Old Literature and its Enemies

Claude Rawson

  • 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.

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