Friday, February 15, 2008

E.P. Thompson

Feb 15

E.P. Thompson talks about what amounts to the “soft bigotry of low expectations” in the context of social class in academia, which in early twentieth century Britain had enough similarities to race in U.S. to be of special interest now. Not the same thing, I hasten to add, but class lines then, marked by easily identifiable accent and dialect, were extremely sharp:

....The pure in heart may indeed be blessed: but they may also offer themselves as a fertile pastureland upon which the demagogue and the careerist may safely graze. It may be true and important to insist that we value men not by their class or educational attributes but my their moral worth: but if men – and especially if educationally-disadvantaged men – begin to value themselves too complacently in this way it can serve too easily as an excuse for the giving up of intellectual effort. My fellow tutors here will, I suspect, make the point: they know, only too well, the student to whom I refer. They may also know the tutor who has made himself accomplice to the giving-up, and who has been happy to accept the moral wort of his students in place of their essays. They may even have seen him, as I have, late i the evening, in the mirror. (E.P. Thompson, “Education and Experience,” The Romantics, New York: The New Press, 1997, p. 25.)

There’s another passage in the second lecture where Thompson, writing about Wordsworth and Coleridge and others, distinguishes between disenchantment and apostasy. The context here is the end of the 18th century and the very early 19th century when people like the Romantic poets were first enchanted with the French revolution, then to varying degrees horrified by its excesses, then often(and this is the part we rarely read) in serious political jeopardy in England for being Jacobins. There was major political repression as war broke out between France and England. Anyhow, Thompson makes some really interesting observations about how the honest changing of your mind due to historical events is one things, but denigrating your younger mind for its previous views is another thing altogether:

The theme of this lecture is apostasy and disenchantment. There is a difference between the two. My argument is: the creative impulse came out of the heart of this conflict. There is a tension between a boundless aspiration – for liberty, reason, égalité, perfectibility – and a peculiarly harsh and unregenerate reality. So long as that tension persists, the creative impulse can be felt. But once the tension slackens, the creative impulse fails also. There is nothing in disenchantment inimical to art. But when aspiration is actively denied, we are at the edges of apostasy and apostasy is a moral failure, and an imaginative failure....because it involves forgetting – or manipulating improperly – the authenticity of experience: a mutilation of the writers’s own previous existential being. (E.P. Thompson, “Disenchantment or Default?” The Romantics, New York: The New Press, 1997, p. 37-38.)

This is what I always feel about people who reject their entire past, whether they are poets like Coleridge or political figures like some of the neoconservatives. Wordsworth, Thompson makes the case, was a much more nuanced thinker, whose views changed gradually over many years.

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