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Notes to the Unaccidental Reader - Ain't Got No Culcha
by Norman Doidge

My friend, has one fall month come and gone, since we first met, in the November book review pages? Two watchful readers, only hoping to avert treacherous reading accidents, by reading good reviews. Hoping to avert accidents caused by the timid, enclosed reading of too few books, in a self-protective way. Or accidents caused by foolhardy reading-reading with dangerous haste everything Chance brings along. Has it been a month since we discovered our kinship? Since we found that we both long to avoid what the philosophers call the "accidents" of time and place by taking reading trips to far-away centuries and provinces? Has one whole month come and gone since we chose to call each other, with affection, unaccidental readers?

Those who do not fathom the unaccidental reader tend to assume-because we are so dainty and risk-averse in allocating precious reading time-that we must also be squeamish, and perforce lack courage. This month's review by Robert Fulford of a posthumous festschrift for Allan Bloom, edited by two Canadians, Thomas Pangle and Michael Palmer, reminds us that to be bookish is not necessarily to lack nerve.
Bloom, together with a few scholars at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, stood up for academic freedom when student revolutionaries threatened to use their firearms on the faculty of the ivy-clad campus in the 1960s. After administrators acceded to their demands, Bloom found refuge in a gun-free zone, the University of Toronto, where he taught for a decade and was one of the most inspiring teachers. His teaching there is recalled by Robin Roger in this issue. Many of the ideas about liberal education that he later expressed in the books that made him famous, The Closing of the American Mind and Love & Friendship, were first articulated in these Canadian lectures. He argued that citizens in a free society have liberty because they govern themselves; to govern themselves wisely they must be educated; and the education designed for liberty is the liberal education. The review by the Frederictonian Richard Myers examines a book by two Carleton professors, Peter Emberley and Waller Newell, which examines the state of liberal education in Canada.

How peculiar that Bloom, a cultured man by any conventional standard, never used the word "culture" except in quotes. He argued in "Commerce and Culture" that "it is most revealing that there is no Greek word that can even remotely translate `culture', and Greece is perhaps the peak example of what is said to be culture."
The word Kultur was given its great modern significance by Kant, while discussing Rousseau-at the dawn of the modern liberal democratic project. Liberal democracy, as we know, enshrines freedom and equality. Begotten as a solution for religious civil war with its attendant violent death and pillage, liberal democracies also enshrine self-preservation and property as fundamental principles, to keep the peace. It was the Englishman Hobbes who more than anyone persuaded legislators that the horrors of violent death could be brought on in the name of high-minded religiosity, ambition, or vainglory. He persuaded us to be less concerned with the ultimate fate of our souls, and to begin to put some distance between the spiritual and the secular, the church and the state. The secular concern for self-preservation evolved into our modern Canadian concern with health and, to a degree, defence and peace-keeping. The concern for property evolved into our concern with wealth or economics.
Yet Rousseau noted something missing in lives dominated by calculating liberty, equality, self-preservation, and property; he used the term "bourgeois" to describe a person who is in danger of stressing individual, material self-interest too much, and thereby missing out on the noble, the fine, and the beautiful, or even a sense of civic community. Sensing his deficiency and ever industrious, the "bourgeois" invents "culture"-as a supplement or corrective for what he lacks. When we say a person is cultured we mean he or she knows something about life beyond everyday concerns with material things, or his or her immediate political interest. Bloom argued that "culture" as a corrective, at its best, reminds us of human aspirations which are but dimly present in us in an everyday way. This longing for a corrective explains the bourgeois's extraordinary tolerance for the "anti-bourgeois" or "highbrow" artist. The Bohemian mocks bourgeois taste as philistine and bourgeois morality as stultifying, with relative impunity only because he has been invited to do so.
At first, culture as corrective appears to enrich life. We are stirred by the heroes of epic poetry, and their willingness to face violent death for a cause, without an insurance policy; we see that their heroism implies that we might transcend what is possibly strongest in us, our love of our lives and security. We can use "culture" as an antidote to the drab in our secular lives; though we may not be pious or observant, we still can be affected by the awe and beauty captured in the divine art of the Sistine Chapel.
But soon, as tends to happen in most regimes, the organizing political principles prove stronger than the weak corrective, if only by trumping the corrective from time to time. The democratic anti-hero-Leopold Bloom, not Allan-in the modern masterpiece, Ulysses, is surely a sensitive and fine citizen, who shares our faults and strengths, unlike the noble, heroic Ulysses whom he replaces. When his Penelope, Mrs. Bloom, cuckolds him, he, being that good modern citizen, does not slaughter his rivals and fry up their kidneys, as Ulysses might have in his Ithaca. Such delicious cruelty is not to his or our taste; a commotion might disturb the peace, or at least agitate his stream of consciousness.
Is it possible "culture" can start less and less to supplement our faults, and more and more to express them? Bloom argued this eventually occurs; and as we sense the corrective is weakening, we try to strengthen it, with the help of government or the free market. But these attempts may make "culture" more accountable to mass or bourgeois taste. Increasingly we see Warhol's soup cans, found art, junk sculpture, and images of the degradation of city life described as artistic. We think culture is merely supposed to mirror life. What began as being in a way highbrow, becomes lowbrow, or, there is a claim that the lowbrow is highbrow. Self-expression and self-gratification replace self-transcendence and sublimation. We can no longer distinguish "culture" from "entertainment" as the former relaxes into the latter. Ultimately we complain that our entertainment is increasingly vulgar. You can only draw so many moustaches on the Mona Lisa.
In many cases, too, the artistic critique of liberal democracy can become one-sided, particularly if the artists are without a liberal education. The artists may not be aware of the problems liberal democracy has solved. Some may even attack liberal democracy, but have nothing to offer in its place-except either a deadening, disillusioned nihilism, or a desperate, illusory utopianism.
The critique of the notion of "culture" is not a view from either our left or our right, simply. In agreement with our left, this critique sees that culture in a liberal democracy is indeed in some way a response to politics; in agreement with our right, it sees the early stages of this response as a desirable corrective which keeps life protected from here-and-now pressures by providing a balance; however, in later stages, "culture" may actually speed the politicization of every aspect of life-except for the saving grace of unaccidental reading.

The editor


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