Poets, Princes, & Private Citizens:
Literary Alternatives to Postmodern Politics

310 pages,
ISBN: 0847682005

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Writers as Teachers
by Judith Adam

Poets, playwrights, and novelists were traditionally held to be genuine teachers. The contributors to this volume of essays try to revive that understanding. While acknowledging the differences between fiction and philosophy, they treat authors as social and political thinkers, and seek the general or universal truths in authors' portrayals of characters, places, and events.
The essays are divided into four sections, not according to literary genre or era (although the essayists pay special attention to the context and time in which the works were written), but with a view toward framing certain broad political and social themes of "modernity". They find in literature an articulation of the human and moral losses that have accompanied the systematic and technological successes of the modern, or enlightenment age: what has come to be known as the "crisis of modernity", or, as the editors put it in their introduction, the "growing awareness of [modernity's] inability to account for and sustain human particularity or liberty". Poets aims at a recovery a sense of the "natural world", the world of shared "human experiences" that has always been available in literature and could serve as the ground on which a reflection on human, moral matters could take place. The book is not meant to stop at a mere diagnosis of modernity-as is much more common.
In the first section, "Christianity and Modernity", Henry Higuera's "Don Quixote & Christian Imperialism" and Joseph Knippenberg's treatment of Machiavelli's Mandragola are linked together by the shared theme of the Christian origins of the modern political age.
Diana Schaub's "Master & Man in Melville's Benito Cereno", Richard Myers's "Politics of Hatred in A Tale of Two Cities", Patrick Malcolmson's "The Sea Wolf: Nature Versus Morality", and Alan Woolfolk's "The Pestilent Intellect: Camus' Post-Christian Vision" are associated by their depiction (say the editors) of "some of the characteristic political excesses associated with modernity", in "Modern Revolution", the second part.
(Other, perhaps more natural points of comparison between the various essays suggest themselves. For example, while it is true that Malcolmson locates Jack London's contrast of civil society and nature in the modern thought of Darwin, Hobbes, and Nietzsche (and hence in the revolutionary character of modernity), his fine essay is largely an exploration of the character of a man, Wolf Larsen, who contends that "morality and justice are mere products of convention or human agreement." It could well have accompanied an essay that appears in the last section, Timothy Burns's "Friendship & Divine Justice in Homer's Iliad", a study of Achilles, a spirited character like Larsen, but one whose difficulties stem from a deep attachment to, and concern for, virtue.)
Diana Schaub's presentation of Melville's exploration of the "psychological dynamic of master and slave and the nature of racial prejudice" in Benito Cereno begins with an explanation of the background context of the story. She turns to the writings of Thomas Jefferson (in the century before Melville's) for illumination of the condition in which the United States found itself in 1855, the year Melville published this story. Her aim is not, it seems, to give an account of Melville's "mind-set" but to show his deliberate intention in crafting this tale of an initially successful, but ultimately doomed, shipboard slave revolt. Schaub observes that "Melville does what he can to develop the moral acuity that would enable Americans to see their situation in all of its complexity, to understand the deceptive calm and the dangerous drift in [their] national polity." By these lights, Melville appears as a political educator of sorts. The richness of symbolism in this story-"Benito Cereno is a heavily allegorical tale, freighted with figures, devices, and tokens"-presents a penetrating and painful assessment of the American situation. The North, represented here by the strangely unperceptive Captain Delano, remains oblivious (despite feelings of unease) to the crisis on his Southern counterpart Benito Cereno's ship; here, Schaub finds signs of Melville's view that "the North, through its own failings (both theoretical and practical), is brought into complicity with the slaveholding South."
"Love in the Ruins", the volume's third division, explores the possibility of meaningful individual, or private, lives against what the editors call the "backdrop of a world seemingly disenchanted by modern rationalism". This section includes John Roos's study of the short story "Revelation" in "Flannery O'Connor & the Limits of Justice", Peter Augustine Lawler's "Lost in the Cosmos: Walker Percy's Analysis of American Restlessness", Eva Brann's "Paul Scott's Raj Quintet: Real Politics in Imagined Gardens"; and Amy Bonnette's study of an ancient comic poet, "Family & Politics in Aristophanes". This last is a broad and succinctly stated study of the full complement of Aristophanes' plays, which sheds some light on the much discussed contemporary theme of the tension between family concerns and political life. It is so good that one hopes Bonnette will expand this essay into a book.
Eva Brann's essay, perhaps most directly of all the studies offered in this volume, addresses the question of how a work of literature might teach its reader. Her essay culminates in the assessment that Scott's fictional-historical account of the final days of British rule in India helps us to "think about politics"; it even offers an example of a moral "exercise", suggested by the text, in which the reader might engage. But the essay begins with a consideration of how we might know whether we ought to expect to find political lessons in a given work of literature, and in the Raj Quintet in particular. We must ask ourselves, Brann insists, with regard to this (and, one might suppose, all novels), "How can any fiction comment on fact, and how can its characters express ideas?"; the answers for her seem to lie in the fact that the particular characters and events of the Raj Quintet represent universal "types" and "kinds of" events. And because these books also exhibit greatness in the broadness of the "humanity" they portray and in the "controlled complexity" of their accounts, we are warranted in not treating Scott's types as clichés (as some critics have done), and in seeking a political teaching in them.
Part four, "Literature & the Permanent Questions", is presented as leaving behind the theme of modernity, and addressing "fundamental and trans-historical human moral and political questions"-with essays on Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Homer.
Appropriately, the final article in this volume examines the poet acknowledged to be the educator of the Greeks, Homer. Timothy Burns's essay studies the hero Achilles, the embodiment of the Homeric moral teaching. It is his view that "Homer presents through Achilles an heroic struggle with the foundations of justice and the moral life," which, in its universal and timeless character, remains accessible to the modern reader. The essay is remarkable in its appreciation of the humanity of Achilles-perhaps lost to some modern readers inclined to dismiss him as a more or less inhuman brute.
We can identify with Achilles, Burns says, both initially as he suffers injustice at the hand of Agamemnon, and later as his anger over this incident develops into a deeper questioning of the foundations or supports for virtue. Crucial to Burns's interpretation is an Achilles who is not a mere honour-seeker, but a man who understands virtue as a life of action performed for, or on behalf of, the common good. Hence the confusion Achilles experiences when, as a result of his efforts to gain support for his virtue, he unintentionally causes the death of his closest friend. Burns shows, moreover, that despite the ostensible resolution of Achilles' difficulties by the end of the Iliad, his resumption of the life of virtue comes about as a response to the death of Patroclus and not, as it seems, because the question of the supports of virtue has been resolved. Homer, Burns thinks, leaves his reader with this question to ponder.
By contrast to the troubling example of Achilles, Anne Ruderman's "Moral Education in Jane Austen's Emma" (extracted from her book on the same author) points to the possibility of uniting moral virtue with happiness. In Emma, a novel that takes as one of its themes the moral education of the heroine, Ruderman uncovers a teaching of the perennial Austen theme, the relationship of virtue to love. Her essay shows how a careful examination of the characters on display helps in defining Austen's account of human nature. We are guided through the humorous universe of Austenian characters, who include "a range of possibilities and deficiencies, all of which shed light on the relationship of the hero and heroine."
We find a Shakespearean political teaching-on the permanent question of the limits and possibility of political wisdom-in Paul Cantor's "Nature & Convention in King Lear" and in Pamela Jensen's "The Famous Victories of William Shakespeare: The Life of Henry the Fifth". As with Burns on Homer, these essayists present careful studies of character. In particular, Cantor's account rests on an incisive appreciation of Shakespeare's depiction of Lear. Cantor shows that, at least to begin with, Lear is "a great king" at the height of his powers, whose subsequent demise is not due so much to infirmity or weakness of character, but mostly to the difficulties inherent in politics itself. His overarching conclusion from Lear is that "what makes political life fundamentally tragic for Shakespeare is the fact that, by the very nature of political power, the ruler is cut off from the great wisdom he needs to rule in the fullest sense of the term"-perhaps reminiscent of the paradox of the philosopher-kings of the Republic, but turned around and seen from the point of view of actual rulers.
One cannot help but be struck by the power of these essays to draw the reader into their subject-matter. Novels, poems, plays, and short stories, in the consideration they receive here, remain ever-present for the reader and are not jettisoned, or perhaps even inadvertently left behind, as is sometimes the case in scholarly treatments. One finds oneself, then, led back into the books themselves, where not only can one experience first-hand the individuality of each work, but ponder the larger questions posed and addressed by its author-whether they be, for example, the sort of moral exercise Brann identifies in Scott's Raj Quintet, or the account of human nature Ruderman brings together from Austen's Emma. These essays are to be commended for undertaking the kind of study of literature that locates the common ground for discussing books in the books themselves. And whether or not a definitive interpretation is reached in each case, one always gets the sense that the book and its questions remain open for consideration. If such is the consequence of approaching literature with the idea (explicitly stated in some of these essays) that authors have a conscious and articulable intention, and that they aim to teach through their work, then it is a welcome consequence for the serious reader.

 Judith Adam grew up in Clyde, Alberta, and got her B.A. and M.A. at the University of Alberta and a Ph.D. at Boston College. She is now a tutor at St. John's College, Santa Fe, New Mexico.


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