Thursday, February 02, 2006

Liberal Arts- A Bitter Stream of Consciousness

Do you know what annoys me? Well, lots of things, actually, but the subject of this particular rant is liberal arts intellectual snobbery. Sometimes it amazes me how a field with no absolute standards of right and wrong can manage to simultaneously maintain a constant self-righteous, more-PC-than-thou smugness. It's rather impressive if you think about it. Nothing, of course, is, absolutely speaking "right" or "wrong", since everything is all based on societal standards anyway, but by gosh, if your societal standards cause you to insult minorities, well, then, your books should be eschewed, mocked, counter-analyzed, etc.
Take, for example, Heart of Darkness. Now, I can't claim to be in love with the book. The writing, although beautifully fluid at times, can also be slow, tedious, and overly overt. But that is not, of course, the reason that I ought to be hating it. I ought to hate it because it is racist. Oh, terribly so. Awful colonialist propoganda from beginning to end. The clearest evidence of this is that it's written only about the Europeans; Africa and the Africans are used only as a foil, as if they weren't even people of something.
This, of course, is rot. Absolute blithering rot. Conrad was writing about Europeans and how Africa affected them. If he had written about the Africans, it would have been a different book, not to mention a remarkably stupid one since he would have been writing about things he knew nothing about. I wonder whether a book about, say, an African-American coming to terms with racism would be criticized for not focusing enough on the white culture.
But that is not even the point of this rant. The point that I am trying to make is that it really disgusts me to read literature from this angle, us wise, enlightened, all tolerant, all wonderful liberal arts modern heroes, analyzing why past generations were evil. (Evil? Did I use the term evil? Sorry, let's call it insufficiently enlightened.) Not that I believe that racism is right, G-d forbid. But nor do I think that we have unraveled the secrets of history. And nor do I think that the best way to get the most out of a book is to superciliously analyze how it reflects the primitive twaddle of its times. Take it on its terms, for heavens' sakes. Just read the blinking book.
This all reminded me of a discussion that we had in European Civilization. We were reading a bunch of articles written after the World's Fair in England. All about progress and civilization and equality and technology and how this generation can only be consoled for missing the bright future by the knowledge that they are securing these wonderful things for their children. One girl remarked that they were disgustingly optimistic, and yes, they rather were. But...there was something beautifully sweet about it. The idea that the world is wonderful and getting better every day. That we are at the high point of history so far and on the right track, at that. We don't have that anymore. Today we know better. Know better than everything. Everything that has been hoped, we have seen fail. Or rather, we have seen hope fail so often that we cannot trust it.
This liberal arts self-righteousness- at first it looks as if it is the same bright optimism. A shining hope that today, we have got it all figured out. But somehow, it doesn't have the same warm bright feeling. Maybe it's because it involves sneering down your nose at everyone before you. Maybe it's because it doesn't believe in hope either- it has the same self-conscious fear of getting too excited, because in the end, you'll just be disappointed. And so it thinks that it understands everything, but the poor stupid world does not. It lacks the excitement and replaces it with world-weary angst. The only thing it can bring itself to believe in is its own superiority. Because it knows better than to believe in anything else


e-kvetcher said...

Of course, the viewpoint of traditional Judaism is the reverse - the belief that the earlier generations were at a much higher level than the subsequent generations. It really created some cognitive dissonance in my head when I learned that.

Do you find this "intellectual snobbery" very prevalent at your school?

Tobie said...

e-kvetcher- It was mostly my experiences in class that inspired this rant. Today's class discussion was particularly enlightening- I challenged one girl as to whether our current view was a sort of "absolute truth" and she replied "In terms of not being racist, yes." Another girl disagreed, saying that twenty years from now, they would probably consider us all homophobic for not allowing gay marriage.
These conversations are frightening largely because they are so typical, although there are a few other disgusted people out there.

David said...

Do you know why this really, really annoys me? When Conrad wrote "Heart of Darkness", most Europeans thought that colonialism was good. Conrad was making a bold statement that it was having bad effects. This was by no means an innocuous thing to say at the time!

Now, we look backwards and criticize the book for having the wrong outlook, being insensitive, and so on. Of course, for people nowadays, it is absolutely risk-free to criticize the evils of racism and colonialism. We don't earn any moral credit for criticizing these things which have been long discredited. On the contrary, Conrad was the one who made the brave and controversial statement.

If you want to paint yourself as a progressive, intellectually forward person, then go ahead and take a really controversial stand. Perhaps abortion is wrong? Perhaps God does not exist? Go ahead, make your stand. You may be wrong, though --- that's the price you pay.

Irina Tsukerman said...

My gosh, your literature class is SO much like my literature class! If I didn't know any better, I'd think we're in the same course... This is so, so sad. I love literature, and would have liked nothing better, than a good rigorous analysis. But I can't stand the way everyone constantly needs to apologize for the author being not PC enough. It cheapens the book.