Monday, August 29, 2011

Literary Reformation

I am somewhat sympathetic to a number of the recent "conservative" critiques of the current state of literary studies in American universities, but I've yet to read one that really expresses my frustrations. There is always something present in such pieces completely foreign to my own concerns, often connected with a certain sentimental view of literature—part old guard liberal humanism, part reactionary hedonism (books are to be enjoyed not analyzed)—which doesn't necessarily need to be the central principle of any proposed reformation of literature departments.

For example, in a recent review of The Cambridge History of the American Novel, Joseph Epstein states that contemporary scholars, though claiming a deeper engagement with the social conditions of the real world, are unknown outside of academic circles due to their inclination to write about abstruse theoretical concerns instead of actual literature, as read by normal people. Epstein claims that this was not the case with the old guard of "Perry Miller, Aileen Ward, Walter Jackson Bate, Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Joseph Wood Krutch, Lionel Trilling," who were more often read by non-academics. Yet Epstein falters when he denounces the confusion that follows from the fall of the barrier between high and low culture. Epstein sets up his argument to defend the reality of literature against that of socio-theoretical analysis: "English departments are less concerned with the consideration of literature per se than with what novels, poems, plays and essays—after being properly X-rayed, frisked, padded down, like so many suspicious-looking air travelers—might yield on the subjects of race, class and gender." He's got a damn good point there, not a very difficult or complex one, but rather a basic one which advocates a very sensible approach to inquiry: we need to start with the text, not with the theory. The theory stems from the reading, not vice versa.

Yet we don't need Epstein to tell us that, and we certainly don't need him to tell us that Allen Ginsberg is a "secondary author" on whom The Cambridge History of the American Novel wastes space simply because he wrote about sex. Epstein's reaction against the "automatic Leftism" of the English Department should be kept separate from his critique of its faulty processes of inquiry. (Furthermore, Leftism has always been a part of the academy—it comes from historical awareness, pseudo-Christian ethics, and a palate for the sublime, I think—and it would be more interesting for Epstein to contrast the pragmatism of the Old Left with the politically-correct intellectualitas of the New Left.)

Epstein ends by quoting William Chace, the former president of Wesleyan and Emory Universities and stalwart of old-school English modernism, who in 2008 identified the problem as "the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself." Now, without being too materialist here, I would first argue that the act of cooking soup for a hungry person is a far greater human good than any course of literary study (no matter how passionately it is undertaken). Secondly, while it is naturally important to differentiate between good and bad literature, it is not sufficient to just present something to a group of young people, with passion, simply because it is good, and you think it is good. (In a recent talk by Johanna Drucker at my university, she advocated a similar approach, that she wanted to present things to her classes just because she thought they were awesome and wanted to share them, whereupon I thought: "Isn't that how one should teach literature to first-graders?") A university course on literature should not only present specimens of good literature, but should supply the students with the critical faculty to understand the literary function active in books that makes them beautiful. To do this, the book doesn't even have to be a masterpiece. (An example: this summer I was present at a seminar where Prof. Horst Thomé of the University of Stuttgart spent two hours discussing the Venice Sonnets of Graf Platen, which upon first read I found utterly ordinary. After Thomé's close-reading and analysis of the intermedial, religious, and ekphrastic functions of the poem, I was fully begeistert.) According to Chace, English departments "have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books." This may be true, but while I'm not even sure if there are any more young people today who are interested in good books, I think it would be more useful to outfit them with a rigorous critical apparatus to understand and analyze literature "per se," rather than letting someone tell them how good Willa Cather is. American literature departments certainly need an overhaul, as Epstein argues—yet what is needed is not a reactionary return. The passionate, humanistic sentimentalization of literature is not so bad in itself—it has its place, which is no longer in the university (and I'm not sure it ever should have been in the university, but rather in bourgeois living rooms)—but as academic fodder it is certainly not much more interesting than the abstruse theory and "automatic Leftism" of the current day.

A different piece by Scott Herring also bemoans the estrangement of young people from English departments that offer courses such as "Bat[woman] and Cat[man]: Queering the Canonical Comix." Yet Herring advocates for a shift in literary studies, equally as sentimental as Epstein, though less reactionary, towards a recognition of the power of literature to communicate the reality that history cannot communicate: "History gives us the facts, sort of, but from literary works we can learn what the past smelled like, sounded like, and felt like, the forgotten gritty details of a lost era."

Firstly, I would like to defend history very briefly: while it is clear that history sometimes misrepresents historical reality, we must remember that this is not history per se, but bad history. Good history offers us facts about what happened. Historical facts about 1848 are always more important and informative than what it smelled like in 1848. Secondly, it is clear to me from this article that Herring is a listener of This American Life. For the record, I hate This American Life, precisely because it engenders a cultural milieu that produces people like Herring, who instead of reading, re-reading, and analyzing texts, find an old motor in a desert, talk about it with an aged American, and think that from this experience they have learned something very special. This is the new American sentimentality, arising from the pseudo-intellectuals of "Generation X," a bohemian-bourgeoisie pseudo-materialism, the self-satisfied cloaking of poverty in a romantic shawl of pastoral Americana. Like Epstein's stodgy protest against the theory-heads, Herring reacts against dysfunction of this country's English departments in an unhelpful manner, offering a reactionary return to a sentimentalized literature, a literature which describes while at the same time elevates itself above the filth of the real world. What we need are newer critical methods, not a resuscitation of bourgeois literary pastoralism.

"Let the dead French theorists lie," Herring advocates. OK, but it would be helpful if you would be a bit more specific. Dead French theorists like Derrida, Saussure, or Pascal? Me, I'd toss the first, and treasure the other two. (In other words, not all French theory is unhelpful.) He continues: "Instead, literary scholars can become guides to the physical reality of the past." For me, this is another abstraction that the discipline could do without. The illness of American literary studies is not spiritual, and doesn't require a booster shot of passionate humanism, nor of pastoralism; the problem concerns the prevalence of an array of bogus critical/theoretical methods that impede accurate textual analysis.

No comments:

Post a Comment