Recently, I’ve been reviewing Rod Dreher’s new book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, and one of the forms of homeschooling education he is quite effusive about is the “Great Books” program, which leads students through the seminal works of Western Civilization—or what was once know as “Christendom.” The “Great Books” curriculum reads like a list of works blacklisted by campus social justice warriors for white privilege, heteronormativity, and minefields of microaggressions: Aquinas, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe—it’s a library triggering enough to cause a Berkley riot.
And yet, at one point, these were authors any educated person was simply expected to be familiar with.
The decline in literary knowledge and the rejection of those who created the society and liberties we now enjoy is a crisis that has already been detailed extensively. Alan Bloom’s 1987 classic The Closing of the American Mind, and Mark Bauerlein’s 2009 update for the following generation The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future are two must-reads on the subject. But what I find particularly interesting is that slowly but surely, a new canon of post-modern classics is moving in to take the place of the great classics, books that explore the nihilism and hedonism of the years before and after the cultural revolutions that shook Western Civilization to its core. Many of these books were once revolutionary, but are now historical in that they explain the shifts in consciousness that we still live with today.
The other day, for example, I was leaving a large bookstore and my wife handed me a list titled “50 Books You Must Have Read To Be Well-Read.” I usually see these shorts of lists as a bit of a challenge, and I began to scan through their selection. I’d read many of them, but what struck me was the sorts of books they’d chosen.
There was Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, a semi-autobiographical account of young Esther Greenwood’s descent into depression, crushing in its disturbing monotony and culminating in Greenwood’s suicide attempt, subsequent electro-shock therapy, and acquisition of a diaphragm which then gives her the “freedom” to pursue sexual relationships without the fear of pregnancy or pressures to get married. Sylvia Plath was successful in her own suicide attempt a mere month after The Bell Jar was published in the United Kingdom.
Then there was the beautifully written but teeth-grindingly cynical The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Much of Fitzgerald’s work featured the alcohol-fueled, party lifestyle he himself lived and that contributed to his early demise in 1940 at the age of 44. The cynic and nihilist Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five was also quite high up the list, a novel of flashbacks which includes some of his own experiences in the wake of the World War II firebombing of Dresden. One of Vonnegut’s driving points was a simple one: if the Christian God is uninvolved, He must be evil.
For some reason, Allen Ginsberg’s weird, homoerotic, semi-literate poem Howl was also included. Howl, serving as Ginsberg’s condemnation of a generation that condemned the sorts of drug-fuelled sexual liaisons he defiantly celebrates in this freewheeling free verse rant, is now apparently considered a great work of American literature. Ginsberg, also known for poetic works like “My Sphincter,” is worshipped in academic circles—one of my English professors once began a semester by marching into the classroom reciting Howl at the top of his voice.
This article continues at [LifeSiteNews] Why are so many of the ‘Great Books’ of the 20th century by people who killed themselves?