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The New Criterion

Quite simply, the best cultural review in the world
- John O’Sullivan


January 1991

Who killed literature?

by D.G. Myers

A review of The Death of Literature by Alvin Kernan.

What is now called “literature” was born in the eighteenth century. Before then there was writing, but no authors; printed texts, but no publishing. For literature is not a thing like a chair, the essence of which can be wrapped up for all time in a tidy formula—the imitation of human action, the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, the criticism of life—but is instead a social practice, undertaken at a distinct time and in a distinct place, requiring certain institutional arrangements for its support. And the institutions that sustain literature in our day have all arisen since the Enlightenment. The image of the artist as a special person, a creative individual devoted to a sacred calling, exempt from the cash nexus, whose one obligation is to realize his inner vision—this is merely the ideology of romanticism and modernism. It gives literature the appearance of belonging to an autonomous, elevated sphere of human life, but in reality literature is saggingly dependent upon such aspects of modern society as high literacy rates, copyright law, the taboo against plagiarism, dictionaries with prescriptions on usage, research libraries, criticism, scholarship, and the university curriculum. It would be a mistake to conceive of literature as having an existence apart from such things.

Something like this is the intellectual background to Professor Alvin Kernan’s new book, The Death of Literature. It is a view familiar to anyone who has read much literary scholarship in recent years. Although Kernan calls his book “a piece of literary history,” it is more accurately to be described as a meditation upon what has been established—or, at least, asserted—by the brightest young literary scholars now working in the best universities. Their basic argument is a frankly Marxist one: literature, capitalism, and the political conception of the individual all emerged at about the same time, in response to the same material conditions. There is no reason to believe in or honor any of these things—there is no “transcendent ground” for them—outside a subservience to the power that maintains the political conditions that give rise to them in the first place.


Kernan directs little fresh thought onto such questions. But what keeps his book from being “tenth transmissions of stock ideas” (as the great classicist Basil Gilder-sleeve once dismissed another scholar’s book) is his effort to bring these ideas together into a whole and provide a composite portrait of advanced literary thinking at the present moment. If these are not the best ideas, they are certainly the most current. And if The Death of Literature is not a better book, the reason is that the ideas are not better. Yet the book is not without its uses. It is the first attempt to put the latest findings of literary scholarship into some kind of order, to arrange them into a coherent view, and it is a highly intelligent attempt to do so. It might even have been entitled The English-Studies World View.

Although the central propositions of his book are derived from Marxist thinking, Kernan himself is no Marxist. He merely swings the club from the other end. Literature is dying, in his view, because the institutions that sustain it are antiquated or in decay. But some of these institutions are good. As a scholar—he is now Avalon Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Princeton—Kernan is committed to such things as the reading of books and the university teaching of literature, although he is not sanguine about their future. The fortunes of books and literature have been hitched to printing. “So central has print been to literature,” Kernan says, “that it is no exaggeration to say that literature has historically been the system of print culture.” Print culture, though, is on the way out. Comes the dawn of electronic media, which make it less interesting and less important to read books, and bye bye, literature.

Nor is it likely to find sanctuary in the university. The academic study of literature is plagued by two problems that its exponents have never been able to overcome. First, no one can say with any assurance what literature is. Kernan dwells amusingly on the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial, at which British scholars and critics were unable to agree on a definition of literature. Second, there is no single discipline of literary study. Modern criticism is a caterwaul of screeching, dogmatic “movements.” Neither method nor logic unites them. “Not only does [literary study] continue to fail to meet the academic requirement that true knowledge define the object it studies and systematize its analytic method to at least some modest degree,” Kernan laments, “but it seems to have chosen a disruptive role within the system.” The brightest young literary scholars see it as their duty to corrode liberal, democratic ideals.

For Kernan, then, it is no happenstance that “a radical type of literary criticism,” one that calls into question “the central literary activities of reading and writing,” should have developed in step with the decline of literary culture. And yet it is not his intention to abuse such types of criticism as deconstruction. Although he recognizes that deconstruction has largely been “the instrument of aggressive, alienated, left-leaning political and social attitudes,” Kernan does not blame it. In his view, deconstruction is not a cause of the present distemper in literature, but merely another of its conditions. Seen in the proper light, deconstruction “begins to look far less melodramatic and more like criticism at its traditional social function of preserving whatever can be saved in a time of radical questioning of basic institutional values and beliefs.” After all, despite its contempt for objective truth and determinate meaning, deconstruction presupposes the extraordinary importance of literature. Indeed, deconstruction blithely assumes that the entire world of human experience is to be unraveled as a literary text.

Outside the wards of criticism, however, literature is unlikely to survive. The institution of literature, Kernan says—individual works, writers’ lives, the teaching of classic texts, the whole shebang—exists in order to serve “the general social aim of constructing some kind of believable and acceptable Lebenswelt.” But the Lebenswelt is coming unglued. “Not only the arts but all our traditional institutions, the family and the law, religion and the state, have in recent years been coming apart in startling ways,” Kernan observes. From this perspective, the death of literature merely reflects the general social collapse.

This is a view I can enter into as gladly as anyone, just because it requires one to stay innocent of politics. But I don't think it has very much to tell us about literature, certainly not about the real problems that confront writing and criticism in our time. In fact, it might be asked if some such view—the fundamental belief that “the existence of literature is intertwined with,” as Kernan puts it, “other social realities”—is not itself one of the problems facing literature. It is rather like the argument that playing a piano and driving a car are at bottom the same activity, since they both involve sitting. The social view of literature proclaims that the social life is the only life humans lead, denying that a person who is alone, silent, reading a book from another place and time, reliving thoughts and expressions which have ceased to have a social life, is doing anything more than contributing to the general social aim. If there is any idea that is guaranteed to menace literature, to prevent it from offering a refuge and alternative to some kind of believable and acceptable Lebenswelt, that is it.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 January 1991, on page 78

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