System, oversystem, no system (note 3/3): Macdonald again

In an earlier post I expressed a sort of lack of fealty with Dwight Macdonald, choosing to go along with the editors of Horizon, arch champions of midcult per Macdonald and therefore Macdonald’s sworn enemies.  A pro-Macdonald post today, however, because he  has another article  that I find far more sympathetic, a takedown of the Encyclopedia Britannica/U. Chicago Great Books series.   What appeals to me in this piece is its description of a dynamic I observe fairly often but rarely see described: the way that a speciously oversystematic approach can collapse under itself when faux logic substitutes for actual thinking, for judgment and discretion.

When I hear an acquaintance is going to learn about  a new film director, for example, and I hear something like “I’m going to start with his first film— I found the Criterion Collection edition of his student films on eBay— and then move on to the stuff he was second director on…” I pretty much know the effort is doomed.

It’s like ranging your bookshelf by color.  Completely logical and utterly stupid.

I know this pattern well and because I’ve lived it. Often. (Possibly recently).

At any rate, here are some relevant excerpts from “The Book-of-the-Millennium Club” (originally published in the New Yorker, 1952):

“There is a sense in which every great book is always over the head of the reader,” airily writes Dr. Hutchins. “He can never fully comprehend it. That is why the books in this set are infinitely rereadable.” I found these ten volumes infinitely unreadable. There is a difference between not fully comprehending Homer and Shakespeare (in that one is always discovering something new on rereading them) and not even getting to first base with either a writer’s terminology or what he is driving at. Aristotle and Aquinas should have been included , I would say, but four volumes is excessive. Furthermore, no expository apparatus is provided, no introduction relating their Weltanschauung to our own, no notes on their very special use of terms and their concepts. Lacking such help, how can one be expected to take an interest in such problems, vivid enough to Aquinas, as “Whether an Inferior Angel Speaks to a Superior Angel?,” “Whether We Should Distinguish Irascible and Concupiscible Parts in the Superior Appetite?,” “Whether Heavenly Bodies Can Act on Demons?,” and “Whether by Virtue of Its Subtlety a Glorified Body Will No Longer Need to Be in a Place Equal to Itself?” In fact, even with help, one’s interest might remain moderate. In the case of a philosopher like Plato, essentially a literary man and so speaking a universal human language, the difficulty is far less acute, but Aquinas and Aristotle were engineers and technicians of philosophy, essentially system builders whose concepts and terminology are no longer familiar.

Their dogma states that all major cultural achievements are of timeless, absolute value, and that this value is accessible to the lay reader without expository aids if he will but apply himself diligently. Because science is clearly part of our culture, they have therefore included these six useless volumes without asking themselves what benefit the reader will get from a hundred and sixty double-column pages of Hippocrates (“ We must avoid wetting all sorts of ulcers except with wine, unless the ulcer be situated in a joint.” “In women, blood collected in the breasts indicates madness.” “You should put persons on a course of hellebore who are troubled with a defluction from the head.” “Acute disease come [sic] to a crisis in fourteen days”) or how he can profit from or even understand Fourier’s Analytical Theory of Heat and Huygens’ Treatise on Light without a special knowledge of earlier and later work in these fields.

Another drawback is the fetish for Great Writers and complete texts, which results in a lot of the same thing by a few hands instead of a more representative collection. Minor works by major writers are consistently preferred to major works by minor writers. Thus nearly all Shakespeare is here, including even The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but not Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus or Webster’s Duchess of Malfi or Jonson’s Volpone. Nearly all Milton’s poetry is here, but no Donne, no Herrick, no Marvell, or, for that matter, any other English poetry except Chaucer and Shakespeare. We get Gibbon in two huge volumes but no Vico, Michelet, or Burckhardt; six hundred pages of Kant but no Nietzsche or Kierkegaard; two volumes of Aquinas but no Calvin or Luther; three hundred pages of Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws, but no Voltaire or Diderot.  …
“The discussions of the Board revealed few differences of opinion about the overwhelming majority of the books in the list. The set is almost self-selected, in the sense that one book leads to another, amplifying, modifying, or contradicting it.” But if the criterion of selection really was whether a book amplifies , modifies, or contradicts another book, one wonders how any books at all were eliminated. Actually, the Board seems to have shifted about between three criteria that must have conflicted as often as they coincided: which books were most influential in the past, which are now, which ought to be now… My objection is not to this method of selection—jockeying back and forth between conflicting criteria is the essence of the anthologist’s craft—but to the bland unawareness of it shown by the impresarios, Dr. Hutchins and Dr. Adler, who write as if the Truth were an easy thing to come by. This doctrinaire smugness blinds them to the real problems of their enterprise by giving them mechanical, ready-made solutions that often don’t fill the bill.

The novelty of the set and to a large extent its raison d’être is the Syntopicon, a two-volume index to the Great Ideas in the Great Books. The Syntopicon (“ collection of topics”) was constructed by a task force commanded by Dr. Adler, who also contributes 1,150 pages of extremely dry essays on the Great Ideas, of which, according to his census, there are exactly a hundred and two. It also contains 163,000 page references to the Great Books plus an Inventory of Terms (which includes 1,690 ideas found to be respectable but not Great), plus a Bibliography of Additional Readings (2,603 books that didn’t make the grade), plus an eighty-page essay by Dr. Adler on “The Principles and Methods of Syntopical Construction ,” and it cost the Encyclopædia just under a million dollars. If these facts and figures have an oppressive, leaden ring, so does this enterprise.

The first step was to select not some Great Ideas but The Great Ideas. A list of seven hundred was whittled down to a hundred and two, extending from Angel to World and including Art, Beauty, Being, Democracy, Good and Evil, Justice, Logic, Man, Medicine, Prudence, Same and Other, Theology, and Wisdom. [2] These were broken down into 2,987 “topics,” the top sergeants in this ideological army, the link between the company commanders (the hundred and two Great Ideas) and the privates (the 163,000 page references to the Great Books). Thus the references under “Art” are arranged under twelve topics, such as “3. Art as imitation,” “7a. Art as a source of pleasure or delight,” “8. Art and emotion: expression, purgation, sublimation.” With Dr. Adler as field marshal, coach, and supreme arbiter, the “scholars” (bright young graduate students who needed to pick up a little dough on the side and latched on to this latter-day W.P.A.) dissected the Great Ideas out of the Great Books and, like mail clerks, distributed the fragments among the topical pigeonholes, the upshot being that, in theory, every passage on “Art as a source of pleasure or delight” in the Great Books from Homer to Freud ended up in “Art 7a.”

The Syntopicon , writes Dr. Adler, is “a unified reference library in the realm of thought and opinion,” and he compares it to a dictionary or an encyclopedia. Words and facts, however, can be so ordered because they are definite, concrete, distinguishable entities, and because each one means more or less the same thing to everyone. Looking them up in the dictionary or encyclopedia is not a major problem. But an idea is a misty, vague object that takes on protean shapes, never the same for any two people. There is a strong family resemblance between the dictionaries of Dr. Johnson, Mr. Webster, and Messrs. Funk &Wagnalls, but every man makes his own Syntopicon, God forbid, and this one is Dr. Adler’s, not mine or yours. To him, of course, ideas seem to be as objective and distinct as marbles, which can be arranged in definite, logical patterns . He has the classifying mind, which is invaluable for writing a natural history or collecting stamps. Assuming that an index of ideas should be attempted at all, it should have been brief and simple, without pretensions to either completeness or logical structure— a mere convenience for the reader who wants to compare, say, Plato, Pascal, Dr. Johnson, and Freud on love. Instead, we have a fantastically elaborate index whose fatal defect is just what Dr. Adler thinks is its chief virtue: its systematic all-inclusiveness… An important discussion of Justice in Plato has no more weight than an aside by Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy…

Tagged with: ,
Posted in literature
One comment on “System, oversystem, no system (note 3/3): Macdonald again
  1. […] moving from blog to piano– I have a little room to let slack a little one line of somewhat aimlessly grim discipline). Here whim and compulsion stop bickering over whose property line that especially distracting […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s