The Canon
Social Realists

Western Civ Rah-Rah

In an issue of First Things , R.V. Young, an English professor at North Carolina State University, seeks to praise Shakespeare, and not to bury him. Here is the first paragraph of his essay:

More than any other writer, Shakespeare embodies the distinctive principles of Western Civilization. Men and women of the West are drawn to Shakespeare because his plays and poems continue to express their aspirations, to articulate their concerns, and to confront the tensions and contradictions in the Western vision itself. He is admired not as an uncritical encomiast of his own culture and society, but rather as an exemplum of the spirit—both critical and conservative—that is among the West’s most enduring legacies to the world. It is, therefore, no surprise that academic literary critics, who owe their very existence to Shakespeare and other great writers, have cast doubt upon Shakespeare’s exalted position at exactly the moment in history when the societies of the West have become most anxious about their own integrity and probity.

Now, I think Shakespeare is indeed the greatest writer in the English language (and I have read all of the plays). I also think the passage just quoted is garbage.

When I come upon essays like this one, ostensibly defending Shakespeare from all of his many supposed detractors, I also come as close as I ever do to feeling sympathy for the academic critics who have rejected "bardolatry" and used Shakespeare as one more opportunity to "depreciate the merely literary" (Sven Birkerts) and politicize literary study to advance their own agendas. These critics assume (wrongly, in lots of cases), that this sort of Western-Civ rah-rah was really the goal of academic literary study all along and have understandably enough recoiled from it.

But of course to uniformly boo and hiss at "the West" is no better than to always celebrate its wonders, and my sympathy is short-lived.

What I really seem to hear when reading passages like the one above is the sound of Shakespeare himself frantic to free himself from the grave if only to seek out the likes of Professor Young and throttle him. Shakespeare of course had no interest in the "distinctive principles of Western Civilization" (wouldn't have known what they were), did not in the least express something called the "Western vision," was certainly no "encomiast of his culture and society" (far from it), and sought to exemplify nothing but the possibilities of the forms in which he wrote and whatever personal "vision" of human existence he had managed to acquire. (And fortunately he did possess a vision that has seemed to express the aspirations and concerns of many of the rest of us--the one point on which I agree with Professor Young.)

But in Professor Young's "vision" Shakespeare's plays and poems disappear in favor of an "encomium" on behalf of Western Civilization, Shakespeare becomes a Great Figure to admire and exalt (but not to read), an opportunity for the Professor himself to posture and declaim. And Shakespeare is not the only writer to fall victim to this sort of reactionary praise ("reactionary" in the literal sense of the term, as it is a reaction to the perceived loss of prestige among the "great" Western writers). Sadly, writers from Milton and Swift to Emerson and Twain are accorded this dubious defense, their obvious enough human limitations in terms of racial attitudes or class solidarity not simply acknowledged or explained but erased. Young, for example, struggles mightily in his essay to demonstrate there's really nothing at all wrong with Shakespeare's depictions of Shylock and Othello, that in fact he really portrays Jews and "Moors" as stand-up guys. I would agree that there's great ambivalence in the portrayal of these characters, and that the plays in which they appear ought not to be merely dismissed, but there's no point in denying that some of the ambivalence is unattractive, to say the least.

Sometimes people come to have questions about even great writers not because they despise Western Civilization but because every new generation of readers has to be convinced anew that the work of these writers actually stands up to present scrutiny. (The sort of indoctrination Professor Young seems implicitly to favor never works.) "Criticism" of the kind this First Things essay represents doesn't help to resolve such questions because it ultimately discourages serious reading in the first place. An acquiescent and unequivocal esteem will do. It might still be presumed that previous generations of academic critics all essentially engaged in this kind of empty rhetorical gesturing, but most of them did not. "Close reading" was an approach to literature that precisely encouraged readers to take literature seriously, but, at its best, it attempted to show these readers a more resourceful way to do this.

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