21 May 2011

Use and Abuse

Rohan Maltzen writes a memo to Marjorie Gerber about Gerber's new book The Use and Abuse of Literature:
You are caught, I think, in the tension many of us feel between our theoretical commitment to an inclusive approach to literature (some aspects of which you discuss in your chapter on the literary "canon") and our deep appreciation for the aesthetic and intellectual richness of certain texts. As professionals, we have learned that this appreciation is itself conditioned by ideas about what "literature" is and how to measure its greatness. You celebrate close reading and lament a tendency (of which you give no specific examples, which is a problem) for "the historical fact [to take] precedence over the literary work." However, close reading works best—as you glancingly acknowledge when you tie it to Archibald MacLeish's lines "A poem should not mean / But be"—on texts that are verbally complex, ambiguous, and densely metaphorical, rather than ones that work through affect, exposition, even didacticism, texts that address philosophical arguments or social problems rather than turning inward towards language. You praise "the rich allusiveness, deep ambivalence, and powerful slipperiness that is language in action," but once we acknowledge that different standards are also important—once we admit that, say, Elizabeth Gaskell, Felicia Hemans, or Walter Scott (none of whom are particularly ambivalent or slippery) deserve our critical attention as much as Herbert and Donne—we also need to accept other standards, other ways to appreciate and measure a text's significance. Ironically, when you abandon your relativism about what literature is, your anxiety about its reductive "uses" leads you to define it so narrowly that writers who don't think literature is "useless," who use it themselves for clear and potent purposes (what about Pope, or Dickens?) might seem to be ruled out—or against. Pace Keats, not all poets embrace "negative capability," and Henry James is hardly the last word on the relationship between morality and the novel.

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