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I've fallen prey to the sociological illusion
And it's had dire consequences for my nonfiction book
Hello friends. I feel utterly defeated by What’s So Great About The Great Books.
In the last fifteen years, I have written something like twelve complete novels, four of which are published or under-contract, and one non-fiction book (The Cynical Writer’s Guide To The Publishing Industry), and since many of those books went through several blank-page rewrites, I’ve probably done upwards of thirty complete drafts of various book-length projects. And right now, at this moment, this book feels like the hardest.
It’s just that there are so many different questions it must address:
Is trained aesthetic judgement arbitrary? Do we think things are good merely because we’ve been told they are good? Or is there some genuine response to the text? Are there some things that are simply not very good, no matter what argument can be made for them? If aesthetic judgement is not arbitrary, why does it need to be trained in the first place?
Is there any positive social value to making aesthetic distinctions between works? Does a trained aesthetic sense help you live a better life? And, if so, in what sense? Are you more content? More able to experience joyful moments? Does it offer consolation? Or is it wisdom that’s on offer? If the latter, what does wisdom consist of (a whole book in itself?) And if an aesthetic sense is related to wisdom, what is the relation?
Could the benefits we get from a trained aesthetic sense be increased by a more diverse canon? Alternatively, could they be undermined by a less diverse canon?
Are there systematic biases in the canon that can be unconsciously inculcated in a person, and, if so, do these biases undermine the value (still not established!) of a trained aesthetic sense?
If a trained aesthetic sense confers wisdom, and if the aesthetic sense is best trained by reading the Great Books, then why have the Great Books become increasingly associated with reactionary thought? Why did Bronze Age Pervert, a student of Plato, turn against democracy and liberalism and begin to espouse a thoughtless libidinal fascism, anti- and un-intellectual, designed to act upon the senses of young men? Why do Ron DeSantis and Christopher Rufo push the Great Books so heavily? Why are Classical Christian academies proliferating? If reading these books confers a trained aesthetic sense, and a trained aesthetic sense confers wisdom, and wisdom naturally leads a modern American to support plural democracy, why aren’t reactionaries against the Great Books?
I have answers to all of these sets of questions (except perhaps the last one), but they’re not necessarily convincing answers. And, moreover, there’s the task of weaving elements of autobiography and of my own readings of the Great Books into the overall text. An impossible task, perhaps! Nobody should have to defend both the value of aesthetic judgment and the value of the historical processes by which judgment has been trained. In other words, I should either be defending judgement or defending the Great Books, but not both. I ought to be able to take something for granted.
And yet, for the audience to which I am writing, I must make both sides of the argument. Defending judgment in the abstract is simply absurd. Everyone who is interested in literature thinks some art is good and some is bad, and they are willing to argue for the books they extol. The rubber hits the road when we come to the specifics: if some art is simply superior, then what art is that, and how do we know? This is where we must defend, not judgment in the abstract, but the peculiar system of expert judgment, housed in the academy, that operates in the United States today. And we must do this even though most people are highly dissatisfied with the universities and think they are sick and decadent. But, in any case, the universities have adopted such a pluralist view of the canon that the idea of judgment has become meaningless. Everything you think can be good, is good. It’s impossible to construct a program of independent reading that encompasses the university’s choices (perhaps this is the point, the university just wants you to go to college!) But since even the university is unable to satisfactorily impart to most students a broad outline of what is important in literature, we are left adrift. You cannot learn about literature without the university, but the university makes it impossible to learn about literature. Hence, programs like the Great Books provide a fall-back, if only for a certain kind of American.
The Great Books makes sense, I think, only within the specific context of 20th and 21st century America, a time and a place when it makes sense to aspire to be a citizen of the world. It’s not a program for all people, in all places.
But that social-historical aspect adds another wrinkle to the whole thing. What other programs of reading might be better? Why can’t we use one of those instead? What a mess!
I have about seventy thousand words, which has become a manuscript of some kind. Ultimately what grounds the manuscript is my own personal experience. My book contains no program of reform, no call-out to some incipient national catastrophe, no diagnosis of national sickness. I aim to talk to other curious proto-intellectuals in the way I would’ve wanted people to talk to me. What I know is that this program of reading is fertile and life-sustaining, and that it has trained me to distinguish fine moral nuances—a skill I could’ve only gained by working through these authors’ thought processes, by figuratively living inside their mind. The Great Books don't merely impart ideas, they impart a certain rigor, a certain ability to weigh and test ideas, to figure out whatever is knowable and to distinguish it from what isn’t, and to make a life even in the absence of any universal values.
But the wrinkle, the almost inescapable conclusion, is that folx like BAP also have, to some extent, this self-same ability, and that the life they’ve chosen is repellent to me. And yet, for them, perhaps that was the life-sustaining path. I have no desire, though, to recommend a course of reading that might radicalize folx or turn them into reactionaries. And yet I also have no desire to control what people think. Nor is it my experience that books act autonomically on the nervous system, imparting certain force to it like a cue to a billiard ball. People choose their own course. But I still want people to make the right choices! Except I don’t always know, for them, in their shoes, what those choices are! I cannot imagine that reading Plato could ever have a negative effect on a person’s life, but even if it did, that would be their choice. And yet isn’t that an evasion on my part of the very concept of education? Either an education influences people, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, why bother discussing it? But if it does, what influence do I want to have?
And the answer is, I don’t know. I don’t particularly want to influence people. I simply want them to know what I know, which is that these books are a valuable educational curriculum even for a left-of-center person.
One of the major themes of my book is what I call the sociological illusion, our need to look at every human phenomenon mechanistically, in terms of causes and effects, which in turn requires looking at it as a mass phenomenon (if a population of people is subjected to these books, what will happen). And the truth is, we don’t and can’t know, but, as with Kant’s transcendental illusions, we are ceaselessly born up, away from the personal and into the sociological.
I keep trying to keep this book in the realm of the personal, and yet all of these sociological questions loom over it. On a personal level, my claims regarding the virtues of these books are well-attested by my own experience reading them. On a sociological level, the effect of the books is simply unknowable. But I know that my reader will want answers to those sociological questions—answers they can simply never have. The value of my book is precisely that it doesn’t attempt amateur sociology, but refusing to engage in sociology almost amounts to breaking my contract with the reader.
This is the aporia that’s at the core of both my book and of the very concept of literature. Literature is something we experience on a personal level, never sociologically. But to discuss it publicly introduces an inescapable element of sociology. I feel like if I’d ever read Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action I’d be able to engage more fully in this idea, which is that we can only progress in our discussion of literature by taking each other’s ideas seriously and talking to each other—by aggregating our experiences and coming to consensus. But I haven’t read the book, unfortunately, so that path is closed to me.
In my book I want to evade the sociological dimension, but it’s only that dimension that can give literature a public meaning. Without that dimension (is reading this book good for society as a whole), who cares what people read? Why bother to influence them at all? And I do believe these books are good for society as a whole, but I certainly can’t prove it, or even demonstrate it. All I can do is extrapolate upward from my own experience (something another person could just as easily do from the experience of Bronze Age Pervert). So where does that leave me?
I think of the sociological illusion as being like Kant’s world of appearances. Kant said that certain metaphysical disputes were unavoidable because a question had two opposing, equally plausible answers, and one answer was true of the world of appearances, while the other was true of the underlying world of objects-in-themselves. For instance, one can make an equally airtight case that the universe has a beginning and that the universe is eternal.
But Kant said, in reality, both are true. The world of appearances has a beginning (it began with our consciousness), while the world of objects-in-themselves is eternal and unchanging (since time and space are a result of our conscious frame rather than inherent properties of objects).
Similarly, if we ask, “What should other people read?” the answer is, “They should read whatever will tend to benefit society as a whole”. But if the question is “What should I read?”, the answer is “Whatever will give me the greatest wisdom, freedom, and pleasure.” And this is not because we except ourselves from the necessity of treating others well, but because we trust ourselves to act well, regardless of what we read.
I trust my reader to act well, so I want to expose them to books that will increase their power and knowledge. That is the assumption that I take for granted. Obviously I don’t want bad things for society, but it seems to me that the only escape from the sociological illusion is to give other people the same freedom that we give ourselves.
This post was in part inspired by the long article by Graeme Wood on Costin Alamariu (i.e. Bronze Age Pervert), in The Atlantic. I tease my wife about her subscription to the Atlantic, calling it “her hate-journal’, because The Atlantic is probably the most trans-skeptical mainstream magazines. Every month I open it up to see if it’s got another article questioning trans identities, trans politics, or care for trans people, and it usually does, but it also has some other good stuff.
In the same issue, David Brooks also has a long article on why America has gotten so mean. He namechecks the Great Books movement. Apparently people need to be taught that there is objective moral truth. Meh. What I don’t understand is why the same people who are against the rampant moralism in America also think the problem in America is not enough moral certainty. All of the identity-based prescriptions that Brooks hates are a form of morality, no? What is “Believe Women,” don’t talk over Black people, respect peoples’ pronouns, and all the other left-liberal shibboleths if it’s not a morality inculcated in people by the educational system and by many of our large social institutions? Allan Bloom said forty years ago that multiculturalism was a vacuous morality, a non-morality, and that American kids were going to fall prey to moral relativism, but they didn’t. If anything, they feel a moral absolutism: they think even historical figures should be judged by modern moral standards. I don’t think Americans lack a moral framework—their moral framework is just very clumsy. But I do think Brooks is right in saying that their moral framework suits their particular needs: people have many fleeting interactions with strangers and want a moral framework capable of parsing those interactions. Maybe if people participated more in institutions and were less lonely, their framework would be less clumsy. But then the solution isn’t to teach them a better framework, it’s to build more housing, build it closer together, and let people settle down and form long-lasting communities. There’s a material reality at play here that goes beyond ideology and education.
I also came across this piece in Quillette on Patrick Deneen, which treats him with an appropriate level of skepticism. I haven’t read his books (yet), but I remain baffled by his and Adrian Vermeule’s “common-good constitutionalism”. Yes it is true that in American history there have been times when the church and state have been much closer than they are today: we have had blue laws, we have had blasphemy laws, we have had state funded religious institutions. But I simply do not understand where non-Christians and non-white and trans or queer people fit into these schemes of theirs. They are practicing eliminationist rhetoric, whether they know it or not. Their hope is that, like the liberal reformers in Germany in the 19th century hoped for Jewish people, once they come into power, all non-white and queer people will melt away, convert, or assimilate. But when that hope proves false (a thousand years of official repression was unable to eliminate Christianity from Egypt, Anatolia, or the Levant), eventually genocide or ethnic cleansing becomes the answer. And I don’t want to be genocided! Luckily they will never ever ever ever come into power (how can a Catholic theocracy ever get established in a majority Protestant country? It’s absurd). Yet the seriousness with which people take their ideas is simply astonishing. I quite literally think Bronze Age Pervert makes more sense than the tradcaths do.
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Eck. Writing this blog post hasn’t helped my primary purpose in the slightest: I am no closer to finishing my draft than I was an hour ago.
Look at this handsome fellow, Kant. I make his ideas sound so simple, you’d never guess he expressed them like this:
I cannot say the world is infinite in past time or in space. For such a concept of magnitude, as a given infinity, is empirical, hence it is absolutely impossible in regard to the world as an object of sense. I will also not say that the regress from a given perception to everything bounding it in a series, in space and in past time, goes to infinity; for this presupposes the infinite magnitude of the world; nor will I say that it is finite; for an absolute boundary is likewise empirically impossible. Accordingly, I will be able to say nothing about the whole object of experience (the world of sense), but only something about the rule in accord with which experience, suitably to its object, is to be instituted and continued.
Although I did read the book I must confess that without Stanford university’s philosophy website I wouldn’t have understood a word of it.