12 December 2015

A people with no literature and no history

I went through the English section of my university bookstore, looking for my old field, the Renaissance. Except for some Shakespeare, it simply wasn't there. No Sidney, Spenser, Donne, Herbert or Herrick. Not even any Milton. Only old Bill, hanging out there exposed and isolated, to be taught in a way sure to make students hate him. The greatest flourishing of our tongue, silenced.

There was also no Middle Ages. No Chaucer, no Gower and none of their ten thousand brothers anonymous. Poets from a time of mud and filth and stench and the Hundred Years War, the Black Death, when infant mortality was one in three and tooth aches could be fatal, but who yet wrote of finding joy and happiness, of enjoying whatever good was to be found- they're gone too. After all, what did they have to teach us and our age of Prozac, depression, anxiety and therapists?

Gone, really, is the systematic study of anything prior to 1800. Even the nineteenth century is rather thin. But we do have comic books- I mean, 'graphic novels'. It's what the kids read. Not the beauty and glory of our tongue. Not the thoughts of our great writers who wrestled with the central paradoxes of human existence over the centuries, leaving us with the best the had. No. Ephemera. 300. Watchmen. Batman Returns. Got to meet the students where they are, and then not ask them to progress one inch. Such is education today.

In my other field, history, the situation is similar. History has been by and largely divorced from geography and largely attached to the social sciences. The effect of this is subtle, but profound. The Great men, even the great persons are gone. The movers and shakers, those who shaped the world around them. Well, none whose last name is not Marx, anyway.

Instead, history is now shaped by impersonal forces, usually malevolent, and somehow inevitable. History now longer has its heroes, but it does have its villains and its victims.
We have forgotten our literature and our history now, and we have even forgotten that there was a time when people remembered it. People once tried to emulate their heroes, real and literary. Washington playing the American Cincinnatus and turning control of the army back to the continental congress as soon as peace was declared. MacArthur being inspired by Wolfe in his tactics. Renaissance men wondered what would Aeneas do. Boys used to dream of being the hero in their books. Now we're told that the only thing worth being is a victim, and we're even encouraging people to choose a victimhood to which they are by no means entitled. It would be unfair to do otherwise.

When Lord Durham wrote his report on the rebellions of Upper and Lower Canada, he unfairly called the Québécois a people with no history and no literature. It was possibly the harshest condemnation man such as he could make. But he was by and large speaking of near illiterate peasants. What kind of mark is it against us that the same can now be said of our so called university educated?

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