The State of Literary Criticism


Magazine: Civilization, the Magazine of the Library of Congress Issue: September * October 1995, Volume 2, Number 5 Title: Books - Standing Up for Literature By Roger Shattuck

A movement is underway on campus to take politics and theory out of the reading and teaching of books

When luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg castle church in 1517, he was protesting the growth of indulgences sold in order to finance the construction of St. Peter's in Rome. We let ourselves fancy that the whole Reformation grew out of Luther's bold protest. In 1845 Marx limited himself to a mere 11 "Theses on Feuerbach," the German philosopher who shaped his thinking. They contain a clear statement of the priority of collective interest over the individual and a stunning revolutionary trumpet call. "Up to now the philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point, however, is to change it." Luther and Marx succeeded in turning the current of history. Is another such moment approaching? There is a crisis worthy of a new set of theses; its subject is not religion or philosophy but culture.

I am a college teacher and a writer. Forty years of teaching have carried me to Harvard, the University of Texas, the University of Virginia and Boston University, and have coincided with wrenching political, intellectual and moral shifts in our society. When I arrived in Texas in 1956, the girls wore bobby socks and all of the students were learning to spell an exciting new word, "existentialism." Today, I teach in the core curriculum at Boston University, a bulwark against the fierce politicizing of the humanities as taught in many programs around the country. If a calamity has befallen the humanities, it is certainly not the disappearance of bobby socks, but the invasion of politics.

Last fall I made some remarks to a meeting of literature professors troubled by such a development. I don't imagine myself to be in a league with Luther or Marx, but I called these remarks "XIX Theses on Literature" because I believe that the present circumstances in schools and colleges point toward a separation of literature and teaching that has become dangerous. As a society, we are still adjusting the terms of one of the basic principles of American democracy: the separation of church and state. The benefits of that principle outweigh its costs and need not undermine religious faith and institutions. We should patiently uphold that separation. The new separation of literature and teaching could become as catastrophic for our culture as the separation of church and state has been tonic.

In a sophomore humanities course this spring I asked students to choose a poem or a passage by Walt Whitman or by Emily Dickinson to recite and to comment on in class. Most chose Whitman. One young woman picked Dickinson's "A bird came down the walk," a gently comic description of a bird hopping, feeding, pausing and then--in a vividly lyric metaphor of rowing in the liquid air--taking flight. After reciting 20 lines, the student said that the poem is "really" about a lesbian sexual encounter. In demonstration of this she pointed out the words "And then he drank a dew/From a convenient grass," and stated (with a blush) that "there are several references to the clitoris." The other students giggled. I expressed some skepticism and asked about the versification and the literal meaning. The young woman had nothing to add. No one else volunteered a comment. I said I did not find evidence for her reading in the poem itself, in Dickinson's other poems or in Dickinson's life. I later learned that the student based her comments on interpretations she had heard in an English course.

We can reasonably expect a liberal education in our colleges and universities to serve two principal functions. The first is to present the historic basis of our complex culture and the political and moral standards it has evolved. The second is to offer students the intellectual basis for an evaluation of that culture, its ideals and realities. The first explains and even justifies the status quo. The second questions it. Both are essential in a democracy. Those two functions can take place together, almost simultaneously, thanks in great part to a collection of written works that founds our Western tradition and challenges it. In this respect the dialogue form in Plato, Montaigne's essays and Dostoevsky's narratives are similar. They do not pronounce: They probe and reflect. The shared reading of such foundational works gives us a basis for finding the principles and "values" by which we can live together as one country and one culture containing many parts and divisions, many classes and races.

Along with political and historical writings, literature and philosophy provide two of the most important categories of such works. When they enter the classroom and are taught, they become "classics" and form a loose curriculum. The curriculum has changed slowly over the years. Plutarch's Parallel Lives and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress have faded into the background. Mary Shelley and Frederick Douglass have moved forward into a place they deserve. We also recognize non-Western works. In order to have a common frame of reference within which to reason together, I would argue that there are books everyone should read. And we should never stop discussing which ones.

But in recent years other considerations have usurped the place of literary status and quality. It is a simplification but not a distortion to refer to two categories of interests displacing literature: politics (including race and class as well as gender and gay-lesbian studies) and theory (reliance on a methodology or approach by which to read all works). These interests have become increasingly specialized and often doctrinaire. Their cumulative effect is to eliminate the very category of literature. A resounding article of the 1970s by Jacques Ehrmann carried the title "The Death of Literature." When the French critic Roland Barthes published S/Z, an influential study of a little-known Balzac story, he first elaborated a system of terms and symbols and then applied them in a lengthy line-by-line reading. Onto this semiotic analysis, Balzac's story was stuck as an appendix, in smaller print, almost as an afterthought, overwhelmed by the critic's sovereign theories.

As critics and teachers have thus diminished the status of literature, some have put in its place their particular interest, political or theoretical. The young woman who stood up in my class to present a tendentious version of the Dickinson poem about a bird had been taught to read that way. She was no longer reading a work of literature. She was interpreting a "text" programmatically according to a learned bias. The number of biases has become very great. Most of them lead students away from the notion of literature as a representation of life and as something worth meditating upon and discussing on its own terms. It is this separation of literature from teaching that troubles me.

Thirty years ago the basic subject matter of English and foreign language courses in schools and colleges was language and literature. Now the subject matter of many of those courses has shifted to feminism, minority and ethnic cultures, gay and lesbian studies, psychoanalytic criticism, postmodern studies, Marxist criticism, deconstruction and literary theory. Such literary works as are studied are treated not as literature offering its own rewards and lessons but as illustrations of the ideas and values being taught. It is difficult to know what proportion of courses is now more ideological than literary. Shakespeare is frequently reduced to considerations of class and economics. The most trendy courses at some colleges practice the systematic "queering" (detection of homosexual content) of such classical writers as St. Augustine and modern writers as Dickinson. Less and less are great works taught on the understanding that a slow, careful reading will discover meanings and structures unique to that book and worth study in relation to the surrounding culture. One will not understand Milton's Eve in Paradise Lost or even Proust's Baron de Charlus by applying one of the specialized approaches. In reading, if you begin with a method, you will probably learn nothing new from a book. A method or a theory can be a gussied-up prejudice.

In other words, calls over the last 30 years for empowerment and liberation and cultural studies have often displaced literature from teaching and put in its place other subjects that appear more timely or urgent. But for those of us who entered teaching because we had fallen in love with literature, nothing is more urgent than a return to an open rather than closed reading of stories and poems and plays that convey the very stuff of human life. At the threshold of a literary work, one does well to put aside one's prejudices and fixed views rather than to clutch them more closely.

During this shift in literary studies, those among us who are not primarily drawn to an "ism" or to special "studies" or to a theory began to feel left out, even beleaguered. It is not easy today to teach literature without a political or a theoretical package--a package that often itself becomes the content. Since 1968 our professional organization, the Modern Language Association, has been gradually taken over by a well-concerted radical caucus. Today our annual conventions are ridiculed by the press, with considerable justification, for the ludicrous and deliberately provocative topics discussed at them. "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl," "Of AIDS, Cyborgs, and Other Indiscretions," "Self-Consuming Fictions: The Dialectics of Cannibalism in Recent Caribbean Narratives." Our flagship professional review, Publications of the Modern Language Association (PMLA) now prints an increasing number of articles like "B/O--Barthes's Text/O'Hara's Trick." The author, Gregory W. Bredbeck, having written a book entitled Sodomy and Interpretation: Marlowe to Milton, turns his back on literature on the first page of his article. "I intend to build an ironic semiotic myth faithful to homosexuality, postmodernism, and materialism. O'Hara's poetics does not provide me with a subject so much as an occasion." Because of its heavily intellectualized style, I at first thought the article was a grand spoof of all contemporary excesses. I was disappointed. It turned out to be an occasion to celebrate homosexuality on the basis of its alleged aesthetic and moral superiority.

One should understand the status of an article like this for the profession of literary studies. Articles in PMLA are first recommended by two academic "specialists" and then carefully discussed and voted on by an editorial board of seven prominent professors. The articles they choose to publish serve as model pieces of scholarship, criticism and writing for other members of the profession. Apparently most professors of literature either accept in such an article the bravura debasement of our entire mission as scholars and teachers of literature, or merely shrug their shoulders.

A recent volume published by the MLA will be much more influential than Bredbeck's article in setting the direction of the teaching of English and foreign languages. Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies includes eight chapters on basically literary fields and 11 chapters devoted to the specialized approaches I have mentioned. As clothes make the man, so ideology makes the professor of literature. The index reveals that contemporary philosopher-critics like Derrida, Foucault and Lacan receive more attention from the 24 authors than any figure in English and American literature, including Shakespeare. The best literary scholar-critic since World War II, Erich Auerbach, is mentioned only once in a footnote. I hope i exaggerate. i fear i do not. in any case, the situation is bad enough to have impelled some of us to stop shrugging our shoulders and to take a small step for professional integrity. In 1991 a few scholars in California began muttering about a new society devoted to literary study. They tended to talk to John Ellis, professor of German literature at Santa Cruz and author of a resounding critique, Against Deconstruction. By 1993 Norman Fruman (University of Minnesota), Gerald Gillespie (Stanford), Ricardo Quinones (Claremont McKenna College) and Ellis drafted a half-page "Open Letter to Literary Scholars and Critics." It proposed the formation of a "new association that would reassert our general faith in the validity of the literary imagination and in the value of literary studies." Eight people met at UC-Irvine in February 1994 and decided that the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics would include classicists, freelance writers and critics, and foreign members. More important, the initial group resolved firmly against taking any political or ideological position. Literature would have no rivals.

Distribution of the open letter in chain-letter fashion produced about 250 signatures by summer 1994, including Anna Balakian, Denis Dono-ghue, Paul Fussell, E.D. Hirsch, John Hollander, Richard Poirier and Christopher Ricks. At a meeting a year ago in Boston, bylaws were adopted and plans made for a first convention this September. Throughout these events and the membership drive that followed, the mood has been one not of defiance and despair but of relief and quiet elation that a forum now exists in which literature will take precedence over politics, ideology, social agendas and theory. No one would exclude those concerns from literary studies. But they should not run the show.

At the Boston meeting I was offered the opportunity to make some remarks at the closing banquet. Somewhere I found the scheme not of a sequential talk but of a set of theses. My deepest convictions about literature and teaching clamored for a place; I had never stated them before so nakedly. Every sentence in the first eight theses referred to an intensely disputed question in literary studies today, some of them explosive.

Our fledgling organization now has more than 1,000 members and a firm schedule for its September meeting, in Minneapolis. The eminent classicist Bernard Knox will give the keynote address. The panels, all plenary, will take up mainline literary topics: "Dante in the Western Canon," "Poet and Critic" and "Intellectual Craftsmanship: How to Read a Book." During the voluminous steering-committee discussions by e-mail, Felicia Bonaparte (City University of New York) decided to raise the question of feminism in our association. She described herself as "extremely sensitive on this point, having what I would consider feminist views such as the belief that women ought not to be treated any differently from men, but being vehemently opposed to the idea of asking literature to read as though it were a feminist tract." Such firm judiciousness will help us to discuss sensitive questions without losing sight of literature.

Two quotations from the culture wars will recapitulate what I have been saying. The first I heard pass unchallenged at a conference. "It hardly matters what students read. What matters is the way it's taught." The point of view embodied in those sentences rejects the entire corpus of books we call literature and welcomes any materials that suit the teacher's method or ideology.

The second quotation comes from Redrawing the Boundaries, the new book on literary studies. "From the theoretical perspective, we cannot assume a single, central culture that renders individual experience coherent and meaningful but rather [we can assume] inescapable cultural difference, division, and dissonance." The first part of the sentence as far as "but" gets things about right. I would even add "fortunately." The rest of the sentence, instead of suggesting that a common culture is something we have to create together, capitulates to a doctrinaire belief in cultural divisiveness. That belief exceeds the bounds of a healthy skepticism. The Western tradition that has brought us to the frail beginnings of justice and democracy needs to be constantly rediscovered and retested, not summarily dismissed.

From Shattuck's Theses

* Works of literature, through their amalgam of representation and imagination, of clarity and mystery, of the particular and the general, offer revealing evidence about material nature and human nature and whatever may lie beyond. This is why we read and study and discuss literary works.

* Literature ranges from simple songs and sayings to elaborate and extended tales of human deeds. The most compelling literature concerns persons whose feelings and thoughts and actions engage us in the lived time of mortality. Ideas and abstractions, which systematically separate themselves from persons and from time, do not form the essence of literature and do not surpass it.

* Works of literature are written by individual authors using an existing language with reference to material nature and human nature. The doctrine known as textuality makes a triple denial of these entities. Textuality denies the existence of the natural world, of literature and of authors.

* No author has a claim to final authority. However, we do well to acknowledge sheer seniority. Works that have survived for centuries cannot be dismissed out of hand as stiflingly traditional, as part of the status quo needing above all to be usurped by the modern.

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