Expanding the range of vicarious experience

Literature Lost
December 12, 1997

In clear, unruffled yet often trenchant prose, John Ellis, emeritus professor of German literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz, submits the new orthodoxy of race-gender-class literary criticism to "the systematic scrutiny it did not get on its way to the top".

He begins by looking back, not for purposes of nostalgia, but in order to grasp more clearly the character of the change that has been taking place in the teaching of literature in the academy. The tendency to attack one's own culture by comparing it to supposedly simpler societies is as old as Tacitus's naive evaluation of the Germanic tribes, but, in Ellis's opinion, it was Rousseau who did remarkable damage by romanticising human nature, acclaiming some prelapsarian era that helped prepare the way for cultural diversity (a celebration of difference that tends to denigrate western society) and political correctness (an overemphasis on the degrees of this difference that, in the view of Ellis, just plain ignores human nature). Political correctness may have reached one of its peaks during the observance of the 500th anniversary of Columbus's visit to the Caribbean, which gave privilege to encounter over discovery, genocide over 16th-century standards of hygiene and practices of bellicosity, and environmental purity over obviously low-density use. Ellis reminds us that pre-Colombian as well as third-world cultures are politically incorrect to a shocking degree.

Literature might make nothing happen, but everything happens within it. The range of vicarious experience in literature from the Odyssey to Cervantes to Wallace Stevens encompasses more than one could undergo in a single lifetime. Literature expands limits and offers challenges, it delights and debunks. Furthermore, literature texts are all different and offer a stimulating array of rhetorical devices with which to challenge one's wits. Thus the view of literature that the race-gender-class approach overrides in favour of an agenda that will come up with ready-made answers, insists that we are reading for gender and power even when we do not realise it. Ellis does not quote her, but the female Irish poet Eavan Boland deftly makes the contrary point: "Ideology is unambiguous; poetry is not" (Object Lessons, 1995).

To the much-touted contention that criticism inevitably involves a political act, Ellis responds that the presence of a political dimension in reading, writing and interpreting is not uniformly important for all occasions and, indeed, is often trivial. Furthermore, the race-gender-class orthodoxy reduces the content of politics to oppression (the establishment, males, heterosexuals, the imperial West) and victimology (women, homosexuals, marginal cultures). Feminists in particular often place themselves in a "victim-centred framework", and the excessive weight they give to their status as victims helps to perpetuate the stereotype they are trying to overcome. An ironic example of the patriarchy at its patronising best was the reluctance to attack feminist research in the early stages. It ultimately befell feminists to attack each other. Foucault's influential discussion of power as the driving force in human situations suffers from what logicians call the fallacy of the single factor, the all-or-nothing logic that excuses its users from a more arduous thought process.

The Enlightenment accentuated reason, stressed the possibility of self-improvement through education, and assumed a sense of common humanity. The spread of these ideas has been a significant aspect of modernisation, and Ellis uses them again and again as a touchstone. He notes the irony attached to the fact that those who profess cultural relativism and a solidarity with non-western cultures are "enforcers" of the Enlightenment's cultural revolutions. The charge of racism implies a common sense of humanity; at the same time group membership can isolate and diminish the sense of common humanity.

Ellis bewails the kind of research done by campus activists who work in a results-oriented climate. Gone is the notion of research motivated solely by intellectual curiosity, unfettered by preset directions, willing to endure the clash of opposing view-points without labelling the opposition immoral. The principle of open-minded research is especially important to the humanities that do not enjoy the empirical endorsement that accompanies investigation in the science.

Can the blame for this doleful situation be laid upon theory? The author, who is responsible for the section on theory in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993), says the problem is not theory, but bad theory. "With every attentive look at the world we are theorising," Ellis quotes Goethe. The general and the particular blend in most exercises, but current theory prefers to move only from the general to the particular; it knows the right answer ahead of time. The exercise of current theory turns literary critics into second-rate philosophers, quasi-linguists or unabashed sociologists who have never done any field work.

It is still unclear how this baleful influence, originating largely in the Sorbonne, so easily prevailed in United States literature departments in the 1970s. A stagnant setting that revolved all too often around uninspired rereadings of the canon suddenly had to deal with Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, who in turn were reacting with Gallic eclat against the extremely conservative French tradition of literary study.

Ellis finds the outlook gloomy. The new orthodoxy has created new departments, supported by administrations. Graduate schools have trained young faculty members in the approaches Ellis deplores. The attack on the canon, deconstruction's denial of meaning, the gender-race-class sense of conspiracy: all have contributed to a breakdown of the discipline of English, German, French and Spanish literature. Breadth is gone (survey courses are considered shallow), and students at all levels are offered the results of very small and sometimes strange gardens.

One of the opponents of this book wondered in the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education (October 3, 1997) why Yale University Press bothered to print such tripe. The question itself, about an exposition so intelligent and elegant, whose caustic remarks are more satisfyingly dry than those of its adversaries, eloquently underlines the situation that Ellis has so cogently examined.

Howard Young is professor of romance languages, Pomona College, Claremont, California.

Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities

Author - John M. Ellis
ISBN - 0 300 06920 0
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £17.50
Pages - 262

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