The standard image of college spring break weeks coming up this month is ugly: excessive drinking, "girls gone wild," etc. But what's even worse is what occurs in many sedate English department classrooms, where some professors gone wild either ignore great books of the past or see them as putty for propagandistic manipulation.
The losers in all this are students who might otherwise have come to love literature-but here comes Elizabeth Kantor to give them a second chance. Those turned off by malign neglect or propaganda should take a peek at her guidebook, The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature (Regnery, 2006). They should then start reading anew.
WORLD: You point out that John Milton is the great English poet whose faith came closest to what we call evangelical Christianity, and you explain that his writing is relevant to current debates such as those about bioethics. How so?
KANTOR: The secularizing Enlightenment idea is that we should keep religion out of public life. Faith should be private, and we should base our laws on what we can all agree on-whatever our religion. But the further we get from the religious roots of our culture, the less we can agree on.
For example, Americans now debate the possibility of "gay marriage" and argue about whether human embryos deserve the protection of the law. It's not simply obvious, it turns out, that marriage is necessarily between a man and a woman, or that killing human embryos is wrong. Those principles may depend on a biblical view of man, which you find in the story of the creation and fall of Adam and Eve, the subject of Milton's Paradise Lost.
WORLD: On Worldmagblog.com we cite Milton's argument for freedom of the press to explain our lack of censoring. Why do you say that his reasoning is "the very opposite of the liberal or Enlightenment case"?
KANTOR: People tend to think that our intellectual freedoms originated when everybody was exhausted with bloodshed over religion, or had decided that religious truth was too hard to discover or not worth the trouble. So they simply agreed to disagree. But Milton (long before anti-Christian Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire) argued for freedom of the press on religious grounds.
Religious truth, Milton explained, is so important that we can't afford to miss any chance of learning it. The books we want to ban may turn out to contain a piece of that truth. And even bad books, in the hands of truth-seekers, may contribute to the process of discovering more truth.
WORLD: After Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels skewers the wickedness and stupidity of the society that surrounded him, we might expect him to propose some radical plan for improvement. But he doesn't.
KANTOR: Gulliver's Travels includes savage attacks on all kinds of vices and stupidities the human race is prone to. And then, at the end, Swift turns his satire on its head by satirizing a savage critic of the human race-showing up the moral temptations and mental imbalance to which a person like Swift himself is especially prone.
WORLD: Why did some romantic poets of two centuries ago regain popularity in the 1960s?
KANTOR: They lived in a time of revolutionary upheaval. For Wordsworth's generation, the French Revolution was something like the 1960s for the baby boomers-an unsettling and thrilling moment in history, which gave a lot of them the impression that their generation was special, and that the world would never be the same again. But Wordsworth lived through that moment and into greater maturity.
WORLD: So he's well worth reading-and is it good that Jane Austen is now "in"?
KANTOR: People today tend to assume that Jane Austen was angry about "the patriarchy," but she was a conservative Christian quite comfortable with traditional sex roles. She was a highly intelligent literary genius-and an observer of human nature almost without parallel-who made hilarious fun of both men and women. Her novels attack folly and vice, not the male sex. She saw sin, not "patriarchal structures," as the chief cause of unhappiness in this world.
WORLD: You write that in Austen novels, "Most of the damage men do is because they don't involve themselves and take charge. There aren't a lot of repressive patriarchs . . . there are a lot of men who aren't patriarchal enough." Please explain.
KANTOR: If you listen to the feminists, you get the idea that women's lives are miserable because men are "patriarchal"-jealous, "controlling," "afraid of female sexuality," and so forth. Jane Austen's villains aren't like that at all. In her novels, men make women unhappy by failing to be decisive and responsible. They are weak husbands, or uninvolved fathers, or suitors who persuade women to fall in love with them even though they're not ready to marry them. If you want to understand the phenomenon of men who are "afraid of commitment," Jane Austen novels are a great place to start!
WORLD: In your discussion of the work of Charles Dickens, you write that "Mrs. Jellyby, in Bleak House, is the ultimate picture of the evils of modern liberalism." Why is that, and could you recommend other novels that skewer modern liberalism?
KANTOR: Well, Mrs. Jellyby pours enormous energy into projects for improving life in remote Africa, while she neglects (to put it mildly) her own children at home in England. As for other novels that skewer modern liberalism and leftism, Evelyn Waugh and Flannery O'Connor wrote great ones. Waugh's Sword of Honour is a World War II novel that shows up leftist trends in modern politics. And in The Violent Bear It Away, O'Connor gives us a schoolteacher who tries to substitute sociology and liberal do-gooding for the Christianity he was raised in. The results are both horrifying and instructive.
WORLD: You note that Oscar Wilde, the patron saint (to misuse that expression) of the gay avant-garde, apparently repented and embraced Christian belief.
KANTOR: Wilde was everything the edgy art world-both in his day, and in our own-admires. He was as "trangressive" as they get. And yet he was haunted by guilt, and by the Person of Christ. Wilde claimed that he had put only his talent into his art, and his genius into his life. But if you look at the shape of his life, it looks an awful lot like a work of art about secret sin, exposure, and repentance. And the fitting end to it all was Wilde's deathbed conversion. T.S. Eliot is another avant-garde literary artist who found the Christian faith. He wrote truly great Christian-but still very modern-poetry.
WORLD: Which novels do you think best show that human misery is primarily caused not by traditional social structures but by individual sin?
KANTOR: In a sense the whole corpus of American literature-from Edgar Allen Poe, through Hawthorne and Melville, to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Flannery O'Connor and beyond-grapples with "the problem of evil." Nathaniel Hawthorne's works are good examples. Hawthorne's Puritans have left behind the corrupt churches and governments of Europe to found a truly godly society in the New World. And yet they find out that the same old temptation, sin, and Devil are still with them here in America. So many great American novels explore this issue-The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom.
WORLD: What can and should be done to change the teaching of literature in colleges and universities?
KANTOR: Our literature faculties could use a generous dose of that rare virtue, humility. The teaching of English suffers from a bad case of what C.S. Lewis called "chronological snobbery"-the assumption that we always know better than the people who lived in the past. Just because 21st-century people are better at heart surgery and making silicon chips doesn't necessarily mean that we're better at everything. Quite the opposite. Beginning in the Renaissance, there was a concerted push (from, among others, Francis Bacon) to persuade people to quit investing their intellectual capital in religion, morality, and literature and instead to pour their energies into science and technology. We have a lot to learn from the literature written when society's intellectual energy went into what we now call the humanities.