A couple weeks back we linked in our Picks section Power Line 100 honoree Gary Saul Morson’s terrific Commentary article on “Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature.” Morson, a professor of Russian literature, certainly has the authority to declare on this topic, since his lecture courses are the most popular and largest at Northwestern University, much to the annoyance of the peevish English department, which won’t assign any graduate TA’s to Morson’s courses.
His article notes that the intellectual trends of the left have killed literature. He identified three in particular, culminating in the historicism that places all authors and books in the context of their times as filtered through the politically correct context of our time, which is always presumed to be superior and wiser:
One can kill a work a third way: by treating it as a document of itstime. “The author didn’t write in a vacuum, you know!” In other words, Dickens is notable because he depicts the deplorable conditions of workers of his age. True enough, but a factory inspector’s report might do even better.
This approach puts the cart before the horse. One does not read Dostoevsky to learn about Russian history; one becomes interested in Russian history from reading its classics. After all, every culture has many periods, and one can’t be interested in each period of every culture, so the argument about Russian history is bound to fail except with people already interested in Russian history.
What makes a work literary is that it is interesting to people who do not care about its original context. Literariness begins where documentariness ends. Dostoevsky illuminates psychological and moral problems that are still pertinent, even outside Russia.
I should hasten to add that this same historicism kills the meaningful study of political philosophy and history. And then liberal professors wonder why their students are bored or don’t sign up for their classes in the first place. (Note, by the way, how many universities are moving to require “diversity” courses.)
By way of illustration, yesterday wandering through the fabulous bookstore at St. John’s Santa Fe (where they still teach the Great Books the old fashioned way), a book caught my eye in the used section: Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism. Now, there is a lot to be learned about political life from Shakespeare’s plays, and there are several great books about Shakespeare and politics, the most notable being Allan Bloom and Harry Jaffa’s Shakespeare’s Politics, which remains in print. Political Shakespeare, published in 1985, is not still in print. It isn’t hard to figure out why.
If the subtitle wasn’t enough of a hint, take in the first paragraph from the editor’s Foreword:
The break-up of consensus in British political life during the 1970s was accompanied by the break-up of traditional assumptions about the values and goals of literary criticism. Initially at specialized conferences and in committed journals, but increasingly in the main stream of intellectual life, literary texts were related to new and challenging discourses of Marxism, feminism, structuralism, psychoanalysis and poststructuralism. It is widely admitted that all this has brought a new rigor and excitement to literary discussions. At the same time, it has raised profound questions about the status of literary texts, both as linguistic entities and as ideological forces in our society.
Well, as you can imagine it gets worse from here. Here’s just one more sample of the abyss, from the first chapter by a Jonathan Dollimore:
The development of cultural materialism in relation to Renaissance literature has been fairly recent although there is already a diverse and developing field of work relating to literary texts to, for example, the following: enclosures and the oppression of the rural poor; State power and resistance to it; reassessments of what actually were the dominant ideologies of the period and the radical countertendencies to these; witchcraft; the challenge and containment of the carnivalesque; a feminist recovery of the actual conditions of women and the altered understanding of their literary representations which this generates; conflict between class factions within the State and, correspondingly, the importance of a non-monolithic conception of power.
Seems to me Dollimore has left out a lot of folks, especially the transgendered—Caitlyn Jenner would feel triggered!—and quite obviously he has no difficulty writing long sentences, so what’s the problem? What a trans-sexist pig.
I think maybe I’ve changed my mind on one point. A lot of English departments no longer require a Shakespeare course for a degree in the subject. With approaches like this, students are likely better off avoiding such classes anyway. Me, I’ll stick with pre-structuralism, and note for example that MacBeth’s argument in favor of an eternal moral order of the universe doesn’t need the help of any poststructural knuckledragger to figure out.
P.S. Incidentally, the people at St. John’s aren’t just smart; they’re funny, too. (Look closely at the middle of this pic.)