Paul A. Cantor received his BA (1966) and PhD (1971) in English from Harvard University. He has taught at Harvard in both the English and the Government Departments. He is currently Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia.
1. What is a Professor of English doing involved with Austrian economics?
In my youth, I was interested in all sorts of subjects, from science and mathematics to philosophy and political theory. I started reading great literature early and got to see many Shakespeare plays when I was growing up. But at the same time my older brother introduced me to the writings of Mises when I was about fourteen. I had the great good fortune to attend Mises’s seminar at NYU in 1961-62. That confirmed my commitment to Austrian economics.
2. What impressed you about Mises?
His steel-trap logical mind. My first intellectual love was geometry and I’ve always been enchanted by the QED moment. Listening to Mises clinch an economic argument was a joy to hear. And he was an elegant, courtly, old-style European gentleman. Besides, I’ve always been a sucker for a Viennese accent.
3. So why didn’t you go into economics?
Sometimes I think I should have. But I’ve always loved literature too, and I thought that I could make my greatest contribution by analyzing literature. It’s not that I loved Mises less; it’s that I loved Shakespeare more. Fortunately, halfway into my career as a Professor of English I discovered that I could combine Austrian economics with the study of literature.
4. What brought you to the Mises Institute?
I was teaching Thomas Mann’s short story “Disorder and Early Sorrow” in my comparative literature survey course at the University of Virginia. It’s a story set at the time of the German hyperinflation of the 1920s. I realized that I could use the Austrian theory of hyperinflation to explain what goes on in the story, especially in cultural/psychological terms. In 1992, to celebrate its 10th anniversary, the Mises Institute had an essay contest. I wrote up my Mann lecture and fortunately I was one of the winners. That linked me up with the Institute and I’ve been involved in its activities ever since.
5. Can you tell us about your new book, Literature and the Economics of Liberty?
First of all, it’s co-edited with Stephen Cox of the University of California, San Diego. The other contributors are Darío Fernández-Morera, Thomas Peyser, and Chandran Kukathas. Many of the essays were originally presented as papers at Austrian Scholars Conferences. The book would have been impossible without the Mises Institute, and we’re all very grateful to them for publishing it.
6. What are you trying to do in the book?
We’re offering an alternative to the standard Marxist analyses of the relation of literature and economics. To read most books in this field, you would think that capitalism is the worst thing that ever happened to literature and that no author has ever had a good thing to say about the free market. We show that some authors have in fact been in favor of economic freedom; Fernández-Morera, for example, analyzes the ways Cervantes in Don Quixote attacks government interference in the marketplace, long before Adam Smith began to speak of “the invisible hand.” Kukathas’ essay on the Nigerian author, Ben Okri, will really surprise people—Chandran shows that a contemporary postcolonial novel defends an open marketplace over political attempts to control it. I have an essay on the way the British commercial publishing industry in the nineteenth-century created the first broad-based market for fiction, bringing together novelists with their potential readers in a productive way that served the interests of both. We also show that some authors have been critical of socialist intellectuals. Cox has an essay on Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent that analyzes the novel’s indictment of pseudo-intellectual revolutionaries who think they are redeeming the world but are in fact only pursuing their own selfish interests.
7. How does the idea of spontaneous order come up in your book?
It’s the central concept and the organizing theme of the volume. We argue that literature often celebrates society as a form of spontaneous order; Peyser’s essay on democratic vistas in Walt Whitman is a good example of that. My analysis of the serial publication of novels treats culture as a species of spontaneous order—Dickens produced his masterpieces by a process of trial-and-error and a kind of feedback loop. He would try out various narrative possibilities and then see how his audience responded. Audience feedback sometimes steered him toward his masterstrokes as a novelist. Finally we use the concept of spontaneous order to reconsider the issue of literary form. In the opening chapter I argue that a novel doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect in terms of form for it to be great literature. A novel may have some loose ends—often because of the complex history of its genesis—and yet can still offer a coherent aesthetic experience overall. It’s just what we learn from studying markets—they never achieve a static perfection—they’re always moving toward perfection; they are self-perfecting, rather than perfect. I argue that literature may always be striving toward perfection of form, but it doesn’t have to reach it to be great literature. What the idea of spontaneous order offers is a third term between pure chaos and perfect order. Many human phenomena, such as the market, cities, and language, appear at first to be chaotic, irregular, and inimical to strict form, but they turn out to have an underlying order, one which evolves over time and can be understood only in retrospect. Literature does provide examples of perfect order in the form of exquisitely designed lyric poems, but it often takes another path, allowing a certain looseness of form to mirror the seeming chaos of human life. One might even argue that the novel is the form that evolved to portray the spontaneous order of human life. In that sense, the formal imperfections of the novel are paradoxically its perfection. We inherited from the Romantics the idea that a literary work has to be absolutely perfect in form—that turns out to be a myth.
8. What is the myth of the Romantic artist?
It’s a very powerful and seductive idea—that the artist is a solitary creator, that he spins his great works out of his own mind and his own mind alone—that he holds himself aloof from society and makes no compromises with his public—that the only way to produce a great work of literature is to have a unitary vision of it in all its perfection and execute it in a single act of inspired creation. I bought into this idea for much of my career as a literary critic—it is what I was brought up on, and I didn’t like what seemed to be the alternative. Marxists criticize the Romantic view for its individualism and elitism. Marxist analyses try to present literature as a collectivist activity—a product of the folk soul or of class consciousness. Marxists critics try to show that authors speak for or represent some kind of collectivity. I preferred Romanticism to that.
9. How does Austrian economics come in here?
The way Austrians understand human action offers a happy medium between the radical individualism of Romanticism and the radical collectivism of Marxism. Austrian economics analyzes the way human beings productively interact within society, but it always views them as interacting as individuals. Marxists talk about the publishing industry as some kind of abstract, overarching (“hegemonic”) force, independent of the participating individuals, imposing its will on authors and readers alike. I stress how publishers, authors, and readers interact as individuals. The individual vs. the collective is a false dichotomy. I try to show that authors can profit from their interaction with their public in a commercial environment without having to sacrifice their individuality and creativity completely.
10. Can you sum up what Austrian economics has taught you about literature?
It teaches us to live with and affirm the messiness of the world, the way things are always changing, developing, and surprising us. It calls our attention to all the elements of contingency in human life, and the way so many aspects of our world are path-dependent. A static perfection is a bad ideal for humanity, and attempts to impose an artificial order on the world only succeed in creating greater disorder. Fortunately the world refuses to fit the neat patterns of the city planners and other social technocrats—Hayek is eloquent on that subject. I just had to learn to apply that vision of life to literature and culture in general. Yes, literature does offer us examples of “perfect” poems, perfectly designed in advance and perfectly executed. But that’s not the only kind of perfection in art and may be a limited kind of perfection. Novels are messy—they’re written over long periods of time and often respond to changing circumstances in the world and in the reading public. But that’s why novels can succeed in capturing the messiness of human life, all the contingent elements that make life real and individual. One sentence from Human Action has always stuck with me: “The living is not perfect because it is liable to change; the dead is not perfect because it does not live.” It took me a long time, but I now realize that Mises’s statement is the best way of talking about “perfection” in culture, too.
11. Does your book have any message for us at this particular moment?
In a way I hope it doesn’t, but I’m afraid it does: my chapter on Mann and the German hyperinflation is an ominous reminder of what happens when a dysfunctional government thinks it can get away with endlessly piling up debts and creating money out of thin air. My chapter on the Romantic poet Percy Shelley is perhaps the most pertinent right now. I analyze the way that Shelley in his Philosophical View of Reform offers a remarkably prescient and prophetic critique of central banking in Britain and the origins of deficit financing. He complains bitterly about the way the bankers of his day were in cahoots with the government to defraud the public of their hard-earned wealth. Sound familiar?
12. What do you do for recreation?
I like to travel, and see as many different places as I can. A few years ago I completed what I call my Austro-Hungarian Habsburg hat-trick; I saw Prague, Budapest, and Vienna in the space of five years. Mises’ biographer Jörg Guido Hülsmann was very helpful to me—he gave me a sort of Mises map of Vienna and I was able to trace down many of the sites where the great man lived and worked, including the high school he attended and the famous Chamber of Commerce building. In today’s Vienna one can see more than traces of the grand world Mises grew up in and get a sense of how pained he must have been to see that world destroyed by the illiberalism of the twentieth century.
13. Do you have any other hobbies?
I love classical music and have a rather large collection of recordings. I have I think thirty-seven different recordings of Bach’s Art of the Fugue, for example. I’m the program director of the concert series here in Charlottesville and that has been a great experience for me. I get to meet many of the classical musicians I most admire, and also to discover new talent all the time. I’m proud that we’ve showcased many of the rising stars in classical music, such as Yevgeny Sudbin, Daniel Müller-Schott, Amit Peled, and Arabella Steinbacher, early in their careers.
14. What is your favorite film?
I think Godfather I and Godfather II are the greatest movies ever made. But for a little-known film that defends capitalism (at its “I love a corporate takeover” most extreme), I recommend Other People’s Money, with the immortal Danny DeVito.
15. What are your favorite tv shows?
For me The X-Files and Deadwood are the greatest shows of all time, but of programs currently on the air, I’m really partial to Breaking Bad and Curb Your Enthusiasm. And then of course there’s Squidbillies—if you can find it. Any show that airs at 3:45-4:00 AM has to be something really special.