Letters Archive
Spring 1994, Vol. 2, No. 2
  • Constructing American Studies
  • Charting the Humanities
  • Team-Teaching: "Political Trials and Trial Narratives"
  • Charting the Humanities

    Paul H. Freedman

    In this first communication as director of the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities, I take the opportunity to express my appreciation for the accomplishments of the previous director, Professor Charles E. Scott. Under his supervision during its first five years, the Center has become a vital presence in the life of the College faculty, serving as a forum for exchanges across increasingly permeable disciplinary boundaries. I am also grateful to Mona Frederick, Assistant Director of the Center, for her resourcefulness and energy which has allowed the Center to achieve solid institutional standing and to anticipate a reasonably prosperous future. My job is rendered immeasurably easier by stepping into a flourishing and well-regarded program that benefits the University in a variety of ways.

    The Center is within sight of meeting a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The NEH has offered $480,000 to be matched by Vanderbilt at a rate of four to one. The resulting sum is in tended to serve as an endowment, the interest of which will under write the faculty seminars, guest faculty and lecturers, and other activities of the Center. The work and ambitions of the Center have been greatly helped by this aspect of the Campaign for Vanderbilt. We thank those who have so generously donated to the Center which seeks both to commemorate and elaborate on the legacy of writers and other thinkers associated with Vanderbilt and the South, among them Robert Penn Warren for whom the Center is named.

    Our program is rooted in the particular nature of this university community but also participates in the intellectual progress of the study of the humanities. As a disciplinary program within the College of Arts and Science, the humanities have not changed that greatly when viewed in terms of how the liberal arts curriculum is arranged. While my own field of history is more closely connected to the humanities than twenty or thirty years ago (at Vanderbilt it is still part of the social sciences in bureaucratic terms), the major department components of the humanities remain English, foreign languages and literatures, art history, philosophy, religious studies, and rhetoric. What has changed is how the humanities are seen in relation to a tradition of knowledge attempting to teach and preserve eternal and cultural verities. The position of the humanities within the university and society has been made more prominent by controversies over what is involved in the enterprise of studying texts from the past. If they are not to be regarded as constituting unchanging, grand aspirations-if humanists are not guardians or acolytes at a series of shrines-what are we doing? If we are showing the contingent and political basis of grand narratives, why are our colleagues in the social sciences seemingly so complacent with regard to a society whose troubled foundations humanists endeavor to expose?

    A humanities center is a site for the exchange of critical approaches to art and literature, but not only this. It also exists to preserve and expound ideas of long standing if not quite eternal coherence as well as to pull them apart. To emphasize the contemporary or the theoretical does not mean abandoning appreciation for the pleasures of the past.

    Among the unexpected and paradoxical beneficiaries of shifts in critical approaches are historians who can only applaud some effort at contextualization. Where earlier schools of literary criticism sought to lift texts out of their historical location into an empyrean of the true and the good (or as barricades against the decline of the West), we have at least rediscovered the social and mental worlds inhabited by writers and artists, the greatest as well as minor or neglected ones. To flirt briefly with the confessional, personal voice, I as a college senior was bitterly mocked for daring to think of Chaucer in relation to medieval social and theological ideas (at that time a heretical idea identified with the late D. W. Robertson of Princeton and Chapel Hill). I am happy that such historicist contextualization is no longer completely unthinkable but even fashionable (in an admittedly rather different key).

    Much of the effort of new forms of criticism is to give voice to the past and to rediscover those whose voices have been ignored or difficult to hear. In my field of medieval history, the difficulty of looking at the past in something approaching its own terms has always been a problem. In England and the United States the dominant paradigm of twentieth-century scholarship has been to normalize the Middle Ages, to make it appear less exotic, and to emphasize its status as the foundational era of the modern. This has been a reaction to the Gothic fantasies of the nineteenth century. Medievalists have been at (largely unsuccessful) pains to convince their students that the "Dark Ages" is a misnomer, that the centuries between 500 and 1500 saw not only the birth of Europe but the beginnings of parliamentary democracy, romantic affection, universities, and even the discovery of the individual as a complex, internally contradictory agent in uneasy relation to society.

    Such an approach tends to suppress the otherness of this era. Religious heresies become fore runners of tolerance, merchants the originators of the middle class, kings the avatars of the modern state. It has been possible, in recent years, aided by a diminishing confidence in the modern as the epitome of progress, to restore some of the color and strangeness to the study of medieval culture. In this sense, critical theories regarding difference, gender, representation, and embodiment have provided us with a more disturbing, complex, and I would argue, true Middle Ages, one in which the behavior of nobles, saints, clergy, and peas ants is understood closer to its own terms than to the supposed modern outcomes. What has occurred is not so much the discovery of new sources as an interpretive shift, from the normalizing to the contested.

    There is a danger of reinventing a teleological subservience to the present, however. Instead of giving rise to the modern state or individual, the Middle Ages is presented as the foundational era for colonialism, racism, or the intertwined cults of romanticism and violence. Contemporaneity is rediscovered only if the value given to contemporary society is altered. Myths of origin come to serve a pessimistic construction of modernity which is itself seen as sufficiently grotesque for the medieval to lose its exoticness. I mention this not as an excursus into a realm of esoterica but as an example among many of the difficulties in charting a future for the humanities. If they are not to form a bulwark of agreed-upon marks of excellence, how much will they trouble, overturn, play with earlier certainties and nostrums?

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