National Security & Defense

Christopher Ricks and the Saving Remnant

Sir Christopher Ricks lectures at the New College of the Humanities in London, March 20, 2013. (Via YouTube)
An unsurpassed scholar of English literature, and his institute, fall victim to academic fashion.

In a time of apparently nonstop, gigantic vices, follies, evils, and disasters, it is tempting to put the recent institutional, academic quarrel at Boston University over the fate of its small Editorial Institute — featured on the front page of the London Times Literary Supplement (September 14, 2016) as “Battles in Boston” — into the category of “tempest in a tea-pot,” fit perhaps for an updated version of Pope’s “Rape of the Lock” and mild amusement for those interested in small-scale academic politics. But that would be a mistake. Just as Pope is not merely an ironic social miniaturist but one of the great poet-moralists of the English language, Sir Christopher Ricks (co-director of the Editorial Institute, where I have been a sometime collaborator, until his resignation this summer) is not only a scrupulous textual editor and verbal precisian but also arguably our greatest living literary critic, fit for comparison with Samuel Johnson, Matthew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, C. S. Lewis, and Lionel Trilling, and perhaps their best, worthiest living successor.

An Englishman born in September of 1933, teaching at Boston University since 1986, Ricks is now the author or editor of over 30 books, including a classic edition of Tennyson’s poetry (and a biographical-critical study of him), the canonical Oxford Book of English Verse (1999), and, most recently, with his former student Jim McCue, the massive, two-volume Complete Annotated Poems of T. S. Eliot (2015), a great, self-effacing work of literary scholarship that has rightly attracted praise all over the English-speaking world. (See my own review of it, “Beyond the Language of the Living,” National Review, June 13, 2016, published just over 30 years after my first review of a book by Ricks for NR, “No Degenerate Son,” October 4, 1985.)

Not only an editor of great precision and probity, Ricks is also a critic and moralist whose powerful works have ranged from brilliant studies of Milton (1963), Keats (1974), and Tennyson (1972) to a persuasive claim for the bardic greatness of Bob Dylan, Dylan’s Visions of Sin (2003), and a powerful meditation on T. S. Eliot as philosopher, moralist, and critic, T. S. Eliot and Prejudice (1988). The Eliot book and edition elicited from Ricks perhaps his most profound and lucid observations and insights, inevitably philosophical and ethical.

Ricks had a career of great distinction in England, first at Oxford and Bristol, reaching the position of King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge University (1975–86) before being recruited by the pugnacious Kantian philosopher and university president John Silber (1926–2012) to Boston University in 1986. He is now Warren Professor of the Humanities at Boston University.

While in his prominent position at Cambridge University 40 years ago, Ricks was notable for sharply opposing the incursion into literary studies of Nietzsche-influenced “literary theory,” mostly imported from France and subsequently and rapidly established in British and American university departments of English and comparative literature. Despite devastatingly embarrassing and effective critiques of this radical and skeptical relativism, such as David Lehman’s Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (1991), and the dogged pursuit of truth and objectivity in interpretation by eminent scholars such as E. D. Hirsch Jr., the radical theoreticians have availed themselves of the tenure system to establish a poisonous atmosphere and set of anomalous attitudes in departments of English and comparative literature all over the world. Their “moral inversion” — radical moralism based on a relativist epistemology — was noted, deplored, and brilliantly critiqued over a half century ago by the distinguished Hungarian Jewish émigré chemist-turned-philosopher Michael Polanyi.

Ricks’s move to Boston University at the invitation of President Silber in 1986 brought to Boston in his wake the great English poet-critic Geoffrey Hill, who died in England this summer. Together they established in 2000 the Editorial Institute, an interdisciplinary program drawing on scholars throughout and beyond Boston University and teaching the skills of textual editing to graduate students at the master’s and doctoral levels. The Institute was strengthened early on by an unsolicited grant of $1.5 million from the Mellon Foundation and pioneered an area that brought great distinction to Boston University throughout the scholarly world. Projects were not limited to “high culture” or English-language resources and included the correspondence of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, African-American spirituals, the Wordsworth circle, the works of Victorian writer and legal thinker James Fitzjames Stephen, and previously undiscovered post–World War II letters from Italy by the great, noble anti-Fascist Italian historian Gaetano Salvemini (1873–1957), who spent 20 years in lonely exile in the U.K. and the U.S.A. before returning to Italy in 1946. The Institute developed young professionals to pursue careers in the humanities and social sciences outside of the normal preparation of literature professors, a diminishing field of opportunities partly due to the ideologized relativism of literature teaching that has driven undergraduates away in droves from the study of “English” and into economics and business over the last 50 years.

Ricks encountered hostility at Boston University from early on due to his friendship with President John Silber. Perhaps the greatest living scholar-critic of English literature, he was nevertheless thrown out of the English department and taught in the Humanities program instead. His undergraduate lectures became legendary, surreptitiously attracting students from other Boston-area colleges. He and Geoffrey Hill both went on to hold the prestigious Professorship of Poetry at Oxford, with Ricks giving his lecture series in Oxford in 2004–09 and being knighted in 2009. Nor has Ricks ever been merely a “laudator acti temporis” — a praiser of the old and great; he has been an advocate for recent and living poets such as Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill, James Henry, and the Americans Anthony Hecht and Samuel Menashe.

His undergraduate lectures became legendary, surreptitiously attracting students from other Boston-area colleges.

But Ricks has been a root-and-branch opponent of radical relativism and the perverse, verbose claims of Franco-Nietzschean literary theory. He has seen that on the side of the humanities and social sciences, the modern university is skewed in favor of fad, “neophilia,” nominalism, and counterintuitive attacks on every inherited civilizing tradition. If I don’t say something shocking, bold, new, odd, outrageous, obscene, or funky, how am I to attract attention and get tenure? And why should I defer to Aristotle, Dante, Milton, Kant, Austen, Dickens, Melville, Du Bois, or Eliot? Transgressive novelty at all costs.

Outraged by the increasingly strident and ideological movement leftward of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the chief professional association of literature professors, Ricks, his Boston University colleague Roger Shattuck, and a few others founded a neoconservative splinter group called the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW), housed at Boston University, and Ricks served as president of the organization. It attracted other distinguished literary critics, such as Morris Dickstein of CUNY, Lee Oser of Holy Cross, and David Bromwich of Yale, and serves as a “saving remnant” of literary studies in a highly and unilaterally ideological climate that now otherwise dominates the teaching of literature in American universities, along with most of what is published by university presses.

In his Times Literary Supplement essay, Ricks tries to justify his detailed expository narrative about the bureaucratic pusillanimity of the provost and dean at Boston University, who wish slyly to shut down his Editorial Institute, won’t admit it, and won’t even meet with him. Referring to John Henry Newman’s great educational treatise, Ricks asks: “But what does any of this have to do with the daily work of teaching or learning or scholarship, or — even more largely — with The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated?” After a career of over 50 years of publishing, over 30 books written or edited, Ricks replies to his own question:

Simply, though deeply, this: that a great deal of our time and concern, as of all teaching and study, goes into trying to help our students learn not only to be honest themselves with words themselves (for these things must be learnt) but how not to be cheated by the specious words of others, whether in our day, here and now, or there and then. This, to include not only today’s newspapers and political speeches but the sleights of even . . . great writers . . . such as Machiavelli or Montaigne or Rousseau, Milton or Swift or Nietzsche. Vigilance, all round. And not just because the relations between truth and wording might be held to have a manifest bearing on what the discipline of editing is.

Twenty-five years ago Ricks outraged a meeting of the Harvard Atheists Club that he had been invited to address by delivering to them as a lecture a draft version of his forthcoming project “Bob Dylan’s Christian Songs,” a topic that he would treat with great respect and insight in his Dylan’s Visions of Sin. What infuriates his many critics is their often dim suspicion that despite his claim to be a normal academic atheist (for which he seems to credit the critic William Empson), Ricks is actually a serious “logocentrist,” an Oxford Platonist who is doggedly loyal to an unoriginal but sturdy understanding of Natural Law thinking. “For he who thinks reasonably must think morally,” as the Christian Samuel Johnson put it. Ricks remembers World War II, served in the British Army in Egypt in the 1950s, and is keenly aware of the catastrophic character of the 20th century, which Sir Isaiah Berlin called “the most terrible [century] in human history.”

Though Empson seems to have won out on the religious front with Ricks over his teacher C. S. Lewis, his friend Geoffrey Hill, and T. S. Eliot — all Christians — Ricks won’t give up his loyalty to what his Kantian friend John Silber called “the North Star.” Every human being is first of all a rational and moral being, and Silber asserted that the “central mission of education” is “to offer our students a sighting of the moral North Star.”

In 1984 the Oxford critic A. D. Nuttall wrote a superb, appreciative essay on C. S. Lewis’s classic modern exposition and defense of the “Natural” or divine law, The Abolition of Man (1943), a book that has also recently been praised anew by the great contemporary French philosopher Remi Brague. Using C. S. Lewis’s familiar nickname, Jack, Nuttall called his essay “Jack the Giant-Killer” and argued that Lewis had logically killed the subjectivism that since Nietzsche has been such a central feature of modern intellectual, academic, and moral life, with catastrophic cultural and political consequences.

Throughout Ricks’s adult life he has clung to his vision of that North Star and applied its light and orientation to his activity, teaching, scholarship, writing, and conversation (“Of old the truth was found; / A band of men it bound. / Cling to it still.”). He is one of the great figures John Silber attracted to Boston University — along with Elie Wiesel, Geoffrey Hill, Roger Shattuck, Peter L. Berger, Saul Bellow, and Charles L. Glenn, Jr. — and he has brought great distinction to the university. But a dean with less than a year’s tenure in that university made a decision to shut down the Editorial Institute. No superstitious deference here!

The U.S.A. is now apparently the land of effrontery, where civilized establishments and traditions and achievements outside the hard sciences are clearly recognized only for the purpose of the transgressive thrill that is derived from disestablishing them. Thus Ricks writes in the TLS on the 35-year legacy of President Silber, who saved and then immensely strengthened BU, that there is apparently

the usual yearning in any upper administration that there be outward and visible signs of the inward and spiritual grace that is regime change. It is not long since Boston University had a controversial President who fostered artistic and cultural enterprises (such as the University Professors Program, the Huntington Theatre in the City of Boston, and — much smaller fry — the Editorial Institute), enterprises that have subsequently found themselves lost. (Axed — or, no less effectually, left to wither.)

So, yes, from one point of view, an academic “tempest in a tea-pot”; but from another point of view — perhaps by reference to the North Star — a sign of the times for the worse. Like the tiny hunchback Alexander Pope, Ricks is not just a fussy careerist or miniaturist, but a rhetorician of great, central authority and precision. In Pope’s “Epilogue to the Satires: Dialogue II,” he writes in defense of his satire:

Ask you what Provocation I have had?

The strong Antipathy of Good to Bad.

When Truth or Virtue an Affront endures,

Th’Affront is mine, my Friend, and should be yours.

In a murky age, our true literary moralists are a precious resource, a “saving remnant,” guardians and articulators of the ethical idiom of language that is perennially necessary to sustain our humanity in what F. R. Leavis called a “techno-Benthamite” age — or, worse still, a Social Darwinist–Nietzschean one. Of those literary moralists, Ricks is one of the best, a fit heir to Eliot, Lewis, Leavis, and Trilling. The closing of his Editorial Institute is a small, but real, loss for our battered res publica, our City of Words; and a large loss for the university (and even the great city) to which he brought such distinction.

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