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What are the Liberal Arts For? The Case of Tom Ripley

Spoilers for Netflix’s Ripley and the Book of Job

The liberal arts seem neverendingly threatened, most recently at small and mid-sized Christian universities in the Midwest that are reviewing their liberal arts programs for discontinuance. Their replacement of venerable programs with what’s “market-aligned” — theology and philosophy exchanged for business and data analytics — seems particularly disrespectful to their religious heritage and more generally, in the words of Jessica Houten Wilson, “soulless.” Nevertheless, given the endangered status, it’s important to ask what the liberal arts are for.

We may be able to distinguish between two answers. One focuses on adaptability and self-invention, with talk of finding complexities and new articulations, counternarratives and new ways of being human. The other is about finding elusive ground for integrity.

One approach to the question is to first ask what a good liberal-arts student looks like. A likely unexpected (and undesirable) answer is Tom Ripley. He’s a conman, first appearing in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), who is sent to Europe to bring Dickie Greenleaf from his carefree life of painting and sailing back to New York and his wealthy and naive father, but ends up taking Dickie’s life, money, and identity. In Netflix’s recent and brilliant Ripley, Steve Zaillian adds scenes in which Ripley looks attentively at writing and especially art. Caravaggio even shows up as a character, as well as a cinematographic influence.

We first see Ripley with the liberal arts, here creative nonfiction, as he edits a travel book being written by Dickie’s girlfriend, Marge, about picturesque Atrani. (Marge is skeptical about Ripley, in part because he shows up as a tourist without knowing who Caravaggio is.) Ripley not only makes useful suggestions but does so in Marge’s voice, not least by contributing a line about Atrani being a “waking dream” she’ll eventually dedicate to her deceased Dickie. Ripley’s edits make Marge’s draft more her own, and he retitles Atrani to My Atrani, which she also keeps for the published book. He’s a good editor, even if his claim of having worked for Random House is likely made up.

Can the arts make Tom Ripley a good person? Ripley gazes at Picasso’s Guitar Player, which hangs in Dickie’s house, but he ends up most fascinated by Caravaggio. When he looks at Caravaggio’s paintings, we hear disembodied voices, suggesting a presence that might let Ripley finally see people as souls, not surfaces. As Ripley walks through the Galleria Borghese in Rome, a tour guide speaks of David with the Head of Goliath as showing Caravaggio compassionately grasping a relationship between killer and victim; we hope Ripley finds compassion. As Ripley pays ten lire to illumine Caravaggio’s three paintings of St. Matthew in a chapel, a priest walks by and says, “The light. Always the light.” We hope Caravaggio’s “light of the world” belatedly illumines Ripley.

Alas, when Ripley recalls David with the Head of Goliath, it’s to better position a head to pour alcohol down the throat and cover up murder. When Ripley considers The Calling of St. Matthew, Ripley deliberately focuses on the window’s refraction of light, not on Christ’s pointing hand, suggesting he sees The Calling as a painting about painting, not the “light of the world,” and he figures out to use light and shade to disguise his appearance. Thus, his recall of the priest’s “The light. Always the light,” is ironic. Finally, scam complete, Ripley gazes again at Picasso’s Guitar Player, now hanging in his apartment, less to admire Picasso’s cubist representation of multiple perspectives than to fragment it in his mind into different realities, all subject to manipulation and then combined into his successful con. (Marge, the girlfriend and travel writer, is one of those manipulated.) Ripley imagines himself as an artist — Caravaggio. After all, in a manner, he has created art, if through forgery instead of oil.

When Ripley meets a fellow conman, Reeves Minot, the code they use for what they do is “art dealer.”

If the liberal arts are about finding new possibilities and counternarratives, whether in clichéd travel writing or dramatic oil paintings, Ripley can discover them. He is very good at self-invention. If it’s about forming a community of shared and elevated interests, Ripley even has the fellow “art dealer” who enjoys his company and shares his contempt for the hypocrisy of the wealthy. What Ripley has increasingly learned from the liberal arts is what Alasdair MacIntyre calls “a virtue that is a newcomer to the catalogue of the virtues: adaptability, flexibility, knowing chameleon-like how to take on the color of this or that social background.”

If, as one commenter says, “it is difficult to think of a more frequently applauded modern trait,” adaptability is not easy, as it requires the self-discipline to transition from one role to another, or, in Ripley’s case, one identity to another, Tom Ripley to Dickie Greenleaf to Tom Ripley to a “Timothy Fanshaw.” Part of this self-discipline is what MacIntyre sees as “active refusals and denials,” particularly of incoherences. Ripley must set aside what might fasten him to a single, intractable reality or identity —his moral disgust when others try to capitalize on Dickie’s story (he loved Dickie in a way); those disembodied whispers when he looked at Caravaggio’s figures that suggest they are souls, not surfaces.

In Highsmith’s novel, we read of Ripley, “He was afraid of nameless, formless things that haunted his brain like the Furies.” In all the versions of Ripley, including the Netflix one, he has nightmares. These too must be set aside.

If Ripley shouldn’t be a good liberal-arts student, what must our vision of the liberal arts include? A recent collection, The Liberating Arts, written by professors and administrators at Christian colleges, provides answers. First, there’s the awareness of a deeper self — a shift of focus “from career to character,” combined with the distinction of “real work,” service, and community from the pretenses in what the late David Graeber called “bulls—t jobs.” Second, there’s the perception that our stories need to be interpreted by overarching narratives. For instance, Margarita Mooney Clayton recalls how the late Albert Raboteau recognized that recovering spirituals and slave memoirs wasn’t merely “historical” but furthered “the universal search for wisdom and truth,” because our reality is exodus stories. The stability of this deeper self and its “real” work, revealed by those narratives, grounds a virtue that MacIntyre opposes to adaptability: integrity no matter the social context.

Thus, in our second answer to the question of what the liberal arts are for, the liberal arts should show us a telos, in the sense of an ending as completion or perfection, against which we can measure who we’ve become and what we do, not just the fascinating possibilities of self-invention.

What might be an example? If we look at the Book of Job, in the philosopher Eleonore Stump’s reading, we do not see Job learning about new possibilities but rather about the world in which he lives and suffers, a creation he grasps is shot through by divine providence. Mysterious as this is, he learns about it firsthand, and we learn through the re-presenting of his experience and its larger context in narrative. He learns through a series of dialogues, ending with a dialogue with God; we learn from reading the literary text that is the Book of Job. Job is a very different liberal arts student who suggests our second answer to the question of what the liberal arts are for.

Satan attacks Job twice, yet Job remains the same person, retaining integrity — at first, separating his belief in a God of goodness from a god of (now lost) prosperity, and then, as Stump says, even more radically standing “with the goodness of God, rather than with the office of God as ruler of the universe.” Job must reject his friends’ claims that everything that happens is straightforwardly divinely ordained, so that he would have to adapt. As René Girard has pointed out, even Job is tempted to accept the last social role available to him — that of scapegoat: “Though I am innocent, my own mouth would condemn me” (9:20). This adaptability is clearly a lapse, though, for Job’s true self and purpose comes from remaining steadfast in faithfulness to the God of goodness, seemingly unresponsive though he remains.

Gradually, Job learns about the providence that undergirds his integrity. As we learn, we experience the goodness of God through unexpected narrative. For, unbeknownst to Job, his afflictions occur after God asks the returning Satan, like a rebellious child, “Where have you come from?” (1:7), and then asks the accuser to consider “my servant Job.” God seemingly desires to counter Satan’s cynicism; God shows love and concern even for this accuser. When God finally responds to Job, he speaks of his role in all of creation as the parent who “shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb” (38:8). God converses with his creation. God interacts with both darkness and light — “Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are?’” (38:35), as well as with every animal.

In fact, Stump argues the Book of Job has a “fractal nature” with “nested stories” of God’s parental love, one in which God tries to draw the accuser close to himself with Job as his instrument, another in which God seeks to draw Job in his steadfastness closer to himself, with others as secondary characters. Stump writes, “We can suppose that there will be stories, contained within the story of Job, in which each of Job’s children is the primary beneficiary of his or her suffering.”

As opposed to many of our narratives, in which some characters wear “plot armor” and others are expendable, in Job’s world one trusts God is drawing all to himself, however mysteriously. There aren’t non-playing characters, only narratives presently unseen. If Job’s sufferings make him a saint, or a cultural figure on par with Socrates, less likely to imagine misfortune as a curse warranting persecution, so God restores him with more children and possessions that Job can receive as pure gifts from an unconditional goodness, it isn’t only him. We need only remain ourselves in this reality, our deeper selves committed to the work before us. We need not treat ourselves and others with opportunistic flexibility, figuring out whether we and they matter to God.

The question of what the liberal arts are for depends on what we make of reality. Is it a world composed of many different stages demanding varying roles for us to play? Or is it a fractal world in which we maintain integrity?

Behind this lies another question: The soul is hard to find, but can we retain the liberal arts without considering the soul? If we find it, will we find the Ripleyesque hard-working stage manager of many performances, brilliantly evading capture, or the Job-like figure who seems more himself as he becomes steadily — if not painlessly — more receptive to a reality that was always as providential as it was inescapable?

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