A review of Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe: Toward the Revival of Higher Education, by Jeffrey Hart

In Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe, Jeffrey Hart, like Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind and Harold Bloom in The Western Canon, reaffirms the intellectual and spiritual authority of the great books of the West. Unlike the two (unrelated) Blooms, Hart, true to his title, chooses to emphasize enjoyment rather than critique, barely mentioning the "catastrophe" that has swept aside the humanistic criteria of truth, beauty, and goodness in favor of the sociological categories of class, race, and gender. The criticisms launched by the two Blooms are almost entirely warranted, of course, but they tend to overshoot the mark. Harold Bloom's limits the appeal of the great books to those on "the quest for a transcendence of limits," leaving someone merely trying to cope with the world without reason to bother with Shakespeare. Similarly, Allan Bloom limits the proper (though not exclusive) audience of great works to the "small number" who "spend their lives in an effort to be autonomous."

In contrast to the explicit message of the two Blooms, Hart is willing to suppose that great books, if given a chance, may speak to more than a chosen few. He cautions, "It would be wise not to underestimate the general human intelligence but try to extend genuine education as widely as possible." Hart identifies the genius of the West with its ability to hold on to two often conflicting ideals: "the goal of spiritual aspiration" and "the aspiration to cognition." Following a long tradition, Hart identifies the former with Jerusalem and the latter with Athens. Though disclaiming originality, his discussions of the Bible, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, the Enlightenment, and the novel in terms of the tension between these opposing ideals is not only generally persuasive but insightful. Thus, he shows that the Bible is not only the embodiment of "Jerusalem" but also includes as a kind of counterpoint, from Genesis through the New Testament, the voice of "Athens" as well. Hart demonstrates that "you cannot get past the first line of the Hebrew Bible without sensing the presence of radical questioning." Like the Hebrew people, "the narrative throughout is, so to speak, stiff-necked and quarrelsome." On the other hand, Hart also finds "Jerusalem" in the works of the West's secular masters, including Plato and even Shakespeare.

Against those who agree with the view George Santayana expressed in his essay, "The Absence of Religion in Shakespeare," Hart suggests that "Shakespeare's plays can be read as a single long poem expressive of damnation, purgation, and, in the late comedies, salvation"—a suggestion supported by Hart's readings of both Hamlet and The Tempest. His reading of Hamlet profits from his willingness to reconsider the play in the light both of Mel Gibson's film version and of The Great Gatsby. Mel Gibson's "happy inspiration of attributing to Hamlet a small scientific laboratory in the castle" vivifies Hart's sense of a Hamlet who is a citizen of the Renaissance—both a believer in ghosts and a student of the new scientific ideas. And our understanding of Hamlet as well as The Great Gatsby is enriched by Hart's comparison of the stoic Horatio before the body of Hamlet uncharacteristically envisioning "flights of angels," to the final, similarly uncharacteristic eloquence of Nick Carraway thinking of "the fresh green breast of the New World," as he, like Horatio, responds to the death of a friend who has given him intimations of a larger world.

Voltaire scarcely appears in either Closing of the American Mind or The Western Cannon, but Candide receives an extended discussion in Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe. For Hart the Voltaire of Candide is not the enemy of Leibniz or Christianity, but of "junk thought." It is "the process of intellectual devolution—vulgarization, dumbing-down" that "evokes Voltaire's scorn in the figure of Dr. Pangloss, who certainly has not read Pope or Leibniz but, at best, only some popular pamphlets that misrepresent them." Honoring Voltaire's point, Hart acknowledges the statute of thinkers whose professed disciples have contributed much to the "junk thought" undermining the heritage Hart is reclaiming: "What John Dewey actually thought about education is unrecognizable in his popularizers. The thought of Nietsche exists in the popular mind only in caricature. Few people actually read Freud, but everyone 'knows' what he said."

On both the left and the right, a good many intellectuals have attacked the "enlightenment project" as a source of all that is wrong with the modern world, but Hart points out that the Enlightenment's "most trenchant critics, from Swift and Burke through Dostoyevsky, have had to put such criticism in terms laid down by the Enlightenment itself. That is, they have had to argue their case, not merely assume it, and appeal to fact, reason, and experience." Firmly condemning the wing of the enlightenment that wanted to end the creative tension between Athens and Jerusalem, Hart finds the moderate Enlightenment of Montesquieu, Samuel Johnson, and Candide "indispensable." 

Although the critiques of Allan Bloom and Harold Bloom, like those of John Ellis in Literature Lost or Frederick Crews in Skeptical Engagements, are both welcome and necessary, the revival of the humanities will be achieved primarily through a renewed capacity for intellectual wonder and delight. This renewed capacity will require the cultivation of another quality. Though noting with Dante that books can do evil as well as good, Hart concludes by suggesting that the truth and beauty of great works makes ultimately for their goodness, as well, since immersion in them promotes the capacity for fairness and impartial judgment. Proudly echoing Matthew Arnold, George Santayana, and Lionel Trilling, Jeffrey Hart champions a "condition of mind" that post-modernism has defined out of existence: disinterestedness. He makes his case with an eloquence backed by the example of his own fine book:

The very power of the important books works to make their readers fair-minded. It demands that the books be heard. The reader experiences the desire to come up to their power of mind. You listen to them, putting aside your own opinions, desires, and causes….This amounts to the cultivation of fairness, or disinterestedness, and it attacks the fortress of every provincialism.