Saturday, March 10, 2018

Jonathon Sturgeon laments a decline in literacy, even if we could look at the last few centuries and note how many tyrants wrote poetry

Yet The Hatred of Literature is not a chronological or even historical survey: [William] Marx is not outlining the evolution of anti-literature; he’s describing its most persistent traits. Among these is the argument that literature—unlike religion, philosophy, or more familiarly today, science—cannot deliver the truth. Wisely, Marx’s strategy is not to argue that literature offers a liberating truthiness. Instead, he draws attention to the absurd and ad hominem aggression of partisans of science. One such guy, the philosopher Gregory Currie, wrote a piece for the TLS in 2011 that Marx loathes at length. Currie’s idea, that novelists do not provide the understanding of human psychology found and tested in laboratories, is ridiculous enough, but he extends it to a flaw in the minds of writers themselves, who are riddled with psychopathologies and therefore incapable of understanding the world and its truths. Writers as a group, Currie explains, “[contain] the highest proportion of individuals with severe pathology (nearly fifty percent), compared with scientists, artists and composers.” Marx is right to find Currie’s tactic insane: “it is no longer worth examining literary works in detail to see if they deserve their despicable reputation,” he writes, “one need only discredit the authors themselves, and the game is over.”

The game against literature may not be over, but it is certainly rigged. In its final two sections, The Hatred of Literature turns to more contemporary matters. Namely, Marx deals with the charge that literature is useless to society, an argument enhanced by literature’s perceived lack of authority, morality, or ability to convey the truth. Actually, the situation is much worse. To be sure, literature is useless, but it also fails to honor the one trait ascribed to it by Plato: its ability to imitate things in the world. “The moral of the story is that literature does not adequately reflect the whole of society,” Marx admits, half caving to the arguments of its prosecutors. “When the regime is aristocratic, literature is criticized for not being aristocratic enough and not belonging to the clan of the powerful; when it is democratic, it is accused of being elitist and contributing to the system’s flaws.”
For Marx, this state of affairs exposes an essence of literature: it is powerless. Not only that, it is relatively valueless: “its status as an unprofitable activity in the republic expose it to every accusation and every proscription.” Yet Marx finds solace, not to mention his many negative definitions of literature (“Literature is what remains when everything has been removed”), in its hatred. “Far worse indeed than the hatred of literature would be indifference: may the gods prevent that day from ever arriving.”

There’s reason to fear that the dreaded Day of Indifference is nearer than Marx believes. In some quarters, it has already arrived. This is not so much a matter of the quality of contemporary fiction or poetry, or the state of criticism, or even current book sales—anyway, we’re not talking about books but literature

Sturgeon is, of course, welcome to believe that without literature we would be less human than we otherwise would be.  But I can't help but consider how long the super-majority of humanity has existed without literature and without literacy.  It's not as though all of the Native American cultures displaced or destroyed by white colonial activity were literate cultures, after all. There can be a kind of Anglo-American Westernist centrism that presumes literature inherently contains within it those values that make life worth living and humanity its most human.  But having finally finished the entirety of Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music one of the most memorable passages was quotation from a man who looked back on the horrors of the Second World War and asked why and how it was that the humanities did not humanize.

Reading this reminded me of a quote that John Halle had of Pierre Bourdeaux about the racism o fthe intellect.  Someone has an idea about why tyrants have preferred to write poetry.  But for secular leftists who would impute to literature a potential power to liberate, the books of the Bible were written documents.  Literature will always have an ambivalent place because literature has always born within it the power to liberate and enslave.  We can't afford to pretend that literature only does one of the other so no honest survey of literary activity is likely to come down to an unqualified condemnation or support of the human enterprise, even and especially where divine authority ever gets invoked, because the political history of the West alone should suggest to us that the nature of divine authority gets commuted to different forms that don't automatically have to be explicitly religious. 

Benjamin Ramm's survey of the tyrants who wrote poetry is a bit on the glib and breezy side, but that seems to be a thing in our literary era.

Ramm's admonition that Mao could prove a gifted poet without being a gentle leader is one of those Captain Obvious moments.  It's not a surprise that tyrants can be poets.  David P Roberts book The Total Work of Art in European Modernism culminates in a series of surveys of the totalitarian state as one realization of the ideal of the total work of art in which a society itself is considered the fully realized work of art.  Sure, the people who strove to ensure that a society would be the fully realized art work were totalitarian despots like Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin but Roberts' case is that too much study of the avant garde focused on the impulse to isolate and, so to speak, exhaust the exploration of the possibilities in any given branch of the arts at the expense of historical study of the equally powerful countervailing impulse to integrate and unify all of the arts under a single cohesive vision.  In this stream of thought we have to go at least as far back as Richard Wagner.  However unappealing it is for academics to consider the nature of the unifying project in the high arts the reason we should keep looking at this trend in Western art is because in the lowbrow and middlebrow the ideal is more dominant than ever and the best exemplars of this totalizing cross-media unifying bid at mythology is obvious.  We can see Star Wars and Marvel movies any time we want.  That highbrows on the left and right don't want to pay much attention to what they consider cultural garbage at best is a given, but if they highbrows want to stop for a moment and think about how and why traditional literature has seemed to fall by the wayside if, indeed, highbrow literature was ever more than highbrow literature in its appeal, there's no shortage of explanations. 

But as I get older and reader more it's less and less clear to me why highbrow cultural artifacts will necessarily "save" humanity, even if partisans of those artifacts as totems of thought processes on the left and right seem more and more convinced of it.  I mean, yes, as a Christian I take scripture to be canonical but believing in the Jesus to whom those scriptures point is not necessarily exactly the same as faith in literature or in literary process.  There are ways in which the intelligentsia of the left and the right alike in the West embrace a kind of tacit liberalism in which salvation by proper education is what they believe in, not a good news that is good news for the illiterate who never get the education to open up a book and read.  A Jonathon Sturgeon and a Roger Scruton could both, at some level, believe that a life without reading the great books of the West and/or East is a life not worth living, but I'm not willing to go that far. 


Cal of Chelcice said...

Both Currie and Marx seem to be wrong. Science would be nothing if it wasn't for bursts of imagination, of creating counter-factuals, rearranging data and sifting through it in a fresh way. It's not always the academically trained and well-decorated who stumble across the break-throughs. But Marx seems to ignorantly reduce such imaginative power to poetry or literature, as if art was only ever something on paper. Imagination went into Shakespeare as it did into Stan Lee. As Pascal said, the bias towards career and profession is something as random as nationality. If you're born into a situation where you end up as a literature professor, of course you're going to think the world needs literature professors and that people who neglect them are fools.

Though I've dealt enough with American Indian ethnohistorians who think that to claim literacy is superior to illiteracy is bigoted and eurocentric. There's a reason why many Bible advocates were teachers of literacy. If it's a potential for someone to read, why would you deny them the blessings of it? I don't think it has to do with anything related to creativity, but there is something inferior about illiteracy to literacy in terms of cognitive potential. Why not opt to play with a full deck of cards?

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

see THAT'S the argument for literacy that I buy. :) Yes, literacy confers a great deal of advantages for our ability to learn. I don't think we should look down on cultures that don't operate primarily via literacy but people who don't have literacy in the common language have colossal obstacles in a literate job market. They're going to be better off in our kind of society being able to read than not being able to read. You can't even work in a fast food service job without being able to read, for instance, but that's never what partisans at a magazine are going to be thinking about when they stump for the power of literature and the liberal arts.

That teaching literacy can be a clear way to demonstrate love for God and neighbor would seem pretty straightforward to a Christian but we're not dealing with the kinds of writers who would endorse such a plain reason for the value of literacy at The Baffler.