The Enduring Value of Shakespeare (contra #DisruptTexts) – a short discussion

One of the least inspiring cultural phenomena of the last few years has been the growth of the #DisruptTexts movement, founded in 2018 in the US. Broadly, this US-based movement is spearheading an attack on the teaching of classic literature in schools, on the grounds that these primarily embody values of their time now deemed unacceptable in terms of gender, race, social justice, etc. As is typical of such social justice movements, they pretend to inclusivity (in the case of DisruptTexts, towards allocating a central place to recent Young Adult (YA) literature in place of the classics) but in reality their attitudes and actions are highly denunciatory, more concerned to exclude than include, and pathologise any who disagree (a similar phenomenon to that about which I have recently published with respect to classical music – see also here and here). A decent summary by Lona Manning can be read here. One teacher in Massachusetts expressed pride in having Homer’s The Odyssey removed from the curriculum.

This movement is concentrated in the United States, in a country where the status of ‘high culture’ has long been more fragile than in other parts of the Western world, and a number of the debates are primarily centred around North American literature, assumed as central. The social justice claims which accompany it really speak to a particular type of high consumer culture focused upon short-term gratification, in which the types of more challenging and mind-expanding cultural experience, taking pupils and students outside of their comfort zones so as to encourage exploration of other times and places, or less familiar perspectives upon the world, are increasingly marginalised. Non-western canonical literary traditions barely feature in the debates, nor recognition that large parts of the world have highly sophisticated cultural traditions dating back many centuries or millennia. But it was alarming to see Penguin Books recently announce a partnership with #DisruptTexts, presumably in order to convey some message about their corporate image. Yet the ultimate outcome of the movement would be to render large sections of their own catalogue redundant – the classic writings of Cao Xueqin and Murasaki Shikibu every bit as much as those of Homer or Nathaniel Hawthorne. I hope that Oxford University Press do not follow suit.

Not all on the left are enamoured of the movement, which substitutes petty culture wars for a politics grounded in individuals’ and social groups’ material circumstances. In particular, the World Socialist Web Site, representing the views of the Trotskyite Fourth International, published a scathing critique by David Walsh. This concentrated in particular on Shakespeare, a frequent target of DisruptTexts, noting his importance to iconic African-American literary figures including Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. Walsh concludes:

A vast accumulation of human experiences, thoughts and feelings, pent up by institutions and religious dogma for hundreds of years, were able to find expression, not only in Shakespeare’s plays, of course, there were dozens of gifted dramatists in England, but most powerfully and concentratedly in his.

#DisruptTexts and its co-thinkers are dedicated enemies of enlightenment and education. Students, teachers and serious academics should treat them with derision, challenge them and expose their ignorance.

Walsh followed this up with an interview with veteran Australian Shakespeare actor John Bell, of which here is a short passage:

[JB]: I think the hardest part of course is teaching it [Shakespeare]. There aren’t that many teachers skilled in teaching Shakespeare. I’ve met so many people throughout my life who say, ‘Oh, I had a terrible time at school with Shakespeare.’ It takes a certain skill and dedication and imagination to teach Shakespeare in a way that’s inspiring to teenagers. It is difficult, but I think it’s also indispensable.

DW: Of course, there’s the claim as well that this is part of the establishment, this is “white culture.” There is an establishment Shakespeare. In Britain, there is certainly an establishment Shakespeare and there are political, patriotic-nationalist reasons and so forth, but that’s not the essential truth of it. There is some connection between Shakespeare and the modern world. Not that the world developed from his work, but that he reflected upon and provided some of the most profound insight into this developing modern world and you can’t understand that world fully without his understandings and his art.

JB: Shakespeare has been adopted by the establishment and used, I suppose, especially during the colonial era as a kind of shining example of what the establishment could achieve. But he himself was a down-to-earth entertainer who had nothing to do with big establishment as such. We have to understand what he was doing and what his work is really about. It exists entirely outside the establishment and most theater companies aren’t part of the establishment. They are self-starting, surviving, living on the smell of an oily rag. This kind of company manages to exist not with the heavy support of the establishment.

This interview elicited some interesting responses from friends on social media, relating more widely to issues of artistic canons and so on (see my earlier blog post here), which I am sharing here with their permission (I emphasise this very strongly). These are not necessarily in the exact order they were posted, and I have not heard from a few participants about their consent to publish, so am omitting their comments for now. These present a range of perspectives on the subject, by no means all in agreement with the position I take above, but a range of intelligent and thoughtful responses, in my view.

From Isaac Malitz:
[1]. Key issues (focusing on music, but applicable to literature, etc.)
[a] The “Canon”, the “Western Tradition”: Uses and mis-uses.
[b] Who owns the Canon? Is it *The* Canon, or *A* Canon
[c] Toxicity in white western culture, and its hijacking/misuse of [a]
[d] Proper attention to the above => better art[e] Is our artistic culture declining?

[2] The best thinkers on the above that I have found:
[a] White toxicity: WEB DuBois: https://medium.com/religion-bites/the-souls-of-white-folk-by-w-e-b-du-bois-354f91ca08ef?fbclid=IwAR0wxMFGPQrijvacY5GxVsHsKqIFRRGGwieV9tnkCtkfw94oHbdmYYNAEas
[b] White toxicity: Thomas Paine on “African Slavery in America”: https://constitution.org/2-Authors/tp/afri.htm
[c] Davone Tines: A superb musician, a very smart guy who has figured out how to navigate the above and produce great art. Tines has found a big-picture constructive view on some of these issues. And his views translate into better performances, much-better performances. Worth a close read.
[i] Long profile article, written by Alex Ross, New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/…/davone-tines-is-changing…
[ii] Review of Tines’ very very successful recital that he has constructed: Built on the model of the Mass and ancient traditions, but constructed in a personal, contemporary conception.Superb craftsmanship, knowledge, intelligence; authentic and compelling.https://www.sfcv.org/…/davone-tines-redefines-rules…
[iii] This recital was presented by MEC [Monday Evening Concerts, Los Angeles] in September. Here is the program, and a portion of the program notes. Apologies for the photos of the program, rather than text form. https://www.mondayeveningconcerts.org/9821—davoacutene-tines.html?fbclid=IwAR3Lc5teIqCSX85bC2E_jcnk5ZpoUY8uWGDgW9hlBzV_lvJ3iR_FWrB-YkU
https://photos.google.com/share/AF1QipNdWfQzg_kD4Nw5cB9rZtgZ1VygYHrbT34utXar0o4thJAb2EAjXPNcv3FdGZ31CQ?key=OUlDb0ZFMWQ1dVlxblpkZFYzcXlKR01JUGpaUzFn

From Franklin Cox, in response to an earlier post from Malitz along similar lines: Isaac Malitz, my problem with this is that any aspect valued by a dominant culture could be picked out and waved around and attacked as representing the sins of the whole culture. I think it’s the fallacy of “accident” (and “hasty generalization”), identifying an elite class with a highly-valued cultural figure, and attaching that cultural figure to the worst evils committed by that class. It’s the same tactic used to attach Beethoven to Nazi crimes, or to European racism. (Oddly enough, Puccini or Verdi, both widely played during Italian fascism, almost never seem to be the targets of this tactic.)

This argument might have been more relevant back when the elites of the dominant white culture valued Shakespeare highly and had pretensions to being highly cultivated, but that’s not really the case any more, and in fact I think this was less common in the past than most people think. During the high point of slavery, Shakespeare’s work wasn’t valued as much as it was later; it wasn’t until the 19th century that it became a central part of the curriculum, which was then expanded into mass education. The argument could be best applied to the British elite class, because Shakespeare became closely allied with the British mission, etc. But in the US, Shakespeare has always been a tough sell.

A more accurate target would be the leading literary figures of the day who were validating racism. Leading Anglo modernists, for instance, were racist and even proto-fascist. T.S. Eliot, for instance, was both, and he was one of the most widely-taught poets in the 20th century college literary curriculum in the US. I think even there the case is dodgy, as The Waste Land is a highly complex and elusive artwork, and about the least likely motivator one could find for motivating an angry mob.

Most of the arguments of this nature come from the literary class, which Du Bois was a member of, and the literary class often tends to overstate its importance. In the past it tended to be educated in largely the same curriculum, but again that’s not really the case any more. Shakespeare doesn’t play a central role in the curriculum of the sort it did in DuBois’s day. And the people organizing white mobs were not, I don’t think, doing this in Shakespeare’s name, or citing Shakespeare to unify the masses.

I think these sorts of arguments end up serving as a distraction, and they are also used as part of an anti-elite culture agenda. Partisans of pop culture use these tactics all the time, because it’s very useful for their purposes.

From me: Ezra Pound had clear and explicit fascist sympathies. But how many of today’s fascists read Ezra Pound?

Also, in response to a comment about ‘nasty white culture’, I posted: I think there are nasty elements in most cultures in the world.

A reply to this from Franklin Cox: I would extend that to “all”, if you look closely enough.

I’m not relativizing things; there are some cultures that have descended into mass murder (the earliest written records we have are marked by massacres), and others that have been relatively peaceful. But a large portion of humanity has been effectively enslaved throughout the entire history of humanity; ancient civilizations were essentially slave cultures, and slavery and caste culture appeared throughout the world–and are still present throughout much of the world. The poor classes lived in misery and with brutality unimaginable to our tender civilized sensibilities. Within these strata women were effectively more enslaved, and so forth.

When I was young I fell for some of the “but the East was different” rationales, but India had a harsh caste system that still is present, China and Japan were largely repressive caste/slave societies run by a distant elite, and so forth. Those of us who love the art of other cultures tend to minimize those aspects.

If you love the art of past periods and peak behind these curtains, you will pretty much always find slavery, oppression, violence, and so forth. Some small cultures managed to evade the big states, but I don’t believe for a moment that they didn’t practice violent and murderous acts when it was deemed necessary, or that there wasn’t societal repression in them. In fact, I think the denial of the harsh dynamics of social differentiation is one the most dangerous illusions one could have, fostering a naïve and totalizing conception of an ideal society.

So given this tawdry history, any art you love from anywhere or from any period grew out of oppression, unfairness, and probably brutality and murder.

The artists who did the best work were usually from the middle and lower classes, and becoming good at art was their ticket into “good society” and out of poverty (and often out of unspeakable misery). Shakespeare is an excellent example of this–in fact the Elizabethan Renaissance is full of ambitious, tremendously gifted commoners such as Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. They benefited from the opportunities they had and didn’t criticize their patrons (although Shakespeare revealed with tremendous subtlety the illusions of the upper classes). That was the norm pretty much everywhere.

Shakespeare’s work in fact took ages to become canonical, because he wrote for the public theater, which had a low reputation among the aristocracy. Ben Jonson did this as well, but wasn’t as successful as Shakespeare and settled on the more common path to success, writing Court masques and a tedious series of tributes to the wisdom and taste of aristocratic patrons.

Most of the poetry of the period was of this nature. The Shakespearean type of play was still considered disreputable as late as the 18th century. Frederick the Great, for example, wrote disparagingly of Shakespeare and Goethe as authors for the common rabble (Goethe used Shakespeare’s history plays as his models for Götz von Gerlingen; Hugo a generation later scandalized the French elite the same way). Beethoven was another example–in fact, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were all commoners, as were almost all the major composers of the period. Music was their ticket out of Nowheresville. Beethoven is in fact exceptional for the liberties he got away with in his ideas and behavior; in earlier times he probably would have been crushed.

Now of course Beethoven and Shakespeare flattered elites in order to succeed. But if there’s ever a case for artists from the lower strata of society distinguishing themselves on the basis of their talent and ceaseless energy, it’s those two (there are, of course, others). The default validation system until the 19th century was aristocratic. Shakespeare and Beethoven became central figures in bourgeois validation systems, which implicitly held open the promise of universality.

I recognize the horrid conditions of the working classes in England in the 19th century and the slaves in the South–and the (effectively) slaves in Russia as well. But in England and America, the long, rocky path to universal education was opened, and this path was gradually adopted by other European countries. Part of the curriculum in Anglo-Saxon countries included Shakespeare, and in music Beethoven.

One can of course criticize all sorts of elements and content of these earlier curricula. Sexism was reinforced, slavery was validated, and so forth, and Shakespeare and Beethoven got hooked to this baggage.

But on the other hand, we’ve made stunning progress toward universal education, haven’t we? We’ve made astonishing progress in opening up opportunities to all strata of society, at combatting sexism and racism, and so forth. If one studies the history of societies closely and looks at the changes over the last two centuries, one sees a logarithmic expansion of knowledge and opportunity. Deep into the 19th century, elites were often denying the basic humanity of people from the lower classes. But luckily this ideology lost the battle. (These views are still present, alas: just look into the heritage of Ayn Rand, for instance, who is a central pillar of oligarchic “Libertarianism”.) But each generation is imperfect, and each next age can look back in horror at what the previous generation believed and condemn it to perdition. This is, however, only possible if you have an idealistic ventures such as “universal suffrage” or “opening opportunities to all members of society” or “ending racism”. So the urge to condemn the past is constantly trapped in a performative contradiction.

Every past age can be condemned, and its best products burnt to exorcise the past, but then the next generation can do the same. I’ve gotten tired of this performance. Trying to understand the past is much more difficult than attempting to extinguish it.

And it’s also important to remember that we become the past with brutal swiftness.

From Peter Tregear: “I think that current reactions against Shakespeare and so on, are in large part reactions against this toxicity”. Hmmm, I’m really not so sure about the ‘large part;’.. These reactions just so happen to be also in lock-step with the views and actions of those who care little for the progressive causes espoused but would who still remove the capacity of our educational institutions even to offer Shakespeare (or other forms of ‘high’ culture) to people (of any ethnic origin etc) outside those who can afford it. I rather agree with Australian commentator Guy Rundle when he wrote recently that “The right and the technocrats would have come for the humanities no matter what happened. But there would have been a real fight to be had if they had not been undermined from within.” https://www.crikey.com.au/…/australias-world-class…/

He also says “this sort of left’s inability to hold two ideas at once — that there is a reflexive, inquiring process of free thought, that it is the pre-condition of the university, and of human liberation and flourishing in modern conditions, and that it has also been a tool of domination — has helped to wear away at the legitimacy of the institutions they are belatedly trying to defend.If the study of global astronomy is nothing more than “a cover”; if Arab studies are only Orientalism; if, as another Overland piece suggests, Emily Dickinson’s poetry is nothing other than “white elitism”, why should taxpayers stump up for any of it? It has no more social claim than the funding of badminton or stamp-collecting — just a hobby a few people like to follow.”

From Himadri Chatterjee: I’m coming to this debate late, and I don’t think there’s much I could add to what has already been said. But, to reiterate some of those points, I don’t think there has been any civilisation or culture anywhere in the world that has not been guilty of the most appalling practices. If we were to be guilty of what our forefathers have done, there’s not one of us who could sleep in our beds at night. To reject products of a civilisation on the grounds that that civilisation had toxic elements would be to reject everything everywhere – all poetry, all music, all painting, all sculpture, etc.

I personally think that the current angry rejection of what is generally termed “high culture” has nothing whatever to do with social justice, and everything to do with resentment – resentment of the very idea that certain products of culture (that the resenters don’t understand) have an intrinsically higher value than others.

In post-Independence India, when streets and places named after various colonial administrators were being renamed, a street in Calcutta (as it was then) was renamed to *honour* an Englishman: Theatre Road was renamed Shakespeare Sarani. I’d wager the people who made that decision understood the nature of colonial oppression somewhat better than the DisruptTexts mob and their ilk.

From Hai Di Nguyen: I’m going slightly off-topic here, but I am Vietnamese. Vietnam was under Chinese rule for about 1000 years & has had conflict with China lots of times throughout history, even now. China took some of our lands, & islands. But I can still love Zhang Yimou’s films (before “Hero”) & love “Hong lou meng”.I see the point that the anti-white thing spills over to Shakespeare, but frankly I find it idiotic. What does Shakespeare have to do with any of that?

The idea about aggression & stuff in so-called white culture is also annoying, there’s something egoistic & condescending in the way some people act as though white people are the most evil in the world & the rest don’t do anything similar, as though we’re noble savages. You can find bad things everywhere, & guess what, some of the bad things that happened in the West in the past are still happening now in other countries.

Unfortunately I’m one of those people with extreme opinions about Zhang Yimou lol, I think his masterpieces are before “Hero” & his career from “Hero” onwards, including “House of Flying Daggers”, went downhill. That’s when he started serving the CCP & lost his soul, which is a pity, because I do think he’s extremely talented.

Then a subthread begun by Steven Waling: This is partly an Australian thing. Australia is nearer to China than Britain. How much classic Chinese literature do they study? Or Japanese? Plus they have their own indigenous culture. Plus these damned colonials seem to have acquired their own culture in the over 200 years since the Brits decided to take other peoples’ land from them. Why apart from nostalgia should they study Shakespeare except as an example of World literature? If I’d grown up in France I’d expect to read Moliere; if Russian Pushkin etc etc…

Ian Pace: Why study Shakespeare? Because it is so incredibly rich in characters, drama, ideas, emotions, language and more, as a vast number of people have found in many parts of the world over centuries.

I see no particular reason why one has to be Russian to read Pushkin, either, except linguistic ones. I’m not yet at the level where I can read Russian literature in the original (but still working on it) but have managed a few Pushkin poems.

Waling: I know how good Shakespeare is. And I see no reason why it shouldn’t be studied or watched or acted by all sorts of people. But I also know there’s a lot of literature out there I haven’t read that also probably has those qualities you mention. They just haven’t had the equivalent to the Shakespeare industry to back them up.

Also, when I was mentoring African writers, I actively had to discourage some from regurgitating Wordsworth & Coleridge tropes. That came from their being taught exclusively English lit in African schools. Shakespeare’s many great things but he didn’t grow up in the streets of Bulawayo.

Pace: Well, which other literature do you think can compare with Shakespeare (I can think of some, and am sure there is other literature I don’t know, but doubt there is that much, worldwide).As for where Shakespeare grew up, I don’t accept this realist view of literature being based in experience. On the contrary, I am fascinated by writers’ abilities to create new and unknown worlds.

Waling: I’m fascinated by the same thing; but a new world has to start from where the writer is not from some poor imitation of Wordsworth’s Lake District. There’s a lot of deeply imaginative writing coming our of Africa for instance. Achebe’s writing for instance is hardly realist. And I do love Shakespeare and think everyone should have access to him. But I won’t get into arguments that revolve around who’s best because they’re pointless.

Hai Di Nguyen: “Why apart from nostalgia should they study Shakespeare except as an example of World literature?”

You honestly think that people teach or study Shakespeare because of nostalgia? I love Shakespeare and English is not even my mother tongue or my first language.”

If I’d grown up in France I’d expect to read Moliere; if Russian Pushkin etc etc…”Here’s some news for you: French people also read Shakespeare, Russians also read Shakespeare, the Chinese also read Shakespeare, etc.

If you want to read, or promote, other writers or literature of other countries, go ahead. But now you’re implying that Shakespeare is irrelevant (“he didn’t grow up in the streets of Bulawayo”), and that he’s considered the greatest only because of the Shakespeare industry.

Jonathan Bate covers this subject in “The Genius of Shakespeare”. Colonisation, with English becoming an international language, is certainly a factor, but there are also inherent qualities in Shakespeare that make him appeal to people from many different countries and cultures, people with different views and different political backgrounds, and so on.

Waling: I bet they don’t teach Shakespeare in the French literature classes though.

Nguyen: 1/ I have never understood this kind of complaint. The language of Australia is English, what’s unusual about literature classes in Australia teaching the greatest works in English, including Shakespeare? The way the greatest works in French are taught in France, and I assume other French-speaking countries, or the greatest works in Vietnamese are taught in Vietnam?

When I lived in Norway, I was in the IB (International Baccalaureate), so I studied Shakespeare and other English-language works in my English class. It was Norway, but the programme was in English, so we studied works in English. What’s so special about Australians, who speak English, studying Shakespeare? You study Shakespeare in the original, whereas Chinese works for example would be in translation.

2/ That being said, Shakespeare is taught in other countries: https://teachingshakespeareblog.folger.edu/…/shakespea…/ I’m aware that Shakespeare is taught in Vietnam. Not a lot, obviously, but he is.

Waling: yes I know he is. And I’m not complaining. But if you are in Africa, and all your education is fixated on Eng lit classics & not on African literature (of which there’s loads, no doubt good and bad, how do get the idea that your own culture has its own worth? And they speak many languages in Australia as well as English (as they do in English.) I do love Shakers but I do suspect a pedestal doesn’t suit him, or any great artist.

Nguyen: I don’t know what’s being taught in Africa, but this conversation is not about Africa.

The official language of Australia is English. Vietnam has 54 ethnic groups, but the official language/ the common language is Vietnamese.

I don’t think this is about putting anyone on a pedestal. But Shakespeare’s influence is undeniable. People may not like that Shakespeare became the most influential writer over the past few centuries (Tolstoy for one didn’t like it), but it so happened that he had huge influence on not only the English language but also literature and other arts (music, paintings, ballet, etc.) around the world. That’s just how things are, and people lose if they choose not to know Shakespeare.

I do promote non-Western classic literature on my blog (and on twitter, back when I was using it) though.

Lukas Ligeti: Greetings from Africa (Johannesburg). Personally, I reject expecting a person to have certain influences or write in a certain way just because they come from a certain place. Africa, just like everywhere else in the world, is way too complex to allow the imposition of simplistic identity categories on people and expect them to create accordingly. Some art/culture belongs to those who care about it. Nationalistic/ethnocentric approaches cause people to stir their own little pots rather than expanding their horizons. To me, creating art means creating new worlds, so why not look beyond what you already know? Shakespeare is one of those writers that allow for new insights every time you read them, but to me this discussion is more broadly about the crisis that the fixation on identity is causing in the arts – well-intentioned people wearing horse blinders, a fear of intellectual expansion, a retreat into the autobiographical.

Franklin Cox: I don’t really accept the notion that it’s somehow improper or harmful for African students to be influenced by English poetry, etc. For one thing, even for most modern British students, Shakespeare’s work is already distant from their own experiences, the language is distant, and so forth; for Americans it is even more foreign. Germans have their own version of Shakespeare through tremendous 19th-century translations into German.

Sure, if Shakespeare and Wordsworth are the only things being taught, that might be a problem, but I’ve never experienced anything like that. In fact, back when I was in high school our English teacher got in trouble for teaching Shakespeare in the Advanced English class, because it was too hard for the Advanced English students.

We can all learn a tremendous amount from highly accomplished cultures, and I especially value non-American traditions. Recently I’ve been obsessed with Japanese cinema of the 30s and 40s, which I think perhaps has more masterful achievements than any other tradition. I was brought up on Classical European music, but this didn’t prevent me from composing my own quite different music over the last five decades or so. I love a great deal of French and German poetry, and so forth.

I do acknowledge a problem if only historical works from a distant culture are taught. But is that really the case?

Pace: I am an atheist, but get an immense amount from reading Dante’s Divina Commedia, quite a bit of which (especially in Paradiso) is intimately linked to esoteric late medieval theological debates.

Waling: I get the feeling that people think I’ve got something against the teaching of Shakespeare or his influence on world culture. I don’t. But I did get the distinct impression that English Lit was all many schools taught in Africa, a continent where bookshops are still rare. African writers still have to get published outside their own countries to find audiences. So yes Franklin it really is the case, at least below university level. I had one writer tell me all about the ‘hills and vales’ as if his country were in England. I’m in favour of Shakespeare being an influence, among others. But when it’s still a hangover from colonial days I’d say it reeks of white privilege. In Japan Shakespeare influenced the film Throne of Blood but so did Japanese classic writing. Or there’s the influence of Homer’s Odyssey on Caribbean literature. But in neither of those cases do you get the “cultural cringe” that the “home country” is better than your own place.

For information, Hai Di Nguyen’s blog is here. Himadri Chatterjee’s blog is here. Both are highly recommended for those interested in literary matters.



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