Paul Cantor's Last Lesson
Greats tend to go in threes. In November 1963 it was C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, and J.F.K. Earlier this year it was, for cultural criticism, Terry Teachout, then P.J. O’Rourke, and dismally Paul Cantor. Teachout was one of the most thoughtful dramatic critics then alive, definitely the most jovial, whereas O’Rourke surpassed his National Lampoon peers as a serious observer of political comedy, and Cantor, a Straussian-turned-Shakespearean, was the premier of highs and lows in western culture.
Recently, Harvard University’s Program on Constitutional Government held a symposium with Cantor’s old friends. Many noted that he was equally comfortable giving exegeses on Homeric epics as much as on Homer Simpson. Both a distinguished scholar in Elizabethan drama as well as an essayist on prestige television, he was a profligate dabbler: an excited (albeit unsuccessful) fencer as a Harvard undergraduate, a one-time contributor to Saturday Night Live, and an enthusiast of Wrestle Mania, cooking, and Renaissance painters.
While Harold Bloom had greater living public reach, Paul Cantor may have greater staying power, thanks to his savvy use of social media for popular education—although, it was Cantor, not Bloom, who once inspired an insightful response from Charlton Heston. As a serial guest of Conversations with Bill Kristol and the ACF Movie Podcast, Cantor was always a wisecracking but astute interlocutor, as was evident in his Harvard lectures, “Shakespeare and Politics,” not to mention his countless writings now available online.
The Professor’s discussions gradually fused political philosophy with mass entertainment, as Peter Hufnagel notes, due to “the spirited responses” students made to his lectures. Cantor often explained to his students things such as “the elaborate cross-plotting in Elizabethan revenge tragedies by drawing parallels to mafia vendettas in gangster films.” Such classroom discussions eventually gave rise to his trilogy of books on film and television: Gilligan Unbound, The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture, and The Darkside of the American Dream.
In a time when fandom obsession with popular culture has glutted our screens and our souls, one may rightfully ask what killed cultural aspiration. In contrast, Cantor modelled how to look for quality amid quantity, Bosch and Bach as much as Dr. Caligari and Michael Crichton, so as to look at the whole of man. One should consider “the obvious and the surface,” the lowborn sources of culture, for the “problem inherent” only “in the surface of things,” as Leo Strauss pens, “is the heart of things” which rise to a higher station.
Paul Cantor examined the human whole, and what he saw made him laugh. “If you watch him lecture,” Titus Techera observes, “you will notice how much he enjoys the troubles he is studying and trying to articulate—how funny he thinks the human situation essentially is.” Human life, for the Professor, is a Hegelian tragedy of alternative goods. The freeing intimacy of local politics competes with the spiritual longings of imperial existence. The comedy is in examining our crazy attempts to seize it all.
He was a winsomely opinionated man, academically rooted in the classics but always sympathetic with real people suffering under impersonal bureaucracies. A very secular Jew, Cantor once toured the Holy Land with a Protestant minister. He understood religion as a political fact, I observed to a friend, though not as a metaphysical one. The last time I saw him was at a D.C. Italian restaurant called Bertucci’s where we argued over Bloom and Bellow. There, as elsewhere, he talked to students through Socratic inquiry. His lectures were athletic feats, but never solo ones.
“Western civilization,” Cantor often said in them, “is the secularization of the Christian reinterpretation of the Roman appropriation of Greek culture.” This eccentric culture absorbs the best from its outskirts with the Everyman left to handle the contradictions of inheritance and innovation. As in Breaking Bad: Cantor once met showrunner Vince Gilligan, who thought his protagonist plain evil, and he argued Walter White was a tragic hero like MacBeth. Think: “I dare do all that may become a man; Who dares do more is none.”
Gilligan was intrigued but skeptical, nonetheless Cantor thought mass entertainment allowed things to be said in public which we would ordinarily only say in private. Its Hayekian function is akin to the spontaneous order emerging from ordinary people freely associating. Heavily influenced by Von Mises, his literary understanding mirrored his libertarian politics: the little guys get together to stand against the modern crony state’s numbing demands. His populist heart was most at ease with flesh-and-blood everyday Americans.
But Cantor was not parochial. Rather, as he noted on the reception of his online lectures: “What has stunned me is that it’s a worldwide phenomenon.” He received “emails from South Africa” and from Lebanon, Norway, Turkey and even “all sorts from China—evidently I’m a big hit in China, although they can’t use YouTube, so they have to sneak me in somehow under the border.” For, “a number of these emails say, ‘You have changed my life.’ It’s how deep that goes.”
In 1964, Allan Bloom sought for “political philosophy in Shakespearean criticism” to “give a discursive account” of ideas and passions “depicted in the plays” done to distinguish “the best kinds of men” along with the profits and losses of various “ways of life.” He continued: “We are in need of generations of criticism—naïve criticism which asks the kinds of questions of Shakespeare that Glaucon and Adeimantus once posed to Socrates.”
Cantor’s extensive work on those plays heeded Bloom’s call. Such political analysis does not exhaust the plays and poetry, but liberates them: “Contemplating a wide variety of regimes,” he had written, “allowed Shakespeare to explore ways of life quite alien to the wide but nevertheless limited range of humanity” in Renaissance England. His work on Shakespeare was among the best of philosophical inquiries.
I first met Professor Cantor when he lectured at the Hertog Political Studies Program. His subject was the Bard’s Roman trilogy: Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Anthony and Cleopatra. Afterwards we corresponded until his death. He usually responded to emails, often at great length, on the same day. As a guess we exchanged some 15,000 words. His virtue as a teacher was displayed in his long-suffering willingness to answer any crazy questions I posed. He even had a few crazy stories: one was when the actress Annabeth Gish joined The X-Files as FBI Agent Monica Reyes for Seasons 8–9.
Once a student of Cantor’s colleague at Duke University, Ms. Gish got the part with a ruse. Claiming to have been a fan of the show from its beginning, she had never seen even a single episode before she was accepted. Thus, Cantor FedExed Gilligan Unbound to Gish “so that she could learn what the show was about.” Consequently, one of the X-Files stars read Paul Cantor’s essay, which initially covered seasons 1–7, to learn her part for seasons 8–9 (and later into 10–11)—a picture of a theorist tutoring the city’s storytelling.
It was a gift to learn from his ideas and his example. In January he said he was going to write a book on the presentation of capitalism in reality television. Since we spoke often, and at odds, of religion, it seems noble to think all great teachers get to write that last manuscript in the hereafter. A great lecturer, lively teacher, and consistent libertarian who taught me to take popular culture along with Shakespeare seriously, Cantor’s students are countless. May this Straussian rest in peace with the living God and the best of the Harvard Lampoon.
Featured image: Paul Cantor in photo by Dan Addison courtesy of the University of Virginia.