, , , , , , , , , , ,

Many years ago, as a master’s student in development sociology, I took a course on nationalism with the late Benedict Anderson, renowned for his idea that the nation is an imagined community. The topic and the professor attracted a cross-disciplinary audience; about half of us students were in programs of sociology and political science, the other half in programs of literature. The distinction between the two, as I recall, became apparent when, from theorists and philosophers of nationalism, our reading turned to a work of literature, the sentimental anti-slavery novel Sab by Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda. We wrote brief papers articulating our reactions to and thoughts about the work. The social scientists were moved by it; one fellow sociologist said she cried while reading it. But the literary theorists, as I remember, all thought it was (in Anderson’s words) a “dreadful” novel, worthy of study merely as something symptomatic of its historical period, at best. I had taken other classes with several of them, and become friends with some, and it occurred to me that I had never heard one of these literature students express love for any work of literature, with the sole exception of Joyce’s Ulysses.

I thought of this experience as I read a recent piece by Jon Baskin, in which he recalls one of his own student experiences in a way that does a lot to explain mine:

I can still remember when, at the end of one of the departmental survey classes—our teachers having delivered a lecture on New Historicism as the culminating achievement of twentieth-century literary criticism—a student stood up in the back of the room. Nearly giving way to what seemed to me at the time (but not now) an embarrassing overflow of emotion, she accused the professors of “hating” literature. We had become English majors in the first place, she went on, not because novels and poems told us interesting things about history or politics but because they made us feel less alone, captivated us with their beauty, helped us to better know ourselves and the world. The professors, as far as I can remember, responded politely: after all, the student was only a sophomore. She would learn.

She would learn.

Sure, the student entered the study of English literature because she loved it and wanted to deepen her appreciation of its truths and its beauty. But give her time. After enough time spent in an English program learning from English professors, she would learn to lose that love, and replace it with detached historical criticism. Just like my colleagues in Anderson’s class: no longer mere sophomores, they had advanced to PhD programs, in which it was embarrassing to be moved by the suffering of a slave in a novel, the way we philistine sociologists were. They had learned. Or perhaps they hadn’t even had to learn; perhaps they had already entered their undergrad majors smarter than that foolish sophomore, already full of disdain for the juvenile idea that literature should be something that moves and uplifts and that the academic study of it should help us appreciate it.

So Baskin’s piece struck a chord with me, and led me to rethink some of my comments about literature from a few weeks ago. Benjamin Kinney (a longtime commenter on this blog who in the past just went by Ben) had pointed out the problem with Sumana Roy’s argument: in a sense it didn’t go far enough. He looked at Roy’s claim that “Cultured and Proper Literature dismisses the joyful and comedic” and noted that it “is not limited to postcolonialism nor India!”

He is right about that. If anything, he didn’t go far enough: many professors’ approach to literature and the humanities goes further even than dismissing the joyful and comedic (which Sab definitely is not). Consider the introduction to Matt Wilkens’s syllabus for a course in digital humanities, which I wrote about a few years ago, describing it as the “wholesale abolition” of the humanities. Yet what I considered abolition, Wilkens considered a taken-for-granted, matter-of-fact done deal, the consensus of what the humanities are now. His syllabus began with the assertion that “We long ago gave up the idea that our task was to appreciate and explain a handful of great texts, replacing that goal with a much more important and ambitious one: to understand cultural production as a whole by way of the aesthetic objects it creates”, and took that as a starting point for a course on the digital tools that would aid with that second goal. Here it’s not just the appreciation of joy and comedy, but of anything at all in the texts, that “we long ago gave up”. Why would literature professors bother teaching anyone to appreciate literature when they could “understand cultural production”?

This is an area where I think analytic philosophers deserve praise: when they read Kant and Mill, it’s not to view them as sites for the historical production of power relations, but because they think Kant and Mill might be right. Thus Van Norden’s book rightly notes that one of the salutary things about academic philosophy as a profession is that it is still willing to take a hermeneutic of faith rather than viewing everything with pure suspicion. But in making that claim it notes that philosophy is quite unusual among humanities disciplines in taking that approach.

Ashley Barnes responded to Baskin by saying “history does not have to be seen as an enemy to art”. I agree with Barnes that we can appreciate literature better and more fully with the help of history. The issue is just that, as far as I can tell, most academic literary scholars don’t. Rather, the New Historicism and related still-dominant theoretical movements tell us not to appreciate literature and art, but instead to work in Wilkens’s dreary paradigm of “understanding cultural production” as a site of political power. (I could see the value in the latter task if it had ever clearly brought about beneficial political change, but I see little evidence for that; if anything it may have done the opposite.) I’m no New Critic; I am all for an approach to literature that sees history as enhancing our appreciation of it. (I think the same is true of philosophy, and many of my critiques of analytic philosophy come from that direction.) It’s just that, as Baskin sees, that’s not what we see in academic literature departments.

What does it mean to have history enhance our appreciation? Barnes has several interesting ideas about this. For me, I turn from the New Historicism to an Old Historicism, thinking in particular of one of historicism’s founders, Johann Gottfried Herder (an underrated 18th-century German philosopher whom I’ve mentioned in other contexts). Herder’s wonderful little essay on Shakespeare was written at a time when Shakespeare was often judged against classical Greek standards and found lacking. Herder’s love of Shakespeare radiates throughout his joyful prose, and he defends Shakespeare by saying: different historical times look at art and literature differently. The Greeks had their standards of good poetry, and we speakers of Germanic languages in the 18th century have our own. We interfere with our appreciation of Shakespeare if we try to judge him by Greek standards; we need to recognize that historical difference to appreciate him appropriately. The converse of Herder’s view is that we can appreciate classical works more if we learn what the standards of their own historical times were, and view them in the light of those; and history also reminds us of the characteristics of our own times, and what we need in literature now.

Speaking of what we need now: It was striking to me to see Roy’s and Baskin’s pieces follow each other in succession, a bemoaning of literary scholars’ hatred of literature in multiple places right at this moment. It could be a coincidence, but I wonder whether in the pandemic era, literature, like philosophy, is one of the relatively few real pleasures we have entirely available to us right now when everything else is cancelled. So it feels particularly painful when those select few who are lucky and privileged enough to be able to study and teach literature for a living, rather than using that privilege to help the rest of us love and appreciate that literature, instead turn to that literature with an attitude of smug condescension that views it merely as a site of power.