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Democracy and Poetry
Eve Tushnet • What is the relationship between democracy and greatness of soul? • December 1998

“And thus spoke Zarathustra to the people: ‘The time has come for man to set himself a goal. The time has come for man to plant the seed of his highest hope. His soil is still rich enough. But one day this soil will be poor and domesticated, and no tall tree will be able to grow in it.

“...Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer give birth to a star. Alas, the time of the most despicable man is coming, he that is no longer able to despise himself. Behold, I show you the last man.

“‘What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?’ thus asks the last man, and he blinks.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

For at least the past fifty years, Americans have been predicting the imminent death of what may for the moment be called the Western literary tradition, or canon. Many students and faculty at Yale make these predictions, watching over the dying canon with expressions of revulsion and resignation (Harold Bloom, who wrote in a recent essay, “I have seen my profession dying for over a quarter century, and in another decade it may be dead”) or righteous hope (various members of the Student Coalition for Diversity and the  Tenure Action Coalition at Yale). There is as yet no consensus as to whether the crisis is fatal, or even whether it exists at all; yet the proclamations and premature obituaries have opened a debate on the nature of the canon, its importance, and its place in our democracy. 

This debate has become more heated in recent months. According to the Yale Alternative, “about fifty concerned, activism-oriented students” chose “combating the lack of women and people of color on Yale’s tenured faculty and the absence of non-western material from our curriculum” as the issues around which they hoped to unite the student body. This tangle of issues has inspired these students to march, rally, petition, write flyers and editorials, and hold discussion meetings—no surprises there—but, more importantly, it has led them to the question: What is the relationship between democracy and greatness of soul?

The Poet and the Republic
“It dares to challenge Who definies [sic] the Canon and What makes books Great.” This challenge, thrown down by TACY on behalf of Ethnic Studies proponents everywhere, has for the most part been met only by vague generalities. We hear that canonical literature—that Milton, Spenser, Homer, and Dante—should be read and respected because it expands our souls; because it expresses great sentiments; because it says something truthful about the world; because it is beautiful. It is, as Matthew Arnold famously put it, “the best that has been thought and known.” All this is true, but it sounds insubstantial and groundless to the unconverted. If I pick up Paradise Lost and do not feel that my soul has been stretched, the catchphrases of the canon-pushers will not change my estimation of the poem.

The canon is not a unified whole; it is a great unwieldy heap of interconnected works. Thus any more specific description of “What makes books Great” must necessarily be partial and ultimately inadequate. Great books do reshape the consciousness of their readers, and, if the writer’s influence is powerful enough, of a society. The book can reshape us by expanding the subject matter of our thoughts, or the style in which we think, the ways in which, as Bloom would have it, we are able to overhear ourselves. This view requires the assumption that language has some direct relation to truth—that changes in the use of language either expand truth itself or allow us more access to it. 

This truth deals with things like sin, like joy and tragedy. Spenser’s Faerie Queene changed the way people thought about marriage; romantic love was incorporated into the domestic sphere, which previously had been reserved for strictly practical task-sharing and the exchange of affection. Spenser, though he did not effect this change single-handedly, at least contributed to the reconciliation of romance and marriage. 

The standards that determine what gets into the canon have certain features which make that canon deeply dangerous to the stability of a society. The standards by which a work of literature enters the canon are utterly amoral; they are individualist, meritocratic, and secular. A strong blasphemy will always be preferred to a bland orthodoxy. For this reason both the Left and the Right have typically been suspicious of the canonical authors and the liberals who supported the amoral canon. Today the situation is somewhat different, as the Right in America sees that traditions and standards are under attack, and occasionally makes misguided attempts to enlist the canon as a whole on “their side” against the Left. Insofar as the Right is generally the party of inequality, it is a more logical defender of the canon than the equalizing Left. Yet, as Shilpi Mehta rightly points out in her inimitable prose (YDN 10/1/98), the canonical authors made their names breaking with tradition, transforming the societies and the cultures of which they were a part. They are no help at all in creating an ordered state, no matter what its governing orthodoxy. 

There are things that can be said about the canon as a whole which do suggest political questions, although they provide no clear answers. The great writer is great as an individual, whose merit lies precisely in his break with the collective voice of tradition and his transcendence of that tradition; or he is great because his voice is thoroughly universal; but he cannot be a thoroughly tribal voice and still gain entry into the ranks of the masters. He can speak as Everyman, or he can speak as Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (and he is almost invariably speaking as both), but he cannot speak as The Danes. Thus any attempt to value some collective over the individual will militate against the canonical authors. Within this individual and universal voice, the issue of a man’s relation to his tribe may be addressed. Ulysses is, in part, an attempt to represent the way in which our consciousnesses work. Since our consciousnesses are shaped by, among other things, the customs of our nation, our loyalties, and the ideas and vocabularies we inherit, Ulysses is not merely a stylistic innovation but an innovation in descriptions of relationships between humans. Therefore it is decidedly political—it can cause us to change how we treat our fellow humans, our neighbors or our enemies. TACY understands this well: The canon is an armory of powerful weapons. It is political. It may not endorse any one program en masse, but individual works may sway our sympathies and create political change.

Who Is the Invisible Man?
Therefore, TACY’s denunciations of the current composition of the canon, and of the very idea that such an arsenal of great works exists, must not be dismissed out of hand. Nor can their questions be left unanswered by those who wish to defend the idea that the Western canon must be at the center of a liberal education.

The first question raised by the canon’s attackers concerns origins. Who controls the canon? Who determines which works ring the bell on the Test-Your-Strength Machine of Western Lit? And to a large extent the answer is simple: Readers who read deeply and expect their worlds to be changed by what they read. These readers are not all literary critics, nor should they be; they are not all university students, nor should they be; but every literary critic and every university student should be one of these readers. 

Those who come after the great writer, and find they cannot escape his influence despite their own strengths, also give him his place in the canon. Even minor writers occasionally piggyback into the ranks because far greater writers drew from their works; thus Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy is primarily read today by students of Hamlet. But for the most part, a work enters the canon through election by acclamation, the acclamation of those who believe a book can express all that is highest and all that is worst and all that is most pitiful in man.

Why, then, is it called the Western canon? If something originates in the West and is a part of specifically Western culture, it is hard to see how it can have universal application, how it can convey truths about “the human condition” rather than “what Westerners think their condition is.” 

The West is unique as the point where powerful forces converged and made the emergence of the canon, of works which treat the human condition across the boundaries of civilizations, more likely to occur here than elsewhere. The two elements that distinguish the West, Judaism/Christianity and Greece/Rome, both encourage individualism in a way few traditions do. The Hebrew Bible, despite its emphasis on the Hebrews as a people, includes powerful portraits of men alone with their God, cut off from nation and even family. The story of Abraham and Isaac concerns this stark, individualized relationship; so does the Book of Job; so too, in a gentler way, does the Book of Ruth, in which Ruth leaves her people to stay with Naomi. Judaism is also a historical religion—the greatest events, the acts of God, take place within human history and involve known human events. Thus human concerns and human individuals take on divine significance. 

The real twist Judaism gave to the idea of the individual, however, is the addition of the concept of sin. Sin is an offense against the order of nature or the command of God, and it is an act of the will—to know the good is not necessarily to do the good. Oedipus offends against both the order of nature (incest and patricide) and the commands of the gods (trying to avoid his fate), but his will does not matter. He has acted as a catalyst, but he is not the experimenter; Apollo is. The tragedy is ambivalent about the extent to which he has control over his decisions—“The god was Apollo, but the blinding hand was my own”—and in its picture of a man against the gods it definitely emphasizes the individual rather than any community. Oedipus Rex is the tragedy of Oedipus, not of Thebes—and this despite the plague his wrongdoing brings on the city. However, because of the harsh constraints placed on the will in Oedipus, it cannot be a tragedy of sin. With the concept of sin the weight of good and evil was placed on the back of each individual man.

Yet more power is accorded to the individual through another aspect of the Greek heritage: philosophy. The philosophers stood outside their society and questioned it, making the central story of philosophy the story of a philosopher’s execution by his city. Socrates, like Christ, concerned himself less with his security or the stability of his community than with the truth. That these men, one who would be venerated and one who would be worshipped, both threatened the societies in which they arose may explain the fact that so many subversive works have become part of the canon. These works retain their power to shock and disrupt if read with passion.

Yet are they universal? They are—if men are best understood as individuals within a nation rather than as units of that nation; if the workings of an individual will are of utmost importance, because they make the difference between sin and virtue; if the question, “How can we live in the world, when there is evil in it?” makes sense; and if humans really can fulfill the potentials for love, honor, joy, and despair which are displayed by the characters of the canonical works. They are, if these things can be said about all men. 

If anything can be said to be common to all men, there is or could be some canon of works that express that nature best. If the questions the West has emphasized are the important ones, that canon will look substantially like, although it may not be exclusive to, the Western canon. But it should be remembered that not every civilization or people considers the same questions important, and that the distinctions between civilizations cannot be discussed in the same way that we can discuss group differences within one civilization (for example, the preeminence of the Spanish in painting or the Germans in music). Some civilizations simply do not regard the West’s questions, its endless moral conflicts and uncertainties, its will and sin and pride and love and hope, as the important things about the world. A hint of this difference may be seen in the fact that the Chinese language has no word for “individualism” which does not connote “selfishness.” But the West may be right, and if it is, then the greatest works of the canon are universal. 

The cross-cultural potential of the canon is certainly not infinite. There is a reason that Russians read Pushkin more than we do, and we read Twain more than they do. Yet at the heights of Western culture, the nations agree: Everyone reads Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, and Hugo.

In my 12th grade English class, we read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. This book is terrifically sardonic, with its black American refugee from everybody who holes up in an abandoned basement stealing electricity from Monopolated Light and Power. Its tone manages to be lurid while somehow remaining tightly controlled; the narrator passes through riots, degradation, and betrayal but ends up with a hard, crooked grin on his face as he writes out his revenge. My English teacher, who had visited Russia, compared Ellison’s narrator to the narrators of works written under Soviet Communism; this provoked total disbelief from the students. How could a work written in the land of the free have any relation to writers who feared the gulag? This class discussion convinced me that Invisible Man was a great book, because I believed that it was possible for the Invisible Man to represent more than solely the view of a black American in the 1940s. It was possible for him to represent the view of any human under political repression. Much of the current fighting over the canon is about who can and cannot be the Invisible Man. My classmates wished to deny that he could be a universal figure because they wanted to defend America; this is not the motivation of the anti-canon protestors on this campus, but the end result is the same.

The other claims of the protestors of Yale’s curriculum specifically, and the canon generally, follow from this denial of the universality of the canon. As one of TACY’s flyers puts it, “The scholarly perspectives of women & people of color are excluded and marginalized.” This implies that there are group perspectives that are at least equal in importance to individual perspectives, if not more important than those perspectives. The contents of these group perspectives are unique; they cannot be gotten anywhere else. Hence the important things, the things we came to the university to study, are things that are not universal but belong to one specific group of people, and one only. 
Moreover, the group we should study at the university is our own group. For some, this means the fairly narrow range of Asian-American leftists: “...[W]here in this dichotomy [of ‘canonized history’] was Asian-American folk music? Where was there room for the stories of popular American culture I had heard outside the classroom? Where was the Asian-American field marshal for the Black Panthers? Where were the Asian-American labor organizers? Where were the refugees of Vietnam? Where was my grandfather who had been killed by the Ku Klux Klan? Where was the CIA and where was the FBI?” (Lee Wang, the Yale Alternative) Others prefer to explore the entire history of a non-Western nation. 

Here we must distinguish between “canonized history” and “canonized literature” in one crucial respect: History is necessarily the stories of peoples as well as individuals. It would be a mind-numbing task to write or read a universal history. The events cannot be distilled into archetypes or representative figures. Moreover, in order to participate responsibly in one’s own society and community, one must know the history of that community. Therefore it makes sense that American universities teach our Civil War more often and in more depth than they teach that of Sierra Leone. It makes sense that universities in California offer more Mexican history than those in Connecticut or Canada. It makes sense that universities in democratic nations study the Greek polei, the French Revolution, and the founding of America. A student of history should know the entire fabric of at least one society and its interactions with others; it would be bizarre to learn the greatest events in the histories of dozens of nations, yet know next to nothing about the centuries in between the cataclysms. 

A discussion of the implications this difference between history and literature should have for Yale’s curriculum would go well beyond the scope of this article. Yet one important point emerges: There is national history, but no “canonized history” because there is no universal history. Thus the fact that different historical periods and places are most relevant for different groups does not affect the larger argument about the Western canon.

However, the claim that students should focus also on the literature of their own group (by whatever definition “group” is understood), and deny the possibility that literature from outside that group is relevant, completely misunderstands the experience of reading the canonical works. The student at a TACY rally who held a sign reading, “My education should reflect my experience,” made this mistake. The canonical works are alien to us; they change us, and we conform ourselves to their contours rather than choosing works which conform themselves to us. This is why the academic discipline or department of English literature was so long resisted by the universities—English is our vernacular, and, it was reasoned, even the great works in English are accessible to us without any guides. They were already part of our experience. (This assessment, of course, ignores the difficulty of much of the greatest English writing.) 

The idea that students already know what they need to know, that they need no guidance and no authority above themselves, was expressed in a chant at the October 23 march for National Days of Action to Defend Affirmative Action: “We’ve got the power; tear down the ivory tower.” The curriculum reformers and canon-bashers have a great deal of trouble justifying the very existence of the university, because they cannot justify an institution dedicated for the most part to the study of what is universal. As one of the tenure-reform flyers justly puts it, “The very idea of an academy denotes separation and privelege [sic].” Thus there seems to be no reason to attend Yale rather than a Center for the Study of, say, Korea. The protestors wish to foster “the democratization movement on campuses across the country,” yet it seems that a democratic academy, by their own definitions, is a contradiction in terms. A university, certainly, is made up of a faculty that leads students and guides their education. A group of young people exploring the issues most interesting to them amongst themselves is not a university, even if it owns an impressive collection of acid-aged Gothic buildings.

The same TACY flyer asserts, “We hold Yale accountable to its rhetoric: DIVERSITY and DEMOCRACY NOW!” This demand skates right over the hard work: determining what the relationship of “democracy” and “diversity” is or could be, and what either one has to do with a university education in 1990s America.

The City of Man (And the Suburbs)
Diversity has become a catchword of both the campus Left and Right. The Left uses it to mean “women and racial minorities, and the ideas which are attached to them.” The Right, when it enters the argument at all, gets its kicks from the easy irony of pointing out that “intellectual diversity” is nonexistent when Leftist orthodoxy reigns. 

The Right’s claim is more or less true, unless one considers the philosophical differences between Marxists and neo-Marxists or “difference feminists” and “equality feminists” to provide a sufficient variety of perspectives on, for example, the nature of justice or of pride. The fact that the claim is often made cheaply and patly does not invalidate it. Yet the Right on this campus has failed to point out the strangest aspect of the current rhetoric used by TACY, the Student Coalition for Diversity, and their supporters. This is the conjunction of democracy and diversity.

Insofar as “diversity” refers not to what TACY calls “the shiny facade of coloring-book diversity” (that is, different skin colors) but to differences of ideas, unconstrained democracy is hostile to it. Democracy, rule by the governed, is greatly weakened when strong disagreements exist in the population. It can be paralyzed by dissent. Therefore the assembly of Athens voted to kill Socrates not for any of his actions, but because the ideas he proposed were too destabilizing, too divergent from their own notions of how to run a city. Similarly, the institution of ostracism was used as a political tool by many Greek polei. Our own nation has become much more statist as it becomes more democratic and less subject to the Constitution—we have direct elections of Senators, and ballot referenda in many states, but we do not have more freedom. The power of the national government has grown, perhaps because our suspicions of it have lessened now that our participation in it is more direct.

The more direct the democracy, the more it rests on the assumption that all citizens are equally capable of decision in important political matters. Thus the rhetoric of democracy, of “all the power to the people,” is hostile to any elite, any group which claims to have greater insight than the rest. “Democratization” of the curriculum means elimination of the distinction between leaders and led, teachers and students, just as ballot initiatives bypass the level of representative government in which we choose a leader rather than a policy.

A liberal democracy (for example, one similar to the government designed by the Founders), does place restraints on egalitarianism and the tyranny of the majority. However, it can work against the beliefs necessary to sustain the canon in other ways. The rise of classical liberalism was spurred in part by horror at the bloodshed of the Thirty Years’ War, which devastated central Europe; in its wake, the idea of a religious state became associated, for good reason, with violent conflict. The philosophical objections to orthodox religion that were then being raised acted together with this fear of religious violence to create a political philosophy in which the role of religion in politics—and in public life generally—would be greatly diminished. 

When religions used to the security of state support found themselves among the jostling crowd of creeds in a liberal democracy, they could not defend themselves or win converts. This would have little relevance to a discussion of the canon if the warring religions had been replaced by something which had its eyes set on the heights—by the Greek tragic outlook, by Stoicism, by the worldview of the English and Scottish balladeers or the Provencal poets, or by something we have never yet seen. Instead, they were replaced by nothing.
The objection to this is immediate: Aren’t there still Jews and Christians, and isn’t Christianity still the dominant belief of the West? Polls consistently show that almost two-thirds of Americans believe in God. There are neighborhoods in which a church stands on every corner—plus two in the middle of the block. But we should remember that in historical perspective, one-third is an enormous percentage of the population to identify itself as atheist. Moreover, the religions of America are often merely this-worldly ethical systems with a large dollop of seemingly random and anthropomorphizing metaphysics. Thus Wicca, for example, is the religion which believes in the creed “An ye harm none, do as ye will,” and also that trees have spirits. Much the same can be said for more mainstream faiths like Reconstructionist Judaism (and some branches of Reform) and Unitarian Universalism. It is difficult to imagine that believers in such creeds would be able to react to the story of Abraham and Isaac with anything but revulsion; that they typically do not recoil in horror is only due to the tameness of our reading and the lack of seriousness with which we approach the Bible-as-Literature. We have become distinctly uncomfortable with the traditional language of the Jewish and Christian religions—sin, redemption, charity, fear of the Lord. 

Few are willing to claim any knowledge of an eternal goal, an eternal standard against which men may be measured and which may distinguish between the lesser and the greater. Nor does anyone believe anymore in the old temporal virtues of honor or magnanimity (which now means, more or less, niceness); although many people still act honorably, we are embarrassed to give their actions the proper name. Because of this shyness or shame, we have no vocabulary in which to discuss what is honorable and what is not, making it more difficult to act honorably. When God died, or a little while after, these virtues died as well—even though they had been upheld vigorously and courageously by men who denied all gods. Perhaps they can be resuscitated without the rebirth of the gods; perhaps man can, in Nietzsche’s words, set himself a goal. It may at least be said with utter certainty that surpassing few of us have done so. We do not even believe that it can be done. People say now that they cannot even believe that a man would remain faithful to a woman for a decade without knowing for certain that he could win her love. 

The problem is not, as some have claimed, that the democracies have not produced great writers, nor that the great writers within the democracies have all despised democracy. We should not expect canonical authors to arise every seventeen years, like cicadas; in the short time America has been around, she has produced an extraordinary literature, including perhaps the greatest poet ever outside the epics and the Bible. As for supporting democracy, Dickens and Whitman are preeminently writers of and for democracy. The problem lies in our own ability to recognize greatness, and to cultivate it, and to become greater ourselves even if we will never attain the highest peaks. Milton’s ambition to overcome all previous epic authors was fed by his education, not suppressed by it.

“What Is a Star?”
Most of the canonical writers, the wielders of the most terrible strength, are coaxed and goaded by pride. They desire to be better than anyone else. All of the readers who feel their strength are forced into awe, the apprehension of something far superior to oneself. Both sides of this paradoxical seduction are forgotten by those who would reject the canon. Both emotions are elitist and politically undesirable.

So the question becomes: Can we believe what we read anymore? If we no longer acknowledge the relevance of the questions the canonical authors found meaningful, then we must regard the works themselves as pretty at best, wrong and harmful at worst. Even a novel about the hunt for glory or love—or, as in Walker Percy’s Lancelot, the hunt for a sin—implies a belief that these words are not empty or silly.

The ability to read a great work deeply can be lost. For most of its history, the Iliad was considered far superior to the Odyssey. Now, even students who enjoy the Iliad usually prefer the Odyssey; after Christianity, democracy, egalitarianism, Achilles’s pride no longer finds favor with us. Everyone who has taken English 129 can tell the same stories about the students who referred to the epic’s hero as “a whiny brat” or “a jerk who just sulked a lot because he couldn’t sleep with Briseis.” We are now in a position where all the canonical works are spoken of in the same dismissive terms— even by people who have read them, and thought about why they reject the canon. Something is being forgotten. In the introduction to The Western Canon, Bloom writes: “Longinus would have said that pleasure is what the resenters have forgotten. Nietzsche would have called it pain; but they would have been thinking of the same experience upon the heights.”

—Eve Tushnet, Editor-in-Chief


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