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  • Alastair Cavendish

Oh, the Humanities!

There was an Internet meme a few years ago, presumably intended to promote study of the liberal arts, which featured a white-coated scientist fleeing in terror from a dinosaur. The caption read: “Science can tell you how to clone a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea.” There are any number of things wrong with this brief statement, but let us choose three in particular. In the first place, I don’t believe science can tell you how to clone a Tyrannosaurus Rex. I may not always have paid attention in science classes at school, and perhaps they slipped this in while I was fooling about with a Bunsen burner, but I think I would have noticed all those Tyrannosauri Reges wandering about if scientists insufficiently versed in the humanities had taken to cloning them.


In the second place, as a teacher of literature for many years, I resent extremely the notion that my role is to convey to anyone anything even slightly resembling common sense. I have none of this myself, and have never made the slightest attempt to inculcate it in my students. Thirdly, and, for the moment, lastly, this remark, which is supposed to give the humanities a boost, actually makes them sound tedious. According to this paradigm, Victor Frankenstein is the divine madman, restlessly and romantically creative, while Mary Shelley is the finger-wagging moralist, primly reminding her readers not to make any monsters. I am more concerned with the creativity of Shelley, who created both man and monster using nothing but her imagination, and was far too intelligent to write a novel merely as a means of making an obvious point.


A population reduced to abject terror by a garden-variety virus probably does not need to be convinced of the dangers of creating monsters or cloning dinosaurs. Indeed, I would venture a guess that many of the people most opposed to lockdown and other totalitarian measures have been students of the liberal arts and humanities. This is partly based on my electronic mailbag. Each time an article of mine is featured on the Lockdown Sceptics website, I receive a fair number of messages. Some of these have been very sad to read, others more optimistic and inspiring, but one common element has been the charming and civilized way in which people express themselves. You might point out that all these people agree with me, but everyone who has ever espoused a cause in public has had to deal with the frustration of stupid agreement. This was a marked feature of the world’s most boring news story before coronavirus, that of Brexit, in which I eventually found the conduct of those on my side of the argument so sanctimonious and irritating that I began to prefer opponents. Not so with lockdown. In my experience, lockdown sceptics are polite, thoughtful, intelligent people. They can spell and punctuate, and express themselves in graceful, vigorous, pellucid prose. They are literate, well-educated, self-deprecating, and amusing. Plenty of scientists have all these qualities, of course, and many lockdown sceptics are scientists, but they tend to be scientists who also have a cultivated appreciation for the humanities.


One of the many failures of the media over the last year has been to portray everyone who dissents from a very narrow orthodoxy of lockdown zealotry as both stupid and evil. There are various layers to this malignantly snobbish attitude. In the first place, it ought to go without saying, one does not need formal education to be an intelligent and thoughtful human being. Literally every single checkout operator at my local supermarket could give a valuable lesson to any minister in the Cabinet on reason, empathy, and grace under pressure. The second fallacy is that those opposed to lockdown are scientifically illiterate. This is simply false. When you point to eminent scientists such as the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, the usual response of the zealots is to smear them, without the slightest shred of evidence, as dishonest or incompetent. They will sarcastically enquire whether you think you know more about viruses than Professor Neil Ferguson, then with the next breath assert that they know more about them than Professor Carl Heneghan. There is a double standard here if you look carefully.


Another calumny, however, has received far less attention. This is the idea that the only form of education is scientific education. Those of us who are not virologists or epidemiologists should shut our non-expert mouths and keep them shut. The notion that any other areas of knowledge might be relevant to the discussion is dismissed as absurd.


Even if an education in the humanities may not be necessary to perceive the dangers of cloning a dinosaur, it does seem to be useful in reaching the conclusion that keeping millions of people under house arrest for the best part of a year might have a few downsides. One thing those of us with a liberal arts education might bring to the table is an historical perspective. We are aware of the incidence and scale of pandemics throughout history, and we know how they have been handled. We also know a fair amount about how dictatorships begin, and the ways in which tyrants play upon public fears to justify their tyranny.


As for literature, anyone skilled in critical thinking and close textual analysis will quickly discover that every statement emanating from government is a mass of logical fallacies and crude rhetoric. I used to set students of debating and public speaking the challenge of making a two-minute political speech without saying anything: “Ladies and gentlemen, let us agree that the past is firmly behind us. The future lies ahead. Now is the time for action. And what action shall we take, you ask? You are right to ask this question, and right, absolutely right, to demand an answer. It is a question many people are asking. And why are they asking it? Because they, like you, require an answer, an answer that you all thoroughly deserve. So let me tell you now that we will take decisive action. The time for indecisive action is past, and the past, as a wise man one said, lies behind us…” Having heard Gavin Williamson speak, this no longer sounds like a parody.


The study of literature, like that of music and the visual arts, also instils in the student a sense of beauty, and the beginnings of personal taste. There is a certain sinister and meretricious attractiveness in some fascist regimes, the allure of the overture to Die Meistersinger and “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, though I cannot say that I see even this level of aesthetic attainment in the current government, which wants all the musicians to go and work in call centres, and views propaganda as the only art form. Despite the occasional appeal of fascist art, aesthetes have generally been resistant to political extremism, if only because it absorbs attention which might otherwise be employed in creation and appreciation of beauty. The greater the atrocity, the more extreme its implications for the artist, hence Adorno’s view that the horror of Auschwitz extinguished the possibility of poetry.


A few great poets have been fascists, and perhaps the greatest of them was W.B. Yeats. Yeats was a bizarre specimen of humanity; a scatter-brained genius and a muddle-headed prophet who had the gift of making drivel divine. When he does speak sense, his phrases flash out like bolts of lightning. As one might expect from one with his peculiar personality, Yeats’s fascism was a mixture of sound and unsound instincts. He wanted life to be magnificent and vivid, filled with colour and splendour. On the other hand, he cared nothing for the poor and oppressed, and was quite happy for their misery to be part of the rich tapestry of existence. What he failed to see was that the ultimate tendency of fascism is both oppressive and colourless. The poor are ground beneath the iron heel but the heel is not that of Ezzelino da Romano or Lorenzo de Medici. It belongs to Michael Gove or Matt Hancock, giving us very much the worst of both worlds.


For aesthetes more clear-eyed than Yeats was, the greatest difficulty in the current moment may well be their grasp of complexity, and ability to see both sides of every question. Yeats expressed this, even if he did not always exhibit it, writing in “The Second Coming”:


The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.


It is easier to win an argument with a genius than to prevail against a bigot. Perhaps the greatest weakness of those who have immersed themselves in the humanities is to be a little too humanitarian in their generosity towards opponents who do not often return the favour.

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