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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Book review: 'The Hatred of Literature' by William Marx

Great writing has always invited harsh criticism and made authors mortal enemies, but in the case of William Marx’s critique, more rigour is required

Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle debate in Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ frieze at the Vatican, painted about 1510. Getty
Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle debate in Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ frieze at the Vatican, painted about 1510. Getty

Literature, in this age, is often regarded as an edifying art. For the British academic and critic John Carey, the written word – whether rendered in poetic or novelistic form – is distinguished from other art forms by virtue of its ability to criticise, moralise, and argue against itself. The American scholar Harold Bloom once argued that it was William Shakespeare who was responsible for making us fully human.

Clive James and Martin Amis, drawing on a critical tradition that was amplified, if not inaugurated, by F R Leavis, have each built their careers on the principle that inspired writing, along with the critical tradition it engenders, is essential to the health of civilisation. And more recently James Wood has ventured that it is in the 19th century novel that we encounter humanity’s most potent recoil from – and resistance to – the lexis of punishment inscribed in scripture. The conjuring of other worlds, particularly in the form of the novel, is, for Wood, the great medium of human sympathy and forgiveness. It is for this reason that, in obeisance to George Eliot, he titled his latest collection of essays The Nearest Thing to Life (2015).

It is easy to assume that these valuations of language-based art have a short history. And it is true that when the philosopher Thomas Case discovered, late in the 19th century, that the school of English at Oxford had resolved to admit to its curriculum the study of Anglo Saxon letters, he worried that the university was about to foster a culture that – in “nourishing our language not from the humanity of the Greeks and Romans, but from the savagery of the Goths” – was “about to reverse the Renaissance”.

Yet even at that time, views such as those exemplified by Case were far from regnant. We sometimes think of the 19th century as an age that was distinguished by its hostility to fictional narrative. There was an epoch for which the novel was frivolous and effeminate, an awakener of pernicious diversion and profane desires. But in roughly the same period, plenty were prepared to describe these creations as a moral force. Charles Dickens considered the art of story to be one of probity and social value, not least because of its potential to alleviate the burden of having to endure life’s daily and great torments. For George Eliot, the linguistic reinvention of life was to be cherished as an enlarger of sympathies.

Even in the 19th century, which saw the great blooming of the English novel, these positions were not wholly new. When John Milton wrote Areopagitica in 1644 he named the figures he considered to be humanity’s greatest teachers. In doing so, he chose not the theologians Duns Scotus or Thomas Aquinas – among the 17th century’s usual touchstones for ethical instruction – but the poet Edmund Spenser. The rhetorician George Puttenham and the poet and theorist Sir Philip Sidney made similar arguments about their contemporaries and predecessors. The textually limned world, even in the 16th and 17th centuries, could be viewed as an improving force.

Milton, Puttenham and Sidney knew they were being provocative in adopting this stance. For in tandem, and as a prelude, to their apologies for what we would now term literature (the category was not recognised as discrete in the early modern period), there ran and stood a vision of the pursuit that regarded it with fear and suspicion – or, to use the term adopted by William Marx in his new, derivative and uneven account of the phenomenon, with hatred.

This animus, as Marx laboriously demonstrates, stretched at least as far back as Plato and his predecessor Xenophanes of Colophon (c 570 to 470 BCE). For Xenophanes, poetry inspired by the Muses (as opposed to by the gods) was denigrated as being of “no use” in the quest for virtue. For Plato, it was to be distrusted on the grounds that it posed a threat to the collective cognitive order and social subservience he thought the populace of his ideal city ought to exemplify. It gave, to put it crudely, people ideas about themselves.

Having adduced these critiques, Marx rehearses along familiar lines the arguments that, from the philosophers of ancient Greece to 20th century figures such as C P Snow (he of the “Two Cultures” controversy) and Nicolas Sarkozy, have cast literary endeavour as a threat to truth, rectitude, and social stability. In chronicling their history and interplay, Marx offers a number of objections to their nature and waning tenacity, arguing that invective against literature has paradoxically affirmed the power and the importance of the medium it was attempting to deny. The result is little more than a compendium of overstatement, melodrama and banality so arranged and articulated as to put one in mind of oppressive weather. We open with blustery hysteria: “Literature is a source of scandal … Reader, be warned: if you do not want to be scandalised, throw out this book before it is too late.” Crikey.

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This burst of excitement is then followed by a series of drizzly misreadings (ancient philosophers, we are told, denied literature “any claim to authority” – wrong: they ascribed it too much), damp hypotheses (“If there had been no literature, anti-literature would eventually have invented it”), and a looming cloudscape of wearying fatuity and irritating solecism. We are informed, for example, that there occurs in writing “a change of identity as soon as … one is no longer able to speak in one’s own name but [only by] borrowing someone else’s words”.

A 300-line passage from The Iliad is described as “interminable”. Marx then adds to this meteorological gloom by delivering a sequence of rumbling sententiae concerning what he takes to be the special qualities of the imaginatively used word. The reader is here struck with the lightning-bolt observation that “literature is the sleep of reason”.

Oh no it isn’t.

The present volume, on the other hand, is at its worst almost supernaturally soporific. Literature could benefit yet from a crisp, fresh and robust consideration of its uniquely edifying climate. With friends like Marx on its side, one feels it might more fruitfully be grateful for its foes.

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