Not Since Babel

Edmund Carpenter

Art and music, of course, cannot escape the sensate world; both are permanently tied to the senses. But neither is permanently tied to language. We could say of Rembrandt’s work: this is a portrait of a man with a golden helmet. “But,” says Steiner, “absolutely nothing that can be said about a Franz Kline painting will be pertinent to the habits of linguistic sense. A De Kooning canvas has no subject of which one can render a verbal account. It bypasses language and seems to play directly on our nerve ends.” Art has ceased to be representational; it no longer strives to create an illusion of being more than itself. It’s a thing, to be responded to directly.

The same can be said of contemporary music, especially electronic music. Contemporary music isn’t background music; it’s foreground music: it engages our senses directly and requires our participation.

As we become increasingly tribalized in art and outlook, and draw closer to the Eskimo and Trobriander, anthropologists lose their best tool—the comparative method: its built-in shock, its challenge. My notion is that for the truly alien we must now turn to literature: Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Melville; we must say to students, “This is strange but it’s human and it’s worth knowing.”

History is full of delightful reversals, where the opposite of what one predicts comes true. Where does the Word, where does literacy, survive in this vastly confusing Tower of Babel? My guess is that it may survive among drop-outs. In California, bookstores are feared as subversive centers; the underground press is written by and for drop-outs; the Word, not film, has become the medium of dissent. The hippies have discovered print, something totally new to them, and they are obviously thrilled by it. They discovered it outside their homes and outside their schools. They may not be able to express themselves very clearly as yet, but they have turned to literature—to classics, in fact—and it’s possible the whole thing may turn out to be more than a put-on. Certainly print has proven an effective weapon in the hippies’ search for identity through protest. Literature may survive as a result of their growing involvement in it. In contrast, the classroom presupposes an audience totally ignorant of all literary traditions: I recently saw a memo from a college textbook editor explaining that Joyce and Pound would have to be identified. We live in a scene where a large percentage of college presidents come from physical education, but drop-outs read Elizabethan verse and Greek drama.

When Constantinople fell, its scholars fled West, carrying their manuscripts with them. To read them, Western scholars had to learn Greek and thus they encountered not only Plato and Aristotle (hitherto known to them only through imperfect Latin translations), but a whole library totally new to them. This library, perhaps more than anything else, helped harness Renaissance technology to creative human ends.

Today’s hippies are much like those fleeing scholars. They’ve taken the classics and fled from campuses which have fallen to weapon development, the CIA, and schools of social work. The notion that anything might come from this must appear, to school authorities, as wildly preposterous as the notion, to the conquering Muslims, that ragged monks with battered manuscripts were escaping with Constantinople’s real treasures.

SOURCE: Carpenter, Edmund. “Not Since Babel,” in The Future of Literacy, edited by Robert Disch (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973), Chapter 15, pp. 167-173. This excerpt: pp. 172-173. Original publication: ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, vol. XXVII, no. 1, March 1970, pp. 67-74.

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