Dagger in hand

A man of prodigious fortune, coming to add his opinion to some light discussion that was going on casually at his table, began precisely thus: "It can only be a liar or an ignoramus who will say otherwise than," and so on. Pursue that philosophical point, dagger in hand.

--Michel de Montaigne, Of the art of discussion.

Stab back: cmnewman99-at-yahoo.com


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Monday, December 23, 2002

Via Pejman I found my way to this little diatribe by a certain Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, one to which I think Pejman gives entirely too much deference. I mean, what are we to make of this:

Of course, clever literary pirates have always plundered legends to appropriate their power. Ovid pillaged ancient repositories for his Metamorphoses. Homer and the Arthurian bards wrenched Bronze Age tales into works of art.

But unreconstructed myths are usually better. They spring from collective effort, from folk memory and from a shared subconscious. Reading them gives you satisfactions no fantasy can supply: contact with other cultures, insights into the past.
Oh, that I too might attain the unsullied satisfaction of reading unreconstructed myths! Would that Felipe would share with us where exactly I might find some to read, and how exactly they were set down in writing without the mediate reconstruction of some clever literary pirate--among whose number he is at least consistent enough to include Homer. I, alas, lack whatever transcendental bifocals enable him to read these noumenal myths directly from folk memory and the shared subconscious.

Our fantasy fixation is worrying. Fantasy doesn’t just feed on the imagination: it drains it. Virtuality erodes reality. Students who sweat over Elvish and Klingon will never dream in Chinese or Greek.
As I've confessed, I'm quite behind the curve in my study of Elvish. But Tolkien was without doubt one of the formative influences on my young imagination and moral compass. And amazingly enough, my dessicated soul nevertheless did find the inspiration to take up Greek and Latin, to dream (and love) in Italian, to immerse itself in Japanese. Doesn't he get it at all? He sees a student taken with Quenya and he thinks, "Poor misdirected intellect. Poor impoverished soul." If he were a teacher of any insight or sensibility, he would realize that the student who gets sucked into Tolkien is the one most likely to be inflamed with the beauty of foreign alphabets, the joys of ancient languages, the spare yet fathomless truths of traditional myths--"reconstructed" though the latter most assuredly are. Allan Bloom makes the same mistake in The Closing of the American Mind when he laments such student enthusiasms as Rand and pop music and thus fails to recognize the very sprouts of intellectual and artistic yearning that he wishes to tutor and cultivate. I don't have a lot of Latin left, but a certain phrase springs to mind as the only suitable response to the breathtaking ignorance and condescension contained in the above quote: Pedicabo et irrumabo.

Kids know more about the battles of Aragorn than of Alexander, the life of Harry Potter than the life of Harry VIII. Fantasy endangers history, some say: realism is on the way to extinction, shrinking from the syllabus, extruded from bookshops, de-accessioned from libraries.
And why, exactly, is it valuable to know about the battles of Alexander? A few weeks ago my family and I went to see The Emperor's Club, about a long-suffering teacher of classics who sought by means of Roman history to inculcate moral values in his spoiled prep school students. Among them was the Bad Seed, the senator's son who alone among his peers remained impervious to the catechism and grew up to be a scoundrel. As I walked out, I realized why the film—and the teacher—had failed. If I had walked into the theater knowing nothing about the classics but what I glimpsed in the film, I'd have had to agree with the rebellious kid: what does this stuff have to do with real life? Most of what you see is students trying to memorize trivia in order to win the big Mr. Caesar Game Show at the end of the year. In the pivotal classroom scene where the bad kid is (momentarily) chastened, it is because, unlike the others, he has failed in that greatest of all character-building exercises: rote memorization of the chronology of Roman emperors. (I can only remember up through the five good ones, so you can imagine what shape my soul is in.)

So what would I, in my recurring role as self-appointed screenplay doctor, have done differently? I'm not sure. But I know that if you want to show the link between study of history and character building, you've got to get beyond history as factual data and somehow evoke history as ethics. What that senator's kid needed was not the ability to regurgitate on cue the date of the Battle of Trasimene, but a real good look at the career of Alcibiades and its parallels in his own life. Whenever we caught a snippet of Professor Kline lecturing at the blackboard, he shouldn't have been recounting the timeline of the Second Triumvirate, but the death of Cato. Or Aristides writing his own name on the ostrakon. In short, you've got to ditch the trivia and whip out the Plutarch.

Now, would our jolly good Queen Mary Fellow regard Plutarch as "realism"? If so, why exactly? Because he wrote about real people? Because the events he described really happened? (There'd be some debate on the latter point.) Real people doing real things is just factual data; one damn thing after another. To have any moral meaning, facts have to be selected and placed in relationship to each other in a network of choices and consequences. Knowing that Alexander razed Thebes is not something that will measurably enrich my son's life; thinking about why he did it and what consequences it had for his character and his rule might. Knowing that Harry VIII in fact offed Tommy More is a mere random bit of trivia for most purposes in my daily existence; thinking about how Tommy got there has some effect on the person I choose to be.

My (by now belabored) point is that once we unpack why we want children to study history, we see that the only "realism" that matters is the accurate depiction of human nature with its capacities and limitations; the recognition of human choice and the consequences, both internal and external, that follow from it. This can be done well or badly, whatever the genre. History is obviously in many regards the best place to observe these phenomena, but science advances by means of thought experiments as well as data gathering. So does our understanding of what it means to be human advance through fantasy. The siege of Tyre is as far removed from my son's real life as is that of Minas Tirith. If you want to assert that he has more to gain from contemplating the former than the latter, tell me why. Show me the actual account you want him to read, and why it's superior in its artistry, its moral implications, its "realism." Put up or shut up.

Pejman, commenting on the article, says:

I certainly don't want to immerse anyone in Star Wars before they have had the chance to learn about Greek mythology, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Shahnameh, or other such stories and myths. I certainly don't think that people will be able to fully appreciate any confrontations with the underworld or with evil that occur in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings unless they have had the chance to read the myth of Orpheus, or Il Inferno in Dante's Divina Commedia.
I'm a little confused here, Pejman. You don't really mean to say that one needs to have plowed through Inferno, along with all its obscure (to us) references to Florentine politics and Thomist theology, in order to be prepared to grapple with the transformations of Anakin Skywalker. Do you? (And anyway, in Felipe's schema Dante is just another clever pirate, and probably one of the worst kind, twisting as he does both myth and history--not to mention religion--into the service of an immediate political agenda.) I think some people—like Bloom and Felipe—fear that acclimating oneself too early to "simplistic" (read: accessible) works will discourage one from undertaking the effort needed to appreciate the pleasures of those more remote (and therefore forbidding) ones. As though having been fed Velveeta as a child renders one irrevocably unable to savor Gorgonzola as an adult. To which I say: poppycock. In most intellectual disciplines, isn't it understood that one must grasp and move from the straightforward to the complex? Why is it different here? I really don't think the order of exposure is important—except to the extent that one work assumes express knowledge of another. But all these works refer to each other implicitly; each can enrich your appreciation of the others. So there's no right order in which to approach them. What's important is that someone, at some point, is introduced to important themes in a way that captures the imagination. Once appetite is whetted, a palate can be tutored. Lucas (my nine year old) has read all the Harry Potter books, and is now (finally!) devouring Tolkien. I should have withheld these pleasures until I'd managed to force-feed him Gilgamesh and Dante? He'd have hated them forever. But he'll get there. And even when he does, these books will continue to have resonance for him. As they should. I'd be worried about someone whose intellectual curiosity and artistic yearning started and ended with Star Wars. But I'm equally wary of people whose intellectual pretensions require them to write such things off as unworthy of contemplation. I certainly don't think you should allow them to put you on the defensive.

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