Six years into my sojourn as an English teacher in downtown Los Angeles, I stumbled across one of those questions that takes the breath away—not because I had never thought of the question, but because I had never stopped asking it. It was a question which had been simmering — inchoate — inside me for years: “How can men come home from their day’s butchery and falsehood to weep over Rilke or play Schubert?”
George Steiner, a Jew and literary critic, asked it in connection with the Holocaust. But as a white South African who grew up under Apartheid, the question haunted me too. And like Steiner, it was not the “butchery” which disturbed me as much as the Rilke: the fact that someone could be touched by the same poet as I, experience the same emotions of tenderness and empathy as I, yet still have the capacity to wrench pain from the lips of a fellow human being. The question, as I said, haunted me.
Growing up in a whites-only boarding school in Cape Town, I have slept, eaten, and worshiped next to this strange, disturbing ability to segregate morality from beauty. And Steiner’s question stubbornly bloodies itself again and again against the rock of one of Western civilization’s most cherished presuppositions: the humanities should have humanized us against such horrors. Yet as Steiner and others mournfully remind us: Germany, born in the very cradle of the humanities, birthplace of Goethe and Mann, Luther and Barth, Schiller and Rilke, gave itself up with frenzied zeal to the annihilation of an entire race. And so Steiner comes to a disturbing conclusion: the humanities, far from having humanized us, might actually have immunized us against feeling the painful consequences of our inhumanity to each other. Our capacity for empathy has serious limits, he argues, and can be “rapidly absorbed by fictions.” And thus:
[T]he cry in the poem may come to sound louder, more urgent, more real than the cry in the street outside. The death in the novel may move us more potently than the death in the next room. Thus there may be a covert, betraying link between the cultivation of aesthetic response and the potential of personal inhumanity. (“To Civilize our Gentlemen,” 1965)
Is Steiner right? Can there be a “betraying link” between art and morality? Twentieth-century postmodernism seems to acknowledge this betrayal in its fragmented, elliptical, and ironic artifices —yet still rejects romanticism’s ideal that the humanities should have protected us from such horrors. My undergraduate students certainly reject the notion that the humanities should protect us from anything. And only the most idealistic among us would still hold the humanities responsible for the Holocaust.
Yet Steiner is just one resilient strand of the humanities’ refusal to allow us to forget; a refusal to let the verdict rest that man is, after all, incurably evil; that the cancer is now thoroughly malignant and inoperable. No. Steiner —like other stubborn humanists—cannot accept a seemingly obvious diagnosis. He remains shocked and outraged, book after book, at why the humanities failed us. His agonizing question gets rephrased again and again: Goethe and gas chambers? Beethoven and brutality? Handel and Hitler? Rilke and rape? It is the horror of this juxtaposition which haunts him. But like a jilted lover, he yet yearns for a restoration between the two: poetry and purity; religion and righteousness, beauty and truth.
It was Steiner’s agonizing question which triggered my pursuit of a PhD in the humanities—not a desire to leave the inner city and become a professor. But it was his pessimistic conclusion—that the humanities have failed to humanize us—that filled me with a desire to prove him wrong: a desire which led me to uproot my family from its comfortable suburban lifestyle in Southern California and become a full-time student of the world’s greatest writers for the next six years.
I felt sure that Steiner’s pessimistic conclusion must be flawed: my moral survival as a teacher of Shakespeare and Dante depended on it. So, why I believed the humanities yet possessed an ability to transform and humanize us was to be the driving purpose behind my doctoral studies at The University of Texas at Dallas — one of only a handful of schools offering an interdisciplinary PhD in the humanities.
But it was my treacherous roots which compelled me as well: the horrors committed by my own white tribe—who in 1835 hitched their ox-wagons directly onto the book of Exodus and went in to drive out the black Canaanites from their Promised Land. These roots disturbed me, creating a longing to plumb the depths of the hermeneutical wells from which my Christian tribe has drunk.
I brought with me eight years’ experience as an English high school teacher in downtown Los Angeles. I had taught in the Rampart district, which the LAPD called the most crime-infested neighborhood in LA in the 1990s, infested with scores of competing gangs in the immediate area around Belmont High School where I taught. But it was these students who first inspired my belief in the ability of the humanities to humanize. As an English teacher, I believed that my greatest responsibility was to teach them the greatest stories—to give them “alternative scenarios” to their often dysfunctional lives; to help them imagine life beyond Second and Beverly downtown (or Melrose Place on TV). I believe that great stories from the past help ignite the imaginations of students and help them transcend themselves and their limited perspectives better than any of the contemporary “victim-literature” stories they are so often given. My eight years in Los Angeles confirmed this: the most popular works of literature that I taught were seldom to be found in their literature anthologies filled with contemporary writers. They were found in those formidable “ancient” volumes that I dared them to tackle: Dante, Shakespeare, and the Bible. These tomes, I told them, had the power to create paradigm shifts at the deepest level of their imaginations.
Dante’s Inferno filled a number of my 11th-grade students with strange feelings of guilt: something which one student—a Catholic heavy-metaller dressed in black —said that stern sermons from parents and other authority figures had been unable to do. The Inferno, however, gave her vivid scenarios of the consequences of sin and evil which no catechism class had been able to do. I include here a brief quote from one of her papers:
I began to see that we make ourselves look like monsters when we do something bad. Just like those sinners in that circle who walk forever backwards, so we walk backwards, blind, when we sin.
A paradigm shift had occurred in her thinking here. No longer was sin just breaking the law: she began to see it as a distortion of something good; not simply an illegal pleasure, but a distorted one.
Another work that had a surprising effect, this time on a 12th-grade class I taught, was The Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible. What I had expected would be for the students an amusing look at some passionate, metaphorical love scenes, turned out to instill in some of them a strange desire for sexual purity. The metaphors of virginity as a “secret garden,” which only a truly beloved one could enter and enjoy, created some journal responses which verged on paradigm shifts in their thinking about sexual intimacy: a shift from sex as a public park to sex as a “secret garden.”
My experience in the inner city confirmed what C.S. Lewis once said: “In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself . . . I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.” I began to believe, along with Aristotle, that “the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought,” not exactly an educational philosophy espoused today. So I really had to reach quite far back into the literary canon in order to retrieve the stuff with which to train my inner city scholars — back to say — Franklin’s Autobiography, in which ancient virtues such as silence, temperance, and chastity are still espoused.
But I realize that for Steiner my dubious successes in an inner-city humanities laboratory would provide a poor counterargument to the horrifying failure of the humanities in Nazi Germany. And even as a PhD student, I could hardly match his erudition and scholarship. Perhaps Steiner is right. Perhaps the greatest casualty in our postmodern world (post-Auschwitz, he would say) is our language: a decaying artifice with nowhere near the power and virility it had in Milton’s day.
A Mathematical Incongruence
But it was Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French mathematician, who helped me to see the mathematical incongruence behind Steiner’s essential presupposition: that the humanities ought to have humanized us. In his Pensees, no. 555, he writes:
The Christian religion, then, teaches men these two truths; that there is a God whom men can know, and that there is a corruption in their nature which renders them unworthy of Him. It is equally important to men to know both these points; and it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his own wretchedness, and to know his own wretchedness without knowing the Redeemer who can free him from it.
There is a mathematical purity to this answer. It makes no general claim about the truth of either Christianity or the two statements that immediately follow: that “there is a God whom men can know,” and that “there is a corruption in their natures that renders them unworthy of Him.” It simply insists that the two statements must be either both true or both false: that either there is both God and corruption, or neither God nor corruption. If there is no Creator, then our “sub-creations” (the humanities) have no moral authority to declare anything corrupt. That being understood, Pascal spends the rest of this section showing how our deep sense of wretchedness proves the high probability of God’s existence: a rather compelling theodicy of evil. The world exists, he concludes, “to teach men both their corruption and their redemption.” Everything in nature “displays the proofs of these two truths.” If the whole universe, as Pascal claims, is designed to both overwhelm us with our depravity and amaze us with God’s mercy, then the universe makes mathematical sense: but only when our depravity overwhelms us can the other side of the equation kick in.
But for Steiner there is no “other side” to the equation. As a Jew, the Holocaust snuffed out any residual messianic hopes. He sees the depravity but not the mercy. Like Rabbi Kushner in Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, the only possible “other side” to things like holocausts is a God who is either loving but impotent, or apathetic and omnipotent. But Steiner is no mathematician: the equation for him may not support Pascal’s universe of depravity and redemption, yet he continues to yearn for a redemption that he cannot believe in. And this, Pascal would say, is “the despair of atheists, who know their own wretchedness, but not the Redeemer.” And yet is this not better than “the pride of philosophers, who have known God, and not their own wretchedness?” Pascal’s “philosophers” would include all depravity-denying offspring of the Enlightenment—whether “scientist” or “Christian.”
And herein, I began to realize, lies the true “humanizing” power of the humanities: not in protecting us from depravity, but in exposing its terrifying reality, and recording our despair and yearning for purity. But the humanities’ expressions of despair and yearning remain mathematically incongruous in a world without God —a yearning for a Paradise lost without believing in a Paradise, or for redemption while disbelieving in a Redeemer. This is the glory of the humanities, then: they are able to expose the Enlightenment’s incongruous claims for the existence of justice and mercy in a purely rational and naturalistic world; the math of such a proposition will not compute.
So despite the humanities’ inability to “humanize” us in the Enlightenment sense of the word , they have left us a remarkable record of our deep-rooted and mysterious sense of right and wrong. Along with our capacity for evil, the human race seems hard-wired to violently and persistently reject its own evil in the form of outrage, shame, remorse, penance, and civil wars. We have this cancer of evil deep within us, and yet we yearn — inconsolably and relentlessly — for some sort of purity we never seem capable of achieving.
This stubborn yearning is, I think, the most remarkable thing about humankind. Not even the horror of two world wars seems to be able to permanently re-wire our capacity for outrage and moral shock. We are depraved; yet we yearn for penance. And this is why we keep repenting and painting and reflecting and writing. There is hope in the humanities. Perhaps we are, after all, as both Sidney and Tolkien believed, “sub-creators” reflecting the image of our Creator. We do not just rebuild after wars — we weep; we paint, we write stories, we yearn.
Perhaps this ability to courageously testify to our own failure as humans remains one the humanities’ greatest assets. No matter how bludgeoned down and distorted, the truth always seems to out. No matter how evil we become, we remain outraged and shocked. As long as we retain this ironic capacity for tragedy; as long as we keep painting and writing and weeping about it—our humanities will at least keep George Orwell’s truth-silenced 1984 at bay, and Thousand-year Reichs to a short—albeit horrifying—twelve years.
Mark Watney was born and raised in South Africa and immigrated to America in 1977 as a high school senior. After graduating from Azusa Pacific University, he served as a missionary in Turkey, Japan, and India before returning to the U.S. as a high school English teacher and, later, professor. He earned his PhD at the University of Texas at Dallas ten years ago and has been teaching at Sterling College ever since. He wrote his dissertation on C. S. Lewis’s early pre-Christian writings, specifically Dymer and Spirits in Bondage.