What Is Literature Essay
What Is Literature
I am grateful for help with this book from many people, especially Julian Wolfreys, Jason Wohlstadter, and Barbara Caldwell, my “Senior Editor” and invaluable assistant at the University of California, Irvine. I thank Simon Critchley for ? rst suggesting that I might write this book for the series he edits, as well as for his careful reading of the manuscript. I am grateful also to the co-editor of the series, Richard Kearney, for a helpful reading of the manuscript. Muna Khogali and Tony Bruce, of Routledge, have been unfailingly generous and courteous. Tony Bruce read the manuscript with care and made useful suggestions.
A preliminary version of some of the ideas in this book, especially those in Chapter 4, was presented as a lecture for the Koehn Endowed Lectureship at the University of California, Irvine, in Febuary 2001. The lecture was called “On the Authority of Literature. ” Subsequently, the talk was given as the ? rst annual Lecture on Modern Literature for the Department of English at Baylor University in April, 2001. The lecture was then printed there as a pamphlet for local circulation.
I am grateful to my host and sponsor at Baylor, Professor William Davis, for his many kindnesses. Di? erent versions of the talk were given at two conferences, in August 2001, in the People’s Republic of China: at a triennial conference of the Chinese Association for Sino-Foreign Literary and xi On Literature Cultural Theory, held in Shenyang, and at an International Symposium on Globalizing Comparative Literature, sponsored by Yale and Tsinghua Universities.
I thank Professor Wang Ning for arranging these invitations and for many other courtesies. A German translation will be published as my contribution to a research project on “representative validity,” sponsored by the Zentrum fur Literaturforschung in Berlin.
I especially thank Ingo Berensmeyer, as well as other colleagues in Berlin, for the chance to try out my ideas on them. A Bulgarian translation will be published in a Festschrift for Simeon Hadjikosev, of So? a University. I thank Ognyan Kovachev for inviting me, and for other kindnesses. Altogether, my preliminary ideas for Chapter 4 and for some other germs of this book have had the bene? t of many helpful comments and reactions. Finally, I thank the dedicatee of this book for su? ering once more through my ordeals of composition. She had to endure my faraway look, my dreamy absentmindedness.
I was dwelling again in imagination on the other side of Alice’s looking-glass or on the deserted island where the Swiss Family Robinson made such an enchanting home. It has taken me a good many months to ? gure out what to say about that experience. Sedgwick, Maine December 15, 2001 xii Acknowledgements What is Literature? One FAREWELL LITERATURE? The end of literature is at hand. Literature’s time is almost up. It is about time. It is about, that is, the di? erent epochs of di? erent media. Literature, in spite of its approaching end, is nevertheless perennial and universal.
It will survive all historical and technological changes. Literature is a feature of any human culture at any time and place. These two contradictory premises must govern all serious re? ection “on literature” these days. What brings about this paradoxical situation? Literature has a history. I mean “literature” in the sense we in the West use the word in our various languages: “literature” (French or English) “letteratura” (Italian), “literatura” (Spanish), “Literatur” (German). As Jacques Derrida observes in Demeure: Fiction and Testimony, the word literature comes from a Latin stem.
It cannot be detached from its Roman-ChristianEuropean roots. Literature in our modern sense, however, appeared in the European West and began in the late seventeenth century, at the earliest. Even then the word did not have its modern meaning. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “literature” was ? rst used in our current sense only quite recently. Even a de? nition of “literature” as including memoirs, history, collections of letters, learned treatises, etc. , as well as poems, printed plays, and 1 On Literature novels, comes after the time of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary (1755).
The restricted sense of literature as just poems, plays, and novels is even more recent. The word “literature” is de? ned by Johnson exclusively in the now obsolescent sense of “Acqaintance with ‘letters’ or books; polite or humane learning; literary culture. ” One example the OED gives is as late as 1880: “He was a man of very small literature. ” Only by the third de? nition in the OED does one get to: Literary production as a whole; the body of writings produced in a particular country or period, or in the world in general.
Now also in a more restricted sense, applied to writing which has claim to consideration on the grounds of beauty of form or emotional effect. This de? nition, says the OED, “is of very recent emergence both in England and France. ” Its establishment may be conveniently dated in the mid-eighteenth century and associated, in England at least, with the work of Joseph and Thomas Wharton (1722–1800; 1728–90). They were hailed by Edmund Gosse, in an essay of 1915–16 (“Two Pioneers of Romanticism: Joseph and Thomas Wharton”), as giving literature its modern de?
nition. Literature in that sense is now coming to an end, as new media gradually replace the printed book. WHAT HAS MADE LITERATURE POSSIBLE? 2 On Literature What are the cultural features that are necessary concomitants of literature as we have known it in the West? Western literature belongs to the age of the printed book and of other print forms like newspapers, magazines, and periodicals generally. Literature is associated with the gradual rise of almost universal literacy in the West. No widespread literacy, no literature.
Literacy, furthermore, is associated with the gradual appearance from the seventeenth century onward of Western-style democracies. This means regimes with expanded su? rage, government by legislatures, regulated judicial systems, and fundamental human rights or civil liberties. Such democracies slowly developed more or less universal education. They also allowed citizens more or less free access to printed materials and to the means of printing new ones. This freedom, of course, has never been complete. Various forms of censorship, in even the freest democracies today, limit the power of the printing press.
Nevertheless, no technology has ever been more e? ective than the printing press in breaking down class hierarchies of power. The printing press made democratic revolutions like the French Revolution or the American Revolution possible. The Internet is performing a similar function today. The printing and circulation of clandestine newspapers, manifestoes, and emancipatory literary works was essential to those earlier revolutions, just as email, the Internet, the cell phone, and the “hand-held” will be essential to whatever revolutions we may have from now on.
Both these communication regimes are also, of course, powerful instruments of repression. The rise of modern democracies has meant the appearance of the modern nation-state, with its encouragement of a sense of ethnic and linguistic uniformity in each state’s citizens. Modern literature is vernacular literature. It began to appear as the use of Latin as a lingua franca gradually disappeared. Along with the nation-state has gone the notion of national literature, that is, literature written in the language and idiom of a particular country. This concept remains strongly codi?
ed in school and university study of literature. It is institutionalized 3 What is Literature? in separate departments of French, German, English, Slavic, Italian, and Spanish. Tremendous resistance exists today to the recon? guration of those departments that will be necessary if they are not simply to disappear. The modern Western concept of literature became ? rmly established at the same time as the appearance of the modern research university. The latter is commonly identi? ed with the founding of the University of Berlin around 1810, under the guidance of a plan devised by Wilhelm von Humboldt.
The modern research university has a double charge. One is Wissenschaft, ? nding out the truth about everything. The other is Bildung, training citizens (originally almost exclusively male ones) of a given nation-state in the ethos appropriate for that state. It is perhaps an exaggeration to say that the modern concept of literature was created by the research university and by lower-school training in preparation for the university. After all, newspapers, journals, non-university critics and reviewers also contributed, for example Samuel Johnson or Samuel Taylor Coleridge in England.
Nevertheless, our sense of literature was strongly shaped by university-trained writers. Examples are the Schlegel brothers in Germany, along with the whole circle of critics and philosophers within German Romanticism. English examples would include William Wordsworth, a Cambridge graduate. His “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” de? ned poetry and its uses for generations. In the Victorian period Matthew Arnold, trained at Oxford, was a founding force behind English and United States institutionalized study of literature.
Arnold’s thinking is still not without force in conservative circles today. Arnold, with some help from the Germans, presided over the transfer from philosophy to literature of the responsibility for Bildung. Literature would shape citizens by giving them 4 On Literature knowledge of what Arnold called “the best that is known and thought in the world. ” This “best” was, for Arnold, enshrined in canonical Western works from Homer and the Bible to Goethe or Wordsworth. Most people still ? rst hear that there is such a thing as literature from their school teachers.
Universities, moreover, have been traditionally charged with the storage, cataloguing, preservation, commentary, and interpretation of literature through the accumulations of books, periodicals, and manuscripts in research libraries and special collections. That was literature’s share in the university’s responsibility for Wissenschaft, as opposed to Bildung. This double responsibility was still very much alive in the literature departments of The Johns Hopkins University when I taught there in the 1950s and 1960s. It has by no means disappeared today.
Perhaps the most important feature making literature possible in modern democracies has been freedom of speech. This is the freedom to say, write, or publish more or less anything. Free speech allows everyone to criticize everything, to question everything. It confers the right even to criticize the right to free speech. Literature, in the Western sense, as Jacques Derrida has forcefully argued, depends, moreover, not just on the right to say anything but also on the right not to be held responsible for what one says. How can this be?
Since literature belongs to the realm of the imaginary, whatever is said in a literary work can always be claimed to be experimental, hypothetical, cut o? from referential or performative claims. Dostoevsky is not an ax murderer, nor is he advocating ax murder in Crime and Punishment. He is writing a ? ctive work in which he imagines what it might be like to be an ax murderer. A ritual formula is printed at the beginning of many modern detective stories: “Any 5 What is Literature? resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
”This (often false) claim is not only a safeguard against lawsuits. It also codi? es the freedom from referential responsibility that is an essential feature of literature in the modern sense. A ? nal feature of modern Western literature seemingly contradicts the freedom to say anything. Even though democratic freedom of speech in principle allows anyone to say anything, that freedom has always been severely curtailed, in various ways. Authors during the epoch of printed literature have de facto been held responsible not only for the opinions expressed in literary works but also for such political or social e?ects as those works have had or have been believed to have had.
Sir Walter Scott’s novels and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin have in di? erent ways been held responsible for causing the American Civil War, the former by instilling absurdly outmoded ideas of chivalry in Southern gentry, the latter by decisively encouraging support for the abolition of slavery. Nor are these claims nonsensical. Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Chinese translation was one of Mao Tse Tung’s favorite books.
Even today, an author would be unlikely to get away before a court of law with a claim that it is not he or she speaking in a given work but an imaginary character uttering imaginary opinions. Just as important as the development of print culture or the rise of modern democracies in the development of modern Western literature, has been the invention, conventionally associated with Descartes and Locke, of our modern sense of the self. From the Cartesian cogito, followed by the invention of identity, consciousness, and self in Chapter 27, Book II, of Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, to the sovereign.
I or Ich of Fichte, to absolute consciousness in Hegel, to the I as 6 On Literature the agent of the will to power in Nietzsche, to the ego as one element of the self in Freud, to Husserl’s phenomenological ego, to the Dasein of Heidegger, explicitly opposed to the Cartesian ego, but nevertheless a modi? ed form of subjectivity, to the I as the agent of performative utterances such as “I promise” or “I bet” in the speech act theory of J. L.
Austin and others, to the subject not as something abolished but as a problem to be interrogated within deconstructive or postmodern thinking – the whole period of literature’s heyday has depended on one or another idea of the self as a selfconscious and responsible agent.
The modern self can be held liable for what it says, thinks, or does, including what it does in the way of writing works of literature. Literature in our conventional sense has also depended on a new sense of the author and of authorship. This was legalized in modern copyright laws. All the salient forms and techniques of literature have, moreover, exploited the new sense of selfhood. Early ? rst-person novels like Robinson Crusoe adopted the direct presentation of interiority characteristic of seventeenth-century Protestant confessional works.
Eighteenth-century novels in letters exploited epistolary presentations of subjectivity. Romantic poetry a? rmed a lyric “I. ” Nineteenth-century novels developed sophisticated forms of third-person narration. These allowed a double simultaneous presentation by way of indirect discourse of two subjectivities, that of the narrator, that of the character. Twentieth-century novels present directly in words the “stream of consciousness” of ? ctional protagonists. Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses is the paradigmatic case of the latter. 7 What is Literature?
THE END OF THE PRINT AGE
Most of these features making modern literature possible are now undergoing rapid transformation or putting in question. People are now not so certain of the unity and perdurance of the self, nor so certain that the work can be explained by the authority of the author. Foucault’s “What is an Author? ” and Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author” signaled the end of the old tie between the literary work and its author considered as a unitary self, the real person William Shakespeare or Virginia Woolf. Literature itself has contributed to the fragmentation of the self.
Forces of economic, political, and technological globalization are in many ways bringing about a weakening of the nation-state’s separateness, unity, and integrity. Most countries are now multilingual and multi-ethnic. Nations today are seen to be divided within as well as existing within more permeable borders. American literature now includes works written in Spanish, Chinese, Native American languages, Yiddish, French, and so on, as well as works written in English from within those groups, for example African-American literature. Over sixty minority languages and cultures are recognized in the People’s Republic of China.
South Africa after apartheid has eleven o? cial languages, nine African languages along with English and Afrikaans. This recognition of internal division is ending literary study’s institutionalization according to national literatures, each with its presumedly selfenclosed literary history, each written in a single national language. The terrible events of the mid-twentieth century, World War II and the Holocaust, transformed our civilization and Western literature with it. Maurice Blanchot and others have even argued persuasively that literature in the old sense is impossible after the Holocaust. 8 On Literature
In addition, technological changes and the concomitant development of new media are bringing about the gradual death of literature in the modern sense of the word. We all know what those new media are: radio, cinema, television, video, and the Internet, soon universal wireless video. A recent workshop I attended in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) brought together American literary scholars and representatives of the Chinese Writers Association. At that meeting it became evident that the most respected and in? uential Chinese writers today are those whose novels or stories are turned into one or another television series.
The major monthly journal printing poetry in the PRC has in the last decade declined in circulation from an amazing 700,000 to a “mere” 30,000, though the proliferation of a dozen or more new in? uential poetry journals mitigates that decline somewhat and is a healthy sign of diversi? cation. Nevertheless, the shift to the new media is decisive. Printed literature used to be a primary way in which citizens of a given nation state were inculcated with the ideals, ideologies, ways of behavior and judgment that made them good citizens.
Now that role is being increasingly played, all over the world, for better or for worse, by radio, cinema, television, VCRs, DVDs, and the Internet. This is one explanation for the di? culties literature departments have these days in getting funding. Society no longer needs the university as the primary place where the national ethos is inculcated in citizens. That work used to be done by the humanities departments in colleges and universities, primarily through literary study. Now it is increasingly done by television, radio talk shows, and by cinema.
People cannot be reading Charles Dickens or Henry James or Toni Morrison and at the same time watching television or a ? lm on VCR, though some 9 What is Literature? people may claim they can do that. The evidence suggests that people spend more and more time watching television or sur? ng the Internet. More people, by far, probably, have seen the recent ? lms of novels by Austen, Dickens, Trollope, or James than have actually read those works. In some cases (though I wonder how often), people read the book because they have seen the television adaptation.
The printed book will retain cultural force for a good while yet, but its reign is clearly ending. The new media are more or less rapidly replacing it. This is not the end of the world, only the dawn of a new one dominated by new media. One of the strongest symptoms of the imminent death of literature is the way younger faculty members, in departments of literature all over the world, are turning in droves from literary study to theory, cultural studies, postcolonial studies, media studies (? lm, television, etc. ), popular culture studies, Women’s studies, African-American studies, and so on.
They often write and teach in ways that are closer to the social sciences than to the humanities as traditionally conceived. Their writing and teaching often marginalizes or ignores literature. This is so even though many of them were trained in old-fashioned literary history and the close reading of canonical texts. These young people are not stupid, nor are they ignorant barbarians. They are not bent on destroying literature nor on destroying literary study. They know better than their elders often do, however, which way the wind is blowing. They have a deep and laudable interest in ?
lm or popular culture, partly because it has done so much to form them as what they are. They also have a proleptic sense that traditional literary study is on the way to being declared obsolete by society and by university authorities. This will probably happen not in so 10 On Literature many words. University administrators do not work that way. It will happen by the more e? ective device of withdrawing funding in the name of “necessary economies” or “downsizing. ” Departments of classics and modern languages other than English, in United States universities, will go ?rst.
Indeed, they are in many universities already going, initially through amalgamation. Any United States English department, however, will soon join the rest, if it is foolish enough to go on teaching primarily canonical British literature under the illusion that it is exempt from cuts because it teaches texts in the dominant language of the country. Even the traditional function of the university as the place where libraries store literature from all ages and in all languages, along with secondary material, is now being rapidly usurped by digitized databases.
Many of the latter are available to anyone with a computer, a modem, and access to the Internet through a server. More and more literary works are freely available online, through various websites. An example is “The Voice of the Shuttle,” maintained by Alan Liu and his colleagues at the University of California at Santa Barbara (http://vos. ucsb. edu/). The Johns Hopkins “Project Muse” makes a large number of journals available (http:// muse. jhu. edu/journals/index_text. html). A spectacular example of this making obsolete the research library is the William Blake Archive website
(http:// www.blakearchive. org/). This is being developed by Morris Eaves, Robert Essick, and Joseph Viscomi. Anyone anywhere who has a computer with an Internet connection (I for example on the remote island o? the coast of Maine where I live most of the year and am writing this) may access, download, and print out spectacularly accurate reproductions of major versions of Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and some 11 What is Literature? of his other prophetic books. The original versions of these “illuminated books” are dispersed in many di? erent research libraries in England and the United States.
Formerly they were available only to specialists in Blake, to scholars with a lot of money for research travel. Research libraries will still need to take good care of the originals of all those books and manuscripts. They will less and less function, however, as the primary means of access to those materials. Literature on the computer screen is subtly changed by the new medium. It becomes something other to itself. Literature is changed by the ease of new forms of searching and manipulation, and by each work’s juxtaposition with the innumerable swarm of other images on the Web.
These are all on the same plane of immediacy and distance. They are instantaneously brought close and yet made alien, strange, seemingly far away. All sites on the Web, including literary works, dwell together as inhabitants of that non-spatial space we call cyberspace. Manipulating a computer is a radically di? erent bodily activity from holding a book in one’s hands and turning the pages one by one. I have earnestly tried to read literary works on the screen, for example Henry James’s The Sacred Fount. I happened at one moment not to have at hand a printed version of that work, but found one on the Web.
I found it di? cult to read it in that form. This no doubt identi? es me as someone whose bodily habits have been permanently wired by the age of the printed book. WHAT THEN IS LITERATURE? 12 On Literature If, on the one hand, literature’s time (as I began by saying) is nearly up, if the handwriting is on the wall, or rather if the pixels are on the computer screen, on the other hand, literature or “the literary” is (as I also began by saying) universal and perennial. It is a certain use of words or other signs that exists in some form or other in any human culture at any time.
Literature in the ? rst sense, as a Western cultural institution, is a special, historically conditioned form of literature in the second sense. In the second sense, literature is a universal aptitude for words or other signs to be taken as literature. About the political and social utility, import, e? ectiveness of literature I shall write later, in Chapter 4, “Why Read Literature? ” At this point my goal is to identify what sort of thing literature is. What then is literature? What is that “certain use of words or other signs” we call literary? What does it mean to take a text “as literature”?
These questions have often been asked. They almost seem like non-questions. Everyone knows what literature is. It is all those novels, poems, and plays that are designated as literature by libraries, by the media, by commercial and university presses, and by teachers and scholars in schools and universities. To say that does not help much, however. It suggests that literature is whatever is designated as literature. There is some truth to that. Literature is whatever bookstores put in the shelves marked “Literature” or some subset of that: “Classics,” “Poetry,” “Fiction,” “Mysteries,” and so on.
It is nevertheless also the case that certain formal features allow anyone dwelling within Western culture to say with conviction, “This is a novel,” or “This is a poem,” or “This is a play. ” Title pages, aspects of print format, for example the printing of poetry in lines with capitals at the beginning of each line, are as important in segregating literature from other print forms as internal features of language that tell the adept reader he or she has a literary work in hand.
The co-presence of all these features allows certain collocations of 13 What is Literature? printed words to be taken as literature. Such writings can be used as literature, by those who are adept at doing that. What does it mean to “use a text as literature”? Readers of Proust will remember the account at the beginning of A la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past) of the magic lantern his hero, Marcel, had as a child. It projected on Marcel’s walls and even on his doorknob images of the villainous Golo and the unfortunate Genevieve de Brabant, brought into his bedroom from the Merovingian past.
My version of that was a box of stereopticon photographs, probably by Matthew Brady, of American Civil War scenes. As a child, I was allowed to look at these at my maternal grandparents’ farm in Virginia. My great-grandfather was a soldier in the Confederate Army. I did not know that then, though I was told that a great-uncle had been killed in the Second Battle of Bull Run. I remember in those awful pictures as much the dead horses as the bodies of dead soldiers. Far more important for me as magic lanterns, however, were the books my mother read to me and that I then learned to read for myself.
When I was a child I did not want to know that The Swiss Family Robinson had an author. To me it seemed a collection of words fallen from the sky and into my hands. Those words allowed me magical access to a pre-existing world of people and their adventures. The words transported me there. The book wielded what Simon During, in Modern Enchantments, calls in his subtitle, “the cultural power of secular magic. ” I am not sure, however, that secular and sacred magics can be all that easily distinguished.
This other world I reached through reading The Swiss Family Robinson, it seemed to me, did not depend for its existence on the words of the book, even though those words were my only window on that virtual reality. The 14 On Literature LITERATURE AS A CERTAIN USE OF WORDS Literature exploits a certain potentiality in human beings as sign-using animals. A sign, for example a word, functions in the absence of the thing named to designate that thing, to “refer to it,” as linguists say. Reference is an inalienable aspect of words.
When we say that a word functions in the absence of the thing to name the thing, the natural assumption is that the thing named exists. It is really there, somewhere or other, perhaps not all that far away. We need words or other signs to substitute for things while those things are temporarily absent. If I am out walking, for example, and see a sign with the 15 What is Literature? window, I would now say, no doubt shaped that reality through various rhetorical devices. The window was not entirely colorless and transparent. I was, however, blissfully unaware of that.
I saw through the words to what seemed to me beyond them and not dependent on them, even though I could get there in no other way than by reading those words. I resented being told that the name on the title page was that of the “author” who had made it all up. Whether many other people have had the same experience, I do not know, but I confess to being curious to ? nd out. It is not too much to say that this whole book has been written to account for this experience. Was it no more than childish naivete, or was I responding, in however childish a way, to something essential about literature? Now I am older and wiser.
I know that The Swiss Family Robinson was written in German by a Swiss author, Johann David Wyss (1743 –1818), and that I was reading an English translation. Nevertheless, I believe my childhood experience had validity. It can serve as a clue to answering the question, “What is literature? ” word “Gate,” I assume that somewhere nearby is an actual gate that I can see with my eyes and grasp with my hands to open or shut it, once I get in sight of it and get my hands on it. This is especially the case if the word “Gate” on the sign is accompanied by a pointing arrow and the words “?
mile,” or something of the sort. The real, tangible, usable gate is a quarter of a mile away, out of sight in the woods. The sign, however, promises that if I follow the arrow I shall soon be face to face with the gate. The word “gate” is charged with signifying power by its reference to real gates. Of course, the word’s meaning is also generated by that word’s place in a complex di? erential system of words in a given language. That system distinguishes “gate” from all other words. The word “gate,” however, once it is charged with signi? cance by its reference to real gates, retains its signi?
cance or signifying function even if the gate is not there at all. The sign has meaning even if it is a lie put up by someone to lead me astray on my walk. The word “Gate” on the sign then refers to a phantom gate that is not there anywhere in the phenomenal world. Literature exploits this extraordinary power of words to go on signifying in the total absence of any phenomenal referent. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s quaint terminology, literature makes use of a “non-transcendent” orientation of words. Sartre meant by this that the words of a literary work do not transcend themselves toward the phenomenal things to which they refer.
The whole power of literature is there in the simplest word or sentence used in this ? ctitious way. Franz Kafka testi? ed to this power. He said that the entire potentiality of literature to create a world out of words is there in a sentence like, “He opened the window. ” Kafka’s ? rst great masterpiece, “The Judgment,” uses that power at 16 On Literature the end of its ? rst paragraph. There the protagonist, Georg Bendemann, is shown sitting “with one elbow propped on his desk . . . looking out the window at the river, the bridge, and the hills on the farther bank with their tender green.
” Stephane Mallarme gave witness to the same amazing magic of words, in this case a single word. In a famous formulation, he pronounced: “I say: a ? ower! and, outside the forgetting to which my voice relegates any contour, in the form of something other than known callices, musically there rises, the suave idea itself, the absence of all bouquets. ” Words used as signi? ers without referents generate with amazing ease people with subjectivities, things, places, actions, all the paraphernalia of poems, plays, and novels with which adept readers are familiar.