Saturday, September 28, 2013

There Are Elitists, and Then There Are Elitists

My Right Wing Acquaintance was playing the populist on Facebook again today, which was entertaining as always because he's almost as blatantly unconvincing in the part as George W. Bush: "the pathetic defense of Western 'ideals' expounded by the intellectual elite and the pitiful symbolic acts they take to assert them" and blah blah blah.  (Elsewhere he said that Greenpeace "talks out of its arse"; let him who is without a talking anus cast the first stone, RWA1.)  Remember, on alternate days this salt-of-the-earth common-clay-of-the-New-West Man of the People quotes sages who warn that "the turbulence of the mob is always close to insanity."

I had this in mind when I started rereading Lawrence W. Levine's The Opening of the American Mind (Beacon Press, 1996), something I've been meaning to do for some time now, and noticed this nugget:
After reading Plato's Symposium, a student came to Allan Bloom "with deep melancholy and said it was impossible to imagine that magic Athenian atmosphere reproduced."  Bloom assured him that such experiences "are always accessible ... right under our noses, improbable but always present."  But only for a small elite [12].
This is why cultural conservatives are so confused.  On one hand, works like the Symposium are canonical, the benchmarks of civilization (I was going to write "Western civilization," but that would be redundant to this mindset), signposts to the "community of those who seek the truth, of the potential knowers ... the true friends, as Plato was to Aristotle" (ibid.) in Bloom's words; but on the other hand, these materials must be used with care, lest the unsophisticated young be led astray.  Consider the Symposium from the point of view of one of today's Cultural Right: a drinking party -- indeed, an orgy -- composed of a pack of child-molesting homosexuals, trying to disguise their unnatural lusts in high-flown philosophical gasbaggery and Sophism, right down to a Queer-Theoretical myth in which heterosexuality and homosexuality are put on an equal footing.

And all this in honor of a dirty old man who eventually had to be executed by respectable citizens (after a trial by his peers) for impiety and corrupting Athenian youth!  (Bear in mind that the Symposium, like all of Plato's dialogues, was written after the execution of Socrates, and was meant to rehabilitate him and carry on his legacy.)  One of the most debased and corrupted of his minions boasted of how he had offered his body to the old lecher, only to be turned down -- so he said, but they spent the night together under the same cloak.  Even many cultural liberals prefer not to think about the circumstances of the Symposium, I think, sweeping its pederastic context under the rug.  If such a gathering were discovered today, it would surely provoke a scandal, and Socrates would have to drink the hemlock again.

P.S. Some readers might be wondering along the lines of "What about the good old days, when college students studied Greek and Latin and would have read Plato in the original?"  The short answer is that by and large they didn't.  Levine wrote:
Fortunately, we can can turn directly to the students he [James Atlas] envies who, while they did indeed read the "classics" in the original Greek and Latin, read them not as works of literature but as examples of grammar, the rules of which they studied endlessly and by rote. James Freeman Clark, who received his Harvard A.B. in 1829, complained, "No attempt was made to interest us in our studies. We were expected to wade through Homer as though the Iliad were a bug ... Nothing was said of the glory and grandeur of this immortal epic. The melody of the hexameter was never suggested to us." Henry Adams proclaimed his years at Harvard from 1854 to 1858 "wasted" and exclaimed in his autobiography: "It taught little, and that little ill ... Beyond two or three Greek plays, the student got nothing from the ancient languages" [16].
In E. M. Forster's early 20th century novel Maurice there's a scene in a Cambridge University Greek class.  (It's in the Merchant-Ivory movie adaptation too.)  The students are orally translating some ancient text into English, and the Don instructs them to "Omit: a reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks."  Students with a personal interest in that "vice" worked out their understanding of such things on their own.  The educational establishment walked a narrow line between reverence for the classics and hostility to their contents.