The Hatred of Literature, by William Marx

Book of the week: A study marries passion and wit as it takes on the enemies of the canon, says Gary Day

February 1, 2018
Book burning
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Is there such a thing as the hatred of literature? William Marx seems to think that there is. I am not so sure. Hatred suggests a depth of passion that the enemies of literature generally lack. They seem incapable of finding any value in great works other than a strictly utilitarian one, and that rarely. Hence the then French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s bewilderment, in 2006, on discovering that an examination for administrative officers included a question on the early novel, almost certainly written by the Comtesse de La Fayette, La Princesse de Clèves (1678). “How often have you asked a ticket clerk what she thinks of [that novel]?” he inquired, no doubt in a spirit of satire. Civil servants should be promoted on the basis of their skill and expertise, not “their ability to stuff their heads with useless cultural knowledge”.

Marx gives an absorbing account of this episode. Obviously pleased with his display of wit, Sarkozy repeated it on a number of occasions, with suitable embellishments. The person who set the exam question was a “sadist” and the president himself confessed that La Princesse de Clèves had made him “suffer” – which, let’s not forget, is a relative term. At stake in this debate was not just the use or uselessness of literature for specific occupations, but also what kind of knowledge served to bind a nation together.

Samuel Johnson once said the life of a people lay in its literature, a notion that underpinned the development of English studies at the beginning of the 20th century but that has now fallen into abeyance. The ultimate effect of Sarkozy’s sneering remarks about La Princesse de Clèves was to boost its sales, prompt public readings and media discussions and have it added to the prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, “the ultimate recognition for a French author”.

One can only conclude that literature thrives on “hatred”. Marx takes the term from the novelist Gustave Flaubert, who had a notoriously exalted conception of his calling. His fellow author, Émile Zola, reports that Flaubert was infuriated by bourgeois blankness in the face of great art. Surprisingly for a man who strove for precision in his use of words, Flaubert repeatedly referred to this incomprehension as “the hatred of literature”.

Despite its apparent simplicity, hatred is a complex emotion: a volatile compound of fear, misunderstanding and hostility as well as suppressed desire. It is a pity that Marx does not bring these different meanings of hatred into play as it might well have resulted in a more nuanced account of the relationship between literature and its detractors. Instead, he accepts the term at face value and simply shows how literature’s enemies have tried to sully its reputation. To condemn it for telling lies is to define it as untruthful; to protest that it corrupts the young and impressionable is to claim that it is immoral; and, the clincher, to denounce it as futile is to rob it of its power to inspire, challenge or transport us.

Marx gives plenty of examples of all these boringly familiar charges against literature. Pope Gregory the Great objected to pagan authors, on the grounds that they used eloquence to spread deceit. In the 17th century, Tanneguy Le Fèvre wrote that classical “poetry can only be much loved by those who overindulge in their free time”, but he conceded that it was useful for learning languages. Marx characterises this approach to literature as a form of “bourgeois calculation”, a means of adding up the profit and loss in studying poetry. A similar mindset can be found in that most misunderstood of English critics, F. R. Leavis, who sought to develop a technique of reading that would save students from “profitless memorising”, leaving them “better equipped to profit from literature”. Although Marx doesn’t say so, Leavis is an interesting case because his work is both a brilliant defence of literature, and an illustration of its entanglement in the economic thinking from which he tried to free it.

Marx is merciless in his demolition of the various “hatreds” of literature. The philosopher Gregory Currie comes in for particular scorn. Marx is irritated by Currie’s claim that novels peddle a false psychology. For example, they often show characters’ actions as the result of their conscious will when in fact “the decisive influence comes from our environment”. Readers are therefore wasting their time if they look to novels for psychological insight. So what, responds Marx, there are plenty of things that we don’t find in a novel – how to fix a tap, for example. He sarcastically concedes that we don’t find much in Marcel Proust about the altruistic properties of coffee – a reference to Currie’s claim that the beverage promotes social sympathy. And you can sense that he has almost reached boiling point as he relays Currie’s solemn observation that “our conscious decisions are not what bring about our actions but are a product of the underlying and unconscious causes of the actions themselves”.

“You don’t say!” Marx declares, pointing out, quite rightly, that this is a commonplace of literary criticism. It is also the foundation stone of psychoanalysis, with Sigmund Freud maintaining that he simply followed in the poets’ footsteps. All restraint finally vanishes when Currie mentions a study that claims that most writers suffer from a form of psychopathology. “It is flabbergasting to find so many prejudices, outrageous remarks and simply naïve statements concentrated into two pages,” Marx thunders. Now there’s passion for you.

His book is a sparkling constellation of wit, learning and insight. For example, the contemporary anxiety about teaching certain books for fear of offending students’ sensibilities is a symptom of our reductive view of literature, one in which society only ever finds a flattering image of itself. Marx’s words are worth quoting in full: “To refuse literature the right to shock, provoke and make people uncomfortable is to impose upon it the constantly redefined duty of offering readers only what they expect – what they can accept, understand, and absorb. It is to refuse the power of reading to confront us with alterity.” Absolutely.

You can find similar sentiments in Leavis. Marx offers an original take on his “Two Cultures” dispute with the scientist and novelist C. P. Snow, exposing the bias behind Snow’s apparently even-handed approach to the divide between science and the humanities and also identifying a strain of homophobia that he thinks is common to “haters” of literature. He often finds this po-faced breed très amusant because their lack of self-awareness means that they unwittingly use literary techniques to make their anti-literary case. Plato not only relied on dramatic dialogue for his philosophy, he also concluded The Republic – in which he banished poets from his ideal state – with the poetic myth of Er.

Literature is inescapable, narrative is our default mode of communication. This means that literature is so much more than the “remainder” that Marx says it is after it has been stripped of its claims to truth, morality and social glue. Of course Marx recognises this – “Literature exists to fill us with wonder” – but in the end he spends too much time on “hatred” rather than on love and, for that, he doesn’t quite get full marks.

Gary Day is the author of The Story of Drama: Tragedy, Comedy and Sacrifice from the Greeks to the Present (2016).

The Hatred of Literature
By William Marx; translated by Nicholas Elliott
Harvard University Press, 240pp, £23.95
ISBN 9780674976122
Published 26 January 2018

William Marx

The author

William Marx, professor of comparative literature at Paris Nanterre University, was born in the small medieval city of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, in Provence, but grew up in Marseilles – a city “obsessed with its prestigious Greek past”, which he suspects “had some influence on my own fascination with classical antiquity”.

A graduate of the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where his curriculum ranged from the classics to French literature, Marx relished “the intellectual freedom” that he found there and went on to pursue doctoral studies in comparative literature at Paris-Sorbonne University – Paris 4, wanting “to be able to write freely on any literary topic, from any area, from any time, whenever I felt the need”.

Always interested in “the variations and mutations of the status, the function and the very concept of literature throughout centuries and across cultures”, Marx published a book called L’Adieu à la littérature (2005), exploring “the story of those writers who condemned literature and quit writing”. The Hatred of Literature forms a kind of a sequel looking at “the condemnations of literature [that] are not internal, but external, as they come from people outside literature”.

Convinced that literature as an art form will always exist, Marx is delighted whenever “literary works provoke some scandal” because this is a tribute to the “power they have”. Yet he worries about the internet’s impact: “the very proliferation of screens and the ubiquity of social networks make it very difficult, especially for young generations, to find the mental concentration that is required to read literature”. He is equally concerned about developments in literary studies such as “the dilution of literature departments into larger units”, and he believes that “the growing indifference to foreign and/or ancient languages and literatures is also a serious problem if we really want to foster an awareness of humankind in its diversity”.

Matthew Reisz

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