David Lyle Jeffrey
Christianity and Literature, Vol. 53, No. 2 (Winter 2004), 233-46.
Communion, Community, and Our Common Book:
or, Can Faustus Be Saved?
David Lyle Jeffrey
[The author presented this address on 28 December 2003 at the MLA Annual Convention in San Diego, where he was honored by the Conference on Christianity and Literature by conferral of its Lifetime Achievement Award. The full text of Professor Jeffrey's speech is printed here with his permission.—Ed.]
Some of you will know that my family was in the cattle and horse business. As a teenager I was strongly inclined to continue in that same direction.
One late spring day I was putting out hay to the young cattle when my father came suddenly alongside and spoke to me. "See that bull over there?" He pointed toward our first-string polled Hereford bull, one of the best we ever had and, as a four-year-old, probably also the biggest. Given the time of year, Bozo was itching to get out of his pen and on about his work: pawing the ground, tossing up the dust on his back, he was throwing his head in the wind to catch a whiff of the possibilities. "Yes," I said, realizing that my father meant more than he said. "I see him."
"What's the difference between you and that bull?"
Now a teenager can think up quite a few smart-aleck things to say in a situation like that, and I was thinking some of them. But if you had known my father, you probably would have responded pretty much the same way I did: "I don't know sir," I said. "What's the difference?"
"That bull does not understand the principle of delayed gratification. You do."
I came only later to understand that this brief Socratic exchange would be my singular experience of "the talk"—an entire sex education in three sentences. (Actually I have always been grateful for the brevity of it.) My father was a man of few words; his language formed by the Bible, he took seriously the biblical adage that "he who restrains his lips is wise" (Prov. 17:27).
My father did not readily approve my decision to go to college rather than buy some good bottomland not too far from the home place. His argument was again succinct: "David, you show me a college-educated Baptist, and I'll show you a backslider." (I have come to appreciate this sort of self-fulfilling prophecy as a kind of dour realism.) But I went, of course, and into a world of words, as he would say, in the multitude of which there "wanteth not sin" (Prov. 10:19). It is a source of relief to me, and of peace, that my father came in the end to accept my sense of calling to a kind of work in which my tools would be books, and to a world of new neighbors who would be part of a quest for common understanding that has stretched much further than either of us could have foreseen.
A most excellent benefit of membership in an academic community is that we continue, lifelong, to learn from one another. Iron sharpens iron. In literary study this can be most richly evident when we are obliged to reconsider a favorite work in the light of fresh readings (or interpretations) offered| by a sister discipline such as music, cinema, theology, or theater—or by a literary scholar whose perspective is sharply divergent from our own.
It recently happened that I was asked to review a stage script and offer, as promised a year earlier, an introductory lecture for our theater company's production of The Tragicall Historie of Doctor Faustus. The script, when it arrived, proved rather forbidding. My colleague the director, in his effort to make Christopher Marlowe's sixteenth-century tragedy more accessible to twenty-first-century students and lay audiences, had interspersed (at some cost to the original burlesque counterplot) excerpts from hellfire sermons of the eighteenth-century theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards. To make the anachronism plausible, he had moved the venue from Wittenberg to Yale and introduced, as Professor Faustus's rector, Elisha Williams.
Now, howsoever much I strive to keep promises to my colleagues, I confess that I felt a certain doom settling upon me in this instance. In fact, my foreboding was such that I asked for my lecture to be scheduled the afternoon following (rather than, as first planned, preceding) the opening-night performance. It didn't help much. Through the dim and strobe-lit chemical smoke the dashing young Mercutio-like Faustus zipped through his speeches like a practiced telemarketer. Mephistophilis did not appear as "a old Franciscan friar," despite the contention of Marlowe's Faustus that "that shape [...] befits a devil best," but rather as a rather voluptuous and extremely acrobatic young woman. Like the posthumous W. C. Fields, in contemplation of my assignment, I was beginning to think that "on the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."
I tried nonetheless to sympathize with the director, thinking through Marlowe's play with my colleague's problems in mind. Among them, I realized, he would have to anticipate that, even in Baptist-dominated audiences, the play's crucial biblical references would go mostly unrecognized. Two examples might suffice. When Faustus reads, "The wages of sin is death," he stops mid-sentence and concludes prematurely, "Ha! The wages of sin is death? / That's hard" (1.1.39-40). Marlowe could count on his audience to know the rest of the verse, but my colleague had to have Rector Williams fill it in from across the stage: "[...] but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom. 6:23). Similarly, when Faustus reads, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us," he cuts off the text to interpose a preemptive inference:
Belike we must sin, and so consequently die.
Ay, we must die, an everlasting death.
What doctrine call you this: che sera, sera,
What will be, shall be? Divinity adieu. (1.1.45-49)
My colleague had Williams then intone from his corner the balance of the Interrupted verse: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). Marlowe's point, evident to a biblically literate audience, was that Scripture seemed"|hard" to Faustus precisely because he closed his eyes to its fullness—i.e., because of his rejection of the "comfortable words" of the very same texts, the grace offered to reconcile our transgressions. Faustus, for his own purposes, is from the outset interested only in half-truths.
My colleague, however, could not count even on a Baylor audience to fill in the rhetorical and theological blanks. In the Churches of the Blessed Overhead Projector, biblical literacy lags well behind that of the Elizabethan theater.
I thought for a while that might be the worst of my problem, but I soon recognized that my supposition undershot the mark. Nowhere in the play, despite a host of spectacular special effects, was there evoked anything like the sheer horror of hell necessary to constitute the devil's pact for our audience as the stuff of "tragedy," or to render the final long death speech of Faustus even plausibly terrifying.
So that is what I made the subject of my talk: the Renaissance fear of hell and damnation. To culminate, since I was lecturing in the theater, and from the set itself, I acted out the last long speech, aided by the presence and taunting last words of both Good and Bad Angel. My effort was followed by a burst of uncomfortably enthusiastic applause. (Some people are obviously pleased to see an old professor damned to hell; to see it happen to a provost apparently excites almost universal glee.)
It strikes me that it is quite difficult to get students in the twenty-first century to take hell seriously. Its most familiar guise—the imprecation that makes "hell" an indirect object of the verb "go," usually offered as a categorical imperative in the second person—hardly counts now as a real curse. It just encourages the telemarketer to call on someone else, a colloquial vindication of Jean-Paul Sartre's unduly famous remark that "Hell is other people." (Anyone of my generation who remembers being a child jammed in the middle of the back seat between overstuffed and elbowy siblings on the way back from Christmas dinner at grandmother's house could have as easily come up with that remark.)
But is this a hellish enough hell to make sense of Doctor Faustus, Dante's Inferno, John Milton's Paradise Lost, or even Charles Williams' Descent into Hell, let alone the teachings of Jesus? I have serious doubts. And, worse still, without some sense of divine holiness how are students to conjure with the agonized impatience of the reply Mephistophilis makes to Faustus's literalistic question, "How comes it then that thou art out of hell?" You remember it:
Why this is hell, nor am I out of it
Thinks't thou that I that saw the face of God,
And tasted th'eternal joys of heaven
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being deprived of everlasting bliss? (1.3.78-82)
Who now can feel the inconsolable ache in these devilish lines?
It is a commonplace among those of us who teach literature that some of the world's greatest texts are, by now, extremely difficult to teach to undergraduates. While the reasons vary from text to text, those offered usually implicate our students' lack of linguistic amplitude or want of literary foundations as a context for approaching the works in question. There been a certain amount of pious and quite futile hand-wringing about and, much more commonly, emphatic curricular exclusion of what is seen as a culturally estranged literature.
Conceivably, I think, preservation of some great vernacular works may now come to depend upon scholars who represent subcultural communities—those whose call to learning comes in the context of a personal religious formation. None who fail to value, or at least to understand, the religious significance of the conversation with biblical and theological foundations held by Dante, Chaucer, Marlowe, Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, and Herbert—let alone the Brontes, both Eliots, George Mac-Donald, David Jones, and R. S. Thomas (the list would be very long)—can have so plausible a motive for preserving these authors as those who value their religious significance. Scholars disposed to take up this challenge rather than, as is more often the case, simply making gradual curricular concessions to fashions in the wider academy have thus an opportunity to make vital contributions to general intellectual culture in years to come, when access to this literature may once again be desired.
To accomplish this purpose, however, they will have to do what all scholars do who would preserve a great but unfashionable literature, whether for their own purposes or the common good of humanity. They will first have to read and teach with deep understanding the foundational literatures with which the subsequent great works hold conversation. Not even teachers in confessional colleges can now count on the churches or departments of religion to have done this accountably.
We readily accept this intertextual necessity for literature composed in other religious contexts. Hence, the continuing pertinence of certain observations by Voltaire, who in his dictionary entry under "Livres" indicates the crucial role of foundational books for everything else in the literary cultures he identifies:
The whole of Africa, right to Ethiopia, and Nigritia obeys the book of the Alcoran, after having staggered under the book of the Gospel. China is ruled by the moral book of Confucius; a greater part of India by the book of the Veda. Persia was governed for centuries by one of the books of the Zarathustras.
For teaching postcolonial or world literature, who would argue with this? In our guild, however, we have had an extreme scruple where the "Book of the Gospel" and Western literature are concerned. Professional aversion to our own "governing" book is proving to coincide with an ongoing crisis of confidence for our profession, a discipline, of course, far younger than Classics or any of the other core disciplines mastered and then rejected by Marlowe's Faustus.
English literature became a university discipline only in the nineteenth century, and at least in part as a rejection of both classical and religious foundations. The genealogy is instructive. Though headmaster Thomas Arnold of Rugby remains almost as memorable for the power of his proclamation of traditional Christian verities as for his famous graduates, most of these students, such as Arthur Clough and his own son Matthew, soon departed from the senior Arnold's religious belief in order to embrace an ideal of culture from which the living faith had been largely excised. The first Professor of Poetry at Oxford to lecture in English rather than Latin, Arnold signaled the future of the discipline not only by focusing on "The Modern Element in Literature" but also by turning literary education itself toward social construction and explicitly away from biblical revelation. However, in his revolutionary wish for the study of literature to provide an alternate clerisy and to preserve reading of the Bible not for religious but for literary purposes, he exhibited an unstable tension that has bedeviled our guild for 150 years.
Justification for our place in the university depends upon teaching more than simply rudimentary skills on an order that, for the most part, would not have obtained a passing grade at Rugby. Our university prominence has depended still more upon successfully ascribing high and (let us confess it) quasi-religious ideals to an increasingly low and secular reading practice. The advertised function of the practitioner is to make culture itself more widely available (in Arnold one moves from reading Homer in the original to comparing English translations of Homer), but doing so ostensibly in search of a "grand style" expressive of a certain "nobility of the human spirit." If the poet "sees life steadily and sees it whole," the well read critic putatively does so all the more. As poetry assumed the functions of religion among Arnold's successors, at least down to the New Critics and Northrop Frye, there was plenty of high-sounding stuff for its professors to sell to college administrators, regents, and many students. Arnold's "perfecting of a national right reason" worked in nicely with the later "pooled social intelligence" of John Dewey, as well as with numerous other identifications of salvation with the state and of virtue with a never-to-be-ended quest for poetic, hence conveniently subjective, truth.
As we look over our shoulder, then, we can see how contentions that the classics are, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, "the noblest recorded thoughts of man" and the "only oracles which are not decayed" reflect an archaic secular piety that did not long persist after the founding of our discipline. Nor was this reverence ever so fully extended in the modern university to biblical literature. For Arnold, enamored of Goethe and the Romantics, traditional religion is already bankrupt; as he puts it in one of his more famous dismissals, "the strongest part of our religion today is its conscious poetry." Conscious poetry, especially of the Romantics, he reckoned to possess a "higher truth and a higher seriousness." James Joyce simply echoes Arnold when Stephen Dedalus, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, refers to literature as "the highest and most spiritual art."
These sentiments, as we know, continued to be the prevailing secular pieties of our guild in the early 1960s in America. By the 1980s they too, of course, had been irrevocably interrogated, shaken down, and in some considerable measure dissolved. But the new revolutionaries were more than gradual secularists; among them a more candid apostasy was a requirement of the license to practice. They were thoroughgoing iconoclasts and not in any sentimental sense worshipers. Their revolution has pretty effectively "done in" Arnold and, we might now suspect, most of the apostolic succession of his clerisy with him.
All across the English-speaking world, the formal study of literature is in disarray. Even when English departments focus on books of the most slender claim to nobility of thought, let alone grandness of style, pressing for what is taken to be "marketable" and "relevant," students have continued to disperse to majors in communication studies, telemedia, journalism, technical writing, cinema criticism, and cultural studies. Meanwhile our discipline has acquired a popular notoriety for being the purveyor not of high and noble verities but of low and often trivial advocacies. Correspondingly, as the late Bernard Williams observed, even the primary literature itself has suffered from "some very reductive criticisms of traditional academic authority":
If the canon of works or writers or philosophies to be studied, and the methods of interpreting them, and the historical narratives that explain those things, are all equally and simultaneously denounced as ideological impositions, we are indeed left with a space structured only by power. (8)
Such diminishment is hardly confined to the canonical status of texts, as deans of humanities and provosts will attest. The loss of literary authority to an utterly reductive account, as Williams further observes, deprives the critics themselves of sufficient power to sustain their enterprise. Put more crudely, the status of literary study as an apprenticeship to wisdom had the advantage of appearing even to the unwise (e.g., administrators) as a species of learning probably deserving of some environmental protection; current rationalizations for literary study as a protracted venue for avant-garde politics, competitive with the therapeutic social sciences, quickly lose traction.
Authority accrues to possession of, or capacity for, truth of the high order that readers from Aristotle to Friedrich Nietzsche ("Poetry desires to be . . . the unvarnished expression of the truth" [The Birth of Tragedy]) have associated with the books most worth reading. Whereas our modern discipline began with Arnold in the credo that religious truths had been supplemented in literature by the "higher truths" of nature, we may well have approached a survival limit for our guild with postmodernist assertions that literature affords us no stable or shareable truths at all. In his provocative book Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy, philosopher Williams argues for a profound reversal of what he calls the "deconstructive vortex":
If the passion for truthfulness is merely controlled and stilled without being satisfied, it will kill the activities it is supposed to support. This may be one of the reasons why, at the present time, the study of the humanities runs a risk of sliding from professional seriousness, through professionalization, to a finally disenchanted careerism. (3)
The drift of Williams' argument is toward a reassertion of that uncommon sense we still call "common," of a revaluing of pre-reflective openness to truth in relation to language—even of a sort of "primitive trust" (49) in such "virtues of truth" as "accuracy and sincerity" and the "pooling of information" as a common good. There is more than a touch of Arnold here, but also a pointing to the need for something more basic than Arnold.
Williams' reflections correspond to my own in querying claims, albeit now enshrined as critical dogma, that there are no longer sustaining common stories or grand narratives. If we are thinking about the dissolution of modern European socialist agendas, there is, of course, a certain rhetorical pertinence to this claim; if we are thinking of, say, African literature, it makes almost no sense at all. Among writers in China, whose Marxist grand narrative has also stuttered to a stop, many contemporary novelists have identified openly with religious story, now not only Confucian or Buddhist but also the Christian grand narrative. (Among the prominent Christian novelists are Lao She, Xu Dishan, Bing Xing, and Mu Dan.) There is even a new literary style called sheng jing ti ("biblical"), whose characteristics are described as "objective, truthful, terse" (Aikman 254).
However oddly for us, it is in parts of Africa, Asia, and South America that our own greatest older texts are now perhaps most carefully taught and studied intertextually. I wonder if the pendulum may not yet reverse itself here too, if only because our employment can not much longer be sustained by the purveying of trendy ephemerality alone. Returning to Williams, we might say of ourselves:
The need to make sense of the past reasserts itself. It is particularly so when the smooth order of things is disturbed by violence, if only to answer the questions "Why?" "Why us?" "Where from?" Communitarian politics (and, at the limit, renewed tribal wars) are one area in which the need is very much alive, and it appears, too, in the interest in current historical disputes [. . . ].
The demand for an explicit and definite story about one's own people or nation is only one form of it, and that particular demand has been more urgent in some places than in others. (262-63)
And have we not now become one of those "more urgent [...] places"?
The present crisis for literary study has been long in the making; effectively it is the outworking, I believe, of a congenital defect. Others tend to think of it as merely an accidental disorder, the etiology of which has been examined, belatedly and with eloquent alarm, by critics such as George Steiner since the 1960s and Terry Eagleton, beginning in the 1980s. In his essay "To Civilize Our Gentlemen" (1967) Steiner's nominal occasion is arcane doctoral dissertations and thin literary journalism, but his underlying targets are the failed "rational and moral optimism" of I. A. Richards and Henry Sidgwick, which he rightly identifies as secondhand Arnold, and the aestheticism, however elegant, of F. R. Leavis and Arthur Quiller Couch. Steiner's gesture toward medicine for the ailing discipline, however much I affirm his notion of a multilingual cortesia, is by itself inadequate. Steiner asks, "Is it not as important for the survival of feeling today [...] to know another living language as it once was important for a man to be intimate with the classics and Scripture?" (85). To this I would answer, "No": these sources of common understanding are not equivalent in value. Jews and Christians have reason to know that a secondary good cannot long be sustained without the primary good from which it proceeds. For love of neighbor to be sustained, we believe, it must grow out of love for God with all our heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37-40). From this prior love, neighbor love obtains its true value, coherence, and credible modes of expression in whatever language lies mutually to hand.
For Eagleton, a post-Catholic Marxist for whom the authority of his new religion lay precisely in its ethical rather than aesthetic claims, it was the failure of literary study following the 1960s to keep in the vanguard of socialist reform that occasioned his greatest anxieties. The "crisis" that he addressed in Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983) was likewise a crisis of coherence. Since then, for Eagleton, the turn from literature to cultural theory has degenerated further into a socially acceptable yet entirely narcissistic self-preoccupation in which "quietly-spoken middle-class students huddle diligently in libraries, at work on sensationalist subjects like vampirism and eye-gouging, cyborgs and porno movies" (After Theory 2-3). His wrath rises proportionately to his sense that professional literary study has fled from public and political purpose to radically anarchic self-absorption: "The emancipation which has failed in the streets and factories," he writes in After Theory, "could be acted out instead in erotic intensities or the floating signifier" (29). Yes, but is such an overdetermined diagnosis enough to chart a way out of our present malaise?
These are but two late-twentieth-century realizations that formal literary study, in its pretensions to substitute for religion, has lost sight of a common good and become incoherent. One could cite others. Among them, more recently, is Jonathan Culler's contribution to MLA's Profession 2003. Culler's current project involves resuscitating the system of Frye, who was, of course, one of Arnold's most eminent twentieth-century disciples. By way of summary, Culler now sees that our professional position is untenable if we are unable to maintain even so much as a common ideal of literary value. (For perspective this is a bit like suddenly hearing from one of the most anti-establishment televangelists a stirring call for return to the Book of Common Prayer. It is difficult to disagree, however uncanny it is to reckon with the source of the appeal.) Culler's recommendation that we recover coherence by turning again to purely formalist concerns such as genre, mode, and archetype is welcome, to my own way of thinking, even necessary. But resurrecting Frye—which is to say, resurrecting the twentieth-century Arnold—will not of itself save Faustus.
Steiner and Eagleton are types, respectively, of Søren Kierkegaard's "aesthetic" and "ethical" man. Each laments but also remains locked into the Arnoldian legacy, despite ardent attempts to rise above it. We should empathize, but with self-examining circumspection. Steiner admits correctly that, while "'art for art' is a tactical slogan, [...] pressed to its logical consequences, it is pure narcissism" (Real Presences 143). Eagleton, while he recognizes the tactical advantage for radical social reform in coded discourse, is as appalled as Steiner at the loss of elegance and clarity in the wake of postmodern psychobabble. Each staggers under the professional burden of a discourse without rankable values, the Babel-effect of a secular religion gone wrong on both truth and beauty, and whose acolytes, cheerless in their alternate fits of denial and despair, discourse incommensurably even with each other, let alone with an increasingly indifferent world. It is not surprising, on these accounts, that some of us are losing quorum in the classroom.
The parallels with the near-modern history of institutional religion, in particular Christianity, are too many to explore here. The loss of any authority sufficiently transcendent to command a common allegiance and thus create a common discourse is but one of these parallels. It is no merely secular reflex, I think, that Steiner is made unhappy by that apparent permissiveness in the guild whereby "we can say any truth and any falsehood" and get away with it (Real Presences 55); nor is it extrinsic to his radical-left social purpose that Eagleton, in his latest book, defends the idea of absolute truth and objectivity as fervently, if not as cogently, as does Williams in Truth and Truthfulness (103,105).
Since at least the time of Aristotle, who asserted in his Poetics that "fiction is truer and more universal than history," the hope for shareable truth has been an indispensable sustainer for the social authority of literature. One came to the theater at Athens because the truths made flesh on the stage were more than transient truths. This gave even to a dramatized denial of truth a terrible power to wound and heal. Just as with the religious plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, Shakespeare and Marlowe, so for all literature that, in the end, bids to be taken seriously by the wider community of thoughtful minds: the only guarantor of communal truth is transcendent truth; the only guarantor of authority is the near presence of an ultimate and abiding authority. If literary studies disallow authority, as Williams emphasizes, then there remains only power. The power that our discipline has wrested from authority, however, is proving to be of a rather feeble order—just how feeble, perhaps especially in straitened economic circumstances, the next decade will likely tell more completely. Put positively, it seems to me that the best hope for literature as a secular discipline is for it to reacquire its access to some sort of moral and rhetorical authority. The rush to trade such authority for power has proved to be a very bad bargain indeed.
Meanwhile, in communities of those who yet think there is truth and inquire after it, there remains more hope than despair and accordingly, I believe, more hope for literature. That is because these communities know that, in order for hope to persist, there is required a postulate of truth and that correspondingly, in the words of novelist Lief Enger, "denying the truth is the beginning of death."
In communities of those who yet think that truth has consequences, in time and out of it, there is, however, an added obligation of neighbor love—to teach the great authors and to do so in a fashion richly affirmative of their relation to founding religious texts. An advantage to readers whose common treasure is the common Book, and for whom common prayer and a common sense that salvation is both desirable and not a purely individual matter, is that they can become confident enough in their own identity to take the ultimate concerns of others, past and present, seriously. They should be able, if they have not entirely forgotten their calling, to give to older Christian literature an intellectually responsible treatment of its primary religious and moral as well as stylistic dimensions. I do not mean to say that none but denominational or confessional schools may provide such a context. I do mean to suggest, though, that these are the schools in which, during this century in America, it ought to be most possible to teach pre-modern literature in such a way as to preserve its intelligibility. I want further to suggest that these institutions have a particular cultural responsibility to do just that.
Arnold thought that the spiritual capital of Christianity would readily transmute at comparably high value to secular cultural capital, the prestige of its canons carrying over into a secular clerisy of the literate. Accordingly, he was happy for the grandiloquence of the King James Bible and Book of Common Prayer to persist as some guerdon of their authority and even to echo in the prose of literary scholars. After 150 years, however, all that capital has been pretty well used up. Arnold and his successors were simply wrong to think that we could keep even these stylistic virtues without the high order of spiritual reverence to which they were attached.
Faustus, we may remember, was willing to go from half-truths through illusions about his own power to a kind of rabid incoherence in which he proved at last to have no power at all. Having rejected the undergirding fullness of the Common Book, believing himself superior to it in knowledge, wisdom, and mastery, he took up instead certain books of magic and necromancy by which in his search for self-aggrandizement he anathematized the "New Testament and the Hebrew Psalter" (1.1.156). In that last horrible scene, as the clock strikes and the demons draw nigh, he cries out in vain, "I'll burn my books!" (5.2.194). His attempt at reformation, however, comes all too late. What the Renaissance audience could see was that what he most needed to do at the very outset was to tell "German Cornelius and Valdes," most emphatically, where to go.
Now it must be admitted that in literature hell is more full of notable academics, perhaps, than we should like. Memorable examples include Dante's Brunetto Latini and Williams' Professor Wentworth. What these denizens have in common is a lifelong practice of retreat from the common good and of its concomitant, a rationalizing away of any sense of accountability to the truth of the other. Perseverant egoism and almost absurd levels of narcissism are, in each case, made possible by a disdainful refusal of self-transcendent, mind-independent reality. Particular rationalizations for this or that denial are often, of course, ingenious: what gives each catastrophic fall its tragic dimension is audience appreciation that, in this as in other contexts, "rationalization is the homage paid by sin to guilty knowledge" (Budziszewski 19). The literate audience knows that it is always a choice.
Coherence depends upon a common sense of objective value to which, communally, we may appeal. Language itself will not otherwise work. Williams observes, "Children learn language in many ways and in many different kinds of situation, but one essential way is that they hear sentences being used in situations in which those situations are plainly true" (45). In this respect also, it seems, "Except ye become as little children, you shall in no wise enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mark 10:15).
Can we bear the burden of obligatory clarity even to preserve our livelihood, let alone the common good—or what the late-medieval poet John Gower called the "commune profit"—of our students and neighbors? It may not seem obvious to many of us just how easy it is to make a pact with the devil, then all too belatedly to regret it. Perhaps too few of us in this business any longer believe that we have a soul to lose, yet for our discipline there surely is a soul to lose. What I want to suggest today is that for some of us who profess literature at least, "if sin by custom grow not into nature" (5.1.44), as Marlowe's Erasmian "Old Man" remarks, it may not be too late to revive our options.
To wit, it may be that the fate of our profession still lies in our own power of decision—to want hope more than wanhope, to love health more than despair. This involves our willingness to locate literature in a real rather than purely chimerical notion of community, a community against and across time, and to be open to the full reality of our own immediate community of learning as much as that of any metaphorically "professional" community. As Wendell Berry has it, community life is by definition a life of cooperation and responsibility. People of the Book, it seems to me, are obliged to embrace their responsibility to community more readily than others; hence, they can and should work to preserve more credibly all literature that encourages future hope, for that literature alone grants their members full identity.
I am inclined to agree with Jacques Maritain, contra Arnold, that "it is a mortal error to expect from poetry the supersubstantial nourishment of man." That higher, nobler nourishment lies with the Greater Book. At the same time I also believe in the power of literature to enable our will to truth. I am convinced, after much reflection, that without intellectually accountable access to the Greater Book very many lesser (yet still very great) literary expressions of truth may go without understanding, even unread and unreprinted, like unto the beasts that perish. Such an outcome would be for far more than ourselves a tragedy; it might also, and perhaps irredeemably, diminish further the residual authority of our fragile discipline.
Poised as we are this day between liturgical reminders of the hope that springs from New Life and of the Epiphany, in which we reflect on the tribute wisdom still makes to transcendence, we who cast our lot with those who ride toward Bethlehem ought to persevere in that hope and, in practice of the deepest principle, carry along with us, ungrudgingly, literary resources of such hope for others.
Aikman, David. Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power. Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2003.
Budziszewski, J. What We Can't Not Know: A Guide. Dallas: Spence, 2003.
Culler, Jonathan. "Imagining the Coherence of the English Major." Profession 2003. New York: MLA.2003. 85-93.
Eaglelon, Terry. After Theory. New York: Basic, 2003.
----------. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.
Enger, Leif. "Interview with Leif Enger, Author of Peace Like a River." With Mark LaFramboise. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2001. <http://www.groveatlantic. com/grovc/wc.dll?groveproc~misc~2658>.
Marlowe, Christopher. The Tragicall Historie of Doctor Faustus. Ed. Fredrick S. Boas. New York: Dial, 1932.
Steiner, George. Real Presences. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.
----------. "To Civilize Our Gentlemen." Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature and the Inhuman. London: Faber, 1967. 77-90.
Williams, Bernard. Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2002.