by Lindsay Waters
The chief paradox Thomas Frank points to in his What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America is that “the people who were once radical are now reactionary.” How can the general population have become persuaded to vote for plutocrats whose chief goal is to fleece them? Quick-talking pseudo-populist politicians all smelling like snake oil have mobilized the resentment of the American people to work against their own economic interests. Frighteningly, the same shift has taken place inside “elite” culture, some of the same people who were once so radical in the universities have become reactionary. First among them is Walter Benn Michaels, whose earliest claim to fame in “Against Theory” announced his intent to campaign on Red State American values against foreign elite influences at Yale and elsewhere.
The “Backlash” against “liberalism” has revived unregulated capitalism—in other words, the triumph of market forces and values over all others. “Backlash” promotes (supposedly) the “needs” of resentful disempowered ordinary Americans against the “Establishment.” It is the prolonged effort to bring about the restoration of 1890s order after the reform movements of the New Deal and the 1960s. The Backlash in national politics has its counterpart in new developments in literary theory of which the book by Walter Benn Michaels, The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (2006), is a prime agent.
“This,” the author assures us of his book, “is a theoretical argument,” just as his other well-known work of writing, coauthored with Stephen Knapp, “Against Theory,” was an “entirely theoretical essay.” Backlash has pushed literary theory to the right and is trying to roll back all the scholarly developments of the 1960s and 1970s.
Michaels’s chief claims are two: The first is that the value of literature is conferred upon it by its power to convey a message, a meaning that takes the form of a clear rational proposition, an idea. In clear rejection of ’60s talk about the medium being the message, he asserts that the message and only the message is the message. This is the same as saying that the only thing that matters about the cake we eat is its nutritional value and not its taste. On this view, everything that is round is flat. The world is flat. The second is that the only message that matters is whether the work endorses the idea of the “free market.” The market gives us the rules of the game. A work of literature is valuable to the extent it embodies the rules of the game. We really have come a long way since the 1960s. The Pepsi sure has gone flat.
Michaels is a self-styled rebel, but rebelling is the norm today. George Bush is a rebel, ain’t he? The self-styled radicals have indeed become conservatives when they insist we make, as it were, the “Catch-22” the very definition of the freedom the system affords us. You will remember that Joseph Heller’s story centers on Captain Yossarian of the 256th US Army bombing squadron in World War II, whose main aim is to avoid being killed: “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22.” It worked like this: “All he had to do was ask and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.” Yossarian is now to be condemned for daring to kick against the pricks. The good and right message of literature, writes Michaels repeatedly, is that we should embrace the rules and know there is no escape from them. The goal of literature is to endorse the idea that the freedom to enter a contract is the key joy to take from reading any novel. The truth is we give ourselves over to literature because of its promise of what Isaiah Berlin called “thick” relations, full-body relations like a loving family, not for the “thin” relations of the market.
The promoters of the Backlash in literary studies, like Michaels, give us terrifying dreams of literary scholarship and the arts themselves torn apart by identity politics, queers, and foreigners who mangle English and turn away from universal values to promote their own narrow-minded parochial interests. Against all the dangerous ideas imported from foreign countries and arising in remote regions of the U.S., promoters of the Backlash give us the “Free Market,” which encompasses all and homogenizes everything in its grip. The free market makes all commensurable, for everything and every soul in the world is, after all, convertible into U.S. dollars. They rail against the elitism of Yale Deconstructionists the way television right wing ranters rail against a lot of things, including Yale Deconstructionists. Michaels is the Bill O’Reilly of literary studies. Promoters of the Backlash have picked up from the Left the trick of pretending to be outsiders fighting a new Genteel Tradition and boast of their subversiveness against the likes of Paul de Man, Judith Butler, Leslie Marmon Silko, Richard Rorty, and Toni Morrison.
In America, pretending to be a rebel seems to give instant credibility. In interviews Michaels brags he has always been a bad boy, was often on academic probation as a student, never wanted to publish a book but thought it would be fine sport to con the California University Press out of $1,000 and to get an artistic photo on the cover of the book. He’s got a new book out now called The Trouble with Diversity which he wrote to guilt-trip liberals in a new way by claiming that when they focus on race they ignore class. Basically, he just wants to provoke liberals. He has proudly claimed that he has never written a word about what others consider the great works of American literature. He’s the very picture of a modern American hero, the rebel without a cause. The “without a cause” is essential, because rebels like this make a business of hiding what they are really about.
The goal of Backlash theory is not to build, but to spoil by taking offense conspicuously, vocally, flamboyantly, in order to cash in on the culture wars. Indignation is the sentiment Backlash theorists love to affect. Their written work may be sloppy—a flimflam game of sophistry, fake philosophy, fake criticism—and their theory may actually not be theoretical, but it doesn’t matter. Their job is to rile up the Left and leave them speechless. Michaels delivers over the course of The Shape of the Signifier a whole series of calculatedly outrageous equations that he pretends to argue for, but which can only ever be provocative assertions, even if his book were five times as long as the slim, 200-page volume that it is. This is supposed to irritate and inflame people like me. I will let him speak for himself:
By the time [Paul de Man’s] Aesthetic Ideology got published, . . . (in 1996), what de Man had characterized as the emergence of history everyone else was characterizing as the end of history. For if, on Francis Fukuyama’s account, the end of the Cold War did not mean the end of ideology, it did mean what Fukuyama called the “end of mankind’s ideological evolution,” and it thus made ideology as irrelevant to action as de Man’s materialism had . . . Fukuyama’s posthistoricism repeated the de Manian replacement of the cognitive with the affective.
Michaels laments the end of ideology. If the world were run according to ideas the way the world seemed to be in the ’50s, we would know immediately who the good guys and the bad guys were. Speaking of bad guys, by choosing de Man as his villain, of course, Michaels stacks the deck in his favor, because de Man is to the rank-and-file lit profs in America what Napoleon was to the ordinary English person at the beginning of the 19th century, a villain whose very name scares children and conjures up perfidy. In the passage I cite here, Michaels is insisting that even though de Man was explicitly calling for a return to history and Francis Fukuyama explicitly claimed humankind had reached the end of history, their positions were exactly the same. For Michaels, the fact that they assert opposite views about history is the proof positive—note the use of pseudo-logical wording in “thus”—that they hold the same positions deep down underneath where Michaels can see, but the mere inquiring reader cannot see. No wonder such writing leaves nice liberals feeling flummoxed, the way the Democrats on that Senate Committee reacted to the testimony of Colonel Oliver North so long ago. It is easy to reject the feeble lie, but the bold lie makes you doubt yourself. That is the goal. In interviews Michaels has compared de Man to the best car salesman in the world—in other words, the ultimate liar who picks your wallet clean, leaving you smiling as you walk out the door. It is an odd case of projection that leads Michaels to say this. Because he cannot imagine what an authentic intellectual is, he accuses de Man of being the fraud. And, of course, he came up when de Man was all the rage, so he wants desperately to be like him, to take his place, but he has no idea what the source of de Man’s authority was. That mojo jus’ ain’ gonna work for him, so he goes on to the attack. With similar aggression at work and a similar attempt at prestidigitation, he equates Judith Butler— one of the most solidly and sincerely left scholars—with George W. Bush. Defying all common sense he equates the American cultural Left with Samuel Huntington, and Richard Rorty’s pragmatism with jingoistic American patriotism. Reading a book that consists of this series of bizarre equations is like walking through the house of distorted mirrors at the carnival. It is hard to keep your bearings when there is no single way to orient yourself to any stable truth in the book.
The intended effect upon the reader is that of an insult to one’s intelligence. Its diagnosis of the state of literary scholarship in the U.S. is not correct. Reading this book is like listening to a person play an untuned piano who clearly does not know the difference between a tuned and an untuned piano. But the way he plays off-key is meant to irritate. Every position on “left” and “right” is caricatured, and the show of logic, the claims that the author loves philosophizing, is no more than a shell game, and yet this flimsy set of assertions is meant to back up the most important claim of the book: that the commitment of de Man to considering the work of art as something that has a material effect upon the reader—that is, his aesthetics—is exactly the same as advocating extremist identity politics. In this way, all of the principled positions of everyone discussed in the books, except for his own professional academic allies are reduced to foolish notions. At this stage in the implosion of the Bush regime, it becomes clear that almost all of its so-called intellectuals and many of the academics who have provided the intellectual storm troops for Reagan and the several Bushes were hacks. There is no Carl Schmidt or Ernst Junger or Richard Weaver among them. Michaels has come on the scene too late in the game. The game is up.
Theory that was supposed to be so subversive has become so degraded as an activity that we are supposed to believe—if we believe his claims for his work—that what Michaels writes is theory, but it is really part of a political struggle for control over the universities. Long ago, Edward W. Said worried that the rise of a literary theory that championed system over individual would tempt some to believe they could solve every problem by reference to a closed and narrow system. What he feared would develop has come about and is manifest in the writing of Michaels. Michaels’ writing is jumpy and evasive. He uses words in accord with his own private definitions of them. He abuses them, just the way George Orwell speaks about in “Politics and the English Language,” because he uses them “with the intent to deceive,” all the while affecting to be “some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line’.” But don’t be fooled: this is a party line of market-criticism of Michaels and his allies. In China it’s the postmodernists who are the champions of unfettered capitalism. Same here in the U.S. Even the estimable Stephen Greenblatt has expressed his belief that the market is the central device for understanding all that American society and art can be.
The work of Michaels and his allies has silenced potential critics in the English departments of the U.S. the way the Swift Boat ads caused Senator John Kerry to lose any ability to retort to Bush and to recover momentum in his race for the Presidency. The theory may not be worthy, but the story I am telling you is important, even if disheartening. At its center is a conspiracy so brilliant, so perfect, so absurd that no one would believe it (I borrow my phrases here from Greil Marcus): A cohort of humanities students and profs who think they are preparing to subvert the Establishment are being tricked into becoming its most abject tools. I have talked to some of the best young Ph.D. students in literature in America and they are utterly bamboozled by this line. In this the story runs parallel to the one Thomas Frank tells and to an even earlier story from early in the Cold War, that of The Manchurian Candidate; but now we have the Manchurian Ph.D. candidates. Michaels is working full-time to turn the English departments over to their enemies, the Right-wing politicians who have gotten so much mileage out of the notion that pointy-headed liberals insult and disrespect their values. All the while he professes that his politics is nobody’s business but his own, yet his writing is pure politics and not literary criticism. This he does admit with the petulance of a bad boy.
Isn’t this development in literary studies in the U.S. a shocking turn of events? I don’t think so. American thinking has fallen into a hideous muddle in every sector of society, especially at the top of the heap. We have, for example, great, learned treatises, such as Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History proclaiming that we are witnessing in the transformation of the U.S. into a military and capitalist behemoth the emergence of something great and wonderful in the world, “a new constitutional order,” the “market-state,” a “mechanism for enhancing opportunity, for creating something—possibilities—commensurate with our imaginations.” Sir Michael Howard has welcomed this development in the pages of the Financial Times (7-8 Sept 2002). Why should we not, then, have market-criticism to go along with the market-state?
So how does market-criticism really work? First of all, you knock the Grecian Urn, so beloved by critics in the middle of the twentieth century, off its pedestal and sell the shards as souvenirs, like bits of the Berlin Wall were sold after 1989. You don’t just put it in the closet, you destroy it. If there is one thing the market is, it’s not well-wrought. It’s a fistfight, a brawl, it’s the Rape of the Sabine Women, not at all like the “still unravished bride of quietness” of Keats. The next step is to cultivate inaesthesia, not aesthetics.
Inaesthesia as a school of literary scholarship calls on readers to stop paying attention to how the artwork affects them, its recipients. Instead of engagement, one rules out any interest in how humans respond to the medium as medium, what Michaels calls “the shape of the signifier.” “Signifier” as a word has the cold ring of a revolver, something mechanical and automatic, structuralist; but shapeliness goes the other direction—what is for Michaels the wrong direction—to that which attracts the eyes, might spark emotion, and distract from cognizing meaning. And scholars like Michaels proclaim that readers of literature must absolutely resist the blandishments of poetry, because poetry’s demands are illegitimate. Why? Because they proceed from, and return to, the affections.
Michaels and his fellow New Historicists have become the dominant part in American literary scholarship these days. Those who center their literary scholarship on the market have become numerous, including prominent figures such as Barbara Herrnstein Smith and Catherine Gallagher, but though they rule the roost, they do not rule unchallenged. A group of mostly younger scholars—Peter de Bolla at King’s is one, Rei Terada at Irvine is another, there is also Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Sianne Ngai, Christian Thorne, Billy Flesch—is rising up who are interested in aesthetics, but Michaels scorns their project of calling for attention to the active engagement on the part of readers in literature in the physical attributes of the literary work. In fact, though this diverse set of scholars in the U.K. and the U.S. coming up with new ideas for reviving aesthetic clearly bothers Michaels and their work is his target, Michaels never mentions these people by name. There is deceit in not citing them. Again and again through his book, Michaels reviles those so misguided as to think the effect of an artwork on a reader as a sentient being matters at all. De Man and Butler must stand for all of them.
Since the heyday of the postmodernism that inspires Michaels and his allies, there has also arisen a cadre of philosophers who are returning to Aristotle and even Aquinas in an effort to re-enchant the world in direct contrast with the postmodernist hip alienation. Most notable in this group are John McDowell, Charles Taylor, Robert Brandom, Michael Thompson, and Candace Vogler. Key to these folks are Aristotle’s analysis of human efforts to apprehend form and Wittgenstein’s reverence for the mystery of the world. Michaels rejects the entire philosophical tradition of thinking about the impact of the artwork on the human subject, which is the central concern of aesthetics.
Michaels and his master Stanley Fish reject, in fact, all dallying in the aesthetic. Michaels claims there will be untold negative political consequences if criticism pays attention to the position of the subject in relation to the artwork. To pay attention to one subject will lead to paying attention to groups of subjects and encourage “Identity Politics” that will fracture the United States, leading to the dissolution of the Union. That, of course, is intolerable, and therefore aesthetics is intolerable. He asserts that the recipient of the artwork is “irrelevant,” and you—hypocrite lecteur—“your experience as such does not matter.” Note that key here is the neocon, pomo crushing of the individual subject, grinding my soul out of existence.
The point about the danger of giving any credence to aesthetics with its emphasis on the experience of the recipient is repeatedly stated and is basic in this book, but—as Michaels points out—the key step for him is one he took more than twenty years ago in an essay he wrote with his comrade Steven Knapp called “Against Theory.”
The editors of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism take this essay as the major theoretical statement of the Baby Boomer Generation in America, what Michaels has elsewhere called “the Theory Generation.” If Bob Dylan is the voice of this generation, in what way can this spoiler essay be considered the academic analog of what Dylan did? Does it pour vitriol on its subject the way Dylan pours vitriol on the Lady in “Like a Rolling Stone”? There’s sympathy for the Lady in the song that has no equivalent in the sheer nihilism of the essay. The Norton editors hail the essay because it “codifies some assumptions of its authors’ generation . . . [and] signals a turn away from dense philosophical considerations [such as those of Europeans like Derrida and de Man] toward practical, cultural criticism, anchored in U.S. culture. In its wake the production of ‘theory’ . . . has lessened.” In what was taken as a particularly clever example, Knapp and Michaels claimed that if one were to come upon the words of Wordsworth’s poem “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” spelled out in squiggles of sand on a beach with no human in sight, one would be wrong to take it as a poem, because there would be no conclusive evidence it was produced by a human and such evidence as there was suggested by the shapes in the sand were accidents, not signifiers. The poem can only be a poem and have meaning—say the authors—if one knows a human intended the marks to be a poem. In other words, for these scholars, a poem must not be, but mean—a reversal of the famous Archibald Macleish line. Say it again: We’ve come a long way, baby!
The authors of this essay were convinced of their own brilliance and many thousands of professional scholars of literature seem to be in agreement with them, or at least unwilling to protest. There’s an expression in the U.S., “Run it up a flagpole, and see how many people salute.” This essay met the “salute test.” But in fact, you can only tell if it’s a good idea by analyzing it, not seeing how many people are willing to defer to it, based on the authority of the people who produced it and the prestige of the journal that published it. Likewise, a bunch of words is not a poem because someone who calls himself a poet has convinced a publisher to print the book as if the words on the page were poetry. The proof is in the pudding. Any batch of words on pages, even if labeled poetry by their publisher, are just as likely to not meet the standards of taste.
But what Michaels wants to persuade us to do is to forget about taste and to put in its place institutional power. Michaels is dehumanizing art, cutting out the human element, and turning the whole process into a technology. What he is doing is eliminating any subjectivity and homogenizing literature. The fact that so many of his contemporaries took his claims at face value and—even worse—mistook its sophistry for philosophy just because they couldn’t understand it the way they had not been able to understand de Man only shows that a lot of people can be fooled a lot of the time, even—surprise surprise!—people who are highly educated can be fooled. Ever hear of something called the dunce cap, named after a renowned professor in Paris?
Whether marks on a page make a poem or not is not “entirely determined by the intention of their author.” The encounter of a human with a thing that he or she comes to decide is an artwork is the very heart of the critical activity, a process often extremely delicate, but it is never to be taken for granted. Here is precisely where I find the new Aristotelianism emanating from Pittsburgh of the highest value. The aesthetic experience is personal; it’s empirical. Its course is unpredictable, depending on how sensitive and demanding the artwork and its recipient individually are: “Then I felt like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken.” To sweep all this away isn’t just bad thinking. It’s barbarous, suicidal for professors of the arts.
Cutting out the recipient of art from the account of what art is is a crucial precondition to getting market-criticism up and running, but the crowning achievement is substituting “market” for the aesthetic form (the “shape of the signifier”) of the literary work as the key term of criticism. From Aristotle to Vico, attention to form, and the perception and evaluation of form, has been the central task of criticism. Nothing else matters. But if we rule out all that is subjective, individual, personal, and idiosyncratic in the critical transaction, what is criticism practically?
Transaction is the right word when relation between author and reader is modeled on the legal contract, a deal between parties with rules that are public in the way the rules of 21 are at a gambling casino in Las Vegas. Practical criticism from Michaels means taking every work of literature as a successful or unsuccessful effort to embody the “Free Market” as Neoliberals came to narrowly define that social institution in the twentieth century. Bad literature according to Michaels tries to affect our emotions as readers, elicit responses that call upon our sense of familial belonging. King Lear would be an example of bad literature with its emphasis on blood relations and “kindness.” So, too, are William Faulkner’s writings bad literature because they are immoral, because they promote racism. Same thing with Toni Morrison. Michaels’s book Our America runs through a vast number of writers to judge them by the litmus test of whether or not they appeal to what he insists are occult forms of belonging, especially family. A free agent enters the market unaffiliated, an unencumbered piece of property with no liens on it. Most of The Shape of the Signifier is devoted to combating what the author insists is erroneous literature and scholarship, but one positive instance Michaels elucidates is Samuel Delany’s 1987 novel The Game of Time and Pain.
Michaels analyzes Delany’s novel as an allegory for the “fundamental freedom of liberal capitalism—freedom of contract.” He piles opprobrium on a series of contemporary American novels because they fail to operate in conformity to clear controlling ideas. He expresses contempt for the writings of Neal Stephanson, Richard Powers, Kathy Acker, because their novels are not governed by ideas. They are murky, vague—like those of Franz Kafka—and have no precise effect and leave readers the stupid notion that the “question of right or wrong interpretation of the text is irrelevant.”
By contrast, he implies, Samuel Delany is brilliant, because his novel The Game of Time and Pain is governed by an idea, the idea of slavery, so the book does not embody history, as novels used to be expected to do, but conveys the idea of freedom of contract. The characters in the book exemplify—in choosing masochistic, gay sexual pleasure—exactly what each and every one of us goes through at the moment we feel freely and commit ourselves to entering the “market.” The novel, according to Michaels, shows how what looks like submission is transformed into choice. “Agreement is the turn-on,” or what I’d call Rawls in Leather. Delany is an artist whom I believe explores through his work what it is to be free. The idea that he is an apologist for the Free Market is, as perhaps a senior policeman might say of dubious evidence, “absolute rubbish.” In order to make the promotion of the market be the main point to this novel, Michaels has to grossly distort what Delany wrote. All this makes me wonder if this sort of practical criticism is about literature or something else—namely, ideology?
There’s something wrong with a literary theory that ends up manhandling literature. Michaels reads Delany much as Stanley Fish reads the splendors of Milton’s Paradise Lost, as if it were a tract or a sermon praising perpetual obedience to God. Such critics make a mistake of tact. Milton is indeed about obedience, but to insist his poem is a work only presenting the case for obedience to God is to reveal a larger attitude about literature that is skewed. The imagination of true artists is free in a way the writers Michaels and Fish claim to be analyzing are not. What kind of literary theory is this? In 1929, I. A. Richards reminded us that “the history of criticism” is “a history of dogmatism and argumentation rather than a history of research.” And, like all such histories, the chief lesson to be learnt from it is the futility of all argumentation that precedes understanding.” Michaels’s dogmatism provides another clear case for the history books of the futility of a criticism that makes ideological strong-arming of the works of literature its chief tool. “Allegory is the authoritarian mode of literature and art and discourse,” said Richards’s student Angus Fletcher in a 2006 essay “Allegory without Ideas.” The allegorist claims art conveys clear messages, but only derives those messages by bludgeoning them out of them, just as the book of Michaels attempts to bludgeon its readers into submission. “Allegory,” Fletcher wrote, “is deliberately anaesthetic,” because it insists that ideas matter more than the process of making poetry, a practice governed by the imagination.
Where Shakespeare makes the exploration of familial relations the heart of his artistry, Michaels insists that concern for that topic risks inevitably the slide into Hitler’s fascism; and so he pits the market against family. The market, he claims, is free, a transaction we can freely enter and freely leave. Free in what sense?
In other words, the system was an entirely closed one with no escape possible. This is what is now being celebrated in the places that prided themselves on overturning the system. Again and again in his past writings, Michaels has promoted the market and purported to show that what looks to the unschooled reader like “distaste for the commerce of Wall Street” in a work of literature in fact reveals to the discerning eye such as his just the opposite, “complete commitment to the practice of speculation.” Years ago, deep in the heart of the ’60s, Susan Sontag warned that the allegorist, revealing “an overt contempt for appearances,” for what the artist wrote, insists the artist means the opposite of what s/he wrote. She wanted literary criticism to take another direction, towards an erotics of art. Her words have proven remarkably unprophetic. She remained the exemplary modernist; Michaels is the perfect postmodernist, apostate disciple of Derrida, he claims to be able to prove that no difference makes a difference, because all the binaries collapse into the meaning he wants to extract from the text.
There is no escape. Be lowly; wise. Conform. To protest is futile, childish. Michaels’ master, Stanley Fish, insisted—against William Blake and William Empson— that Milton was of God the Father’s party and that only a foolish, sinful, incompetent reader would find anything attractive in the poetic portrait of Satan.
Market-criticism preaches conformism and ridicules rebellion, because the smart money knows there’s no escaping the system. Certainly there’s been lots of money in preaching conformism for Fish and Michaels as they ridicule the Chardonnay-drinking, Volvo-driving, liberal English professors while they praise the professionalism and the market.
What Emerson said of the Unitarian ministers in the nineteenth century might be said of the humanities now: They no longer preach the soul. The professor who aims to speak as fashion guide—here I adapt the words of Emerson to my own, similar use—or the market guide, babbles. Let him, I say, hush, because he is not discharging the great and perpetual office of the humanist. The fashionable postmodernist acts as if he were a man of the people attacking the genteel. But, even more than the adversaries he ridicules throughout his book, Michaels is the current version of the Genteel Tradition that George Santayana warned us about one hundred years ago. America now has, in the age of William Bennett and Allan Bloom and Stanley Fish, preachers, but they work by bullying—not attraction. My worry is that those who once preached openness to change and liberality are now closing their fists and thumping the table to intimidate those who would dare change. A century ago, Santayana saw the danger: “Americanism at first was itself revolutionary . . . But it has become itself a tradition: it has developed a soul that it would impose itself on human nature, and remake the soul in its own image . . . What irony there would be in having learned to control matter, if we thereby forgot the purpose of the soul controlling it, and disowned the natural furniture of the mind, our senses, fancy, and pictorial knowledge.” In embracing the market, market-critics like Michaels become people who, knowing the price of everything, know the value of nothing. The insistence that nothing can be consequential unless it can be measured and unless it is large like the salary of a superstar prof has diminished us all. What we humanists in the U.S. must do—if we would try to renew the tradition we have let fail—is to learn how, once again, the enlightened faith of the great Italian humanists of the Renaissance, of the great German Romantics like Kant and Schiller, and of our own great tradition of Melville and Emerson and get about the business of helping souls emerge. And emerge they will if we learn how to grapple with works of art, whether they be by Homer, Bob Dylan, or Electrelane. The Declaration of Independence makes a difference.
Or it doesn’t. It’s up to us.