Literature and Anti-literature

The Hatred of Literature - William Marx 2015

Literature and Anti-literature

LITERATURE IS A SOURCE OF SCANDAL. It always has been. This is what defines it.

Reader, be warned: if you do not want to be scandalized, throw out this book before it is too late. Otherwise, welcome. But be aware that the scandal will not always be where you expect it.

ANTI-LITERATURE is the term used for any discourse that is opposed to literature and defines it through the process of opposing it. Literature, then, is any discourse to which anti-literature is opposed. There is no literature without anti-literature.

Let’s explore this circle.

WHAT IS LITERATURE? Too many things: no object that has remained identical through the centuries can claim this beautiful name. The reality is so diverse, the name so flatly constant. Yet we use it, without much concern, to refer to texts dating back three thousand years in the Western world. (Mesopotamia and Egypt would take us further back in time; they could easily be included in this vast and flexible denomination.)

This book also uses the word literature, for lack of another currently available term and out of linguistic convenience, with the understanding that it does not imply a univocal reality.

What could possibly allow us to group together three thousand years of poetry, fiction, and theater, Homer and Beckett, Aeschylus and Bolaño, Dante and Mishima? In logical terms, nothing at all—except for the fact that this discourse has been kept apart from all others and has met with constant opposition. It has been a permanent opponent—public enemy no. 1—the thing we most love to scorn, attack, and belittle.

Literature is always the weakest, most suspect discourse, the one that is always on the verge of going out of fashion and being left behind. Other discourses have a positive identity, which, although sometimes questioned, is always asserted: philosophy seeks wisdom, science the truth of nature, theology the knowledge of God, etc. Only literature lacks its own objects. It had some once, but they were stolen.

—SURELY YOU’RE EXAGGERATING! Other discourses have faced constant attacks, starting with philosophy. Socrates was the first martyr, don’t forget, and many others followed.

—Yes, but Socrates attacked Homer, and Homer hadn’t attacked anyone.1

PHILOSOPHY WAS BORN by clashing with the discourse that came before it, denying it any claim to authority, truth, or morality. In so doing, it implicitly defined some of the most salient features of literature.

In Archaic Greece, poetry was the discourse of the Muses: words of truth, inspired by the Muses. At the time, there were only two fundamentally reliable discourses: that of the law, and that of the Muses. Any other discourse aspiring to a place of honor had to position itself in relation to these two. This is exactly what Plato did in The Republic, by inventing new laws and exiling the poets—two closely related acts. It is no accident that condemnations of poetry run as a leitmotif through Plato’s dialogue.

What followed is well known: the poets wound up naked and poor, and this asceticism became their fate. Or, to put it another way, literature is what remains when everything else has been removed.

WHICH IS NOT TO SAY that writers have not taken a stab at criticizing discourses: Aristophanes attacked philosophers, Molière reviled physicians, Flaubert assailed the positive sciences, and, more recently, Jean-Charles Massera and Michel Houellebecq have taken on the dominant ideologies. But this critical discourse is not foundational.

Literature can also occasionally lash out at itself: there are no fiercer or more justified attacks than those by writers, from Don Quixote to Witold Gombrowicz, from Paul Valéry to the surrealists. These attacks, during certain periods of crisis, have to do with championing a different kind of literature, pushing literature to evolve, or inventing another ideal.

I discussed these internal attacks at length in my book L’Adieu à la littérature (Farewell to literature). In the present book, the attacks in question come from the outside, and the farewell is spoken without a trace of nostalgia.2

IN THE OPPOSITION to other art forms—music, painting, sculpture—something different is at stake. In this case the front is clearly defined: the opposition does not encroach upon its opponent’s territory or turn its own weapons against it. Anti-music has no interest in musical notes, just as the anti-painter has little use for brushes and easels.3

Here, on the other hand, confusion reigns: anti-literary discourse and literature share a medium, the medium of language, and the result is a fratricidal struggle to occupy the territory and symbolically mark it—an effort that must constantly be renewed. The first battles do not prevent later incursions or provocations, and hostilities are resumed ad infinitum.

REPEATED THEFTS, attacks at every opportunity, and verbal, rather than physical, assaults: since Plato—and even a little earlier, if one includes Heraclitus and Xenophanes of Colophon—the aggressors have had a field day. The wildest, most absurd, and most ridiculous arguments have been used to denounce literature.4

Sometimes these discourses provide an implicit description of the literature of their time: they outline its ambitions, its powers, and its failures; they express expectations for literature, which naturally are never met; and, paradoxically, they enable a deeper understanding of the very literature they attack, as well as its ideological context.

But most of the time, as with every kind of madness, repetition rules; the same arguments are brought up over and over again. Plato already uses nearly all of them.

For anti-literature is anything but a reasonable discourse: it is a foundational scene that everyone wants to reenact at one point or another, to gain status or simply to exist. Literature serves as an ideal target, a punching bag, a foil—a springboard.

Anti-literary discourses do not always strive for the death of their opponent: they are often satisfied to squash it so they can take their turn at enjoying existence. If there had been no literature, anti-literature would eventually have invented it.

THE STORY of anti-literature follows the Macbeth model: told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, and meaning nothing. Rather than drawing up a useless chronological list of these repetitive discourses, this book discusses the four principal suits brought against literature:

—in the name of authority (to put other authorities in the place of literature)

—in the name of truth (literature is worthless compared with science)

—in the name of morality (literature is destructive of every kind of norm)

—in the name of society (writers are forbidden to hold rank in society or to speak in its name)

These four trials are difficult to separate: certain arguments about truth are also relevant to the moral question and are related to the refusal of authority. Nonetheless, they outline four principal fronts, four primal scenes that are reenacted in different contexts, under various terms, with varying levels of talent.

I will consider only the most general discourses, excluding those that exclusively target certain writers and literary movements, as well as individual acts of censorship and criticism of specific genres—the novel, fiction, theater—which were widespread from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries.5 However, I mention some of these specific arguments when they are relevant to the general polemic.

These four trials have been constantly repeated, through eternal return and with slight variations, legal quibbling, and controversy, amid a flurry of lawyers, prosecutors, and lowly court clerks. Reader, you are entering a gallery of grotesques: a philologist dozing on his golden chair, a failed chemist giving a blockbuster lecture, a Dominican priest fulminating from the pulpit, a Protestant minister in the grips of an Oedipal crisis. You will encounter along the way a king, an emperor, a president of France, and a handful of government ministers. And even a few heroes and white knights of the literary cause.

AND YET THERE was a time before the trials. A mythical time, mythologized by anti-literature itself, in far-off Greece, where poets had specific powers and appeared as servants of transcendence, bearers of a prodigious discourse that inspired respect: a discourse of authority and truth; a literature before anti-literature, from which the entire chain of subsequent reactions was determined, and without knowledge of which the four trials-to-come would be incomprehensible. Words from elsewhere. Magical, sacred words.

These words are the focus of the brief but necessary historical overture that follows.

Call the defendant.