Reviews — From the February 2018 issue

Reading in the Dark

Does fiction matter in a post-fact age?

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Discussed in this essay:

The Hatred of Literature, by William Marx. Translated by Nicholas Elliott. Harvard University Press. 240 pages. $29.95.

Literature, William Marx informs us, is a “source of scandal.” It is good that someone thinks so. Literature is more often a source of boredom, pretension, dashed hopes, missed marks, and mediocrity, not to mention softer, homier pleasures such as comfort, escape, and amusement. But Marx, a professor of comparative literature at Université Paris Nanterre, has a taste for the grand and dangereux. Literature is “public enemy no. 1 — the thing we most love to scorn, attack, and belittle”; it is a “punching bag” and a “foil” for philosophers and moralists; it is “what remains when everything else has been removed”; it is “the ultimate illegitimate discourse.” According to The Hatred of Literature, Marx’s new book-length essay (translated by Nicholas Elliott), the scandal is not rooted in any particular novel, poem, or play — it is the audacious, outrageous category itself, literature qua literature.

Condensed Books, by John Spinks. Courtesy the artist and Tillou Fine Art, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Marx is an omnivorous, cultivated reader. Skipping from ancient Athens to eighteenth-century France to the contemporary American university, he identifies four “trials” that have turned their prosecutorial energies on literature — those of authority, truth, morality, and society. He is not concerned with actual trials, such as the prosecution of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or detailed case studies, such as the fatwa against Salman Rushdie; his brief is general, and his interest, to use the academic term, discursive: “What could possibly allow us to group together three thousand years of poetry, fiction, and theater, Homer and Beckett, Aeschylus and Bolaño, Dante and Mishima?” The answer is “antiliterature,” a varicolored, shape-shifting force, the proverbial hammer in search of a nail. Antiliterature is state grants for STEM programs, pedants who jeer at foppish literati, philistines who dismiss poetry as politically inutile, your uncle mocking your English major at Thanksgiving, and anyone or anything that doesn’t bow down to literature as the holiest grail.

A prologue looks back to the hazy past in which the poets channeled the Muses and verse was inseparable from ecstatic rite. “It is when literature begins to have problems that it actually begins,” Marx writes. The first problem is foundational: Plato’s expulsion of the poets from the ideal republic and the elevation of philosophy, the language of reason, to a position of authority — a position held today, with a bit of sore-winner sneering, by science. In the chapter on the trial of truth we meet C. P. Snow, T. H. Huxley, and Gregory Currie, an English philosopher who wrote an article in the Times Literary Supplement some years ago complaining that novelistic psychology is not the same as clinical psychology. Currie then went on to publish an article in the New York Times that asked why there was no evidence, from the lab or from history, to support the idea that literature increases human empathy. Personally I am in favor of any inquiry that pokes at that pious notion, but Marx is having none of it. He spends six pages in a sputtering attack on Currie. Instead of pointing to the unreplicable nature of social science research or Currie’s inattentiveness to literary form, or even arguing over the definition of moral enlightenment, he fixates on the philosopher’s mild observation that some Nazis read books. “There may certainly have been well-read Nazis,” Marx fumes, “but there were far more who were utterly uncultivated, of whom not a word is spoken.” Marx’s central idea, that we can identify the literary less by what it inherently is than by what opposes it, is a true and useful one. But his passion is adolescent, an infatuation that can bear no foul word spoken of the beloved.

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