I read D. G. Meyers’ blog long before he became the “literature guy” at Commentary. It was refreshing to find a voice writing about literature that was not part of what David Mamet calls “the herd” and Anne Coulter calls “the mob.” His recent post about the “dead zone at the core of American life” deals in a more explicitly political way than most of his writing with the corruption and decadence at the heart of American education–including the creation and study of literature:
Even if the “best and brightest” in academe were not so keen to throw off the burden of the liberal arts — which were once the zone of strong moral codes in American life — the university has irretrievably lost its position as the training ground of personal character.
Nearly everyone has abandoned what was once understood–and had been so since Socrates–to be a core mission of education. William James put it thus:
The purpose of a university education, everyone now agrees, is to help you get ahead; not, as once said, underlining every word, to “help you to know a good man when you see him.”
About contemporary fiction, Meyers cites Joseph Hynes (“Morality and Fiction) to the effect that Henry James is a “highly sensitive moralist trying to find some roots for his conviction that responsible choices require attention to how we ought to live our lives,” but then he goes on to suggest that “James was one of the last American novelists with any such conviction.” Modern fiction-writers “have written more and more painstakingly about less and less,” Hynes observes. At present we see “the determined refusal, on display in contemporary fiction, to enter into conscious moral debate. . . .”
Humanists once sought asylum, to a degree, from a world consumed by “business ethics” and money values, and the major institutions in which such fugitives could “earn a living — the mainline churches, the research universities, the publishing trade” — have mostly imitated and come to share the values of the mercantile world they once critiqued. Meyers concludes that “if a new zone of personal character and strong moral codes is to be created in American life, it will have to be the work of a counterculture.”
It’s been disheartening to watch the humanities, which one could easily imagine would have been home to those least easily fooled by the deadening dissolutions of all the twentieth century’s ideologies, to witness it becoming so badly confused and self-contradictory, following a dead end road of modernity and post-modernity, a way marred with thousands of road signs bearing only slogans and pointing nowhere real.
It appears that Christian humanists are the group who are most diligently reading the great old masterpieces, including those of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Those books, along with those of the ancient Hebrews, do model habits of thought and reason that have repeatedly set people free in the past and will do so again. The forces of greed and nihilism and hedonism are hardly new. They are the perennial enemy of the good life.
And it is the good life, finally, that is becoming a real counterculture.