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Well-ordered, fictional worlds attract us, it seems, because we, too, aspire to live lives from which contingency is kept at bay.Beauty, wrote Stendhal, is “only a promise of happiness.” As Alexander Nehamas suggested, in his book of this title, the beautiful work of art provides us with a tantalizing pleasure; beauty engages us in its pursuit. “To find something beautiful is inseparable from the need to understand what makes it so,” he writes.In Sartre's memorable formulation, man is “condemned to be free”; we have no choice but to choose.
The real challenge that we face today, then, lies in explaining to a perplexed, but not necessarily hostile audience -- and perhaps even to ourselves -- why it is that the study of literature, anthropology, art history, or classics can be so meaningful, and why this existential rationale is equally important as other, more utilitarian ones.
This line of argument stands in opposition to proclamations of the humanities’ uselessness: to declare that the humanities are of existential value is to affirm that they are very useful indeed.
To paraphrase Max Weber, scholarship in the humanities is a vocation, a “calling” in the clerical sense. The problem with this kind of spiritual passion is that it is difficult to describe.
To paraphrase another 20th-century giant, Jimi Hendrix, it’s more about the experience.
The fundamental reason why students should devote hours of their weeks to novels, philosophy, art, music, or history is not so that they can hone their communication skills or refine their critical thinking.
It is because the humanities offer students a profound sense of existential purpose.
The order we discover in literary works may be magical, but it isn’t metaphysical; it comes from the sense that “everything is exactly what and where it has to be.” Art offers a reprieve from a universe governed by chance; what were merely sordid newspaper clippings can become, when transported into artful narratives, , for instance, is foreshadowed by its beginning, when Anna witnesses a woman throwing herself under a train.
If art offered only illusions of necessity, it would hardly satisfy existential longing.
It’s not surprising, then, that when we humanists feel (or imagine) the budget axe tickling the hairs on the backs of our necks, we don’t have ready-made apologia with which to woo or wow our would-be executioners.
And because a calling is hard to explain, we turn instead to more straightforward, utilitarian defenses -- “but employers say they English majors!