Boil down Horace, the Elgin Marbles, St. Francis and Goethe, and the result will be pretty thin soup.
—T. S. Eliot

The trouble with the educated philistine was not that he read the classics but that he did so prompted by the ulterior motive of self-perfection, remaining quite unaware of the fact that Shakespeare or Plato might have to tell him more important things than how to educate himself.
—Hannah Arendt

Finishing the book, I became gaga for a few days.
—David Denby, on finishing a book by Nietzsche.

It is often said that experience is a great teacher. I had been accustomed to believe this myself. Alas, David Denby’s account of going back to college has sorely tested my faith in the pedagogical resources of experience—not to mention my faith in the beneficence of “great books” programs. Of course, there is experience and there is—well, whatever we can call that which Mr. Denby has lived through in his many years writing about the movies for New York magazine. But think about it: here is an adult, a professional journalist, who in 1991 at the age of forty-eight returned to Columbia College and retook the two famous Western civ courses that he had first passed through as an undergraduate in 1961, Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization—Lit Hum and C.C. for short. Then as now, these required courses offer first- and second-year students at Columbia a swift tour d’horizon of Western literary, historical, political, and philosophical works, beginning with the Greeks and the Bible. In 1961, the courses consisted entirely of acknowledged masterpieces; they included no women authors and ended with Goethe and Dostoyevsky. Did that make them pedagogically deficient? In any event, by 1991, the list had been corrected to include Jane Austen and politically corrected to include Virginia Woolf, Mary Wollstonecraft, and in the spring semester of C.C.—a smorgasbord of fashionable writers chosen for their politics, their sex, their ethnic background, or some combination of the three. Hence the presence on the list of Marxists (e.g., Antonio Gramsci, Jürgen Habermas), feminist radicals (Simone de Beauvoir, Catharine MacKinnon), and a variety of racially motivated radicals (Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X) and philosophical charlatans (Michel Foucault). The result of Mr. Denby’s renewed immersion in these heady intellectual waters is Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World.

Do not be seduced by the cutesy, comic-book title: Great Books is much worse than you think. It is perhaps, just possibly—I hesitate because the field is so crowded—but, yes, I believe it is the silliest and most superficial book about higher education that I have ever encountered. It is certainly the most preening and self-infatuated. Dentists everywhere should warn patients who grind their teeth to avoid the book. No one with high blood pressure ought to chance it. Mr. Denby intended his book to be a defense of “the Great Books”—sort of, up to a point, and with much waffling, hand-wringing, and protestations of political sensitivity. But with friends like these, the Western tradition needs no enemies.

I hasten to acknowledge that not everyone agrees with me about Mr. Denby’s offering. In a prominent notice in The New York Times Book Review, Joyce Carol Oates oozed all over the book, declaring that Mr. Denby was “above all things an inspired reader.” In The New York Review of Books, the literary critic—or, in Mr. Denby’s phrase, “the great English literary critic”—Sir Frank Kermode seconded this sentiment: “he is superb when the material is superb,” “his enthusiasm for most of the syllabus is pretty impressive,” etc. But then I remembered reading that Sir Frank, preparing recently to change flats in London, had called movers to transport a particularly valuable part of his library at the same time that he called a disposal service to remove some accumulated trash. When two chaps showed up at his door, he pointed to the precious pile of first editions, rare manuscripts, and inscribed copies of books by friends and colleagues. An hour later, he realized that some twenty-five hundred items had been delivered not to his new address but to the jaws of the trash compactor. A horrible story; anyone who cares about books will experience a cold shiver at the thought of something like that happening. But after reading Sir Frank’s review of Great Books, I had to conclude that he is sadly having some difficulty recognizing a garbage man when he sees one. And as for Joyce Carol Oates: well …

Not that the response to Great Books has been uniformly favorable. Far from it. Donald Lyons delivered a surgical strike against some of its more egregious failings in The Wall Street Journal. A few weeks later, in The New Republic, Helen Vendler returned with a squadron of critical B-52s and all but obliterated the book.

I have had plenty of disagreements with Professor Vendler, including some quibbles about her review of Great Books. But she has done us all a great service by exploding the central pretensions of this preposterous book. She may overstate her suspicion of what she calls the “highly content-oriented principle” that drives the Columbia courses; but she is certainly right that “seeing the Columbia course use Dante and Conrad as moral examples is rather like seeing someone using a piece of embroidery for a dishrag with no acknowledgement of the difference between handwoven silk and a kitchen towel.”

Mr. Denby has written an extremely foolish book. But it is nonetheless an important book—not for what it says, but for what it symptomizes: namely, the smug, narcissistic ethos of the well-fed 1960s academic radical thirty years on. We learn, for example, that in 1969 when he was in graduate school at Stanford and a member of Students for a Democratic Society Mr. Denby once threw a tomato at Ronald Reagan. There is a lot to criticize about most “great books” programs; often, it seems, they do more to insulate students from any genuine encounter with the Western tradition than to initiate them into its complexities; indeed, precisely by counterfeiting engagement with intellectual and aesthetic issues they may do more harm than good, leaving students (and teachers) with the unfounded impression that they had been feasting on the riches of the tradition when in fact they had been making do with the “thin soup” that Eliot complained about in the epigraph above. Nevertheless, most people who care about preserving those riches will, faute de mieux, support the idea of great books courses. Which is why Mr. Denby’s book is so pernicious: he takes an imperfect but worthy enterprise and turns it into a travesty. It may be, as Chesterton said, that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. But it is possible to do something so badly that one winds up doing something else entirely.

It is also possible to pretend to do one thing while one is in fact doing the exact opposite. And this brings us close to the central problem with Great Books. Mr. Denby tells readers they will learn about his “adventures” with Homer et al. In fact, what we mostly learn about are the encounters such authors have with Mr. Denby. In his hands, great books furnish a pretext for talking about the one subject that clearly exercises an endless fascination on him: himself. We learn a very great deal about Mr. Denby and his family. His elder son, Matt, for example has a “thick green carpet in his room, a tufted and matted shag that my wife and I inherited from the previous owners of our West End Avenue apartment in New York.” We also learn about his difficult relationship with his mother. A chapter ostensibly devoted to Shakespeare opens with a detailed description of her death. (He compares his mother to Lear but assures us that “unlike Regan and Goneril, I did my parent no great harm.”) Mr. Denby’s chapter on Hobbes begins with the story of how he was once mugged coming out of the subway near Grand Central. Later, in a section on Hegel’s famous “Master/Slave” dialectic, he suggests that the two black teenagers had mugged him because “They did not know that other ways to prestige were open to them [Denby’s italics].”

In his self-absorption, as in some other respects, Mr. Denby strikingly resembles the adolescents he sat next to in class. Although he is only auditing the course, he decides to take the final examination. The experience leaves him prostrate with anxiety:

When the three hours were over, I cabbed down from Columbia to Barocco, our favorite Italian restaurant in Tribeca, in lower Manhattan, where I met my wife and a friend, and I quickly had a double scotch and most of a bottle of white wine. Later, at home, still quaking, I swallowed a beta blocker, a Xanax, and two fingers of Nyquil.

Gee. One can imagine college students acting like this (though most would not be able to afford Barocco), but they of course have the excuse of being eighteen or nineteen, whereas Mr. Denby is an adolescent only, so to speak, spiritually. In the introduction to his book, Mr. Denby explains that he decided to sit through the Columbia courses again because he was suffering “a ‘midlife crisis’ or a crisis of identity, or whatever it was.” Whatever is was, it sounds serious. Indeed, Mr. Denby’s description makes his situation seem like nothing so much as the unfortunate Camembert-like timepiece in Dali’s The Persistence of Memory:

I needed to start work on this book in part because I no longer knew what I knew. … I sensed my identity had softened and merged into the atmosphere of representation, and I couldn’t quite see where it ended and I began. My own memories were lapsing out into the fog of media life, the unlived life as spectator. … Reading seriously, I thought, might be one way of ending my absorption in media life, a way of finding the edges again.

This is not the only place in which Mr. Denby makes it seem that what he really needs is not a reading list but a psychiatrist.

Of course, Mr. Denby’s self-diagnosis might be hyperbolic (much of the book is): not so much over-dramatized as over-melodramatized. Which is one of the things that makes Great Books ring so false. Mr. Denby mimics and recapitulates a certain rhetoric of authenticity; but he manages to make it seem fatuous, bogus, or both. “You’re here for very selfish reasons,” he quotes one of the teachers on the first day of class. “You’re here to build a self.” Maybe that’s the sort of thing eighteen-year-olds need to hear to be interested in Homer these days. But couldn’t it, alternatively, be said that those students were in class in order to read important books and learn what they had to say?

It says a lot that at many colleges the answer is, no, learning is not enough. As anyone who has been following developments in education knows, this is nothing new. But Mr. Denby’s book forcefully reminds us to what extent the transmission of knowledge has taken a distant back seat to various social, political, and psychological goals. One of the most disturbing things in Great Books is its unwitting portrayal of the extent to which an element of apology has insinuated itself into the teaching of basic courses in Western civilization today. At Columbia—and no doubt elsewhere—the opening classes seemed devoted entirely to explaining to the students why it is O.K. to read some great works of literature and philosophy in college. They really aren’t only about WASPs, the teacher pleads; there’s more to it than Dead White European Males, he cajoles. It is simply business as usual when a black student complains about having to listen to Mozart in a course called Music Humanities: “Why is Mozart better than some African drummer?” Mr. Denby objects to this obtuseness, but in fact his book is a perfect reflection of the sensibility that produced it.

Mr. Denby frequently reminds his readers that, although he is a movie critic, he is deeply critical of our media culture. One of my favorite passages would make a good puzzle for students of logical muddle: “As a movie critic and an American man, I believe in pleasure, even in ‘low’ pleasures, ‘shallow’ pleasures, and yet the unrelenting hedonism of the media ethos is obviously killing us.” As a strategy for having it both ways, this sort of thing must be admired. It allows Mr. Denby to exude moral concern and sensitivity while blithely proceeding to do what he has always done anyway—the classic liberal two-step. In any event, there is no doubt that the movies do provide Mr. Denby with his cultural touchstone for all matters intellectual or aesthetic. Citing the description of Odysseus emerging from his bath in Book VI of the Odyssey, Mr. Denby comments: “MGM in its heyday could have done no more for Gable.” The New Testament puts him in mind of Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments. He muses on the differences between the way he feels after reading Nietzsche and his feelings “after a rare great movie, like Scorsese’s Goodfellas or Eastwood’s Unforgiven or Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.” Re-reading The Iliad, he is “shocked,” a word that “few people have been able to use … well since Claude Rains … in Casablanca.” And so on.

Mr. Denby’s experience of the movies has imposed itself on Great Books in other ways, too. He has applied his habits as a weekly reviewer more or less wholesale to his discussion of books and ideas. “I would,” he explains, “race from Sophocles to a new action movie and then back to Sophocles, and each was actually a relief from the other.” Along the way, he offers little Cliff’s Notes-like summaries of each book, carefully embroidered with personal anecdotes, and then hands out a certain number of stars. Boccaccio, Montaigne, and Virginia Woolf get three stars, whereas Aeschylus, Virgil, Dante, Kant, and others fail to make the grade. Even the Odyssey challenges Mr. Denby’s award system. “As I moved into the poem, I saw that … the Odyssey would cause trouble for me. P.C. issues loomed ominously: The patriarchal order … unfurled its standard.” Mr. Denby finally decides that the beauty of the poem outweighs its endorsement of patriarchy—a realization that we are meant to applaud him for—but not every author wins his approbation. Discussing—and misrepresenting—what Aristotle had said about women and slaves, he draws himself up and declares: “This time I could not dismiss politically correct objections; nor would I want to. No matter how you look at it … Aristotle had made a disastrous mistake.” In the world according to Denby, Aristotle exhibited a mode of thought common to Greek and Roman aristocrats and “slave owners in the American South.”

There is something breathtaking about Mr. Denby’s journey in the foreign land of literature and ideas. Aeschylus, alas, was wont to write “gibberish” on occasion; the Aeneid, “an official poem of hegemony,” is marred by “a clear artistic and emotional failure in the second half of the poem” that “Virgil himself may not have understood.” Fortunately, Mr. Denby is here to point it out. Dante, like Mr. Denby, was “suffering what we would call a midlife crisis” when he set out to write The Divine Comedy. But, unlike Mr. Denby, Dante “had entered into complicity with torture”—witness the Inferno. “If God would do that,” Mr. Denby exclaims, “he must lack a sense of humor.” Great Books is full of such profundities. Did you know, Dear Reader, that Mrs. Bennet is the “secret heroine” of Pride and Prejudice? That Kant—a “great noble booby”—had his “loony” and “comical” side? Great Books is fairly teeming with such insights.

At one point, Mr. Denby acknowledges that “the most familiar complaint against great-books courses was that they were shallow.” Well, there is that. Here is Mr. Denby introducing us to Hegel: “Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was an academic, a professor at various universities, including the University of Berlin. … He was, without doubt, the all-time greatest German professor, the German professor as mad genius, and in my worst moments, I sat at home consoling myself with memories of the Marx Brothers and the incomparable German stooge, Sig Ruman …” Et cetera. I won’t subject readers to his objection that Plato’s theory of forms doesn’t accommodate “the peculiar way” that Willie Mays ran around the baseball diamond. A patient person might remind Mr. Denby of that passage in the Parmenides where Plato notes that there are no forms for “hair or mud or dirt or any other trivial and undignified objects,” but I doubt that it would make much of an impression.

Indeed, perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Great Books is how impervious to any really new experience Mr. Denby shows himself to be. He tells us early and often that he has set out on an intellectual “adventure”; every second page is full of encomia to the thrilling existential drama opening up before him. Sample: “The reading of sacred texts in secular courses was a bumpy ride. I had got thrown around rather harder than I wanted, and I had the bruises to show for it. But at least I felt my body, I knew it was there, and I could no longer say my identity was entirely lost in a media fog.” But the truth is, Mr. Denby emerges from his yearlong intellectual safari with every one of his opinions and prejudices intact. He is always uttering portentous half-truths like “a great work of art is likely to be challenging and even subversive of almost anyone’s peace.” But there is no evidence, despite his double Scotches and Xanax, that any of the ideas he rubbed against in these courses seriously challenged or subverted his intellectual complacency. He calls all his friends and urges them to read Boccaccio and Nietzsche, but that is only because in such authors he believes he has found apostles for the kind of emancipated liberal irony he himself espouses.

Mr. Denby repeatedly tells us that his chief criterion for approbation was “pleasure,” not conformity to any preordained political dogma. Like so many other terms, however, “pleasure” can mean radically different things. Aesthetic delectation and intellectual insight offer certain pleasures. But it is not at all clear that this is the sort of thing Mr. Denby has in mind. “Pleasure was the key,” he insists, “the only way of approaching the arts that wasn’t false. You went from one pleasure to the next, one work to the next, and you made a chain of delight. From Bessie Smith to Billie Holiday to Dinah Washington. From Chuck Berry to Mick Jagger to Neil Young. From Billy Joel to Aerosmith to R.E.M. to Nirvana. Or whatever.” Whatever, indeed. In Great Books, Mr. Denby has attempted to write a defense of Western culture, but on a basis that presupposes its triviality. Or, as he puts in his discussion of Plato, “the movies got in the way, too.”

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  1. Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World, by David Denby; Simon & Schuster, 492 pages, $30. Go back to the text.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 3, on page 14
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