Campus & Community

The centrality of the arts

7 min read

Helen Vendler talks about the heart of the humanities

Helen Vendler, the Porter University Professor at Harvard University, reprises her 2004 Jefferson Lecture in Fong Auditorium. (Staff photos Jon Chase/Harvard News Office)

Let’s say you’re an academic adviser and a student comes asking which course to take to fulfill a humanities requirement: Europe in the Age of Revolution or Beethoven’s symphonies? Or how about this one: the philosophy of Descartes or the poetry of Milton?

If the adviser were Helen Vendler, the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor, Beethoven and Milton would probably get the nod, and not simply because as one of the nation’s leading literary critics Vendler is prejudiced in favor of her own and related academic disciplines.

If pressed, Vendler could make a reasoned and persuasive case for why the arts should be at the center of a humanities curriculum. In fact, that is exactly what she did when she delivered the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities in May 2004. Established in 1972 by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Jefferson Lecture is the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual and public achievement in the humanities.

Before the talk, Vendler and President Lawrence H. Summers enjoy the introductory remarks.

Vendler presented the lecture again for a Harvard audience March 14. In the talk, titled “The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar,” she argued powerfully and eloquently for making the arts the central focus of academic study in the humanities, displacing history and philosophy from their traditional place of honor.

“The arts,” she said, “present the whole uncensored human person – in emotional, physical, and intellectual being, and in single and collective form – as no other branch of human accomplishment does. … Artworks embody the individuality that fades into insignificance in the massive canvas of history and is suppressed in philosophy by the desire for impersonal assertion.”

Wallace Stevens, a poet whose work Vendler explicated in her book “On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens’ Longer Poems” (1969), helped her make her case by his assertion (expressed in implicit form in the three Stevens poems Vendler read and commented on in her lecture) that “art helps us live our lives.” Vendler doubted that such a claim could be made on behalf of history and philosophy.

“I’m not sure we are greatly helped to live our lives by history since, whether or not we remember it, we seemed doomed to repeat it. Or by philosophy – the consolations of philosophy have never been widely received.”

But art, Vendler said, summarizing the ideas Stevens expressed in his poetry and essays, helps us “to live in the body as well as in the mind, on the sensual earth as well as in the celestial clouds.”

The arts confer a patina of meaning on the Earth, she said. “A vacant stretch of grass becomes humanly important when one reads the sign ‘Gettysburg.’ Over the silent grass hangs an extended canopy of meaning – struggle, corpses, tears, glory – created by a canopy of American words and works, from the Gettysburg Address to the Shaw Memorial.”

Without the patina of meaning with which the arts enrich our experience of the world, we would drift through our lives like sleepwalkers. This is how Vendler interpreted Stevens’ poem “Somnambulisma,” in which a “thin bird” whose efforts to fly, to nest, and to leave its claw marks on the unyielding stone, seem frustratingly incomplete.

The fate of the bird and its generations of descendents, whose traces are obliterated by the ocean waves, represents the condition of “being psychically dead during the very life you have lived,” Vendler said. In contrast to the hapless bird stands the scholar who creates in abundance all that the bird is unable to manifest on its own – “the fine fins, the gawky beaks, the personalia,” and thus in a godlike way gives form to the world.

Why does Stevens call this powerful and redemptive character “the scholar”? According to Vendler, the scholar supports the work of the artist through his “cultural memory, his taxonomies and his histories.” The relationship between scholar and poet suggests for Vendler how making the arts the focus of our educational system could lead students into other areas of the humanities, such as history, philosophy, and the study of religion.

“The arts and the studies of the arts are for Stevens a symbiotic pair, each dependent on the other…. The mutual support of art and learning, the mutual delight each ideally takes in each, can be taken as a paradigm of how the humanities might be integrally conceived and educationally conveyed as inextricably linked to the arts.”

Stevens’ poem “Large Red Man Reading” provided Vendler with another opportunity to assert the power of the arts to bring people out of their sleepwalking state and into a more meaningful, conscious relationship with the world. In this poem, the vibrantly colored figure of the title reads from “the poem of life” inscribed on “the great blue tabulae” of the sky while an audience composed of ghosts gather round to hear him.

The red man’s poem speaks of commonplace things, “Of the pans above the stove, the pots on the table, the tulips among them.” And yet the ghosts, hearing the poem of life, “would have wept to step barefoot into reality, /They would have wept and been happy, have shivered in the frost/and cried out to feel it again… .”

The poem suggests, Vendler said, “how ardently we would want to come back, as ghosts, in order to recognize and relish the parts of life we had insufficiently noticed and hardly valued when alive.” But it is only when the arts mediate for us “that the experiences of life can be reconstituted and made available as beauty and solace, to help us live our lives.”

In the last poem, “Angel Surrounded by Paysans,” the “necessary angel of the earth” appears briefly to declare that “…in my sight, you see the earth again, /Cleared of its stiff and stubborn, man-locked set, /And, in my hearing, you hear its tragic drone/Rise liquidly in liquid lingering, /Like watery words awash; like meanings said/By repetitions of half meanings.”

The angel, said Vendler, “stays only for a moment, our moment of attention. But that moment of mental acuity recalls us to being, the body, and the emotions, which are, peculiarly, so easy for us to put to one side as we engage in purely intellectual or physical work.”

By making the arts the focus of education in the humanities we can not only restore people’s connection with the world and help them live their lives, but also enhance awareness of our cultural patrimony, something that most Americans are only dimly aware of, if at all.

“Our students leave high school knowing almost nothing about American art, music, architecture, and sculpture, and having only a superficial acquaintance with a few American authors,” Vendler said.

And while achievement in the arts is of a very different nature than achievement in science and technology, having an intimate acquaintance with America’s artistic accomplishments can benefit us in a way that nothing else can.

“The arts, though not progressive, aim to be eternal, and sometimes are. And why should the United States not have as much eternity as any place else?”