One day about five years ago, Paul Bové, professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, had an epiphany. He was in Paris, and after spending a morning reading the essayist and cultural critic Walter Benjamin’s notebooks from 1940, Bové found himself standing in the Salle Rembrandt at the Louvre.
It’s hard to imagine a more fertile setting for a flash of insight — a room full of Rembrandts. “It was a fairly dramatic moment for me,” recalls Bové. “This room makes us aware of the potential for high art as an essential quality of the species, one without which it not only will end in ruin but will also destroy other life.”
This point of view — of life-affirming, exultant art without which we are lost — runs through Bové’s new book, “Love’s Shadow.” At once a lament for the decline of the humanities and a manifesto on how to save them, Bové‘s argument is that melancholy has become “the ruling emotion of even the most contemplative life.” As a result, we have stopped looking to history and artistic achievement for evidence of our human potential. Hence a drift away from the humanities at the university level, and dissertations on culture that wallow in despair and are written by academics for ever-smaller audiences.
This is bad news for all of us, Bové says. “If the underlying assumption is of ruination and helplessness, [criticism] can’t take a very active role in the public sphere.” That leaves a void, he says, into which rush influences that inflame our worst instincts rather than avow our humanity: conspiracy theories, corporate manipulation, toxic memes.
This is a legacy bequeathed, in Bové's view, by Walter Benjamin, the prolific, brilliant, melancholy godfather of modern cultural criticism. A German-born Jew living in Nazi-occupied France, he was writing about events that convulsed 19th-century Paris when he became trapped in the horrors of the Second World War. In Benjamin’s life, as in the life of his mind, hope was sacked. He committed suicide after failing to escape from France to Portugal.
“I had been reading Benjamin’s notebooks from just before he kills himself,” Bové recalls. In his “extraordinary, beautiful, moving” writing, Bové says, Benjamin describes “an angel blown backward by history’s winds, seeing before him nothing but ruination.”
Bové continues: “God is dead, God has left the earth. The world is left with itself, which is a dismal but accurate portrait of things if you are a Jew trying to escape the Nazis.”
Except that Benjamin’s sense that “all of humanity was rushing toward a cliff,” was, in Bové’s estimation, “cataclysmically wrong.” His catastrophic take on art, culture, and human experience “led the academic classes, particularly the humanists, to tell only one story, to report on history as if it were precisely the state of universal ruin that Benjamin saw in Europe in 1940.”
That morning in Paris, his mind swimming with Benjamin, Bové stood before one of the essayist’s subjects: Rembrandt’s “Bathsheba at Her Bath.” The nude is opulent, sensual, full of allusion and feeling. “And what struck me in that room was that as great as Benjamin’s insight is, as powerful as his imagination is, it is, as he would say in his own writing, a destructive imagination. So there I was, and I said to myself, this is not a ruin.”
Bové writes about his epiphany in “Love’s Shadow.” “I saw a much more expansive consciousness of human life and experience, and I felt the limits of Benjamin’s apocalyptic formulation and began to worry [about] the consequences of its influence. . . . Did the Rembrandt painting offer a path not taken by the theorists of ruin?”
In a word, yes. The result is Bové‘s summons to his fellow academics and aspiring cultural critics to step out of the long shadow of Benjamin’s melancholy and to come into the light reflected by poetry, comedy, and the essay — a more expansive form of expression, in his view, than that darling of academia, the dissertation.
“I’m calling for a certain kind of courage that goes with humility,” Bové says. “Before a work of art, stop patiently, listen, watch. Allow yourself to be affected. See the mysteries. Try to understand how they have been created. As long as something is on offer, you should take it. The human imagination is not a ruin.”
Kelly Horan is the deputy editor of Ideas. She can be reached at email@example.com.