Thursday, February 17, 2011

Social Constructs?

Surely we live in an age of meaningless celebration. Not of meaningless celebrities, mind you, since even the most apparently trivial of these--Lady Gaga, for instance, or Lindsay Lohan--offer meaning at least as cautionary tales for personal behavior or as markers of what our society seems to value. No: by meaningless celebration one has in mind Mardi Gras, for example, which will soon be upon us, enacted with fervor on the street of New Orleans. Yet one finds it hard to believe that most of the revellers there really will be engaged in saying farewell to the flesh in preparation for a Lent devoted to intense spiritual exercise, which is the original purpose of the festival. Another example is the celebrations everywhere around us of the life of Ronald Reagan, which began 100 years ago. So many of the people now celbrating his existence--PBS, for instance, on The American Experience--surely don't believe that his life is worth celebrating. Very many of the people now extolling his greatness are the very people who told us when he was alive that he was a doddering old fool who fell asleep in Cabinet meetings and had far too simple a view of economics, Communism, and human nature generally. (To show just how sophisticated is their own understanding of these issues by comparison, they sometimes reply, when asked why he managed so successfully to govern this nation and simutaneously to defeat the Soviet Union, by saying that he was just a very lucky man.)

But it's an empty celebration in another, deeper, sense because while we simultaneously celebrate the life of the man who preeminently in our time believed in human freedom, we are told on every side that there is no such thing. When Clifford Geertz said in the late 1960s that human beings are social constructs, he surprised us all with his bold assertion that human life is not so much a matter of choices made by individuals but that our choices are conditioned and made for us by the larger society. So pervasive has this idea become in our culture that one hardly notices when yet another writer makes the assertion--by now so common as pennies in a parking lot--that gender is also a social construct, an argument made popular, again in the 1960s and 70s by the French theorist Michele Foucault. So it comes as little surprise that in the January 2 edition of the New York Times Book Review no fewer than two important cultural spokesmen (of six polled) make the same point. Pankaj Mishra, for example, asserts that "a writer's individual self-awareness is always historically determined" (10), while Elif Batuman approvingly says that in Marxist criticism "Literature becomes a multifarious dream produced by a historical moment" (11). And, as if uncounsciously to prove their point, these writers, trying so hard to find a unique voice, to express an identity distinct from the others, ends up repeating what--dare we say it?--society has conditioned them to say: that human identity is not a matter of personal choice but of historic inevitability. One is the way one is because one's culture is the way it is.

But it was Reagan's genius--so unsophisticated that he was not bemused by the categories of Continental philosophy--that saw through these assertions to the shimmering truth behind, that human beings are, or, more accurately, can be, free at every moment of their lives. Unlike some who write in the pages of the New York Times Book Review, human beings need not be told what to think and how to act by the society around them: they possess a radical freedom of the will that allows them to chart their own course, no matter how that course runs counter to the culture of the time.

Asserting such freedom may well be painful. It is usually easier to conform to the spirit of the age--to adopt the assumptions made current by the popular media, for instance, or to possess all the material that the current culture deems indispensible for the good life. Nevertheless, though it may prove difficult, one is not required to mimic the behavior one is surrounded with, one need not adopt the assumptions taken as the conventional wisdom. This assertion of human freedom is precisely what the old humanists had in mind when they insisted on a rigorous education to train both mind and spirit. The liberal arts are liberal not because they have been coopted (as they certainly have) in most of our major universities by left-leaning Democrats: originally they were liberal because they were devised for the "liberi," for the free men (as opposed to slaves), who would need the education of the liberal arts in order to be able to make informed, wise decisions about how to act in life. In short, the liberal arts helped people to become free.

And then, as now, they helped people become free and act freely in large part because they helped the individual escape the surroundings of his own culture. Not, to be sure, because one's own culture is uniformly bad but because one's own culture is necessarily limited, while by the study of other cultures, their history, literature, music, art, and languages, one comes to learn about possibilities beyond what one is cheaply fed on a daily basis simply by living in his own society. It is a difficult process gaining another language and struggling through important texts in that other language, but to know what the ancient Chinese said about love in a world in which the present moment is always slipping away, or to know that in a world gone mad, marching in lockstep in a movie by Riefenstahl, Sophie and Hans Scholl gave their lives quietly distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets in Munich, such things tell us that human beings can be other than they are and that the joys of one's contemporary culture are often very shallow indeed.

Paradoxically, what an education in other cultures conveys to the lifelong student is that fundamentally the best of humanity is always the same. The great books, like all great art, tell us that across cultures and across times, human beings are at their core much the same: souls placed in a moment of time, people bathing in Heraclitus' river of endless change, while we long for the permanent, the eternal. That runs counter to the currently received wisdom that human beings are social constructs, for if they are, they will differ radically from one another and they will comprehend only with very great difficulty what another person from another time and place is trying to say. But the fact that we can listen to others from places so far away from times so long ago and can talk to others who will come decades if not centuries after us shows that humans at their core are not merely the products of their time and place but that they have, even if they do not avail themselves of it, an essential, unchanging core.

And these great works to which the liberal arts call our attention point to something still more precise. Essential to that core of identity is human freedom. Whether one is reading Homer's great poems or Vergil's, one finds in them that human beings have the capacity to flee their culture to create others, to stand against what most think of as the inevitability of history and voice objection. To read Don Quixote is to know that the visionary and romantic can exist in a world in which most are devoted to material acquisition; to read Hugo is to know that love can motivate a human being to feats thought impossible by all around him or freely to live by a code of generosity and love in the face of a withering mechanical justice; to read Lady Murasaki is to follow the life of one who, while recognizing the elaborate conventions of his time, shines in part by not being constrained by them. The very project of genuine education--as opposed to indoctrination--is itself an assertion that the human mind is capable of rising above the weak demands of contemporary culture and summoning the freedom to learn that in other times and places those restless beings who have achieved the greatest immortality are precisely those who transcended the limitations of their own time to assert that at his core man is more than a plastic doll molded by the pressures of his time but a being who is, and always longs to be, free.

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