He has written powerfully about the century's literary giants: Faulkner, Eliot, Yeats, Joyce. He has probed their complexities so lucidly that he remains the dean of American literary critics -- widely published, widely read, and showered with such honors as the 1985 Jefferson Lectureship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Over the past five decades, he has taught generations of students the art of close reading and analysis.
So when Cleanth Brooks turns his attention to the state of contemporary society, what does he find?
``I more and more see a society all dressed up to go anywhere it wants to go,'' he says, ``and confused as to where it ought to go.''
Professor Brooks is no brooding pessimist. Over lunch at the Graduate Club at Yale University -- where Brooks is an emeritus professor -- his Southern grace and almost boyish verve reflect an inherent faith in humanity. Which is why, perhaps, his comments deserve a thoughtful hearing: They are not the complaints of a cynic but the urgings of a reformer.
``I'm more and more convinced,'' he says, ``that our society is all balled up on the matter of values.''
What concerns Brooks is not simply that humanity is ``confused about its values'' -- many contemporary thinkers have said as much -- but that ``it doesn't know where to get its values.'' And what especially troubles him is that, in its ignorance, society turns for answers to what it calls ``science.''
Brooks is too much a man of his time to reject out of hand the tremendous advances of science. Instead, he is concerned that the sciences and the humanities represent two entirely different kinds of thinking -- and that only the latter can supply the need for values.
``It seems to me more and more clear,'' he says, ``that science always deals with how it happens, [with] process. It is dealing not with `Why?' or `What is the meaning of it?' but [with] `how.'''
The difficulties arise, he notes, ``when you start asking the questions, `Yes, but to what end? Why are we alive? What values should we seek?'''
``I don't think we can get very many answers in science,'' he says.
As an example, he turns to space travel. ``We wanted to put a man on the moon,'' he says, and ``We did it. And it was a wonderful achievement, a staggering achievement.''
``But why put a man on the moon?'' he asks.
``Well, you can say, [it proves that] we can do certain scientific things,'' he observes. ``We can do things to promote human efficiency and the quality of life.'' Insofar as that translates into ``more efficient refrigerators, and so forth,'' he chuckles, that's all to the good. But is that, he asks, really what ``quality of life'' is all about?
Brooks is no dreamy idealist -- and he's certainly not plumping for a world made up only of humanists. ``Everybody knows, I most of all, how subjective subjectivity is in the poet and the prophet and the saint,'' he says. ``It can be terribly unreliable, terribly fantastic.'' Yet he feels that it is the poets and prophets and saints, more than the scientists, who address the central ``quality of life'' issues -- issues of values.
And that leads to his great question. ``How,'' he muses over dessert, ``are you going to edge -- in any meaningful, convincing way -- the life of the hero, or the saint, or the great poet into a world which finally is measuring everything in these other channels, the channels of process?''
In that one sentence Brooks goes to the heart of the matter. How much, after all, does society really care these days for its heroes and saints and poets?
It would almost seem that those figures of greatness, whose lives once set the standards for society, have been forgotten in our thirst for slick celebrity -- or ignored in our fascination with gee-whiz technology and our idolatry of ``scientific'' exploration.
It would almost seem, in other words, as though nothing can be worth our attention unless it comes in the guise of some sort of science. Poets and saints and heroes -- the probers and definers of values -- don't usually come that way.
Which is why, in the end, Brooks's insights are so valuable. They remind us that, far beyond the confines of how and process, there is a world of why and being. Whether we call ourselves poets or scientists is not the point: There are plenty of scientists for whom the world of why is alive with meaning -- and plenty of so-called poets imprisoned within the confines of how.
No, the point -- as Brooks so tellingly reminds us -- is not how we define ourselves. It is whether we are able to recognize our need for values -- whether, now that we are all dressed up in our technological finery, we care enough to ask where we ought to go.
A Monday column