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Literature Shrugged

Worse than hatred of literature is indifference

Literature is not literature until someone hates it on principle. Homer and Hesiod weren’t poets, in the way we’ve come to understand the word, until Xenophanes and Heraclitus and Plato attacked poetry’s governing credentials, its pipeline to the Gods. The last of these, speaking through Socrates, displaced poetry’s authority, itself drawn from the Muses, by banishing it from the well-ordered city; poetry’s tendency to arouse madness, its toleration of clashing voices, and its foundational place in the educational curriculum made it the enemy of an imagined republic where all positions were accounted for, where all discourse was to be phlegmatically compassed toward the truth. Paradoxically, though, this exile came to define poetry. Until their banishment, Hesiod and Homer were more like perennial Teachers of the Year or cool, dead popes—but universal. We don’t have a contemporary analogue.

This is the thesis, or a thesis, of William Marx’s The Hatred of Literature, another in a line of books, following Ben Lerner’s Hatred of Poetry, that defines literature through its strongest negative, hatred of it. Both authors, in this respect, make right with William James’s program in The Varieties of Religious Experience, which bets that the most extreme examples usefully illuminate the commonplace. The hatred of literature, the thinking goes, might tell us a thing or two about our relation to letters in general.

To this effect, Marx points out that the most famous moment in the Western history of hating literature, Plato’s banishment of the poets, is now the least understood. He cites the blindness of his contemporaries, who are

unable to see that they are living in the very world Plato hoped for, conceived, and willed, that is to say a society whose members only ever open a book to experience the purely gratuitous pleasures of the imagination; a world in which literature has lost nearly all power and authority and has become an empty shell merely used to pass the time by a shrinking class increasingly monopolized by many other distractions.

Marx is not bemoaning literature’s curious lack of usefulness or authority in the modern world; he’s rather noting that our own society is more controlled, ordered, and strategically distracted—because we are ruled by technocrats and plutocrats and television—than many bibliophiles would care to acknowledge. The haters of literature, who contribute to a canon of what he calls anti-literature, merely serve to shine a S.A.D. lamp on a still more depressing possibility: the shared indifference to literary art.

Literature’s prosecutors bring four charges: abuse of authority, lack of morality, perversion of truth, and diminished usefulness to society. It is on these terms, Marx argues, that literature is most fervently condemned.

These withering hatreds, backed by the Lord, shade easily into an accusation that literature lacks moral principle.

If Plato furnishes the classical example of despising literature by way of its abuse of authority, this hatred is later carried forward by a procession of Christian writers, a run of Simon-Peters who deny the superior crow of pagan poetry because it lacks the Holy Scripture’s inspiration from God. Pope Gregory, Marx writes, “bogged down by an inexpressible inferiority complex,” goes so far as to defend the Book of Job by describing its total lack of eloquence as a sign of Godly authority. Gregory believed (Marx adds) that “eloquence is a property of lying”—so much for literary style. For his part, St. Augustine, who wanted to read the pagans despite an injunction from the Psalms (“For I have not known literature, I will enter into the power of the Lord.”), argued that the Psalmist merely wanted Christians to avoid the writings of Jews. Maybe that’s why he taught himself to read silently.

These withering hatreds, backed by the Lord, shade easily into an accusation that literature lacks moral principle. Unsurprisingly, given the subject, it’s in the section on morality that The Hatred of Literature, originally written in French, becomes most French. (Marx is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Paris Nanterre; the new Harvard University Press edition is translated by Nicholas Elliott.) For the case against moral laxity, Marx turns to Tanneguy Le Févre (son of Tanneguy Le Févre), whose Oedipal hatred of his classicist father—and jealousy of his brilliant sister, the great scholar and translator Madame Dacier—compelled him to crack the whip on an alarming number of poets. In his The Futility of Poetry, Le Févre’s veins pop with high moralism:

If we examine the lives of the poets whose works are presented as the canons of art, we discover that some were drunkards, others debauched, others adulterers, and others yet were infected with execrable vices that are in our parts rightly punishable by death: Aeschylus wrote his tragedies under the influence of alcohol; Homer and Hesiod suffer the torments of Hell, one hanging from a column, the other being bitten by snakes for eternity . . . Horace and Sophocles, immersed in the pleasures of the body, were guilty of abominable passions; suffering from the same disorder, Virgil sang his own desire through the figure of Corydon in the second Eclogue; similarly, Pindar breathed his last on the lap of the boy he cherished . . . Euripides hated women and was among those whom Apocalypse calls dogs, which is exactly why God wanted to have him torn apart by dogs, soiled as he was by crimes to which nature is loath to give a name.

Of course, Marx points out, this megachurch sermonizing can be found throughout anti-literary history, often in the form of a thinly disguised homophobia. This pose extends to Rousseau, whose championing of virility mixes overexcitedly with his pronouncement, “I hate books.” Rousseau, it has to be said, wrote books, and he was here merely attempting to privilege experiential learning, but statements like this are nonetheless emblematic of anti-literature: ambivalence often lurks beneath its proud moral conviction.

Another project of this anti-literary moralism, also worried over by Rousseau, is the proper education of children. To this end, Marx is drawn inevitably to the recent scuffles over trigger warnings. The imposition of such warnings, which would alert the reader in advance of a work’s potentially disturbing “content,” would, Marx writes, “promote an art of language that would no longer be literature such as we know it, as an autonomous and independent art . . . . To refuse literature the right to shock, provoke, and make people uncomfortable . . . is to turn every reader into an eternal minor.” To front a piece of literature with a trigger warning “is to ask [it to be] a perfect, irreproachable, unchallengeable sacred text, that is to say, precisely what it is not.” In the end, this anti-literary moralism arraigns literature on the charge that it “deprives the reader of moral autonomy,” which is why the moralists think “readers should be emancipated from literary custody.” The problem with this claim is obvious: literature lost its capacity to determine a reader’s moral commitments when it was banished from the Republic and displaced from its authority by the Word of God.

Yet The Hatred of Literature is not a chronological or even historical survey: Marx is not outlining the evolution of anti-literature; he’s describing its most persistent traits. Among these is the argument that literature—unlike religion, philosophy, or more familiarly today, science—cannot deliver the truth. Wisely, Marx’s strategy is not to argue that literature offers a liberating truthiness. Instead, he draws attention to the absurd and ad hominem aggression of partisans of science. One such guy, the philosopher Gregory Currie, wrote a piece for the TLS in 2011 that Marx loathes at length. Currie’s idea, that novelists do not provide the understanding of human psychology found and tested in laboratories, is ridiculous enough, but he extends it to a flaw in the minds of writers themselves, who are riddled with psychopathologies and therefore incapable of understanding the world and its truths. Writers as a group, Currie explains, “[contain] the highest proportion of individuals with severe pathology (nearly fifty percent), compared with scientists, artists and composers.” Marx is right to find Currie’s tactic insane: “it is no longer worth examining literary works in detail to see if they deserve their despicable reputation,” he writes, “one need only discredit the authors themselves, and the game is over.”

“It is no longer worth examining literary works in detail . . . one need only discredit the authors themselves, and the game is over.”

The game against literature may not be over, but it is certainly rigged. In its final two sections, The Hatred of Literature turns to more contemporary matters. Namely, Marx deals with the charge that literature is useless to society, an argument enhanced by literature’s perceived lack of authority, morality, or ability to convey the truth. Actually, the situation is much worse. To be sure, literature is useless, but it also fails to honor the one trait ascribed to it by Plato: its ability to imitate things in the world. “The moral of the story is that literature does not adequately reflect the whole of society,” Marx admits, half caving to the arguments of its prosecutors. “When the regime is aristocratic, literature is criticized for not being aristocratic enough and not belonging to the clan of the powerful; when it is democratic, it is accused of being elitist and contributing to the system’s flaws.”

For Marx, this state of affairs exposes an essence of literature: it is powerless. Not only that, it is relatively valueless: “its status as an unprofitable activity in the republic expose it to every accusation and every proscription.” Yet Marx finds solace, not to mention his many negative definitions of literature (“Literature is what remains when everything has been removed”), in its hatred. “Far worse indeed than the hatred of literature would be indifference: may the gods prevent that day from ever arriving.”

There’s reason to fear that the dreaded Day of Indifference is nearer than Marx believes. In some quarters, it has already arrived. This is not so much a matter of the quality of contemporary fiction or poetry, or the state of criticism, or even current book sales—anyway, we’re not talking about books but literature.

One problem is that the hatred of literature, found across the political spectrum, now conforms to the dimmest clichés of anti-literature without harboring any of its intensity. As far as I can tell, the usual suspects of today’s anti-literature comprise a short list: evangelical Christians, who occasionally aim to ban books on the basis that they are Godless; Enlightenment-core scientists, like Richard Dawkins, who admonish literature because it can’t access the Real promised and delivered by science; and, occasionally, well-intentioned progressives and leftists who want to correct literature by eliminating certain authors rather than undertaking the more difficult work of challenging their writings—their style, form, or content—through literary criticism.

It’s not an inspiring collective of hatred—it’s more an anti-literature of indifference. Literature, for these parties, is only an occasional target, one met with waning fierceness. In attacking literature, it often seems that today’s anti-literature is merely jockeying for social and financial capital and taking advantage of a marketplace where literature possesses limited value. What’s worse, literary discourse—not just literary marketing and publicity—has become strangely compensatory and promotional in turn; it, too, jockeys for position in the marketplace not by defending literature, but by celebrating books—the thing to be bought. There has always been book promotion, but it didn’t always dominate so much of the circulation of literary writing, and it never seeped so thickly into book reviews and literary prose. This promotional language, which celebrates books in the abstract, is itself a form of anti-literature (because it replaces literature with books), but one that pitches itself against a widespread indifference to literature, not a sophisticated hatred of it.

This circumambience of indifference has spread to factions both liberal and conservative. How else to explain the irony that has befallen the National Endowment for the Arts, which funds literary presses—especially independent and translation publishers—throughout the country? Trump now plans to eliminate it, but it’s not as if he’s sanctioning a culture war against literary writing—again: its style, content, or form—it’s more that he and the Republicans just don’t care. (Nor is the NEA’s demise a serious concern of budget hawks on the right: it would cost more money to shut it down than to keep it running.) To illustrate this point: consider that Trump originally wanted to hire Sylvester Stallone to head the organization. Had Stallone agreed, the NEA would likely be safe from budget cuts. Which is to say that each time you binge watch a popular show that you don’t even like, at the expense of reading a decent novel, you’re enacting a Trumpian indifference to literature: entertainment over letters.

It’s not just conservatives. The dominance of streaming video in the marketplace has revealed an indifference to literature in liberal discourse. This turn of events, it has to be said, is not all that sad or surprising; being powerless, literature didn’t even put up a fight. But to add insult to injury, liberal commentators everywhere flaunt the vigor of television against its punier rival. Take the case of the cultural jingoist and editor of The New Yorker David Remnick, who noted in his letter nominating TV critic Emily Nussbaum for a Pulitzer Prize (which she won in 2016), that “television has become the dominant cultural product of our age—it reaches us everywhere, and has replaced movies and books as the thing we talk about with our friends, families and colleagues.” Remnick did not stop there; to emphasize the untrammeled authority of TV, and literature’s ongoing uselessness, he casts it in military terms as a feeble enemy, now defeated. “Those of us who love TV,” he writes, “have won the war.” Unlike literature, “the best scripted shows are regarded as significant art—debated, revered, denounced.” Remnick, the editor of a literary magazine, here side-eyes literature, which, he implies, should no longer be considered a significant art.