Gary Day

April 25, 2003

It is vital that we allow the past to speak. A person without a memory has no identity, and the same applies to a culture

I suppose there will be some people who weren't unduly disturbed by the looting of Iraq's national treasures, those who in the educational world describe themselves as "futurists", for instance. Like their modernist counterparts, they abhor antiquity and revel in the new.

Unaware of the past, they can only repeat it. They say nothing that Filippo Marinetti didn't say at the start of the last century; and he at least said it well, even though he was deranged.

I just can't understand this antipathy to the past. For a start it's there, which is more than you can say about the future. And you can add to it, whereas you can only take away from the future. But, best of all, you can mould the past any way you like. You may try to shape the future, but it never quite turns out the way you want.

It's surprising then that, with all that it's got going for it, the past comes in for such a battering. Take literary critics or theorists or whatever they're called these days. Although they haven't invaded libraries, overturned shelves and made a bonfire of all the books, they have in their own way laid waste the literary traditions. What is it that these people have against literature? Are largely Oxbridge-educated critics repelled by its mainly lower-middle or working-class origins? Shakespeare, John Bunyan, Samuel Johnson, the Bront s, D. H. Lawrence? Or perhaps they object to its being written by men. But what about Margery Kempe, Aphra Benn, Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, Susan Hill?

And then there's the question of sexuality. Professors can take this very seriously indeed. A friend of mine didn't get a job because he was "weak on queer theory". He should have told them he was strong on the practice. The job? PGCE coordinator for English.

But the chief target in the campaign against literature is the idea of the literary itself. "I don't believe in the literary," says one eminent professor of literature. "How do I know that my shopping list isn't literary?" Well, how do you know it's not a train timetable either? Honestly. Anyway, I'm sure he'll be pleased to hear that the National Literacy Strategy is doing its bit to ensure that literature eventually disappears from the school curriculum.

The category of genius has already vanished. Participants in a recent radio discussion could barely tolerate the mention of the term. Granted it's hard to define. I'm certainly not a genius, but Michael Ventris, who deciphered Linear B, most probably was. His work is a reminder that the past still has things to say.

The opponents of literature prefer to silence it, but their arguments are loud with its echoes. Take just one example: the bad-tempered exchanges over whether the relationship of language to the world was natural or conventional can be traced back to Plato's dialogue Cratylus.

There is even a ritualistic quality to the activity of criticism. It's as if it's still governed by the rhythms of ancient festivals whose purpose was to ensure the continuity of the existing order by purging it of disruptive elements. The imaginative author and artistic unity were the scapegoats for the ills of English and were duly sacrificed. But the author died only to return as the theorist whose work was every bit as unified as the author's was supposed to have been.

What is to be gained by retiring words and concepts from the language? Are we any better off not reading William Langland or Charlotte Mew because they are not "relevant"? What is lost is not just the vast vocabulary of the past but the myriad imaginings that can give us a critical perspective on the present, which in turn informs our hopes for the future.

Literature is many things: a historical record, a utopian impulse, an attempt to avoid repetition, a reminder of the astonishing resources of the language, a release from the anxieties of self and a constant search for connections. The very demands it makes afford the intelligence some protection against the relentless calls upon it to conform. Those who dismiss the literary because it cannot be defined have already succumbed to the culture of transparency. So when they do venture into the realms of gold, they make King Lear speak with all the passion and conviction of a McDonald's employee wishing you a nice day.

It's not just a question of making the past speak, it's also a question of letting it speak. A person without a memory has no identity, and the same applies to a culture. Literary traditions are, in part, the sum of a culture's achievements, and to destroy them is to elide the difference between creativity and novelty, which isn't radical, just irresponsible.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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