David Denby's 'Great Books': An ecstatic celebration of the immediacy of the mind

September 08, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

How are you today? Is something missing? Of course. There always is. Unless you are certain of the nature of that deprivation, you might do well to look at what - and especially how - you are reading.

David Denby, movie critic for New York magazine, did that. One result is "Great Books, My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World," (Simon and Schuster. 493 pages. $30).

He was driven by conflict: "Reading, after eating and sex one of the most natural, central and satisfying of all acts, had amazingly become a vexed experience." Caught up in movies - which he found increasingly superficial - and in television and popular journalism, he had drifted from the experience of confronting ideas. Middle age. Information saturation.

So in September of 1991, 30 years after he had entered Columbia College for the first time, Denby went back and sat with mostly 18- and 19-year-old freshmen and sophomores and read many of the same books he had read (as indeed had I, a couple of years earlier) in Columbia's two legendary one-year obligatory "core" courses, called Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization.

"Great Books" is an account of that year, during which he went on working and living his accustomed life with a wife and two active young children.

From Homer to Woolf

These courses' reading lists are forever in gentle flux. They were developed early in this century at Columbia College - Columbia University's small and intensely selective undergraduate program. The idea spread, though since the 1960s the concept and the content have been under bitter assault by the faddist forces of multiculturalism, historical revisionism, and others devoted to rejecting Western values.

The two reading lists are formidable. To recount them all even succinctly and without comment would fill this entire space. But as a sampling, the "Lit Hum" requirements begin with Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey," range through vast amounts of Plato and Aristotle and the Greek dramatists, through Genesis and Job and the Gospels, on to Dante, Boccaccio, Milton, Goethe, Austen and Virginia Woolf. That little distillation includes only about one-quarter of the authors.

CC begins with Thucydides, doubles on Greek philosophers and Bible texts, moves quickly across the Middle Ages with Augustine, Aquinas and Pizan, then on to Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and beyond. The most modern texts come from a list in which individual instructors have fairly wide latitude.

Denby punctuates his reports on the classes, their content and their debates with "interludes" - reflections on his marrying the academic with real life, or anyway the life he believed to be real up to the point that he rebegan his education.

The book is a brilliantly clear, genuinely curious and deeply principled examination of the contemporary debate about the meaning of culture, the role of Western civilization, the politics of ideas.

Denby had been an unabashedly love-beaded child of the 1960s and in the 1990s is a not atypical New York liberal. In this book, he goes to exquisite lengths to balance his increasing scorn of the Marxist culture-theorists with his remaining contempt for the conservative body of enthusiasms represented by William Bennett and Lynne V. Cheney.

Denby examines in almost equal measure five subjects or themes: 1. A body of books that represent the evolution of Western culture and the ideas that have nourished it, for better or worse. 2. The experience of reading these books, with stimulation but not polemical direction from superb teachers. 3. Re-experiencing his own late adolescence - seeing his midlife self-awareness bouncing off the 18- and 19-year olds with whom he shared the experience. 4. In those lights, the essence and purpose of individual, personal culture. 5. The meaning and role of Western culture within the context of the current disputes and rages about agenda, race, alien cultures, exclusion, political correctness and all that.

A stony road

Through the book, in a wonderfully gradual crescendo, there is a joy of discovery, an ecstasy of the exercise of the mind and through it of the spirit - a secular celebration of the soul. That demands courage. "A great work of art," Denby affirms, "is likely to be challenging and even subversive of almost anyone's peace."

So it is often a painful progress, a stony road. A final exam almost drives Denby mad. Self-doubts, renewals of adolescent tortures. Everything but acne is visited upon him. Vividly, he identifies himself with Job - as must, at some point, all truly civilized people.

What really matters, why this book has a kind of greatness of its own - evanescent, transitory though that is -- is not in its celebration or explication of the material. Denby does that consistently well, often brilliantly, only occasionally disappointingly. But the book's greatest power is in Denby's relating the experience of reading to his own life and to that of his contemporaries.

The book is an eloquent answer to those who would reduce - and in pitifully many cases already have reduced - university undergraduate education to a process of political conditioning, who seek to destroy the concept of an expansive life of ideas and of the mind in favor of a taxidermy of false ideology.

He finishes not only rejecting but ridiculing - very effectively - the culture-ideologues, exposing them blindly wallowing in self-aggrandizing nonsense, the product of either indomitable hypocrisy or implacable stupidity. And occasionally both.

Pub Date: 9/08/96

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