Culture Magazine

Coltrane’s Addendum to “Why Ethical Criticism?”

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
I truly admire Scott Newstok's open letter to students on humanities & liberal arts: "How to Think Like Shakespeare" — Alan Liu (@alanyliu) August 31, 2016
I’ve been reading around and about in Scott L. Newstok, “How to Think Like Shakespeare,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 29 August 2016. Here’s a passage, somewhat out of context, that speaks to the Why? of ethical criticism:
Instead, you become a creator by wrestling with the legacy of your authoritative predecessors, standing on the shoulders of giants. In the words of the saxophone genius John Coltrane: “You’ve got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light.” Listen to Coltrane fuse experimental jazz, South Asian melodic modes, and the Elizabethan ballad “Greensleeves,” and you’ll hear how engaging with the past generates rather than limits.
And surely one of the functions of ethical criticism – remember ethos, a way of life? – is to help in recovering and refitting the past for the present-moving-into-the-future.
For change is not always progress; what is lost is not always well gone. Sometimes the past needs, not to be regained, but to be revived and reconstructed.
That requires greater flexibility than is afforded in the moral rigidity of critique. We need to own up to our values, to state them explicitly, and thus to explore them. That cannot be done if they are allowed to retreat into the woodwork of ideology.
Another passage, for your own reflection:
You simply cannot transform tradition (a creative ideal) without first knowing it (a conserving ideal). Making an inventory must precede making an invention. Just imagine how startling it must have been for Shakespeare, the child of a small-town glove maker, the first time he encountered Seneca’s blood-drenched tragedies, or Lucretius’ treatise on the nature of the material world, or Ovid’s exquisite tales of shape-shifting. Shakespeare’s education furnished him with an inventory of words, concepts, names, and plots that he would reinvent throughout his career. Immersion in distant, difficult texts enlarges your mind and your world, providing for a lifetime of further inquiry. Devote the time in college to develop your growing inventory.

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