Old Literature and its Enemies
- The Death of Literature by Alvin Kernan
Yale, 230 pp, £18.95, October 1990, ISBN 0 300 04783 5
- Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopedia, Genealogy and Tradition by Alasdair MacIntyre
Duckworth, 241 pp, £12.95, August 1990, ISBN 0 7156 2337 0
- Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man by David Lehman
Poseidon, 318 pp, $21.95, February 1991, ISBN 0 671 68239 3
In Alvin Kernan’s book The Death of Literature there is an account of the Lady Chatterley trial. It sports a pointless and omni-directed superciliousness so relentlessly predictable that if, for example, Rebecca West is cited making a perfectly tenable statement you can rely on being told that she was displaying ‘qualities that must have once made H.G. Wells wonder what he had gotten into’.
There is in this book too much snide misrepresentation and sheer error to report in detail, but most of it pales beside the dottiness of his idea that the Chatterley trial showed ‘literature’s lack of any theoretical basis’ because the expert witnesses were unable to ‘define’ literature: it was the ‘theoretical naivety and innocence of system displayed by the literary establishment’ which made it ‘always vulnerable’ to the demolition which it suffered soon after at the hands of ‘structuralist and post-structuralist theorists’. The witnesses were not ‘defining literature’ but trying conscientiously to prevent censorship of a book which they believed should be published. The expectation that some three dozen separate cross-examinations, when assembled together, would magically turn into a collective theory of literature, seems more detached from reality than is usual even in discussions of the politics of ‘theory’. Kernan’s argument is as reductive and incoherent in general as it is inaccurate and incoherent in detail. To call it tendentious would be to ascribe to it a tendency.
The book’s sloppy reasoning and its brittle and erratic sarcasms are of interest because they reflect a loss of morale in literary studies. The soft cynicism and undiscriminating disaffection are symptoms of a defeatism which is both understandable and deplorable. The Death of Literature is the third volume of a series in which Kernan has been concerned with the overtaking of print culture by the electronic media, and with various aspects of the academicisation of literature in our time. Its two predecessors, The Imaginary Library (1982) and Samuel Johnson and the Impact of Print (first published in 1987 as Printing Technology, Letters and Samuel Johnson), which were issued by a different publisher, were less sourly jokey and less apocalyptic. The first in particular contained penetrating analysis of the way in which the proliferation of literature departments in universities had created a new reading public, receptive to books which could only be read by people experienced in the routines of classroom explication. The economics of publishing encouraged the production of novels and poems of the kind university instructors would be tempted to write about, thus furthering their careers, and to assign to their classes, thus bringing in profits, the college market in the United States being very large. This suggested important perceptions (not always followed through) into the origins and character of some products of the Post-Modern imagination, and raised the question of the desirability for a literary culture of being too closely tied to universities.
He also argued that serious literature, including older books, was hardly read outside the universities, and reported a drop in enrolments. David Lehman’s Signs of the Times similarly notes the ‘disquieting fact that the number of students electing to major in literature has steadily declined over the last twenty years’. The question of ‘theory’ is bound up with this, since, in Lehman’s view, it seems probable ‘that the student with an authentic literary vocation may be the one who feels least at home with the academic orthodoxies of our day.’ According to an opposite scenario, theory owes its proliferation to large numbers of instructors and students who come to literature departments without much desire to read books.
Both Kernan’s and Lehman’s declarations about declining enrolments come without much differentiation or analysis. In the micro-perspective of a few universities known to me in the last twelve years or so, the numbers have remained large. It may be that they were too large in the past, in the sense that they included people who had no liking for the subject, as they still do. Kernan’s outlook, evidently exacerbated by the warfare over theory and related discontents, seems to have hardened in this new book. In intensifying his insistence that ‘literature has been almost entirely institutionalised ... inside the university,’ he has advanced to a position which misrepresents the real problem. It does not seem true that ‘older works’ are exclusively ‘preserved by teaching and kept in print by classroom demand for texts’. Kernan’s earlier analysis of a ‘literature of the present’ written for academics still has force but is beginning to seem overstated. Writers go on writing, not only ‘stiffly superior to and scornful of professors, in the manner of Gore Vidal’, but also in other manners, and in some cases not ‘stiffly superior’ but simply indifferent to or unconscious of professors, an idea that doesn’t seem to enter the minds of some academics as being within the realm of possibility, and there are plainly readers who read them outside the classroom.
Kernan correctly reports the disturbing ‘violence and even hatred with which the old literature was deconstructed by those who earn their living teaching and writing about it’. His belief that ‘the attack has abated, the old literature being stone dead’ seems wrong on both points. He continues: ‘at the moment, in 1990, the most popular subjects of criticism and undergraduate or graduate courses are still those that demonstrate how meaningless, or paradoxically, how wicked and anti-progressive, the old literature has been, how meaningless is its language, how badly it has treated those who are not white, how regularly it has voiced an aristocratic jackbooted ethos or propagandised for a brutally materialistic capitalism.’
I’m not sure what the evidence is that these are ‘the most popular subjects’, or whether Kernan has tested this proposition statistically in the classroom, as distinct from exposing himself to the trade journals or scanning the programme of the Modern Language Association of America. My own observation of students, including some ‘who are not white’, suggests that they retain a pretty live interest in ‘the old literature’, though it is reported that in many universities some of the teachers discourage this, sometimes to the point of intimidation or penalty. There is professional misconduct, bordering on intellectual terrorism in extreme cases, and I shall return to this. It’s certainly nothing to be complacent about, but it isn’t helped by the sort of unresisting mindlessness which keeps sputtering on that literature is ‘stone dead’ or ‘was soon, shown to be a farrago made up of poetry and prose, fiction and fact’. This factitious bowing to the inevitable, the parade of ‘realism’ which won’t even condescend to say whether this is good or bad, let alone how it should be resisted, seem cheap. They are the flipside of an abdication of vigilance on the part of senior academics and administrators, who presided uncritically over the freewheeling expansion of the discipline and allowed it to be invaded by elements radically uninterested in either scholarship or literature, and whose successors are now limply acquiescing in, and even abetting, a hijacking of the classroom by militant proponents of special interest groups.
Literature in universities, because of certain peculiarities both in the nature of the subject and in the (endlessly retold) history of its institutionalisation, became a haven for people who couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything else. As Donald Davie pointed out some years ago, many of them didn’t like, or had no interest in, what they were supposed to teach and had to find something other than reading books to occupy their considerable supplies of energy and time. This is the result of a proliferation, in universities of the affluent West, of literature departments on a scale far beyond anything necessary or healthy for the maintenance of an informed and thoughtful awareness of good writing. There is a clear connection between this situation and the flowering of modes of literary theory which propose that it is equal to, or better than, or independent of, the texts from which it arises or which it professes to be studying, and which there is an increasing disposition to ignore or bypass. Pedagogues are beginning to be heard to say that it might be possible to take a degree in literature without reading any books. The more politicised versions of this are often perpetrated by persons who wouldn’t be given house-room in a department of political science, just as the philosophical pretensions of most literary theorists are derided by professional philosophers.
English in its academic guise is one of those subjects which one can get away with doing badly on a scale unthinkable in physics, or economics, or even history, partly because successive ideologies of the discipline have maintained an investment in uncoupling it from the idea of a body of knowledge, so that it has developed a strong mood of resistance to fact. For similar reasons it is more vulnerable than most, certainly than some of the sciences that literary theorists sometimes like to think they are emulating, to being factitiously politicised: Marxist or feminist readings of ‘Three Blind Mice’ would be unlikely in a zoology course.
The discontents of literature in universities would have been less likely to occur if people with no interest in literature weren’t given endless opportunities of teaching and writing about it. Since these opportunities can’t be thought to have been created by any of society’s pragmatic needs, they may be thought of as luxuries of affluence. Kernan notes that the disparagement he describes doesn’t exist in poorer countries. ‘Only in the Third World, Latin America, Africa and Asia do the novel and poetry have something like the cultural power they exercised in the West as recently as two or three generations ago.’ In the Second World of Eastern Europe, as René Wellek once pointed out, literature was also taken very seriously: seriously enough to be written and read at great personal risk, and to be thought worth suppressing by the authorities. Certainly the universities provided very little time or personnel for its unfettered study.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 13 No. 10 · 23 May 1991
Claude Rawson’s response to Alvin Kernan’s proposition that ‘the old literature is stone dead’ (LRB, 25 April) seems paradoxical: he denies that it is true, and asserts that literature is being killed off by Stanley Fish and a Marxist-feminist-multiculturalist ‘thought police’. Professor Rawson conflates diverse matters.
We should distinguish ‘literature’ as a. a body of texts and b. a way of thinking about those texts. A decade or so ago (for instance, in the controversy in these pages about Re-Reading English) it was observed that the second of these, the received idea of literature, no longer carries conviction for some people. One basis of this idea is literary appreciation; it is invoked James Wood, who wants ‘to laugh and cry out with simple pleasure’ (Letters, 25 April – I am not attributing this approach to Rawson).
However, the body of texts often called literature is not dependent on the idea of literature; indeed, as Raymond Williams pointed out, the texts to a notable degree predated the idea. Rawson is right to say that very many people remain deeply engaged with this body of writing; indeed it has been importantly extended through the retrieval of work by women and other subordinated groups. But some readers, including many feminists, Marxists and multiculturalists, are addressing such texts in ways they find far more exciting than literary appreciation. In fact, I would argue, these ways may even be more appropriate to writer’s intentions, which have often involved vivid commitment to issues far wider than literary appreciation.
And then there are those who write more about theory than about texts. I do not myself regret this, but either way it should not be confused with the foregoing conclusions.
Finally, Stanley Fish should not be conflated with multiculturalism, feminism and Marxism. Fish has consistently attacked the relating of literature to political concerns, or indeed to anything at all. Probably that is why James Wood reviewed him so enthusiastically in the Guardian recently.
Even so, we might heed the circumstances in which Fish is working. The New Right Duke Review for April 1991 gives this distinguished scholar-critic top marks in a ‘public nuisance index’, placing him in a ‘Hall of Shame’ as having ‘a consistently boorish manner’ and having been, ‘over an excruciatingly long period of time, the national embarrassment of Duke University’. It suggests that Fish is a defender of Hitler and the Nazis, declaring that he ‘enjoys mental masturbatory techniques’ and the ‘hypocracy’ (sic) that characterises the liberal.
Apparently over 50 per cent of students at Duke believe that the Review is making a positive contribution. Rawson need not be so fearful that the Left is effecting a ‘thought police’: the threat to intellectual seriousness is from the right.
Congratulations to Claude Rawson: his account of the illnesses attacking the study of English literature in universities is courageous and necessary. I’m puzzled, though, by his remarks about Bernard Bergonzi’s Exploding English. My understanding of Professor Bergonzi’s book is that he notes, as a matter of empirical observation, that the literary canon is bound to grow, but he also says that while we expand the canon we must not distort it, and that the great literature of the past must retain its priority. It seems to me that he and Claude Rawson are really on the same side.
In his argument with Derrida Claude Rawson could have invoked another philosopher and literary figure, Iris Murdoch, who has this to say (in an interview) about feminist and other current threats to the canon: ‘We [women] want to join the human race, not invent a new separation. This self-conscious separation leads to rubbish like “black studies” and “women’s studies”. Let’s just have studies.’
The University, Newcastle upon Tyne
Vol. 13 No. 11 · 13 June 1991
Claude Rawson’s intemperate attack on The Death of Literature (LRB, 25 April) raises issues that deserve to be discussed more openly. That Rawson did not like my jokes is disappointing, but not so serious as the lack of an ear for irony in a distinguished student of the 18th century. I had thought that almost anyone would hear something off-tone in an imaginary scene of H.G. Wells trying to reason with Rebecca West, or in a comparison of deconstructionists and philosophes.
History seems, not surprisingly when you think of it, to be in trouble along with irony, in the age of polemic. Rawson’s real quarrel with The Death of Literature is not so much that the title is wrong. He offers a few familiar comments about the students he knows still loving literature, and that sort of thing, but then goes on for several pages proving just how bad things are with literature these days. What really troubles him about the book is what he calls its ‘factitious bowing to the inevitable’, a ‘parade of realism which won’t even condescend to say whether this is good or bad, let alone how it should be resisted’. This seems ‘cheap’ to him. What he apparently wants are moral polemics, a hard denunciation of those who have been attacking the old literature of great books, and a programme for dealing with them. The situation does not, however, seem to me to be best described or most usefully met in those moral modes.
The great social institutions of print, publishing, libraries, traditional education and newspapers, as well as literature, are everywhere in turmoil. Inside them, freedom of speech is in hot conflict with the right to work, literacy is diminishing, books printed on acid paper are disintegrating on library shelves, the political Left and Right are locked in combat, profits come from computerisation that makes for redundancies. Nowhere has the battle been more bloody than in the literary arena, where the theorists have declared the author dead and language without meaning, where feminists have denounced literature as phallocentric and Marxists have denounced it as imperialistic.
Close up, the problems are moral, philosophical, political, personal, sexual, racial, social: but from the slight historical distance The Death of Literature tries to maintain it appears that the problems of literature are part of a change in the primary mode of communication, from print to electronics, similar to the shift to a print culture that came at the beginning of the modern world. The disintegration of the old literature of great books, indelible truths, imaginative geniuses, an idealised language – who can deny that these metaphysics are gone? – is clearly a part of this great change, and only a historical, not a polemical or logical, viewpoint can accurately describe what has happened. In this perspective the great changes that have come to the old literature, grating, opportunistic and silly as they seem to those defenders of the old order like Rawson, show up as peculiar, unexpected ways in which change has come to a print institution under enormous technological pressure from a new medium of communication that is relentlessly stripping it of its authority. To see deconstruction as the destroying angel sent to literature by television is more truthful as well as more intriguing than a lot of dyspeptic fulmination. Irony seems, too, to be the right way of recording obliquely one’s own humanistic values while describing the bizarre but intellectually interesting events in the literary subculture in recent years.
An ironic and historical description of the death of literature ‘that won’t even condescend to say whether this is good or bad’ infuriates the more aggressive members of the avant-garde about as much as it does the literary old guard. But it points, I believe, towards the real energies that have been at work in literature, and suggests that we had better begin saying some plausible and helpful things about the remarkable body of fictions, from Homer to Shakespeare and Kafka, that the past has left us if we wish them to play any part in the new electronic culture.
Princeton, New Jersey
It’s not easy to disagree with Claude Rawson’s attack on literary theory, because it works through sarcastic assertion rather than argument. But two points can be made against it. One is that its distrust of literary theory is based on the belief that literature simply exists out there; you may be interested in it or you may not, you may like it or not, but there it is and theory can at best be ‘an adjunct’ to it. The view that things (including literary texts) exist like this is known as empiricism. It is a respectable theory – in fact, deeply traditional and charmingly English. But it is a theory nevertheless, and one few people accept any more. Second, it might be more reasonable to acknowledge that what has happened to literature in the past two decades is very similar to what Thomas Kuhn says happens in the development of science. In the years up to 1930 a paradigm became established for literary studies. It had various methods and assumptions (these certainly included an empiricist epistemology) and it confidently discriminated between the literary canon and the productions of popular culture (or ‘mass civilisation’, as Leavis called it). But from around 1965 this paradigm began to come to pieces, partly because no one could demonstrate that the works of the canon were good and those outside it were bad. There followed, as Kuhn would predict, a return to ‘first principles’ and so the great theory wars of the Seventies and Eighties. These are now over, for a new consensus is emerging with its own methods for the study of ‘literature’ together with the texts of popular culture (enclaves in which the ‘Old Literature’ and the old paradigm persist may last for a while). This process is hardly the end of civilisation as we know it nor is it the beginning of a new one.
The conflations are Mr Sinfield’s (Letters, 23 May). I was arguing a. that literature is not ‘stone dead’, either in the real world or the universities; and b. that in the latter, an institutional takeover was being attempted, with some success, by elements hostile to the study of literature, as also to free speech. That the attempt is being made through coercive activism and bureaucratic manipulation rather than intellectual debate is a matter of record, and a sampling of the evidence is cited in my piece. This is not the same as saying that literature is both dead and not dead, as Mr Sinfield appears to be alleging, and I think he must know this. The rest of his letter seems to be a continuation of his quarrels with others, by other (or perhaps the same) means. I’m sure they can take care of themselves. But I will address one point.
I hold no brief for the New (or any other) Right. The habit of insinuating that anyone who doesn’t think like Mr Sinfield or his analogues belongs to that persuasion is a minor example of the coerciveness I have been describing. The word ‘conservative’ is nowadays used as a kind of knockdown slur, much as ‘communist’ was sometimes used in the past, to confer pariah status on persons of broadly liberal centrist or social democratic outlook, by campus ideologues whose own culture heroes include Nazi sympathisers like Céline or de Man. As to the ‘New Right Duke Review’, it sounds about on a par with much else that emanates from that bizarre community. My comments on a thought police were concerned with formally-expressed institutional policies. If all Mr Sinfield can cite from what he takes to be the opposition is a piece of ill-spelt abuse, he is only confirming that the real menace, for once, is not from the Right.
Mr Kernan’s comments on Rebecca West were indeed off-tone, as he suggests on this page: snide, patronising and unsupported by the evidence cited. The problem with his jumbo-sized ironies is not that anyone is likely to miss them, but that, as I said, they are brittle and erratic, and frequently married by ignorance or misrepresentation. I’m not sure I wanted ‘moral polemics’, but a thoughtful, accurate and substantiated analysis would have been a good start.
Mr Easthope has been complaining for years to various papers that he finds it hard to disagree with me, because I use irony. He and Mr Kernan should get together. I indicated that I wasn’t against literary theory, which has always been with us, but against some specific political, institutional and pedagogic phenomena that have appropriated the term. I don’t expect to get through to him on this, and it’s probably more fun for everybody if he just goes on producing his letter from time to time.
Vol. 13 No. 13 · 11 July 1991
Despite Claude Rawson’s (LRB, 25 April) ostensible disagreements with Alvin kernan, it is clear that he shares the author’s fears and worries about the progressive decline of English studies in recent years. But I suspect that Professor Rawson is being rather optimistic in believing that ‘British universities have remained relatively resistant to the theory [and multiculturalist?] takeover.’ I recently spent my sabbatical year in Britain and my impression is that the new tendencies in ‘literary’ studies are quite widespread in the British universities and that the more traditional English departments are increasingly coming under pressure to ‘change’. In fact, I met some members of the ‘old guard’ who told me that they felt indignant and helpless at what they saw was happening to the studying and teaching of literature. Further evidence of this change can be seen in the advertisements for English teaching jobs at British universities/polytechnics. More often than not, ‘an interest in literary theory would be an advantage’ is included in the job description. Similarly, publishers, swayed by market forces, simply refuse to consider a manuscript if it does not pay homage to the new approaches to ‘literary’ criticism. A fellow academic I know has a very good book: but the (reputable British) publisher’s comment on it is both revealing and worrying. He, too, thought that the manuscript was eminently publishable but he had to yield to ‘the feeling expressed by both readers that your account is probably too traditional for what has become a very radical deconstructionist/feminist/post-deconstructionist market. That observation doesn’t of course lessen even fractionally the validity and worth of what you’ve done, but it does make it difficult to be sanguine about the market for your book.’ So obviously the likes of Alan Sinfield who find the feminist/Marxist/multiculturalist approach ‘more exciting than literary appreciation’ have more say than Rawson would care to admit.
Kobe College, Japan
As a feminist, multiculturalist and all-out baby-eating commie serial killer deconstructionist rock’n’roll barbarian, I’ve grown up knowing that the canons are loaded and aimed at me. That’s cool. Everything I write and mind about (pop culture, rogue science, undergrounder politics) would lose its intelligence and function if it got onto The Higher Reading Lists. Sixties-issue PoMo apocalypsers like Alvin Kernan still want tenure and security, as well as the opportunity to build a new, truer ‘Objective Knowledge’ beyond reach of class violence, race and gender oppression.
Nice idea. It’s not going to happen. Dead White Males Rule (even if some of them haven’t been buried yet). ‘While we expand the canon we must not distort it,’ proclaims (Rawson-supporter) John Batchelor (Letters, 23 May). This means (though he probably doesn’t): Those old geezers back in Slavery Days, they already knew everything: we stick by it, we can’t go wrong. He quotes ‘philosopher and literary figure’ Iris Murdoch about ‘feminist and other threats to the canon’: ‘self-conscious separation leads to rubbish like “black studies” and “women’s studies”. Let’s just have studies.’ No idea WHAT she means: no more maths, history, fine art, fact or fiction: let’s just have stuff? Smart Girl Wanted.
‘Threats’, ‘self-conscious separation’, and, yes, just exactly who’s this ‘we’, John? Let’s get back to that good old unconscious separation, eh, like the philosophers and literary figures ‘we’ are. Hey, if ‘we’ don’t stick together, pretty soon the rising tide of non-white rubbish will carry non-black non-woman civilisation away. And then where will ‘we’ be?
You guys are this worried about free Speech? Come out of your security-zone laagers for a change, and engage with the actual violent post-modern world. Where the real threat to local truth and civic well-being is the LAPD: and the assault on global ditto is directed by that Mr Bush. Higher Learning mostly just hides away when these topics turn up – when it isn’t colluding. Literature, if still alive, has not yet deigned to help. We get our news from RoboCop and Ice Cube.
University of California, Los Angeles
Vol. 13 No. 16 · 29 August 1991
Mr Banerjee (Letters, 11 July) has a point. I said British universities were only relatively resistant. Polytechnics have been the main proponents in Britain of the anti-literary phenomena I described, and I think it possible that the abolition of the binary divide, in most ways desirable and long overdue, may turn out to be bad for English studies, which are characteristically immune to sensible developments in the real world.
Of course Mr Sinfield thinks his version is better than mine (but my daddy has an even bigger one, so there). For the record, I don’t think he is much of a menace, though his belief that I do, because I said the real menace didn’t nowadays come from the Right, is on a par with his earlier contention that I said literature was both dead and not dead. I find it hard to regard such reductive point-scoring as a contribution to the ‘serious debate’ he professes to desire. His latest reflections appear in a ‘Bardbiz’ letter (I try not to read these, but, in the immortal words of the late Dr Leavis, someone told me about it), just as his previous reply to me did more than a little Bardbizness on the side. I look forward to the day when a single letter from Mr Sinfield will cover all the topics on your Letter page, past, present and future. You could then reprint it in every issue.
I wish Ms Glass (Letters, 11 July) would write more often.