September 18, 2000
Volume 53, No. 34
Wayne Booth hits his targets
Compiled by Steve Kraftchick & Michael Terrazas
The Distinguished Service Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Chicago, Booth will deliver his lecture, "The Rhetoric of Reconciliation," at 8 p.m., Sept. 28, in Glenn Auditorium. Emory Report asked Booth to discuss the concept before he arrives on campus.
Emory Report: How would you define the concept "reconciliation?"
WB: Well, there are lots of synonyms: dialogue, diplomacy, good conversation, achievement of harmony. Incidentally, reconciliation is not the primary term in my work. Recently I've invented the term "rhetorology" for rhetoricians to use when they pull to the deepest levels of a controversy, trying to find the common ground from which they can then move upward, possibly, to some kind of further agreement or reconciliation.
It has always seemed to me that there's really only one alternative when there's real controversy, one alternative to violence or silence or continuing enmity, and that is rhetorical exploring, where you're talking and then trying to find some kind of common ground from which you can proceed. If you don't find that, then you just go on being enemies.
Even though you apply the term to rhetoricians, it seems a universal concept.
I can't think of any aspect of life where this is not relevant. There are lots of aspects of life where you can see people not practicing it. All religious warfare is a result of a failure of reconciliation-and all academic and political warfare, all family disputes, personal quarrels.
That doesn't mean everyone is going to come out agreeing when they attempt reconciliation, but it does mean, for me, that this is a supreme value. I would almost call it my religion. It's a practical version of the doctrine of love, of charity. The trouble with the doctrine of charity as usually preached by religion is that it's too often simply passive acceptance: "Okay, I love you. Let's shut up." But reconciliation, if it's going to work, really requires talk, and effective talk requires rhetorical exploration.
In your profession, how do you balance the inherent ethical flaws of classics of literature, written as works of their time, versus their value as classics?
Well, I often try to face that problem. I try to deal with it by getting the students themselves to recognize that as they read the works, they're involved in ethical differences and have to make judgments. If they don't, if they finally simply succumb to the sympathies demanded by the work, then they may very well end up having adopted the ethical values they shouldn't. On the other hand, if they don't succumb in some sense, they don't even "get" the work.
I've sometimes called this the conflict or interrelationship between "overstanding" and "understanding"-understanding being fully succumbing to the work, or giving in to temporary suspension of disbelief, as Coleridge called it. After understanding, students should not fail to "overstand" and apply their own sense of right and wrong, and look back on what's happened to them as they read.
Do you think it's fair to judge classics this way?
I really do. And in saying that, I've run into a lot of objection from some colleagues. I have a historian friend who is really furious that I have printed feminist judgments against Rabelais.
When I was younger and read Rabelais, I found him almost always hilarious. Now that I'm older and have been influenced by feminism, I find myself not laughing as hard at some of the anti-women jokes. And [my friend] said, "That's just unfair to Rabelais because he was just part of his culture, and we should not impose modern values on another culture." He was very adamant about that, and I'm adamant against his position. I think if we don't honestly face our own ethical views and express them against not just our neighbors or our friends but our reading of the classics, we're just being lax.
But you can't apply them the same way to the historical and the contemporary can you?
No, that's a good qualification. I don't think, though, that it's really a major qualification because when you say "contemporary," you've got to include all other cultures, too, and I don't find [applying] my best effort at judgment to Rabelais in the Renaissance [very different from applying] my best effort to a contemporary work done in Japan or in Timbuktu. The distance is often just as great.
You've written about the struggle between yourself as a young Mormon and yourself as an adult. Could you talk about how reconciliation applies to that?
Well, [it's also between] myself as an adult who is both a Mormon and not a fully practicing Mormon and my youthful self as a total believer. Many devout Mormons would claim I'm not because I don't have the kind of active demonstration of it that they do. I've done a lot of hard thinking, most of it unpublished, about how to interrelate the official Mormon doctrine and my own deepest convictions.
[When I thought I would become a scientist], I was passionate about rationality and critical thinking, and I kept encountering in the church-increasingly in recent decades, actually-the doctrine that you should not apply critical thought to church doctrine. [Church leaders would say], "That destroys faith, and just stop doing it." Others would say, "No, no, you can think, but think right."
What was your response to those schools of thought?
Well, I've gone back and forth. Through many decades I went on being active, on through my 40s, and I'm still occasionally attending church and occasionally giving a donation here and there, but it's really back and forth. It's wobbling on the fringe. I've sometimes thought of using that as a title for an essay: "Wobbling on the Fringe."
Yesterday I went to a service here. We have this community here in the Utah mountains that has open air services each Sunday, a lovely setting in the trees with the sunshine glowing. It's really a spiritual experience. But one lesson was just absolutely offensive to me, and I felt I don't want to be active in any church like that. And the next lesson came along, and my thoughts reversed: What a wonderful thing to have a church that produces people like that. I go back and forth like that.
Does any of that "hard thinking" you mentioned influence your work in academia?
Very strongly, I think. It's what got me into the reconciliation project, or what I call rhetorology: trying to interrelate seriously the deepest rhetorics of, on the one hand, secular humanism or rationalism, and on the other hand, theology and religion. I think that sprang from the effort to reconcile the Mormon Booth and the non-Mormon Booth-or sometimes even the anti-Mor-mon Booth, although I've never come out with an attack on the church.
Could you talk about your lecture at Emory, reconciling science and religion?
It will be about reconciling the rhetoric of science and the rhetoric of religion. Or, if the word "rhetoric" seems misleading, as it does to many people, the modes of talk in science and the modes of talk in religion: getting down to the fundamentals, down to what amounts to the concepts religionists and scientists share without knowing it-sometimes without acknowledging it.
One of the ideas behind the reconciliation theme is how universities can conduct themselves as good citizens. You've written on this, served as a dean and fretted over the character of your own university. Can you reflect on how universities should conduct their conversations?
That problem goes in two directions: How to talk to the public, and how to talk within the academy. I was very fortunate in my choice of university. One of the reasons I chose the University of Chicago is that before there was really any broad movement toward interdisciplinary studies-genuine reconciliation among departments-the University of Chicago was doing it.
[Back in the 1930s and '40s] a marvelous philosopher named Richard McKeon became dean of humanities, and he decided that one of the things we were suffering from was that departments were not communicating with each other. He set up a series of four major committees in which departments were required to get together and do interdisciplinary studies.
This led to a university where, when I joined it, everyone simply assumed that you didn't just talk within your own field. You had to be able to talk outside your own field, and this led to a lot of wonderful quarrels and dialogues and reconciliation, both within the humanities and social sciences and on into the sciences.
Is that the "personality" of the University of Chicago?
I suppose I'd have to do a bit of pussyfooting and say that's what I think it's striving for but never quite reaching.
What are your perceptions of Emory, and what do you think about our decision to explore the concept of reconciliation throughout this year?
I think it's wonderful. I'm embarrassed to say how little I know about Emory, but I do think it's admirable to know you're doing this kind of thing.
I can't think of any project more important in current American life than efforts at finding modes of reconciliation. The stupid quarrels between religionists and scientists, with the scientists not really listening to the people on the religious side, and vice versa, and the stupid political quarrels with nobody listening to anybody else. We just have to keep nagging, as I've done all my life in my classes, to [make people] listen to the other guy. Don't try to hit a target that's not there.