Sometimes it’s easier to understand people who’ve been below ground for a couple of centuries.
by Alan Jacobs (Penguin Press, 192 pp., $25)
If nearly fifteen years of teaching high schoolers have taught me anything, it’s that the key to a successful classroom is tension. I don’t mean the kind of nervous tension that is palpable during a high-stakes test or the kind of purposefully induced discomfort that occurs when teachers force a discussion before their students are ready for it. I’m talking about the intellectual tension that arises when students are asked to give serious consideration to two or more conflicting ideas at the same time, especially if one of these ideas is an assumption that students don’t even realize they hold.
Take the concept of freedom. Ask any teenager what it means, and they will cite examples of people escaping restrictions, from a slave being liberated to a sixteen year old getting a driver’s license. Brimming with the certainty that they have it figured out, they are primed to wrestle with something like Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty.” What they consider freedom in toto, Berlin calls “negative liberty;” but he also identifies something called “positive liberty,” the freedom to set a goal and achieve it without being hampered by internal constraints. If you want to become a world-class athlete, the freedom to sit on the couch all day isn’t liberty; it’s a temptation to avoid. If “negative liberty” is the entirety of freedom, I ask my students, how, then, do you form an identity?
As students contemplate questions like these, they learn a kind of double vision, holding the familiar alongside the unfamiliar in their minds, testing the ideas and weighing one against the other. This pedagogy, Socratic to its core, is certainly nothing new. But it feels novel, even radical, to a generation habituated to engaging with others through an ever-narrowing array of options: accept or reject, swipe right or left.
In recent years, Baylor professor Alan Jacobs has distinguished himself as a Christian intellectual and great books lover who has not been caught up in the friend-or-foe politics of the culture wars. Instead, he has turned his attention to sustaining the life of the mind in a world bent on destroying our capacity to read and think deeply. His three slim volumes have been engaged in this enterprise: The Pleasures of Reading in the Age of Distraction (2011), How to Think (2017), and, most recently, Breaking Bread with the Dead. His latest book argues that a kind of Socratic tension should animate our engagement with other lives, especially those from the past. Though the book never uses the phrase “cancel culture,” Breaking Bread responds, more than anything else, to the phenomenon.
Jacobs wisely treats the issue as epistemological rather than political. The failure to engage those with whom we may disagree reflects not so much our beliefs as our failure to hold multiple perspectives in tension—a natural consequence, Jacobs claims, of the way we consume information.
The world seems to be moving ever faster; we process more information than we can hope to comprehend. Thus, we are required to practice “informational triage:” We must choose what to pay attention to. In Jacobs’ view, we begin to feel that we become “unclean” when we pay attention to opinions or people we judge to be irredeemable: “There’s no time to think about anything else than the Now,” he says; and “the not-Now increasingly takes on the character of an unwelcome and, in its otherness, even befouling imposition.”
Our anxieties gain the upper hand, coloring everything with these preoccupations of the current moment. Instead of looking for wisdom, we can only seek affirmation of our own opinions.
Using terms from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Jacobs diagnoses our ailment: lack of “personal density.” When the term is used in the positive sense, it refers to stability in the face of information’s relentless push and pull on our attention. To gain this stability, we must increase our “temporal bandwidth” by paying attention to voices different from our own—especially from times different from our own.
The search for tranquility is in fact a search for autonomy. If we do not look to the past, we become hostage to the anxieties of the present.
Connecting Across the Ages
How does one achieve this tranquility? For advice Jacobs turns to the Roman poet Horace, writing from exile in the Italian countryside during the reign of Augustus Caesar. If we want guidance on achieving peace of mind, Horace says, we should “interrogate the writings of the wise.”
Such guidance is not easily distilled from the minds of the past; we must bring our own questions to them, and the process of interrogation provides the key to Jacobs’ project. He embarks on a brisk tour of figures like W.H. Auden, Henrik Ibsen, and Ursula Le Guin, among many others. His content and method encourage us to engage them not with deference but with humility. Engagement with the past is essential, Jacobs argues, because the past exists “between radical otherness and utter likeness;” both are required for intellectual growth.
Only by seeing our own experiences and assumptions reflected in another do we become aware that the world may hold more than we have considered. Jacobs writes, for example, about the mixed-race South African Peter Abrahams discovering his own voice in that of W.E.B. DuBois. In 1954 Abrahams wrote about the impact of reading, in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), that “despite compromise, war, struggle, the Negro is not free.” “I had known this all along,” Abrahams says. “But until now I had had no words to voice that knowledge.”
At the same time, Abrahams was also deeply affected by British romantic poets like Keats and Shelley. In describing this connection, Jacobs pushes back against the view, now prevalent in the academic world, that a firewall separates the identities of individuals in certain marginalized groups and those outside them. We must not dismiss the often vast differences between our experiences, Jacobs says, but consider them alongside what connects us. The dissonance between unfamiliar and familiar “crackles”—Jacobs uses Leslie Jamison’s term—and sparks with life.
Culture warriors and woke progressives, though bitter enemies, both assume that culture is valuable chiefly for purposes of propaganda. This function requires that we reduce phenomena—a speaker invited to a university, a 19th-century novel, a style of architecture—to a single dimension.
To use the familiar example of campus speakers, consider the shouting down of Charles Murray at Middlebury College in 2017 or the boycotting by conservative Notre Dame faculty and students of then-President Barack Obama’s commencement speech in 2009. Both instances of “cancelling” stemmed from serious objections to particular views held by the speaker. But, regardless of the merits of the specific objections, these incidents, and countless others like them, also serve as textbook examples of Jacobs’ diagnosis of “defilement.” Reducing a speaker to a particular view treats complexity—and the kind of double-vision necessary for intellectual growth—as a kind of plague.
A Fruitful Balancing Act
So, how should we engage a thinker with whom we have serious differences? Jacobs does not dismiss the gravity of this question; to do so would be to ask us to treat our own beliefs as inconsequential. Instead, he recognizes that these are the hinges of the encounter. Jacobs cites scholar Patrocinio Schweickart’s counsel to feminists reading a novel that they consider patriarchal: Instead of putting the book down, she advises, readers should find some point of connection, something beautiful or even moving, and hold it close. From this point forward, Jacobs elaborates, “you read in a double fashion. You don’t silence the part of you that sees the problems with the book, its errors, its moral malformations; neither do you silence the part of you that responds so warmly.”
Here, and throughout the book, Jacobs rightly identifies reading as a dialectic, maintained by the refusal to reduce literature to a particular cause.
Jacobs points to 20th-century female writers like Le Guin and Jean Rhys, whose novels were crafted in response to problematic female characters in classic texts. Le Guin’s Lavinia (2009) pairs with the Aeneid (19 B.C.), while Rhys’ Wide Saragasso Sea (1966) responds to Jane Eyre (1847). The two novels reflect the authors’ frustrations with perceived flaws in the canonical texts but are “mixed with admiration and even love.”
This mixture of emotions is not unlike that of the biblical Jacob wrestling with the angel. It shows that our encounters with the Other are most fruitful when they display a “strange generosity.”
Our relationship with writers of the past involves questions of both content and method: Which writers should we read? How should we read them?
Because literature is not propaganda and reading not a matter of accepting truths like water poured from a pitcher, questions of canonicity are not easy to answer. Still, Jacobs identifies one criterion: Such works must have something in them that we can love. This is why he holds up Le Guin’s riposte to the Aeneid as a model, since her novel, which gives voice to a speechless woman from the epic, demonstrates her “curious mixture of gratitude and discontent” with Virgil’s work. If there were not something beautiful and moving about a poem like the Aeneid in the first place, it would not be worthy of Le Guin’s—or our —attention.
The method of our encounter with the work is of equal, if not greater, significance to Jacobs’ project. In the final lines of his book, he claims to have been arguing all along for a “genealogy of love,” a bond that connects past with present and, eventually, future. This kind of love has nothing to do with the love/hate dichotomy of our online life. Rather, it’s something like the opposite: a willingness to wrestle with angels, to hold affection and disgust in tension, and to grant the Other the same autonomy we would wish for ourselves, especially when we are inclined not to do so. Only with such give-and-take can this kind of love reveal its object: our common humanity.
Jacobs has ostensibly written a book about our relationship with the past, but it’s also about the importance of maintaining our relationships with those who, for whatever reason, fall outside the tight circle of our immediate interests and views. Many of those outsiders are indeed from the past, but most of them—probably more than ever, in our divided nation—are from the present. They go to our churches and send their children to our schools. They might even sit around our dining room tables. The demands of love have never seemed more pressing. Jacobs makes it clear that we can cultivate this love through our willingness to sit down at the banquet of the past. His book has arrived not a moment too soon.
Mike St. Thomas is chair of the English department at the Portsmouth Abbey School in Rhode Island.
Illustration by R. Jay Magill, Jr. Magill, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a writer and illustrator based in Berlin.
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