Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities, by John M. Ellis, New Haven: Yale University Press, 262 pages, $25.00
The title of John M. Ellis's Literature Lost calls to mind a story about the novelist Bernard Malamud. Malamud was carrying the completed manuscript of a new book with him on a New York subway. Somehow or other, he got off the train, having left the manuscript behind. As with most things forgotten on a New York subway, it never surfaced again. There are other such cases of "literature lost": T.E. Lawrence famously mislaid his first version of Seven Pillars of Wisdom (also on a train--perhaps writers should only travel by foot); a draft of Jean Genet's novel Our Lady of the Flowers, written on paper bags while in prison, was destroyed by malicious guards; Aristotle's legendary treatise on comedy--around which Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose revolves--has never turned up. In such literal instances of "literature lost," a text, or version of a text, is gone forever, living on only as a tantalizing possibility in the reader's imagination.
Ellis, of course, is making a different sort of allusion, one that invokes Paradise Lost, Milton's epic "of man's first disobedience." For Ellis, the original sin of today's academics is highly politicized criticism that seeks first and foremost to evaluate literature based on whether it conforms to current notions of social justice. Literature Lost is an eminently readable, insightful, and thought-provoking book that goes far beyond the often touristy and shallow journalistic critiques of academic political correctness by people such as Dinesh D'Souza, Richard Bernstein, Thomas Sowell, and Charles Sykes.
This should hardly be surprising: As a professor emeritus of German at the University of California at Santa Cruz and the author of 1989's Against Deconstruction, Ellis is not simply better versed in au courant academic argot; he has a much deeper knowledge of the culture of literature departments and of university life. And, to his credit, Ellis is anything but a reactionary ideologue. Indeed, the great virtue of Literature Lost is that it engages in extended, informed, and open argument. Hence, though he openly scorns deconstruction, New Historicism, and other forms of literary criticism that have risen to power over the past two decades or so, Ellis can also acknowledge that the influence of thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault "energized" a "stagnant situation" in the field of literary studies. The result is a book that is both an excellent introduction to its topic and a nuanced polemic of interest to academic readers of all persuasions.
Ultimately, Ellis is writing less about literature being "lost" and more about its being displaced by other, nonliterary concerns. (His subtitle also misdirects the reader--though it invokes the "corruption of the humanities," the book is devoted exclusively to literary studies.) "In a comparatively short time, academic literary criticism has been transformed," he writes. "Many [critics] now regard social activism as the major purpose of literary criticism, and social activism of a very specific kind: the primary issue in all literary texts is the question of oppression by virtue of race, gender, and class." If possible, Ellis is understating things when he notes that the dictum "everything is `in the last analysis' political" has become a bedrock assumption in literary criticism.
Contrary to writers such as Roger Kimball, Ellis does not simply attribute the current emphasis on race, gender, and class to tenured radicals who came of age in the 1960s and their graduate-student protégés. Provocatively, Ellis suggests that although "those in the grip [of race-gender-class criticism] are critical of the Western tradition and define themselves by their opposition to it...the impulse itself is so much a part of the Western tradition that the attitudes it generates can be said to be quintessentially Western."
Invoking such figures as Tacitus (the first-century A.D. historian who measured the decadence of his native Romans against fictively democratic and virtuous Germanic barbarians), Rousseau (who invidiously compared 18th-century Frenchmen to imagined, pre-social Noble Savages), and Margaret Mead (whose "sentimentalized Samoans" provided an ideological counterpoint to repressive Americans), Ellis sketches out a "uniquely self-critical" attitude of the West.
Indeed, he even notes that the crimes of which the West stands accused--racism, sexism, colonialism, etc.--are essentially transgressions against universal rights that are themselves products of the Enlightenment. In a sense, Ellis implicitly likens the current state of literary studies to another artifact of Enlightenment thought: the French Revolution. Just as that attempt to secure the "rights of man" ended in a bloody reign of terror, so too, suggests Ellis, are contemporary literary studies devouring their own.
Treating literature as exclusively--or ultimately--political
yields various baleful effects, says Ellis, who wisely acknowledges
that literature often does have a significant political dimension.
From a professional perspective, such an approach denigrates the
tools of literary analysis in favor of those from other fields.
"Race-gender-class criticism belongs firmly in the category of
activities that may involve literature but that center around
something else," writes Ellis. "To put the matter simply, when you
reduce literature to a single issue, your reasons for doing so must
have nothing to do with literature, and consequently neither will
your results." In this way, such critics not only undermine the
legitimacy of literary studies as a distinct academic discipline,
they often borrow indiscriminately from fields in which they are
anything but expert. That's one of
the reasons why "psychological" and "economic" approaches to literature continue to rely heavily on outdated concepts derived from Freud and Marx.
An ultimately more damaging effect of race-gender-class criticism is that it reduces the "great range of opinion on social and political questions, as well as on any other kind of question" embodied in literature to a single dimension, a sort of up-or-down vote on the moral value of the author, the work under inspection, or the society that "produced" both. Despite their cutting-edge veneer, Ellis correctly notes, such attitudes are a return to "an older moralizing tradition...that was always mocked as the work of dull, pious middle-class folk who had no ear for what transcended their narrow understanding of the Bible."
P.C. moralizing, says Ellis, also misrepresents the "canon" as a fixed set of texts that pompously transmits univocal "wisdom." In fact, he notes, "few have ever thought the canon immutable." As for dispensing smug, transcendental truths: "It would be more true to say that we get eternal questioning, not eternal verity, from Shakespeare," writes Ellis. "Students of German literature will smile grimly at the notion that Goethe's Faust gives easy answers."
For Ellis, critics who focus on "a single factor" inevitably display a tin ear when it comes to literature. (He also rightly points out that such critical monomania is neither a recent nor an exclusively political phenomenon.) His critique of the hugely influential and stridently ideological critic Frederic Jameson, author of the "everything is `in the last analysis' political" dictum, illustrates the point.
In an analysis of the film Jaws, Jameson contends that Quint, the shark hunter played by Robert Shaw, represents "an older America--the America of small business...the New Deal and the crusade against Nazism, the older America of the depression and the war and the heyday of classical liberalism." (Collapsing such wildly disjunctive elements into a single category with the density of a dwarf star is a quintessentially Jamesonian move.)
We recognize this supposed symbolism, Jameson argues, because of Quint's "otherwise gratuitous reminiscences about World War II and the campaign in the Pacific." But as Ellis counters, "What Jameson calls gratuitous reminiscences provide the central motivation for Quint's place in the film as the obsessed shark hunter. His death is that of an Ahab, consumed with a desire for revenge and punished for it; it has nothing to do with the demise of the American past. Jameson's political interpretation of Quint is so arbitrary that it makes the bloodthirsty shark killer into a classical liberal."
In the end, Ellis suggests, the most pernicious problem with race-gender-class criticism is that, even as it revels in its subversion of received readings and its struggle against what it sees as wrongly dominant values, it does not seek to encourage ongoing debate as much as end it. Because race-gender-class critics conflate literary criticism with a moral appeal to a particular political program, Ellis argues, "dissenters [from the P.C. agenda] can expect to be not only criticized, as dissenters always are, but denounced as...moral outcasts."