrational and destructive warfare offers a formative study of virtue, neither pagan nor Christian peculiarly, as when Homer represents

The leader of the Cephallenians, after being saved from shipwreck, as naked, and the princess [Nausicaä] as having first shown him reverence at the mere sight of him (so far was he from incurring shame through merely being seen naked, since the poet has portrayed him as clothed with virtue in place of garments), and then, furthermore, Odysseus as having been considered worthy of such high honor by the rest of the Phaeacians likewise that, disregarding the luxury in which they lived, they one and all admired and envied the hero… (395)3

     In Homer’s dispensation, the chief virtue of Odysseus consists of his abilities to learn from experience and curtail his appetitive drives.  In episodes such as “The Cattle of the Sun” and “Nausicaä”, Odysseus presents himself as a paragon of the Thou Shalt Not; and, in the critical moment, despite his misgivings, he proves himself willing to assert order, by main force where necessary, much to the chagrin of the rabble who have squatted rapaciously in his house.  The Odyssey ranks as the greatest of all poems of civilization, which is why it is as vital to the emerging Christian civilization of the Fourth or Fifth Century as it was to the archaic Greek civilization that composed and enshrined it.  In a world already threatened by Gothic depredations, Persian stratagems, and civic dithering, Basil acquits himself admirably in extolling Homer.


     Homer is an author whom one reads, if not directly, then at least by way of influence in Virgil’s Aeneid or Burroughs’ Princess of Mars, depending on his context; not to have read The Odyssey need not hobble one absolutely as long as he has read Virgil or Burroughs, because these can carry one a considerable distance, culturally speaking.  Aristotle, in his Poetics, rated tragedy above epic, but from a later literate perspective one grasps that epic, amenable to silent reading, pushes literacy farther than does theatrical performance, which even an illiterate can understand, because the players say the lines.  An orientation to books, most constructively to narrative, hauls the naïve or barbarian subject out of his Visigoth-non-reflexivity like nothing else.  Movies and television drew the masses back into the jabbering mimesis—and the shame-based conformism that accompanies it—of oral culture during the just-completed century; contemporary college-students, dazzled even further by the flashing screens of their gadgets, can read the instruction booklets that come with their cell phones but flounder and complain when asked to assimilate novels.  The essential bookishness of civilization, its rootedness in ideas which themselves are rooted in literacy, becomes a topic whenever the sensitive man feels the disgruntlement of his polity, quite as Basil and Augustine testify.

The Byzantine poet Mavropous, writing around 1050 in a time of coups-d’état and contre-coups, the onslaught of the Jihad, and the final visibly irreparable break between Constantinople and Rome, put it this way in a prayer-like formula: “If you are willing to spare some of the others [who were not Christians] from your punishment, my Christ, may you choose Plato and Plutarch, for my sake.  For both of them clung very closely to your laws in both word and deed” (Trypanis 441).

In the crisis of disorder, the resolutely civic person knows where to find the anodyne order: in books and in a past betokened by books, by means of which the present must forge again its continuity with its origins.  Abraham Cowley (1618-1667), who sided with the Royalists in England’s Civil War and went to jail for it, describes the English interregnum under Cromwell as a phase when a “violent public storm would suffer nothing to stand where it did, but rooted up every plant, even from the princely cedars to me the hyssop” (Grosart 340).  The Puritan insurgency, writes Cowley, made it so that “Learning and th’Arts met; as much they feared, as when the Huns of old and Goths appeared” (Cowley 79).  Defining contentment on the lesson of his bitter experience, Cowley remarks as requisite to it, after “a small house”, only “a few friends, and many books, both true” (Grosart 339).  Founding a sane polity on the sanity of contented men, Cowley draws the conclusion that “the Habit of Thinking” belongs properly to solitude and leisure—and that these in turn most usefully serve “the Learned”, that is the bookish, rather than the “Illiterate”, or persons who fall easy victim to boredom (Grosart 317).  Cowley himself acquired literacy and his taste for books accidentally when a boy, through fortuitously encountering a volume of Edmund Spenser’s romances in his mother’s study.  Spenser’s The Fairy Queen served for Cowley what The Aeneid served for Augustine and A Princess of Mars for a few lucky moderns, who ascended from it to Homer.

The crowded character of modern cities such as the London of Cowley’s day, led that perspicacious man to denominate them as “foolish” precisely because of their “Millions”, in his prophetic hyperbole (Grosart 318).  Cowley saw, in the massiveness of the looming new world, the derailment of leisure, properly literate, into its degraded form of panem et circenses, or mere entertainment, to divert the masses from their own despair.  Cowley understood the way in which a crude pamphleteering had abetted the turmoil of the Revolution: the mass qua mass had no capacity for reading beyond the emotive demagoguery of pamphlets and broadsides.

Three centuries after Cowley, Virginia Woolf cogently titles her essay on reading, “Hours in a Library” (1916).  Woolf distinguishes between an instrumental reading-for-facts, which she associates with what for her are the defective categories of “the specialist” and “the authority”, and what she calls “the more humane passion for pure and disinterested reading” (Blaisdell 196).  In a metaphor reminiscent of nothing so much as Augustine’s report of the rapture induced by his having studied Plotinus, Woolf describes the true reader as: “A man of intense curiosity; of ideas; open-minded and communicative, to whom reading is more of the nature of brisk exercise in the open air than of sheltered study; he trudges the high road, he climbs higher and higher upon the hills until the atmosphere is almost too fine to breathe in; to him it is not a sedentary pursuit at all” (Blaisdell 196).  A true reader is wont always to “go back to the classics, and consort entirely with minds of the first order,” such that “he holds himself aloof from all the activities of men” (Blaisdell 197).  Woolf already appears as an eccentric, or as an atavistic holy person professing spiritual regimes incompatible with life as people typically live it in the modern milieu; contemporary readers hardly know what to make of her.  She writes in the moment, the spasm of war, when the modern upheaval begins its relentless assault against every higher value, in the culmination of which even our modern colleges and universities will have become accomplices of post-literacy.

We note, however, that the resurgent oral culture of Twenty-First Century Northern-Hemisphere civilization differs radically from the archaic, pre-literate oral culture out of which grew the earliest phase of the West, namely the Greek world of Homer and the lawgivers.  Ours is not the village orality of a hundred people who know each other and who collaborate in survival; it is the orality of Cowley’s prophetic “Millions” who, lacking discipline, crave entertainment.  Flashing screens have rendered them incapable of focusing their minds; but this very fuzziness makes them perfect objects for the electronic equivalent of pamphleteering.

The American poet William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), from whom I have drawn my epigraph, picks up the thread of cultural analysis where Woolf leaves off, echoing themes in Basil, Augustine, and Cowley.  Williams’ great poem Paterson, begun in the late 1930s and still unfinished at the poet’s death, devotes a good part of its five completed books to an explicit discussion of the intellectual and socio-cultural crisis of North American modernity.  Williams understood that the language of modern society is the written language, deeply grounded; that modern society depends, as no other society has, on the literacy, in the broadest sense, of its constituents.  Basil and Augustine said, we Christians need pagan literature; Williams says, we moderns must cling as tightly as we can to the total literary heritage, which slips away as we speak.

In his magnum opus Williams develops an illuminating figural vocabulary for discussing these problems of de-enculturation, on which here we may profitably draw.  Book II, “Sunday in the Park”, and Book III , “The Library”, of Paterson serve the argument especially well.  The overall character of Paterson merits some brief discussion, too, for Williams’ poem concerns the total continuity of Western civilization as much as it does the particulars (one of its author’s favorite words) of the New Jersey city that it celebrates.  The verses of Paterson yield intermittently not only to detours of meticulously culled journalistic and historical prose but also to entire lyrics that Williams translates from the ancient Greek, as in the case of Sappho’s “Peer of the Gods” in Book V, “The Virgin”.  Williams makes of Paterson a poem of allusions, of constant allusions, always glancing to the ancients—to Sappho, peerless among the lyric poets, to Hipponax, “the delver”, to Xenophon’s Anabasis—to insure a continuity of present with past.  For Williams, certainly no Transcendentalist, the relation of a hale present to its constitutive past is always transcendental, in the sense that the present depends in its integrity on conventions descending to it from remote founders and innovators.  There is a parallelism in this way of thinking with Augustine’s comment on the abecedary, which no existing literate consciousness has invented but on which that consciousness nevertheless fully and non-disputatiously depends.

The “Preface” of Paterson thus invokes “The Lineaments of the Giants”, the “Giants” being the heroes of Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century New Jersey, which Williams sees as a properly heroic age; the “Giants” also personify the transcendental achievements of the common Western heritage on whose foundation the particular North American chapter of civilization has no choice but to ground itself, if it would ground itself.  The “Giants” form the true bedrock on which the city of Paterson rises, as an idea of polity and community.  But as the metaphysical bedrock, we note, the “Giants” stay effective only insofar as their descendants and beneficiaries actively remember them, for they are not actually present but rather only present by willful recall.

A Blakean emanation of the “Giants”, the recurrent “Dr. Paterson”, functions as the editorial stand-in for Williams himself in his poem and as the conscience, so to speak, of the degraded Patersonians of the present day, remembering and thinking for them when he can.  “Dr. Paterson”, massively literate, “receives / communications from the Pope and Jacques / Barzun (Isocrates)” (Paterson 9).  At the beginning of the poem, “Paterson has gone away / to rest and write” (9).  Without him to cogitate for them, to be their intellect and conscience, the Patersonians “walk incommunicado”; they are “the Telephone / Directory”, so many arbitrary ciphers, as Williams presciently says, in an instrumental volume to serve commerce (9).  In Book II, Dr. Paterson takes his habitual Sunday walk in the civic park, climbing Garrett Mountain.  Here Williams, through his persona, observes “the great beast”, the crowd, “come to sun himself” (55) and he sees “loiterers in groups… walking indifferent through / each other’s privacy” (56).  For Williams, as for Cowley or Woolf, the mass abolishes solitude and leisure; for leisure it substitutes an aimless loitering, or else beer-sodden sleep, in which one escapes by narcosis from the ambient condition of being “flagrantly bored” (59).  Like a drunkard, the crowd is “amnesic” (60).

Cut off from the metaphysical forms that might enliven it by memory, the crowd exhibits a character only insofar as authorities outside and above it cajole it into a minimum of pattern, as when “a cop is directing traffic… toward / the conveniences” (60).  Dr. Paterson possesses form from the inside out because he, in distinction from the crowd, remains rooted, by a constant maintenance of recollection, in the metaphysical bedrock.

It is a case, says Williams-Paterson, of “the language”, of “a thwarting, an avulsion” of language so that speech devolves to “words / without style” (81).  If the steeples of Paterson were to “spend their wits against / the sky” (55), ineffectively as they seem to do, it would be because language, the medium of historical continuity—and more than that, written language—has suffered a calamity and a breakage has occurred, severing the present from the past.  Book III , where Dr. Paterson again operates to focus the view, takes place in the civic library, where, among books, “the cool of books” (95), the correspondent of the Pope and Jacques Barzun meditates on the three catastrophes that have punctuated Patersonian history: the cyclone, the fire, and the flood.  This trio of meteorological and incendiary enormities stands, of course, for all shocks against civilization since the onset of the Industrial Revolution and thus for the cutting-free of the diminished present from the metaphysical bedrock.  As, in Williams’ formula, “the province of the poem is the world,” so that “when the sun rises, it rises in the poem” (99), it follows that, losing contact with the text, “the spirit languishes, / unable,” as it also loses its world (100).

In his compact language, Williams tells the readers of Paterson that while reality is inalterable, unto itself—that while it is amenable directly to the senses—it has meaning only insofar as the mind has taken it up to make of it a symbol.  The text, Williams’ “poem”, gives the subject his world at a level many degrees higher than the one at which the untutored senses initially furnish it for cognition.  Homer’s epoi transform the world in this way for the Greeks, as the Gospel does for Late Antique humanity.  On just this theory, Paterson, Book III , begins with a brief lyric in two stanzas describing a locust tree.  The raw sensual impression of the locust tree is one thing, invaluable as a beginning; but the real locust tree only appears after it has undergone transfiguration in the mind, after it has become an image, in the manner of a Platonic idea, to reveal something essential in all contingent locust trees.  Books give us the world in esse, as well as in principio.  A world scornful of books is a world that necessarily, if unwittingly, scorns itself—scorns essences and principles and makes for itself a great disaster of barbarism and loss.


     Augustine found his moment of conversion in the sound of a mysterious childlike voice saying within earshot but not directly to him to “pick it up and read it” over and over (Augustine 146).  Picking it up and reading it is the conversion-experience of every genuinely literate person, as when Cowley encountered Spencer.  “For days upon end,” Woolf writes, “we do nothing but read,” and our mood is one, as she puts it, of “excitement and exaltation” and an “intense singleness of mind” (Blaisdell 197 and 198).  Woolf’s understanding of the passionate literacy, the bibliomania, of the civilized person includes the dialectical principle that structures Williams’ theory of how present and past maintain their relation.  She writes, “We need all our knowledge of the old writers in order to follow what the new writers are attempting” (Blaisdell 200).  The “new writers” represent us, and our present moment; and as we remain opaque to ourselves, requiring another perspective to clarify that opacity, the “old writers” offer us the only possibility of an education.  Williams writes in an essay on “Revelation” (1947): “The objective in writing is to reveal.  It is not to teach, not to advertise, not to sell, not even to communicate… but to reveal” (Selected Essays 268).  In that negation, “not to teach”, Williams makes the same distinction that Woolf makes when she denies that the specialist or the expert, no matter how many technical treatises he peruses, is the same as the reader and when she says that the reader lives on a higher “humane” level.

Williams argues the “necessity of revelation” and, invoking the “starved lives” of contemporary North Americans, concludes that it is only “revelation” that can “restore values” (271).  In another essay, “Against the Weather” (1939), Williams sets in a formula what he does in Paterson, Book III , in the lyric of the locust tree.  The purpose of literature is “to lift the world of the senses to the level of the imagination and so give it new currency” (213).  The aim of art is

Order.  It is through this structure [of the orderly work] that the artist’s permanence and effectiveness are proven.

     Judged equitably by the great tradition, of which the processes of art are the active front—obviously it is the artist’s business to call attention to the imbecilities, the imperfections, the partialities as well as the excellence of his time.  (213)

     Williams began as a rebellious modernist-experimentalist in Spring and All (1923); he could appear hostile to tradition.  T. S. Eliot, for example, remained pejoratively for Williams “the clerk”.  It is all the more poignant then that Williams should fix on the word “revelation” as his coinage for literature as a “great tradition”.  In the essays as well as in Paterson, Williams occupies a Twentieth-Century position analogous to Saint Basil’s Fourth-Century or Saint Augustine’s Fifth-Century one.  Augustine claimed for the Platonists that they had participated in revelation and Basil wanted to preserve pagan letters because they had much to reveal to the emergent Christendom of his time.  In Paterson, Book III , Dr. Paterson imagines, as he reads about it, the great fire that swept through his city in 1902.  While Dr. Paterson can transfigure the fire in his own imagination so that it acquires a positive connotation  (as the very agency of poetic remaking), the empirical referent of that transfiguration, the fire itself, also functions in the poem as a symbol of the present’s holocaustic attitude to the past.  Paterson recalls how bigotry once “burnt Sappho’s poems” (Paterson 119).  Book III has an epigraph from George Santayana’s Last Puritan, reading in part “that cities are a second body for the human mind… a work of natural yet moral art” (94).  The great fire consumes not only the library but also all of the downtown: “Before noon,” reads the account, “the whole city was doomed” (116).  Dr. Paterson sees himself as living in the ashes of civic life: his muse—“the Beautiful Thing” of Book III —is a girl ambushed and serially raped by the gangs who, already in the 1930s, indicated the descent of urbanity into barbarism.

There are more ways to make a holocaust of books than simply by burning them.  Books and High Culture cease to exist as soon as one parental generation decides to collaborate with infantile recalcitrance by excusing its offspring from the civilized discipline of a full literacy.  John Dewey codified this disaster and gave it a fancy, dishonest name when he took over the chief teacher-training institution of his nation, the one that set the tone for all others, and declared that the aim of schools consisted in socializing the child.  The history of American education in the Twentieth Century takes the form of a retreat from any real demand of civilization.  Socialization does not mean the individualization of autonomous ethical persons, which the old literate education sought; it means rather enforcing conformance to a model articulated for the subject by an authoritative expert, invested with power.  Under Dewey’s pragmatic concept of education, schooling became instruction from textbooks written by experts.  Because such textbooks could not withstand competition from real books, from poetry and literature, the system had to minimize the presence of the latter.  No one who has read Livy on the Roman Republic will give a damn about school-district-approved ancient history textbook.  But one who thinks that the school-district-approved textbook, with no words of more than three syllables and lots of color illustrations, is a book—that one will on the contrary find the demand of a real book daunting, because it is daunting, and he will remain contented in the paltriness of the instructional volume.  He will insist on it.

In its early phases, post-literacy was hard to see, because the parental and grandparental generations were still literate.  Technical innovations subverted the pull of the printed word on the collective mentality and contributed to the dissociation of civic existence from the metaphysical bedrock—from dogma, properly understood.  Another term for dogma is conviction and another is certainty.  By no coincidence, post-literacy overlaps everywhere with a fiercely asserted epistemological relativism that sometimes articulates itself as pseudo-theory but more often appears as a broadside or a pamphlet, as in the ubiquitous bumper-sticker seen near college campuses, “QUESTION AUTHORITY,” or the endless stream of “books” by Noam Chomsky.  Nowadays almost everything that the newspaper-supplements review under the category of “book” is in fact a pamphlet designed to serve an agenda by exacerbating resentment.  It might be a cliché to invoke movies, radio, and television as culprits in this sorry decline, but that is only because a truth much observed tends to become a commonplace.  Later, more insidious novelties have accelerated the relinquishment of alphabetic civilization by those who might have been its heirs: all devices with flashing screens or irritating alarms and buzzers, such as the personal computer—used mainly to access the Internet—and the cell phone.  These things are prostheses for the spiritually impaired.

When class ends on a contemporary college or university campus, the student’s rising out of his seat is invariably accompanied by his reaching for his cell phone.  Students cannot spend even a few minutes in solitude with themselves—much less can they silently contemplate the view in the quad while they pass from one scheduled obligation to another—without resorting in a panic to the instrument of a pointless communication.  Writing, for such students, entails a visible, often vocal agony and complaint.  My freshman composition students typically find it difficult to make simple predications.  Their attempts at predication, always couched in the passive voice, indicate their orality.  The oral person, as Ong tells, us never knows anything directly in an impersonal way; rather, he knows a thing insofar as his peers also know it and approve the codification of knowledge in a rhyming saw.  The crabbed formulas that “democracy is seen as this or that,” or that “college is felt to be this or that,” testify not only to a relativism in which all assertions link themselves to an arbitrary and fluctuant consensus but also to the primitive orality in which to venture an independent judgment incurs the danger of ostracism.4  The most frequent “reference” now appearing in student papers, when one does not take care to forbid it in advance, is the “Wikipedia”.  A “Wiki”, to quote the web (appropriately, for once) is “a piece of server software that allows users to freely create and edit Web page content using any Web browser.”5  The “Wikipedia” thus bears the same relation to an encyclopedia as gossip or personal preference does to truth.

The crisis of higher education in our time is the crisis of a mission now impossible in the ample way that the physical plant of our state-run systems of higher education implies.  Our hundreds of colleges and universities have become what they probably condemned themselves to become as they proliferated and self-aggrandized after World War Two—centers of vocational training for purely technical elites, for barbarian specialization.

Proposals to “solve the problem” of contemporary higher education, even when put forth by people whose basic convictions correspond with mine, cause me to shrug my shoulders and think: “Does he not see that it is useless—that a meta-crisis one hundred years in the making will not be redressed by adding a course here or there on Shakespeare or Flaubert?”  A majority of the faculty nowadays either would not vote to add such a course, being Visigoths themselves, or would sabotage it did anyone succeed in imposing it despite them.  The curriculum will mean but little to students who, at eighteen or nineteen years, confront in Homer the first non-school-district-approved book of their lives, bringing to it no antecedent experience of extended narrative as a type of knowledge.  We live in a Vandal kingdom, in an age of resentment against the burden of civilization, no matter all those cell phones and gadgets.  Such trinkets fascinate only Huns.  We stand between the external Jihad of Muslim illiterates and the internal Jihad of egalitarian downward leveling to the least literate altitude. 6

This is a profoundly sad and demoralizing conclusion.  Readers could hardly be blamed for rejecting it.  They might legitimately ask me how I justify my faculty-salary from a state university or why I persist in my vocation.  My answer is something like the creed of Tertullian, who famously said, “I believe because it is absurd.”  The absurd concerns irrational exceptions, leftovers, vestiges, and laughable chances in desperate situations.  One still encounters in the routine of semesters a few students who, like Cowley, discovered The Fairy Queen or its equivalent when they were eleven years old, who became civilized before “public education” could socialize them into nullity and prevent the formation of an educated public.  One honors the nobility of the absurd by addressing these few.  I stay where I am because I love books.  I stay where I am because the real city is not the one collapsing around us, but the ideal or heavenly city, with which we become familiar in books and where all civilized people are citizens first before they are citizens of the contingent earthly republic.

In addition to being a reader of Late-Antique literature, including the Christian Patres, I am also a reader of science fiction.  Books like Leigh Brackett’s Long Tomorrow (1955) or the late Walter M. Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) draw on the Patristic tradition by describing heroic attempts of surviving bearers of civilization to make a bridge from what has been destroyed to what might be revived of a genuine and humane order; they labor in ashes to resurrect from the ashes the sacrificial victim (civilization) of a perverse but all-too-human rage.  The defeated in our situation must acknowledge their defeat—no putting one’s head in the sand for us—but we must simultaneously act as though we had not been defeated.  While the “cool” people, whom the majority strains to emulate, pointlessly labor and consume; while they blithely “Wiki” and “blog”, we must fulfill the obligation to stand on our metaphysical ground, to stand for that ground, to fortify the library if necessary against an incendiary vehemence of marauders.  The ground under our feet is the achievement of bygone centuries.  It is our treasure and birthright.  We guard it.  Let us take for our motto the concluding image of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” 7

Works Cited

Augustine.  Confessions.  Trans. Albert Cook Outler.  New York: Dover, 2002.  (Reprint of Westminster Library of Classics edition, 1955.)

Basil.  The Letters, vol. 4.  Trans. J. Deferrari and M. R. P. McGuire, Cambridge, Mass.: Loeb Classics, 1934, 387.

Blaisdell, B. (ed.).  Great English Essays, edited by B. Blaisdell, New York: Dover, 2005, 196.

Cowley, Abraham.  The Civil War.  Ed. A. Pritchard.  Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1973, 79.

Grosart, A. B. (ed.).  Works of Cowley, vol. 2.  New York: AMS Press, 1967, 340.

Trypanis, C. A. (ed.).  The Penguin Book of Greek Verse.  New York: Penguin, 1971.

Williams, William Carlos.  Paterson.  New York: New Directions, 1963.

—.  Selected Essays.  New York: New Directions, 1954.


1 Neither Shakespeare nor Cervantes was certifiably Christian in a fideist or devout sense, Shakespeare seeming to be a Stoic or even a materialist of some non-rigorous type; nevertheless, both were scrupulous judges of Christendom, which they assessed to have been superior to the new type of “rational”, state-based civilization that they both could already see rising, by no means tentatively, out of Christendom’s dissolution.  It is their common liminal character—their willingness to defend something from which they felt somewhat displaced—that leads me to describe them as “ultimate” in relation to the West.  Both Shakespeare and Cervantes write from a threatened perspective.  Shakespeare is conscious of being an Englishman when England was still in a prolonged war with Spain; Cervantes is conscious of being a Spaniard, and a member of Spanish-Catholic civilization, amidst the clash of what remained of Christendom in his day and—yes—Islam.     return

2 By an act of reverse-memory, literates can remember what it was like to be, while as a child, illiterate; they can also, again by an act of imagination, think their way into the parameters of a purely oral community.  Illiterates (or “pre-literates”) cannot exercise their imaginations in a symmetrical gesture, literacy being precisely and absolutely unimaginable to them.     return

3 In E. R. Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars and its sequels The Gods of Mars and The Warlord of Mars, the terrestrial castaway on Homeric Mars finds himself, in his planetary advent, naked, and the Martian princess with whom he falls in love is likewise naked; but both are clothed, to borrow from Basil, in virtue in place of garments.  Writers like Burroughs, who flourished in the so-called pulps, might well constitute the modern (or Twentieth Century) equivalent of “virtuous pagans.”     return

4 The passive construction, a staple of undergraduate prose, finds its perfect outward expression in the cell-phone sub-ethos: the is-plus-participle tells us that, if we were to poll the first ten telephone-numbers on the student’s speed-dial list, then the answerers would probably affirm A, B, or C, depending on the inquiry.  When a student makes an is-plus-participle statement, he is mentally referring to the probable consensus of others, rather than thinking for himself.     return

5 The split infinitive is symptomatic.     return

6 Indeed, the infamous and wretched 9/11 perpetrators and their successors seem to have relied and to continue to rely heavily on personal computers, the Internet, cell phones, and video-cameras; they were adept at gadgetry, notwithstanding that the very West which they despised had supplied these items to them.  Often, to excuse the lamentable functional illiteracy of contemporary college students, administrators praise them for their “computer” or “electronic literacy,” finding another way to abuse the term literacy.  It is ironic and telling that contemporary North American college students share with the people who want to kill them a fascination with flashing, beeping toys.  I must add that I do not blame students for their degrading lack of culture; I blame the generations of education experts and specialists who have shaped our schools, including the colleges and universities, to produce technically proficient barbarians rather than humane people prepared to learn on their own the sub-knowledge requisite to the jobs they will hold in the “service economy”.  It is not the students’ fault, but it is everyone’s problem, whether he is aware of it or not.     return

7 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Charles Scribner’s and Son, 1953), 180.     return

Thomas Bertonneau, Secretary of The Center for Literate Values, is a regular contributor to Praesidium.  His essays on Berlioz and Delius last year (in 7.3 and 7.4) attracted intermational attention.  He currently teaches in the English Department at SUNY-Oswego.  A student of popular as well as classical culture, Dr. Bertonneau recently authored (with Kim Paffenroth) The Gospel According to Sci-Fi (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006).