Sunday 25 November 2007

This week in the humanities - short one

In line with my first post about the humanities, what have I been up to?

Art history - no.

Music - Nightwish and Eliza Gylkison, mostly while preparing a really big nut roast because we had friends coming round.

Religion, philosophy, history of science, classical studies - no.

But the big one this week is history, which is reviewed in the previous post on this blog, on "The Relief of Belsen" and David Irving on the Holocaust.

And, under literature, I'll put The Relief of Belsen, which I saw on More4 last night, which reminded me about one of the great strands of thinking about the humanities. It's the Matthew Arnold, Leavis view that great literature, great art, great music etc have an improving effect on those who are exposed to them, and that western civilisation is therefore moving ever upwards towards greater and greater nobility. Among the British, American and Russian troops who liberated the death camps, there were men and officers who had been brought up in this tradition, indeed with fine degrees in literature, music and so on, who believed heart and soul in the improving effects of the humanities. And they had to confront the fact that the atrocities whose effects they witnessed were commanded by German officers who committed the most unspeakable acts during the working day and then went home to read Goethe and Schiller over their schnapps. It is no longer possible to believe, simplistically, that the humanities unproblematically improve us. So why do we study them?


Unknown said...

I guess that all I've actually read of either Arnold or Leavis (apart from some of the former's poetry) is the preface to "Culture and Anarchy," and that was a long time ago.

Early on he says this:
"The whole scope of the essay is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world; and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically. This, and this alone, is the scope of the following essay. And the culture we recommend is, above all, an inward operation."

Does this goal and the means to it sound plausible? What can we (or some of us, at least) still agree with in this statement? What can't we agree with? And, in light of the original blog entry: can answers to these questions give us some clue to how an SS officer could have adored Beethoven while supervising the gassing and incineration of thousands of Jews, gypsies, gays, handicapped, Slavs, etc.

What seems to me indispensable in a humanities education is precisely to offer to view some of very best things we have read, heard, and seen. I am not sure this requires an explicit canon--which sometimes might be defined as "very good things and deeds that are turned into enemies of the 'merely' good". Something more has to animate the presentation of significant works, however, than a sense of "greatest civilizational hits."

Perhaps a specific flaw in Arnold's approach is his focus primarily on "inward culture." Too much of an inward culture can cultivate the belief that politics (political and social culture) is something outside our proper concern as cultured individuals.

From some things I have read and viewed I recall that the upper echelon in the SS recognized that their officers would be traumatized by the deeds they were doing, and that it was important to recognize and anticipate this. Ordinary SS officers were informed about the problem, monitored, and offered soothing "cultural" rehabilitation--but also reminded that their violent acts were necessary for establishing the thousand-year Reich. They were instruments of the regime who had to harden themselves for the sake of a more perfect future.

I'll stop here, after remarking that this seems to be a strange but still recognizable perversion of Arnold's ideal!

bluefluff said...

Arnold - he was the "sweetness & light" bloke, wasn't he?