In her Preface to this collection, Catharine Savage Brosman tells the reader that these essays are of three kinds: recollections of her own life and family, commentaries on literature, and examinations of the current state of American culture. Taken together, her essays, Brosman says, are “an exercise in seeing the world, even feeling it, and in assessing and appreciating experience . . . and the power of literature to render it.” They also provide an answer to questions asked by the ancient Greeks: What is the final end of human life? What is the good life? How does one attain to such a life, then live it?
Brosman’s approach to these subjects is Aristotelian. Eudaimonia—human happiness or flourishing—depends on the disciplined exercise of moral virtue along with the attainment of excellence (arête) in three ways: by shaping one’s own moral character; by developing the uniquely human faculty of reason and mastering skills; and by interacting well with others not only in friendships but also, by implication, through action in and commentary on events in the public world. Some good luck in working toward this end is also helpful. In both her life and her works, Brosman has come far on her journey toward eudaimonia and, having done so, can show others how to live.
At the beginning of that journey, as a child, Brosman says she felt surrounded at times by an “aura” that needed “embodiment.” Yet she has also been filled with a spirit of transcendence, as when she imaginatively identifies with water birds in flight: “Such transport becomes . . . a sense of spiritual elevation. Birds are the inhabitants of the ether, the airy image of spirit.”
These kindred needs to transcend and to embody bring to mind Raphael’s painting The School of Athens (1509-11) with its central images of Plato and Aristotle walking along, in philosophical discourse, Plato holding his Timaeus in one hand and pointing up toward the heavens with the other, and Aristotle, by contrast, holding his Ethics in one hand, with his other pressing downward toward the earth.
Whether through transcendence or immanence, Brosman, in seeing, understanding, and embodying in words both the natural and the human realms, finds a meaningful correspondence between mind and world, a correspondence that seems part of the givenness of things and thereby suggests a providential ordering not only of human life but of the cosmos itself.
This life well lived is rooted deeply in Brosman’s good fortune in having been born into a family of admirable people and in her own commitment to a life of self-discipline, inspired by familial examples. Brosman calls herself an interwar child of the Depression, the daughter of low-paid, hardworking schoolteachers. Other relatives include a book-loving grandfather and strong female relatives who were “independent . . . outstanding models of character and intellect,” who were not feminists, and who would never deny the uniqueness of “womanhood” or use poverty as an excuse for personal failings. Being also the descendant of a Victorian grandmother, Brosman says that she is “half-Victorian.”
Brosman’s life has generally been a happy one: a student at Rice; a professor of French at Tulane; the author of many books of poetry, essays, edited works, and literary criticism; and a wife, mother, and grandmother. Brosman knows that her life has been shaped both by choices made and by choices not made—and by luck as well. In her lifelong pursuit of excellence she has approached—though not without some setbacks—eudaimonia. As she says of Aristotle,
Though Aristotle found reasonable the traditional advice to count no man happy until he dies, he saw that happiness truly existed, connected, of course, to character, and that one could legitimately say of someone, “He was happy.”
Brosman’s inheritance from her family, her personal character and experiences, her liberal education, her work habits (“I get my work done”), and her unwavering devotion to the life of the mind have made her a conservative, a traditionalist.
In the essays “Literature and Its Contents” (con-TENTS) and “O Literature, Thou Art Sick: The Consequences of Theory,” Brosman defends literature in general and canonical works of literature in particular. She also diagnoses the illnesses that afflict the contemporary literary scene. A great literary work, she argues, embodies universal human experiences. It “deals supremely well with what is most fundamental and meaningful to all,” and it increases our intelligence: “Rigor in language both reflects and leads to rigor of thought.” Most importantly, “Literature always points to something beyond itself, a pleasure, verity, judgment, vision. It is more than rewarding; it is essential.”
Yet how are canonical works of literature read today? What is their status? And what kind of literature is now being created? Brosman answers these questions by surveying a somewhat disheartening contemporary scene: the vanishing of independent bookstores and publishing houses; the elevation of pop culture over elite culture; the obsession with race, sex, and leftist politics; the vilification of so-called privileged groups; and the attack by radical language theorists on words and meaning, including the denial of stable, universal truths, truths that a great writer can, in Brosman’s words (after Valéry), “make felt” in a literary masterpiece. Are we now going to denigrate, even ignore the canonical works of Western literature? Brosman hopes not, but it may be that, at least for some time, only a “few” will carry on the tradition. Brosman poses the question: “Human beings spent untold millennia developing what can be called civilization and, then, high culture. Are we to discard it all, perverted creatures who destroy what is best?”
This question of preserving “the best” is especially important when asked of the earliest and greatest of literary genres: poetry. Her essays “In Defence of Poesie” (echoing Sidney’s An Apologie for Poetrie) and “What Are Poems Made Of?” show that Brosman is on the side of the canonical masters. Such poets in the past sometimes had a large audience, but literary modernism lost much of that audience by placing its emphasis on technical innovations (free verse, etc.); subjectivity leading to obscurity; the favoring of the image over verbal music; the abandonment of serious concern for constant, sharable meaning and traditional morality; and a widespread disregard of the primary duty all poets have to master the craft of measured verse. The burgeoning of “creative writing” programs has not helped much either.
In contrast, excellent poetry offers “knowledge, experience, morality” expressed in “verbal beauty and order” that “deepens” our understanding of the subject of the poem. It is Aristotle’s arête attained by a maximum employment of all the resources of the language. Such poetry often weaves together seamlessly and mellifluously human thoughts and feelings by way of symbolic images from a correspondent world. This “link between sense data and understanding”—what Brosman calls a “marriage of words and thoughts”—implies that the poet should “think of other things” to write about besides merely personal experience.
Brosman herself thinks and writes of other things both in her poetry and in her prose. In Music From the Lake, for example, several essays address serious contemporary issues such as the American Psychiatric Association’s removal of gender self-identification from its list of mental disorders, the erosion of the right to privacy, the menace of social media, and the decline in the status and standards of a liberal-arts education.
How did Brosman acquire the intelligence so forcefully displayed in the breadth of her learning and in the lucidity, incisiveness, and sophistication of her arguments? The answer lies in “The Uses of a Liberal Education,” an essay that should be required reading for every college student, professor, and administrator.
There Brosman tells the stories of Harry Hinsley, a young Cambridge medieval-history student who barely escaped from Nazi Germany, and the older “Dilly” Knox, a poetry-loving classicist, who, like Hinsley, worked at Bletchley Park during World War II, breaking German military codes. In his earlier codebreaking service in World War I, Knox had noticed how a poem by Schiller was being used as part of the German naval flag code. What enabled Hinsley and Knox to become world-class cryptographers and help shorten the war against Hitler? Brosman’s answer is that they both had a traditional liberal education, one that “allows us to go beyond what we know and what we are.” The liberal arts “develop the mind in reasoning, memory, knowledge, powers of assessment and reflection, and imagination.” The Bletchley cryptographers knew how to approach and understand new materials: “They had learned how to learn.”
“The Uses of a Liberal Education” first appeared in the September 2010 issue of Chronicles. Above the title is a drawing by George McCartney, Jr. containing images of Plato and Aristotle from Raphael’s The School of Athens. But instead of carrying copies of the Timaeus and the Ethics, Plato and Aristotle carry laptop computers. This satirical depiction says much about the fate of liberal education in the contemporary world. In Raphael’s original, these two philosophers and their gestures remind us of those twin movements in Brosman’s life and works, one toward transcendence and the other toward embodiment, both latent, perhaps, in an “aura” surrounding her in childhood. This aura drew her out of herself to find fulfillment in a lifetime of seeing and understanding the world.
That is how to live: the way of arête, a journey both toward and from Aristotle’s eudaimonia—happiness in the fullest and deepest sense, the final end of human life.
Music From the Lake and Other Essays, by Catharine Savage Brosman (Rockford, Illinois: Chronicles Press) 169 pp., $29.95