Mary Ann Freese Witt
North Carolina State University at Raleigh
Debates over the "canon" or the so-called "cultural wars" have been raging within and without the academy for some time now, and I think we've all grown a little tired of them. I suppose that those of us in the arts and humanities were in a sense flattered to see a shift in emphasis from science and technology to the question of what we should be reading and teaching -- the subject of numerous popular books, articles and television shows, in addition to scholarly and theoretical works over the past decade. The problems posed by the debates are however far from resolved, and this conference is testimony to our determination to address them.
If some of us once believed in a stable core of literary, philosophical, and artistic works that every educated person should know, we have lived to see the deconstruction of that particular idea of a canon. The sea-change seems to have resulted from profound transformations in both our intellectual and our popular culture. One the one hand, on classroom practices at every level, there has been a kind of trickle-down effect from deconstruction, feminism, new historicism, reader response, and other critical approaches initiated in the 70's. The effect has been on how we teach texts, even on what we consider a text, as well as one which texts we teach. Those of us who received our intellectual formation in the fifties and sixties were still under the influence of New Criticism with its emphasis on the whole, organic and therefore closed Work of Art. The focus was on the poem, or for that matter, the painting or the symphony "itself," not on its ideological subtext or its intertextuality. Through analysis using the modernist criteria of irony, ambiguity and organic whole, we were also convinced that every intelligent human being could agree on which works were worthy of study and on how we achieved an understanding of those works.
According to Alvin Kerman (The Death of Literature ) both the canon and the teaching of "masterpieces" died when they became "texts" instead of "works" -- socially constructed entities rather than aesthetic or philosophical unities. But if our methodological certainties came under attack from the newer criticisms, they were probably more profoundly undermined by changes in our society as a whole. In the United States, at least, culturally if not politically, we have for some time now been weighting the equation of our national motto more toward "pluribus" than toward "unum." If unity means conforminq to the standards of the white European male, we seem to be saying, give us plurality. Diversity -- cultural, ethnic, racial, sexual, generational, economic, geographical and other -- is the buzz word of the times. Here then are real pressures for opening the texts of the humanities, both at the levels of what we study and how we study it and in the posing of the question of why we study. But if everything has opened up, what boundaries can we set; how can we close? If we have accepted plurality, have we given up on unity? If the old humanism is dead, is there a way to reconstitute our common humanity without going backwards? Can this be achieved through the study of the humanities? To me, these are the most urgent questions we must address.
Practically speaking, the questions of opening and closing may be posed at what we might call the macro level the body of the texts we teach -- and the micro level -- the methods of teaching individual texts. The macro and micro levels are interrelated, so that one can and indeed must be approached through the other. Whereas "work of art", like "canon" implies closure, boundaries, choice and readers. But must we choose between the clarity but limitations of closure or the fuzzy uncertainities but freedom of openness? On what criteria do we both choose core texts and attempt to reach the core of the text?
One tried and true approach to such questions is the historical one. Understand where we've come from to have some idea about where we're going. History can also be approached on both the macro and the micro levels, that is our common history and our individual histories, bearing in mind the convergences of the two. The general history of the humanities is well known to all of you, so I'll just touch on it lightly here. Perhaps more revealing are our individual histories as students and teachers of the arts and humanities. Therefore, I want to share some of mine with you, not, I hope, because I revel in autobiography, but because I think that the comparing of our personal stories will help to enlighten our groping toward our common future.
To begin with the macro level: The idea of education in the humanities began with the notion that the encounter of a mind with certain written texts would inevitably lead to the expansion and development of that mind. We should remember, however, that what we call the humanistic tradition is, in world-historical terms, not very old. It was the Italians, primarily the Florentines, of the fifteenth century who gave the name studia humanitatis to the study of Greek and Latin authors. The notion of "text" for them, it should be stated, was quite different from the contemporary one. A text was the product of its author and its true identity could be ascertained through careful scholarship and editing. Authors writing in ancient languages, languages superior to the modern ones in terms of depth and subtlety of expression, could instruct and refine the minds of contemporary men (very rarely, women), helping them to build on the knowledge of the ancients and to become better citizens of the Florentine Republic. The centrality of what came to be known as "the classics" to the humanities and the centrality of education in the humanities to the European as well as the American, elite lasted well into the nineteenth century. In most European countries, the study of the humanities was deemed to be unsuitable for women because it was intended to form the minds of civic and political leaders. Women were, however, allowed to read literature in modern languages.
The study of national literatures in the vernacular arose as a discipline toward the end of the l9th century in part as a response to nationalism. (In the French educational system even today, the study of French literature in high school, one period or century per year, is intimately connected with developing a sense of Frenchness.) The study of "great books" in modern languages is only about a century old and the admission of reading literature in translation as a form of academic study is very recent indeed. That is a primarily American phenomenon, having to do with our belief that a widespread, not just elite education in the humanities has a function in a democracy. (Unfortunately, in my view, it has also tended to separate the study of language and literature, with the increasing notion that the study of language is only for practical reasons.) In recent years, there has also been a movement to include Asian and African traditions with the study of the Western humanities, although this tendency had its predecessors in the great "Orientalists", as they were called, and Egyptologists of l9th century Europe.
This quick overview can remind us that if we start tinkering with the scope and purpose of "the humanities," we are not tinkering with the ten commandments carved in stone but rather with an idea that has undergone numerous transformations. Only a very few of us would now argue that a thorough knowledge of Greek and Latin is the sine qua non of humanistic education. On the other hand, we would probably agree that, in addition to literary and philosophical texts, non-verbal experiences of music, painting, sculpture and architecture are also essential to an education in the humanities and that the "texts" of the humanities curriculum should not be limited to those of Europe and the Americas. We would probably admit film and dance as well, and we might concede that an interdisciplinary approach to the humanities could be the most fruitful one. But how far are we willing to go in the process of generic opening to include television and video, the hypertext, the internet, and the various forms of shifting, malleable texts that float in cyberspace? Will we come to agree that the analytical processes involved in analyzing a soap opera are in no way inferior to those involved in analyzing Macbeth ? In other words, to what extent do we want to open, both to the inclusiveness of the contemporary sense of "text" and to methods of reading texts? What remains of the sense of text as envisaged by the Italian humanists? If we open ourselves to all the contemporary possibilities, can we also conserve, or perhaps re-create, the educational centrality of the encounter of mind with text?
These, then, are some of the questions posed by our common histories and our contemporary confusions. Now, with your permission, I will delve into my personal history. Although I had been what was called in those days a "section man" in a humanities course as a graduate student at Harvard and had certainly been exposed to comparative methodologies in my graduate studies, my career in the interdisciplinary humanities began in 1972 when I was hired on a Kenan Foundation grant at North Carolina Central University, a traditionally African-American institution. I was given the responsibility of creating from scratch an inter hum program based on and springing from the English Department's World Literature course. This was an incredible opportunity for me, but overwhelming. Not only was I just a few years out of grad school, but I also learned for the first time in my life what it is to be in a minority. There weren't very many white faces on the campus in those days. My whole thinking process had in many ways to be readjusted. I learned a lot, mostly because the students were so open in sharing aspects of their African-American heritage with me. We didn't talk about the canon and multiculturalism in those days, but with hindsight I can see that the currents that led to those debates were already forming then. I began to feel pressures from many corners. The older black faculty took what was to become the Harold Bloom position: there exists a canon of works which an educated person should read. Race, color, class, geographical location, cultural experience made no difference. Shakespeare was universal, but Shakespeare was also an important part of black America's heritage. As Bloom was to argue 25 years later, Shakespeare was the center of the canon.
Then there were the younger black and white faculty members. (They are of course now the senior faculty.) They had introduced African literature into the curriculum and wanted less time spent on the classics and more on contemporary African-American texts. As if these poles weren't enough, I then had to face the battle of the disciplines. Attempting to build an interdisciplinary program, I met with representatives of the music, art, theater, and philosophy departments. We actually had some quite wonderful conversations, during which we began to see connections and forge bridges but we also had our turfs to defend. I was reminded, as I'll demonstrate later, of the arguments among the masters of music, dance, and philosophy in Moliere's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Too much literature, not enough music! All of the humanities can be united through the visual arts! The theater represents the truly whole work of art! The students will never develop their minds if they don't read philosophy! And within these discussions seethed dissensions which would later blossom into "cultural wars." Who do you leave out: Beethoven, Stravinsky, or Duke Ellington? Shall we study African art and if so, what and how? What about Asia and the rest of the world? Hegel or W. E. B. DuBois? And then: the chronological approach, beginning with Homer? The same beginning with Gilgamesh or with the Egyptians? A nonchronological, or anti-chronological approach beginning with where the students are and what's relevant to them? ("Relevant" was the buzz-word in those days.)
And what about the students? Well, we had to admit that literature, art, and philosophy were not uppermost on their minds. They could remember the Greensboro sit-in; they knew the civil rights movement and the turmoils of the sixties. I'll never forget the day when we were discussing the Odyssey in class and a young man stood up and said, "Why do we have to read this stuff? How is it going to help me go out and get black people to register to vote?" What could I say? The cyclops are the remains of two hundred years of oppression; you are Odysseus, take it from there. Something like that, not very convincing in any case. One of the many things I learned from teaching at Central and in my later teaching experiences as well is that race, class, and gender do have an impact on our reading, viewing and listening. Black people approach Othello or Native Son differently from white people. Women respond to the narrative in A Room of One's Own on an emotional level different from that of men. More recently, I've seen that gay readers find new subtexts in Proust. This has become of course much more evident in the 90's, where, like it or not, our cultural climate has sensitized us to an extraordinary awareness of difference.
To return to the interdisciplinary humanities -- clearly we never did solve all of the conflicts and tensions and problems in the program at N.C. Central. What developed was rather an approach to them and an incorporation of them. The idea of writing a textbook came to me after I left Central and other collaborators came on board. The Humanities: Cultural Roots and Continuities has grown and changed over the years, but it was certainly formed by that initial experience. I called the approach "cultural roots and continuities" in the belief that many of the roots of present day cultures are to be found in the texts of the humanities but also that these texts can take us beyond our roots toward an individual and communal culture that grows from fresh encouters with texts worth encountering. Furthermore, our cultural roots are not limited to our ethnic roots. The older professors at N.C. Central were right to see Shakespeare, and of course the King James Bible, as roots of the discourse and cultural production of African Americans. African aesthetics may be seen as roots of the way in which modern European artists transformed visual perception in the teaching West. This is not to discount the importance of ethnic or other social roots, but simply to say that one's cultural roots may not completely coincide with them. If this were the case, those of us teaching foreign languages and literatures would be in a very awkward position indeed. Does one have to be ethnically Italian to teach or to love Dante? Proponents of comparative literature and of the comparative method in the arts have for some time now advocated the transcendence of the nationalist or ethnocentric approach toward a "world" literature. Since we cannot learn all of the world's languages, this poses the problem of translation with all its potential distortions and inauthenticities. In teaching works in translation, I think it is vital to remind students that they are reading a translation and if possible, to give them some sense of the original language and its particular expressive capacity.
Both my work with Central and with my collaborators on the textbook have led me to confront the pros and cons of interdisciplinarity in the study of the humanities. Here the question of opening and closing appears in the form of the crossing and permeating of boundaries, or of opening the closures demarcated by disciplinary codes. Is there any particular advantage to studying a poem, a painting, a dance, a musical composition, a philosophical treatise together rather than separately? Or to looking at all of them in a political, economic, and historical context rather than in themselves? The interdisciplinary approach can be exciting, fruitful, but dangerous. Dangerous because it can be reductive: the pleasure of being able to label works in different media all as neatly "baroque" or as products of the thirty-years war may replace the more difficult pleasure attained by grappling with the stark originality of the work. [I should say that the temptation of this sort of labelling to a textbook author is very great indeed.] In this sense, what appears to be an opening or permeation may become a more restrictive closure. But the fruitfulness of the interdisciplinary approach also lies in just this breaking of old boundaries to formulate new concepts. Thinking "baroque" in a way that overarches forms and genres rather than only, let us say, in terms of diagonal composition and light and dark contrasts in painting, makes possible a more probing understanding of the term. The approach is fruitful in another sense because, as I was always told in graduate school, the comparative method allows one work, and one discipline, to shed light on another. Rather than blurring the lines between the arts, the interdisciplinary approach may actually sharpen them: thus we learn that there are certain effects that a piece of sculpture can attain that a prose narrative cannot, and vice-versa. The point, of course, was already made by Lessing in Laocoon .
Another argument for interdisciplinarity is contextualization. The aesthetic features of a Yoruba mask can certainly be analyzed in the tranquillity of a museum but they take on quite a different significance when experienced on a dancer during the activities of the Gelede festival. The same can be said of music composed to be heard in a cathedral. Technology -- first recording, photography, and film, now video, the Internet and the various new possibilities of simulation -- on the one hand makes contextualization easily available to us and our students and on the other risks the substitution of virtuality for reality. Which is more the "real" work of art? The mask on the wall or the filmed mask on the dancer seen on the screen? The printed text or the digital text? Beethoven played by the Tokyo string quartet on CD or by a group of amateurs in the local concert hall? I don't think that we yet have the answers to these questions, but questions of integrating technology with the humanities will no doubt become more and more urgent for us. To return to contextualization, however we may want to accomplish it, the importance of setting a text or a work of art within its historical, cultural, and, I would add, linguistic circumstances cannot be overlooked. The danger, again, is one of reductiveness, or of context overwhelming text. On the other hand, not to contextualize is to risk an even greater danger, what we might call reader response ad absurdum or the fundamentalist reduction -- one our students easily fall prey to. Whatever I'm reading is my text, written just for me, in my language, and it means whatever I want it to mean.
Interdisciplinarity, including contextualization, along with the concepts of cultural roots and of a changing audience are then some of the factors that have been important to me in attempting to conceive of a possible education in the humanities. But the problem of what to read and how to read it, or of the opening and closing of macro and micro texts remains. I face it anew withevery course I teach, and certainly with every edition of the textbook. When I look over the readers' comments in the process of preparing a new edition, there is always at least one reader who asks: "How could you possibly leave out. . .?" fill in the blank. The list of the artists, writers, composers, individual works, historical periods, ethnic and national groups that I could possibly leave out is almost infinite. The more pressing question is, of course, what to put in. And there I and the other authors feel a grave responsibility. Are we creating our own little fixed canon?
Looking at our changes over the years, I think we have both reflected and resisted deep cultural transformations in our society. The original edition began with the Greeks, firm in the conviction that that's where the humanistic tradition began. Rather than attempting a survey of everything, we decided to focus on a few key periods and a few key works, using whole works whenever possible. Thus classical Athens, fifteenth-century Italy, and seventeenth-century France, for example, receive more attention than do other times and places. In addition to these focal points of the European tradition, we had a section on Western Africa, a result of the origins of the book at N.C. Central. There we focus on the Yoruba, emphasizing contacts between Africa and the West, comparative differences in cultural traditions, and possible cultural roots of African Americans and others. For the 1993 edition we began not with Greece but with Mesopotamia and Egypt, responding to the growing awareness (although it's something we've always known) that Western civilization was a latecomer in the world, and that its cultural roots are in Africa and Asia. The humanities, studia humanitatis , began as a thoroughly Western institution, but that does not mean that they need to remain so. An example of a more immediate response to social change is the fact that we added a section on Islam to that edition. We were in the midst of the gulf war; it seemed urgent to understand the culture of Islam. Our medieval section, previously limited to Western Europe, became "three medieval cultures", including Byzantium and Islam.
Our next edition is going to include a brief section on India and China, two other ancient civilizations that flourished long before Greece. Indian religious thought, Chinese pottery and poetry, to take a few examples, have surely entered into the cultural roots of many North Americans, and not only Asian Americans. Also, with trends in scholarship represented by Edward Said's Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism , we have come to realize that much of European cultural production is intimately bound with Europe's complex relations with the Asia. But our addition no doubt also reflects the fact that the presence of people of Asian origin is becoming more and more important on the American continent. In spite of these additions, our book remains firmly anchored in the tradition of the Western humanities, and I think it will continue so. Yet it is also in some small sense a barometer of changing conceptions of the humanities.
I have then formed my criteria for opening and closing primarily through my experience with the book. Broadly speaking, to summarize, these involve the notions of cultural roots and continuities, of interdisciplinarity (what goes with what), of historical focal points, of audience expectations, and of changes in the culture at large. But there are other criteria as well.
During the past year I've been both provoked and inspired by Harold Bloom's ambitious 1994 book, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. I'd therefore like to summarize Bloom's views here and to compare and contrast them with my own. Bloom offers a passionate defense of the centrality to education of the "canonical" literary (and other artistic) works of the Western tradition. By "canonical", he means both "authoritative in our culture" and "having aesthetic value." To the question of whether or not there are universal aesthetic standards by which we can judge literary (or other artistic) greatness, Bloom answers that these lie in the originality or the "strangeness" of the work. The encounter with great works has a use, according to Bloom, in that it enhances the growth of our "inner self" -- thus the focus of education is for him on the individual, not on the community or on the ethnic, social, or other group identification. Unlike the followers of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, Bloom believes in the author. Shakespeare, both authoritative and highly original, is for him the "center" of the canon, and around Shakespeare he forms his personal list.
Bloom's two canonical principals -- "authoritative in our culture" and "having aesthetic value" -- give me some pause. I have to admit that I see the notion of "authoritative" as a white male, exclusionary value. I prefer the notion of "cultural root", or the question, how has this text entered into the dialogue of our present cultural complex? But I can agree with Bloom that certain texts -- -disagreement of course comes with the "certain" -- should be read because they have been in some way formative of contemporary modes of thought and cultural production. The phrase "aesthetic value" also strikes me as being on the "authoritative" side, or belonging to a l9th-century concept of the humanities.
However, when Bloom talks about aesthetics as originality or as the encounter between a text and one's "growing inner self", I begin to concur. I am not ready to concede that the notion of the individual is nothing more than a cultural construct. Indeed, I believe that one of the major criteria for choosing the texts that we teach and the way that we teach them must be deeply personal. We want to transmit what we have loved, what has contributed to our growing inner selves, and why shouldn't we? Isn't that why we got into this business in the first place? It is possible that the primary justification for "closing" our choice of texts will turn out to be the subjective one. [Why am I having you read Madame Bovary instead of War and Peace? Parce que Madame Bovary, c'est moi!] This said, the more general criterion, what I called cultural roots, should serve as a balance to the individualist one. It is, however, a balance that we each have to juggle for ourselves.
Now I'd like to take up some of the question of opening and closing in terms of an individual text. I've chosen Moliere's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme -- the Middle Class Gentleman. One reason is subjective. The older I get, the more I appreciate and value the comic view of the human condition of which Moliere is one of the greatest representatives, although my scholarly work is now on tragedy. The other reason is that this is a text that begs for opening in all of the senses I've mentioned. Let me briefly summarize the plot. It's on the closure side, neat and classical, with five acts and a linear tying and untying of knots -- noeud et denouement -- although the resolution is somewhat peculiar. Mr. Jourdain, a rich Parisian merchant, has one dream in life and that is to become an aristocrat or "person of quality": thus the bourgeois is a wannabe gentleman. He has hired tutors in music, dancing, fencing, and philosophy, as well as a tailor, to give him as it were crash courses and what he thinks are the appearances of the aristocracy. Furthermore, he has fallen in love with a beautiful marquise. He has acquired a friend in the nobility -- a count who claims to be wooing the marquise for him but is actually doing so for himself, -- and who does Mr Jourdain the favor of borrowing money from him.
The sensible, practical characters, who see through the infatuations and manipulations, are Jourdain's wife and their feisty servant Nicole. The goal of these two women is to get the Jourdain daughter married to the man she loves (Cleonte), and Nicole to his valet (Covielle). But Mr Jourdain will have none but a "gentleman" for a son-in-law and Cleonte is too honest to claim to be what he isn't. Whereupon Covielle, designs a scheme. In disguise, he goes to tell Mr Jourdain that he is the interpreter for the son of the Great Turk. This young noble Turk happens to be in Paris and is in love with Jourdain's daughter! He wishes to honor the father of his beloved by bestowing on him the noble Turkish title of "Mamamouchi." It is of course Cleonte who is disguised as the young Turk. The fifth act is a great masquerade of music, ballet, invented languages including of course fake Turkish, mistaken and revealed identities. In classic comic fashion, it ends with pairing off: Mlle Jourdain with Cleonte in Turkish disguise, Covielle with Nicole, the count with the marquise, and "my wife", as Jourdain says in his last line, "to whoever wants her." What is different about this resolution is that the duped one is not unduped. Orgon, for example, bedazzled by Tartuffe, finally sees things as they are; Jourdain remains in his fake Turkish fantasy world as indeed the whole comedy dissolves into a fantasy-ballet.
Now there are several things about Mr Jourdain's comic world that bear on the teaching of the humanities and the opening and closing of texts. First of all the play is nothing if not interdisciplinary. Louis XIV commissioned it in 1670 as a "comedie-ballet" with the collaboration of Moliere, the composer Lully, the dancing master Beauchamps, and a certain d'Arvieux, expert in Turkish customs, because the comedy was supposed to include "turqueries". This last piece of information leads us to contextualize and to explore possible subtexts. (I must acknowlege Michele Longino, Professor of French at Duke, for her work in progress on this subject.) It turns out that the envoy of the Great Sultan of Turkey had been recently in Versailles, and that Franco-Turkish relations were not going well. Specifically, the Turks seemed to be paying more attention to French merchants than to the diplomats from the court! In addition, the French were worried about losing their traditional position of power in the le vant. What more a propos than a spoof that makes fun of a French merchant and his entrancement with a culture portrayed as silly? Even the most serious aspects of Turkish culture receive a farcical treatment -- the Koran, for example, is strapped to Mr Jourdain's back and Islamic-sounding chants are used in the "mamamouchi" ceremony. One wonders that Moliere did not become the Salman Rushdie of his day. But the main point I want to make is: it is possible to view the play as an early example of "orientalism."
The comedy is also interdisciplinary in that the music and the dance, as well as the costumes and the theatrical gestures are as integral to it as the verbal text. Music and dance accompany the instances when Jourdain's fantasy world takes primacy: there's a ballet of the tailors, a ballet for the reception of the marquise, and of course the Turkish ballet. I think it can be argued that the aesthetic of the aristocratic-dream world is baroque and that of the bourgeois prose comedy world classical. The dialogue between the Masters of music, dance, fencing, and philosophy serves as a comic mise en abyme of the text's interdisciplinarity, vaguely reminiscent of certain faculty meetings. The dialogue moves with crescendo. The music and dance masters begin with a fairly polite dispute over the relative importance of their arts; after his lesson, the fencing master says to Jourdain that "one may see . . . how highly the science of arms excels all the other useless sciences, such as dancing, music, and. . ." only to be interrupted by strong words from the other two. Enter the philosophy master. (At the end of this paper is a copy of the scene in an 18th century translation by John Watts, taken from my textbook.) After this scene, the philosophy master begins his lesson. He is one who believes in starting from where the students are and giving the students what they want, especially when a rich student is paying him. What does M. Jourdain want to learn? Not physics, not logic, but orthography. What he gets is in fact a lesson in phonetics that's still effective for teaching French. The philosophy master tells him how all the vowels are formed. Jourdain is amazed, overwhelmed, as he pronounces A, E, I, O, U. "Ah, why did I not study sooner, that I might have known all this?" he asks. I,O,I,O,I,O!
Now M. Jourdain, in all his ridiculousness, poses some serious educational problems. The arts and the humanities were after all for a long time the exclusive property of the elite: here is a bourgeois who wants to acquire that culture fast -- why? Certainly not for money -- he has plenty of that and he's spending it like mad to get what he wants. Is it the marquise? Or what the marquise represents? A sense of beauty, taste, discernment, courtesy, knowledge, ideas? Jourdain, in his bumbling way, understands that maybe these, as the Italian humanists would have said, are what can make a human being truly human. "Oh my mother and father," he laments constantly, "if only you had given me an education!" (To give a modern day equivalent, his parents obviously forced him to be a business major.) Although the objects of his emulation are misplaced -- the nobles and the "masters" are just as ridiculous as he -- is, his aspirations are not entirely wrong.
Now I have, very briefly and incompletely, "opened" the text of Le Bouraeois Gentilhomme first, to the historical context and subtext, second, to the interdisciplinarity and interdependence of dialogue, music, dance, and costume, and third, to general questions on the value and purpose of the humanities, seen in comic perspective. It is partly because of the interest of these openings that Moliere's text is a "core" one. And now I'd like to "close," or to aim at "the core of the text." I would do this subjectively and personally, by asking what, essentially, remains for me after various experiences of Le Bouraeois Gentilhomme . I think it is Jourdain's sense of wonder -- as in the often quoted question, "And when I say, Nicole, bring me my slippers, I'm speaking in prose?" or in his discovery of the sounds of vowels -- i, o -- quoted earlier. This sense of wonder is at the same time admirably, even extraordinarily honest and profoundly ridiculous in its perception of the world: we sympathize with Jourdain's aspirations while we laugh at him and feel superior to him. It is just this fusion of sympathy and ridicule -- what Pirandello called -- "humorism" -- that constitutes great comedy. Through the experience of comedy, as Moliere himself would have it, we may even come to see ourselves as comic characters, or to view our own pretensions and delusions in theatrical perspective. Could we, occasionally, be the masters of philosophy or the arts, or even Monsieur Jourdain?
The comic perspective may also help us in the endeavor to understand where we've come from and where we're going. I began this talk by asking some questions regarding unity and plurality in our common culture. We might now look at the recent history of the humanities as participating in something resembling an Hegelian dialectic. Thesis: the European humanistic tradition can be subsumed in a fixed canon and its subject defined by the word "man." Antithesis: "man" is a white, European construction. We are all infinitely diverse, and what interests us is diversity -- of class, race, gender, and ethnicity -- both in terms of choice of texts and ways of interpreting. We are now, I think, groping towards a synthesis. If the idea of "man" can now be seen as a delusion -- something like Jourdain's view of the aristocracy -- might not the ideal of diversity also have its comic overtones? Might we be wearing masks to hide our common humanity and do we not sometimes mistake the masks for the reality? Of course we must not retreat from our knowledge of the infinite variety of cultures and forms, indeed we must carry it with us. But it is time now to stop emphasizing what differentiates us and to search for the "core" of what unites us. The humanities still make the search possible.
(Enter a LACKEY holding two foils)
LACKEY Sir, your fencing master is here.
M. JOURDAIN Bid him come in that he may give me a lesson. (to the MUSIC and DANCING MASTERS) I'd have you stay and see me perform.
(Enter a FENCING MASTER)
FENCING MASTER (taking the two foils out of the LACKEY'S hand, and giving one to M. JOURDAIN) Come, sir, your salute. Your body straight. A little bearing upon the left thigh. Your legs not so much a-straddle. Your feet both on a line. Your wrist opposite to your hip. The point of your sword over against your shoulder. Your arm not quite so much extended. Your left hand on a level with your eye.
Your left shoulder more square. Hold up your head. Your look bold. Advance. Your body steady. Beat carte, and push carte. One, two. Recover. Again with it, your foot firm. One, two. Leap back. When you make a pass, sir, 'tis necessary your sword should disengage first, and your body make as small a mark as possible. One, two. Come, beat tierce, and push the same. Advance. Your body firm. Advance. Quit after that manner. One, two. Recover. Repeat the same. One, two. Leap back. Parry, sir, parry.
(The FENCING MASTER gives him two or three homethrusts, crying, "Parry")
M. JOURDAIN Ugh !
MUSIC MASTER You do wonders.
FENCING MASTER I have told you already -- the whole secret of arms consists but in two things, in giving and not receiving. And as I showed you t'other day by demonstrative reason, it is impossible you should receive if you know how to turn your adversary's sword from the line of your body; which depends only upon a small motion of your wrist, either inward, or outward.
M. JOURDAIN At that rate therefore, a man without any