Humanities for Humanity's Sake 2:
the Other Bill and Ted's Excellent
Adventure: Creativity, Innovation and Critique in the Arts
All things counter,
original, spare, strange....
Manley Hopkins (31)
of the box-office hits of 1989 that has remained relatively popular
among video renters is Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, an American buddy saga that
may be at least as good an indicator of the state of Western culture in
the ’nineties as Easy Rider
(1971) was in the ’seventies. Set
in the town of San Dimas, California, Bill
and Ted’s Excellent Adventure concerns two callow young men–Ted
Theodore Logan and Bill S. Preston, Esquire–who must pass a history
assignment in order to remain in high school, avoid enrolment in a
military academy, and continue playing in their garage band, which is
wishfully named “Wild Stallion.” Since, in their own words, the sum total of their knowledge of
history is that “the world has great history...the world is full of
history,” their rescue is no mean feat and, indeed, accomplished only
through the intervention of a deus
ex machina named Rufus who arrives in the nick of time in a
telephone booth from a future society that has improbably developed
around Bill and Ted’s execrable music and the foundational
propositions encapsulated in their two oft-repeated mottoes: “Be
excellent to each other” and “Party on, dudes!” With the help of Rufus and his time machine, Bill and Ted visit
several historical eras, bringing back with them an array of
“important figures” such as Socrates, Napoleon, Freud, Billy the
Kid, and Abraham Lincoln to enliven their oral report, which, of course,
is a spectacular success. En
route to the report, all the historical figures show themselves to be
utterly enthralled by the malls, water slides, aerobics classes,
consumer goods, and young people that they encounter in San Dimas, and
at the movie’s climax Lincoln not only thanks Bill and Ted for
bringing him on such an “excellent adventure,” but also endorses the
tenets of their caring yet hedonistic philosophy. The movie ends with Rufus explaining that a future society will
be founded on the music of “Wild Stallion” because it will bring the
“universe into harmony” and is “excellent for dancing.”
will tell you…what has been the practical error of the last twenty
years….It has been the error of distracting and enfeebling the mind
by an unmeaning profusion of subjects; of implying that a smattering
in a dozen branches of study is not shallowness, which it really is,
but enlargement, which it is not….Learning [now] is to be without
exertion, without attention; without toil; without grounding; without
advance, without finishing.
(Newman, The Idea of a University, 127)
there are many things to admire in Bill
and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, not least its youthful iconoclasm
and its insistence on mutual kindliness, but there is also much that is
dismaying and even disturbing, most especially its use of both the past
and the future to validate the near-mindlessness of a consumer and
entertainment culture whose defining architectural structures are the
shopping mall, the amusement park, and the gymnasium. Far from giving the audience of their report in the gym and the
movie theatre, a fresh, let alone a critical, perspective on the
present, Bill and Ted’s “1988 World Tour of Some of the Greatest
People that Ever Lived” merely reinforces the obsessions and values of
the present and, indeed, sanctions the view expressed by another
presenter (a football player, as it happens) that in history
“everything is different, yet the same.”
In the “all-inclusive
Bill and Ted’s Excellent
Adventure, the past is not a foreign country that careful,
sensitive, and dedicated students and scholars painstakingly attempt to
understand both for its own sake and for the sake of the light that it
may shed on the present and future, but a benighted realm whose
inhabitants were never able to ogle, guzzle, and, of course, purchase
the products of American consumer culture. In the year of the dismantlement of the Berlin Wall, Bill
and Ted’s Excellent Adventure proclaimed in its own amusing way
both the end of history and the death of the humanities as traditionally
understood and practiced: the decade in which “excellent” became a
cliché had arrived,
and was no sooner underway than the word “excellence” and its
cognates were appropriated and invested with alchemical properties by
university administrators keen to give their frequently leaden and
lacklustre institutions and programmes at least the appearance of being
is ‘for’ self-knowledge…. Knowing yourself means knowing what
you can do; and since nobody knows what he can do until he tries, the
only clue to what man can do is what man has done. (R.G.
Collingwood, The Idea of History, 10)
needless to say, the vision of the past as a primitive anticipation of
the enlightened present and glorious future that undergirds Bill
and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is neither new nor entirely
despicable, but a version of the Whig view of history whose fundamental
belief in social progress and human perfectibility can be comforting and
encouraging, though surely not, after a century of politically driven
mass murder on an unprecedented and almost unimaginable scale, quite so
convincing or compelling as it once may have been. But the excellent adventure and historical perspective of the
Bill and Ted to whom I would now like to direct attention seem to me to
embody a much broader, richer, and more appealing way of thinking about
historical developments and the relation of humanistic studies to
history than those assumed by the antics of Ted Theodore Logan and Bill
S. Preston, Esquire. No
reader of this journal (the Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies)–or, indeed, anybody who has thought at any
length and in some detail about the sources of current representations
of the pre-Modern era in everything from feminist history and the
heritage industry to Past Times
catalogues and the New Age movement– will be surprised to learn that the
Bill and Ted to whom I refer are William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones,
the leaders of the second group of Pre-Raphaelites who gathered in and
around Oxford University in the mid-to-late eighteen fifties and whose
work, far from being a celebration of contemporaneous culture, served as
an agent of its transformation. As
this essay will try to show, several aspects of the activities and
achievements of Morris, Burne-Jones, and other members of their
“Set” signalize the Oxford group of Pre-Raphaelites as a figurative
richly instructive site (study) in the edifice of the humanities to
which an interest in the Arts provides access and to which humanists
(and others) may repair in order to remember or discover the many
benefits and values of humanistic studies.
is absolutely essential that the learned community at the university
also contain a faculty that is independent of the government’s
command with regard to its teachings; one that, having no commands to
give, is free to evaluate everything, and concerns itself with the
interests of the sciences, that is, with truth: one in which reason is
authorized to speak out publicly. For without a faculty of this kind,
the truth would not come to light (and this would be to the
government’s own detriment); but reason is by its very nature free
and admits of no command to hold something as true (no imperative
“Believe!” but only a free “I believe”).(Immanuel
Kant, The Conflict of the Faculties, 27, 29)
venturing into the Pre-Raphaelite studium,
two general points about our other Bill and Ted need to be made. The first is that Morris, Burne-Jones, and their friends were
both like and unlike a great many undergraduates in Canadian
universities today–like in there appetite for fun, for members of the
opposite sex, for travel to exotic places (in the summer of 1855 three
of them travelled through northern France) and unlike in their appetite
for reading, discussing, and inwardly digesting works of history and
literature as formidable as Henry Hart Milman’s History
of Latin Christianity (1854-55), Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley
novels (1814-31), and Robert Browning’s
Men and Women (1855) (which Morris reviewed during his final term at
university). The second
point is that to a great extent Oxford failed them, for like Adam Smith,
Edward Gibbon, and Robert Southey in earlier
generations and like countless generations of students since, they found
university life “languid and indifferent,” the public lectures
devoted to the imparting of “knowledge” rather than the cultivation
of “wisdom,” and the system as a whole narrowly “instrument[al]”
and directed towards the production of “professional m[e]n” (Burne-Jones
1: 71-84). The preliminary lessons that the attitude and experience of
Morris and Burne-Jones have to offer for today’s humanities students
and faculty are surely too obvious to require more than minimal comment:
enthusiastic students and inspiring faculty are crucial to the energetic
and energizing survival of the humanities at colleges and universities
in the twenty-first century.
Perhaps the greatest advantage that Morris and Burne-Jones
secured for themselves during their years at Oxford was an inspirational
teacher in the form of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the most charismatic
member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and an heir to the creative
iconoclasm of Blake as well as to the spiritual realism of Dante, both
of which had of course fed into the P.R.B.’s rebellious flight from
Victorian artistic conventions towards what they saw as the greater
authenticity of pre-Renaissance art. Rossetti’s capacity to motivate receptive people wrung from
Burne-Jones one of the most moving descriptions ever written of an
inspired and inspiring teacher:
can we want more, you will say, for the intellectual education of the
whole man, and for every man, than so exuberant and diversified and
persistent a promulgation of knowledge [as is now available in the
media]? Why, you will ask, need we go up to knowledge, when knowledge
comes down to us?…Nevertheless, after all, even in this age,
whenever men are rally serious about getting… “a good article,”
when they aim at something precise, something refined, something
really luminous, something really large, something choice,
they…avail themselves, in some shape or other, of the rival method,
the ancient method of oral instruction, of present communication
between man and man, of teachers…. (Newman,
Rise and Progress of Universities, 3:7-8)
other men’s ideas he was decidedly the most generous man I ever knew.
No one so threw himself into what other men did–it was part of
his enormous imagination....He taught me to have no fear or shame of my
own ideas, to design perpetually, to seek no popularity, to be
altogether myself–and this not in any words I can remember, but in the
tenor of his conversation always and in the spirit of everything he
said....So what I chiefly gained from him was not to be afraid of
myself, but to do the thing I liked most....He never harangued or
persuaded, but had a gift of saying things authoritatively and not as
addition to the self-confidence to which this passage so eloquently
attests, Rossetti gave Morris and Burne-Jones four great gifts that are
arguably as important to the prosperity of the humanities today as they
were to the activities and achievements of the second group of
Pre-Raphaelites nearly a century and a half ago.
a practical end must be assigned to a University course, I say it is
that of training good members of society….It is the education which
gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgements,
a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a
force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to go
right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what
is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant. It prepares him to
fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility. It
shows him how to accommodate himself to others, how to throw himself
into their state of mind, how to bring before them his own, how to
influence them, how to come to an understanding with them, how to bear
with them. (Newman,
The Idea of a University, 154-55)
first of these was a passionate belief that in any artistic or critical
work of enduring value all the human faculties–senses and emotions as
well as thoughts and skills–must be brought into play by both the
creator and the audience. Looking around him at Victorian culture in the years
surrounding the Great Exhibition of 1851, Rossetti rejected the notion
that progress can be measured merely in terms of material abundance and
technical skill, and, as a corrective, confronted his society with the
intense spirituality, religious feeling, and creative integrity–the
fullness of human experience–that he found in Dante, Giotto, Cavalcanti,
Cimabue, and other poets and painters who worked in the period before
art became a “soulless self-reflection of...skill” (Works
99). To him, engagement with a work of painting or poetry was a
kind of reverie or waking dream in which we are at once our rational,
emotional, and spiritual selves and active participants in another’s
(or an other’s) similarly complex experiences. Such reveries, he thought and felt, can connect individuals one
to another, and produce in each of us a set of experiences that are at
once different and common–a series of personal yet collective ways of
thinking about the past, the present, and the future.
This is one of the foundational messages of “Hand and Soul,”
the artistic-manifesto-cum-prose-poem that Rossetti published in the
first number of The Germ (January
1850), the little magazine whose innumerable successors include all the
graduate and undergraduate “zines” in which the creative and
critical talents of Arts students and faculty still find expression.
“Be not nice to seek out division, but possess thy love in
sufficiency...for the heart must believe first,” Rossetti’s
fictional hero is told by his soul, for when you do what you find in
your “heart to do...it shall be well done” (30-31). Such advice should be on the wall of every guidance counsellor in
every school, college, and university in the Western world.
most valuable result of the study of literature is that the student is
made to realize that there are more things in heaven and
earth—experiences religious, aesthetic, emotional and even physical,
on the surface and in the depths—than can be analysed, controlled or
predicted. They come and go at the most unexpected times. (G.B.
Harrison, The Profession of English, 173)
second of Rossetti’s great gifts to Morris and Burne-Jones was a
democratic conception of creative talent and ability whereby the
capacity to acquire artistic skills and make new things is not limited
to an élite but present in everyone. It was this conception that motivated Rossetti (and with him
John Ruskin) to teach Art at the London Working Men’s College, where
Burne-Jones, who had made up his mind to become a painter while on
vacation with Morris in northern France in the summer of 1855 (see Burne-Jones
1:115), travelled from Oxford to meet him in January of the following
year. It was this conception that by then had enabled Rossetti’s
fiancée Elizabeth Siddal to discover and exercise her gifts as a poet
and painter and that in the ensuing decade would encourage Morris and
Burne-Jones to unleash an astonishing variety of talents and skills,
from poetry (Morris) and painting (Burne-Jones) to furniture, wallpaper,
tapestry, stained glass, and, of course, typeface and book design. It was this conception and its results that led eventually to the
foundation in April 1861 of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company, the
partnership of “artsies” and “techies” (Marshall was a surveyor,
Faulkner a mathematician) whose methods and products would give rise to
the Arts and Crafts Movement that changed the appearance and practices
of two continents in the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth
century. What had begun as
a rejection of post-Renaissance individualism and technicism became a
working exemplar of medieval integration and interdependence that was
“innovative...commercial” (Marsh 236), and an object lesson for
politicians and entrepreneurs everywhere on the impossibility of
predicting where, when, and how creativity and productivity will emerge,
thrive, and spawn progeny. Who knows, but that the next revolution in some area of taste
or design or production is not even now taking shape in the Arts faculty
of some college or university in Canada or elsewhere.
continual contact with clear expression, the student’s own thoughts
and…power of expressing them increase. Herein lies the justification
and the necessity of the disciplined study of the technique of writing
in its narrower and wider aspects. That study has also the effect that
the more exactly and clearly we try to express our own feelings, ideas
and experiences, the more acute and sensitive we become, not only in
ourselves but also about what is happening in another’s depths.
The Profession of English, 174)
of the achievements and results of Morris, Burne-Jones, and “the
Firm” as it came to be called would have been possible without the
third of Rossetti’s great gifts to them: the belief that to be
worthwhile, effective, and enduring all creative work must rest firmly
on a foundation of what he called “FUNDAMENTAL BRAINWORK” (qtd. in
Caine 249)–not the sort of bright ideas that are termed “brain
waves” when they occur to an individual and the products of “brain
storming” when they occur to a group, but basic, hard work of a sort
that is familiar to all scholars and researchers in any discipline. It was on the basis of the sort of “fundamental brainwork”
that students and scholars in the humanities undertake when they embark
on a research paper that the Pre-Raphaelites and their associates built
their understanding and depictions of the Middle Ages.
Here is Ford Madox Brown in late November and early December 1847
after deciding to paint Wycliffe
Reading his Translation of the Bible to John of Gaunt in the Presence of
Chaucer and Gower (1848):
it is evident that the engine driving the economy is the human
capacity for creative thought and action. What is new to many
observers is that the arts present one of the best models of creative
thought. As a result, the role of the arts and creative activity are
finding a new respect and interest, with deliberate and growing
efforts to find linkages for the common good.
of this is driven by research throughout the nineties, which has
demonstrated that widely different types of intellectual activity draw
on different areas of intelligence simultaneously….Creative insights
often occur when new connections are made between ideas and
experience[s] that were not previously related.
of this has escaped [Canada’s] more progressive corporate
leaders….In the past,…says [Jim Prieur, the CEO of Sun Life
Financial], “business sought narrowly defined skills.” Today,
“we require people who understand change, and understand it in its
historic context, and…can adapt. The ability to think creatively and
respond is critical.” …Opening people’s eyes to culture and the
arts, …believes [Ian Gillespie, CEO of the Export Development
Corporation (EDC)], is essential to moving “from a parochial
environment to a world of international trading…. [In a
multi-cultural country, the arts] aren’t simply an elitist
interest…but have much broader benefit in that they allow people to
engage in social interaction in a manner which few other activities
permit.” Business, he adds, must take a leadership role in promoting
[the arts, arts activity, and arts education].
business interests will be in the fore of grappling with th[e]
issue…[of] tapping into the creativity that resides in all young
[people]. Our educational system, cultural organizations and business
must work towards this. All our futures depend on it.
(“The Arts and Our Future”)
[British] Museum [Reading Room] for consulting authorities...saw [John
Lewis’s An Account of Dr. Wiclif
(1728)], [and] [Robert] Southey’s Book
of the Church (1824)....
the Museum, read [William] Godwin’s [Life
of Geoffrey Chaucer, Including Memories of John Gaunt (1803)]
Made a drawing of an gothic alphabet[,] read [J. Saunders’ Cabinet
Pictures of English Life: Chaucer (1845)
to the Museum. Finish[ed]
the alphabet [and] consulted [A.W.N.] Pugin on furniture [Gothic
Furniture in the Style of the 15th Century (1835)]. (Brown
distinctive quality of the research- intensive… university is that it
is the only place where professional school education, graduate arts
and sciences education, undergraduate education, research, and
teaching are all joined together in one place as an integrated
only are…research universities the only institutions in society
charged with doing all those tasks, but they are also the only
institutions charged with trying to keep, as fully and accurately as
possible, what we might call “the human record,” the record of
civilization. Whether is embodied in our libraries, or in the minds
and capacities of our faculty, or in what the faculty publishes and
teaches, one of the chief purposes of the university is to keep that
“record” as straight, honest, accurate, and comprehensive as
possible. And that includes constantly interpreting the record as we
know it. Universities regard knowledge as something that must be
constantly probed, questioned, and explained, so we can understand our
past, as well as our present.
active custodial role of interpretation, explanation, and
clarification is something very special—no other institution has
this task as one of its primary purposes. That’s one reason we
teach…languages—and something about their cultures and
civilizations…because if universities fail to do that, and we begin
to forget the variety and richness of what human beings have created,
we will simply lose a vast proportion of what we need to know in order
to understand what humankind really is. (Neil
L. Rudenstine in Ethan Bronner et al, “The Future of the
Research Universi.y,” 47-48
the ensuing years, the search for new literary subjects and a fresh
poetic vocabulary (what he called “stunning words for poetry” [Letters
1:55]) took Rossetti repeatedly to the British Museum Reading Room and–to cite just one instance of his research
comparative study of at least two versions of the Gesta
Romanorum that yielded “The Staff and Scrip,” the chivalric
romance that he first published in the 1856 number of Morris’s
Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. A similar reliance on “fundamental brainwork” characterizes
the work of the second group of Pre-Raphaelites: for example, several of
Burne-Jones’s drawings and designs for paintings, murals, and stained
glass of the ’fifties, ’sixties, and ’seventies are based on
Camille Bonnard’s Costumes des
XIII, XIV et XV siècles, extraits des monuments les plus authentiques
de pienture et de sculpture avec un texte historique et descriptif
(1829-30) (see Yamaguchi 24-25) and the poems and tales on medieval
subjects that Morris published in The
Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, The
Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems (1858), and elsewhere continue
to astonish for the scholarly precision upon which their imaginative
historicism is firmly based. When Matthew Barrett, the sometime President of the Bank of
Montreal, told the Canadian Club in Toronto in November 1996 that a
student of the Canterbury Tales
is more employable in the financial world than the product of
accountancy training he was thinking primarily of the transferability of
analytical skills (see Galt), but the example of the Pre-Raphaelites
surely indicates that such skills belong to a larger set that includes
research, scholarship, creativity, and innovation.
is important that beauty and the imagination not be discredited within
literary study, for they are one important source of… empowerment
against injustice in the external world….It is not by
coincidence—but instead by the deep intimacy of aesthetic fairness
and ethical fairness—that beauty presses us to act on its behalf in
a way that anticipates the two Rawlsian duty-to-justice rules: (1) to
protect and act as stewards of beauty where it already exists and (2)
to try to bring it into being where it does not yet exist.
humanities need to return not only to celebrating beauty and the
imagination but also to teaching scholarly research within the
classroom….I mean by scholarly research the use of footnotes to make
both transparent and available the paths of evidence that lead to the
argument, an argument in which something actual is at stake. With such
notes, the argument can also be placed in the context of alternate
explanations and counterarguments, so that its accuracy can continue
to be queried and tested.
(Elaine Scarry, “Beauty and the Scholar’s Duty to Justice,” 25,
fourth and last of Rossetti’s great gifts to Morris and Burne-Jones
was his strengthening and sharpening of the critical attitude to
Victorian culture that had led them before meeting him to found a
semi-monastic community that would undertake a “crusade and Holy
Warfare against the age” (Burne-Jones 1:84).
Such a critical attitude and its underlying assumption that
society’s values should be interrogated and, if found wanting, changed
for the better is conspicuously absent from Bill
and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but it is almost everywhere evident
in the work of Rossetti, Morris, and Burne-Jones, and, very clearly,
provided the motive force behind the imaginative historicism that took
them to the Middle Ages–to Malory’s Morte
d’Arthur and Froissart’s Chronicles–in
search of the sources and a cure for the malaise that they, Carlyle,
Ruskin, and others saw around them in Victorian England. It was on the basis of a critical attitude that issued in
imaginative historicism that Morris and Burne-Jones were able to achieve
what Rossetti called “‘an inner standing-point,’” a “medieval
and unmodern” perspective (W.M. Rossetti 661), that enabled them to
stand at least partially and temporarily outside their own time and
place–to make cultural differentiations, to articulate social
critiques, and to envision things as other and otherwise than they are.
For them, as for Rossetti, the “all-inclusive nowness”
that found expression in the Crystal Palace was a goad to the creation
of a capaciously diachronic now in which the present could be re-valued,
re-formed, and re-directed rather than merely validated by the past. Today such immeasurably important and (even economically)
valuable capabilities and possibilities are increasingly under threat as
humanists are being more and more encouraged by governments and granting
agencies to forsake the cultural and social travel to which their
disciplines conduce in favour of activities whose fine-sounding
terminology of “interdisciplinarity,” “technoculture,” “media
studies,” and “the knowledge economy” should not be allowed to
conceal the dangers of allowing the sort of curiosity-driven scholarship
that can lead to transformative critique to be sacrificed on the altar
of bureaucratic logic and government policy.
Nor do the dangers inherent in these developments lie merely (or
even) in the disappearance of the humanities as traditionally
understood. Much more
important is the threatened disappearance in the universities especially
but also in society at large of humanistic outsiders, people with
“inner standing-point[s]” who are capable of interrogating,
provoking, and enriching society from any perspective that can be
envisaged, or should be, in a free society. On this issue of a desirable diversity of perspectives as a
necessary counterbalance to every society’s tendency to encourage
conformity to a single set of norms, the Pre-Raphaelites are again
instructive, for the critical attitudes of Morris, Burne-Jones and
Rossetti himself took them each in very different directions in the
mid-to-late Victorian period: Morris to the utopian socialism of A Dream of John Ball (1888), News
from Nowhere (1891), and other works; Burne-Jones to the reclusive
medievalism that prompted him to name his studio “Avalon,” and
Rossetti to the “fleshly” and esoteric literary and artistic
compositions that so troubled the likes of James Buchanan, and which
have come to be recognized as precursors and exemplars of the aesthetic
and symboliste manners in
which lie the roots (not to say “the germ”) of Modernism.
becomes clear is that both ideas of the university [i.e., as useful or
useless to the state], which seem to be set directly against each
other as radical or conservative, are equally necessary to the state,
as is the conflict between them.
To enter into that conflict by resisting one with the other is
to remain blind to the extent to which they are interimplicated and
therefore not in any sense alternatives. Such a strategy can only
ensure that you lose any point of leverage whatsoever. A more
successful point of leverage might begin with the recognition that [neoconservatism
or neoliberalism] d[oes] indeed operate not just by the ethos of [Adam
Smith’s] The Wealth of Nations in general, but according to its own
precise contradictory logic, whereby the creation and maintenance of a
‘free’ market for the economy can only be sustained by an
ever-increasing authoritarian and centralized control by the state
apparatus of everything ‘outside’ that market that services its
needs—such as education. The question today’s philosophers [in the
Kantian sense of the word] need to ask is this: In what ways and with
what effects can the university, both inside and outside the market
economy, useful and useless, function as a surplus that the economy
cannot comprehend? (Robert
Young, “The Idea of a Chrestomathic University,” 121-22)
the context of these radically differing versions of social critique,
the case of the enfant terrible of the second group of Pre-Raphaelites–Swinburne–warrants
special attention. A
classical scholar who made major and influential contributions to
criticism on a variety of authors from Chapman, Marlowe, and other
Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists to Blake, Baudelaire, and the
Bröntes, Swinburne began his career with two relatively tame and
unthreatening works in the imaginative-historical vein (The Queen Mother, Rosamund , and Atalanta in Calydon ), but thereafter embarked on a decade of
confronting Victorian readers with the moral, religious, and sexual
problems that he saw as a product of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In its seeming blasphemy and its vigorous treatment of such
themes as lesbianism and masochism, his Poems and Ballads (1866) prompted one Grundean critic, John Morley,
to suggest that he was “so firmly and avowedly fixed in an attitude of
revolt against the current notions of decency and dignity and social
duty” that to ask him to change would be pointless, and to speculate
that he was “either the vindictive and scornful apostle of a crushing
iron-shod despair, or else...the libidinous laureate of a pack of
satyrs” (22, 29). In his response to Morley’s attack on “Anactoria,” a
monologue spoken by the Greek poet Sappho, Swinburne defended himself in
terms that testify to the validity of attempting, as all humanists must,
to render responsibly the ideas and attitudes of people of different
races, genders, classes, and times. “I have striven to cast my spirit into the mould of [Sappho’s],
to express and represent not the poem but the poet,” he wrote,
Here and there [in the
poem]...I have rendered into English the very words of Sappho. I have
tried also to work into words of my own some expression of their effect:
to bear witness how, more than any other’s, her verses strike and
sting the memory in lonely places, or at sea, among all loftier sights
and sounds–how they seem akin to fire and air, being themselves ‘all
air and fire’... (Prose
Works 6: 359)
the analysts end up for example working on the structures…of
literary fiction, on a poetic rather than an informative value of
language, on the effects of undecidability, and so on, by that very
token they are interested in possibilities that arise at the outer
limits of the authority and power of the principle of reason. On that
basis, they may attempt to define new responsibilities in the face of
the university’s total subjection to the technologies of
informatization. Not so as to refuse them; not so as to counter with
some obscurantist irrationalism….To raise…new questions may
sometimes protect an aspect of philosophy and the humanities that has
always resisted the influx of knowledge; it may also preserve the
memory of what is much more deeply buried and ancient than the
principle of reason….But…these new modes of questioning…are also
a new relation to language and tradition, a new affirmation, and new
ways of taking responsibility
new responsibilities cannot be purely academic. If they remain
difficult to assume, extremely precarious and threatened, it is
because they must at once keep alive the memory of a tradition and
make an opening beyond any program, that is, toward what is called the
Derrida, “The Principle of Reason: the University in the Eyes of Its
Swinburne mandates consideration here not only because he exemplifies the
vital and sometimes discomforting role that humanists can play in
questioning orthodoxies, championing exceptions, and affirming deviations
from norms and rules, but also because of his eloquent insistence against
an accusation that today might be couched in times of appropriation of
voice that empathy, translation, adaptation, imagination, and “bear[ing]
witness” are the bridges that make connections between people and across
ages possible and powerful. No
member of the Pre-Raphaelite circle put this last issue more succinctly
than a poet whose attitude to Christianity was almost diametrically
opposed to Swinburne’s. Particularly
when “unpleasent-sided subject[s]” such as prostitution are concerned,
Christina Rossetti told Dante Gabriel in a letter of March 13, 1865, a
female poet especially has the right and responsibility to write about
experiences that she has not had herself:
“(thank God) my experiences excludes me from hers,” she wrote
of the “female figure whose internal portrait” is painted in “The
Iniquity of the Fathers Upon the Children” (1866), “yet [I] don’t
see why ‘the Poet mind’ should be less able to construct her from its
own inner consciousness than a hundred other unknown quantities”
(1:234). No less than
Swinburne and Christina Rossetti, humanists today must insist on their
freedom to imagine and inquire outside the range of topics to which
politicians, granting councils, and even some of their peers give
rhetorical, economic, and unimaginative preference, for such freedom is
both a measure and a portion of the freedom of society as a whole.
(As the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky has put it, “[t]he surest
defence against evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking,
whimsicality, even, if you will, eccentricity....Evil is a sucker for
solidarity. It always goes for big numbers, for confident granite, for
ideological purity, for drilled armies and balanced sheets” [qtd. in
In drawing this essay to
a close, I would like to look briefly at two of the many things for
which William Morris is remembered today.
The first is “The Defence of Guenevere” itself, a poem that
is so much more than one legendary woman’s defence of her own
integrity that it can almost be construed as a defense of humanity in
all its intellectual, physical, and spiritual richness and uncertainty.
Quintessentially human in her desire to “experience the full
play of all things” that D.H. Lawrence saw as the source of “the
wholeness of a man, the wholeness of a woman, man live, and live
woman” (198), Morris’s Guenevere is a creation of imaginative
empathy who holds her accusers at bay by regaling them with stories,
confronting them with aesthetic conundrums, calling into question the
validity of their moral assumptions, and, most famously, impressing upon
them the difficulties attendant upon every act of interpretation and
choice. “Listen,” she
says, “suppose your time were come to die, /And you were quite alone
and very weak...Suppose a hush should come, then some one speak”:
“One of these cloths is heaven,
and one is hell,
choose one cloth for ever; which they be,
will not tell you, you must somehow tell
“Of your own strength and
mightiness; here, see!”
yea...and you ope your eyes,
foot of your familiar bed to see
great God's angel standing, with such dyes,
known on earth, on his great wings, and hands
out two ways, light from the inner skies
him well, and making his commands
to be God's commands; moreover, too,
within his hands the cloths on wands;
one of these strange choosing cloths was blue,
and long, and one cut short and red;
man could tell the better of the two.
a shivering half-hour you said:
“God help! heaven’s colour, the blue;” and he said: “hell.”
you then would roll upon your bed,
cry to all good men that you loved well,
“Ah Christ! if only I had known, known, known.”
Works 1: 2-3)
university is for both scholarship and service; and herein lies that
ethical quality which makes the university a real person, bound by its
very nature to the service of others. To fulfil its high calling the
university must give and give freely to its students, to the world of
learning and of scholarship, to the development of trade, commerce,
and industry, to the community in which it has its home, and to the
state and nation whose foster-child it is.
time-old troubles of town and gown are relics of an academic aloofness
which was never desirable and which is no longer possible.
(Nicholas Murray Butler, Scholarship and Service: the Policies and
Ideals of a National University in a Modern Democracy, 11, 12)
this sounds like an excerpt from a humanities lecture, the reasons are
not far to seek: in addition to focusing on a moment of interpretation
and choice, it involves cultural conventions, epistemological
assumptions, rhetorical structures, speech acts, and eschatological
verities, all within a public performance that is itself not unlike a
lecture. It has a visual
equivalent in Sir Launcelot’s
Vision of the Sanc Graal (1857),
Rossetti’s contribution to the ill-fated frescoes that he inspired
“the Set” to propose to the Oxford Union Debating Society, where it
is Guenevere herself who embodies the interpretative problem. What is to be made of the fact that she stands between Launcelot
and his vision holding out the apple of temptation but in the posture of
Christ on the Cross? Is she
a temptress or a redemptress? Is
Launcelot destined for heaven or hell? It would appear that England’s future politicians,
professionals, and entrepreneurs were expected to leave the hall of the
Oxford Union Debating Society inspired by high ideals, warned of
pitfalls, puzzled, thoughtful–no mean goals for a kind of visual
lecture on medieval legend and moral philosophy. Very likely, “The Defence of Guenevere” was intended to
have similar effects, for as Morris had written in his review of
Browning’s Men and Women in
the March 1856 number of The
Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, “it does not often help poems much
to solve them”: no more can
their “turns of thought...[be] done in prose...[than] colour in a great
picture...be rendered by a coloured woodcut” (Collected Works 1: 340-41).
education consists…of professionalism and research….But if we
scrutinize… programmes of [university] instruction more closely, we
discover that the student is nearly always required, apart from his
professional apprenticeship and his research, to take some courses of
a general character—philosophy, history.
takes no great acumen to recognize in this requirement the last,
miserable residue of something more imposing and more meaningful…not
an ornament for the mind and a training of the character…[but a]
system of ideas, concerning the world and humanity….The ensemble, or
system, of these ideas is culture in the true sense of the term; it is
precisely the opposite of external ornament. Culture is what saves
human life from being a mere disaster; it is what enables man to live
a life which is something above meaningless tragedy or inward
(Jose Ortega Y Gasset, Mission of the University, 42-44)
second of Morris’s accomplishments that I would like to mention by way
of conclusion is The Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings (1877)
and, more specifically, his definition of what makes a
“building...worth protecting,” for this seems to me not only to
apply to several aspects of the complex edifice of the humanities, but
also to indicate why and by whom that edifice should be preserved. “[A] building...worth protecting,” wrote Morris, is
“anything which can be looked on as artistic, picturesque, historical,
antique, or substantial: any work, in short, over which educated,
artistic people would think it worthwhile to argue...” (“The
Society’s Manifesto” 7). “[E]ducated,
artistic people” arguing about “worthwhile” things that are in
need of “protection”: it is by no means a full account of the
activities and aims of the humanities, but it is a good place to end,
very slightly different version of this paper was delivered on February
8, 2001 as the Special Public Lecture on the inaugural Humanities Day
sponsored by the Humanities Research Group at
the University of Windsor, Windsor, Canada. My thanks to
Jacqueline Murray and Kathleen McCrone for inviting me to give the
Lecture and to the staff and students at the University of Windsor,
particularly Rosemary Halford, who made the experience so pleasurable
This article was originally published in The Journal of
Pre-Raphaelite Studies, 10 (Spring 2001): 43-57.
This is the “myopi[c]” condition that Marshall McLuhan
diagnoses in “young lives” that have [back]
heavily exposed to “TV’s mosaic image” (355).
See also Harold A. Innis’s observation
Changing Concepts of Time that “[t]he overwhelming pressure of
mechanization evident in the newspaper and the magazine has led to the
creation of vast monopolies of communication” whose “entrenched
positions involve a continuous, systematic, ruthless destruction of
elements of permanence essential to cultural activity. The emphasis on change is the only permanent characteristic”
See Bill Readings on the discourse of excellence in The University in Ruins 12-14, 21-43, and
elsewhere. Readings observes that Bill
and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is “an interesting attempt to
understand the impossibility of historical thought once knowledge
has...become commodified as information” (53).
This term is used with an awareness of John Henry Newman’s
(Mediaeval Latin) definition of the
university as a “Studium
Generale, or ‘School of Universal Learning’” (Rise
and Progress of Universities 6) and with a sense of its (Classical
Latin) constellations of meanings (“assiduity,” “eagerness,”
“fondness,” “zeal”; “attachment,” “devotion”). [back]
See Smith 2: 284, Gibbon, 29-31, and Southey 3: 85.
See Bentley, “‘The Staff and Scrip’” for a further
discussion of the syncretic aspects and conceptual underpinnings of the
poem. See also Burne-Jones 1:110, 130 for intimations that
The Germ was one of the ancestors of The
Oxford and Cambridge Magazine.
See Bentley “From Allegory to Indeterminacy,” and McGann, passim. [back]
In his review of Men and
Women, Morris draws attention to emphasis on “love for love’s
sake,” commenting that “if that is not obtained, disappointment
comes, falling-off, misery” and adding “[p]ray Christ some of us
attain to it before we die” (Collected Works 1:
Arts and Our Future.” National Post (Toronto) 28 Oct 2000. W16.
D.M.R. “From Allegory to
Indeterminacy: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Positive Agnosticism.” Dalhousie
Review 70 (Spring 1990): 70-106 and 70 (Summer 1990): 146-68.
–––. “‘The Staff and Scrip’ and Rossetti’s Pilgrim of Love.” Trivium 16 (1981): 107-26.
and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
Nelson Entertainment. Stephen Herek, 1989.
Ethan, et al. “The Future of the Research University: a Harvard Magazine Roundtable.” Harvard
Magazine. Sep-Oct 2000. 46-57, 102-05.
G[eorgiana]. Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones. 2 vols. 1904.
London: Macmillan, 1912.
Nicholas Murray. Scholarship and Service: the Policies and Ideals of a National University
in a Modern Democracy. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1921.
T. Hall. Recollections. London:
Elliott Stock, 1882.
R.G. The Idea of History. New
York: Oxford UP, 1956.
Jacques. “The Principle of
Reason: the University in the Eyes of Its Pupils.”
Trans. Catherine Porter and Edward P. Morris. Diacritics (Fall 1983):
Virginia. “Bank President
Advocates Teaching Students to Think.” Globe and Mail (Toronto). 30 No 1996. A14.
Edward. Autobiography. Ed.
M.M. Reese. Routledge
English Texts. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970.
G.B. Profession of English. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.
Gerard Manley. Poems and Prose.
Ed. W.H. Gardner. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1953.
Harold A. Changing Concepts of Time. Toronto:
U of Toronto P, 1952.
Immanuel. The Conflict of Faculties (Der Streit der Fakuttäten).
Trans. Mary J. Gregor.
Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1979.
and Mail (Toronto). 24 April 1992. A 24.
D.H. “Why the Novel
of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays. By D.H.
Bruce Steele. Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works of D.H. Lawrence.
Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985. 193-98.
Jan. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Painter and Poet. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1999.
Jerome. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Game that Must Be Lost.
New Haven: Yale UP, 2000.
Marshall. Understanding Media, the Extensions of Man.
New York: McGraw Hill, 1964.
Sir Walter. The Crisis in the University. London:
SCM Press, 1949.
John. Rev. of Poems and
Ballads. By A.C. Swinburne. Algernon Swinburne: the
Ed. Clyde K. Hyder. 1970.
Critical Heritage Series. London:
Routledge, 1995. 22-29.
William. Collected Works. Ed.
May Morris. 24 vols.
London: Longman Green, 1945.
“The Society’s Manifesto.” The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Report of
Committee for the Eighty-ninth to Ninety-second Year,
1966-1969. London: S.P.A.B,
John Henry, Cardinal. The
Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated. 1852.
I.T. Ker. Oxford: Clarendon,
Rise and Progress of
Universities. Vol. 3.
Historical Sketches. London: Longmans, Green,
Y Gasset, José. Mission of the University. Trans.
Howard Lee Nostrand. London:
Kegan Paul, 1946.
Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge,
Mass: Harvard UP, 1996.
Rossetti, Christina. Letters. Ed. Anthony B.
Harrison. 3 vols. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1997-2000.
Dante Gabriel. “Hand and
Germ 1 (January 1850): 23-33.
Ed. William M.
Rossetti. London: Ellis,
William M. “Notes.” Works. By Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Ed. William M. Rossetti.
London: Ellis, 1911. 647-84.
Elaine. “Beauty and the Scholar’s Duty to Justice.” Profession 2000.
Ed. Phyllis Franklin. New York: Modern Language Association, 2000. 21-31.
Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
Cannan. 2 vols. 1904.
Robert. Life and Correspondence. Ed.Charles Cuthbert Southey.
vols. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1850.
Algernon Charles. Complete Works. Ed.
Sir Edmund Gosse and Thomas James
Wise. 1925. New York: Russell and Russell, 1968.
Eriko. “Rossetti’s Use of
Bonnard’s Costumes Historiques:
Examination.” Journal of
Pre-Raphaelite Studies NS 9 (Fall 2000): 5-36.
Robert. “The Idea of a Chrestomathic University.” Logomachia: the Conflict of
Ed Richard Rand. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1992. 97-126