- Ontology and the Products of Spirit: A Classroom Conversation
Among the casualties of the rush to relativism is a central tenet of classical thought: that great works of literature are great in and of themselves and not because of the needs and values of their time. This “canon-based view,” supply taken for granted by Johnson, Arnold, Pope, and Eliot, has long since been shown the door by views ranging from Marxism to today’s cultural studies. These views hold that the great works become great because of the values and concerns of their own times, and they remain effectual, if they do, because of the ways they speak to their times’ concerns. There are no transhistorical values and concerns, though of course there is a past to culture and its works continue their indirect influence on “later generations.”
Teaching a class of nineteen year olds at Deep Springs College,1 I find myself stumbling on texts in which the above clash of critical values explodes, in which no issue is more pertinent than whether a text belongs to its own time or to “the ages.”
Who would have thought that the Monadology would spark the debate?
This particular spring I was to teach “Literature and Philosophy,” the blanks to be filled in by me and my students. I started out with Leibniz’s The Monadology, which had fascinated me in high school. Jim2 tossed in Camus’s The Stranger. (When we asked why that, he replied: “I like the M’s; Meursault, Monad.” Jim’s a gnomic speaker from Montana, stringy and bony.) We looked around at one another, alert for more suggestions; for a good five minutes we moved our glances along the college’s long front lawn, which seemed to lead straight off into the Sierra Nevadas. An eagle crossed. Tom blurted out: “The Power and the Glory, my favorite, get it in there!” We [End Page 67] grinned at one another. Tom, a lapsed but fervent Catholic, had from the beginning of school acquainted us with his “longing for salvation.” “Sure n begorrah,” I reparteed, “a bit of the Catholic’s all we need, to keep Camus on his toes.” Jeff the pilot, mature beyond his years, southern, and tenacious, brought us back to another reality, the school. “Y’all better keep uh mind on the schedule. Only got levvun weeks.” Which was of course right and sent me to the blackboard to do some figuring. If we gave two weeks to each of the first three shortish texts, the Leibniz/Camus/Green set, we’d have five weeks left to play with. “Five weeks left, guys . . .” I sat down and looked at them, knowing I’d have to strike fast to get my second suggestion in the door. “Maritain,” I said hopefully, “The Degrees of Knowledge.” “And that would fill the time, no more choices?” queried Jeff, a bit rueful at the limits. “Got it,” I said, eager to close the door on my Maritain.
After lunch the next day the seven of us wandered to a picnic table on the lawn and sat down with our resolutions. Choice had once spread before us, twenty four hours earlier, but now we looked at the fruits of decision. We had a syllabus of a sort, and we would follow the order of the proposals: Monadology, Stranger, Power and the Glory, Degrees of Knowledge. We had a method: each of us would read everything, throwing our caps into the ring and stopping when it stopped. All that was fine! The next question was, What were we looking for?
It was here that Jim—the Montana boy who liked his “m’s”—decided for us. Is there a transhistorical domain available to great works of literature and philosophy, a dimension in which these works acquire a superiority to their own immediate moments? (“Superiority” was Jim’s word, and put us on guard!) The rascal even created a classroom for us, proposing a small knoll on the riverbank just off campus, where the shade of acacias would cool us during the noon heart.
The first day of class was...