Paul A. Cantor is Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1977. He has also taught at Harvard University, as an assistant professor of English (1971-77) and as a visiting professor of Government (2007, 2012, 2015). He was the NEH Visiting Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Davidson College in 1987-88. He served on the National Council on the Humanities from 1992 to 1999. He has published a wide variety of essays and articles, and eight books, including the Hamlet volume in the Cambridge Landmarks of World Literature series, and a volume edited with Stephen Cox called Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture. His Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization was named by the Los Angeles Times one of the best non-fiction books of 2001. His works have been frequently reprinted and have been translated into German, Spanish, Russian, Korean, and Mandarin. He also writes for the popular press, including the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard.
What do you do best?
I specialize in making 2 + 2 add up to 5. I put two different fields together, and see if I can come up with something new. I study Shakespeare in terms of ancient and modern political thought. I study the form and creation of literature in light of Friedrich Hayek’s concept of spontaneous order. I study pop culture and elite culture together and see if the one can illuminate the other.
What makes you the best?
I’m an intellectual contrarian. In almost any field, I gravitate toward the most controversial figures, the ones rejected by the majority of experts. Drawing upon maverick thinkers, I can usually bring a fresh perspective to whatever I study. Also, I have a talent for explaining complicated matters in simple terms. My colleagues often mistake this for lack of sophistication. I’ve been accused of writing like a college sophomore. At least that means my students can understand me.
What are your aspirations?
In my work on pop culture, I’m trying to get people to recognize that artistic masterpieces (Deadwood, Breaking Bad) are now being produced in the once-despised medium of television. In my work on elite culture, I’m trying to recover a sense of admiration for traditional masterpieces by revealing new dimensions of their greatness, especially in terms of their intellectual daring.
In my books Gilligan Unbound and The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture, I pioneered the study of long-form narrative in television (that is, how to study a TV series as an artistic whole). I have succeeded in convincing a lot of initial skeptics that television is not an inherently second-rate medium, but has by now had time to mature, so that today some of the finest writing in the world is being done for television.
Most Challenging Moment?
My biggest challenge has been coping with all the new technological developments in teaching, which I’ve tended to resist out of pure orneriness. I refuse to use PowerPoint in the classroom, or online chat rooms outside it. But thanks to some help, I now have a web site called “Shakespeare and Politics” (thegreathinkers.org/Shakespeare-and-politics) that features 48 lectures on 17 of the plays. And a friend (and former student) is now creating a web site for me that will have links to all my books, essays, videos, and podcasts. For an academic Luddite, I have a surprising presence on YouTube already.
“I care not whether a man is Good or Evil; all that I care / Is whether he is a Wise man or a Fool.” --William Blake, Jerusalem
Favorite People/Role Models?
I live alone, and my favorite people are my students, past and present. Taking them as my role models keeps me young mentally. My students—at least the best of them—keep me current and open to new experiences. I’ve made some of my best discoveries, particularly in pop culture, when I take seriously something that matters to one of my students. That’s how I discovered The X-Files and South Park, for example.
I love museums, especially of art and archaeology. So my favorite places are the great historical cities, like Rome, Florence, Venice, Athens, Jerusalem, and Istanbul. For scenery, I love Iceland, Switzerland, Australia, and the American West. Perhaps the most spectacular places I have been are Iguazú Falls in Brazil/Argentina and Haleakala Crater in Maui.
I’m still hopelessly attached to physical objects. I love books, compact disks, and DVDs/Blu-rays. In particular I’m a complete sucker for the mammoth CD compilations being marketed these days—such as the complete recordings of Jascha Heifetz or Glenn Gould or the complete works of Bach or Beethoven. If that sounds almost normal, I’ll add that I splurged for the complete recordings of Constantin Silvestri and the complete works of Girolamo Frescobaldi.
I’m in the midst of one of my many abrupt turnarounds as a writer. I just finished a book called Shakespeare’s Roman Trilogy: The Twilight of the Ancient World, which Chicago is publishing. I’m just starting on a new book for Kentucky called Pop Culture and the American Dream. This involves a lot of gear switching and redirection of my interests. But there’s still some continuity. I’ll be using Macbeth to analyze Breaking Bad.