Thanks to Frank Sonnek for alerting me to this piece by literary critic Stanley Fish, trying to figure out what the value is of literary study. He begins with a fine reading of some lines from George Herbert, and he nails Herbert’s Reformation emphasis on how Christ does EVERYTHING for our salvation.
Fish became a big postmodernist theorist, but he was also a first-rate George Herbert critic. In fact, he was, like me, an early promoter of a Reformation reading of Herbert’s spirituality, in contrast to the Roman Catholic interpretations that dominated the scholarship until then.
So Fish tosses off this brilliant little example explaining a line from Herbert. And, in fact, his overall discussion shooting down the various claimed uses for this sort of thing (to change your life? not really. to make you a critical thinker? other things can do that too. to enrich your conversation in the culture? or make the conversation duller. to promote liberal thinking? but conservatives read the same texts) is pretty much true.
But what he is no longer able to do, given his postmodernist worldview–which makes him have to explain everything in terms of a “community of discourse”–is to use classical, Aristotelian analysis, whereby some things, such as a poem and studying a poem, are good IN THEMSELVES. Not everything HAS to be “useful” (good because it leads to other goods). The pursuit of things good in themselves was also the hallmark of a classical, liberal arts education (as Cardinal Newman explains).