David Denby is the film critic of New York magazine, a man by his own admission professionally deformed by movies. Off duty he is normally busy with everything a successful journalist, husband, and father living in New York is likely to be busy with. Not the kind of man, one might think, who comes home from the office or the theater and selects the Iliad or The Social Contract or The German Ideology for his evening’s relaxation. But somehow Denby fell to thinking that there was something lacking in his intellectual life, and something wrong with the intellectual climate of his society. He recalled his student days at Columbia, where, in 1961, he had been required to take two “core” courses, Literature Humanities, or Lit Hum, and Contemporary Civilization, or C.C. Back in those days it was no doubt possible for young persons to find these courses tedious or exacting, but nobody had thought of calling them politically oppressive. By 1991 this was a commonplace judgment. Partly to test that judgment, partly out of a desire to find out what effect the experiment might have on “a settled man who was nevertheless unsettled,” Denby went back to Columbia and enrolled in both courses. When he came to the end of them he wrote up his experiences in this “adventure book.” The result will probably irritate a fair number of people, most of them inside the academy; their stock responses are unlikely to include due praise for this unusually angled, vivacious, and candid commentary.

A man nearing fifty can hardly hope to pass unnoticed in a freshman class, or to simulate the wonderful literary and philosophical innocence of most modern eighteen-year-olds, and it might be argued that the mere presence of Denby, however tactful his demeanor, must have fatally altered the situation he was hoping to investigate. But he at least took this possibility into account. He listened unaffectedly to his fellow students, got on well with some of them, and never mistook ignorance for stupidity.

Courses which begin with both the Homeric epics and take in Greek tragedy, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, the Bible, Augustine, Dante, Boccaccio, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Austen, Marx, Mill, Nietzsche, Beauvoir, and Woolf, to name but a few, must explicitly allow for students’ ignorance, but they will still seem terrifying to beginners. Taking the courses again thirty years on, a former student like Denby will be less ignorant, intellectually more streetwise. He was also capable of suspecting that there was more to be got from the Great Books than he had originally supposed, and that to have paid them little attention since college days might have been a damaging mistake.

He was ready to suffer a little to remedy it. At first the going was hard; to concentrate on the prescribed texts for long enough to respond sensibly to them called for an unwonted effort. He had to shift from the mode of attention appropriate to magazine articles to the quite different requirements of Homer and Aristotle. He made the shift, or could hardly have written this book.

Leaving aside for a moment the question of political opposition to freshman courses of this kind, it is proper to mention some of their inherent defects. The quantity of difficult reading required from students often quite unused even to far less strenuous intellectual exercise is enormous, yet they are expected to get through it, and to make active responses in class. They have to accept that the list of books they are compelled to study is something like the best that can be devised, but you don’t have to be a principled anti-canonist to point out arbitrary gaps, eccentricities, and fluctuations in the choices. Another glaring and hardly remediable defect is that all the great non-English books are studied in translation. Denby mentions that during a class on Dante an Italian-speaking student read aloud the opening lines of the Inferno in the original language. It was, he says, “too perfect a moment,” and about the only time the Lit Hum class, also somewhat awed, was ever asked to attend to the sound of poetry.

It will hardly be expected that freshmen should muster all or many of the languages that would enable them to do so more often—Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, Italian, German—but it would not be too much to ask that each should be able to read at least one of these languages—to have some notion of how Virgil or whoever sounds—if only to know by experience how much is inevitably lost and distorted even in good translations. And only when the Contemporary Civilization course reaches Hobbes (the first author on the list who wrote in English) are we reminded that prose can also sound as well as merely make statements.


What a grim and dislikable writer! Yet how hard he is to shake off! He has his own music—dreadful, somber, relentless—and I came to enjoy his methodically exact style of unpleasant pronouncement, his weighted and heavy-pawed seventeenth-century gait.

It isn’t surprising that the instructors have to talk about poetry as if it were prose, or entirely a matter of theme and structure, and about prose as if it were merely a container from which to extract propositions of a character not affected by the language in which they are expressed. To do that is not, though Denby says it is, to deal with “the nuts and bolts of literary analysis.” But it is certainly better than nothing.

In courses of this kind almost everything depends on the performance of the instructor. Denby, who gives the students pseudonyms, calls the teachers of the core courses by their real names, and in doing so commends, almost without reservations, the skill and enterprise of these rather remarkable people. Whatever the circumstances—say, a class early on a miserable December morning—they cannot afford to be boring, they constantly have to perform. Each, deploying his or her variety of showmanship, must deal with the problem of making these old foreign texts seem relevant to the interests of the drowsing students.

To give one example, Denby makes many allusions, mostly admiring, to the technique of Edward Tayler, in his own research a distinguished seventeenth-century scholar but in the core courses a learned and resourceful pedagogical showman who has repeatedly won awards for teaching prowess. “You are all Telemachus, aren’t you?” he says. The class, “rumpled and sleepy,…the women’s faces oddly blurred, the men with that protectively doltish look, caps turned around backward…,” is being asked to make something of the Odyssey. What can Tayler mean? Well, Telemachus doesn’t really know who he is, hasn’t seen his father for twenty years. Though unable to do anything to remedy the situation, he resents the usurpations of his mother’s suitors. But he gradually matures, and when in the end he finds his father he becomes strong and enterprising, knows who he is, comes into his own identity.

Homer, as Tayler tells it, is calling teen-agers to “the most heroic destiny.” And Odysseus himself has lessons for them: avoid Calypso, don’t be Calypsoed into regression and inaction. “The whole damn bunch of you are born for trouble,” says the professor. It is the ethical approach, not unlike that of a preacher teasing out the contemporary applications of some biblical text. Sometimes the teacher’s method changes, becomes cajoling, reminding or informing the young that interpretations are essentially plural, that Odysseus is a liar as well as a noble. Above all, the instructor seeks an aggiornamento of the ancient text, as when, teaching the Iliad, he rather brilliantly compares Achilles to the young Marlon Brando.

Tayler’s method may involve “magic tricks,” and Denby sometimes comes close to deploring the hipsterish or mountebank element in his approach, but it is justified by the positive reactions of the class, and by the teacher’s underlying seriousness—he is superb when the material is superb, and truly close to the center of Greco-Hebraic-Christian thought, as in his treatment of St. John’s logos.

The other instructors, though their approaches are different, share this demotic seriousness, knowing by tradition or instinct that there isn’t any other way of inserting the great texts into the interests of modern teen-agers. The process used to be called “accommodation,” and God was supposed to have resorted to it in allowing himself to be represented as experiencing anger, jealousy, and so forth in the Bible. Teachers who have never faced a whole year of the disciplines enforced by these accommodatory courses may well shudder at the prospect. There are such demands on one’s energy, so many unforeseeable interventions—some silly, some hostile, a few very acute—and a constant need to startle an unwilling audience out of lassitude, to update, to control arguments that can lead anywhere and may touch the deepest prejudices of some students while leaving others bored and bewildered.

Denby himself doesn’t claim to have been turned on by everything in the two courses, and confesses to a modest amount of skipping, but his enthusiasm for most of the syllabus is pretty impressive. He understands why the slaughter of Penelope’s suitors and the serving girls might strike the students as deplorably immoral, but refuses to turn against a work that gives so much pleasure simply because it “depends on notions that have caused the suffering and self-suppression of half the world’s population.” This remark is a fair representation of his general attitude to ethical and political issues in art. Like Wallace Stevens, Denby makes the dulce a more fundamental requirement than the utile: It Must Give Pleasure. This requirement doesn’t mean he can’t get into an argument with Plato when objecting to certain passages in The Republic, or that he cannot read Machiavelli as the first of the political philosophers deserving to be called modern, and able to satisfy his need for an understanding of “the social demoralization that was overtaking the United States, the fear, the crime, the class warfare, the murderous difficulties of the poor, and the consolidation of political will against them.” But aesthetic pleasure, even more than the pleasures of recognition, of finding modern accommodations, is Denby’s primary aim and achievement.


Here again he is necessarily set apart from the majority of his classmates. The course gave him some trouble—he took the exams and suffered almost as much as they did—but the dominant impression is of unexpectedly enormous enjoyment. Reading Hegel’s Philosophy of History was a personal triumph: “I felt like a traveler in an exotic country who has learned to speak the language…. Caught in a profession, and a way of life, that scattered my attention and caused movie images to run through my head, unbidden, day and night, I was nevertheless reading this bizarre, thick-limbed text, and I almost hugged myself in relief.” Such pleasure quite outweighs the unpleasure caused by Hegel’s Eurocentrism.

Among other sources of delight are Boccaccio’s stories, which came in at a good moment, for the lack of anything erotic in the syllabus (except for a momentary glance at Sappho) was by then embarrassingly obvious. Boccaccio is praised for writing as if women as well as men experience sexual desire, and, more generally, for celebrating Eros, builder as well as destroyer of cities. “I called everyone I knew: They had to read these stories.” They must also read Kant, and understand that the entire Columbia course is a critique of the categorical imperative, since choosing among duties is more important than choosing duty over inclination. The young Marx causes another burst of enjoyment, and “reading [his] best work would check the students’ complacency about their own system and possibly their own lives. Some of the good Marx was not just about early capitalism; it was about now.” Like Marx, John Stuart Mill, if you read him right, is far from being one more dead white male, since he emphasizes the absolute necessity of intellectual dissent, the right of all opinions to be freely expressed: “Mill’s arguments encompass the ethical condition of our believing things at all.” And in this respect Mill summarizes the entire purpose of Columbia’s canonical choices: “The books embodied not imperishable truths, and certainly not a uniformity of approach, but a radical tradition of self-questioning.” On to Nietzsche, wildly exhilarating after the deliberation of Mill.

Back in the more literary course, pleasure reaches new heights with Jane Austen (“as distant for some of these media-age students as was the Iliad,” yet providing “the logical summation of Lit Hum” in Elizabeth Bennet’s “Till this moment, I never knew myself”). Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse provides the great finale: “The entire tradition of Western literature could be heard breathing through that book.” Here is the highest pleasure, the pleasure of complexity, and that pleasure must be learned; so this course is a first step on the rugged climb to aesthetic pleasure and refined self-knowledge.

Denby’s is a personal, discursive book; we discover that he was mugged while reading Hobbes, which is from one point of view a felicitous coincidence; and he has seven “interludes” in which he chats about his friends, his daily vicissitudes, his opinions. Clearly he is an admirer of the core, but he gives it, and its enemies, plenty of judicious consideration. Are the courses shallow? Well, say rather that the books have to be treated too briefly. But they do begin to teach people to read and reflect on what they have read. With luck a perception of the sheer interest, the adversarial qualities, even the beauty of these books will inhibit the cant about inert cultural monuments and dead white males.

Denby is irritated by a student’s reaction when required to listen to a little Mozart—why not African music, which she already knew a lot about, rather than this authoritarian imposition of white cultural values? Did the preference for Mozart imply a scale of values that placed his music higher than that of Armstrong and Ellington? Well, yes, says Denby, but the main point was again the complex pleasure on offer. Why refuse it? Why not have both black and white? And why should the university seek to confirm this student’s possibly premature preferences rather than offer her the chance of new pleasures, involving an acquaintance with what she did not yet know? And anyway, why would it be harmful to minority students to understand the formative influences on American culture, even if they continued to condemn them? Denby treads delicately through these multicultural issues, though he is openly scornful of the timid buzzword, of the unfelt radicalism affected by many graduate students with their eye on jobs, obsequious to the prevailing mood of a professoriat which is often hostile to literature itself, preferring the escape into Theory.

On the question of the canon, he seems to me to be forthright and also right. He correctly denies that the canon is an instrument of “hegemonic discourse.” On the contrary, he claims, it is subversive of hegemonies. He dwells on the possible intellectual disturbance that can follow a serious reading of Nietzsche or Marx, uncorrupted by contemporary theoretical adaptations. Above all, the Columbia courses were not specific bodies of knowledge injected into students like a truth serum; nor were they a way of brainwashing the victims into a docile acceptance of “Western values.” “It was a struggle with difficult and faraway texts, which forced, willy-nilly, the trying on of selves; and it ended in the uniqueness of the individual student that emerged from the many selves. That is why the students’ lives were at stake when they read Montaigne….”

This may seem a rather melodramatic way of putting it, and it does show that Denby makes two arguments for canonical study without clearly distinguishing between them. One is that it gives pleasure in a heightened degree; the other is that it enables people to come to know themselves. No doubt that second benefit gives satisfaction to the recipient, but pleasure was not a reward promised by the Delphic Oracle, and it isn’t promised by Professor Tayler, who often warns the students that they are in for a difficult journey, with much to learn, in bed and out, and with many disappointments in both locations. Knowing yourself and taking pleasure in the structure of the last movement of the Jupiter Symphony, or in what Virginia Woolf does with the figure of the window in To the Lighthouse, seem to be two distinct kinds of experience, though I suppose having the second sort may somehow help you with the first.

What isn’t altogether clear about Denby’s position, however, is how he squares his resolute choice of the aesthetic over the ethical with this slightly preacherly insistence that literature can do you good by encouraging you to know yourself. His explanation of why students should study Pride and Prejudice, a work as remote from them as Homer, is that they need the message of the book: “the daunting, unending trial of self-consciousness and self-creation.” This merging of the aesthetic and the uplifting is never explicitly defended. Moreover the reason given for studying Pride and Prejudice must hold for many other novels, and does not of itself make the Austen novel as canonical as Denby (really because it so delights him) proposes.

No problem: like Columbia, he believes in a mutable canon. Works enter and leave, and sometimes the changes occur in deference to new demands, some multicultural, some feminist, some a matter of fashion and generational changes in valuation. All this is perfectly proper. There always have to be canons, and unless supported by rigorous ecclesiastical authority they are always subject to change. What keeps a book on the list is commentary; if nobody wants to talk about a book anymore, it will drop out and be replaced by something that commentary has established as worthy. The newcomer must of course withstand challenge in its turn.

A recent addition to the Columbia canon is Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Denby’s remarks on this choice begin with a report of a meeting of the organization known as Take Back the Night, at which women confess to their sufferings after sexual assaults. Much as he approved of including Beauvoir in the core curriculum, he was unhappy about Take Back the Night, and especially about date rape. He mentions the lamentation of a young woman who, having gone to bed with a man, “kissing and fooling around,” complained that he raped her. Denby’s response echoes that of Camille Paglia to this sort of complaint. He then pauses to reflect, remembering that Take Back the Night, though in itself a scene of self-inflicted and histrionic misery, to his taste absurd and forced, could be seen as reflecting a genuine and justified general protest at violence against women. However, after lengthy deliberation he decides that the real purpose of Take Back the Night “was not to change men’s sexual behavior at all but to politicize sexual relations and create female solidarity as an end in itself.”

Denby’s discussion of Beauvoir emphasizes the politicization of feminist views on sex—not Beauvoir’s, but the students’—their failure to understand that differences can exist without being invidious patriarchal distinctions. You can’t help feeling that such moderate views are bound to have a cold welcome in some circles, and that Denby, so considerate, so moderate, puts himself, in these inconsiderate and immoderate times, at considerable risk in being so. Not that he won’t speak out. He makes a sustained assault on Catharine MacKinnon and her view that female sexuality is a “social construct of male power.” Finally he concurs with the view of a fellow student: “There’s no escaping power…but power is not fixed. It can be negotiated, exchanged, modified, reversed. In sex, power is not fixed.”

This is an unfashionable gentleness, but Denby seems to be that sort of man, a very good sort of man. We have probably had enough of Robespierres and Defarges for a while. The best thing about his rather garrulous but pleasing book is his sane attitude toward the canon. He is delighted by the splendor and intelligence of the books he volunteered to read—by their intransigence, their debatability, their vigorous and surprising life. He doesn’t, of course, imagine that there are no other books with these qualities, other books that would move and alter the minds of anybody who read them seriously, whether or not they had to share their space with books from some other canon. You can’t teach everybody everything. Columbia made and continues to make (for the process is one of change) a list (which is all a canon really is) and asks its teachers to use the books on it to sharpen and if possible delight the minds of its freshmen. Denby’s book is a generous endorsement of that policy.

This Issue

September 19, 1996