Saturday, December 18, 2004

Literature as Reification

The common view of literature is that it is the collected wisdom of great minds, the noblest thoughts expressed in verse, etc. I dispute this view. My view--materialist and moderate leftist--is that literature generally functions as reification--a type of reinforcement of the ideologies, attitudes, belief systems and indeed epistemologies of the ruling classes. Shakespeare's plays, used for centuries to teach the children of the bourgeoisie the Queen's English, are an apt example of this. In numerous plays the "courtly" attitudes are upheld, working class characters are mocked (and, as with Malvolio, presented as uneducated morose churls to the nobles), and in general Anglo-Catholic and monarchist views are reinforced and promoted.

That is not to say courtly and aristocratic virtues may not be in part valuable. Reason, ethics, eloquence, a certain aristo-world view may be in themselves valuable. Classical scholarship, mastery of latin, knowledge of the greek philosophers are not trivial affairs, however irrelevant to modern technocracy and market capitalism. Yet what is overlooked by literature which proclaims the superiority of aristocratic virtue, is the brutal reality of the monarchy, the prisons, the disparity between nobles and commoners, the "golden and sanguine laws" as Shelley said. Yet even a Shelley is, I assert, a spokesman for the imperial throne. For literature itself always relates to monarchist if not clerical context. It is no accident that most literary history involves "courtly " themes, the Paolo and Francesca , Tristan and Isolde types of things--Camelot.

For most students of literature, courtly love and aristo virtue--whether hypocritical or actual-- are the contexts for literary interpretation. And 20th century realist writers, say a Dreiser or Hemingway, are repositioned, recontextualized in relation to the "perennial truths" of the aristocratic writers. The French realists are seen in relation to the ancien regime (which is, let's admit, secretly loved). It should not be surprising that a catholic-monarchist such as TS Eliot would be viewed as "official" literature by the academic ideologues, and "realists" such as Hemingway or Dreiser disparaged--either implcitly or explicitly-- as yokels. So even the realist and leftist attempts to counter the monarchist and/or clerical Weltanschauung are, I believe, defeated. For the entire context of literature and literary interpretation is in essence aristocratic, and thus anti-empiricist, anti-democratic, anti-humanist......It also should not be surprising that Marx himself disparaged liberal writers and fabian socialist types who thought "exposing social injustice" was a proper political stance. For Marx, regardless of his flaws, perceived that the institution of "belle-lettres" is contaminated with a sort of otherworldly (ultimately theological or superficially platonic ) ideology, where Truths simply exist immutably and unquestioned. The move away from idealistic metaphysics--towards Darwin and economics-- is thus also a move away from belle-lettrist dreams.......

An effective leftist action? Burn a Riverside Shakespeare, and your Norton Anthologies of English Verse; turn to Darwin instead of Dickens, Keynes instead of Kerouac, Einstein instead of Jane Eyre-head.

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