Para mim, a idéia do cânone sempre pareceu natural. No colégio, tive a sorte de descobrir na biblioteca as coleções de clássicos da filosofia e da literatura da Abril Cultural, ainda hoje encontráveis nos sebos: "Os Pensadores", de capa dura azul, e "Grandes Nomes da Literatura Universal", de capa vermelha. Ali os nomes impressionantes que eu via nos catálogos da Ediouro (que eu recebia bimestralmente pelo correio) ou nos livros didáticos se materializavam, e muitas obras cujo título e autoria eu já sabia de cor finalmente ganhavam vida. Foi um momento crucial de minha educação, quando entei em contato direto e regular com idéias e estilos de linguagem que atravessaram séculos. Ao mesmo tempo que devorava a redação erudita e didática de um Allan Kardec, por exemplo, passava tardes divertidas com a ironia de Montaigne e os incontáveis aforismos clássicos que recheiam seus "Ensaios"; com a mordacidade de Voltaire; os diálogos por vezes difíceis, mas sempre impressionantes, de Diderot; a sensualidade revitalizante de Lawrence; os terrores e angústias de Poe, e tantos outros. Lembro-me de que muitas vezes era o único em décadas a pegar emprestado certos livros, um testemunho, pensava então, da mediocridade de meus colegas, para quem "clássico" fosse antes uma tendência particular para roupas do que qualquer outra coisa.
O tempo foi passando, e muitos dos volumes que encantaram minha adolescência hoje repousam em minhas prateleiras. Posso vê-los daqui, imponentes, a me lembrarem com suas lombadas esmaecidas pelo tempo da primeira vez em que nos encontramos. Hoje é raro que os revisite como merecem, dividido que estou entre as muitas tarefas do presente. Mas não me culpo por isso, pois sinto que, de certa forma, eles vivem em mim. Nosso encontro nunca terminou de fato, e sei que posso encontrar neles um tesouro para todas as épocas da vida. Se há algo a lamentar, é que não tenhamos nos conhecido antes, ou que o número de autores não tenha sido maior. No entanto, a cada autor que acrescento a eles, reforça-se a intenção de um dia retornar às suas páginas, mergulhar uma vez mais nas suas reflexões, e deixar-me levar pela prosa nem sempre fácil das eras de que cada um é testemunha. Talvez um dia eu os deixe de herança para alguém, materialmente falando; no que diz respeito ao lado espiritual, porém, posso dizer sem medo que os lego a cada aula mais elaborada, a cada dissertação, e mesmo nas vezes em que sou convidado a falar em público. Esses "homens brancos mortos" que têm sido tão questionados por alguns militantes, às vezes com certa razão, são meus mestres mais queridos, e bem gostaria que fossem melhor conhecidos aqui no Brasil. Será sonhar demais?
Bem, a reportagem abaixo me inspirou essa divagação. Afinal, as duas coleções a que me referi nada mais são que derivações dos Great Books (alguns dos quais também posso ver daqui). Admito que fiquei surpreso ao ver o tom irreverente do autor -- nunca atribuí a esses tomos o adjetivo "ilegíveis", e tal soa um tanto herético aos meus ouvidos. Por outro lado, não há como negar que colecionar clássicos é muito mais fácil que lê-los, quanto mais de estudá-los. Inspirado pelo programa de um dos idealizadores dos Great Books, Mortimer Adler, cheguei a contactar o Saint John's College, cujo programa impresso eu tenho. Mas, de fato, mesmo para um diletante dedicado, o que infelizmente estou longe de poder ser, a digestão plena de todas essas obras consumiria mais do que o tempo de uma vida. Limitações de tempo e energia nos forçam a ser seletivos, e só posso sonhar com a idéia de passar os quatro anos de graduação do Saint John's dedicado ao cânone ocidental. Ainda assim, é um ideal que prezo e vale e pena cultivar. Embora seja inegável que nunca daremos conta de tudo que merece ser conhecido, a mera tentativa já nos enriquece.
The New York Times
A GREAT IDEA AT THE TIME
The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books
By Alex Beam
Illustrated. 245 pp. PublicAffairs. $24.95
The humble book has survived many attacks on its integrity over the centuries, whether from tyrannical clerics or fearful governments or the new electronic wizard that promises a peculiarly modern “pleasure of the text” via limitless accessibility. Nevertheless, publishers continue to produce books, while countless numbers of people read them and — a word that crops up frequently in relation to books — love them.
In the middle of the last century, a committee of commercially minded academics came up with its own strategy to undermine the enjoyment of reading. With the backing of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Mortimer Adler and a few others whittled the literary, scientific and philosophical canon down to 443 exemplary works. They had them bound in 54 black leatherette volumes, with the overall designation Great Books of the Western World, then hired genial salesmen to knock on suburban doors and make promises of fulfilment through knowledge. In a postwar world in which educational self-improvement seemed within everyone’s reach, the Great Books could be presented as an item of intellectual furniture, rather like their prototype, the Encyclopedia Britannica (which also backed the project). Whereas the Britannica justified its hulking presence in the home as a reference tool, however, the Great Books made a more strident demand — they wanted to be read. Unfortunately, once opened, the volumes were forbidding. Each was a small library in its own right, with slabs of text arranged in monumental double columns. The Great Books of the Western World were what books should not be: an antidote to pleasure.
The great minds behind the Great Books were Hutchins and Adler. Hutchins was a precocious academic administrator — dean of Yale Law School at age 28, president of the University of Chicago at 30 — Adler a philosopher of ideas, author of works like “How to Read a Book” and a man who, in the words of Joseph Epstein, a colleague in the 1960s, “did not suffer subtlety gladly.” The Great Books project was many years in the making and was intertwined with Hutchins’s desire to reform the humanities curriculum at Chicago, but in 1952, after years of planning and bargaining with fellow members of the Great Books team — “If Dickens goes, Melville goes” (Dickens did; Melville didn’t) — he and Adler saw their dream become a well-upholstered reality.
In “A Great Idea at the Time,” Alex Beam presents Hutchins and Adler as a double act: Hutchins the tall, suave one with a gift for leadership; Adler “a troll next to the godlike Hutchins,” with a talent for putting students to sleep. Making the acquaintance of Hutchins through his works was, to Beam, “like falling in love.” By contrast, “to be reading Mortimer Adler’s two autobiographies and watching his endless, self-promotional television appearances was a nightmare from which I am still struggling to awake.” As an appendix to the Great Books, Adler insisted on compiling a two-volume index of essential ideas, the easily misspelled Syntopicon. A photograph in “A Great Idea at the Time” shows Adler surrounded by filing-cabinet drawers, each packed with index cards pertaining to a separate “idea”: Aristocracy, Chance, Cause, Form, Induction, Language, Life and so on. The cards registered the expression of those ideas — Adler arrived at the figure of 102 — in the Great Books of the Western World.
Hutchins and Adler’s Great Books were a mixture of books you wouldn’t dream of reading; books you think you ought to read but know you never will; and many books that, if you haven’t read them already, you would admire and possibly enjoy. The last category included the “Iliad,” works by Chaucer and Shakespeare, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” a few novels — “Tom Jones,” “War and Peace” — and various works of philosophy. The commercial aspect played on the common desire to harbor all of knowledge — Euclid, Kepler, Bacon, Descartes, Hume, Adam Smith, to name but a few — under one roof.
The texts were presented, however, without annotation, which would prove a hindrance even in the case of relatively accessible works, like Shakespeare’s sonnets. The 54 volumes contained practically nothing written in English in the previous 100 years (two works by Charles Darwin, one by William James), but heaps of Plato and Aristotle, some alarming medical remedies of Hippocrates — “Make the irons red-hot, and burn the pile until it be dried up” — and column after column of ancient science, of little interest to anyone but specialists, who would have equipped themselves with more advanced texts anyway. When asked for his views on which classic works to include among the Great Books, the science historian George Sarton pronounced the exercise futile: “Newton’s achievement and personality are immortal; his book is dead except from the archaeological point of view.”
Hoping to offer the reader what many of the Great Books fail to provide — entertainment — Beam falls over himself in the effort to be breezy and upbeat. No Mortimer Adler, he. “It is hard to resist poking fun,” he writes, and resistance is easily overcome. “From the culture’s point of view, Adler was a dead white male who had the bad luck to still be alive.” When reporting that “War and Peace” was among the selections of Hutchins and Adler, Beam fails to resist adding “no ‘Anna Karenina’; too readable!” His plain-man slangy style, which will be appreciated by fans of his column in The Boston Globe, is just as likely to be off-putting to others. Hutchins and his colleagues, Beam writes, “signed a pact with the devil of commerce” and “hawked their books” the way their ad man, William Benton, sold Crest toothpaste. “Forget that it cleans your teeth; you’ll be popular! Wisdom of the ages, schmisdom of the ages. Forget about learning — your boss will be impressed, women will seek you out (‘Oh! You’re reading Fourier’s “Theory of Heat.” . . . How fascinating!’), your kids will get into college, and so on. . . . Soon enough the Great Books were synonymous with boosterism, Babbittry, and H. L. Mencken’s benighted boobocracy. They were everything that was wrong, unchic and middlebrow about middle America.”
If not a great book, “A Great Idea at the Time” acts as a good guide to the rise and fall of the project. For a brief period, the Great Books were at the heart of the curriculum at Chicago, and continue to feature strongly elsewhere. In one of the reportorial chapters toward the end of his account, Beam visits St. John’s College in Annapolis (it also has a campus in Santa Fe), which still operates a teaching program based on “all Great Books, all the time.” In 70 years, little has changed at St John’s. “If a boy or girl wants to attend medical school,” Beam writes, “that means an additional year . . . of memorizing facts in conventional biology and chemistry classes, not learning the ‘truth’ behind the science, Great Books-style.”
Hutchins and Adler foresaw many obstacles on the way to ushering the Great Books into classrooms and living rooms, overcoming them by persistence, financing — the compilation of the Syntopicon alone took eight years — and a not always likable self-belief. But not even the distilled wisdom of the 54 volumes could have helped them predict that by the 1980s students on campuses throughout the United States would be forming groups and chanting, “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Western culture’s got to go!” sometimes with support of politicians. By then, the Great Books notion had fallen from its commercial and academic high point to being the focus of readings groups. Beam relates his own adventures in one of the “850 active chapters” of the Great Books Foundation, discussing Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost and other writers overlooked even in the updated edition of 1990. The Great Books of the Western World are not what they were. But the world’s great books, in some mysterious, muddled way, endure.James Campbell’s collection of essays, “Syncopations: Beats, New Yorkers and Writers in the Dark,” was recently published. He writes a weekly column in The Times Literary Supplement.