(Original Review, 1981-01-12)
It is sometimes uncomfortable reading things from other eras - for example I´m a big fan of William Faulkner who was in many ways ahead of the curve on race for his day - if the average KKK member had been more into modernist avant-garde fiction than I imagine they were, he´d probably be having crosses burned outside his house left right and centre - but definitely a bit weird about women at times.
Or take for example Dante - who as a medieval Catholic believed in all kinds of things I´m deeply opposed to (though it´s interesting the parts in Inferno when he expresses more sympathy are often precisely the parts a modern reader might also have more difficulty accepting the person´s fate - compare how sympathetically he views the homosexuals or suicides compared to the corrupt priests orthe violent for example - but like everyone at that time he just accepted certain things as fact that nowadays we don´t, namely that God would condemn them all to hell.
But in many ways it´s precisely reading thing written by people who believe in values or have experienced a world totally different from our own that makes it worthwhile. It broadens our understanding of the human condition and how people react to it, helps us see what´s constant and what is more fluctuating and impermanent.
Values are very much impermanent - they can´t be shown logically, they can´t be proved empirically, and are just shifting products of social circumstances. People can only be judged by the standards of their own time. Who knows what any of us would think or feel had we grown up in a different time with different customs and more limited sources of information? Realising this is in fact the key to genuine tolerance rather than the enforced "I find this offensive so let´s ban it kind" of "tolerance" which is not what the author is in fact arguing for.
The fact that some people on the left, and note I say "some", do feel that their own values are permanent and can be applied to all eras, is for me just nostalgia for religion, a form of existential angst. People resist the idea that their values are not particularly solid, it´s part of rejecting our human freedom and our capacity for self-defense and free-thought. In this some of the more rigid PC thinkers show a lot in common with religious conservatives on the right, who also mistake their rather modern literalist interpretations of religion for something eternal and unchanging. In both cases it´s quirk of personality rather than a properly though out philosophical position I feel. It´s fascinating how religiosity, ease of offence, literal mindedness and humourlessness so often go together as a form of syndrome, making me wonder if there is some underlying cognitive variable, such as intolerance towards ambiguity or inability to grasp metaphorical thought....
Meanwhile, the rest of us will carry on reading things from other, less "enlightened" times (and how will our own look to "those who will consider this time ancient", as Dante put it?), reading critically when necessary and with some discomfort, but still reading and learning and gaining enjoyment from them.....