A review of The Artist as Thinker: From Shakespeare to Joyce, by George Anastaplo

Professional duties oblige college teachers to look into many carelessly written contemporary works. When one comes upon a recent book that is carefully done, one ought to record one’s gratitude and publicize the novelty. George Anastaplo’s collection of essays on literary works and liter­ary issues so thoughtfully interweaves writings separately executed over years that the result is a unity of thought and theme governing par­ticulars. The principle of that unity is the idea that the best of lyric poetry, novels, and plays afford the classical virtue of practical wisdom, prudence. Anastaplo’s argument is impressive for the diversity of the evidence it organizes on behalf of this idea.

We are used to hearing the claim that poets enable their readers to live better, but not with the claim that better means more prudently. We are more likely to have been taught that poets permit one to escape prudential restraints than to have learned to value them for habituation in the gray virtue. So we may be surprised to discover, from Anastaplo, that Milton’s thundering sonnet on the massacre of the Piedmont Protestants controls its indignation with cold­blooded artistry while taking care also to suggest that indignation alone does not suffice to grasp the outrage (pp. 62-74). Once we have followed Anas­taplo’s tabulation of symmetrical stages in Alice’s education, we may appreciate the role of prudence in the fanciful curriculum of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland (pp. 166-78). Sensitive readers may find something forced in Mark Twain’s depiction of the lynch mob cowed by the unrepentant murderer in Huckleberry Finn. How­ever, I do not recall any other account of Twain’s sophistry presented head-on and simply (pp. 179-94). Shake­speare’s tragic heroes inhabit a world that does not indulge misjudgment of consequences. Anastaplo’s considera­tion of the effect of tragic imprudence on the plight of Shakespearean tragic figures helps us to see that Shake­speare’s plots argue a moral experience that makes sense, a world in which human beings suffer the fates they deserve (pp. 15-61).

Anastaplo’s interpretations of individual works proceed from a conviction that successful novels or plays should persuade us of the possibility of conducting a rational life. According to Anastaplo, Melville portrays in Ishmael the first motions of a soul who disengages himself from a romantic war against nature for the sake of contemplating intel­ligible order (pp. 142-49). In the novels of Jane Austen, he discerns a quiet cultivation of the pleasures of civility and moderation. Anastaplo’s special competence is his ability to discover exactly where in a fictional action the presence or the absence of intelligence produces a crisis for the characters. The question what ought the character to have done at such and such a moment gives direct access to the issue of correct decision.

Anastaplo’s remarks on Hamlet and Joyce’s Ulysses afford the best evidence of the value of this unusual mode of interpretation. The character Hamlet and the novelist James Joyce are dear to modern critics. Both are loved for their combination of brilliance and desperate skepticism. We admire the daring imagination that strikes out against the darkness while it doubts “your philosophy.” There may be something sentimental in our sympathy for irrational genius. Anastaplo makes one aware of Hamlet’s inability to confront what is intelligible in his situation and to perceive what he owes to his countrymen (pp. 18-20). His analysis of the extravagantly acclaimed Ulysses reveals how Joyce contrives a surface of ingeniously executed details to deflect attention away from a thin subject. Anastaplo’s own prudence is evident in his remark that Joyce was unimaginative in his indictment of Dublin as a wasteland. The far more devastating injustices inflicted by criminal regimes after 1914 cause us to regard the Ireland ofDubliners, Portrait of the Artist, and Ulysses as a society relatively wholesome, decent, and vivid. Was Joyce so intensely preoccupied with novelties of form that he lacked political vision?

The Artist as Thinker offers three different kinds of literary criticism: the first part of the book comprises the interpretative essays with which I have just dealt; the second part argues in five essays general principles of interpretation and education; finally, a lengthy sequence of notes carries into fields beyond poetry the thought generated by the readings of the individual works. Anastaplo puts the scholarly footnote to extra­ordinary uses. One works out a full-dress poem analysis running to several pages (pp. 357-63); another presents the entire curriculum of the University of Chicago’s Basic Program in the Liberal Arts, semester by semester, with all the assigned readings! As in his previous books (The Constitu­tionalist and Human Being and Citizen), Anastaplo so arranges his notes that they establish a common field of reference between the subject he has in hand and all his other scholarly and teaching interests. In this instance the notes make it clear that a complete consideration of prudence would move from the major poets to their counterparts in political philosophy. Consonant with that project, the “Epilogue” deals with Leo Strauss, and the last of the general essays treat topics in political thought and political practice. The final seven essays work out the theory practiced in the preceding interpre­tations while giving the matter a polemical bite.

My sole reservation regards items of unfinished business. The essay on Moby Dick could go further to indicate more definitely the extent of what Ishmael comes to understand once he has dissociated himself from Ahab’s aggression. Similarly, one could wish Anastaplo had expanded upon his tantalizing suggestion that Shakespearean comedy presents a direct image of prudence complementing the portrayal of disastrous imprudence in the tragedies. Most to the point, the tacit proposal of the essays when taken in sequence appears to be that as one moves closer to our own time, one perceives that poets and writers of fiction diminish in practical wisdom. Shakespeare and Milton possess prudence abundantly; Jane Austen for the most part; Twain, Dickens, and Arnold intermittently, but Joyce and such modern poets as John Davidson, T. S. Eliot, and George Seferis, however interesting for other qualities, rarely afford insights adequate to guide practical choice. I should have welcomed a more explicit treatment of the causes of this decline (see, however, the note on modern psy­chology, pp. 414-17). And especially, Anastaplo should bring that proposition to its best test by devoting a chapter to Solzhenitsyn, the contempor­ary writer who might make a strong claim to possessing the moral and practical intelligence of earlier writers.

Anastaplo has entered into today’s controversy over the nature of literary interpretation by taking his place on the side of the reactionaries. The issue is whether we should continue to seek moral wisdom from poets or give over that inquiry in favor of research into linguistic structure. What I’ve characterized as the reactionary position opposes the formalism of structuralists and linguists by advocating recovery of sensitivity to the sub­stance of poetry: the thoughtful portrayal of human beings making moral choices. This position has found proponents in some influential spokes­men, notably John Gardner (On Moral fiction), George Steiner (Language and Silence), Jacques Barzun, Sigurd Burckhardt, M. H. Abrams, and Walter Jackson Bate. Moreover, a group of thinkers influenced by Strauss’s writings has introduced into literary discussion the natural right teaching of classical rationalism.

To this argument on behalf of interpretation upon moral criteria Anastaplo brings urbanity, learning in the classics of poetry and philosophy, and direct experience of practical politics. Sophis­tication, together with learning and experience, is persuasive. One realizes that much has been lost to academic professionalism that can yet be recovered by mere lovers of good writing who are willing, as Socrates was willing, to ask of poets what they know about living a good life. Education in the West will produce men capable of steady under­standing and proportionate action just to the extent that our schools succeed in releasing the classics of literature from their present captivity to the latest fads of academic nihilism. Anastaplo has made a raid upon the fastnesses kept by literary professionals and has released a few hostages, an accomplishment for which we all have cause for gratitude.