Original Sin and the Missionary Humanist


THE HUMANITIES AND THE CIVIC IMAGINATION.Collected Addresses and Essays 1978—1998.


By Andrew Morton.

No more alike than the devil and St. Augustine,” a peppery humanist once remarked of an ancient text and its inferior modern translation. The same judgment could be passed on twenty years of collected addresses by James Veninga, compared with Andrew Morton’s attempt to put the best light on the petulant bovinity of a fat little rich girl from Beverly Hills.

The relevance of Monica’s Story to The Humanities and the Civic Imagination doesn’t depend, however, on similarity. Veninga writes as if the mere label The Humanities might work word-magic on ordinary people; and in their dalliance, Clinton and “that woman” were nothing if not ordinary. Of the humiliated President, innumerable males might say, “There, but for the devil’s luck, go I”; and Andrew Morton describes Lewinsky as a girl “who could be anybody’s sister, anybody’s daughter.” Yet both partners in the century’s great anti-romance had been exposed to education, Clinton in Matthew Arnold’s own university and at Yale. As a gift for Monica, the President chose a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and in 1998 she planned to titillate him by quoting Emily Dickinson’s “Wild nights” in a Valentine message in the Washington Post. So Monica’s Story sets a problem for evangels of the humanities. Can their gospel save us – from us? Skepticism is in order.

It’s not quite clear just what areas of the world of mind the salutiferous humanities include for Veninga, though he prefers an expansive definition. The arts, the sciences, and the domains of the professional schools seem to be excluded, the social sciences sometimes out but sometimes in, and the gates are left wide open when enumerations end with phrases like “and related fields” or “and related subjects.” Descriptive statements are no more precise: “what unites those disciplines and activities that we call the humanities is a concern for public and private values,” or “the disciplines of the humanities are concerned with human experiences and values.” The civic imagination is similarly characterized with benevolent vacuities: “if the imagination serves as a bridge between human beings, then the civic imagination allows us to grasp and nurture those social, cultural, and political connections and structures that can invigorate our public life, bringing together citizens to tackle public problems.”

The prevailing fog of foundationese does not, however, obscure the high claims that Veninga makes for his great unspecifieds. Very early he quotes Annie Dillard: “When we decide how to vote, when we pray, when we debate an issue, and when we fall in love, we are participating in the humanities.” A few pages later, he quotes an old “program announcement” by the Texas Council for the Humanities: “…the humanities have as their central concern the meaning and purpose of human life and human relationships.” The same starry-eyed sales-pitch is sustained throughout the “collected addresses and essays”: “The primary function of the humanities scholar … is to retell in particular and universal ways the drama of human life. This work is nothing less than the preservation of our history and culture.” To a broken-down English prof who stumbled into English because reading good books is fun, the discovery that he has spent his life in so noble an endeavor is no more gratifying than surprising.

It would of course be wrong to question Veninga’s sincerity, or fail to honor his lifelong commitment to his cause. One does have to ask what limitations have confined him so often to the realm of the intense inane. Why have a master’s degree from the Harvard Divinity School and a Ph.D. from Rice left a devoted humanist so incapable of clarity and precision?

Prudential observance of self-preservation as nature’s first law forbids inquiry into the actual behavior of culture’s humanistic conservators, but two other suggestions seem obvious. The first is that the founding funders of endowments and councils for the humanities don’t want to contaminate “human experiences and values” with unsettling ideas. The last sentences in Veninga’s book make a footnote in small print on page 401: While encouraging sponsors of its projects to “examine options to particular pubic policy issues and even to recommend among these options, the Texas Council for the Humanities, consistent with federal guidelines, prohibits partisan politics or the direct influencing of legislation. It also has consistently supported the idea that all programs need to be open to multiple perspectives and viewpoints.” That crippling disclaimer follows a chapter urging “scholars in the humanities … to allocate more time to interaction with the public and to critical issues facing society.” Elderly readers will be reminded of some childhood verses:

“Mother, may I go out to swim?” “Yes, my darling daughter; Hang your clothes on a hickory limb, But don’t go near the water!”

A second invitation to vacuity is fuzzy-minded optimism, the belief (only feebly supported by experience) that “humanities education” can nurture “a society that encompasses democratic, spiritual, and intellectual ideals.” Though an M.T.S. from Harvard and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Foundation for Religious Studies in Texas, Veninga seems forgetful of the ancient Christian doctrine of original sin – the belief that the entire human species shares the guilt of our great foreparents’ unfortunate taste for apples. Beneath its veneer of primitive superstition, the notion of original sin makes a lot more sense than “enlightened” belief in “the perfectibility of man,” as observers of Texas governors and legislators, administrators and academics, should be prepared to testify. Verbose benevolence and lofty exhortation just won’t solve the problems that Veninga recognizes – “widespread poverty, hunger, homelessness, inadequate health care, child abuse, crime and delinquency.” We’re caught in the zero-sum game of a society built on greed. Some people profit from other people’s loss, and the haves can spout piety while they hide away within the walls of corporations, the brutally hierarchical non-governmental governments that pretend to be just folks, persons like you and me. Most particularly in years when corporate executives finance campaigns for our highest office, the old story of Eve and the talking snake loses its quaintness. Dreamy humanists should remember it.

Not that humanities councils and endowments can do no good at all. They can be cash cows for useful undertakings, and intelligent operatives within the organizations can honorably obey a foolish law in ways that subvert it. Veninga’s long efforts haven’t been wasted. His book comes alive, for instance, when he exemplifies the “public humanities in Texas” with the Texas Council’s “work focusing on Mexican American history and culture.” Prayerful sermonizing, however, is usually ineffective. Veninga’s constant emphasis on “community” becomes a sour joke in the dog-eat-dog society, where stockholders and executives make money by layoffs that have killed the working man’s old dream of loyal, lifelong employment.

In the real world, nice people can do the un-nicest things, and benevolent vacuity always does some harm. A sweet family-values photograph shows Barbara Bush lovingly patting her son’s cheek, with proud father and smiling wife at hand; but babble like Dubya Shrub’s “compassionate conservatism” is calculated to anesthetize good, simple souls who otherwise might think or even act. At the least, such verbal abuses defy the notion, stated by Veninga and popular among conservative hypists, that “language is a sacred trust.”

Presumably, God has more worrisome things to worry about than the purity of English or even its corruption by foundationese. Being unconcerned with such questions as in what language or languages God and the serpent addressed the original sinner, most linguists (not all) are content to leave Divinity out of their disquisitions; but once Veninga has raised the issue, it has to be dealt with. His addresses and Monica’s Story invite the judgment that that sacred trust has been violated. In notable similarity amidst dissimilarities, both books are badly written.

Andrew Morton, Author of the Year (which one?) and the teller also of Diana’s True Story, is a master of irrelevant detail and overblown diction. “It was a weary and emotionally drained Monica who arrived home at the Watergate; by way of consolation for not being able to attend the court, her anxious mother had bought her favorite Chinese dish, chicken chow mein.” “It has been her fate to be a pawn in a power struggle between two mighty foes, President Clinton and Judge Starr. One broke her heart, the other tried to break her spirit.” For comic relief after such high drama, savor a choice example of information most readers could live without: “she stopped off at the Starbucks coffee shop for her usual brew, a large latte, skimmed, with sweetener and a shake of chocolate and cinnamon.”

To match Morton’s strange verbal concoctions, just one more example of Veninga’s foundationese will serve: “…humanistic studies are invaluable…in helping to ensure the stimulation of imagination – of what might be possible as society seeks the good, the true, and the beautiful.” It would be a powerfully stimulated imagination that could envision the Texas Legislature hot to trot after goodness, truth, and beauty.

James Sledd, professor emeritus of English at U.T.—Austin, is curmudgeon emeritus at the Observer.