Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Literature as Reification (Cont. re-run)

Many scholars insist that literature (fiction, poems, plays) be viewed as the collected wisdom of great minds, the noblest thoughts expressed in prose or verse, emotions recollected in tranquility etc. This view is mistaken. Literature generally functions as reification--a type of reinforcement of the ideology of the ruling class. 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, himself from aristo-blood, functions mostly as a spokesman for the imperial throne. For literature itself always relates to monarchist if not a clerical theme. It is no accident that most literary history involves "courtly " themes, the Paolo and Francesca , Tristan and Isolde types of things--Camelot, if not Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

For most students of literature, courtly love and aristo virtue--whether hypocritical or actual-- are the contexts for literary interpretation. 20th century realist writers, say a Dreiser or Hemingway, are re-contextualized in relation to the "perennial truths" of the aristocratic writers. The French realists--say Stendhal--are seen in relation to the ancien regime (which is, let's admit, secretly loved). It should not surprise us 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 or rustics. Even the responsible realist and leftist--or historicist-- 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) and non-historical ideology (novels, even grand baggy affairs like War and Peace are not history), where Truths simply exist immutably and unquestioned. The move away from idealistic metaphysics--towards history 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.


CharleyCarp said...

Strikes me as a change from one set of Unchanging Truths to another. Plenty of leftists busy themselves forging chains just as restrictive as Jacob Marley's.

J said...

I agree to some extent--I'm not defending the contemporary postmodernist left. The literary types I engage with, however, seem afflicted with a sort of innate ...je ne sais quoi...royalist elitism which cannot be defended (even the ones chanting Marx usually have it as well). For the most part, literary classics reinforce a sort of charm school, which was formerly the privilege of european aristocrats. Or we might call it Aestheticism.

I'm not yet to TH Huxley-like reductionism--TH wanted colleges to teach only natural sciences, engineering, and applied math, and to purge the classics, and teach modern languages instead of Latin or Greek, but I understand his perspective.

I'm not saying students should not read Sister Carrie--I'm saying they get Sister Carrie (or, say The Jungle), AND then they get TS Eliot, or v. Woolfe, and then usually decide to bag Dreiser (and anything Dreiser stood for).

Most 'Merican college students are no longer even required to read Dreiser... or TSE or take German or French (spanish, italian). They get through the stats., some tech. courses, read their little space opera narratives, and the periodic table, and set loose in the market.

J said...

That said, I doubt TH Huxley and Karl Marx ever took tea together. Marxist historical or dialectical materialism is not the postivistic materialism of Darwin and Huxley--regardless of the problems of applied marxism (ie Stalinism), Marx still grants a certain uniqueness to human existence---nature may condition the human subject and Freedom, but humans still retain some autonomy (though not to the degree that a Kant thought). I don't completely buy the line that Darwin leads to Dachau, but Darwin did lead to eugenics, to social darwinism, to Winston Churchill praising the use of gas.

At any rate, students should bash it out with Marx and Darwin (or even Dreiser), perhaps even Kant and not be spoonfed religious orthodoxy---or only Techie-ism.

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