Old Literature and its Enemies
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.
In his response to my letter Alexander Cockburn (Letters, 21 March) suggests that Amnesty International has been guilty of ‘stubbornly clinging to a position imprudently adopted’ concerning incubator babies in Kuwait during the Iraqi occupation. This is not the case. Such was the scale of Amnesty International’s concerns in Kuwait – and these included the babies story – that it sent a mission to Kuwait at the very earliest opportunity. The mission’s prime concern was the wave of arbitrary arrests, torture and killings that had swept Kuwait since the withdrawal of Iraqi forces. However, given that this was the first opportunity to visit the country since 2 August 1990, it was obvious that the whole pattern of human rights violations during the Iraqi occupation would be further investigated. These investigations found that the pattern and scale of atrocities committed by Iraqi forces had been accurately reflected in our December report. With regard to the incubator babies, however, the mission was faced with conflicting information and concluded, on balance, that the evidence available was such that a correction should be issued.
The mission was shown alleged mass graves of babies (although it was not established how they had died), and it spoke to medical sources in Kuwait, including a Red Crescent doctor, who were still claiming that babies had died as a result of being removed from incubators. Officials at Al-Rigga cemetery maintain that mass graves contain the bodies of about a hundred and twenty babies buried during August and September 1990. They insist that the deaths resulted from removal from incubators, but cite as evidence only vague reports, allegedly from bereaved families.
In the light of this, Amnesty International examined the conflicting evidence and concluded that the story did not stand up. The organisation remains unable to determine how many babies died, or how they died. Credible medical opinion in hospitals discounted the allegations of deaths by removal from incubators and this led Amnesty International to issue an update (19 April 1991) with corrections to the December 1990 report. When the December report was issued, the babies story, although shocking, was consistent with the known violations committed by Iraqi forces over the previous decade in Iraq. Amnesty International included the allegations in its December 1990 report after receiving testimony from a range of medical and other sources in various locations.
The organisation takes great care to check and update the information it publishes, and is always ready to issue corrections if previously published data are shown not to stand up. Mr Cockburn’s comments about groups like Amnesty International releasing reports to generate necessary funding is offensive. Amnesty International would never allow financial interests to influence our impartial advocacy of human rights.
Director, British Section, Amnesty International
Permit me to offer a somewhat belated invitation to James Wood, Boris Ford, Bernard Bergonzi, and others of your correspondents over the past eighteen months or so, to visit South Africa. Your offices, I should explain to them, are one mighty distance from this, the southernmost tip of the dark African continent, and it takes a while for the LRB to appear in libraries here. They should travel from north to south, as Edward Said in other contexts puts it, for several reasons.
First, Bernard Bergonzi will be able to assess at first hand how well his opposition (Letters, 4 April) to the argument that ‘value is, at once, crucial and historically, culturally specific’ (Alan Sinfield, Letters, 7 March) travels, and James Wood can see what happens to ‘the human complexities and struggles which nullify and confound determinism’ (Letters, 24 May 1990) in the Shakespeare text down south, in a place not nearly, yet, emerged from the apartheid thicket.
During the long rule of, among much worse, militant anti-English Afrikaner nationalism, Shakespeare, referred to as the ‘jewel of the language’, ‘embedded in the very system of education itself’, was never removed from a central role in South African apartheid education. Why? The excision or avoidance of the politics in the texts, as well as avoidance of the politics involved in reading the Shakespeare text, which Wood and others by implication encourage, has always characterised the work of establishment South African Shakespeareans. Here, the privileging of authorial intention and of the authority of the text, while obscuring its historical context, is itself a strategy that parallels and complements the educative aims of apartheid. Designed to produce submissive and unquestioning subjects, this education suppressed as much as possible any awareness of the individual as more than merely a private, discrete and morally independent entity. Social and political ignorance, callousness and irresponsibility were in this way worked for. Instead of studying the complexities in and suggested by the texts, as well as the complexities in their use of it as South Africans, generations of docile teachers and students were encouraged to study Shakespeare’s greatness in ways Malcolm Evans, another of your correspondents, captures beautifully.
It is, furthermore, worth quoting here Malcolm Evans’s mention of Benjamin’s remark that ‘there has never been a document of culture which was not at one and the same time a document of barbarism’ (Letters, 13 September 1990). Like the rest of his letter, this travels much better than Wood and Co’s offerings. Apartheid education has always compelled use of the Shakespeare text for the majority of children in this country who are second-language speakers of English at school. Inadequate resources and the large numbers of children in classrooms make the choice of the Shakespeare text particularly disabling – far from facilitating English acquisition, it becomes an important tool in a system designed to produce ‘second-class’ citizens. Haughty dismissals of the cultural specificity of value ring very hollow out here.
Still, as they approach this erstwhile colony, now in such flux, such visitors need have little fear. They can find the essentialist Shakespeare in whom they so fervently believe within the practices of the Shakespeare Society of Southern Africa as well as within much of the South African Shakespeare establishment. These together remain largely in control of what is done with the text, in education and in performance. Here, they will find what erstwhile patronising travellers from the metropolis always found – amongst the natives, a small band of envious and adoring colonials. In the last decade of the 20th century, they may more properly be thought of as rebarbative, if dangerous mimics. Mostly of English extraction, definitely all white, they proclaim proudly, mainly to one another, that ‘Shakespeare’ is their ‘birthright’ and that the bard is ‘not for an age but for all time’. No sinister readings of the texts for them – instead, all profoundly moving, all spiritually restoring, all strangely enjoyable and all, most especially, without history. This may reassure some of your correspondents, but they should note in what climate and place their beliefs have flourished so rampantly for the last forty years and more.
The fact that establishment South African Shakespeare criticism agrees totally with my invitees is exactly the point. And this kind of value, invested in the text and brought to this country by scores of visitors over the decades, has earned for that text – like Mrs Thatcher’s unseemly haste to get here and garner salutes, including an honorary doctorate from the Rand Afrikaans University – massive suspicion and dislike.
Whether or not the Shakespeare text will survive in the, as yet fictive, alternative South Africa is not certain. But one thing is. The work of scholars such as Jonathan Dollimore, Alan Sinfield, Terence Hawkes, John Drakakis and many others sharing, or sympathetic to, their positions makes possible readings of the text and uses of it which may one day undo the devastating damage wrought by those ideological practices advocated or implied by my proposed group of explorers.
University of the Witwatersrand,
I expect Shakespeare will survive the work of Dollimore, Sinfield and their group: but I wonder if cultural materialism will? One can easily discredit a perfectly good theory by making excessive claims for it – or even by implying such claims when making particular judgments. Cultural materialism seems to me a very good theory: but if it is to be the basis for a complete reductive theory of literary value it is surely a little o’erparted. It isn’t remotely plausible, for example, that James Wood (and I) get a keen pleasure from Shakespeare’s verse because we enjoy appropriating an existing cultural token. Pleasure in having power or being in the fashion is a different kind of pleasure from pleasure in reading verse; and one’s theory needs to explain this difference.
What I understand by cultural materialism is – to put it cautiously – the claim that there are certain parameters of cultural phenomena – including under that heading both works of art like Hamlet, and arguments over their value, like this one – which are ultimately determined by the struggle over the control of the means of production. To that limited extent both literary works and arguments about them are ways of working through that struggle, in a more or less disguised form. I am sure that this theory is both non-trivial and true; and to determine its limits – i.e. to determine what those parameters are – is a valuable exercise, though I cannot believe it will affect the outcome of the class struggle in any way.
What surely would be crazy is to claim that all the parameters of a work of art – its formal structure, its detailed content, its complex relationships to the detailed and unsystematisable contingencies of cultural history, or to the accidents of individual psychology in authors and readers, or to the foundations of universal human desires – are determined by the class struggle, or reducible to it; or that only those parameters that are so reducible are worth making value-judgments about; or that any value-judgments that appear superficially not to be about the class-struggle are actually a disguised form of intervention on the conservative side. One can see a good materialist basis for explaining many phenomena rele-vant to Shakespeare – the rise of the drama, the source of his political attitudes, even some aspects of his handling of language. But materialism won’t go far to explain his dramatic effectiveness, or the force of his poetry, which is what most of us read the plays or go to them for; it would be silly to expect it to, and unbelievably crass to refuse to talk about dramatic effectiveness or poetic intensity just because your materialist theory hasn’t got categories to put them in.
The problem at the moment is that the advocates of literary cultural materialism (as opposed to the longer-established anthropological cultural materialism which I personally prefer) have never produced a formal statement of what their theory is, what claims it makes, and what claims it does not make. In these circumstances, the theory is worthless – except as providing a platform on which to stand, while sneering at other critics. Even the sometimes excellent detailed critical work produced by cultural materialists is damaged by refusing to articulate the theoretical limits on the claims being made, or the relation which these claims might have to, say, the claims of psychoanalytic, or formalist or other literary theories. In the book, Political Shakespeare, Sinfield and Dollimore define cultural materialism exclusively in terms of its methods (p. vii). There is no statement whatever of the theoretical claims which might justify the methods; and, incredibly, no feeling of any need for one.
‘Unfair to Shakespeare’ is what many of your correspondents have been saying. ‘Unfair to theory’ is what I say. But English literary critics have always been that. It is like seeing the Leavises come again.
I was surprised to read Mr Vakil’s somewhat rancorous letter (Letters, 9 May), in which my feelings about Parsis are compared to anti-semitism. To make this point, Mr Vakil has picked up, at random and out of context, phrases from my review, strung them together, and put misleading quotation marks around them. I am left breathless at the enormity of his accusations, especially as they seem to have been provoked by the two rather affectionate paragraphs with which I began my article: I am sorry that Mr Vakil missed the affection of the language in which I noted the oddities of the Parsi community. The achievements of this community are indisputable, but as I was not writing a pamphlet publicising the deeds of its notable members, I described it impressionistically, as a part of my memory of Bombay and my childhood. It is the very human peculiarities of the Parsis rather than their ‘achievements’ I remember most vividly. Peculiarities and oddities are, as a matter of interest, what V.S. Naipaul records when he describes the Hindu community in Trinidad, and Flannery O’Connor when she writes of the Americans in the South. If the notation of such oddities constitutes prejudice, then literature has a long history of prejudice.
My remark about Parsis being absolved from the anxieties of modern India is echoed in a poem by Gieve Patel, one of the first and most well-known Parsi poets writing in English, called ‘The Ambiguous Fate of Gieve Patel, He being neither Muslim nor Hindu in India’, which begins: ‘To be no part of this hate is deprivation.’ It is a short, fierce, ironic piece about violence between the two communities, and his own place as an onlooker in this period of history.
Mr Vakil takes issue with me about my comments on the way climate and geography may affect the formation of a society, its modes of social intercourse, and even its literary concepts and archetypes. By quoting out of context, however, he neglects to present a fair or complete account of my argument. He thinks my claim that ‘relationships’ form only in the West is excessive. Perhaps I should put it in this way: relationships do form in India, but in most of India, with its extended family and its own social codes, surely they do so in quite different ways. It is instructive to note that in neither Hindi nor Bengali is there a word that can be translated into ‘relationship’: the word samparka, which comes closest, is used to speak of ‘bad or good relations’ with a person. My point was, anyway, that specific and untranslatable cultural experiences produce different literary notions in different cultures.
‘Why is a sea of faces in Bombay any different from a sea of faces in Euston Station?’ Mr Vakil asks. I am surprised he does not know why. Half of the population of a street in Bombay consists of beggars, idlers with transistor radios, hawkers who set up stalls during the day with a Crusoe-like ingenuity and fold these up at night and go to sleep on the pavement, all this being made possible by the climate. As Naipaul once said in an essay on London:
It is a matter of climate. In a warm country life is conducted out of doors. Windows are open, doors are open… It is easy for the visitor to get to know the country. He is continually catching people in off-duty positions. In England everything goes on behind closed doors. The man from the warm country leaves the door open behind him. The man from the cold country closes it: it has become a point of etiquette.
‘A ton of academic sludge’. Graham Chainey overstates, quantitatively at least (Letters, 9 May), but there was something dreary about John Bayley on Graham Greene. I noted particularly his donnish ploy of raising the question of ‘greatness’ in order smartly to deny Greene that dubious quality: ‘Greene may have been a great man, but hardly a great novelist.’ I noted the ploy because he’d already used it a few pages earlier, in his piece on G.M Hopkins. Is Hopkins ‘great’? he asks, and answers: ‘though a few [Victorian] poets are classifiable by this cliché Hopkins is surely not one of them.’ More spoonfuls of curiously grudging academic sludge are poured: ‘he is very much a young person’s poet’ (the teacher managing to condescend both to his subject and to the young). Large, ‘challenging’ judgments then follow from this mature reader, unaccompanied by any supportive analysis ‘ “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is not on continued acquaintance a very interesting poem, and has very little inside to it.’ By now I am imagining a large lecture hall years ago, a don in full flow, bothered undergraduates scribbling: ‘GMH not great. Wreck of D. not v. interesting. All right to like Hop. when young. When older start liking R. Bridges, C. Rossetti.’