In her college novel The Secret History, Donna Tartt describes a student who, having spent hours and days reading classical works in dead languages, looks up from his books with “fifth-century eyes.” He has become different, through his encounters with radically different worldviews. He has loved the classics precisely because of their startling, alien, unknown qualities, and for a fleeting and paradoxical moment he can attain his desire: to unite with that alien quality, without making it any less alien. This description of the process of education (Tartt declares in her epigraph that “our story is the education of our heroes.”) captures its dangers, as well as the erotic energy that propels education. Today, it is rarely recognized that Eros is the basis of education, because both Eros and education make it inconvenient to hold many of the beliefs that appeal most to intelligent, skeptical Americans.
Eros is not only a desire for sex. Sex is an expression of Eros, one possible expression of our most powerful longing. This longing has been described as a lack seeking completion, but it is stranger than that. It is the desire for union with difference. It is the desire that something outside of me, alien to me, should somehow unite with me. Sexual Eros is an expression of the desire to make a family that never becomes familiar. Familiarity breeds contempt.
When something is familiar to us, it is known and encompassed; it cannot astonish us. Oscar Wilde wrote that, “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance,” but the idea of loving oneself is more like a dull joke. The key word in Wilde’s phrase is “lifelong”: In loving only ourselves, we think we can achieve security. After all, I can’t ditch myself and shack up with a prettier me.
Eros, on the other hand, is dangerous. The object of our desire might betray us. The search for fulfillment might lead us where we do not want to go. In The Secret History, the heroes’ education leads them to murder and betrayal as well as to ecstasy. But at least in Eros we have a chance to get what we most ardently desire, and what self-love can never promise. In union with the strange, we can, in Ariel’s words from the Tempest, “suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange.”
Today there are all kinds of creeds that teach us that this type of erotic education is unnecessary. Students do not need “fifth-century eyes,” because the Western past is irrelevant to them. Although they attend a Western university, and therefore in some sense must be within the Western tradition, they deride theories of education which emphasize that tradition as outdated at best and racist at worst. Dido of Carthage and Augustine of Hippo are irrelevant because they’re different from us—their cities are gone and their bones are dust. At a rally last year to reform Yale’s curriculum, a student held up a sign reading, “MY EDUCATION SHOULD REFLECT MY EXPERIENCE.” This is a direct attack on difference, on the notion that an education ought to make us greater than just an accumulation of our experiences. If we already know everything that needs knowing, if our experience gives us sufficient help in understanding the world, why read anything at all? Du Bois and de Beauvoir fail the experience test too, even if Socrates fails it more spectacularly.
It’s odd that this stance claims to be a critical one. In removing the encounter with unassailable difference which education ought to provide, we remove any grounds for evaluating the present day. If students don’t have “fifth-century eyes” or their equivalent, the only other option is twentieth-century eyes. Without a knowledge of the alternatives, and a knowledge of how we got where we are, our criticism of American democracy, capitalism or anything else must necessarily be without basis. Any arguments we make will be irresponsible because they are uninformed.
There are other ways of stifling the desire for education. There is, for example, the belief that ideas die. If no one I know prefers monarchy to democracy, of thinks the husband should bring home the bacon, or says that public schools should be abolished, then these unloved ideas must be false. The truth is a popularity contest; truth is reputation.
Professor Richard Rorty appeals to this belief in order to convince us that a “post-Philosophical culture” is possible. “If Philosophy disappears, something will have been lost which is central to Western intellectual life—just as something central was lost when religious institutions were weeded out from among the intellectually respectable candidates for Philosophical articulation.” In other words, theology is dead and philosophy can die too. Rorty uses a gentle lulling passive voice here—nobody does anything, but Philosophy dissolves of its own accord, just as some invisible hand (later given the honorific “The Enlightenment”—and who is against light?) “weeds out” religion. The actions of various men—Hume, Voltaire, Rorty, you can pick your favorites—have somehow become the judgment of history. And once history has spoken, nobody gets to talk back.
This is a recurring theme of Rorty’s; his unwillingness to enter into the world of the past, an unwillingness to believe that the thousand-years’-dead shall be raised. Socrates must not challenge us; we must simply ignore him, as we ignore the Jehovah’s Witnesses who come to our doors on Saturday mornings, and we ignore the professors who teach Talmudic interpretation and cancel class on Yom Kippur. Because we must preserve modern liberalism (a major part of Rorty’s program) we cannot risk the disruption which the ancient texts might inspire. If we can read the strange and dangerous works at all, we must read them with twentieth-century eyes, looking for ways in which they can reinforce our liberalism. (Perhaps this helps to explain Rorty’s cheerful misreading of the great and all-but cheerless poet Philip Larkin.) The dead men are not astonishing authors with jagged-edged insights—they’re human resources. Use them as you like, but don’t let them change you. ‘History’ (Rorty) has spoken.
At a guess, the political writer most likely to be read in high school is Ayn Rand. Rand denies one consequence of the fact that we desire what’s different: submission. She denies that the truth will hurt—that what we want is alien to us, and that therefore something in us will have to submit if we accept it. She does this by positing a “Secret Self.” Somewhere deep within us there’s a perfectly rational inner core, which is happy only when we’re doing what is right. Now, unfortunately, we can’t consult this Secret Self; we can’t ask it, “Would you really be upset with me if I jilted my wife and kids and took their money to Cancun with the chick in the next cubicle?” So we have to take it on faith that doing right may feel awful and humiliating and unfairly painful, but our Truest Self is thrilled. This is the Self that we serve when we practice, in Rand’s words, “the virtue of selfishness”—not the conflicted, whim-ridden, momentarily moral self we live in everyday.
To the extent that this invisible, inaudible, ghostly Self is not just meaningless, it would make Eros unnecessary. Somewhere locked inside us is everything that we need. Other people are, at best, keys to opening the locks—again, human resources. Rand’s philosophy is profoundly anti-erotic because it denies the glory of what’s different, what’s outside the self and what forms and changes the self.
Rand’s philosophy fights against submission, against humility and humiliation. It decries vulnerability. Eros and education do the opposite. The old books and the men and women who show them to you will provoke awe if you approach them not as extensions of your self or confirmers of your pre-existing beliefs but as strangers, with all the risk and allure the stranger possesses.
In the end, the view that education require submission offers greater hope than the view that education is meant to prevent our surrendering to anybody. It does not, deny that fact that vulnerability is a necessary part of life—most obviously because death is a part of life. It does not require us to be ashamed of our mortality, or to lie to ourselves about it. It teaches us how to direct our love and our submission, rather than pretending that we never have to submit, or must submit freely to every idea or person that comes along.
We cannot achieve union with the alien elements of our great books if
we go out seeking to conquer them. A union in which one partner is not
vulnerable is an invasion; if neither partner submits, it is an armed truce.
Neither of these experiences frees us from the tyranny of the present day,
or gives us union with the unfamiliar.
Joseph A. P. De Feo
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