One of the consolations of retirement is the opportunity to read some of the books one has known about for a long time, perhaps even has lectured about, but which one has never actually read. Wandering down this path, I have started reading Bruno Bettelheim's well-known book, THE USES OF ENCHANTEMENT: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. For those of you who do not know the name, Bettelheim, a psychoanalyst who committed suicide in 1990 at the age of eighty-seven, was known principally for his work with autistic children, and for the theory that autism is traceable to the emotional frigidity of the mother -- a theory since mostly discredited. He was by all accounts a rather unpleasant man, but he was brilliant, and, if his book on fairy tales is any indication, sensitive to and sympathetic to children.
However, the purpose of this blog post is not to talk about Bettelheim's theory of the role that fairy tales play in the growing up of healthy children. Rather, I want to use the book as a hook on which to hang a broader and more interesting observation about the evolution in the past two centuries of what used to be called "the human sciences," and are now called the Humanities and Social Sciences.
For much of the two and a half millennia of western literature and culture, a sharp distinction was drawn between high and low styles and subjects of discourse. [For a stunningly brilliant discussion of this subject, I strongly recommend what is possibly the greatest work of Humanist scholarship ever written -- Erich Auerbach's MIMESIS.] The doings of kings, emperors, and generals were considered worthy of serious examination in tragedies or works of historiography. The lives of peasants, slaves, and the low born generally were not. Large spheres of human experience, however universally familiar they might be, were simply beneath the notice of the gentle born. They were, in the old Latin phrase, infra dignitatem, or, as the slang came to have it, infra dig.
The rigid separation of high and low styles was not strictly enforced even in ancient times, as Auerbach demonstrates, but it continued to dominate academic discourse well into the eighteenth century and beyond. The first modern rejection of this tradition came with the establishment of the discipline of economics, or, as it was then called, Political Economy. The subject of the investigations of this new science was the buying and selling of ordinary commodities in the marketplace by commoners who lacked both social status and classical learning. That such undignified doings could yield propositions of great beauty and power was, by itself, a challenge to the traditions of intellectual discourse.
Over the next century, one body of materials after another, formerly considered infra dig, was taken up and made the subject matter of an academic discipline. Edward Tyler, in his seminal work PRIMITIVE CULTURE, applied to the religious practices and kinship relationships of some mostly naked inhabitants of the Southern Hemisphere the term of esteem "culture," thus elevating them to the rank of classical literature and Romantic poetry and creating thereby the discipline of Anthropology. Emile Durkheim transformed statistics of the incidence of suicide into an argument for the legitimacy and theoretical independence of the new discipline of Sociology. Somewhat later, Sigmund Freud focused, with utter earnestness, on such experiential detritus as dreams, jokes, and slips of the tongue, demonstrating that from them one could extract a revolutionary new theory of the structure and functioning of the human mind.
In the Humanistic disciplines, the domination of tragedy and poetry was so complete that at Oxford in the nineteenth century it was not possible to make novels the object of serious academic investigation. They were amusements, suitable only for one's leisure hours. Once the novel had won acceptance as a branch of Literature, a canon of great works was established, almost immediately to be challenged not only by the claims of novels written by women or persons of color, but eventually by movies [or "films"], television shows, comic strips, and graffiti.
In each case, the intellectual move has been the same: identify a sphere of human experience or activity previously considered beneath the dignity of serious investigators, and then elevate it to the staus of an academic object of investigation. The challenge of each such proposed expansion is to demonstrate that apparently unpromising material really can yield an intellectually interesting and powerful body of theory. The inevitable vulgarisation of this tendency [notice the thinly disguised class distinctions implicit in the term "vulgarisation"] is the mistake of supposing that merely identifying something that no one has yet thought worth studying is, by itself, without further effort, proof of its worthiness as the subject of disciplinary autonomy.
Well, that is what I got out of Bettelheim's Preface. We shall see what thoughts the remainder of the book provokes.