A presumptuous-sounding subtitle, but the Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library would seem to be entitled ex officio to make grand Arnoldian pronouncements on the contemporary forms of culture and anarchy. And actually, although the fluent style and lightly worn learning of these 16 essays belies any high-priestly tendencies on Hardison's part, his overall assessment does hearken back to Matthew Arnold--and his humanist fathers before him. In a word, Hardison describes the modern scene as a maze, a fascinating but bewildering proliferation of paths, and asserts that at least one thread leading out of the labyrinth is found in what Schiller called ""aesthetic education,"" with its triple values of liberation, play, and community. Liberation implies escaping the parochial horizons of one's own immediate culture; play points to a world unfettered by Marcuse's ""performance principles"" or economic necessity; and community refers to aesthetic experience as a lingua franca amid the Babel of modernity. If all this looks suspiciously like old-fashioned humanism, Hardison counters that classical humanism failed because it denied the otherness of the past and suffered from ""universalizing pretensions."" Hardison's ideal humanism is, among other things, more open to technology. Thus, he remarks that the traditional library, whose catalogue reflects a hierarchical structure of knowledge, is passÃ‰, whereas newer libraries, with magnetic disk catalogues that provide a ""database"" without making value judgments, are the wave of the future. But the interesting thing about Hardison's apologia for a tough-minded secular humanism is less his rationale than the rich allusiveness of his writing. Hardison ranges effortlessly back and forth from Kant to Clint Eastwood, from the architecture of Washington, D.C. as proof of America's European roots to the films of Alfred Hitchcock as a ""contour map of the middle-class mind."" An urbane, thoughtful instance of cultural criticism--Uncle Matthew would approve.
Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1981
Page Count: -
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1981
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