Helen Vendler's Jefferson Lecture argues that neither history nor philosophy offers authentic access to "individual human uniqueness":
The arts bring into play historical and philosophical questions without implying the prevalence of a single system or of universal solutions. Artworks embody the individuality that fades into insignificance in the massive canvas of history and is suppressed in philosophy by the desire for impersonal assertion. The arts are true to the way we are and were, to the way we actually live and have lived--as singular persons swept by drives and affections, not as collective entities or sociological paradigms. The case histories developed within the arts are in part idiosyncratic, but in part applicable by analogy to a class larger than the individual entities they depict.
Although she doesn't say so explicitly, Vendler's thinking here is very close to the traditional battle among poetry (broadly defined), philosophy and history sparked by Aristotle's Poetics. Aristotle argued that poetry surpassed history insofar as it depicted the "universal" ("what sort of man turns out to say or do what sort of thing according to probability or necessity") instead of the "individual" (facts concerning a specific person).* Vendler wants to preserve and extend Aristotle's point about poetry's relative importance, while at the same time appropriating "individuality" from history's domain. For Vendler, history consists of statements about abstract or theoretical entities, whereas the arts represent individuals paradoxically more "individual" than factual agents. These individuals exist partway between Aristotle's universal and the historical particular: they are "idiosyncratic" (as one would expect of a historical figure) but also embody more general truths. This conclusion is closer to Sir Philip Sidney, for whom the poet "coupleth the general notion with the particular example."
But even though Vendler clearly aligns herself with a very traditional position on the truth-telling power of literature, she wants to evade its moral implications. She wants art to be, in effect, a new religion--the artist as "secular angel"--but without religion's moral prescriptiveness. Instead, she gestures towards art as a means of developing the United States' national self-consciousness. Part of the problem seems to be that our education is too scientific: "Within education, scientific training, which necessarily brackets emotion, needs to be complemented by the direct mediation--through the arts and their interpretations--of feeling, vicarious experience, and interpersonal imagination." Two cultures? It would seem that in Vendler's world, Romantic historiography--which very much idealized bonds of sympathy between past and present--has disappeared into the ether; history is clearly not a source of "feeling, vicarious experience, and interpersonal imagination."
As an English professor, I'm always happy to have people defending the value of the arts. But I'm a bit hung up on Vendler's definition of "history." (I'll let philosophers discuss her complaints about philosophy. And on cue: Brian Leiter.) When Aristotle says "individual," you'll notice, he isn't talking about what we now call "round characters" (and in any event, as he tells us in the sixth section, character is less important to the plot than action), but factual particularity. Vendler wants characters. Her idea of history certainly sounds a lot like Enlightenment philosophical history (or, good heavens, H. T. Buckle), which often subordinated individuals to generalizations about groups, but does it sound anything like contemporary history? If so, of what type? To take a completely random example, Pat Jalland's Death in the Victorian Family draws its conclusions from a survey of a fairly homogenous social group, but many of the "case histories" (to use Vendler's term) have exactly the sort of emotional power that Vendler assigns to the arts. (One thinks of the clergyman who loses, IIRC, five children in the space of just a few weeks.) Similarly, Amanda Vickery's fine The Gentlewoman's Daughter works from an individual case study outward to more general historical conclusions. What about microhistory? Or the revival of historical biography?
Vendler nevertheless hastens to assure us that "[t]he arts have the advantage, once presented, of making people curious not only about aesthetic matters, but also about history, philosophy, and other cultures." In other words, even if we push history and philosophy off to one side, arts will naturally lead us right back to them. Put the arts in the schools, and leave history to extracurricular reading. There's only one problem: this generalization seems awfully, um, optimistic. A lot of people have told me, at one time or another, that a novel spurred them on to find out more about a given period or culture, but on further investigation the novel in question has almost always been a historical novel. (Historical films sometimes have a similar effect.) In other words, these readers became curious because they wanted to match the fiction to the reality. By contrast, "classic" novels and poems--especially, I'd say, lyric poetry**--often seem to leave the reader with a sense of completion, as if the text were untouched by the world. Do most readers finish Wordsworth's "I wandered lonely as a cloud" and immediately rush out to buy a book on British history? Obviously, at this point I'm caricaturing Vendler's argument, but many readers (or listeners, or viewers) don't necessarily discover an obvious connection between a given text/painting/symphony and its cultural origin. And why should they, if it speaks to them already? If someone were to ask me for an example of "sublime" art, I'd point them to Michelangelo's Pieta--a sculpture that has always left me feeling slightly dazed, as though contemplating infinity. But this is a purely aesthetic response which has no relationship to the sculpture's religious dimension, and while as a child I spent a lot of time in museums and always enjoyed Renaissance art--part of Vendler's model education, methinks--I can't say I felt the need to contextualize it until I was in my late teens. (And I'm a historian's child!) Vendler keeps granting agency to the arts--"Art can often be trusted--once it is unobtrusively but ubiquitously present--to make its own impact felt"--in order to make it seem that aesthetic experience in and of itself will prompt children (and adults) to seek more knowledge. But that's a learned response, not a natural response, and I wonder if it's more likely to be prompted by immersion in history than immersion in the arts.***
(Daniel Green's recent post is also of relevance here.)
*--Quotations are from Leon Golden's translation in David H. Richter's The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989).
**--In my admittedly few years of experience, I've found that explicitly occasional poetry or poetry with a lot of contemporary references--e.g., Byron's Don Juan--is just as likely to exasperate students as it is to send them off to the library. Who is this Castlereagh, why is Byron being so mean to him, and why can't we just get on with the poem?
***--Insert disclaimer here about how far one can generalize personal anecdotes. Still, friends at other colleges have occasionally noted how hard it is to push students to think about historical background, even when the kids are enthusiastic about the artwork itself.