Literature – To What End?

There are non-material forces, which cannot be measured precisely, but which nonetheless carry weight… And among these powers I would include that of the literary tradition; that is to say, the power of that network of texts which humanity has produced and still produces not for practical ends (such as records, commentaries on laws and scientific formulae, minutes of meetings or train schedules) but, rather, for its own sake, for humanity’s enjoyment – and which are read for pleasure, spiritual edification, broadening of knowledge…

– Umberto Eco

The coagulated effort to give vent to the synaptic breaches of what makes us human, shared and divided in our experiences, by putting form to abstract ideas via ink to paper might considered ‘literature’. Yet, when we consider literature today, it is often in some ‘high-cultured’ mindset: the names of Joyce, Tolstoy, Kafka, Sartre, Rushdie, or McEwan are echoes in some impenetrable fortress of ideas. Many find them too dark, too hard, too contrite, too “up its own arse”, too unfathomable to give it a second take. But the wonder of literature needs to be restated in the context of a broader humanity, in its inherent need to express its own existence. The branches of our family tree overshadow whatever dying leaves of scepticism we have in this enterprise and to understand it, we must dust off its roots to see them laid bare.

Literary criticism is a strange beast. I obtained a first in it, at the end of my first tier of academic studies. I say this not in a spirit of self-congratulation but in an attempt to give vent to the notion that ‘anyone can do it!’. It is often considered a microdiscipline if it is even considered a discipline at all. I am not here to defend literary criticism – indeed, I have more sympathy for those who view it with suspicion and incomprehensibility. I once wrote a literature paper on the implications of Tolstoy’s title character in The Death of Ivan Ilych and the reverberations in the dying protagonist of J.M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron. Let me give a summary of such a literary endeavour:

1. Both characters are aware of their own demise. Ilych is made aware of a pain that steadily grows, which cripples and further debilitates him. His uncaring family watches on. In Age of Iron, the lead character is aware from the beginning that she is dying. The novel is actually a final letter to the character’s daughter, detailing a “true” account of her own mind.

2. Both are reticent toward their loved ones, except in a numinous finality accentuated by a dramatic physical engagement. Ilych is finally embraced by his son; Coetzee’s character is bathed and held by a strange man she meets in the beginning, who she always called her “angel of death”, since he appeared in her life on the same day as her awareness of oncoming demise.

3. Both attempt to universalise their suffering, pushing their human roots further into the soil of illimitable comprehension. Ilych considers the whole of human suffering, the joyless march made by normal men like himself toward a meaningless life. Even his name we might consider to be rendered in English as “John Smith”. His normality is precisely that which vexed his creator (or Creator, depending on how one wishes to read the story), as made apparent in its most famous line: “The story of Ivan Ilyich’s life was of the simplest, most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” Coetzee’s character wishes to see the entire land consumed in fire, as she wished to protest the absolutist, bullying apartheid regime which squanders personal liberty and enforces a bigoted division based on nothing but assertion.

And so on. I can only assume many people have not read either work, possibly not even heard of them. This does not make people stupid but rather the fault should rest with those of us who do know and love such works. The problem of the microdiscipline I have found with literary criticism is precisely its goal. What exactly is it trying to do? It is all very good and well to establish a coherent juxtaposition between two great writers – but, to what end?

Like most people, my fellow UCT graduates  were vexed at my scepticism, suspicion and derision toward an established view held by the majority. This concerned the notion of post-modernism, for which this is neither the time nor place (I can only urge you, dear reader, to beg, borrow or steal Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense). But it is further exacerbated by my incomprehension toward the entire academic enterprise of literary criticism. It was worse when there was the introduction of feminist theory in the criticism – as most people had not read feminist literature, such as J.S. Mill (yes – I know I mention him a lot, like his godson, but I can’t help it that he was right and no one reads him), de Beauvoir (she who uses every vowel in her surname), and the great H.L. Mencken ( “Women in general seem to me to be appreciably more intelligent than men… a great many of them suffer in silence from the imbecilities of their husbands.” Like myself, Mencken considers women the better sex though he did not specifically say so). Instead, most people (men included) took this as opportunity to laud men, express hatred at their oppressive fathers and brothers and patriarchy in general, and somehow mirror these views in literature. Thus Joyce was a misogynist, Faulkner was a misogynist, Coetzee was a misogynist.

My disdain for a lot of academia is apparent and to many I expect too much. I do not see the purpose in studying poetry – an area of beauty I find wanting, detached, loathsome, puerile, juvenile, stupid and egotistical. For myself, the only good poet is a dead one: and by that I mean Keats, Yeats, Hughes, Blake, Shakespeare, Ginsberg.

I do not see how this enterprise of self-absorption is helping the world. I do not see how comparing Tolstoy’s lead character to Coetzee’s, how that BS-wizard Derrida’s notion of the spectres of Marx and “I’m French, gay and mysterious” Foucault’s deconstructionism could add to our body of knowledge.

Well, no. There is way. They make us aware of the areas that are filled with muck and nonsense, the quicksand of self-imposed confusion whose nettles are made of the cornerstones of logic. I find it disappointing because many talented, inquisitive, eloquent and brilliant people are wasting their lives on going to symposiums (they have symposiums and conferences for this!) discussing J.M. Coetzee’s notions of “the exile”, for example. A lecturer once proceeded to elaborate for an hour on a single line from Age of Iron, which was only a synopsis of three papers she had read by one Coetzee scholar.

The problem is these brilliant people – I do not doubt their brilliance and eloquence (indeed, if nothing else most English scholars are eloquent!) – are doing something quite useless. Instead the area of inquiry that could be expanded upon could be pragmatic: they could use the art of their communication skills to teach people critical thinking, what occurs in science, how ethics and morality work, how to think about abstract questions. In other words, these people could be science and philosophy communicators aiming to better the world with an informed choice and by using that dying organ, the brain.

The enthusiasm that permeates their cheeks as they gaze longingly at a photocopied page of a soon-to-be-released J.M. Coetzee book (the next one is called Summertime, for those who are interested) should rather be directed toward the desire to educate people with eloquence. C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” (the natural sciences and the humanities) must be amalgamated by having scientists understand the humanities and vice versa. We do not want everything to be a microdiscipline – indeed, I can understand why something like quantum mechanics is the exclusive territory of very few people. My worry is that something like English studies or literary criticism could slowly descend into a quicksand of nonsense and label itself into the same obscurantism as quantum physics. Quantum physics, as far as I have read (which is only 4 books and a 10 or so articles), is deeply beautiful but at its fundamental level not anything I could ever comprehend. However, their results are such that they can have accuracy, they can obtain objective results. This part is not obscure. But can literature studies say the same thing? Can they point to a result, or an objective understanding?

Of course not. By its definition that is not what the discipline is about. Yet, if its fades into more and more obscurity, it is losing its sense of what it should be doing and why I am so suspicious of it. Philosophy is at least the beautiful and wonderful enterprise to engage in thought and actually has important implications for our world – despite what some sceptics might say about it being a pointless endeavour. Philosophy can ultimately lead us to construct arguments, defend our views and come to reasonable conclusions – or at least, idealistically. Here there is a sense in which philosophy mirrors science (much to Wittgenstein’s dismay).

The gap between C.P. Snow’s two cultures has created a chasm so vast its shadows are taken for truth, its echoes taken for further knowledge and its darkness taken for beauty.

Thus, it seems to me that those who are involved in the whole literary criticism scene need to tell me why I should care. Given that I am “one of them” – supposedly – I still have yet to meet a defence of this discipline to be an academic one. How does it contribute to our knowledge? I can think of many good reasons for keeping it around and not eradicating it – but my aim is not to “eradicate” it, but to ask it for a defence.

For example, it is a beautiful way to synthesise important works, to harness our shared humanity under a single rubric. We all share stories and can understand one another, since we are human. One need only recall a story about one of  the greatest and one of the first works of literature. As Alberto Manguel recalls:

In 1990, the Colombian Ministry of Culture set up a system of itinerant libraries to take books to the inhabitants of distant rural regions …  According to one librarian, the books were always safely accounted for. “I know of a single instance in which a book was not returned,” she said. “We had taken,  along with the usual practical titles, a Spanish translation of the Iliad. When the time came to exchange the book, the villagers refused to give it back. We decided to make them a present of it, but asked them why they wished to keep that particular title. They explained that Homer’s story reflected their own: it told of a war-torn country in which mad gods mix with men and women who never know exactly what the fighting is about, or when they will be happy, or why they will be killed.

As this wonderful story highlights, people have a need to see themselves, their world and their difficulties expressed. Sad people read sad poetry, listen to sad songs, because artists have been able to capture the essence of loss in a firmament of disarming realisations about existence. They can mix words like petals in oil and create synthesised flowers of blooming comprehension.

But it seems that those who are so deeply pressed against literature’s walls have forgotten this. Instead, the walls are taken to be hiding a truth, hiding a discipline worth creating academic departments for. I see no need for this and I think those who scale, so skilfully, all its turrets and towers, need instead leap to the mountain of undisclosed knowledge lying on the horizon. We know what this is for. Why must we continue to use those same tools that allow us to scale the shadowed behemoths in the distance instead to covet a breaking, cavernous castle? All that talent could be better used and it grates me that no one else is saying this.

…Or maybe, I am missing something?

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One thought on “Literature – To What End?

  1. The major contention I as a student of literature have against the way literature is being taught today is that it effects a sort of disdain for originality and creativity instead focussing on theoretical aspects of the language. I am not against a comprehensive study of the masters as one must be well read to produce literature worth reading. The works of Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Keats, and Shelley most definitely help a fledgling writer to have a grasp on the basics of creativity but it is almost as if the academics of literature adhere to the idiom “The only good writers are dead ones”.
    Literary criticism has come to supersede writing as the chief objective of an education in literature. This leads to an irony in which those most equipped to produce new and original material end up as mere critics of the art form whining away into oblivion. Also it has become highly fashionable for critics to come up with meanings out of context and obscure it seems to be a return to metaphysics and a sorry attempt at reviving a lost cause. I would like to cite “Poetry” by Marianne Moore as a defence to my argument against obscurantism “When something become derivative to the point of being unintelligible it is no longer art”.
    Literature could well be used for practical purposes if those who guard it as sacred and sacrosanct would change their view on commercializing the language as it corruption. Eloquence and rhetoric are chief outcomes of an education in literature which is being undermined as inconsequential or trivial I support a revival of the Greco roman style of education which considered oratory as one of the chief disciplines in education. Communication which is the crux of any language is often seen by academics as something that is too general to be considered a discipline. The conveyance of ideas however trivial is the objective of a language and undermining this as a simplistic approach is the greatest folly of the current educational system.
    The current approach to literature actually advocates a dulling down of one mental faculty and tries to coerce a writer to conform. If a student is taught that this is this is the way to approach a story with a setting a conflict and a resolution it prompts a closed train of thought which prevents any radical new approach to writing. Again my advocacy of adopting new styles and personalizing literature would mean that one contributes new concepts rather than merely trying to derive from already extinguished approaches to literature.
    Every man has the potential to contribute a fresh perspective. The validity of this perspective is highly subjective and may range from nonsensical to revolutionary. However I hold the belief that any new material is good material and an attempt to write and share his thoughts however flawed is a fundamental right of man. This is the belief that an education in literature must lead to a tangible outcome in the form of new viewpoints and perceptions radical and personal.

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