Western Civ 101


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I’ve just returned from Oxford, England, where everything is twice as expensive as it is here, where the weather is crappy and most of the food tastes like boiled cardboard. That said, I still want to take a room in one of those lopsided little houses built in the 12th century and stay for the rest of my life. It’s something I’ve felt fleetingly during previous visits to Europe, but, this time, the feeling was more pronounced. At Oxford, I had the sense of being truly in Western Civilization, with the added poignancy that this might be a last and dying outpost.


As everyone knows, Western civilization has its faults — which I will return to discuss later — but it’s hard to think ill of it when you stride through the cobbled streets of Oxford. There you are in the midst of a good-sized city, interpenetrated with the vast and variegated structures of an ancient university: some 40 self-contained colleges, each with its own unique architectural style and grassy quadrangle, its own library and its own dining hall. Each undergraduate college houses about 350 students who for three years immerse themselves in one subject and meet regularly with an assigned tutor. It is a setting and an atmosphere conducive to the development of intellectual rigor and gentle camaraderie. Venerable but not fusty, privileged but not showy, secure in its sense of excellence, but not arrogant, Oxford is, in a word, civilized. The cobbled walks, the placid quads, the soft tolling bells, the hushed interiors of the Ashmolean Museum and the Bodleian Library all seem the antithesis of everything ugly, vulgar, and mean.

Yet during a tour of the Bodleian Library we learned that Henry VIII’s son, Edward VI, seeking to enforce his father’s new Anglican Church, ordered all Catholic manuscripts burned, and that there was a great bonfire outside this beautiful edifice. How could an act of such barbaric destruction be reconciled with such a civilized place?

Somehow it could. After all, an entire nation was converted in a stroke from one religion to another, its massive prelature revamped down to the last monk through the whim of its monarch. The point being: It did not fall apart but continued doing the same essential work as before. That’s civilization for you. It carries on in the face of even the most seemingly dislocating effects. Lop off the right hand and the civilized person learns to write with the left.

As I thought more, it occurred to me that Western Civilization is not, as one might imagine, defined by progress, even though many of its effects involve improvement and development on what came before. Neither is it regressive, though its effects may well be the study and sometimes obsessive preservation of the past. It is mostly about the maintenance of order in the present. Western Civilization remains attached to manners, customs, ideas, and institutions for the reason that they give meaning and structure to life as it is lived. Thus, one sees the students of Oxford striding about the city in black ceremonial robes, worn because this has been the custom during final exams for centuries and because the customs lends dignity and stature to the mundane act of taking a test. You would think that on a warm summer day, robes would be discarded in favor of Bermuda shorts. But no — it is a mark of being civilized to put ennobling custom ahead of creature comfort.

An alumni list for Oxford University and its more bucolic twin, Cambridge, is a Who’s Who of the big guns of Western Civilization: heads of state and regal sovereigns, captains of industry and science, the flowers of literature. Up through the 19th century, the two schools split the luminaries of Western culture between them. Wandering the streets, one can’t help imagine Donne musing under that tree, Shelley ruminating along that walk, Wilde scribbling here, Auden or Eliot there. The very air seems infused with the Great Tradition.

At one point during our stay, we went into Corpus Christi College to see a painting that a friend had donated to the college. We were taken through the ancient rooms by a professor of Classics who held the additional title of “Keeper of the Paintings.” Think of it: a Keeper of the Paintings. The title implies first that there are paintings to be kept; then, that they are to be kept in a certain way: kept clean, well lighted, catalogued. To put a faculty member in such a role suggests that the intellectual life of the college is bound up with its material life. One wonders if there is also a Keeper of the Furniture, and even a Keeper of the Silverware and China, since these items are also necessary to the material well-being of the college, and require informed maintenance.

The painting we had come to see had been hung in a room called the Founder’s Lounge, which contained a large oak table, set on the day we visited with 15 place settings. It seems that this was Open Day, when high school students come to visit, accompanied by their high school teachers. The teachers have tea with the college tutors in this room.

The whole arrangement seemed much more — well, civilized — than the American version of the college visit when prospective students schlep around the campus accompanied by a ragtag assortment of rowdy younger siblings and frazzled, clueless parents. Nothing could be more remote from the carnival air of the American college tour than bringing one’s high school teacher to meet with one’s potential college professor for tea in a private room overseen by the Keeper of the Paintings.

As for the taking of tea, it too pertains to a larger, more civilized idea. We Americans grab a donut or a bag of Fritos to stave off hunger pangs until dinner, but tea is something else and sating hunger is the least of it. At both Oriel and Wadham Colleges, where I took some of my meals, tea was one of the established meals of the day, and it wasn’t about food but about form. There were the cups and saucers, the teapot, the plates, the little spoons and forks. There was a great deal of pouring, stirring, picking up and putting down. In the midst of all this, the dry scone was an afterthought — almost required not to be very good.

What is gained by such a labor-intensive, content-light ritual? The answer, in part, lies in the talk that occurs over the clatter of cups and saucers — a way of making a connection with others without having to try too hard. But more important than what happens during tea is what doesn’t happen. The ceremony is a way of resting the mind and the spirit, taking a break from active exertion and strenuous thought. One isn’t pushing through a hostile takeover when one is obliged to pour a bit of cream into a cup and finger a stale sandwich. By the same token, one isn’t fighting an inequitable law either. This may be why Western Civilization has tended to be slow to enact social reform — all that time maneuvering lumps of sugar with little silver tongs into little teacups has a way of distracting the mind from weightier issues.

At this point, I am brought up short and must recall the bigotry and exclusionary practices of Western Civilization: how Oxford, until recently, was the precinct of white male members of the Church of England. All the rest of us — women and minorities — had no place, or rather, had a place only downstairs in the kitchen or the servants’ quarters. In the old days, the Oxford dons would sit in the Founder’s Lounge that I visited with the Keeper of the Paintings, read their newspapers, and drop them on the floor, knowing the papers would be picked up by one of the faceless workers employed for the purpose. Unlike the Keeper of the Paintings, the Picker up of the Newspapers, like the Maker of the Beds and the Cleaner of the Toilets, had no stake in the life of the University.

Once one gets started, it is easy to continue thinking about the injustices perpetrated by Western Civilization on those outside of it. Shakespeare must have had such thoughts when he wrote The Tempest, and imagined how it might feel to be one of the indigenous peoples lately undergoing colonization by his country. “You taught me language, and my profit on’t/ Is I know how to curse,” growls Caliban, native of the island where Prospero, a sort of Oxford don, sought to make him over in his own image. Western Civilization has bullied and brainwashed the populations under its sway to adopt its way of being, and where it hasn’t succeeded, it has created a vast army of Calibans, adept at Western-style cursing.

The response to such criticism is to say that it is the attribute of Western Civilization to gradually incorporate greater tolerance and awareness into itself and, hence, to rectify inequities, if slowly and in piece-meal fashion. One of the virtues of tea time is that it allows for leisurely, unencumbered thought. Eventually, big ideas and larger perspectives begin to impinge. With enough time, the takers of tea begin to see how unjust and exclusionary they are. Oxford remains a bastion of privilege, but there are now outreach efforts underway to create a more integrated and diverse population.  In a place like this, change takes time but change does happen. The question is: Can Western Civilization survive this desultory pace — letting ideas take shape slowly and deliberately over the clatter of teacups?

As one walks along the cobbled paths of Oxford, gazes up at the gothic spires, and watches the students, their robes flapping, one realizes how different Western Civilization is from the crass vigor of American enterprise and reform. Of course, American civilization is part of Western Civilization — it is its extrapolation into the present. But this extrapolation is such that it seems less an extension than a mutation of what came before. We see this in the Starbucks franchises that have settled in next to the quirky pubs and teahouses. The coffee is excellent, but there are no surprises here, no deviations from the standardized fare, no esthetic flights of fancy in the décor. Go in one and you could just as well be in New Jersey. The same can be said for the garish brochures that the colleges have begun to produce in an effort to emulate American promotional techniques. The college wardens say these brochures are a necessary part of a larger fund-raising effort: The buildings at Oxford are old and require expensive renovation and upkeep; you’d be surprised how little an 800 year endowment brings in without a professional apparatus to help out.

Western Civilization sought to turn everything into its own image. American civilization, in the form of globalization, does the same thing, only that image is standardized and vulgar, not refined and esthetically appealing. In voicing this sort of distinction, I may be indulging in sentimental nostalgia. Indeed, I know I am. But that’s what a week at Oxford can do. It can make you feel attached to leisurely rhythms, off-kilter structures, and impractical ceremonies. It can make you fall in love with beauty.

The triumph of globalization may preserve Oxford as an architectural marvel, but it may not save the University. On the contrary, it is likely to destroy it by turning the Keeper of the Paintings into a standardized item like a tall mocha latte. This outpost of Western civilization, which survived book-burning in the 16th century, may not survive American marketing in the 21st.

Until the end comes, however, I am content to walk the cobbled streets, wander the ancient corridors, and pause to take my tea in one of the ornate, high-ceilinged rooms that, admittedly, need a new roof and a better heating system. • 18 July 2008



Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her latest book is Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation (Princeton UP).