Ross Douthat is giving us more to worry about in this weekend’ New York Times. He writes about a package of essays he has read which seem to confirm everything Eliot grumbled about in The Waste Land.
The package’s title is a single word, ‘Endgame’, and its opening text reads like the crawl for a disaster movie. ‘The academic study of literature is no longer on the verge of field collapse. It’s in the midst of it.’ Jobs are disappearing, subfields are evaporating, enrollment has tanked, and amid the wreckage the custodians of humanism are ‘befuddled and without purpose.’”
Simon During’s “essay is very shrewd, and anyone who has considered secularization in a religious context will recognize truths in the parallels it draws. But at the same time they will also recognize the genre to which it belongs: a statement of regretful unbelief that tries to preserve faith in a more attenuated form (maybe “our canon does not bear any absolute truth and beauty,” but we don’t want to live with an “empty heritage” or “disown and waste the pasts that have formed us”) and to make it useful to some other cause, like the wider left-wing struggle against neoliberalism.
“And if there’s any lesson that the decline of Christianity holds for the painful death of the English department, it’s that if you aspire to keep your faith alive even in a reduced, non-hegemonic form, you need more than attenuated belief and socially-useful applications.
“A thousand different forces are killing student interest in the humanities and cultural interest in high culture, and both preservation and recovery depend on more than just a belief in truth and beauty, a belief that “the best that has been thought and said” is not an empty phrase. But they depend at least on that belief, at least on the ideas that certain books and arts and forms are superior, transcendent, at least on the belief that students should learn to value these texts and forms before attempting their critical dissection.”
Read Douthat’s full column here.