Monday, March 16, 2015

Reading Literature Any Old Way You Like

Academic Research

A Few Of My Books. This represents one of my many bookshelves that line the walls of our two-bedroom apartment; books of science co-exist harmoniously with books of literature, from Dickens to Dawkins, from Pushkin to Pinker—I would think and expect that many would agree that knowledge from both arts and science is worth reading and considering, and, perhaps, worth enjoying.
Photo Credit & Source: (c) Perry J. Greenbaum, 2015


A number of years ago, a friend remarked that he no longer had any love to read literature, having lost this desire by having done a graduate degree in English literature. I was then considering a graduate degree in English literature, and found his response disheartening. I did not pursue this idea, and I am glad that I have not; and it is likely that I never will, given how literature departments view and teach literature.

Not only literature it must be added, but the whole academic branch of humanities has for the last number of decades viewed the text , music and other modes of communication as a rich source to mine and interpret in accordance with a particular political and socio-economic view of the world. When one talks about humanities one is generally referring to the study of how humans interact and influence culture, whether this is through language, religion, writing, painting, history, philosophy or music.

In an age where relevance and practicality reign supreme, at a time where young minds want to better their chances at a good well-paying career, and at a time where many PhDs in English cannot find a tenured position, it would seem ill-advised to sign up for a degree in literature, philosophy or creative arts. That humanities departments feel under attack is not new; such has been the case for more than a century, since the late 1880s, when science gained importance and prominence with each new discovery and advancement that bettered the human condition and generated excitement.

In From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (2000), Jacques Barzun, a professor of history at Columbia University, writes:
It would be wrong to suppose that the scientists went out of their way to maim or kill the humanists. The latter's wounds were self-inflicted. In the hope of of rivaling science, of becoming sciences, the humanities gave up their birthright. By teaching college students the methods of minute scholarship, they denatured the contents and obscured the virtues of liberal studies.
“Research” was the deceptive word that made humanists devote their efforts exclusively to digging out facts about their subjects without ever getting back into it. (606–7)
The “research” is influenced by literary theories. In the reading of literature today there are the numerous literary theories, the three major branches are Marxist, Feminism and Postmodernism, with each school having sub-branches like post-colonial studies, gender studies and cultural studies. The working argument is that such theories are necessary to understand the literary work, or work of literature. Thus, theorists devoted to a particular school of literary thought apply and debate with passion and zeal, as if the literature ought to be viewed like a science, but debated like a religion or ideology. I can understand why such school of thought were organized, but I cannot necessarily see their importance.

Take Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a book that I read some years ago and enjoyed. Applying Feminist theory to its protagonist will give a different understanding of Emma Bovary’s actions than applying Marxist theory. And if you bring in gender and cultural studies, her actions, considered scandalous and morally wrong by respectable persons at the time the book was published in 1856, would today be viewed by some as necessary and courageous, given her “imprisonment” as a wife of a provincial doctor and her need for excitement as a counterweight to the boredom of life.

Think of what can be done to another of my favourites, Doestoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, published in 1866. Instead of viewing Raskolnikov as the cold-blooded murderer that he was, if one applies for example, Marxist theory, it is easy to be sympathetic to Raskolnikov as an impoverished student who needed money. That he murdered two persons, Alyona Ivanovna (“a Jew” and “an awful old harpy”) and her half-sister by a different mother, Lizaveta Ivanovna ( “a good-natured face and eyes”), are not as important as the idea that his “need for money” is itself a particular crime dictated by social and economic inequalities.

Is murder, theft and adultery wrong? I think so; these are not victimless crimes. It is easy to see how applying current literary theories into older, classical works, can be problematic, the ideas emanating from such close readings and analysis can lead to a far different understanding of what the author originally intended and what society then considered important.

But we have gone deeper into the rabbit hole. Literary critics often say it is irrelevant what the author originally thought or wrote, on what is called authorial intent; the work is a living document and can be read in light of modern ideas and theories and where individual readers can and ought to form their own opinions about a particular work. This idea was put forth by Roland Barthes, a French literary critic, in his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author.” He and Michel Foucault were influential in how literature was studied, leading to the formation of what is called the poststructuralist movement.

Many others followed, leading to incomprehensible and nonsensical language. The aim, it seems, is not to communicate. The book to read is Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (1997) by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, both whom are physicists.

With so many theories—many political and without reason—applied to the “close reading” of literature, what can initially start off as a love affair can quickly sour. Literature and the reading of it no longer is done for enjoyment or to educate the mind in a broad way, but to turn the mind to a narrow political bent that matches that of the professor. Small wonder, then, that the humanities in general is suffering and considered irrelevant by scientists. The blame lies in the people who have lead such programs into a sea of disconnect with today’s modern civilization.

In a much-discussed and -debated article (“Science Is Not Your Enemy; August 6, 2013) in The New Republic, Steven Pinker writes:
Diagnoses of the malaise of the humanities rightly point to anti-intellectual trends in our culture and to the commercialization of our universities. But an honest appraisal would have to acknowledge that some of the damage is self-inflicted. The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness. And they have failed to define a progressive agenda. Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done.
The humanities as a group has tried to become, in the last fifty years, what it can never become: a serious scientific discipline without taking any notice of the facts of science and the role that science and in particular applied science play in today’s modern society. So, it has entered and remained in the realm of the absurd and nonsensical, not to be taken seriously. It has failed, and miserably so, I must add, with sadness. Not only the failure, but the waste of time and resources and the indoctrination of students, who become professors, and repeat the same mistakes in thinking, or not thinking clearly. That many adopt Leftist thinking as their political view is not surprising; it is as if they have no choice if they want to be taken seriously by their literary peers in the academy.

It’s disheartening to view such a sight from otherwise fairly intelligent people, but who often lack the understanding of science and the scientific method. Literature ought to be enjoyable, but it can only be so when free from the weight and burden of unnecessary restrictions; humanities departments have become what they should have never become: oppressive restrictive places of inquiry. It has been ruled by, as Gary Saul Morson, says in a New Criterion piece, “the tyranny of theory.”

I agree that reading and understanding literature can act as moral guide, and that a classical liberal arts education can be a balance to a society devoted to science and technology. As much as I respect science and see its need, society needs the humanities. I am not so sure, however, that today’s literary theories help this cause.It seems that, for the most part, they only add to the chaos and confusion, and do not. It is my informed view that literature has an important place in modern society, notably in one influenced and devoted to technology. The best literature, including the Russian masterpieces like Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment and Fathers and Sons act as thought pieces on the moral human condition. That is, they provide important insights into the universal rules that guide us as moral human beings.

There might be some common ground, in that both science and the humanities, in the best of cases, are searching for some truth. Pinker in the same article noted above comes up with a suggestion for the humanities that can save it from itself, given the direction it has taken: join forces and work together with science—a consilience of knowledge— instead of considering science the enemy.
Those ways do deserve respect, and there can be no replacement for the varieties of close reading, thick description, and deep immersion that erudite scholars can apply to individual works. But must these be the only paths to understanding? A consilience with science offers the humanities countless possibilities for innovation in understanding. Art, culture, and society are products of human brains. They originate in our faculties of perception, thought, and emotion, and they cumulate and spread through the epidemiological dynamics by which one person affects others. Shouldn’t we be curious to understand these connections? Both sides would win. The humanities would enjoy more of the explanatory depth of the sciences, to say nothing of the kind of a progressive agenda that appeals to deans and donors. The sciences could challenge their theories with the natural experiments and ecologically valid phenomena that have been so richly characterized by humanists.
I do not completely agree with Pinker, since I consider the classical old-fashion view of humanities sufficient in its own right, the one that said reading ought to be enjoyable, that the text had something important to say way back then, and that we ought to understand original authorial intent. This does not suggest that we ought to agree with it, but we ought to at least understand the text, the story, the narrative, and the tenor of the times before we criticize the sum total of these or dismiss these outright. We ought to also guard ourselves about chronological snobbery, the easy and quick dismissal of ideas from the past.

Not that this old-school view is given much weight today. Even so, I doubt that this change in thinking that Pinker puts forth will occur anytime soon in most university humanities departments. The humanities will be burdened by the weight of critical theories, a weight that increases it seems yearly.

I still enjoy reading and discussing ideas. But I belong to no particular school of thought, nor do I see a need to be locked in to a narrow and fixed regime of ideas. This marks me as a contrarian, a label I wear well. So, until then, I will read my books in quiet solitude, and form my own opinions on why I enjoy them.

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For those interested in this interesting and important debate, there has been a rebuttal by Leon Wieseltier  (“Crimes Against Humanities”; September 3, 2013) and added commentary by both; see [New Republic].


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