“I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?” – W. E. B. Du Bois
Emerson said something like “there is only perception, and morality” and I don’t think that that’s just another “little darling” theory. He also said that the “eye is the first circle, the horizon the second” and what he means by that is that we see the world through our own eyes, and that affects not only our perception, obviously, but the morality of the perception too.
There was an article in the Financial Times on Sunday about the intimacy of baking and breaking bread together, which I agreed with, for the most part–it was very personal and insightful. The accompanying photograph was Winslow Homer’s painting The Watermelon Boys–Google it and save me 1,000 words. The author saw is as a commentary on the culture of the time, and how the boy in the middle was looking worried because he shouldn’t have been fraternizing with his schoolboy friend, who was, it seemed to me, oblivious to anything but his own pleasurable, sunny-summer’s-day engorgement. But for the author the weight of the world of prejudice and exclusion was secretly bursting through in triumph, like sad disdain.
I saw it differently–three friends having a secret snack, maybe even a literal stolen moment in an essential green field, while one boy was worried he was late for chores, or something, and his mother might come looking for him.
This difference in interpretations reminded me of Leonard Bernstein, in the opening scene of the Young People’s Concert series, conducting the William Tell Overture, and then asking the audience “What does this music mean?”
“That’s just what I thought you'd say,” he responds, “cowboys, bandits, horses, the wild west. I know my little daughter, Jamie, who's five years old, agrees with you. When she heard me play this piece, she said - ‘That's the Lone Ranger song, Hi-ho Silver!’ Well, I hate to disappoint her, and you too, but it isn't about the Lone Ranger at all. It's about notes–E Flats and F sharps. You see, no matter how many time people tell you stories about what music means, forget them. Stories are not what the music means at all. Music is never about anything. Music just is. Music is notes, beautiful notes and sounds put together in such a way that we get pleasure out of listening to them, and that's all it is.”
We can get pure, unprojected pleasure out of Rossini, as much as we get out of Shakespeare, Balzac or Dumas, no matter how heavy or opaque our myopic baggage may be, by just listening to what they had to say. The watermelon boys don’t care who’s looking at them, or why. Or how. They’re busy eating. The transcendence of Homer’s subtle vision is inherent, not incidental, and speaks across time and place, first, eloquent, then irrevocable. The same is true for almost all art masterpieces, and classical literature too–great books are great a priori, and the ideals they embody are worth living, and dying for, or else our whole magnificent civilization would already have been annihilated. Content is character.
Wait, don’t abandon ship yet! There is a point I’m trying to make–these meanderings have meaning–advantavit sinus, pulcher et fortissimus–and it leads us to Martin Luther King Jr of all people.
After he became a famous civil rights leader, following on the success of his bus boycott in Birmingham, (no burning, looting, or rock throwing, BTW) he moved to Atlanta and was feeling “almost an eagerness to give the rest of my life to the pursuit of the cultural, intellectual and aesthetic ideas Ive been pulled away from.” He was hired by Morehouse College, his alma mater, to teach a course he called “Social Psychology I,” in which he used the Socratic Method to discuss and debate the Great Books. Sound familiar? Well, the similarities end pretty quickly after that–he was Martin Luther King Jr after all.
King’s syllabus moves mostly chronologically from antiquity through to the 19th Century very-American ethical and practical system of utilitarianism, as championed by Emerson first among many others. King believed that “to study the past is not only to encounter a world of monstrous injustices, but also to encounter the values in the name of which we can reject and rectify those injustices,” according to Roosevelt Moras, a senior lecturer at Columbia University’s Centre for American Studies. Except for the pretentious spelling of center, I couldn’t agree more. The “conversation” in King’s class included Rousseau’s Social Contract, Machiavelli, and Hobbes, the “brutish, nasty, and short” leviathan in any classroom.
Here are some of the questions on King’s final exam: “Appraise the Student Movement in its practice of law-braking in light of Aquinas’s Doctrine of Law”; “State and Evaluate Aristotle’s theory of slavery”; “List and evaluate the radical ideas presented in Plato’s Republic.” I won’t go into my analysis here–come to the Academy and you’ll understand exactly what I think about these things. And what you think about them too.
And I’m not going to opine on the fashionable assault these days in the halls of academia on the un-p.c. faults of King’s Great book choices and the “whiteness” of his authors, which, according to the mob, must disqualify them from having any validity because they are, it goes without saying, Euro-centric and colonialist. Um, St. Augustine was a Berber, I believe. Caesar was himself a slave; and Gandhi a very short, bald, brown Hindu. Judge a book by the character of its content (and not its cover), the same way you’d judge a man. This explosive canon of dynamite ideas and liberating morality is one of the most powerful weapons we have ever created to advance our ideals of social justice–and, oh, the irony of cancelling it on thin, horizontal grounds.
King was arrested shortly after he taught his course, for organizing another demonstration of all things (surprise, surprise), which must be why there wasn’t a Social Psychology II. While incarcerated, he wrote a Letter from a Birmingham Jail–a masterful recapitulation of his teachings. (That word makes me think of “surrendering again, instead of ‘summary.’”) He invokes Socrates and quotes Aquinas and Augustine from memory, it seems, tracing “the moral arc of the universe,” which he thought would inevitably “bend towards justice.” If the last prison scribblings you read was Mein Kampf, like it was for me, this will be an erudite and educational delight. King, the real King, should rise again–his common-sense moral vision is revelatory and necessary, especially in our alarming, turbulent time–with the confused struggling of ignorant armies everywhere. Unfortunately, renaissance is much more difficult than revolution, and “Don’t retread on me” seems to be the flag flying over King’s kingdom these days. But the worm will turn.
The point is we must recover this venerable political tradition, the literate and lovely strings that bind us all the way back to our beginnings, and which hold the keys to enlightenment and meaning for all of us. The virtues of tolerance and temperance and are the perfect antidote to today’s gormless provinciality and division. The common-sense King knew well that the patriarchy–male, white, elitist, and abusive at times, granted, is also the benevolent and wise connective bridge, the perfectly-flawed but essential foundation to a prosperous, just, and great nation, if we are to continue to have one at all. Of thee I sing.