The Beatrice Interview

David Denby

"I was weary of living in the society of the spectacle."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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"For a working journalist," says New York film critic David Denby, "the function of criticism is to see what life there is in any given work, to describe it, evoke it, sometimes evaluate it and grade it." In Great Books, Denby applies this principle to some of the most highly regarded books in Western culture, as taught in Columbia College's renowned Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization courses. He discusses with Beatrice the thrills and the hardships of revisiting classic literature after more than thirty years, and the complicated role that the canon fulfills in our society.

RH: What gave you the idea of going back and taking these courses again?

DD: One reason was that my wife and I were reading the various arguments in the culture wars in the late '80s, early '90s and finding them very unsatisfactory. From the generally academic left, one heard that Western classics empowered white males and disempowered everybody else, because they did not represent African-Americans and women and other groups, being written mostly by Dead White European Males (which I think is a ridiculous phrase for anyone to use). From the right, people like William Bennett and Lynn Cheney, one was hearing the normal platitudes about the value of the humanities in anyone's life, but also a rather patriotic conception of the canon, as if it could be used to repel communism or relativism or anything else we allegedly disapprove of, like the classics were some part of the national defense.

What does any of that have to do with the way an eightteen or nineteen year old might read Homer or Plato or Augustine or Kant or Hegel or Montaigne or Shakespeare or Jane Austen? I complained to myself about this until my wife said, "Go back to Columbia. You took those required courses, the college still has them; take them again." We thought it might make a nice 5,000 word magazine piece in The Atlantic Monthly or someplace like that, and of course it turned into a 200,000 word book that took almost five years to complete.

The other motivation was that, as a movie critic, I was getting weary of living in what Guy Debord has called the society of the spectacle. I felt surrounded by media imagery, and was no longer sure who I was. My head was stuffed with secondhand information and attitudes, and I needed to get back to something more powerful. One way I thought I could do that was by reading classic literature, which are very powerful works if you don't defend yourself against them.

RH: By sampling a variety of classes, you demonstrate that there are as many different ways of thinking about the canon as there are people teaching it.

DD: Sure. What's wrong with both the left and right approaches to the canon is that they treat it as a unitary phenomenon, a single tradition. It isn't. One way that professors at Columbia teach the books is to bring out the arguments that those texts have with one another, treating them almost dialectically, as a series of exchanges that lead to further exchanges. The Greek tragedies can be seen that way, as filling in some of the gaps in Homer, showing that the heroes of the myths were perhaps not entirely glorious. Aristotle disagrees with Plato. Augustine adapts Platonic thinking for Christian purposes. And so can show a tradition building, but you can also show contradiction and critique and conversation all the way through both courses.

If you do that, some of the left's ideological vexations should disappear. You're showing that this kind of education does not impel one towards some vulgar 'white male triumphalism.' On the contrary -- it induces habits of criticism and self-criticism. In fact, much of the literature harps rather incessantly on the question of identity. Not in the sense of gender or ethnicity, but the more profound sense of, "Who are you? What are you living for? What are you willing to die for? How do you perceive other people? How do you perceive yourself?"

RH: That process of contemplation and self-contemplation can be difficult for people of my generation, which has been surrounded by television and movies in ways even more pervasive than yours, the first to grow up with TV as a constant presence...

DD: I watched a fair amount of TV, sure, but there wasn't that much of it. There was media, but it didn't exist in the same bulk. There were fewer channels, fewer outlets... This is something I worry about as I try to raise my own children in an electronic age. Kids are trained as consumers from the age of two or three, and they develop an almost ironic sense of identity based on consumer choices, adopting styles and then discarding them six months later. What especially bothers me about this is that the older arts have lost their authority -- anybody who says that they haven't is simply dreaming -- to the media culture.

Now, when kids get to college, even at the elite universities, many of the students -- with some dazzling exceptions -- haven't read much literature, haven't been asked to read it in high school unless they go to very good schools or were tempermentally drawn that way. Their responses to the 'great books' can be very naive and unformed, and I tried to dramatize that in the book.

RH: But the book isn't just about watching the students read. It's also about your own response as you go through these books. What were some of the surprises for you as you read?

DD: You read very differently when you're 48 than you did when you were eightteen. The literary critic Lionel Trilling used to say that a book reads you, and finds you more interesting as you get older. Some of the surprises came from books that I hadn't enjoyed when I read them the first time. I had read Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse as an undergraduate and hated it; it seemed highly amorphous, too feminine in its insistence on feeling and sensibility. Now the book seems very lucid and structured; I think that back then I was simply reflecting the prejudices of male critics whom I had read while trying to read her.

Boccaccio's Decameron was a book that I hadn't read in the 1960s. It's a collection of a hundred stories, mainly but not exclusively erotic, which turned out to be very funny, dirty in all the good ways, and liberating for women as well as men.

It was very hard to read climbing a mountain. I kept sliding down, falling back, scrambling for a toehold, and when I finally got to the top, and finally felt that I had some idea of what Hegel was saying about freedom and history, it was exhilirating. The most fun comes when you work hard.

RH: I found Harold Bloom's The Western Canon fascinating in that it took the great books very seriously, but as literary texts, and not as moral compasses.

DD: We read for a lot of reasons, and I wouldn't limit it to simply the pleasures of the text. We do read for moral and ethical instruction, although I know it sounds banal when one speaks of such things. But that depends on what kind of instruction you're discussing. Do you mean clever little maxims on how to live your life, or the most severe, extreme forms of self-examination? If you're talking about the latter, I see nothing wrong with it; that's how people read literature in the past. In the book, I do discuss professors who avoid that type of analysis, and primarily teach the books as interrelated verbal mechanisms, but I think that any good teacher or critic will at some point touch upon the moral and ethical dimensions of a work, even Harold Bloom.

Extreme formalist positions are not only limited, but naive. The trouble with many academics is that they've substituted the university for life, and the university has become reading for them. I have no sympathy for the bureaucratic deployment of literary studies into little pieces of specialized turf which have little to do with the way that undergraduates read. These books were not written to be studied in courses. They were read for pleasure and instruction, in the midst of eventful lives.

RH: Let's go back to that notion of self-examination as severe and extreme. We've already discussed how the left's arguments against the canon are rebutted by the fact that these books aren't monolithic, that they don't provide a single guideline of moral behavior. It seems like that same complexity would foil the right's arguments in favor of treating the canon as a collection of 'books of virtues.'

The books don't induce one towards any particular doctrine. What they can do, for students who take them seriously, is induce strenuous mental habits, and among those habits are criticism and self-criticism. If you take these books seriously, you're being challenged by minds greater than your own, and you have to stretch your mind. That stretching can be difficult for young adults who have grown up in a media age, but like any muscle, the mind grows stronger as it's stretched.

(In one interlude, Denby observes as a young African-American woman attacks the curriculum for failing to provide her with enough African role models; she also mentions that her music class forces her to listen to Mozart without giving her African drums. But the canon isn't about role models or simple demographic representation, Denby argues, it's about writers and texts that have had a significant impact on the culture as a whole -- and even those 'dead white males' can inspire non-whites in a variety of ways. Outside the classroom, Denby spoke to many African-American upperclassmen who openly admitted their admiration of texts that they had read in Lit Hum and Contemporary Civilization. He also met students who critiqued the courses, noticing that in many cases the underlying principles of their attacks on the canon, basic assumptions about human liberty and identity, were drawn from the same texts the students were repudiating.)
RH: You write a lot about trying to find the time and the space to read within the media culture which you pointedly didn't abandon.

DD: I'm in the media culture, but overall I live a fairly normal middle-class life. I'm married to an interesting woman, I have two boys; my life is no more crowded or difficult than anyone else's. But there isn't a lot of time within it to read seriously. I certainly didn't want to give up my job, but not just for financial reasons -- the point here is to see how this stuff fits into your life and how your life fits into it. I didn't want to hermeticize this experience, but that made finding time to read excruciating.

I read in my house, hounded from room to room by the children. I read in the subway standing up. I read in the atria of downtown corporate buildings in New York where more often than not music was playing, which interrupted my concentration. When I was a teenager, I had an intimate relationship with literature, as many people do, and I would read for hours without stopping; now I would bound out of my seat after thirty minutes. I wonder if it isn't because of all the television and movies I've watched, fragmenting my attention. That's something only a psychologist could answer, though, in a definitive way.

I tried to be candid in the book about my difficulties reading, my triumphs and failures -- because there are some failures. But I knew that I couldn't do this impersonally. I wanted to create the material conditions of reading so that my experiences would seem real.

RH: OK, so years of film and TV might have affected the way that you read. After taking this course, do you feel that your time spent with books had affected the way you watched movies?

DD: I was afraid that it would kill movies, and it hasn't. It's simply made me more impatient with shoddy work without any faith in the audience, without any artistic ambitions, made only to fit in some commercial niche -- and perhaps more sympathetic to films that do have those ambitions and fail. If I'm seeing a terrible movie, I don't say to myself, "God, if only I could be reading Sophocles again." It makes me want to see a great action movie.

I don't like the division of culture into high and low. I think movies are capable of great artistic triumph, though it's happening less and less. It's not that there aren't any great movies. There are, like Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies, but the respect for art films and foreign films and documentaries in our culture has collapsed. It was expected at one time that a movie did more than simply pass two hours, that they could have real artistic power and even change your life. Anybody who states those ideas now comes across as naive. Film's become an entirely commercial operation...there's still some serious film criticism, but you need a film culture to write about, and if you're disgusted by commercial American cinema, where do you go? There are independent films, but there's no New Wave or movement to get behind. I wish there were, or that many independent films were not as timid and conformist as they are, but they want to find a niche in the marketplace, too, and you can't blame them for that, really.

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BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Sven Birkerts | Complete Interview Index | Jonathan Raban

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan