The truth is rarely pure and never simple.Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
A few weeks ago, I saw a post on Facebook from Jamie Erickson’s page “The Unlikely Homeschooler.” It starts off with how she tried to read J.D. Salinger’s classic novel The Catcher in the Rye, but quit after a single chapter because she did not want the profanity to sully her spotless mind. Then she launches into a diatribe about how Jesus wants you to be pure and ignore everything in the world that is not superficially beautiful. (Yes, this would be the same Jesus who ministered to prostitutes and lepers.)
From the post:
I started reading Catcher in the Rye the other day. It’s one of the many, many classics I never read in high school. As a woman who firmly believes that when we say learning is a “continuous building of the mind,” it includes our minds too, not just theirs.
So I picked it up from the library.
I only got one chapter in and had to quit. There was so much language in just that first chapter that I decided perhaps it wasn’t worth my time. For a moment I felt bad about my decision. It’s a book that has been heralded by all the popular kids. It’s on every list. It must be a book worth reading.
But you see, my mind is a storehouse of thoughts, experiences, and memories. Everything I put in shapes me. By passively consuming things that are not honorable, just, pure, lovely, or commendable in the books that I read or the movies that I watch, I am slowly chipping away at all that the Spirit is trying to build in my life.
Every YES or NO that I give with my time and attention should declare that Christ is an unseen, but ever-present partner in my days. All my choices should reflect the holiness of the One who dwells within me.
The Catcher in the Rye is on all the MUST READ lists. It’s a classic, they say. And I quit after one chapter. I guess that makes me a quitter. But Scripture says that as a believer in Christ, I need to be a quitter. Old things SHOULD pass away in order to make room for new things. (2 Cor. 5:1)
As a homeschool mom, I’ve quit many things: following the traditional way, listening to the naysayers, parenting with what’s popular. For the most part, quitting for the sake of my children feels pretty easy to me. My kids are worth it!
But the truth is, so am I. My formation is important too.
So I guess the moral of this story is: Don’t be afraid to be a quitter.
All I could think when I reached the bottom of this rant was, “Wow, I feel sorry for your children, to have someone with such a cloistered mind as their sole educational gatekeeper.” Not only are they going to miss out on some of the world’s best art and literature, but the world of adulthood – where people aren’t prancing around trying to sugar-coat things for you – is going to hit them like a freight train.
These are the kinds of homeschooling “influencers” I cannot stand. They are the reason there are so many durable negative stereotypes surrounding homeschooling, which revolve around sheltering children, a bona fide lack of socialization, and shoving one’s ideology down kids’ throats instead of academics. (Things that eventually become threats to the right to homeschool for all of us, as they somehow manage to make a factory school environment look good by comparison.) The post is followed by a long line of comments from her followers dutifully explaining that they, too, are protecting their innocent children from reading the classics, as all good mothers should do. It’s like looking in on a cult.
(Beyond that, can you imagine applying to college with your mother all over the internet in a Google-able way talking about your K-12 education like this?)
I tend to share the sentiment expressed by Karen Swallow Prior, Professor of English and Christianity and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, in her book On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, that one should be a “promiscuous” reader. Of course, that word alone would probably make Jamie Erickson faint, thanks to its sexual connotation, but it really just means being indiscriminate. One should read everything – whether it seems beautiful or ugly, whether you disagree with it or not. Oftentimes, what is right or wrong is more nuanced than you would assume at first glance. Oftentimes, your impressions about people and circumstances are simply inaccurate. There is real virtue in being open-minded and intellectually humble.
I’m always telling my daughter that to be persuasive, you need to be able to make your opponent’s case better than they themselves can make it, then be able to tear it down systematically. If you refuse to listen to other people as a mere matter of taste, then you will never be a persuasive person. This is also why the Gospels admonish us not to be judgmental, which is a matter of divine authority. If you cannot see the possibility for good in the prostitute or leper, then you will never play a role in saving them. You are failing at your telos as a Christian.
This morning, I happened to read an article that took an entirely different approach on this topic. (Your intellectual life is full of enlightening juxtapositions when you read promiscuously.) Agnes Collard, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago, explains that she assigns a variety of novels and poems to her students in addition to philosophical texts because she thinks art allows people to “see” evil in a way you cannot find anywhere else. Art appreciation is a necessary component of understanding evil, and how can you even begin to talk about something that you do not understand?
From the article:
I teach a class called “Death,” on the question of whether it is rational to be afraid of death. Like all my classes, it is a philosophy class, so of course I assign the seminal philosophical texts on that topic. But I also assign Karel Čapek’s play The Makropulos Affair, Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Philip Larkin’s “Aubade”—a poem I strongly disagree with. In my class on the philosophical puzzles surrounding self-creation, we read contemporary philosophical essays—and we also read novels by James Joyce and Elena Ferrante. I teach Shakespeare’s Hamlet alongside Descartes’s Meditations: they are both about what it’s like to be trapped in one’s own head, looking for a way out. I pair Plato’s Euthyphro with Sophocles’s Antigone, because they offer contrasting portraits of the clash between human and divine law. In my class on courage, we read some Platonic dialogues, bits and pieces of Aristotelian treatises and all 24 books of Homer’s Iliad.
Looking back, I am surprised by how many pages of literature I have assigned over the years, far more than is the norm in college philosophy classes. I never formulated a plan to do so; I never self-consciously aimed for interdisciplinarity. How did my syllabi wind up populated by so many novels, stories, poems and plays?
As an undergraduate, I did not major in philosophy, perhaps in part because there were so few novels on the syllabi. The (non-philosophy) professors in whose classes I read Homer and Tolstoy claimed for those texts a kind of moral authority, presenting novels as sources of personal ethical guidance. Initially, I accepted this rationale, but over the years I have come to question it: I don’t feel that reading novels has helped me navigate difficult decisions, or made me more empathetic.
So why assign them to my students? I do acknowledge that great art affords us access to distinctive aesthetic pleasures, but I don’t see it as my job to expose students to them. My goal in constructing my syllabus is neither to improve their moral character, nor to offer them literary entertainment. Rather, the situation is this: the topic of the course requires reference to something that doesn’t show up clearly outside the space of artistic fiction. My hand is forced, because without the novels my course omits something that I see as crucial to understanding death, or self-creation, or courage, or self-consciousness.
I am talking about evil.
There are many complex theories about the nature and function of art; I am going to propose a very simple one. My simple theory is also broad: it applies to narrative fiction broadly conceived, from epic poems to Greek tragedies to Shakespearean comedies to short stories to movies. It also applies to most pop songs, many lyric poems and some—though far from most—paintings, photographs and sculptures. My theory is that art is for seeing evil.
I am using the word “evil” to encompass the whole range of negative human experience, from being wronged, to doing wrong, to sheer bad luck. “Evil” in this sense includes: hunger, fear, injury, pain, anxiety, injustice, loss, catastrophe, misunderstanding, failure, betrayal, cruelty, boredom, frustration, loneliness, despair, downfall, annihilation. This list of evils is also a list of the essential ingredients of narrative fiction.
I can name many works of fiction in which barely anything good happens (Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, José Saramago’s Blindness, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Jon Fosse’s Melancholy are recent reads that spring to mind), but I can’t imagine a novel in which barely anything bad happens. Even children’s stories tend to be structured around mishaps and troubles. What we laugh at, in comedy, is usually some form of misfortune. Few movies hold a viewer on the edge of their seat in the way that thrillers and horror movies do: fear and anxiety evidently have their appeal. Greek and Shakespearean tragedy would rank high on any list of great works of literature, which is consonant with the fact that what is meaningful and memorable in a novel tends to be a moment of great loss, suffering or humiliation.
David Hume’s essay “Of Tragedy” gestures at this simple theory in a footnote when he observes that “nothing can furnish to the poet a variety of scenes, and incidents, and sentiments, except distress, terror, or anxiety.” So does C. S. Lewis in his essay on Hamlet:
“I feel certain that to many of you the things I have been saying about Hamlet will appear intolerably sophisticated, abstract, and modern. And so they sound when we have to put them into words. But I shall have failed completely if I cannot persuade you that my view, for good or ill, has just the opposite characteristics—is naïve and concrete and archaic. I am trying to recall attention from the things an intellectual adult notices to the things a child or a peasant notices—night, ghosts, a castle, a lobby where a man can walk four hours together, a willow-fringed brook and a sad lady drowned, a graveyard and a terrible cliff above the sea, and amidst all these a pale man in black clothes (would that our producers would ever let him appear!) with his stockings coming down, a dishevelled man whose words make us at once think of loneliness and doubt and dread, of waste and dust and emptiness, and from whose hands, or from our own, we feel the richness of heaven and earth and the comfort of human affection slipping away.”
I love this paragraph, especially the last few lines: Hamlet is indeed about loneliness and doubt and dread and waste and dust and emptiness and the feeling of all good things slipping away. But I would offer two corrections. The first is that Lewis’s “naïve and concrete and archaic” point generalizes far beyond Hamlet, and the second is that it can indeed be put into words that are not “intolerably sophisticated, abstract, and modern.” Those words are: art is for seeing evil.
The poet William Blake commented, of Milton’s Paradise Lost, that “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Blake is implying that art—real art, true art, great art—is not designed for seeing good.
The philosopher Irad Kimhi, in an essay on Walter Benjamin, writes that “poetic-thinking, in the sense that applies to Benjamin, is the point of view from unhappiness.” Kimhi says that artists “give (un-) form to un-being, namely, give un-being, the Unheimliche, an un-home among us.” If I understand Kimhi, he is saying, “art is for seeing evil.” I am not claiming that the simple theory is original to me; but those who hold it—and I suspect they are many—do not seem to want to come out and say it.
If the simple theory were even simpler, if it read “art shows us some evils,” it would be unobjectionable. No one could deny that one of the things art does is show us evils, or that one of the places we can see evils is art. But doesn’t art sometimes show us joy and happiness? And aren’t there other ways to see evil? Let me set aside the first question, for the moment, to focus on the second. Does our ordinary experience of life—both our own, and our close associates’—show us evil? No, not really. Life is censored.
Think about what you see when you enter a room. If you’re tired, you’ll notice places you might sit; if you’re thirsty, you’ll notice cups you might drink out of; if you’re hot, you’ll spot windows you might open or close. If the room belongs to someone about whom you would like to know more, what will jump out at you are those items—such as books—that offer up clues. What you see in the room is a function of what’s useful to you in that room, given the aims with which you walk into it. Most of what’s in the room you miss. Recall that famous psychology experiment in which a man in a gorilla suit walks through a group of students passing around basketballs, and the experimental subjects don’t notice the gorilla because they are busy following the instruction to count the number of times the players in white pass the ball. Your whole life is like that.
We are relentlessly efficient in targeting our movements, including those of our eyeballs, at some apparent good. Even our mental movements—thought processes—are subject to this regulative pressure. You permit a problem into your line of sight only insofar as you are looking for solutions to it; we instruct our children to ponder the mistakes they’ve made, but only so as to do better in the future; holding wrongdoers accountable is important because it allows us to “move forward.” The value of mourning lies in “working through” grief; crying is a way to “let it out.” When you criticize someone, you should do so “constructively.” The soul is like a compass; it can’t help but point goodwards almost all of the time.
When it does stray, we muscle it back into line. If you consciously notice your mind wander and land on something “irrelevant”—a speck of dirt on the window, a memory of an unpleasant encounter, a problem you can’t solve at the moment—you tell yourself to focus on what needs doing. If your mind goes even further afield, you might be called to use force. Consider the story of Leontius in Plato’s Republic:
“Leontius, the son of Aglaion, was going up from the Piraeus along the outside of the North Wall when he saw some corpses lying at the executioner’s feet: He had an appetite to look at them but at the same time he was disgusted and turned away. For a time he struggled with himself and covered his face, but, finally, overpowered by the appetite, he pushed his eyes wide open and rushed towards the corpses, saying, ‘Look for yourselves, you evil wretches, take your fill of the beautiful sight!'”
Leontius’s eyes, having performed their usual scan of his visual environment, light upon some corpses. He rushes to censure his eyes as evil and disgusting—just as, more generally, we censure rubbernecking, and spiteful gossip, and anything that strikes us as an instance of willfully wallowing in badness. Leontius denies his eyes a glimpse of the badness they crave, and his eyes rebel at being constrained in this way. Perhaps we, like Leontius, will judge this rebellion as an instance of some kind of perversion or sickness. But another way to think about this is that your eyes, and something in your soul more generally, want to see what’s there—but you won’t let that happen. You are the censor of your own reality.
I have never seen a corpse in real life, and if I did I suppose that I would feel compelled to turn away, but I see them often in movies. They are featured prominently in war movies, action movies, horror movies and thrillers, but they are also liable to show up in dramas, romances and even comedies. The camera lingers on the sometimes naked, sometimes disfigured, lifeless human body. It invites our eyes to take their fill of the “beautiful” sight.
In normal life, vision is burdened by positivity: we tend to be aiming, achieving, improving, appreciating and enjoying. There’s almost always something we’re up to, and that purpose skews our process of observation. When the things around us make no practical contribution—affording no use or joy—they do not readily summon our attention; when harms refuse to take the friendly shape of surmountable obstacles, we endeavor to ignore them; when evils offer up no positive face, no compensatory pleasures, we command ourselves to turn away from them. We swim in an invisible sea composed of all that is irrelevant, unhelpful or downright wicked.
Art suspends our practical projects, releasing the prohibition against attending to the bad. Our ravenous consumption of badness in art reveals just how much we standardly deprive ourselves of it. We commonly praise some piece of art for its “realism”; we could fault life for its lack thereof.
There is a certain noble lie that we tell students about art. I was told it, and I hear it retold often by those defending great books and humanistic education. The lie is that art is a vehicle for personal moral edification or social progress, that art aims at empathy and happiness and world peace and justice and democracy and the brotherhood of man. But those are the goods of friendship, or education, or politics, or religion—not of art. The point of art is not improved living; the point of art is precisely not to be boxed in by the sometimes exhausting and always blinkered project of leading a life. When art does transparently aim at moral guidance or social progress we dismiss it as dogmatic, pedantic and servile.
I was telling a friend that I have been thinking a lot lately about what it takes to flourish in a fallen world. It’s a real question how much of the world to allow into your life, especially in the digital age where the world is flatter and we become captive audiences to a lot of madness that we would not otherwise see at all. But there is a big difference between tuning out gutter politics or social media and tuning out great art. The classics are classics because they make you see something worthwhile and expose you to inconvenient truths. When we are instructed to focus on what is “good, beautiful, and true,” it does not follow that what is true is just sunshine and kittens and things that make you feel good. Truth is not the same thing as pleasure.
In a way, it feels like we are being overrun by a sort of “soft Christianity.” You have endless new “translations” of the New Testament that are not true to the original text, but contain ever more flowery and emotional language. The Gospel according to Oprah. It’s not difficult to see who their target market is, either – the anti-intellectual “Jesus doesn’t need that kind of negativity in his life” crowd, that thinks evil can be muted or blocked. You have to come from a very weak church to be threatened by art.