Why Literature Matters: Permanence and the Politics of Reputation by Glenn C. Arbery
An overwhelming majority of those who teach literature and thereby determine what imaginative works will–or will not–be taught in subsequent decades have forgotten, or deliberately ignored, the purpose of literature. Many teachers are simply unable to distinguish writing that is forever contemporary from that which speaks only to an age or generation. Now more than ever in the past two-score years, literary scholars and critics, whose publications inform the classroom curriculum, are pursuing literature not as an end itself, but as a means to advance social agendas and academic careers. Professors of English at supposedly respectable universities across the country continue to promote the very theories and practices that have been undermining their profession since the deconstructionists first besieged it in the early 1970s. Such is the situation that troubles distinguished poet and critic Glenn C. Arbery, author of Why Literature Matters.
The destructive forces that Arbery opposes in this important book have lately manifested themselves in multiculturalism, a radically egalitarian ideology that predominates practically everywhere in higher education. Multiculturalism, as Arbery correctly observes, insists that all cultures are equal and denies the existence of a supervening high culture by which cultures are comparatively and normally appraised. With regard to literature in particular, multiculturalism, says Arbery, caricatures the time-tested process of assigning rewards according to what Aristotle called “distributive justice.” It contradicts what every accomplished writer knows: that he is finally accountable to that tribunal of great dead writers who judge his work without regard to his race or ethnicity, neither of which has anything to do with literature qua literature, or with literary eminence.
Arbery regrets that masterpieces such as Moby Dick are often taught today merely because their racial dynamics can be reductively exploited in the classroom to instill “correct” attitudes. He would have us remember, though, that in the end a classic attains permanent reputability not because it proves useful to one regnant ideology or another, but because it presents us with a unifying vision of nature and man’s place in it. This vision views man as a created being contingent upon something greater than himself and conveys an experience of what Arbery calls “a common glory that intimates something otherwise unsayable about the nature of the Word through whom all things were made.”
There have been a number of other recently-published volumes lamenting the demise of literary study as a once reverent, ennobling discipline. Two that Arbery mentions in his introduction are Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities (1997) and At War with the Word: Literary Theory and Liberal Education (1999). In the first, John Ellis concludes that the messianic proponents of multiculturalism, deconstructionism, and the political trinitarianism of race-gender-class theory have so entrenched themselves in English departments everywhere that the road back to a meaningful literature program on college campuses will be long and difficult, if even possible. In the second, R.V. Young defends the traditional understanding of art as a means to engage students with timeless and consequential ideas that find concrete expression in serious literature.
As Arbery describes it, the stance that Ellis and Young take in bemoaning the apparent decimation of the humanities in the culture wars is like that of two Trojan warriors gazing wistfully upon Priam’s burning city, which once seemed impregnable. Clearly Arbery sympathizes with Ellis and Young, but he believes the city may not, after all, be worth saving: “Unless literature itself, not the academic industry around it, not the competition for tenured positions or endowed chairs, is the central concern, then perhaps the academy deserves to fall.” For Arbery the academy has largely fallen already, and he argues that the thing to do now is not to prop it up again, but to acknowledge the fortune beyond the ruins, or what he calls the “greater good” toward which things may often fall, as in the case of Troy, which fell toward Rome, or of mankind, which fell toward Calvary.
For Arbery the good toward which the academy appears to have fallen lies chiefly in the fact that thoughtful persons have begun to ask why literature ever mattered in the first place, a question that differs profoundly from asking how to restore the dignity of English departments, or what to do about the Logos-loathing forces therein. He would have us take comfort in knowing that many discerning readers are beginning to realize that literature is important with or without those who teach it. Those who appreciate literature are rediscovering, in other words, that its value is intrinsic, immortal, and inviolable.
Arbery contends that no writer has an importance bestowed by literature professors, or by professional organizations such as the Modern Language Association. “The true bestowal flows entirely in the other direction,” he writes. “What professors of literature can rightly bestow is honor….” Arbery would help teachers and readers alike distinguish between what is truly honorable and what is not, between perennial monuments of imagination and the sensationalism of the popular press. To achieve this end, and to avoid generalizing, he reconsiders the Western literary tradition using selected authors and works to discuss encompassing issues.
For contemporary writing, take Tom Wolfe, Seamus Heaney, and Toni Morrison. All three of these writers have been highly rewarded in their lifetime, Wolfe with the celebrity and lucre of the bestseller, Heaney and Morrison with the Nobel Prize. According to Arbery, however, only the latter two have produced exceptionally fine work. For him, Wolfe’s novels exemplify the slipshod, capriciously inexact writing that currently passes for literature. A Man in Full, the novel which Arbery makes his case in point, is predicated on clumsy similes (“like an immense equine lunatic”) and clichés (“held on for dear life,” “Their eyes were like saucers”). It stands, he argues, in contradistinction to Morrison’s fiction and Heaney’s poetry, in which every phrase is artfully fashioned to fit the thought conveyed.
In a chapter devoted to each, Arbery shows why Morrison and Heaney are superior writers by incisively examining the details of their most notable achievements. Take for instance his discussion of an early scene in Morrison’s Paradise. The action involves two men entering a dark, abandoned church where they intend to murder a group of women hiding among the vestiges of worship. As he gropes about in darkness, one of the killers “runs” under the pews “a frond of light from his Black & Decker.” The “frond of light” is striking, Arbery remarks, “because it exactly captures the way the directed beam bends along the floor under the pews.” He notes that “Morrison could have passed over the description (‘a beam of light’) or she could have made it more obviously aggressive (a ‘stab,’ a ‘probe,’ even a ‘tentacle’), but instead the light becomes supple and growing, quite against the intention, one feels, of the man with the Black & Decker.” Also striking are the light’s religious implications, which Arbery goes on to elucidate with cogent, contextual analysis.
Proving the worthiness of Nobel Prize-winning Morrison and Heaney might seem to be begging the question. But Arbery fears that, although rightly esteemed, both may have been esteemed for all the wrong reasons. Almost anyone who has lately sat in a university English class where either writer was discussed can understand Arbery’s apprehension. As a rule, the discussion, sooner than later, turns to the representative character of the author, either to Heaney as Irishman or to Morrison as African-American. In a word, the discussion degenerates into “identity politics,” and from there into mere abstraction, again proving, as Arbery puts it, “that literary works and the reputations of their authors can sometimes have a cultural utility that has little to do with literature per se or with artistic excellence.”
It is a good thing for Morrison that Arbery is above the politicization of literature. For, though he respectfully deals with her political view on race relations in America, it is not one he necessarily shares. And while he admits that her impassioned interest in such relations “cannot be separated from her concerns as a novelist,” his positive assessment of her literary achievement is based solely on the virtue of her art, and on her moral vision as a writer who “chooses, not Us-vs.-Them, but Us-vs.-Us situations,” unlike, say, novelist Alice Walker, whose fictional conflicts are generally limited to what Ellis calls “group grievances.”
Arbery finds the clashing, albeit probing, political commentary in Morrison’s published essays to be at times jarring, but he commends Morrison for refusing to turn her fiction into propagandistic accompaniment. In praising her creative genius in spite of her notoriously strident radicalism in public debates, Arbery acknowledges, without being explicit, that Morrison is extraordinarily capable of what one of his favorite philosophers, Jacques Maritain, called “aesthetic innocence,” a creative intuition that lends wisdom to an author’s work regardless of the life he leads at home or the causes he espouses in the public square.
After reconsidering lauded contemporary writing at its best and worst, Arbery turns his attention in a later chapter to the vagaries of contemporary literary criticism. Here he scrutinizes two prominent readings of Shakespeare’s controversial play Othello, one by Allan Bloom, who in Shakespeare’s Politics (1964) proceeds from the perspective of classical political philosophy, and another by Stephen Greenblatt, whose influential book Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980) inaugurated the New Historicism, a theory whose interpretive object is to discern the improvisations of political power represented in a text, be it literary or otherwise. According to Arbery, Bloom and Greenblatt are chiefly attracted to the play’s historical aspects, and both critics, he maintains, “have designs on the play in their bids for cultural influence.”
Each reading, Arbery concedes, is indubitably brilliant. Both “introduce into one’s own familiarity with the action a strangeness, an otherness, as though one were finding out that a spouse or close friend had a hidden life.” Yet both Bloom and Greenblatt distort the play “to the extent that each achieves cultural influence,” because both seek “to validate the work with some rhetorical end, to justify what would otherwise seem fanciful by having it strongly advocate some position,” some point of theory or philosophy. What bothers Arbery beyond all else is that neither Bloom’s nor Greenblatt’s reading fathoms the play’s deeper spiritual meaning.
Bloom’s reading, to focus briefly on one, effectively ignores anything that might seem to arise genuinely from Christian faith, which Bloom seems to find interesting only when God serves a political function. Instead, it concludes by focusing exclusively, if not excessively, on Iago’s wife, Emilia, whose stoic insistence on vindicating her beloved mistress intrigues Bloom much more than what Arbery finds most appealing: the metaphysical pathos of the play’s dénouement, wherein innocent Desdemona lies lifeless at the feet of repentant Othello, who now recognizes the magnitude of his crime as he descends into the depths of guilt and sorrow. What Bloom misses with his strictly philosophical forays into Shakespeare’s play, says Arbery, is its prophetic, revelatory, and perpetual significance.
In his last and finest chapter, Arbery defends Homer’s Iliad against uninformed critical analyses that perpetuate a misunderstanding of the motivation, characterization, and sacrificial role of Achilles. Arbery ends with this defense because he considers the Iliad to be the very measure of literary distinction. For him, Western literature, if not Western culture itself, begins with this seminal epic. To appreciate its exalted lines and probing insights into the human condition is tantamount, in his judgment, to knowing why literature matters. Arbery is quite certain of this, and he is not altogether ironic when he writes, “Of all the poems in the history of the West, actual Scripture aside, but including the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, and all the devotional lyrics ever written, God loves the Iliad most.”
This claim may raise an eyebrow. After all, the poem is pagan and violent. It is peopled by wrathful warriors and prideful kings. Its cosmos abounds with deceptive gods bent on mayhem and destruction. But Arbery is adamant. What the Scottish missionary in the novel Chariots of Fire knows about his gift as a runner, Arbery claims to know about the Iliad. The Scotsman tells his sister that the same God Who made him a missionary also made him swift, and “when I run,” he says, “I feel His pleasure.” When Arbery ponders the world that the Iliad projects upon the moral imagination, a world of suffering and anguish coexisting with magnanimity and beauty, he, too, feels God’s pleasure and senses His blessing.
Yet what Arbery intuits is “not the tepid blessing of the sentimental Smiling Jesus that Flannery O’Connor’s wonderful tattoo-covered prophet O.E. Parker finds in the recent section of the religious catalogue.” On the contrary, it is “the stern approbation of the iconic Byzantine Christ, Son of Yahweh Sabaoth, the Lord of Hosts, the God who accepts Abel’s blood sacrifice and the smoke of the flesh burning on the altar, because they signify the righteous and obedient heart.” That Homer’s epic would be pleasing to God is not surprising, at least not to Arbery. For it depicts “the broken world as it is, fallen and savage, but capable of noble formality and tender mercies; groaning ceaselessly for redemption but without undue self-pity; conscious of being kingly, masterful, and godlike, yet also mortally aware of being subject to every loss and humiliation, including the ultimate form, mortality itself.”
The essential premise of Why Literature Matters is this: Literature functions as a mode of knowledge that finds its completion in the achievement of form. It follows that a story, poem, or play is excellent to the degree that it is well wrought. Yet, to infer from what Arbery posits between the lines, it should be said that the test of enduring literary merit begins and ends with abiding questions something like these: Does the given work look from the standpoint of eternity at material things and transitory wants? Does it function as a medium for apprehending unchanging truths? Does it plumb the depths of being “with an intelligence,” as Arbery puts it in his final paragraph, “that increases in power the more it explores the most unbearable dimensions of joy and suffering”? On one level or another, truly great literature does all of these things, and for this reason it matters.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared in the New Oxford Review and is published here by permission of the author.