In a review for First Things, writer Helen Rittelmeyer has an amusing take on the sexual culture at elite universities. Students at places like Yale, she argues, are prolific in their hooking up not because they’re hedonists, but because they want to be the best at sex the same way they’re the best at everything else:
It would be more accurate to say that Yale students treat sex as one more arena in which to excel, an opportunity not just to connect but to impress. Every amateur sonneteer secretly believes his verse to be as good as the United States poet laureate’s, and every undergraduate programmer suspects his code rivals the best in Silicon Valley. It’s not very different for Yale students to say that, if pornography is the gold standard of sexual prowess, then that is the standard to which they must aspire.
The book Rittelmeyer is reviewing has a different take. In “Sex and God at Yale,” alum Nathan Harden finds his former classmates to be just plain lascivious. Rittelmeyer thinks this view misses the basic point that high-striving kids today are more about excellence than eros. This raises the question: If prudishness were in vogue, would Yalies be famously chaste?
Could novels heal America?
The political divide in America can be seen as a geographical problem: Red and Blue Americans disagree deeply because they don’t live near each other, don’t work together, don’t bump into each other at the grocery store. And when you don’t share experiences with someone, it’s easy to think of their opinions as arbitrary and wrong.
How to bridge that gap? Perhaps the answer is fiction.
The moral power of fiction has been in the news recently. Last April, Ideas ran a piece by Jonathan Gotschall about how fiction “enhances our ability to understand other people” by training us, through the seduction of narrative, to inhabit others’ perspectives. Much of the research confirming this idea has been done by psychologists, but a thoughtful essay in the latest issue of the culture magazine Eurozine explains that the influential philosopher Richard Rorty, who died in 2007, saw a philosophical reason as well.
As a young professor at Princeton in the 1960s, Rorty made a name for himself in the intensely logical field of analytic philosophy, but eventually underwent a radical transformation as a thinker: By the end of his life, he’d given up hope that reasoned debate was capable of bridging sectarian divides. He came to see reason as a social construct. People who belong to different communities—with different ideas, experiences, and values—will hold different standards of reason. (Or, as Rorty put it, “the community is the source of epistemic authority.”) That’s why it is nearly impossible to use reason to bring together, say, an atheist and an Evangelical.
But fiction might do the trick. The Eurozine article retraces Rorty’s thinking like this: To create a more inclusive society you need to expand community boundaries; you can’t use reason to expand those boundaries because reason itself is parochial; fiction, however, has the power to cross communities and make strangers intelligible to each other. Once a community has been enlarged, it becomes possible for the members of the expanded community to practice politics together using shared standards of reason.
The power that Rorty ascribed to fiction led him to conclude that the novel is “the characteristic genre of democracy.” That a story could truly bring us together may seem like a steep claim, but Rorty, who admired “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” would have said that fiction has moved bigger mountains before.
Kevin Hartnett is a writer who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.