Mark Zunac is associate professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Editor of Literature and the Conservative Ideal, he researches revolution, writing, and the rise of intellectual conservatism in Britain following the French Revolution. He received his Ph.D. from Marquette University in 2008.
AM: Thank you for this interview, Mark. Your recent edition is titled Literature and the Conservative Ideal. What, in your view, is the conservative ideal?
MZ: In my mind the conservative ideal reflects what Michael Oakeshott calls a “disposition” rather than something that can be expressed by a singular identifiable creed. Nevertheless, I would say that it is in many ways an intuitive and practical view of the world, one that privileges human freedom, acknowledges a common humanity, and maintains a healthy regard for the accumulated wisdom of ages.
In today’s context, it is also uniquely defined by what it is not, since the very idea of an intellectual conservatism is often met with condescension or, perhaps in some cases, preemptive disdain. This invariably reflects a reductive and fundamental – and often deliberate – misunderstanding. Contra its critics, the conservative ideal does not demand a blind allegiance to the status quo, nor does it entail uncritical nostalgia for some heroic past. Such willful obtuseness I think would have its present-day parallel in the relentless deconstruction of nearly everything that we as citizens in a liberal democracy have taken for granted.
It is too easy to characterize the conservative disposition as a product of an unenlightened past or, more nefariously, deep-rooted prejudices. The destruction of a civil order grown out of its past has become reflexive and impulsive, and there is seldom any careful reflection as to what, practically speaking, a society unmoored from its historical roots will look like. Thus, the conservative ideal is grounded in the enduring presence of civilizational standards that, while not immune to scrutiny or change, are nevertheless prerequisites for a stable and ordered society.
Of course, as an intellectual exercise, it is more difficult, or at least less exciting, to make a case against earthly utopias, particularly when they have been peddled as some moral zenith. In a word, the conservative ideal encompasses a respect for the past and a deep skepticism for any social innovations that might jeopardize its influence on what may rightly be called culture.
AM: After the turf wars over canon and curriculum in the 1980s and 1990s, did any expositors of the conservative ideal come out alive?
MZ: There have indeed been some survivors, but the side was badly damaged. As English departments became wholly owned subsidiaries of the multicultural program, literature became simply one more vehicle through which victimization and oppression became the sole standard for assigning value.
The study of literature as an artistic endeavor, one subject to critical judgment and the recognition of a work’s place within literary history, was supplanted by the idea that value is situational and that any search for truth or beauty must necessarily be futile. The most significant casualties of the English turf wars have been works of the West, useful now only for their iteration of or complicity in historical cruelties.
Unfortunately, approaches to literature that privilege the text over the identity of its author or characters have become associated with political conservatism, itself a byproduct of the contemporary university’s tendency to hold politics as an individual’s highest calling. Thus, when it comes to literary criticism, a conservative ideal has less to do with promoting certain ideologies than with a dispassionate return to literature as a form of high art. Doubly unfortunate, and perhaps a bit ironic, is that as students of English literature continue to flock to other areas of study, we in the field have doubled-down on curricular approaches that are now not only stale but increasingly obsolete.
AM: Can anything be done to save the field at this point, or is it doomed for failure? I realize these are strong words, and perhaps premature, but there do seem to be trends and data that suggest that at least English departments will face serious budgetary and enrollment problems in the years to come.
MZ: Yes, I suppose we shouldn’t be too fatalistic at this point, even though in many cases the situation is nearing critical. I don’t much doubt that English departments will continue to exist, and perhaps even thrive, in the future. They just might have to take on a new identity, as it were. It might ultimately be fortuitous that as fewer people read, the less aptitude there seems to be for writing well. Thus, the rise of professional writing programs and the continuance of rudimentary instruction in composition may throw us a lifeline.
Departments have not, for the most part, adapted to the current climate. In some regard, there will always be a case for literature’s place within the educational landscape, and we should not stop making it. I completely sympathize with certain laments over the decline of literature and the humanities more broadly, indicated, as you suggest, by certain unpropitious trends. Many of them I will grant fall outside of our purview.
I think the liberal arts, even in their purest form, are threatened by the credentialist attitude currently infusing higher education. In addition, the heavy emphasis on STEM fields in primary and secondary education, combined with the turn toward “fact-based” texts, is both a capitulation to market demands and a nod to the reality that slow reading as an intrinsically rewarding enterprise can’t compete in the digital world.
So, despite our own malfeasance, there are certainly many other cultural trends causing our decline. Though I cannot help thinking how the complete dominance of Theory within literary criticism over the last number of decades has left would-be readers wondering how a text can possibly be relevant to their personal lives or how it might provide insights into the human condition. This is to say nothing of how that text might not be so predictably subservient to the social and cultural forces that informed it.
AM: You mention this in your introduction, but for the sake of readers of the blog, I’ll ask how you chose the contributors to this edition.
It wasn’t until well after graduate school that I encountered intellectual viewpoints from within my discipline that were congenial to both my own political predilections and my preferred approach to literature. The idea that these could coexist, or even work in concert, hadn’t really occurred to me. I remember feeling somewhat liberated by the presence of literary scholars in opinion and public affairs journals that I avidly read. I realized that while scholarship had its place, questions surrounding the study of literature and its implications for our culture deserved a place in a much wider realm of ideas. In a way, I found an intellectual home outside of the university, which, in my case, proved salutary.
The roster for Literature and the Conservative Ideal was assembled by individual cold calling. I had compiled a fairly short list of scholars whose work I had come across in these popular venues and who I thought might at least be able to consider conservatism’s role in literary study as well as its various formulations in selective literary works. The response to my initial proposal was very positive, and I remain infinitely grateful to the contributors for their generosity.
What I have come to understand over the years is that genuine concern over the state of literature today is not bounded by party affiliations or directed by a singular ideological framework. As I mention in the book, personal politics did not figure in discussions with contributors, nor did I harbor any assumptions about them. I think it is a testament to dispassionate scholarship and the contributors’ dedication to their craft that the volume came together the way that it did.
AM: What critics do you consider representative of the conservative tradition?
MZ: I think in this case it is once again useful to detach what might be considered a conservative approach to literature from the more freighted use of the term in a distinctly political context. In so doing, a critic such as Lionel Trilling, known for his oft-repeated equation of conservatism with “irritable mental gestures,” might be classified as an exemplar of a conservative literary tradition. His emphasis on literature as an embodiment of culture cut against the grain of scholarship that valued texts primarily for their reflection of bourgeois society. Close reading and moral judgment are at the center of Trilling’s critiques, and his skepticism of a literature that “pets and dandles its underprivileged characters” might be sustained as a rebuke to today’s critical environment.
Writing also in what might be called the conservative tradition is of course F.R. Leavis, whose concern for literature’s essential role within civilized life is discussed by Thomas Jeffers in the book. I would also include T.S. Eliot and other contributors to Scrutiny, a publication whose critical acumen and attention to literature’s artistic expression is in many ways lacking today. It is, however, still found in the pages of such eminent publications as Commentary, the Claremont Review of Books, The New Criterion, and others. So, as readers of The Literary Lawyer are keenly aware, the humanistic tradition, which stands athwart today’s prevailing postmodernist ethos, is very much alive. It just isn’t generally in vogue in those places where literature is taught.
Part Two coming soon….