For Yvor Winters, literature was not mystical indulgence, but a spiritual discipline. He insisted that “hedonism” was the death of literature and the human being.
What’s wrong with the humanities? Winters thought we might start with some of the professors:
A poet and literature critic, Winters ordered his moral and intellectual life to accord with the spiritual discipline of literature. “It behooves us to discover the nature of artistic literature, what it does, how it does it, and how one may evaluate it. It is one of the facts of life, and quite as important a fact as atomic fission,” he writes in the foreword to his greatest prose book, In Defense of Reason. One will get no help in making this discovery from the typical literature professor, he warned, for they are all hedonists and romantics, “with the result that the professors of literature, who for the most part are genteel but mediocre men, can make but a poor defense of their profession.”
A doctoral student and then professor of English at Stanford, Winters knew and loathed these men. Against their insouciant relativism, which took for granted that one could enjoy pernicious and self-destructive ideas without being affected by them, Winters held up the suicide of the poet Hart Crane as one of many instances where someone died precisely because he had attempted to live according to bad ideas—in Crane’s case, the irrational romantic mysticism of Emerson and Whitman. Winters’s writing gives voice to a theory of literature that cultivates reason and cordons off the soul from the disintegrating effects of emotion, thereby enabling one to live well in the world.
According to Wilson, “Winters defended the liberal arts against the shoddy emotionalism and politicization of his age, and he provides a model for how to do so in ours.”
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