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The Death Of Literature
by Alvin Kernan
Yale University Press, 240 pages, $22.50

Those who began to study literature before the radicalization of the university in the 1970s learned that literary criticism was not only a valid undertaking in itself but a way to understand the larger culture and, indeed, the human condition in general. For a time, it seemed that just as much of the greatest of Russian thought had been delivered through the novel form, so mid-twentieth-century American literary criticism had become a vehicle for the most important ideas of the age. A number of elements contributed to this: a cultural atmosphere, generated at least partly by the seriousness of modernism, which demanded respect for the work of art; a kind of technical proficiency developed by the New Criticism which made close reading seem an almost endlessly rewarding endeavor (even if some critics went beyond its provenance); the lingering presence of such major artists as Eliot, Yeats, Stevens, Faulkner, and if you were so inclined, even William Carlos Williams (not to mention the great European moderns); and the vitalizing example of critics like Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Northrop Frye, R. P. Blackmur, Cleanth Brooks, Philip Rahv, and Eliot himself. 

While, admittedly, the idolatrous view of literature that underlay this picture may have been in need of some qualification, who could have predicted that in twenty or so years we would be witnessing the actual disintegration of our literary culture and the very real possibility of losing at least for a time a portion of our cultural heritage? Writers as different in political outlook as Orwell and Pound once inspired readers with their insistence on the apodictic importance of the written word and the literary act. Nowadays the conditions for appreciating great literature seem to be disappearing. Current criticism alternates between saying that literature is nothing but an indeterminate linguistic structure or that it reveals the sex, class, race, and other hierarchical biases of the author—which, of course, the critic is charged with exposing. It can be startling to discover the extent to which questions of race, class, and sex have become not only the central intellectual inquiries but the leading emotive inquiries as well, that is, the only way for many students to feel an arousal of the sentiments in confronting a work of art. 

Alvin Kernan’s The Death of Literature, now in paper, was perhaps the first book entirely and systematically devoted to detailing the extent of the damage that has been done. Significantly, however, Kernan does not base his analysis on a typically traditional or conservative point of view. His thesis is that deconstructive criticism and the politicization of literary judgment are only the final blows that literature has sustained in the past century or so, and he carefully distances himself from both sides of the controversy raging over criticism today: “The death of literature looks like the twilight of the gods to conservatives or the fall of the Bastille of high culture to radicals, but my argument is . . . that we are watching the complex transformation of a social institution in a time of radical political, technological, and social change.” 

Kernan discusses a number of factors in this transformation, such as the passage from print to electronic communication, but while he makes some valid points, they don’t necessarily lead to the conclusions he draws. That we are passing from a print to an electronic age, for example, does not, in and of itself, necessarily mean the “death of literature”; certain skills can remain even as new dispensations take over. (Not to be frivolous, but even the hi-tech Star Trek portrays Klingons and humans discussing Shakespeare in outer space.) 

Likewise, it is true, as Kernan amusingly demonstrates, that the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity case revealed an alarming softness in the literary ground even before deconstruction, as expert after expert testifying in defense of the book was unable to render a convincing or cohesive definition of literature. But their confusion, in the courtroom and out, could be seen as a function of a modernism ever eager to push back the frontiers of what is permissible in art. 

On the whole—an impression strengthened by his bland manner of presentation—Kernan seems not to realize that he can easily be seen to be making a case precisely for the anti-literary forces. For instead of offering an impassioned defense of literature against the assault from the deconstructionists, he agrees, rather, that they have succeeded.

Older humanistic views like [Virginia] Woolf’s about the integrity of the literary work and its ineradicable meaning, about the creative imagination of the authors of literature and the perfection of the created artifact, about the great tradition of literary masterpieces and the long line of imitation and influence, all beliefs which were alive and intellectually potent only yesterday, have disappeared as completely as if they had been vaporized . . . . Deconstruction swept literature before it, and even if its moment too is passing, as seems the case, it has rearranged the literary world, though not much else, so completely as to make it unlikely that there will ever be a return to the humanistic and positivist assumptions that once supported romantic and modernist literature

Understandably, supporters of literature like Wendy Steiner, who reviewed the book in the Times Literary Supplement, and Norman Fruman, writing in Academic Questions—both of whom found Kernan part of the problem, not part of the solution—might have expected him to defend such “humanistic views” of literature as Woolf’s, even if with some modification; instead he agrees that they are no longer tenable. But Kernan feels he has offered his own solution: he would establish literature instead as a social construct. In a letter of protest to Wendy Steiner’s remark in the TLS that instead of Kernan’s “fairy tale of intellectual history” we need a “humanism worth the name,” Kernan, agreeing that we need a “humanism worth the name,” insists:

Only when literature is seen in its full social context rather than in aesthetic or ideological isolation will the needed new humanism appear. Only when we understand that literature can disappear from culture and consciousness will the dangers stand out of “hermeneutics of suspicion” that tell us that the great books have no meaning, that they advocate sexist hegemony, that they are the tools of cultural imperialism, and the many other militant criticisms that pursue social causes by trashing literature. Only when we understand that literature has a history, and a fairly short one, will it be clear how important it is in these parlous times for all book-centered activities to say plausible and positive things about literature once again.

Kernan’s defense is thus a curious one, the implications of which he seems not to recognize. For it is precisely the view of literature as nothing more than a social construct that has enabled its enemies to deconstruct it. Kernan seems to think that if people would just understand how delicate and fragile literature has turned out to be, how susceptible to evisceration, they will agree to protect it like an endangered species. But again, it is precisely literature’s fragility that has afforded its detractors such joy in their labors. In his would-be rational and sensible way, Kernan imagines that, once the messy, unreliable, mystifying literary notions have been stripped away, people will be more logical and realistic and begin “to say plausible and positive things about literature once again.” In this regard Kernan is being a bit like C. S. Lewis’ “men without chests” who imagine that they can save by reason what they have uprooted from the heart and the sentiments.

But where will these “plausible and positive things” come from? From taking thought? Either literature is based on some truth about the human condition or it is not. If it is, it should be defended on that ground. If not, we may as well throw it all in right now, because we’re only chattering against the inevitably approaching void. If literature is primarily a social construct, why then should it survive the social arrangements that gave rise to it?

Nor is it only in what he says that Kernan gives aid and comfort to the enemy but in the very way he says it. Deconstruction has become so aggressive a mode of thought today that one can succumb to it almost without recognizing it; a lot of the time Kernan sounds more like a postmodern, deconstructed man than the distinguished traditional scholar that he is. By exploring various literary paradigms, exposing their shortcomings, and implying that nothing lay behind them but a contemporaneously agreed upon collection of beliefs, he becomes himself an example of what he’s describing.

True, in his discussion of Paul de Man, the late godfather of deconstruction, the exposure of whose past as an anti-Semitic propagandist for a Nazi paper in Belgium recently created an enormous scandal, Kernan has no difficulty in being firm: he stands appalled before both de Man’s anti-Semitic pronouncements and the dishonest and caviling apologias of his deconstructionist colleagues. “The de Man case,” he says, “removes deconstruction from the realm of pure intellect and puts the theory, protesting and wriggling, in a full living context. It confronts deconstruction with the monstrous and passionately felt fact of the Holocaust and asks, is this too only a text? Can its meaning be endlessly deferred? Can it too be interpreted in any way deemed suitable?” Kernan laments that in today’s textualized universe, increasingly distanced from reality, the answer could well be “yes.”

This discussion marks a kind of high point in the book. One would think that it should have marked some kind of turning point for the author as well, transforming him from a too scrupulously detached observer into a “man with a chest,” an impassioned defender of the literary act, like Solzhenitsyn, say, someone who by the power of his soul, his convictions, his experience, makes us see and feel the vital importance of literature to humanity. But no, Kernan’s ultimate message is a lukewarm call “to say plausible and positive things.”

Kernan’s book may represent something we will be seeing more of in the future, as battle-fatigued critics and teachers of literature struggle, perhaps less and less successfully, to summon up the force of soul necessary to recapture a sense of our fading literary glories. Another example of someone whose solution turns out to be more of the problem is Gerald Graff, perhaps the most sophisticated purveyor of the newer critical “theories.” Graff argues that the new theories have been grossly misunderstood and vulgarized by hostile critics and he insists that theory can actually revitalize literary study.

After first harshly opposing the new literary trends, Graff tells us in a recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he came to embrace them “in spite of myself,” a telling phrase, suggesting once again how hard it can be to resist the deconstructive tide. Graff’s solution to the standoff in literary studies today is to “teach the conflict,” and in his Chronicle article he shows how he has done this with a single work, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. His former way of reading the Conrad work was “as a profound meditation on a universal moral theme . . . as a universal parable of the precarious status of civilized reason in a world too confident it has outgrown the seductions of the primitive and the irrational.” But such a reading, Graff was instructed by recent theory, “depended on my not seeing certain things or not treating them as worth thinking about,” such as “the fact that Conrad sets the novella in the Congo in the high period of European colonialism or that he chooses subjugated black Africans to represent . . . primitive irrational forces.”

Traditional criticism was hardly blind to the social context of Conrad’s work, as Graff seems to imply. Be that as it may, it was a famous, overexcited—and overcited—essay on Heart of Darkness by the African novelist Chinua Achebe that helped clue Graff in. This essay is just about the worst thing that Achebe ever wrote, and in any other time it would probably have been dismissed as a tendentious diatribe. As it is, since it involves an African writer leveling a charge of racism against a Western work, our progressive critics now happily surrender. (Interestingly, Achebe, too, tells of a “conversion” regarding Heart of Darkness. When he first read it in his college days, he said in an interview some time ago, he saw himself in Marlow, the main narrator, the man of civilization coming upon nineteenth-century Africa for the first time; but then with the raised racial consciousness of more recent times, he identified himself with the primitive Africans Conrad portrays. In this we witness one of the little deaths of the literary imagination that theory has helped bring about: individuals can no longer read freely but feel forcibly constrained by theory—the real hegemony today—to identify with literary characters who share sex, race, class, etc.)

It is true that the novella contains passages that are offensive by current standards of sensitivity on race, but Achebe deliberately takes these descriptions out of context and denies Conrad the larger balance his work achieves. And when Achebe talks about Conrad’s using primitive Africa to show Europe “in a state of spiritual grace,” he is no longer reading the words on the page.

Ironically, Graff agrees that Achebe ignores Conrad’s own powerful critique of racism and imperialism, but this is apparently not enough to neutralize Achebe’s indictment. For Achebe’s accusation of racism renders an open wound that can be bled semester after semester by Graff, the teacher of the conflict, in deference to current sensibilities. The “truth and justice” that Graff claims to be serving are just words since he makes no effort to arrive at a considered conclusion. What is most significant about his approach, then, is the way its deconstructed, decentered, putatively uncommitted manner allows for the promotion of politically correct opinion. (Would Graff be as concerned with an article denouncing Conrad’s harsh portrayal of Belgians?)

Furthermore, Graff’s method implicitly denies the importance of the dialectic within Western culture itself. After all, the West produced both colonialism and the critique of colonialism—the very critique that is at the heart of Heart of Darkness. The Graff-Achebe approach implies that the West is blind to its own faults and that an alternative African point of view must be sought to register balance. To this end, in addition to Achebe’s essay, Graff assigns his novel of tribal Africa, Things Fall Apart. It is true that this novel presents a view of the workable, orderly tribal life of the nineteenth-century Africa that Conrad as an outsider was not privy to, but two things should be kept in mind: first, the extent to which Achebe’s novel, written in English, its title taken from Yeats, its subject matter informed by the individualistic concerns of the genre and colored by the tragic tenor of Western thought, is actually a part of the Western tradition itself. And second, Graff’s explanation of why he had formerly overlooked the racial content of Heart of Darkness—namely, “That Conrad chose black Africa to represent primitive impulse was, I thought, incidental to his main intention, which was to make a statement about the human condition that transcends mere matters of geography and race”—seems to imply that there was in fact nothing in Africa at the time that might have appeared primitive or exotic to a European. Thus as it turns out, it is politically correct thinking that carries no dialectic, no corrective to itself, and launches accusations of racism as if there were no objective reality to consult and everything were entirely a matter of perception.

In the end, the battle to save literature will not be won by “saying plausible and positive things,” nor by capitulating to the assault by “teaching the conflict.” It will be won by taking a stand for the power and truth of the literary experience, even with its shortcomings, and by insisting on the vitality of its connection to the human soul.

Carol Iannone teaches in the Gallatin Division of New York University.

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