DO THE HUMANITIES REALLY HUMANIZE? DOES IT MATTER IF THEY DO OR DON’T? PART I

I took both Feynman and Da Vinci to bed last night. Later, as I turned out the light and saw the two books huddled together on the floor, I found it intriguing to think about all that creativity, curiosity, and brain-power co-mingling. Voltaire is alleged to have said, “By appreciation in others, we make excellence our own quality;” I’d like it to be the same for genius!”

Thus began an extremely short-lived exchange with a colleague whose only response was, “Voltaire was a jerk.”

I can only assume that in her use of the term “jerk,” she is alluding to the debated but probable truth that Voltaire personally profited from the slave trade.  I didn’t go down Jefferson row with her on this because two smart white guys not getting the picture on slavery does not a justification make, and in fact, makes their attitudes all the more disturbing. I also didn’t mention that DaVinci was brought up on sodomy charges–not in the unfair way that Oscar Wilde was–but by an accusation of five against one, DaVinci allegedly being one of the five. Nothing was ever proven and part of the defense (at the time, and by a current scholar in tone it would seem) was that the young apprentice was a loose guy who gave away sexual favors when he wanted to anyway–a defense which sounds too eerily like a defense of rape today to go down easily.  As for Feynman, he himself tells us that he used to do physics work and draw in a topless bar. Given the trends and realities of today’s sex workers, a topless bar may seem pretty tame but that’s not really the point. What disturbs me is that a guy as bright as Feynman chose not see objectification and exploitation of women as problematic, and later defended the club owner in a law suit touting this as an act of (self-righteous) freedom; it’s admittedly disenchanting. How is it possible to be so committed to certain principles and so blinded by other realities?

To assuage my discomfort at my continued curiosity with these men and others of note (men and women of note throughout time), I take solace in the reply a smoking aerobics instructor once gave when confronted by the incongruity of her health habit with her cigarette one.  Taking a drag, her only response was, “It’s our contradictions that make us interesting.”  Equal parts rationalization and truth make the reply so so compelling, but after ruminating on it a while, one might ask is it a reply that speaks more to our humanity or inhumanity?

On another note, but as part of the same tune, I turn to more recent events that beg the question that titles this post. Ten years ago, when comparing graduate experiences and considering some colleagues, a friend of mine said, “English departments are the proof that the Humanities don’t humanize.”  I was both stunned and amused by the truth contained in such a comment. I am also ashamed to say I did not hobble this belief when, in January 2014, I went to see a movie in a small art theater where, in the tight seating, my scarf was dipping oh-so-slightly over the back of my chair. The woman behind me quite snappishly said, “I don’t want that on my knees during the entire movie!” As I was smiling and moving my scarf, I replied that I hadn’t realized it was hanging so far over the chair (it was not), to which she again snapped, “Well it was!”  Now irritated I said, “Well, I’ll just put it in my lap and hope the air from my breathing doesn’t mistakenly go your way.”  At this point her husband jumped in to admonish me saying, “You don’t have to be a bitch about it,” to which I replied, “You either sir.”  Thus establishing just what kind of community we had created, we settled into our art experience to watch a movie that was to teach us empathy perhaps, or might have had insights to offer about the ephemeral nature of life and its fleeting moments of genius, or perhaps it was just there to teach us about part of a shared human condition and how to minimize inconsequential disruptions.  The obvious and disheartening realization:  Movie houses are further proof that the Humanities don’t humanize.

The logical question is, of course, are the humanities supposed to humanize? Part II of this blog entry will look to others for an answer to the question.

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