In Which We Discuss The Merits of a Literary Education

When Molly runs out of hateful things to say about the most entertaining vice presidential candidate in the history of our great country, I will do my ten best essayists list. Somewhere on it, probably in the top 5, will be the eternally cranky and amusing writer Joseph Epstein. Epstein’s rambling genius essay in last month’s New Criterion is all the rage. Enjoy a short excerpt below. – AC

from A Literary Education in last month’s New Criterion

by Joseph Epstein

Classrooms can, of course, sometimes kill great subjects, and also splendid books. Recognizing this, Willa Cather insisted that her own books not be made available in school editions, for she feared that students, reading them too early and under the duress of formal education, would never return to them in later life when they were more likely to be truly ready for them. As delivered in conventional classrooms and lecture halls, education is not available to everyone, including sometimes quite bright, even dazzlingly brilliant, people. Henry James was never very good at school, and neither was Paul Valéry; Marcel Proust performed mediocrely at the Lycée Condorcet. W. H. Auden failed to come away with a First at Oxford. Sainte-Beuve said of Pascal, who was an authentic genius, that “it was easier for him to make discoveries for himself than to study after the way of others.” Was there something wrong with these men, powerful artists and philosophers all, or something wrong with education, as it is usually construed and practiced?


One of the most important functions of literature in the current day is to cultivate a healthy distrust of the ideas thrown up by journalism and social science. Novels and poems can be the antidote here. “The novel’s spirit is the spirit of complexity,” Milan Kundera writes. “The novelist says to the reader: things are not as simple as you think.”

Milan Kundera: probably telling that girl to touch his unbearable lightness

When he is working well, the good novelist persuasively establishes that life is more surprising, bizarre, fascinating, complex, and rich than any shibboleth, concept, or theory used to explain it. A literary education establishes a strong taste for the endless variousness of life; it teaches how astonishing reality is—and how obdurate to even the most ingenious attempts to grasp its mechanics or explain any serious portion of it! “A man is more complicated than his thoughts,” wrote Valéry, which, if you think about it, is happily so.

Willa Cather: lesbian icon of the 1800s

For the thirty years that I taught literature courses at Northwestern University, I preferred to think that I was a better teacher than I was a student. (I also came to believe that a better education is to be had through teaching than through listening to teachers—and if that ain’t the sound of one hand clapping, then I don’t know what is.) In this teaching, I made no attempt to turn my undergraduate students into imitation or apprentice scholars, but instead I wanted them to acquire, as best they were able, what a small number of great writers thought was useful knowledge in this mystery-laden life.

Joseph Conrad: he never knew he would get ragged on by postmodernism

I wanted my students to come away from their reading learning, for example, from Charles Dickens the importance of friendship, loyalty, and kindness in a hard world; from Joseph Conrad the central place of fulfilling one’s duty in a life dominated by spiritual solitude; from Willa Cather, the dignity that patient suffering and resignation can bring; from Tolstoy, the divinity that the most ordinary moments can provide—kissing a child in her bed goodnight, working in a field, greeting a son returned home from war; and from Henry James, I wanted them to learn that it is the obligation of every sentient human being to stay perpetually on the qui vive and become a man or woman on whom nothing is lost, and never to forget, as James puts in his novel The Princess Casamassima, that “the figures on the chessboard [are] still the passions and the jealousies and superstitions of man.”

proust: tyler coates without html skillz

Literature operates neither by telescope nor microscope. “Impression is for the writer,” noted Proust, “what experimentation is for the scientist.” Impression is by its nature inexact, but it does in time give a point of view, a many-angled point of view. One of the lessons Proust’s great novel teaches is how different a character, a situation, an event seems from different angles and perspectives, and even then how inexact our knowledge remains.

Lewis Namier has the most annoying tumblr

The British historian Lewis Namier remarked that we study history so that we can learn how things didn’t happen. That may seem a small profit, but it isn’t, since so many people are regularly attempting to foist on us their own false version of how things did or do happen.

Nabokov: basically Will Hubbard with less hair and a more understandable blog

So from the study of literature we learn that life is sad, comic, heroic, vicious, dignified, ridiculous, and endlessly amusing —sometimes by turns, sometimes all at once—but never more grotesquely amusing than when a supposedly great thinker comes along to insist that he has discovered and nattily formulated the single key to its understanding. One of the reasons that most literary artists are contemptuous of Sigmund Freud—whose thought Vladimir Nabokov once characterized as no more than private parts covered up by Greek myths—is that his extreme determinism is felt to be immensely untrue to the rich complexity of life, with its twists and turns and manifold surprises.

Indie Matthew Arnold, sent from the future to ruin our enjoyment of literature

In 1887 Matthew Arnold wrote a review of a French translation of Anna Karenina. In this review, Arnold finds Tolstoy’s novel, as we still do today, filled with “great sensitiveness, subtlety, and finesse, addressing itself with entire disinterestedness and simplicity to the representation of human life. The Russian novelist is thus master of a spell to which the secrets of human nature—both what is external and what is internal, gesture and manner no less than thought and feeling—willingly make themselves known.”

Flaubert is known to have the biggest dick of any modern writer except for Hemingway of course

Later in his review, Arnold, inevitably, compares Tolstoy’s novel to Madame Bovary, another novel on the same subject and theme. Madame Bovary, Arnold writes, “is a work of petrified feeling; over it hangs an atmosphere of bitterness, irony, impotence; not a personage in the book to rejoice or console us; the springs of freshness and feeling are not there to create such personages.” Flaubert, Arnold concludes, “pursues her [Emma Bovary] without pity or pause, as with malignity; he is harder upon her himself than any reader ever, I think, will be inclined to be.”

two face?!?!?!?

Tolstoy, we now know, originally set out to crush Anna Karenina quite as thoroughly as Flaubert did Emma Bovary. But in mid-composition, discovering the richness of the character he created, he fell in love with her. This caused him radically to rework his novel, to soften Anna, to harden Alexi Alexandrovich Karenin, to make Count Vronsky more foolish than he originally intended.

tolstoy and chekhov

The major difference between Tolstoy and Flaubert is that Tolstoy worked from life, Flaubert from ideas—and in this instance, from a very poor idea, which was hatred of the bourgeoisie and of provincial life. Of the two men, Tolstoy had the larger heart, which gave him the greater appreciation of the complexity of human existence and stronger skepticism about the ability of coarse and blatant ideas to encompass it, including those of the Russian novelist who began this work.

I hope that I am not taken for the enemy of ideas generally. I am not. The separation of Church and State (with the details to be negotiated), the ends-and-means argument, the scientific method, E=mc^s/2/, all of them are excellent, irreplaceable ideas. Plato’s cave is a wonderfully provocative idea. Yet, for the person of literary education, all ideas, as Orwell felt ought to be the case with all saints, are guilty until proven innocent.

The effect of a literary education is not to gainsay the usefulness of many ideas, but to understand their limitation. In the end, a literary education teaches the limitation of the intellect itself, at least when applied to the great questions, problems, issues, and mysteries of life. On this point, Marcel Proust wrote:

Our intellect is not the most subtle, the most powerful, the most appropriate instrument for revealing the truth. It is life that, little by little, example by example, permits us to see that what is most important to our heart, or to our mind, is learned not by reasoning, but through other agencies. Then it is that the intellect, observing their superiority, abdicates its control to them upon reasoned grounds and agrees to become their collaborator and lackey.

A literary education teaches that human nature is best, if always incompletely, understood through the examination of individual cases, with nothing more stimulating than those cases that provide exceptions that prove no rule—the unique human personality, in other words.

Brecht: the communist Alan Cumming

A literary education with its built-in skepticism about flimsy ideas and especially about large idea systems, is naturally against fanaticism. It provides an enhanced appreciation of the mysteries and complexities of life that reinforces the inestimable value of human liberty—liberty especially of the kind that leaves us free to pursue that reality from which we all live at a great distance and run the risk of dying without having known.

Joseph Epstein after graduating from the University of Chicago.

“First grub,” said Bertolt Brecht, “then ethics.” A bad idea, I would say. A better idea is, “First reality, then ideas.” This in any case is what my own literary education has taught me.


“Perfect Games” – The Broken West (mp3)

“Elm City” – The Broken West (mp3)

“Ambuscade’ – The Broken West (mp3)

“The Smartest Man Alive” – The Broken West (mp3)


We want a daughter at Sarah Lawrence.

It’s so nice to be able to talk like this.

A biblical journey for the ages.

We love to battle in the air.

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