In a letter written in 1871, the Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud uttered a phrase that announces the modern age: “‘Je’ est un autre” (“‘I’ is someone else”). Some 69 years later I entered the world as an identical twin, and Rimbaud’s claim has an uncanny truth for me, since I grew up being one of a pair. Even though our friends and family could easily tell us apart, most people could not, and I began life with a blurrier, more fluid sense of my contours than most other folks.
My brother and I live in different cities, but I have never lost my conviction that one’s outward form — the shape of people, but also of surfaces and things — may not be what it seems.
That personal intuition is of a piece with my career as a professor of literature, since I am convinced that great works of art tell us about shape-shifting, about both the world and ourselves as more mobile, more misperceived, more dimensional beings, than science or our senses would have us believe.
Enthusiasm for the Humanities, though, is much diminished in today’s educational institutions. Our data-driven culture bears much of the blame: The arts can no longer compete with the prestige and financial payoffs promised by studying the STEM fields — a curriculum integrating science, technology, engineering and mathematics. These are all worthy disciplines that offer precise information on practically everything. But, often and inadvertently, they distort our perceptions; they even shortchange us.
The regime of information may well sport its specific truths, but it is locked out of the associations — subjective but also moral and philosophical — that bathe all literature. A new technology like GPS provides us with the most efficient and direct route to a destination, but it presupposes we know where we are going. Finding an address is one thing; finding one’s way in life is another. Even our smartest computers or most brilliant statisticians are at a loss when it comes to mapping our psychic landscapes.
When and how do you take your own measure? And what are you measuring? Both Oedipus and Lear could initially subscribe to Shakespeare’s notation, “every inch a king,” but by play’s end, something different, varied and terrifying has come to light: for one, an unknown history of parricide and incest, for the other, an opening into a moral vision of such force that it wrecks all prior frames, leading to madness, as Lear suffers his kinship with all “bare, fork’d animal[s].” Life’s actual hurdy-gurdy often explodes our labels and preconceptions.
“How much do you know about Shakespeare,” I once asked a friend who has committed much of her life to studying the Bard. She replied, “Not as much as he knows about me.” Remember this the next time someone tells you literature is useless.
Why does this matter? The humanities interrogate us. They challenge our sense of who we are, even of who our brothers and sisters might be. When President Obama said of Trayvon Martin, “this could have been my son,” he was uttering a truth that goes beyond compassion and reaches toward recognition. “It could have been me” is the threshold for the vistas that literature and art make available to us.
Art not only brings us news from the “interior,” but it points to future knowledge. A humanistic education is not about memorizing poems or knowing when X wrote Y, and what Z had to say about it. It is, instead, about the human record that is available to us in libraries and museums and theaters and, yes, online. But that record lives and breathes; it is not calculable or teachable via numbers or bullet points. Instead, it requires something that we never fail to do before buying clothes: Trying the garment on.
Art and literature are tried on. Reading a book, seeing a painting or a play or a film: Such encounters are fueled by affect as well as intelligence. Much “fleshing out” happens here: We invest the art with our own feelings, but the art comes to live inside us, adding to our own repertoire. Art obliges us to “first-personalize” the world. Our commerce with art makes us fellow travelers: to other cultures, other values, other selves. Some may think this both narcissistic and naïve, but ask yourself: What other means of propulsion can yield such encounters?
This humanistic model is sloppy. It has no bottom line. It is not geared for maximum productivity. It will not increase your arsenal of facts or data. But it rivals with rockets when it comes to flight and the visions it enables. And it will help create denser and more generous lives, lives aware that others are not only other, but are real. In this regard, it adds depth and resonance to what I regard as the shadowy, impalpable world of numbers and data: empirical notations that have no interest nor purchase in interiority, in values; notations that offer the heart no foothold.
The world of information is more Gothic than its believers believe, because it is ghostly, silhouette-like, deprived of human sentience. If we actually believe that the project of education is to enrich our students’ lives, then I submit that the Humanities are on the right side of the aisle, whatever paychecks they do or do not deliver.
At a time when the price of a degree from elite institutions is well over six figures, fields such as literature and the arts may seem like a luxury item. But we may have it backwards. They are, to cite Hemingway’s title for his Paris memoir, “a moveable feast,” and they offer us a kind of reach into time and space that we can find nowhere else.
We enter the bookstore, see the many volumes arrayed there, and think: so much to read, so little time. But books do not take time; they give time, they expand our resources of both heart and mind. It may sound paradoxical, but they are, in the last analysis, scientific, for they trace the far-flung route by which we come to understand our world and ourselves. They take our measure. And we are never through discovering who we are.
Arnold Weinstein is a professor of comparative literature at Brown University, and the author, most recently, of “Morning, Noon and Night: Finding the Meaning of Life’s Stages.”