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The need for literature in a technological age

It was not quite the sort of evening you expect Washington to produce: no limousines, tuxedos, or bureaucratic prose. In fact, it was distinctly a sports-jacket crowd that gathered under the marbleized columns of the Pension Building May 8 to hear Yale's grand old man of literary criticism, Cleanth Brooks, deliver the 11th annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. But that's not surprising. Of the myriad documents generated in the capital each year, the Jefferson Lecture -- the highest honor the nation bestows in the humanities -- is surely one of the most unusual. Why, after all, should a city captivated by Bitburg and budgets be interested in Frost and Yeats? Why should a news-hungry nation care about ``Literature in a Technological Age''?

To be sure, the last two words of Professor Brooks's title touched upon a newsy topic. To be sure, he reached for the headlines by describing illiteracy in America as ``a disaster . . . of Pearl Harbor dimensions.'' To be sure, he even invaded the turf of public-policy mavens by citing statistics: 23 million American adults functionally illiterate, and only 20 percent of our high-schoolers capable of writing a coherent essay.

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But if he opened the socio-statistical door, it was only for a brief peek. Instead, he did what he most likes doing: reading, and explaining in detail, a few poems. Here, after all, was the man who, with his colleague Robert Penn Warren, wrote ``Understanding Poetry'' (1938) -- a book that, with its subsequent editions, sowed the seeds of the ``New Criticism,'' which wholly transformed the teaching of literature on American campuses. Here was the man who encouraged us all to read poems closely. Here was a man who -- as he showed that evening in careful readings of Thomas Hardy's ``The Convergence of the Twain,'' Robert Frost's ``Provide, Provide,'' and William Butler Yeats's ``Prayer for My Daughter'' -- dares to believe that words matter.

On the shores of the Potomac, that might sound like a recipe for splendid irrelevance. Yet Brooks's talk was a jewel of its kind. As he set out to demonstrate that the literary imagination is a central force for good in an increasingly mechanistic age, his subject fairly gleamed with significance.

And if he succeeded, it was largely because the talk itself was its own best evidence. The key to its success, in fact, lay in an apparently passing comment he made about the Frost poem. He had already made the point that literature must not be overtly moralizing. He had quoted Keats's statement that ``We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us.'' And then he mentioned a couple of lines in the Frost poem which, although seemingly offhand, carry the central moral freight of that poem. Why, he asked, does Frost toss them off so diffidently? Because, he replied, ``the cunning old codger knows that no emphasis often constitutes the most powerful emphasis of all.''

Talking about Frost, he was also describing himself. For the force of Brooks's lecture lay in the gems he dropped so casually into his discussions of the poems. Examples:

Why do we need the humanities in America? Because, he noted, ``our constitutional separation of church and state forbids the teaching of institutionalized religion in state-supported schools and colleges; yet [in a technological age] the problem of the inculcation of ethical standards and ultimate values becomes more and more urgent.''

Why is the sense of individuality, as learned through literature, such an important counterpoise to technology? Because, he explained, ``computers are programmed by human beings; but human beings move toward the state of being computers when they allow themselves to be programmed by other human beings.''

Why must the ``true muses'' of literature be cherished? Because otherwise the ``bastard muses'' take over -- muses he named ``propaganda, sentimentality, and pornography.'' All three, he said, are ``bent on distorting the human dimension.'' How? ``Propaganda,'' he explained, ``does so by pleading, sometimes unscrupulously, for a special cause or issue at the expense of total truth. Sentimentality does so by working up emotional responses unwarranted by, and in excess of, the occasion. Pornography does so by focusing upon one powerful human drive at the expense of the total human personality.''

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A cunning old codger, indeed! A lesser artist would have seized on any one of these points -- which, taken together, are the three great arguments for the value of the humanities in a technological age -- and bludgeoned it home with an hour-long exegesis. Brooks, that still spring night, just talked about poetry. But along the way he dropped into the Potomac, ever so casually, a few great thoughts. One can only hope their ripples will reach out to all the limousined and tuxedoed policymakers who weren't able to make it that night.

A Monday column

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