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Rescuing Literature: An Exchange

In response to:

How to Rescue Literature from the April 17, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

Roger Shattuck is justified in deploring the scientism that has enveloped literary discussion of late, but his rescue plan for literature is touchingly quixotic [“How to Rescue Literature,” NYR, April 17]. It is not enough to talk about the oral interpretation of literature as the antidote to Barthes, Derrida, the structuralists, and the deconstructionists; one must attempt to understand (historically, culturally, psychologically, and morally) those schools of criticism that share an impulse to disengage literature from lived experience, to empty it of meaning, and to convert it into the hollow arena of the critic’s own performance.

Much of this current criticism has roots in the New Criticism of an earlier day, which emphasized the autonomy of the text, denied the verifiability of authorial intention, and denied that the truth of literature is propositional. And, on another level, the traditional clichés about the necessary isolation of the artist and the hostility of bourgeois culture have tended to plant a wedge between art and society. But Barthes, Derrida, and their followers have upped the ante considerably, and in so doing have proclaimed the bankruptcy of our cultural heritage. Barthes assaults the accepted notions of what it is we do when we read and what a text is; he does this because, as he makes clear in Writing Degree Zero, these accepted notions support, in a quasi-political sense, a repressive and outmoded world view and social structure. To Jacques Derrida the belief that words have meaning and texts refer beyond themselves to human reality is the final vestige of a defunct theocentric metaphysic. Acting out a Nietzschean fantasy, both men would clear away the broken statues and battered books, while playfully, they tell us, discovering their own freedom and power.

I hope Mr. Shattuck will forgive my image of him shouting poems through a megaphone at a band of militant, new wave critics. Anyway, we must also seek to understand why these critics feel the culture has failed them and what needs they are meeting by consciously dehumanizing our art. Is it a necessary cleanup operation before the building of some brave new world? Is it a relatively harmless form of self-assertion? Or a kind of sublimated fascism? And what do we make of the spectacle of people rising to positions of power in the world of letters by proclaiming the meaninglessness of their subjects?

In Graham Greene’s “The Destructors,” a gang of boys in postwar London dismantles from the inside out a building by Christopher Wren, doing it because, as one of them says, the building is beautiful. Similarly, our modern criticism willfully dismantles what it knows is beautiful, and until we possess ourselves more thoroughly of the causes of this behavior we will not be prepared to rescue literature.

Bruce Henricksen

Loyola University, New Orleans, Louisiana

To the Editors:

Perhaps you’ll be interested in the enclosed letter I’ve sent Roger Shattuck:

Dear Professor Shattuck:

It is because I am reading your article in the most recent NYR with the greatest enjoyment and approval that I am sorry to see that you have fallen victim to a common misconception. The so-called “ideographic languages” (Sinologists prefer the word “logographic”) do not “aspire to picture thought directly.” Chinese characters represent words; that is to say, each character represents a meaningful unit of sound, which in turn has whatever relation to the things symbolized that meaningful units of sounds do in every language. It is true that characters very often contain some element that would suggest an idea of the category of meaning even if the reader did not know what word precisely is represented; but equally often characters contain elements that would suggest the sound. Reading aloud is a very important aspect of the enjoyment of poetry in China, even though it has been neglected until recent years by Western students of Chinese literature. Reading aloud and recitation from memory were the dominant means of learning in traditional Chinese education—for all I know, this may still be true. One of my professors liked to describe a Chinese school-room as a building that you could hear from as far away as you could see it. A similar argument could be made in regard to the Japanese and Korean languages, although with variations, as both of these languages possess fully phonetic scripts as well as characters.

I have one other objection to your article, and that arises from my own fears as a teacher. If I ask my freshman students to read aloud, am I not likely to discover that they can’t read at all? Each year there seems to be a significant minority in my classes for whom reading of any sort is an unfamiliar and intimidating experience.

Marian Ury

University of California, Davis

To the Editors:

Roger Shattuck is mostly right, as usual, in his “How to Rescue Literature,” but there is a further point to be made about reading poetry, supporting Emily Dickinson et al. A great deal of modern poetry is written for the eye as well as the ear, with considerable, sometimes conscious, play of shapes on the page, in letters, strophe forms, and arrangement of the whole type-block. Mallarmé observed that the reader also hears tout bas and he wrote with that intent. And there is nothing to prevent one from reciting poems to others as they read or privately to the self or to a companion. That may be making the best of the possibilities, though I certainly support Roger Shattuck’s emphasis and agree that the oral is due for some big innings in our schools.

Technically, it is not quite accurate to say, as Shattuck does at the end of his piece, that the oral is primary and holistic, the written metonymic and abstract. In the light of the foregoing, it is clear that both are both. Derrida’s campaign in this sense has been useful, as Roger Shattuck agrees rather grudgingly (Gombrich is far from saying everything Derrida does). The visual effects of poetry are very suggestive, not fixedly depictive like images on TV, and open up vast fields of meaning as the subtle overtones of a sensitive voice do.

Otherwise the piece is full of interest and may be a milestone. It ought to be.

Robert Greer Cohn

Stanford University

Stanford, California

To the Editors:

The application of communicative models to the study of literature makes Roger Shattuck fear for the integrity of the literary enterprise. We are told that the application of linguistic and semiotic models “incinerates the whole humanistic tradition of persons” because it deprecates the performative side to literary experience. Accordingly, he urges that we rescue literature by reading it in a way that allows it to touch us, i.e., aloud.

Now the whole focus of a speech act or semiotic analysis is to examine what this “touch” is all about. Shattuck tells us nothing about it except that it is “human” and that it involves “vision.” But is this sealing off of literature so humane? What exactly does it add to our knowledge of a text and its reading beside some small comfort that we are humanists studying spiritual things? Will Mr. Shattuck go so far as to say there is nothing systematic or organized about a literary work and the project of understanding it entails?

There are many, I’m sure, who refuse to make literature the kind of privileged enterprise Mr. Shattuck takes it to be. Shattuck left out Saussure’s major contribution to the new science of semiotics. For Saussure, the communicative act is perforce social, because the semiotic phenomena have a code or structure connected to social life. Literature is no poorer for taking it to be a cultural entity on par with other expressions of human activity. With the recognition of this social or cultural side to literary production and interpretation, it is not too much to ask if the literary enterprise can be studied as a social fact. This is the semiotic project. Such an approach marks no necessary impoverishment of the literary enterprise; if anything, it opens up an area of utmost human concern to scientific inquiry. If it is this opening that bothers Mr. Shattuck, I refer him to Emile Durkheim, who thought himself a “hyperspiritualist” because of his scientific interest in the ideas, symbols, and categories so powerful in human affairs.

In short, I prefer Durkheim’s humanism over Shattuck’s, especially when the semiotic perspective allows us to see that Shattuck’s interest in oral interpretation and the whole hackneyed entourage of “person,” “the human,” and “vision” are themselves defined (and are thus, to this extent, “real”) within a semiotic process awaiting principled interpretation.

Steven M. Albert

Committee on Social Thought

University of Chicago

Chicago, Illinois

Roger Shattuck replies:

Bruce Henricksen’s succinct remarks about the origins of what I call scientism are very important. Full understanding of why we have leaned so far toward depriving ourselves of meaning, story, beauty, and individuality may take some time. Meanwhile I continue to believe that reading aloud provides one of the best means of keeping beleaguered literature alive and whole and related to our bodies. Henricksen is right, though. This “rescue plan” is quixotic enough to have been turned down by the PMLA (Publications of the Modern Language Society of America, the most distinguished national journal of literary scholarship). I’ll remark in passing that my original title for the essay published as “How to Rescue Literature” was “Critics, Usurpers, and Performers.” The editors of NYRB decided to up my ante—or their own.

Of the fifty-odd letters I received personally in response to the essay, three picked out the sentence on “ideographic languages.” Yes, I was hoodwinked, probably by Fenollosa and Pound, and am delighted to welcome Chinese and related languages into the reading-aloud fold. Marian Ury makes her point beautifully and goes on to raise another, more vexing one.

Reading aloud is indeed an exceedingly difficult activity for most of us to accomplish well, in great part because our education neglects it. I feel the time has come to bring many forms of live recital back into schools and colleges. But beware: oral interpretation offers no universal substitute for attentive reading and careful critical analysis. It does offer a means of trying out different approaches. In most situations, particularly in the classroom, a live performance should come after the most appropriate forms of literary interpretation have been applied to a work in order to grasp its full range of meaning. Even then an oral reading remains difficult, and it also invades a great deal of class time, especially if students are to be trained to read.

I have no wish to qualify anything Robert Greer Cohn says about the suggestiveness of the visual side of literature. Since he brings Mallarmé into the ring, however, the French poet should be given his full say about orality and literacy. “By a doubtless immovable writer’s prejudice, I fancy that nothing will remain without being uttered [proféré]” (“Crise de vers“). “The study of any foreign language, whatever the pedagogy employed by the teacher of the language because of its nature, is based on the reading aloud of good authors” (“Introduction,” Les Mots anglais).

Emily Dickinson’s sentence (“A Pen has so many inflections and a Voice but one”) has troubled several correspondents, for it appears to fly in the face of the strong impulse a sympathetic reader feels to recite, even to sing, her verses. We should remember that, in context, she was complaining about the uncertainties of the written word, not honoring its capacity for ambiguity (Letters, Harvard Edition, no. 470). In order to joggle our minds as she would have wished, Dickinson’s sentence should not go forth without its mate, written by Virginia Woolf. “Face, voice, and accent eke out our words and impress their feebleness with character in speech. But the pen is a rigid instrument; it can say very little” (“Montaigne,” Common Reader).

I would like to persuade Steven M. Albert (I expected many more letters like his) that not even in the much studied field of dress and fashion can semiotics be considered a “new science.” A prevailing dress code, no matter how exhaustively described and systematized, provides only the background against which individual dressers with enterprise and imagination put on sartorial performances that both acknowledge and modify the code. The social fact, seen from another angle, is an individual feat. I would maintain that a highly significant aspect of dress (and even more so of literature) lies in this refusal on the part of individuals to “obey” the social-scientific laws of semiotics or linguistics or psychology. Yes, I privilege literature because it portrays, ponders, and embodies the gap between code and individual actions. What else is Don Quijote about? Or Rameau’s Nephew? The only science I will admit here is Jarry’s Pataphysics, “the science of laws governing exceptions.”

One more remark. I received several letters that struck this note. “Surely you must have visited my own department (of psychology), for how else would you have been able to describe accurately our Prof. M and Assistant Prof. N?” Similar letters refer to music, often analyzed today with little or no reliance on performance and hearing. Let us remember our senses. That is why I began, and am ready to end, with wine.

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