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The Decline and Fall of Literature

Today, when students are more and more focused, as Scholes puts it, on acquiring “technological truth in the form of engineering, computer science, biotechnology, and applications of physics and chemistry,” the university’s obligation is surely larger than ever to see that students encounter works of literature in which the human “truths” they bring with them to college are questioned and tested. There is no inviolable reason why this sort of education must proceed chiefly in the English department; and to some extent it has already migrated at some institutions into “core curricula” where the Jewish and Christian Bibles and Greek and Roman classics are read in translation (inevitably at some loss), along with later works of philosophy and history. But for the foreseeable future, the English department will remain a main source and training ground for most college teachers of literature, and the condition of the English department is a pretty reliable measure of the state of liberal education in general.

Kernan gives a moving account of how he taught Aeschylus’ Oresteia (in Richmond Lattimore’s translation) in a “Great Books” course at Yale—with a teaching method that runs close to the pulpit technique of “opening” the text and that accords with Arnold’s idea of what culture should mean:

I analyzed the trilogy in a formalist manner, mainly following a scenic and imagery pattern in which again and again light and hope flare up, only to expire in darkness and despair, and then to be relit once more. A play that begins in darkness lit by the small, distant fire announcing the fall of Troy ends at last in the full blaze of noon of the Athenian theater and the Athenian court. I did not hesitate to point out to the students that the struggle for justice that is Aeschylus’s subject is still played out every day in our courts, where rational laws free murderers because there is a shred of reasonable doubt, and the families of the murdered cry out and demand what we have come to call “victim’s rights.” This, I told them, or most often tried to extract from them in discussion, without apology for connecting literature with life, is where the real power of great literature lies, in its ability to portray feelingly and convincingly critical human concerns in terms that do not scant its full human reality and its desperate importance to our lives. All the aesthetic formalist aspects of the play—Aeschylus’s extraordinarily tangled language, the profusion of imagery, the repetitive hope-failure pattern of the plot, the intense and brooding characters—were, in my opinion, ultimately in the service of the play’s presentation of the human need for full justice and explanation of why it is so difficult to achieve. I was not arguing that the play has a “message,” that it carries some social argument for a better court system; rather, it offers a universal description of where we humans live always in relation to justice. This is, I suppose, a view of the purpose of art that would most readily be called “moral,” and I would not repudiate the term entirely, but I think that “existential” would be a far better term, for “moral” carries with it the suggestion of some rigid prescription, of a limited and coercive point of view, which is not the way great literature works.

This way of teaching may strike the resolute historical scholar as too “presentist,” and the present-minded theorist as too “universalist.” But these objections will never vitiate the gratitude of a student who has been touched by such a teacher.

The sad news is that teachers of literature have lost faith in their subject and in themselves. “We are in trouble,” as Scholes puts it, “precisely because we have allowed ourselves to be persuaded that we cannot make truth claims but must go on ‘professing’ just the same.” But what kind of dubious “truth-claims” does literature make? Literature does not embody, as both outraged conservatives and radical debunkers would have it, putatively eternal values that its professors are sworn to defend. It does not transmit moral certainty so much as record moral conflict. Its only unchanging “truth-claim” is that experience demands self-questioning.

Literature,” as Carl Woodring puts it with typical understatement, “is useful for a skeptical conduct of life.” If the English department becomes permanently marginal, students will have been cheated and the university left without a moral center. This is why the state of literary studies is a problem not just for literature professors, but for everyone.14


One irony in the marginalizing of English studies is that they enjoyed their greatest prestige in the secular academy when they held most closely to the tradition of scriptural exegesis from which they derive. In the immediate postwar decades, when English departments were flourishing, intellectual energy was concentrated in something called the New Criticism—a reductive term often taken today to designate a narrow formalism and stipulative method. In fact, many who accepted the rubric were engaged in a broad resistance to what one of their leaders, Cleanth Brooks, called the “quixotic desire” of humanists “to be objective and ‘scientific.”’ The New Criticism was still, and unashamedly, driven by an essentially religious impulse—as expressed in the quasi-theological title of Brooks’s notable essay “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” which argued that trying to distill “‘a prose-sense’ of a poem” as if one could build “a rack on which the stuff of the poem is hung” amounts to a kind of blasphemy. As his Yale colleague W.K. Wimsatt explained in another famous essay, “The Intentional Fallacy,” the poet—the mind behind the creation—remains an inscrutable creator whose intention can never be fully known, but in whose handiwork one may glimpse something of the sublime idea to which the poem gives form.

At the height of the New Criticism in the 1940s and 1950s, some of its most respected practitioners taught in small colleges, and even those in the research universities, such as Reuben Brower at Harvard (to which he had come from Amherst), were primarily undergraduate teachers. Under their spell, the classroom became something like a Quaker meeting, not so much a place of compulsory recitation as of open invitation for students to contribute toward the goal of building, collectively, new insights into the work under discussion.

Ultimately, the New Criticism was a mood more than a methodology. And it was, not incidentally, the last time that practicing poets—T.S. Eliot, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and, later, Richard Wilbur, among others—had a significant impact on academic criticism. Pater’s belief that “lyrical poetry…is…the highest and most complete form of poetry” had been transmitted by Eliot to the New Critics, who regarded a work of literature—which they described in language close to that with which Augustine had described creation itself—as “a pattern of resolutions and balances and harmonizations, developed through a temporal scheme.”

Contemplating these patterns and harmonies under the guidance of a good teacher could (and can) be a wonderfully vertiginous experience. But in acknowledging what every true writer knows—that words are never quite governable by the will of the author—the New Critics were planting seeds of future trouble for English studies. Paul de Man, who introduced the deconstructionist theory of Jacques Derrida to American readers after the New Criticism had become a received orthodoxy, detected in the New Critics a “foreknowledge” of what he called, borrowing a phrase from the Swiss critic Georges Poulet, “hermeneutic circularity.”

There is a hint of what he meant in Kernan’s charming story about a retirement party for one of the elder Yale eminences he had known only slightly during his graduate years. “You were never my student, I believe,” said the older man. “No,” Kernan concurred, to which came back the indecipherable reply, “A pity.” Was there a compliment in that answer? Or was it a dig? How could one know if either was intended? A pity for whom—teacher or student?

Writers and good critics have always reveled in language play; but in the 1970s academic criticism got terribly solemn about it. Suddenly, the professor’s “a pity” was no longer a joke; it had become a “multivalent,” “indeterminate,” and “undecidable” “speech act” construed differently by different “interpretive communities,” all of which was evidence that the “referentiality” of language to anything outside itself is an illusion, and that sequences of words to which we assign meaning are actually “gaps” filled by the “subjectivity” of the reader. Captain Ahab’s second mate on the Pequod, Mr. Stubb, had pretty much summed it up a long time before: “Book!…you’ll do to give us the bare words and facts, but we come in to supply the thoughts.”

Deconstruction fit the darkening mood of the Seventies, when all claims to timeless or universal truth became suspect as self-serving deceptions perpetrated by wielders of power. It was an effort, as we used to say, to heighten the contradictions and raise them to the level of consciousness. Along with its offshoot, “reader-response” criticism, it was a mischievously extreme skepticism that regarded all meanings and judgments as contingent on the “subject-position” of the reader. Deconstructionists rejected the idea that a work of the imagination manifests any “presence” (a rubric under which they gathered such notions as meaning, beauty, and authorship), and, with the atheist zeal of erstwhile believers, they substituted terms like “aporia” and “absence.”

One of the implications was that literature was no more or less worthy of study than any other semiotic system; fashion, gestures, sports could now serve as a “text” for the game of interpretation. But this view soon lost its playfulness, and turned into the dogma that literature, like any constructed system of meaning, must be assessed in relation to this or that “identity” (race, class, gender, etc.) to the exclusion of every other point of view. Here began in earnest the fragmentation of literary studies that is so evident today—and that has left a legacy of acrimony, and of intellectual and professional fatigue.

Deconstruction can also be seen as simply another phase in the continuing effort by literary studies to get respect from “hard” disciplines by deploying a specialized vocabulary of its own. Long before its rise, in an essay entitled “The Meaning of a Literary Idea” (1949), Trilling had remarked that “people will eventually be unable to say, ‘They fell in love and married,’ let alone understand the language of Romeo and Juliet, but will as a matter of course say, ‘Their libidinal impulses being reciprocal, they activated their individual erotic drives and integrated them within the same frame of reference.”’ Trilling’s parody of the Freud fad of his day was intended to illustrate how “ideas tend to deteriorate into ideology,” and by ideology he meant

the habit or ritual of showing respect for certain formulas to which, for various reasons having to do with emotional safety, we have very strong ties of whose meaning and consequences in actuality we have no clear understanding.

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    Some educational leaders are showing concern that this may be happening, including the president of Harvard, Neil Rudenstine, whose degree is in English, and who devoted his 1998 commencement address to a defense of the humanities as “essential …to any serious definition of education”—a statement that, by the felt need to make it, constitutes a noteworthy alarm. Harvard, after all, was founded by clergymen who “dread[ed] to leave an illiterate Ministry to the Churches, when our present Ministers shall lie in the Dust.”

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