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Washington Diarist: The Tolstoy Bailout

"In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth." So The New York Times announced this week, in a report that made a grim country feel grimmer. "Previous economic downturns have often led to decreased enrollment in the disciplines loosely grouped under the term 'humanities'--which generally include languages, literature, the arts, history, cultural studies, philosophy, and religion. Many in the field worry that in this current crisis those areas will be hit hardest." The complaint against the humanities is that they are impractical. This is true. They will not change the world. They will change only the experience, and the understanding, and the evaluation, of the world. Since interpretation is the distinctively human activity, instruction in the traditions of interpretation should hardly be controversial--except in a society that mistakes practice for a philosophy. It is worth remembering, then, that the crisis in which we find ourselves was the work of practical men. The securitization of mortgages was not conceived by a head in the clouds. No poet cost anybody their house. No historian cost anybody their job. Not even the most pampered of professors ever squandered $87,000 of someone else's money on a little rug. The creativity of bankers is a luxury that we can no longer afford. But now I read about "defending the virtues of the liberal arts in a money-driven world," as the Times says. I would have thought that in these times the perspective of money would be ashamed to show itself. What authority, really, should the standpoint of finance any longer have for American society? Who gives a damn what Kenneth D. Lewis thinks about anything? The president is right: we must work with plutocrats whom we despise; but surely not with their values. The study of religion, defending itself to capitalists? The study of literature, afraid for its prestige? Let the SEC grovel before the MLA! I am being somewhat precious, I know. But adversity is always a clarification: it refines the sense of what matters.

In tough times, of all times, the worth of the humanities needs no justifying. The reason is that it will take many kinds of sustenance to help people through these troubles. Many people will now have to fall back more on inner resources than on outer ones. They are in need of loans, but they are also in need of meanings. The external world is no longer a source of strength. The temper of one's existence will therefore be significantly determined by one's attitude toward circumstance, its cruelties and its caprices. Poor people and hounded people have always known this, but now the middle class is getting its schooling in stoicism. After all, bourgeois life was devised as an insulation against physical and social vulnerabilities, as a system of protections and privileges secured honestly by work; but the insulation is ripping and the protections are vanishing. We are in need of fiscal policy and spiritual policy. And spiritually speaking, literature is a bailout, and so is art, and philosophy, and history, and the rest. These are assets in which we may all hold majority ownership; assets of which we cannot be stripped, except by ourselves. I do not mean to be too sentimental about the humanities as they are conducted in the American academy: just yesterday there arrived from the press of a distinguished university the galleys of a book called Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking, written by the director of a humanities center at another university. That is not what Erich Auerbach had in mind. Still, what ails the humanities is not as egregious as the assault on them. Regression analysis will not get us through the long night. We need to know more about the human heart than the study of consumer behavior can teach. These are the hours when the old Penguin paperbacks must stand us in good stead. It was for now that we read them then. Barack Obama owes some of his popularity to the impression that he read them, too; that he is trained in the arts of reflection; that amid the wreckage he can maintain his inwardness and think.

But some humanists appear to believe the rumor about their own superfluity. The Times brought word of a new movement to justify the liberal arts on utilitarian grounds. It does not intend only that the cultivation of souls is a larger good, a collaborative preparation against the worst. It means also that scholarship and sensibility must be proven as a social and economic benefit. "The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently issued a report arguing the humanities should abandon the 'old Ivory Tower view of liberal education' and instead emphasize its practical and economic value." Now there, as a friend of mine once said, is a conference-building measure! There, too, is a bad idea, a craven concession. Catullus, or Job, will never be as useful as bio-engineering. A discovery about van Eyck or Schubert or Emerson or Bresson will never be awarded a patent or a bonus. And the cost/benefit analysis of humanistic instruction will inevitably disfigure it. Here is an example of what the teaching of literature from the slant of expedience looks like, a reading of the opening sentence of Anna Karenina--"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way"--with an interest in what works: "By that sentence, Tolstoy meant that, in order to be happy, a marriage must succeed in many different respects: sexual attraction, agreement about money, child discipline, religion, in-laws, and other vital issues. Failure in any one of those essential respects can doom a marriage even if it has all the other ingredients needed for happiness." I take this dull and dulling commentary from Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, one of those books that explains everything. Of course, Tolstoy means no such thing. The force of his observation is not social scientific. It proposes that unhappiness is more interesting than happiness, and establishes its claim upon our attention. It suggests that unhappiness is not just the lack of happiness, an Augustinian absence, but its own state of being, autonomous and elaborate and piercing and obscure. It is, in sum, a useless observation, in the way that wisdom is useless. What is so frightful about the possibility of wisdom? It comes in too many varieties to be oppressive. And why would anyone wish to refuse it, like credit, when it is most needed? To deny the fortifying power of the humanities in dark days is indecent. For policymakers, all unhappy families are alike; but we are entering an era in America in which each unhappy family will be unhappy in its own way.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.

By Leon Wieseltier