life, and some of them write more books (as was said of Livy)nthan most people read. The truth is that whether a writernwrites many novels, like Dickens, or a few, like Flaubert, theirnbest work is usually compressed into three or four really goodnbooks. Wordsworth wrote thousands of pages of verse thatnhelped to sink his reputation until Matthew Arnold culled anselection of 317 pages (octavo). At his best a good writer goesndeep into the meaning of human experience, and in one lifetimenhe can only plumb the depths a few times without dyingnof asphyxiation.nI have been speaking up till now as if all literature were a dialoguenbetween an individual writer making sense of his experiencenand an individual reader who sees himself reflectednin the mirror that the writer has held up to nature. The situationnis rarely that simple. Writers, like all of us, are creaturesnof convention—political conventions, social conventions, aestheticnconventions. They are swayed, as much as the nextnman, by the rules, platitudes, and proverbs that constitute thentrial-and-error wisdom of a people. To understand the mindnof a people, study its proverbs. “We count him a wise man,”nsays Selden, “that knows the minds and insides of men, whichnis done by knowing what is habitual to them. Proverbs are habitualnto a Nation, being transmitted from Father to Son.”nRustic people are fond of proverbs, as Aristotle accuratelynobserved, and literature is never so conventional, never sonproverbial as it is in its earliest, most folkish stages. Some yearsnago the late Bruno Bettelheim wrote a book. The Uses of Enchantment,nin which he defended the educational uses of fairyntales. The tales collected by the Brothers Grimm and othernEuropean folklorists are the end result, he argued, of generationnafter generation of storytellers reworking and refining anstory until it conveyed the essence of a human dilemma.nStepparents, for example, always pose a problem for children.nWhether the real parent’s loss is due to death or divorce, itnseems disloyal to accept a stranger in replacement. In eadynmodern Europe, the high rate of women dying in childbirthnmade the stepmother a near universal source of anxiety fornchildren, and it is by reading such tales as Hansel and Gretelnthat children were able to come to grips with their feelings. Inncontemporary America, irresponsibility and divorce have takennthe place of death, but the problem of stepparents is as seriousnas it was in the 16th century. Unfortunately, we think wenknow better than our ancestors, and various stepparent associationsnhave conspired to remove Hansel and Gretel from children’snschoolbooks. (More recently a group of witches hasnmade a similar demand. What’s next, a Society for the Preventionnof Cruelty to Bugeyed Monsters?)nIn forming the character of individuals and cultures, literaturenexerts a more powerful influence than the more formalnrules we chant in catechism or civics classes. This is nowherenmore evident than in the disparity between the official moralitynof modern America and the reality of a life that is all toonwell reflected in popular films. Today, in our schools, we attemptnto impart certain values that we believe to be importantnto our way of life. We say that we want our children to treatnothers fairly, overiooking distinctions of race, sex, religion,nwealth, and even physical appearance.nLooking out over America today, torn by violent animositiesnof race, sex, class, and creed, it would be hard to maintain thatnwe are succeeding. In many important respects, we treat eachnothei” worse than we did in the bad old days of PresidentnBuchanan—James, that is. We have given women the right to,nvote and compete in the marketplace; at the same time wenmen are walking out on our wives and children at an unprecedentednrate, stranding large numbers of young mothersnin poverty.nMore ominously, the incidence of sexual assault againstnwomen,, especially on college campuses, is now so high that wentreat rape more as an inconvenience than as a capital crime.nThe Baptist preachers who interceded on behalf of Mike Tysonnshould have been demanding the death penalty for his crime,nnot a suspended sentence. For all our public pronouncementsnon sexual equality and the dignity of women, ours is an age ofnpornography and exploitation.nWe have meted out the same cruel measure of rights to ournolder citizens, endowing them with rights and pensions whilensending them off to retirement villages like so many superannuatednelephants we are glad to be rid of. Once a yearnschoolchildren troop into nursing homes to play grandchildrennto the abandoned “seniors” who have real grandchildren somewhere.nWe have advocacy groups, social workers, and publicinterestnlawyers, all making a profit out of the misery of oldnage, but the bottom line is that keeping the elderly alive isncosting too much, and the new slogan is “death with dignity.”nThe early Greeks, who believed in no rights that could notnbe backed up by the sword, nonetheless revered the wisdom ofnold age. In the Iliad, which is the encapsulation of four centuriesnof folk memory, Homer portrays the warrior’s savage individualismnin the starkest terms. Achilles abandons hisnfriends to slaughter, simply because he has been deprived ofnhis honor (in the shape of a concubine) and wishes that all thenGreeks and Trojans would kill each other off, leaving the bootynto himself and his friend Patroclus. When Patroclus is killednby Hector, Achilles is not content with killing his enemynbut insists upon dragging his body, day after day, around thenwalls of Troy. Finally Hector’s aged father, Priam, makes hisnway by night to the Greek camp in order to plead with Achillesnfor his son’s body. The old man’s method of argument isnhighly instructive. Does he dazzle his enemy with an array ofnlogical arguments or appeals to natural law or citations ofnprecedents? No, after offering the customary ransom, he says:n”Have respect for the gods, Achilles, and pity him,nbringing to mind your own father. For I am far morenwretched and have suffered what no mortal man hasnever suffered—to reach my hand out in supplication tonthe face of the man who killed my child.” So he spokenand stirred up a longing in Achilles to lament his father.nThe spectacle of Priam’s suffering causes Achilles to reflectnupon his own father and to put himself and his own family innthe position of Hector and his. Until now Achilles has beennmore than human in his prowess and in his rage, but throughnempathy he learns to be merely human, not by reasoning butnby experiencing, by empathizing. We, sharing in the experience,nlearn the same lesson. This, perhaps, is what is meantnby a humane education.nVergil, in a brilliant passage of the Aeneid, appears to drawnthe same conclusion. Aeneas and his band of defeated Trojans,nafter years of unhappy wanderings, are driven by a stormnto the North African coast. Separated from the main body ofntheir comrades, Aeneas and a few friends make their way tonnnAUGUST 1992/I 3n