The Catholic Thing
The Thaumolyzers Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 08 May 2013

It’s been a dispiriting day. 

Not because of the iron gray New England skies; I’m used to their severe beauty. Not because my students don’t know how to write; they haven’t known how to do that in my near thirty years of teaching. Not because the young people I teach are sullen; they’re generally a cheerful lot, and we get along splendidly. Not because I am a lone soul at my school; there are dozens of professors who slap me on the back and cheer me for this book or that essay or the madcap trick I played in the classroom. I’m not alone, and if I ever did feel abandoned, the Blessed Sacrament rests in the tabernacle in our chapel nearby, and I can drop by for a few moments of prayer.

But there are days when it seems that what I do for a living is foreign to my colleagues, and would be distasteful to them if they knew what it was. Here’s my job, as I see it. I am charged with introducing young people to beautiful and profoundly wise poetry, primarily but far from exclusively written in the Renaissance and before. My ancillary job, arising from my participation in our program in Western Civilization, is to introduce those same youths to the beauty and the wisdom of the theology, philosophy, and art of that long stretch of centuries.

The description, however, isn’t yet adequate. I didn’t understand it back when I began, but I now see that my reverence for the works I teach must help build up the souls of my students. I want them to be “born in wonder,” as the fine motto from John Senior’s program in the humanities put it. Wonder is that magnetic pull that directs the soul towards its true north; so I am a bearer of Good News even when the poetry is not specifically religious, though it often is.

It follows that I can’t teach something I hate. Unless the subject matter is purely malignant, like Nazism, or Maoism, or Stalinism, I don’t know that anyone can. Hate is a cement block for the soul. You can never come to know another human being, or any deeply human work, if you have immured yourself in the cell of hate. Even the absence of hate, though, is not enough, not for truly human knowledge. 

I cannot approach the poetry of Shelley, who was an abominable cad, and whose politics I reject, unless I feel the sympathetic stirrings within me when he sings of the skylark, or when his Prometheus proclaims his victory over the old stifling traditions. If I cannot love Shelley provisionally for the sake of the poetry, and really believe that I can in some measure learn from him and on his terms, not mine, then I had better not teach his works. I’d better leave them to someone else.

It also follows that I can’t teach something I reduce, even if I appear to approve of it as I do so. The Baptist’s brave words, “He must increase, and I must decrease,” must apply to me, as regards the works I teach and the students who need my guidance. I cannot use poetry merely, no matter the worthiness of the use. 

Anatomical drawing of a skull by Leonardo da Vinci, 1489

That’s a difficult prohibition to observe, since we’re only human; we grow tired, we cannot hold more than a few things in mind at once; the work of genius is fearfully and wonderfully made, and rather than stammer before it, the reaction most natural and wise and just, we feel we must say something, anything, and so we seize upon what we find convenient or comfortable. 

Everyone, then, reduces. We must, or every great work of art would stun us into a permanent silence. But we must never reduce by program. When we do that, we instruct students in arming themselves against art. We teach them to rob the work of its very being: that is what “deconstruction” is, an act of violence against the offense of wonder. 

Yet this is quite common in the academy among professors of the humanities, and the bigger and richer and more notorious the school, the more common, as unexceptional as a drunk in a fraternity house.

What, then, dispirited me today?  A proposed course on fairy tales. Those tales are rich funds of folk wisdom, found around world. They demand our respect; I wouldn’t trust a man who despised them. But I’ve just reviewed a syllabus, written in jargon that is its own mocking parody, for a course which aims to expose these works of art as if they were relentless vermin, always returning through some cultural crack or vent to spread the bacilli of misogyny.

Imagine a fundamentalist preacher proposing a course on rock and roll, as a tool of Satan. Imagine a Kleagle proposing a course on black authors, to eviscerate them. Imagine a functionary of Al-Jazeera, proposing a course on Judaism.

Not that we’d accept any of those. They’d be condemned as exercises in raw prejudice. Oh, we would bring forth doubts about the credentials of the proposers, but that’s not to the point. A tooth with credentials makes the venom go in. 

I know why two or three of my colleagues were enthusiastic about that course in poisoning a student’s love for fairy tales. They are animated by politics. I understand that, as I understand a politician openly on the take. There’s something oddly admirable about Tammany.

What’s hard to understand is the acedia of the others. They themselves do not pervert the literature they teach. They love poetry.  But perhaps all of the secular assumptions about the academy keep that love straitly bound: only to the work, or to the classroom, or to a few special students. And the many unknown patients of thaumolysis – wonder-destroying – are forgotten.

And for that, dear readers, when you send children to college, you put yourselves in hock to the eyeballs.

Anthony Esolen
is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Reflections on the Christian Life: How Our Story Is God
s Story and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, May 08, 2013
Too many in academia are hell-bent on destroying the culture of western civilization. It's the low-hanging fruit for the lazy among the 'intellectuals.'

I am reminded of one of my all-time favorite psychology books by Bruno Bettleheim the American psychologist born in Austria entitled "The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales." What insights he had to the depth of meaning contained therein and why they so resonate with children.

I am also reminded of Spiro Agnew's characterization of the elite some 40+ years ago: "pusillanimous pussyfooters"; "nattering nabobs of negativism"; "hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history"; and, "effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals."
written by maineman, May 08, 2013
I'm pretty sure at least some, perhaps all, of those Agnew quotes should be credited to Pat Buchanan.
written by Jacob, May 08, 2013
Whenever I read the bad poets, I think to myself: "the Devil plays even more beautiful songs I don't want to hear".
written by Ken Tremendous, May 08, 2013
Does it not work the other way too, Tony. a professor I agree that people who hate an author should not ideally be teaching him. We don't want critics of the classics teaching them.

But this is the dilemma for avowedly conservative Catholic schools. Are their philosophy departments which are stocked with medievalists hostile to "the enlightenment" really "fair" in how they approach the work of Descartes and Kant? Are their theology departments fair in how they deal with the Protestant reformers or say, Bultmann? Are their economics profs even handed in how they deal with say, Keynes or Samuelson--or do they sound uncomfortably like aggrieved ideologues defending lost causes? You get the idea.

As someone who has been involved with institutions of higher learning across the political spectrum that seemed often more interested in inculcating a political attitude than in getting students' to wrestle with the important ideas and authors, I recall the words of Peter Kreeft:

"I've never taken a wasted course from a disciple nor a useful one from a critic."

I'd be delighted to take a course on Shakespeare from you, Tony. Rousseau or Sinclair or Joyce...not so much.
written by Peter Mongeau, May 08, 2013
Yes, the world of academia, deconstructionists of beauty, goodness and truth. It is sad but we must light the candle and provide the balm.

First the writing. I contacted the top writing programs and asked "Do you have a textbook you use to teach writing? " The answer was "No, the professors just correct the work and hand it back." It seems academia lost its intellectual foundation to creative writing. I suggest John Gardner's "The Art of Fiction" and On Moral Fiction" . A Protestant and great books man, but great teacher of creative writing and what literature and poetry should be - pointing to those values that sustain us - and rooted in love.

Professor Esolen maybe point your colleagues to "On Fairy Tales" by Chesterton. It may be a surprise to them. It could cause great confusion - in their minds.

Keep up the "Good Fight"!


Peter Mongeau

written by Stanley Anderson, May 08, 2013
I replied in an earlier column of yours about my thoughts that C. S. Lewis’ concept of “Joy” was a kind of pre-conversion form of “Biblical” Hope (a distinction from “worldly” hope in that Biblical Hope is a longing that is independent of doubt or uncertainty, as opposed to worldly hope that includes doubt and uncertainty as an integral part of its longing). My supposition is that Lewis’s “Joy” is a form of Biblical Hope – a longing that simply does not yet know its source, ie, Heaven.

Anyway, your column today prompts me to quote a passage out of Lewis’ sermon “The Weight of Glory” that combines his idea of Joy with something from the fairy tale. I hope it is not too long for quoting here – it is agonizing even to cut it this short; the whole sermon needs to be read of course. But I think this passage is at the heart of your wonderful (as always) column today. So here is the excerpt:

In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modem philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.
written by Tony Esolen, May 08, 2013
Thank you, Stanley, for that passage from Lewis, which says all that I want to say, and a hundred times better.

Ken -- yes, there is a problem. But it is a problem that ought to be acknowledged and confronted. I think there is a way to give credit even to Kant and Descartes for what they did see, while correcting them, even smacking them, for what they refused to see (and I mean refused). With works of art, though, works that are not mere propaganda, there are claims that beauty makes upon us, even when the source of the beauty is suspect. I teach the Protestant poet Edmund Spenser all the time -- and even though Spenser casts the Catholic Church as the whore of Babylon, he is both a great poet AND a sane corrective to modern confusions. In short, he's more Catholic, now, than most of what is called Catholic.

written by Naomi, May 08, 2013
Thank you for that, Mr. Anderson. Reading it slowly and carefully effected inside me what was on the page.
"Somewhere over the rainbow,way up high..there's a land that I dreamed of once in a lullaby". Fairy tales were part of my young days as was singing and I thank God for that time. There does not seem to be a "song in the heart" of today's young people at all. Thankfully, again, we have Professor Esolen to remind us of those days as he does in "Touchstone" and the "Magnificat". Food for the starving soul....God bless you both.
written by Ken Tremendous, May 08, 2013
Sorry, but I've sat through many a failed course where the professor tries to "correct" great thinkers he disagrees with. It's rare that this is ever done well. Usually they are simply a foil for whatever the professor wants to say.

Id' still rather study modern thinkers with sympathetic modern professors and classics with friendly classicists. When you reverse this, it usually doesn't work so well.

For my part, I don't even introduce an author or thinker without at least trying to make him or her look as good as I can, while allowing legitimate criticism. If its someone I can't stand, then I try very hard to avoid them.

Usually the natural sorting that takes place in academia prevents this from happening. People usually end up teaching what they know and what they like, which is good. Survey courses are probably the exception !!!

But I can't stand it when modernist thinkers do hatchet jobs on ancient thinkers or when medieval traditionalists do the same to enlightenment and post-enlightenment stars.

I guess the real problem is just too much ideology in the classroom, and too many examples of professors trying to proselytize for a worldview.
written by Karen LH, May 08, 2013
Are you familiar with the Tolkien Professor? His "Faerie and Fantasy" lectures are available online. See the Tolkien Professor website.

All is not lost. :-)

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