The Axe For the Frozen Sea

images.jpg… the times were not what they once were: the desire for pure knowledge had vanished, and all that fathers now wanted for was their sons to get ahead in life, which meant that, if they were to receive any schooling at all, it should be something useful like bookkeeping rather than the fables, literature, and philosophy that Hayyim Nacht was cramming their heads with.

—A Simple Story by S. Y. Agnon

Having experienced college level counseling in the last twenty years, it’s obvious to me that this sentiment expressed by S. Y. Agnon is true and flourishing today. I suspect it is a major tenet of neoliberalism that reduces literature, philosophy, and critical thinking to unnecessary entertainments and rewards the greed and selfishness of the marketplace with wealth and power.

I suppose writers must have an additional trade in order to support themselves and their family. Even successful writers today only truly get ahead when a movie deal comes along.  There have been a few well-known writers who were successful both in literature and in business: although trite examples, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams come immediately to mind. But even Franz Kafka worked in the insurance business and later was involved in asbestos production.

Mark 8:36 makes a strong argument against neoliberalism:

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain
the whole world, and lose his own soul?

To put it in more modern terms:

The man who dies with the most toys is NOT the winner.

I suspect that the world needs both the market and the intellect, possibly in equal parts. This modern world, however, has been skewed heavily to the side of the market. Whether you call it neoliberalism, Reaganomics, trickle-down economics, or simply “greed is good,” it has overtaken much of the world with three obvious results: first, the intellectual side of man has been ridiculed, reduced, and in some instances destroyed; second, the tenets of neoliberalism have been shown over and over again to be destructive and only benefiting the extremely rich; and finally, the ideology can only compete through lies and deceptions lest it have an angry mob of once true-believers turn on it and come after the rich and privileged with pitchforks.

In a simple parallel story, I have had discussions with my colleagues at work over their insistence on only reading non-fiction books, if any books at all. I enjoy reading non-fiction once in a while, too often related to literature or philosophy, but unlike my colleagues, I also read more than my share of fiction. Unlike them, I do not concern myself with how reading a book will benefit me commercially but rather hope to have my intellect and my humanity stimulated.

I also acknowledge that some people read for entertainment only and that works too since even a reader of entertainments often stumbles on good literature. What kind of reader are you?

2 responses

  1. There’s more than a whiff of this in the secondary education funding landscape. State legislatures used the Great REcession to gut college funding, dumping the responsibility for financing onto those who could pay tuition, or those willing to go into debt. As some funding is grudgingly restored, it’s going to trade education, and being pulled from the arts.

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    • I see a world where people can sit back and enjoy reading poetry or listening to operas because they have servants that rush around like underfed rats doing those business things which will bring food to the table and clean underwear.

      But I know of what you speak: my son-in-law has a student loan with a monthly payment that is greater than his mortgage … and he has a big house!!!

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