An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016


John Lennon, playing his celestially white piano, begins the song entitled ’God’ (1970) by singing: ’God is a concept / by which we measure / our pain’. What kind of concept is God? In this chapter we propose to explore this question and its relation to literature. In doing this we shall try to emphasize not only that literature is pervasively concerned with religious themes but also that the ways in which we think, read and write about literature are likewise pervaded by religious — and particularly Judaeo-Christian — ideas. The concept of God, in other words, has as much to do with the practice of literary criticism as with the nature of literature. Let us give three very brief instances. The most famous atheist in the history of English poetry, Percy Bysshe Shelley, asserts that a ’poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth’ (Shelley 1977, 485): in the phrase ’eternal truth’, Shelley is being religious. In his Preface to Poems (1853), Matthew Arnold writes of the name ’Shakespeare’ that it is ’a name the greatest perhaps of all poetical names; a name never to be mentioned without reverence’ (Arnold 1965, 599): with the word ’reverence’, Arnold is being religious. Finally, in his essay ’Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919), T.S. Eliot declares, ’The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality’ (Eliot 1975, 40): by appealing to ’self-sacrifice’, Eliot is being religious.

We would like to try to approach the question of ’God’ and literary studies by presenting, in a gesture familiar from religious discourse, a series of six edicts. As we hope will become clear, these edicts are not cut in stone. Nor do they add up to a list of systematic principles or rules. Although we write in the rhetorical form of the edict, we wish to make clear that, with respect to God at least, we have absolutely no authority whatsoever to proclaim anything at all. Our aim, as elsewhere in this book, is to provoke questions and further discussion, not to close them off or close them down.

First edict: God is an anthropomorphism

As we have noted elsewhere (for instance in Chapter 5), anthropomorphism is the rhetorical term by which something that is not human is attributed with the form or shape (Greek, morphe) of the human (anthropos). More specifically, as Nietzsche, Freud and others have argued, God is a projection of the human ego on to the surrounding universe. And it comes as no surprise to find that this ego or ’me’ writ extremely large is, almost invariably, male. It is in this context that Freud suggests that God (here primarily the Judaeo-Christian God) is a kind of hyperbolic father-figure. He proposes that God is ’a father-substitute; or, more correctly … he is an exalted father … he is a copy of the father as he is seen and experienced in childhood’ (Freud 1985c, 399). God is the figure of authority, the great progenitor, the Big Daddy who is sometimes angry (Old Testament), sometimes loving (New Testament). If one thinks for a moment about the idea of God as ’she’, one might quickly sense the whole edifice of traditional Christianity tremble. This is no doubt the reason for the frisson of amusement that may accompany the reading of this car sticker: ’When God made men-drivers she was only joking!’ God, then, is not it: God is ’he’ or, if you want to get people’s backs up, ’she’. Either way, God would seem to be inconceivable without anthropomorphism.

Second edict: God is dead

This proposition is linked most often with the philosophy of Nietzsche, but it can be understood more generally in relation to the impact on European culture of biblical (especially German) scholarship and of (mainly British and German) fossil discoveries and subsequent developments in the theory of evolution in the nineteenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century it had become clear, at least to a significant number of educated European people, that the Bible was a tendentious collection of writings, many of which simply could no longer be trusted in terms of their historical fact and accuracy. The study of fossils made it impossible to suppose that the earth could be, as the Bible propounds, only a few thousand years old. Most famously, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) offered a far more empirically and historically convincing account of how human beings came about and, at the same time, served to cut God out of the equation. Poets and novelists of all sorts were obliged to reckon with what J. Hillis Miller (in a book of that title) refers to as ’the disappearance of God’. It is this sense of disappearance that Matthew Arnold evokes in ’Dover Beach’ (written around 1851), when he describes the retreating ’sea of faith’:

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

European culture, at least according to this story, has become increasingly secularized.

Of course things are inevitably more complex than this. Even to acknowledge, for example, that ’God is dead’ is to think in anthropomorphic terms, and to imply that ’He’ was once alive rather than that ’He’ never existed. The notion of the death of God runs into difficulties in many ways similar to those regarding the notion of the death of the author (see Chapter 3, above). As Virginia Woolf notes, in a somewhat different context: ’It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality’ (Woolf 1942, 151).

Third edict: to acknowledge the idea that God is an anthropomorphism or that he is dead is not the same as getting rid of him

As Roland Barthes makes clear, the idea of God is inescapably linked to ideas of truth, presence, revelation and meaning in general. In this respect, the issue of God is liable to creep into the discussion of literary texts, wherever questions of meaning, truth and so on are at stake. Barthes sees the notion of the author as interdependent with that of God. And he presses for a theory and practice of literature that would no longer be theological, declaring:

The space of writing is to be ranged over, not pierced; writing ceaselessly posits meaning ceaselessly to evaporate it, carrying out a systematic exemption of meaning. In precisely this way literature (it would be better from now on to say writing), by refusing to assign a ’secret’, an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases — reason, science, law. (Barthes 1977a, 147)

The intimate linkage between ’God’ and ’meaning’ is implicit in the Bible, in the opening sentence of the Gospel according to St John: ’In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). The original Greek for ’Word’ here is ’logos’, which means not only ’word’ but also ’sense’ or ’meaning’. It is in this context that we might consider the notion of what Jacques Derrida has called logocentrism, in other words, the entire system (of Western thought, culture and philosophy) that is implicitly or explicitly governed by notions of essential and stable meaning and ultimately by what Derrida refers to as a transcendental signified (God, for example). To put this more specifically in terms of literary texts, we could say that perhaps our greatest desire in reading a poem or a novel is to know what it ’means’. Knowing what the text ’means’ has often been seen as synonymous, for example, with knowing what the author (who here becomes a sort of substitute for God) meant by writing it. No doubt a crucial part of reading and doing criticism concerns precisely such a ’theological’ activity. What Barthes helps us to see, however, is that this activity is theological in the sense that it presupposes a single, stable and authoritative centre.

Barthes’s account is appealing — for instance in its associating literature, or writing, with the ’truly revolutionary’ — but it is also in certain respects problematic. While he is doubtless right to link literature with notions of revolution, anarchy, transgression and liberation, his own phraseology remains, at least to some extent, complicit with what it claims to be rejecting or refusing. Just as an atheist could be said to be complying with a kind of theistic thinking through the very gesture of denial (you cannot say, for example, that God does not exist without presupposing a kind of ultimate knowledge of the universe), so the idea of ’an anti-theological activity’ inevitably remains bound up with an understanding of the ’theological’ to which it is being opposed. Similarly Barthes’s use of the word ’truly’ (’truly revolutionary’) could be said to reinstate the notions of ’reason, science, law’ precisely at the moment that he is claiming to denounce or refuse them. This is not to say that the general value and significance of his observations can be discounted. Rather it is to suggest that non-theological thinking is perhaps more difficult than one might imagine. It is in this respect that we could recall Nietzsche’s supposition that we shall not get rid of God so long as ’we still believe in grammar’ (Nietzsche 2003, 48). Like many of Nietzsche’s more disturbing aphoristic remarks, this assertion borders on the unthinkable: What could one say about anything if there were no rules governing how to speak or what to say?

Fourth edict: religion is everywhere

It perhaps becomes clearer how deeply Western culture is theologically embedded if we reflect on the way we structure time. In the most fundamental way, the year is based on the Christian religion. Every year (1789 or 2016, for example) is anno Domini, ’in the year of our Lord’. Things in, say, Europe and the United States would look very different without a Christian framework: imagine, to begin with, a concept of the year that does not involve Christmas or Easter, or a concept of the week that does not have a Sunday. Christianity, in short, is more pervasive and insidious than many people, including non-practising Christians, agnostics or indeed atheists, might suppose.

How should we think about this in relation to reading and writing about literary texts? In many ways, searching for religious and particularly Christian ideas and motifs in the field of literary studies is like being the character in Edgar Allan Poe’s ’The Purloined Letter’ who is faced with a map and cannot see the name of the country he is looking at because the letters of the name are so big. Being critical of religion is also more unusual than one might think. As Jonathan Culler points out, in an essay entitled ’Political Criticism: Confronting Religion’: ’[L]iterature departments these days contain people with all manner of views — Marxists, Lacanians, deconstructionists, feminists — but seldom anyone who seriously attacks religion’ (Culler 1988b, 78). Culler goes on to provide a forceful summary of the responsibilities of the teacher and critic in this context:

The essential step is to take up the relation of our teaching and writing to religious discourse and to maintain a critical attitude when discussing religious themes — that is, not to assume that theistic beliefs deserve respect, any more than we would assume that sexist or racist beliefs deserve respect. This might involve us in comparing Christianity with other mythologies when we teach works imbued with religion, or making the sadism and sexism of religious discourse an explicit object of discussion, as we now tend to do when teaching works containing overtly racist language. (Culler 1988b, 80)

Culler’s exhortation remains as challenging as ever. Especially since the early 1990s, and even more markedly in the wake of the events of 11 September 2001 and the commencement of the so-called ’war on terror’, there has been a ’return of the religious’. More than ever before, perhaps, we find ourselves in the midst of religious conflicts. The US and British response to ’September 11’ has entailed, in various ways, a reassertion of Christian structures, traditions and beliefs: the ’war on terror’ has been insidiously enmeshed within an oppositional structure ’Islam vs. Christianity’. In the early twenty-first century Western leaders (Bush and Blair in particular) appeared catastrophically blind or indifferent to that uncanny logic outlined by René Girard in an essay on the power-play of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, namely that opponents become more and more similar the more they perceive themselves to be different from one another. ’Retaliation and reprisals are a form of imitation’ (Girard 1986, 282), as he points out. Moreover, as ’September 11’ dramatically showed, ’Islam’ is not merely outside the United States: Multi-ethnic Western democracies need to reckon with Islamic as well as Christian religions at home. One important consequence of this is that, as Alex Thomson has argued, thinking seriously about contemporary democracy entails ’tak[ing] seriously the prospect that the future of “the West” might come from “the East”’ (Thomson 2007, 77).

Fifth edict: literature has an evil streak

Rather than naively assume that literature in its creativity and joie de vivre is somehow innately good, or innocently claim (as did critics such as Matthew Arnold in the nineteenth century and F.R. Leavis in the twentieth) that reading and studying literature in some ’natural’ way makes you a ’better’ person, we should recognize instead that literary creativity has at least as much to do with evil as with good. In his influential and characteristically religious essay ’The Function of Criticism at the Present Time’ (1864), Arnold described literature as ’the promised land’ that contains ’the best that is known and thought in the world’ (Arnold 1964, 34, 33). Very much within this Christian-spiritualistic critical tradition, Leavis propounded a theory of literature as the embodiment of ’our spiritual tradition … the “picked experience of ages”’ (Leavis and Thompson 1964, 82). Such conceptions epitomize the sorts of spurious claims traditionally made of what Leo Bersani has described (and incisively criticized) as ’the authoritative, even redemptive virtues of literature’ (Bersani 1990, 1). Indeed, it may be said that there is something diabolical about the literary. As Elizabeth Bowen once remarked, the novelist is a kind of fiend: the novelist exposes his (or her) characters to ’a relentless daylight in which nothing is hid. No human being, other than a fiend, would treat his [or her] fellow humans, in daily life, in so ruthless, uncompromising a manner’ (Bowen 1970, 22). As Georges Bataille makes clear in his pathbreaking study Literature and Evil (1953), a collusion between creation, imagination and evil is characteristic of literary works in general. ’Literature is not innocent’, writes Bataille: ’Literature, like the infringement of moral laws, is dangerous’ (Bataille 1985, x, 25).

We can illustrate this by considering the example of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). In the following lines from Book 1, Milton describes the unsettling ability that devils have of being able to change instantaneously from the size of giants to the size of pygmies or to the size of ’fairy elves’:

… they but now who seemed

In bigness to surpass Earth’s giant sons

Now less than smallest dwarfs, in narrow room

Throng numberless, like that Pygmean race

Beyond the Indian mount, or fairy elves,

Whose midnight revels, by a forest side

Or fountain some belated peasant sees,

Or dreams he sees, while overhead the moon

Sits arbitress, and nearer to the earth

Wheels her pale course: they on their mirth and dance

Intent, with jocund music charm his car;

At once with joy and fear his heart rebounds. (ll.777—88)

Unfolding the comparison of devils with ’fairy elves’, these lines have to do with seduction and uncertainty, the charming power of music (or, by extension, poetry) — to which even the moon seems drawn — and the rebounding undecidability of ’joy and fear’, the moment in which one does not know what one sees (or dreams one sees). Is one charmed by this vision or not? Milton leaves the comparison there, on the point of the rebound. And in a sense the whole of Paradise Lost is inscribed in the moment of this rebounding heart.

The passage from Paradise Lost demonstrates the workings of a powerful ambivalence and what we might call an aesthetic tribute to the devilish. This may help to explain William Blake’s famous remark about Paradise Lost, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790) ’The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.’ One of the most controversial literary critics of the past 50 years, Harold Bloom, has elaborated an entire theory of poetry (Bloom 1973) in accordance with this Blakean insight: for Bloom, Milton’s Satan is the very epitome of the strong modern (i.e. Miltonic and post-Miltonic) poet. In any case it seems clear that Milton’s great epic poem, and Blake’s poetry in turn, is profoundly indebted to a kind of aesthetic of evil. As Bataille shows, evil and the literary imagination are in cahoots. We could illustrate this quite succinctly in terms of Shakespeare’s Othello, by supposing that this play were retitled Iago: Iago may indeed be abominable, but he is clearly the imaginative focus of Shakespeare’s play, the embodiment of its creativity and dramatic energy. A similar case could be made for the ways Shakespeare draws us into the interior worlds of Richard III, or Edmund in King Lear, or the Macbeths. A corresponding sense of the literary aesthetic of evil is suggested by Henry James when he offers an explanation of the power of The Turn of the Screw (1898), in his comments on that short but enthralling horror novel in a preface to The Aspern Papers: ’Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough’, James says, ’… Make him [sic] think the evil, make him think it for himself…’ (James 1986, 343).

Putting our fifth edict in slightly different terms, we could say that literature tends towards the demonic: it is about entrancement, possession, being invaded or taken over. The word ’demonic’ here is deliberately ambiguous: a demon is ’an evil spirit’ or ’devil’, but can also be ’a friendly spirit or good genius’ (Chambers). It is in this respect that we might understand Jacques Derrida’s contention that a love of poetry is inseparable from the experience of a kind of ’demon of the heart’, a demon in one’s heart (Derrida 1995b, 288—99). To argue that literature has an evil streak is not to imply a moral denunciation of literary works any more than it is to provide support for the liberalist notion that reading literature makes you a better person. At the very least, reading a literary work (or watching a play) entails an encounter with the unforeseeable: for better or worse, poems, stories and plays can alter our sense of the world, our selves. They can shake our thoughts and beliefs and trigger new ones, previously unentertained. Literary texts can be dangerous. No one is perhaps more palpably aware of this than the author of The Satanic Verses (1988) who, following the novel’s publication, notoriously became subject to a fatwa (a death sentence pronounced by a Muslim judicial authority). Reading literary texts engages us, in a disturbing but creative and singular way, in the obligation to ’think the evil for oneself’. The paradoxically creative force of evil in literary texts is what makes them in turn the exemplary space for experiencing the undecidable and for thinking about ethics. Far from being immoral or even amoral, literature involves us in what Bataille calls a ’hypermorality’ (Bataille 1985, ix). It confronts us with questions which call for different kinds of decision-making and critical responsibilities. Is The Satanic Verses an evil work? Is it any more evil than Paradise Lost, say, or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) or Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris (1935)? To rush to decisions in response to such questions is to turn a blind eye to the enigmatic powers of the literary and to ignore what could be called its peculiar ethical imperatives.

Sixth edict: literature is sacred

This would be another side to what is paradoxical about the literary. Salman Rushdie’s Herbert Read Memorial Lecture, ’Is Nothing Sacred?’ was given in his absence by Harold Pinter, at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London, on 6 February 1990: Rushdie himself was at that time in enforced hiding as a result of the fatwa and unable to appear in public for the occasion. Rushdie’s lecture starts off by stating that nothing is sacred:

[N]othing is sacred in and of itself…. Ideas, texts, even people can be made sacred — the word is from the Latin sacrare, ’to set apart as holy’ — but … the act of making sacred is in truth an event in history. It is the product of the many and complex pressures of the time in which the act occurs. And events in history must always be subject to questioning, deconstruction, even to declaration of their obsolescence. (Rushdie 1990, 3)

But the lecture then moves on to cast doubt on this idea that nothing is sacred. Rushdie suggests that he may be obliged ’to set aside as holy the idea of the absolute freedom of the imagination and alongside it [his] own notions of the World, the Text and the Good’ (5). He goes on to speculate on the idea that art can and must offer us something like ’a secular definition of transcendence’ where transcendence is defined as ’that flight of the human spirit outside the confines of its material, physical existence which all of us, secular or religious, experience on at least a few occasions’ (7). Finally, Rushdie withdraws and appears to want to retract these earlier claims about art and, in particular, literature. He declares: ’[N]ow I find myself backing away from the idea of sacralizing literature with which I flirted at the beginning of this text; I cannot bear the idea of the writer as secular prophet’ (14).

The shifts in Rushdie’s position, the different kinds of flirtation going on in this brief text, ’Is Nothing Sacred?’ are neatly illustrative of the seemingly paradoxical, contradictory nature of the concept of literature. We may, as readers or students or teachers, be powerfully motivated by a sense of the secular (and even, to phrase it more provocatively, by a sense that religion has been the greatest evil in human history, that it is nothing more than what Don Cupitt calls a ’hatred machine’ (Cuppit 1997, 98)). But so long as we are concerned with the question of literature, we are concerned with what is sacred. The murder in 1991 of Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, may allow us to reflect sombrely on the terrible blindness by which certain people have arrived at the belief that The Satanic Verses is an evil work, a blasphemous book which cannot or should not be read as fictional (or in that sense ’literary’) at all. But it also tragically gestures towards what may after all be the something that is sacred about literature, namely its untranslatability. Jacques Derrida has spoken of this, in the context of the German writer and philosopher Walter Benjamin, as follows:

[I]f there is something untranslatable in literature (and, in a certain way, literature is the untranslatable), then it is sacred. If there is any literature, it is sacred; it entails sacralization. This is surely the relation we have to literature, in spite of all our denegations in this regard. The process of sacralization is underway whenever one says to oneself in dealing with a text: Basically, I can’t transpose this text such as it is into another language; there is an idiom here; it is a work; all the efforts at translation that I might make, that it itself calls forth and demands, will remain, in a certain way and at a given moment, vain or limited. This text, then, is a sacred text. (Derrida 1985b, 148)

The sacred nature of literature has to do with this logic of untranslatable singularity. As critics such as Terry Eagleton (1996) have stressed, literary studies in Britain and the United States, for example, in many ways arose out of the desire or need to find a substitute for religion. As soon as we set it apart (sacrare) and recognize the singularity or uniqueness of a work, its demand that it be translated and its insistence on being untranslatable, we are engaging with the sacred.

To be, or not to be, that is the question…

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun…

Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three…

Further reading

Salman Rushdie’s ’Is Nothing Sacred?’ (1990) is an accessible and very stimulating essay on literature and the sacred. Jonathan Culler’s ’Political Criticism: Confronting Religion’ (1988b) is clear and provocative, as is the book on which his discussion is centrally focused, William Empson’s Milton’s God (1965). On religion and the historical emergence of English Studies in Britain, see Eagleton 1996. Amardeep Singh’s Literary Secularism: Religion and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Fiction (2006) explores the continuing, if oblique, importance of religion in the novelistic practice of ostensibly secular twentieth-century writers. For a challenging reading of Nietzsche’s ’God is dead’, see Heidegger’s ’The Word of Nietzsche’ (1977). For a collection of complex but fascinating essays on God and language, religion, law, philosophy and politics, see Jacques Derrida’s Acts of Religion (Derrida 2002b). On deconstruction as a thinking and a politics ’without religion’, see Martin Hägglund’s Radical Atheism (2008). The philosophical complexity and theoretical richness of Hägglund’s study is in marked contrast to Christopher Hitchens’s more polemical and more talked-about God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007). For two excellent studies that consider the Bible itself from a literary critical perspective, see Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981) and The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985). Jasper and Prickett, eds, The Bible and Literature: A Reader (1999) gathers together a splendid array of literary works (from St Augustine to Barthes and beyond) keyed into specific passages of the Bible. For a useful collection of texts concerned with historical perspectives on the question of evil, see Rorty (2001). A helpful general survey of theology in relation to the work of various contemporary theorists and philosophers can be found in Graham Ward (1996). For a few challenging and thought-provoking books on some of the paradoxes of religion today, see Don Cupitt, After God (1997), Hent de Vries, Philosophy and the Turn to Religion (1999), Derrida and Vattimo, eds, Religion (1998), and John D. Caputo and Gianni Vattimo’s After the Death of God (2007).