First Trial: Authority
Hector emerges from a hat. Genesis of literature. The poet naked and exiled. Parable of the two kings. Xenophanes of Colophon. On authority regarding kittens and their mittens. The violence of Heraclitus. Archilochus’s cow and Homer’s lice. Three attempts at a definition of literature. A weapon of mass seduction. Lying, a privilege of state. The versatility of the poet. Truth is a new idea. How philosophy rewrote The Odyssey. The first book-burning. The jealous old rhetor. A world without revelation. Chairman Plato’s cultural revolution. No Republic in the Republic. Jesus and Paul versus the men of letters. The surprising rise of the Catholic novelist. Three saints to the rescue of literature. Isidore’s guilty conscience. An anti-literary psalm. Is it better to burn heretics or grammarians? The holiness of barbarism. God doesn’t care about grammar. Poets are pagans. How Thomas Aquinas saved literature. Anti-literature in Rome.
POETS PRIDE THEMSELVES on being “servants of the Muses.”1 Wouldn’t it be better to serve the truth? They have been reminded of this time and time again.
For indeed, the form of discourse in which the speaker claims not to be the author is certainly annoying. Making the dead speak, conjuring up absent beings, making us believe in their presence: can all this really be taken seriously? Line 299 of book 8 of The Iliad is like an epistemological scandal, a cheap piece of verbal sleight-of-hand: Hector appearing in the guise of a mad dog, like a rabbit pulled out of a top hat?2 Come on! It’s about time this masquerade came to an end.
—What is it called, by the way?
You could call it literature, and its problems are only beginning.
IN FACT, it is when literature begins to have problems that it actually begins. It does not start with Homer, with Gilgamesh, or with the romantic period, but with Plato driving the poets out of the city, just as God drove our first forebears out of Eden. That is literature’s genesis, and this genesis is a historical fact.
As long as we lack consciousness, we do not exist. Did Adam and Eve really exist, nonchalantly strolling among the flowers and animals in earthly paradise, effortlessly speaking a language understood by all in a blissful melding with the world and its Creator? From the day they discovered that they were naked and that this nakedness brought them shame, they were conscious. They became fully human, these two who had previously been satisfied with being—a huge step, but one that was easy to take. All they had to do was eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The tree did not need to have some hidden quality or mysterious power: any tree, plant, or rock can easily provide this knowledge, as long as it is forbidden. Any old closet, drawer, or box in a house will do the trick: what child, what Ariadne, could resist opening the seventh door in Bluebeard’s castle? The nature of the forbidden object has little importance: the most ordinary object will not be the least effective—far from it. The law creates the sin, says the Apostle, since the prohibition creates covetousness, but in doing so it opens a space to consciousness, freedom, and existence.3
So it went with the poets: they described the world, the gods, the heroes—not on their own, as things they knew that they knew, the way I know from experience, for instance, that the sun is shining outside this window, that my hand has five fingers, and that the cat closes its eyes when I rub its head—but through the effect of an innate knowledge, a knowledge without consciousness and without proof, the knowledge that the Muses lavish upon their faithful servants.
Then came the philosopher, who, for his part, really knew, that is, knew that he knew or even knew that he did not know, the essential in this case being that he was not unaware of the conditions either of this knowledge or this ignorance. At the same time, he also knew that the poets did not know with real knowledge and that they produced only the appearance of knowledge. Socrates demonstrated this at length to the rhapsode Ion, who strutted about in town squares but came away from this conversation sheepish and humiliated, his arrogance defeated.
This is how the poets came to know that they were naked, like the proverbial emperor, and that they would never again be able to touch the tree of knowledge or claim to share its fruit. This is also how they learned that they were not philosophers.
And this is how they became poets.
THE FIRST LESSON OF PHILOSOPHY: whatever it is that poets do, it’s not philosophy. What a lesson! The poets’ cheeks are still stinging from it. But if it isn’t philosophy that they’re doing, what is it?
TWO KINGS LIVE UNEASILY in the same city. One king will eventually want to cut off the other king’s head. In the best of cases, he will settle for driving him out, and leave it at that.
One day, the philosophers decided to take power and become kings. They built an ideal city and banned poetry and poets once and for all. They would have cut off the poets’ heads if they could have, just like the rulers of Athens had sentenced Socrates to drink poison.
In the Greek city, it is always one discourse against another: every political victory is a victory for a particular discourse. Conversely, there is no discourse that is not political. The philosophers’ ban on poetry is not just a particularly long-winded showdown: it is a struggle for power—or for influence over power.
* * *
IN FACT, the trial of literature did not exactly begin with Plato.4 First, because Plato was not targeting literature as such, in the modern sense of the word, but something that would become literature—and would become it precisely because of this ban on poets. But also because Plato was not the first to draw his weapon.
The first attack of which evidence has survived was by Xenophanes of Colophon, who lived sometime between 570 and 470 BCE. We know very little about Xenophanes, outside of a few fragments. Among these fragments, one finds a peculiar drinking song—peculiar not because it fails to open with an invocation to the Muses (nothing unusual about that: the Muses were typically not invited to drinking sessions), but for its provocative conclusion, consisting of an all-out attack on the old poems inspired by the nine sisters:
Praise the man who when he has taken drink brings noble deeds to light,
as memory and a striving for virtue bring to him.
He deals neither with the battles of Titans nor Giants
nor Centaurs, fictions of old,
nor furious conflicts—for there is no use in these.
But it is good always to hold the gods in high regard.5
Though the Muses are not named, this is clearly aimed at them and challenges the idea that they are a source of inspiration. The battles of the Titans were the subject of their first song, intended to celebrate the victory of the Olympians, and one does not have to search far to realize that the phrase “furious conflicts” refers to The Iliad. In short, the nine sisters are dismissed. Though said to be their mother, Memory (mnêmosynê) does not arrive through their intervention, but simply through the effect of wine—this purely material and physiological source of inspiration is as good as any other. The great poems of the tradition are qualified as “inventions,” or “fictions” (plasmata), far removed from the truth to which Homer and Hesiod innocently referred, and equally remote from virtue. Out of consideration for the gods, the drinkers are invited to sing of real exploits and to reject the old poems, full of lies and impurities.
Elsewhere, Xenophanes expresses his criticism of poetry in even more explicit terms. “[From] the beginning all have learned according to Homer,” he notes in a resigned manner. The problem, he adds, is that Homer’s teaching is worthless: “Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all sorts of things which are matters of reproach and censure among men, theft, adultery, and mutual deceit.”6 How can we grant authority to teachers such as these?
IN THIS HANDFUL OF FRAGMENTS, we find the principal criticisms that for centuries would endlessly be directed at poets and at literature in general: poets and literature are full of lies and immorality, immorality and lies—no matter the order, there is no escaping it. The immediate conclusion: take away any authority they have in the city, at school, over children, and so on.
Except that perhaps one needs to invert this reasoning to fully grasp its ins and outs: the essential point of this line of argument is the question of authority. You wouldn’t dream of criticizing the absurdity of nursery rhymes on the grounds, for instance, that kittens do not wear mittens or that even if they did, it is unlikely that they would hang them out to dry. Yet what a lot of lies for a single little story! No one finds fault with it, though, because even children don’t put much stock in these empty words.
It’s a different story when it comes to Homer and Hesiod—or at least until Xenophanes, Plato, and a few others got involved in the debate. The reason it became worthwhile to attack Homer is that he was never a Mother Goose for good little Greek kids: as Xenophanes recognized, Homer was nothing less than the instructor to all of Greece, along with his colleague Hesiod. To replace the teacher, one had to begin by criticizing him.
* * *
XENOPHANES’S POSITION is especially interesting given that he himself did not stop using the poetic, versified language that was already the substance of the great founding poems. Like Homer and Hesiod, he used dactylic hexameter—in other words, epic verse. Verse was at that time the mark of excellent discourse, the discourse of authority, no matter its object; it served to lift language out of ordinary usage. There was no antinomy between verse and truth. Scholars were not only in the habit of versifying, but they could not do otherwise: verse was the vehicle of transcendent knowledge.
As it happens, Xenophanes does not settle for writing in verse: as we have seen, he composes drinking songs or, more accurately, banquet elegies to be recited at the ritual moment of libations, when the assembled move from food to drink. Yes, these elegies are intended to be critical, but they are elegies nonetheless: Xenophanes is fighting on practically the same field as the poets he attacks. The “noble deeds” he wants to hear songs about should, in his opinion, replace the false and immoral epics of his predecessors. He is not promoting a radically different type of discourse, but rather a new poetry, with a more legitimate foundation in truth and goodness. Or, to put it very anachronistically: an other literature, rather than a non-literature.
CONSEQUENTLY, Xenophanes’s place in the history of philosophy remains exceedingly ambiguous. Was he an early philosopher? Was he still a poet in the traditional sense? Scholars continue to ponder these questions, and while the lack of available material makes a definitive answer unlikely, the principal difficulty may be that the separation of the two discourses was not yet complete.7
Half a century later, however, the appearance of Heraclitus opens a new era, in which Xenophanes does not escape the criticism leveled at the other representatives of the old school of erudite poetry: “The learning of many things does not teach understanding, else would it have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, and again Xenophanes and Hecataeus.”8
The discourse of knowledge (polumathiê), however vast, is not the discourse of intelligence (nous). Didactic poetry is the province of the former and is represented by Hesiod, who has little more to offer than the scholars who succeeded him. Elsewhere, Heraclitus aims a few contemptuous remarks at Hesiod: “Hesiod is most men’s teacher. Men think he knew very many things, a man who did not know day or night! They are one.”9 What intelligence teaches Heraclitus—that “it is the same thing in us that is quick and dead, awake and asleep, young and old,” that “God is day and night, winter and summer, satiety and hunger,” and that “the way up and the way down is one and the same”—the Muses did not deign to teach to Hesiod.10 That being the case, how can we value their teaching, which the aoidos and society held in such high esteem?
As for Homer, is it still necessary to talk about him? Heraclitus could not be more disparaging: “Homer should be turned out of the lists and whipped, and Archilochus likewise.”11 It is poetry itself that is targeted here, for the Greeks saw Homer and Archilochus as the most famous embodiments of poetry, the first for the epic and the second for lyricism.
We have seen how much Homer respected the Muses. Archilochus was no less sincere in his respect. As a child, he had set out to the market to sell a cow, when he encountered nine mysterious young women in the night. They made fun of him, then vanished with his cow, replacing it with a lyre: he had just met the Muses. So goes the ancient legend explaining how Archilochus simultaneously discovered poetry and satire, of which he would become the undisputed master.12 Such familiarity with the Muses should have motivated Heraclitus to restrain himself and show some respect; but on the contrary, it made him lash out at Homer and Archilochus as if they were lowly servants, apparently without worrying that he might meet the same fate as the murderer of Archilochus, who was driven out of the sanctuary of Delphi by the Pythia for having killed a man devoted to the Muses.13
Heraclitus’s judgment of Homeric works is characterized by contempt for the Muses and an aristocratic attitude: according to Heraclitus, these works should be considered childish things. “Men,” he writes, “are deceived in their knowledge of things that are manifest, even as Homer was who was the wisest of all the Greeks. For he was even deceived by boys killing lice when they said to him: ’What we have seen and grasped, these we leave behind; whereas what we have not seen and grasped, these we carry away.’ ”14
Here is Homer, Greece’s teacher, fooled by a childish riddle, failing to see through the paradox because he is once again unable to understand the unity of opposites. If the poet of the Trojan War was duped by plain old lice, how can we trust him in matters of human and divine realities?
According to Heraclitus, poetry is no better than common opinion, as held by the majority of people, in opposition to which he wants to propose a discourse closer to the truth. Not just any discourse, but the ultimate discourse: that of reason, logos itself.15
First Attempt at a Definition of Literature
With Heraclitus, a new kind of speech appears, a new discursive form: not in verse, but in prose. This is the language of logos, which is distinct from poetic language.
Admittedly, Heraclitus did not invent Greek prose: the credit for that is traditionally given to Cadmus of Miletus, Anaximander, or Pherecydes of Syros, who lived a few decades or even a century earlier.16 But with Heraclitus the demand for a higher and truer discourse is developed, surpassing all the others and throwing them on the scrap heap. A discourse without compromise, so faithful to the reality of the world that it has no need for the charms of poetry and does not hesitate to go against the ordinary usages of language in order to provide a more accurate description of reality: “the Sibyl, with raving lips uttering things solemn, unadorned, and unembellished, reaches over a thousand years with her voice because of the god in her.”17
What the Sibyl can do thanks to the god Apollo, Heraclitus claims he can accomplish thanks to intelligence and logos, plain and unadorned. He alone keeps watch while the others sleep.18
Literature is the sleep of reason.
Apollo was once the god of poetry and truth. Since Heraclitus, he is only the god of poetry. So do idols fall and shatter.
Criticism of literature is always exercised in the name of another authority, whether religious, political, or philosophical. One only overthrows something in a position of power to put something else in its place:
—Is it a revolt?
—No, Sire, it is a revolution.
Naturally, there cannot be a coup d’état without a state or an authority: the appearance of anti-literature implies that literature was initially in a position of power.
Or, to be more specific, there was a power before Heraclitus, and it is to this forgotten lost power that we now give the name literature.
Literature is nostalgia for a fallen power.
The power that rises and drives out the other is philosophy—for there was a time when the love of wisdom (philosophia) curiously coincided with the hatred of poetry.
However, even in Plato, the prince of philosophers—and prince of anti-literature—the attacks were aimed neither at all of poetry nor at every possibility of poetry.
It was more like a hatred of something that did not yet have a name. In seeking to define itself and position itself in the field of discourses, philosophy defined its opposite. We should be grateful to it for that.
Literature is what remains when the other discourses have completely taken over the field. It claims the smallest share.
Literature is what is attacked. Even the smallest share can still be reduced, can’t it? (Read: scribblers, be happy with what you’ve been left—it’s already more than you deserve.)
LITERATURE is what is exiled—for after Heraclitus came Plato, who has remained in the collective memory as the greatest exiler of poets in the entire history of anti-literature (on paper, it goes without saying: there is no record of Plato personally carrying out mass deportations—probably for lack of opportunity).19
The fact that in Ancient Greece the condemnation of poetry is expressed in the form of exile shows that the issue is eminently political. It is a question of power: in the ideal city conceived by Socrates, who will be the best suited to exercise it? Book 5 of The Republic provides the answer: the philosopher.
Compared with the philosopher, the poet is but a dangerous charmer:
Now, as it seems, if a man who is able by wisdom to become every sort of thing and to imitate all things should come to our city, wishing to make a display of himself and his poems, we would fall on our knees before him as a man sacred, wonderful, and pleasing: but we would say that there is no such man among us in the city, nor is it lawful for such a man to be born there. We would send him to another city, with myrrh poured over his head, and crowned with wool.20
This is certainly a more courteous procedure than Heraclitus’s whippings, but aside from the physical pain, the result is the same: the poet does not have the right to live in the perfect city and is sent to the neighboring state as a pernicious agent with the ability to undermine the enemy.
Here we have a use for poetry undreamt of by its opponents today: poetry as a weapon of mass seduction. But for that, one would have to believe in its power, the way Socrates and Plato do: they do not drive out the poets because they are useless, but because they are harmful.
Not all the poets, however—for immediately after throwing them out in a flurry of ironic considerations, Socrates admits that a certain kind of poetry is useful:
We ourselves would use a more austere and less pleasing poet and teller of tales for the sake of benefit, one who would imitate the style of the decent man and would say what he says in those models that we set down as laws at the beginning, when we undertook to educate the soldiers.21
So there is another type of poetry: one authorized by the state, with a place in civic and military schooling. What is at issue here is strictly power and authority: the lies of poetry are dangerous not because every lie is dangerous, but because every lie is dangerous when it is not told by the state. Only the city has the right to lie, and these lies are too valuable to be left in the hands of poets:
Then, it’s appropriate for the rulers, if for anyone at all, to lie for the benefit of the city in cases involving enemies or citizens, while all the rest must not put their hands to anything of the sort.22
Significantly, it is not poetry itself that is condemned, but the poets, who are criticized for a lack of authority, in the strongest sense of the term: they are not authorized to lie, for they are unable to vouch for the consequences of their tales.
This accusation appears to be the negative side of the poetic aura. Speaking through Socrates, Plato readily admits that the poet is indisputably “sacred,” “wonderful,” and “pleasing” and that he charms his audience. This passage from The Republic repeats a description found earlier in Ion:
For a poet is a light and winged and sacred thing, and is unable ever to compose until he has been inspired and put out of his senses, and his mind is no longer in him: every man, while he retains possession of that [faculty], is powerless to write verse or chant an oracle.23
The problem is that this divine inspiration strips the poet of both his mastery and his identity, which go hand in hand. Since he does not create by virtue of an art but by “divine privilege,” he has no control over his work. In the process, he loses an essential property of human beings: reason, or intelligence (nous), which Heraclitus already deplored the absence of in Hesiod.24
As it happens, the poet’s madness is coupled with another pathology that is equally dire: the loss of individuality, which, etymologically, is “dementia”—taking leave of one’s own mind (demens). By being able to speak for several entities in succession, to embody numerous characters, and literally “to become all sorts of things” (pantodapon gignesthai), the poet, in a disquieting way, avoids the unity and coherence that is the lot of ordinary mortals: he is the various, the undulating, the elusive transformist, always a stranger both to others and to himself. How could a city accept such words from elsewhere, without author or authority?
If ever poetry must be present in the city, it can only be in the form of a properly authorized poetry.
IN THIS PLATONIC REPUBLIC that the philosopher wants to see as a solidly organized, hierarchical, monolithic whole, can there be any worse threat than alienation, a virus carried deep inside poets themselves?
In Archaic Greece, many poets lived an itinerant life, roaming from one city to the next to participate in competitions and sell their songs to audiences who had fallen under their spell, traveling here and there to deliver words that were always foreign, if only in their inspired utterance. Their mere presence would serve to invalidate the utopia of a self-sufficient republic closed in on itself and set up as a system of defense against the outside world.
One must remember this historical context in order to detect the rejection of exteriority and refusal of pernicious foreign influences behind the Platonic condemnation of the poets. It is first and foremost a question of politics: who will have power in the new city? Many answers are conceivable, but one thing is certain and not up for discussion: authority will not be shared with strangers. The territorialization of power entails the end of winged, mobile, migrant, uncontrollable speech.
TRUTH, in the modern sense of the term, was a new idea at the time: it was not necessarily thought that truth had to be unambiguous and separate from the conditions of its utterance. Was Plato himself convinced of the possibility of a real absolute, one that was unique, timeless, universal, utterable, and writable? There is reason to doubt it, if we consider that in his dialogues he hid behind the mask of Socrates or some other foreigner passing through Athens: the polyphony of conversations on the agora or on the banks of the Ilisos is every bit as good as inspiration by the Muse.25
One thing is certain: if there was only one truth, then the authority granted to certain kinds of speech now had to be automatically stripped from every other kind—or the latter had to be subordinated to the former. The discrimination of discourses was underway.
The banishment of the poets corresponds to both a change of political regime and an upheaval of the regime of truth. In Archaic Greece, the plural truth was taught by three kinds of teachers: the aoidos, the soothsayer, and the king.26 Plato establishes a new regime, in which the philosopher plays the most important part. The poet bears the consequences of this transition from one system to another: what could his place be in a world governed by philosopher kings who are the voice of both truth and authority? This holy alliance of knowledge and power necessarily excludes other pretenders from the regime; it is no more and no less than a coup d’état (but a virtual one, since here the play of the mind is primary).
Exit the poet, then—but not poetry. Isn’t it curious that book 10 of The Republic, in which Plato’s fiercest attacks against these shady fabricators are concentrated, is also the book that includes one of the most famous Platonic myths? This myth, the story of Er the Pamphylian, concludes The Republic with a description of the hereafter and the mechanism of rebirth; it is as if as soon as poetry and mythical imagination were chased out the door, they came back in through the window.
Socrates himself underlines the parallel with the Homeric songs, both at the beginning and the end of this passage, announcing first that he’s not going to tell “a story of Alcinous, … but rather of a strong man, Er, son of Armenius, by race a Pamphylian,” then concluding with the exemplary case of Odysseus in Hades, who wisely chooses to be reborn as “a private citizen who minds his own business” rather than as a hero.27 There is also a nod to grammarians: according to Er, Ajax is the twentieth to choose a new life, just as he had been the twentieth to meet Odysseus in his evocation of the dead in Homer.28
This eschatological myth thus transcends the existing myths and proclaims their end. In a way, Socrates comes up with a different Odyssey: not that of the legendary and false tales told by Odysseus to King Alcinous, but the true story of what happens to souls after death. Or to put it more precisely, the philosopher explains that it is impossible for there to be a new Odyssey, given that the new life Odysseus decides on is modest, invisible, and utterly uneventful. He has come a long way from the fabrications he had indulged in on the island of the Phaiacians. Having seen the light regarding the vanity of his adventures, the dead hero chooses an antiheroic existence of silence or—at least—an existence devoid of a narrative that would sum up his life as an antihero.
Yet an anti-Odyssey is still an Odyssey, though a different kind of Odyssey. The exile of the poets does not necessarily entail the end of poetry. From now on there will be poetic lies of state, which Socrates emphasizes the necessity for. More importantly, there will be philosophical (read: true) myths, destined to replace the old and dangerous epics and tragic legends. One discourse drives out another, truth drives out falsehood, philosophy drives out the epic. Poetry as such may disappear, but its performative and truth-telling function remains, taken on by a variety of people other than poets.
Could this final myth be seen as the ultimate contradiction, or the ultimate evidence of an irony used unsparingly both by Socrates and Plato, and which Leo Strauss has shown the importance of in The Republic itself?29 Fundamentally, it does not make much difference: rather than nullifying the competition between philosophy and poetry, the irony, if irony there is, underlines it. For the irony to be fully revealed, the dialogue must end with Socrates clearly engaging in the activity he had earlier condemned: the construction of myths. In this way, the equivalence between epic myth and philosophical myth is formally asserted, no matter what form it takes (substitution of one for the other or rejection of both).
Diogenes Laertius reports that in his youth, Plato “wrote poems, first dithyrambs, afterwards lyric poems and tragedies.” One day, “when he was about to compete for the prize with a tragedy, he listened to Socrates in front of the theater of Dionysus.” Plato, who was twenty at the time, decided to devote the rest of his life to philosophy.30 This is the first farewell to literature on record. And also the first public burning of poetry, at the hands of the prince of philosophers. The lesson is clear: poetry and philosophy are not compatible, but this is because they contend for the same powers, the same territories—and the same people.31
IN PHILOSOPHY’S DEFENSE, it was not alone in attacking poetry. The assaults came from several directions at once, as if poetry itself had manifested a curious tendency to arouse aggression and hostility.
And so during the very period that Plato was writing his Republic (380—360 BCE), we find the rhetor Isocrates producing his own anti-poetic couplet, accusing the poets of taking advantage of the ornaments of language to cleverly hide the weakness of their thought, and encouraging the public not to fall for it. Isocrates took the opportunity to propose a little experiment in textual manipulation worthy of the Oulipo:
If one retains the words and ideas of the most famous poems, but does away with their meter, they will appear far inferior to the opinion we now have of them.32
Turning poetry into prose was probably one of the traditional exercises of grammarians; it now made it possible to put the content of poems to the test and distinguish the substance from the form. The orator had to denounce the deception of versification, which adorns empty thought with frills and flounces, and show his talent by dealing with the same subjects as the poets but doing it better and in prose.
A decade later, the indictment was repeated when old Isocrates, the author of an imposing body of oratory work, bitterly reproached the Athenians for giving him less respect and recognition than they gave to Pindar for a single line describing the city as “the bulwark of Hellas”: while Isocrates, over eighty years old, found himself plagued with unfair taxes, Pindar had been given not only the fine title of ambassador, but the handsome sum of ten thousand drachmas.33 This disproportion was truly scandalous. Down with the poet!
The interesting thing here is that this assault against poetry was not launched in the name of philosophy. Or rather, yes, it is philosophy that Isocrates seeks to defend, for that is the term he uses, but the sense of the word is far removed from what Plato gave it and which it has basically kept to this day. By “philosophy,” Isocrates refers to general culture and the oratory art that was his trade—less a search for truth and virtue conceived as bodies of knowledge than a mere awareness and examination of opinions, along with rhetorical expertise. While relations between Isocrates and Plato were never particularly friendly, they could agree on at least one thing: the rejection of poetry, which was accused of dominating other discourses, and which they both declared held an unjustifiable position of strength.
In the first half of the fourth century, such domination was more likely a memory than a reality, a reminder of the practices of Archaic Greece and its “masters of truth.” But fundamentally it makes little difference: the tactic consists of choosing an enemy, even an imaginary, weakened one, to promote one’s own vision of the world. Poetry is always a convenient target for accusations of usurped authority, just as it can always be used to justify the existence of a rival discourse, whatever it may be—rhetoric for Isocrates, philosophy for Plato. And it is always available for all the energies of (so-called) good and truth to be mobilized against it, to be a black sheep or scapegoat against which to join forces.
IT IS NOT BY CHANCE that these first attacks took place in Ancient Greece, in Athens, rather than in Jerusalem, to mention the other center to which European civilization traditionally prides itself on tracing its origins. Poetry would not have been subjected to these attacks had the Greek religion been founded, like the Jewish one, on revealed texts and an official doctrine promoted by a sacerdotal hierarchy. As strange as it may seem to us, familiar as we are with the revealed religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—there was no Pentateuch in Ancient Greece, no equivalent to the Law and the prophets, and no voice of divine truth. While there were oracles, they offered only isolated truths. Instead, the Greek religion consisted of an amalgam of traditions, practices, and cults with indeterminate geographic and cultural boundaries, open to occasionally incorporating more or less foreign or distant gods and rites. The poets sometimes delved into all this to create their work and introduce a semblance of order, based on the time and place of utterance: what is known as a story. Produced in particular by the choruses of young men charged in each city with singing the exploits of the gods and heroes, these narratives were partial and, more importantly, contradicted one another. Given the lack of a single body of revealed words that prevailed over other discourses, a poetic text was qualified to articulate not the truth, but a truth about the gods. Neither Homer nor Hesiod escaped this general polyphony. Like the others, their work was theological; like the others, they explained the world, describing what happens underground and in the sky and proposing the first theories on humankind and the divine. Yet they were more admired than all the others, and their songs practically served as a bible, though they lacked the Bible’s authority and did not claim to be consistent. There was no unifying, reliable discourse.34 According to Plato, this was the problem.
Perhaps it is not so difficult for those of us in the West at the beginning of the twenty-first century to imagine a world without divine revelation: isn’t that the world we live in? A world in which magi, prophets, and sacred texts can barely be heard anymore, to the great dismay of clergies of all faiths. It is trickier, however, to conceive of a world in which, in spite of or precisely because of this absence, certain discourses are endowed with a particular aura and an authority that can make up not for the silence of the gods—for on the contrary they prove too talkative in this Hellas humming with oracles—but for their cacophony. The Muses were the great organizers of Archaic Greece, planners of the cosmos and memorialists of humans, heroes, and gods. But there remained a question to be asked openly: could they be trusted? This was the alarm raised by Plato. The Muses were probably not directly targeted—the gods wouldn’t stand for it—but the blows rained down on their servants, the poets.
It is no coincidence that Plato’s criticism of poetry focused on the question of the gods: the matter was too serious to be left in the hands of the poets. The horrors and absurdities they uninhibitedly reported about the Olympians indisputably proved their incompetence. It was essential to deprive the poets of the right to talk nonsense about such serious subjects, which exposed the city to great dangers, and to entrust doctrinal authority on divine matters only to those competent to deal with them: the philosophers, who stated loud and clear that their function was precisely to tell the truth about gods and humans.
THE CHARGE LEVELED at epic poetry also held for tragedy: surely the authors of tragedies were guilty of awakening harmful passions in the members of the audience. Gathering people at the theater to subject them to collective trances of terror and compassion could weaken a fighting nation, whose citizens were required to show their bravery on the battlefield. Such performances were a real public danger. If there had to be tragedy—that is, a dramatic representation of life—how could it be entrusted to mere private individuals? Equipped with these arguments, Plato sets out a simple, incontrovertible proposition in his final dialogue, The Laws: the city should, through its own actions, write “the most beautiful and best tragedy,” for the city’s constitution is already based on “a representation of the fairest and finest life.” This is “tragedy of the truest kind,” the only one worth seeing and hearing. Those who erect temporary stages, those “children sprung from the gentle Muses,”35 will simply have to set up camp elsewhere.
Although The Republic had mentioned the possibility of a different poetry taking the place of poetry as it was, the years had radicalized the elderly Plato: now, in The Laws, he plans nothing less than the end of all tragedy and poetry. In a sense, to declare the constitution the best tragedy is to impose the civil code as the only authorized reading material. And why not? History offers more than one example of such practices: as a theory of cultural revolution, The Laws is on a par with Mao’s Little Red Book.
In these circumstances, it is difficult not to suspect that Plato’s accusations against poetry, that it is immoral and dishonest, were mere pretexts in an overall strategy to achieve power. Convict the Muse of lying and then hang her: the first thing to do is to eliminate her in order to take her place. The most important thing is authority. The totalitarian state conceived by the philosopher only has room for one doctrinal authority, in order to ensure its cohesion and stability. The rest is a question of tactics. Poets are only banished because they are a threat to the totalitarian order.
THIS EXPLAINS WHY NOTHING TODAY is more subject to misunderstanding than Plato’s banishment of poets. Ironically, this is the philosophical proposition least comprehensible to our contemporaries, who do not realize that it accurately reflects their most quotidian reality.
The reason it is so difficult today to understand Socrates’s aggressive attitude toward poets is that poetry and literature in general have lost all authority or retain only a minute vestige of it, when even the memory of this lost authority has been more or less permanently blotted out—except among a few literary types lost in the great flux of unanimity. Why be so angry at these harmless, insignificant beings? Because they tell tall tales? Big deal! Even a child would not be taken in by them. What a strange idea to forbid the inconsequential. It’s like tilting at windmills.
This is how the thinking goes today, by which we make our first mistake: anachronism. Socrates was no Don Quixote: he knew exactly what he was doing by attacking poets, because in his time poetry was endowed with real power and an educational virtue; it was worth fighting against. Plato had enough enemies to want to avoid imaginary or unlikely ones.
The second mistake is more serious: blindness. This is the blindness of our contemporaries unable to see that they are living in the very world Plato hoped for, conceived, and willed, that is to say a society whose members only ever open a book to experience the purely gratuitous pleasures of the imagination; a world in which literature has lost nearly all power and authority and has become an empty shell merely used to pass the time by a shrinking class increasingly monopolized by many other distractions. For supposedly that is all we are talking about: enjoying ourselves. If Plato were to return and walk among us, how happy he would be to find that his plan for poets had been applied practically to the letter. Admittedly, they have not totally disappeared, but their fictions are most often read or seen only as mere fictions; their truth is at best allegorical, while in Homer it was literal. This internal exile is on a par with the banishment suggested by Socrates: less painful, perhaps less violent, but just as effective, if not more. If Plato were to return and walk among us, he would cut from The Republic all the passages dealing with poets, for they are now useless (both the poets and the passages): no need to write The Republic in the Republic.
In a way, Plato has won—perhaps not Plato directly, but his numerous epigones, who repeated his arguments over the centuries and adapted them to contemporary circumstances. The authority that poets still held in Plato’s time has now passed to science. Consequently, anti-literature today no longer has the meaning it did in Plato’s era, and the version practiced by Plato has become practically incomprehensible to us, despite the fact that we are his very heirs, we who have most effectively, though unwittingly, realized his program.36 Anti-literature has outlasted the literature it attacked, using apparently similar arguments, but endowed with other values because the context is different.
DID THE PHILOSOPHERS ever take power? Their attempts in Antiquity, whether involving Pythagoras or Plato, took a disastrous turn. Then a certain vision of the world carried out its coup d’état and imposed itself for centuries, first upon an empire, then an entire continent, and finally several continents at once: this was Christianity, the first of the universal totalitarianisms that aimed to rule over every aspect of humans, both internal and external, as well as over society. In any case, it was the first to succeed. And maybe the only one.
It was inevitable that Christianity would come into conflict with literature, given Jesus’s inherent preference for the ignorant and the simple-minded: “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the clever and intelligent, and hast revealed them unto babes.”37 Paul takes it one step further: he does not want to resort to the “cleverness of words” (sophia logou), for “it is written,” he continues, that “ ’I will destroy the cleverness of the clever, and will bring to nothing the intelligence of the intelligent.’ Where is the clever one? Where is the scribe (grammateus)? Where is the disputer of this world?”38
In short, a relentless war is declared. A war not only against the scribes and experts in words, but also against wise men (sophia combines both meanings): through the shared detestation of which they are now the object, literature and philosophy are one, four centuries after being bitter enemies in Athens. As the fable has it, the third thief is always the one to scoop the pot (if the reader will allow me this connection between Calvary and La Fontaine).
And yet Paul’s discourse is so skillful. His rhetoric so effective. His poetic imagery so astounding. Despite his anti-literary profession of faith, the last of the apostles, as he liked to call himself, was also one of the most brilliant writers of Antiquity (just as Plato, the denigrator of fiction, was a marvelous inventor of myths). And he was not completely unfamiliar with literary culture: one finds the occasional allusion to Menander and Aratus.
Which only goes to show that Christianity has an ambiguous relationship with literature. As revelation and transcendence, it claims to break with the entire literary heritage that preceded it in order to put forward a radically different Word, drawing its authority exclusively from God. Yet as incarnation, it has no choice but to make do with existing forms of language and thought, on which poetry and literature have left their nearly irreducible mark. Furthermore, Christianity’s historic triumph as the recognized religion of the Roman empire aggravated the internal rift by adding an unprecedented political complication: the new religion’s official status required it to take on the empire’s cultural heritage, which was marked by centuries of paganism, while at the same time, a specifically Christian culture and literature developed over the generations that became increasingly fit to rival pagan letters and, eventually, replace them.39 In short, what took place in Christianity’s complicated relationship with literature was nothing less than the repetition on a smaller scale of the drama (or mystery, if you prefer) of its historical existence: its survival and triumph came at the cost of its initial radicalness. The advent of holy ignorance was proclaimed, and what came along was the Catholic novelist: here we have a crude summary of two thousand years of Christian cultural history.
MANY WERE THE VOICES among the church fathers to rise up in favor of literature. In 397, Saint Jerome recommends that pagan literature should be treated like a captive woman whom one has taken for a wife after having removed all the hair from her head and body, following the elegant recommendations of the book of Deuteronomy, that is to say, after having rid her of any idolatry, error, or lust. He goes on to list the authors of the new Christian literature, of whom there were already many: by this time, there were enough to fill a library, which Jesus himself would have been surprised to see.40 As for Augustine of Hippo, he suggests that one should deal with literature in the manner of the Hebrews who fled from Egypt and took all of its riches with them—to put them to better use, of course.41 In the Greek world, Basil of Caesarea wrote a work entitled Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature. Everywhere one looks, these good fathers and doctors of the church are trying to save ancient and pagan literature and poetry, making compromises with the original radicalness of the evangelical message.
Such unanimity seems somewhat suspect. Isn’t it odd to find such eagerness to save something that should logically have been vigorously condemned? Let me venture a hypothesis: perhaps these texts represent only the visible part of the iceberg, the part that rose to the surface from an internal church debate about whether or not literature should be saved. The arguments in favor remained, and those against perforce disappeared: since anti-literature had lost the battle, accounts of it were neither preserved nor passed down, but simply tossed onto the trash heap of history. After all, those in the anti-literature camp were as a matter of principle less verbose than their opponents: while the former were loath to express their hatred in fine texts worthy of being copied by the monks of the Middle Ages, the defenders of poetry went down in history thanks to their beautiful words. If it is true that the opponents of literature chose not to leave a written record, this would explain why the dust of oblivion has settled over the Christian battlefield of literature versus anti-literature.
What remains of it, however, is still enough to fully gauge the violence of the conflict and the force of the arguments used. Here, one should quote the entire chapter of Isidore of Seville’s Sentences devoted to the “books of the pagans,” which condemns those “who took more pleasure in pondering the words of the pagans, due to the exaggerations and embellishments of their speech, than Holy Scripture, with its language full of humility”:
If externally the words of the pagans shine with the brilliance of eloquence, they remain empty of wisdom and virtue internally, while the sacred words, which externally display such careless language, are internally resplendent with the wisdom of the mysteries. This is why, as the Apostle also says, we carry this treasure in earthen vessels.42
Isidore sets up an opposition between beauty and virtue. Since one can have one or the other but never the two together, the second must obviously be preferred—hence the condemnation of literature, defined as vain ornament: “In reading, it is not words which must be loved, but truth.”43 But do not be misled: the opposition is purely tactical. It only serves to justify the aesthetic guilty conscience of a Christian man of letters of the sixth and seventh centuries like Saint Isidore, who was torn between the formal sophistication of pagan literature and the (supposedly) raw quality of Holy Scripture.
A simple, direct solution to this internal tension would have been to repudiate the pagan texts, because they were pagan, and replace them with the Christian texts, because they were Christian. After all, if one believes in the Gospel, why continue to concern oneself with any manifestation of paganism? All that should matter is the truth expressed by the texts, and the rest would count for nothing.
Yet this is exactly the kind of alternative whose radicalness is inconceivable to Isidore of Seville, first out of social concern, because he does not want to throw out a culture that continues to make up a part of the world he lives in, but also, more importantly, because he has to legitimize the qualitative opposition he sees between the two categories of texts. It is precisely because the charm of the pagan texts is a nearly irresistible temptation to Isidore that it is indispensable for him to view the relationship between beauty and truth in a dialectical fashion. Had he been impervious to this beauty, he would not for a moment have considered denouncing its lies and inanity: the effort he puts into his lines of argumentation is an unwitting tribute to vice on the part of virtue and the paradoxical acknowledgment of literature as a force to be reckoned with.
Those who turn against literature are sometimes simply disillusioned with it for not living up to their expectations. Isidore seems to paint a picture of this disappointed bunch—including himself, perhaps—when he describes the “snobs” (fastidiosis) and “phrasemakers” (loquacibus) who dislike Holy Scripture “due to the simplicity of its language, because it seems disgraceful when they compare it to pagan eloquence, but immediately recognize the sublimity of what they had disdained about it if they ever pay humble attention to the mysteries it contains.”44
A verse from the book of Psalms reinforces this anti-literary position: “For I have not known literature, I will enter into the power of the Lord.”45 This is anti-literature’s biblical motto—but there is one qualification. The Vulgate reads, quia non cognovi litteraturam. In Latin, litteratura is not literature as such, but writing, the alphabet, grammar, or even knowledge. Modern editors of the Bible now reject this verse, regarding it as an interpolation by a scribe who, having failed to recognize the following word, noted in Hebrew on his copy that he “did not understand the letters.”46 Isidore, on the other hand, struggles to interpret these words in any way other than as a terrible divine warning issued to those unfortunates tempted to give in to literary seduction.
Two centuries earlier, Augustine had been less categorical: disconcerted by this biblical verse, he looked for variants and, having failed to find a satisfactory one, astutely suggested that the only writing or literature the psalmist could have been incriminating was that of “the Jews,” which was the only one the psalmist knew, thereby exempting all other literature from condemnation.47 And so the bishop of Hippo was able to continue reading the pagan and Christian authors with a clear conscience and to write a literary work that was, let us confess on his behalf, a guilty pleasure.
Isidore does not accept Augustine’s cunning anti-Judaic hypothesis, choosing instead to take the verse at face value, while hastening to add to his commentary the formula for the antidote, namely that literature is not as dangerous as heresy:
Grammarians are better than heretics: indeed, through persuasion, heretics invite men to drink a lethal juice, while the knowledge of grammarians can still be useful to life, as long as it is kept to better usages.48
The grammarians are saved by the gradation of errors and sins: literature will not be burned with the heretics—but neither will it escape the bonfire of the vanities.49
ISIDORE’S COMPLICATED, not to say tortured, relationship with literature and more generally with the art of language provides a fairly good illustration, even taking into account his scruples, of the prejudices of the fathers and doctors of the Latin church against an excessive concern with verbal beauty. In about the same period as the Sevillan, Pope Gregory the Great presented his Morals on the Book of Job not by apologizing for the fact that the work was poorly written, but by expressly priding himself on it:
I have declined to follow even the art itself of eloquence, which the teachers of that external discipline (disciplinae exterioris) recommend. For just as the style of this letter also makes clear, I do not avoid the clashing of final “m,” I do not shun the confusion of barbarism, I refuse to observe syntax and moods, and the cases governed by prepositions, as I am certain that it is unworthy that I should restrict the words of the Heavenly oracle beneath the rules of Donatus.50
Since Donatus, a great grammarian of the fourth century, was the teacher of Saint Jerome, Gregory’s statement serves as a criticism of the patron saint of translators’ concern for eloquence: over a period of two centuries, from Jerome to Gregory and from Augustine to Isidore, Christianity had taken a noticeably harder line on literature. Now, writers prided themselves on their grammatical errors as if they were the best safe-conducts to the heavenly kingdom: this is where zeal and piety now took up residence.
To tell the truth, this shameless indifference to language had originated much earlier, and from on high: its declared model is none other than God, or the Holy Spirit, or even Moses, to whom it is said that the Holy Spirit dictated the Pentateuch:
For these [rules] have not been observed by any of the interpreters of the authority of Holy Scripture. Because our exposition arises from that, of course, it is certainly proper that a newborn child, as it were, should imitate the appearance of its mother.51
If the Word itself does not care about words, why claim to be more royalist than the king? God’s sloppiness in Holy Scripture renders the slightest linguistic affectation suspect and justifies any stylistic negligence on the part of God’s commentators and followers. Elsewhere, Gregory writes that eloquence is a property of lying and that a lack of affectation is the touchstone of truth:
The coeternal wisdom of God does not present itself with the dyed colors of India, for whoever truly understands it recognizes the distance that separates him from those men that the world honors with the name of wise men. The very terms of its precepts distinguish it from the wise men of this world, who, when they practice eloquence, speak words to all appearances stylish, thanks to the dye that decorates them, but which, because they remain foreign to the essence of things, falsely claim to be other than they are, thanks to verbal techniques (verborum compositionibus) similar to a color dye.52
Bogged down by an inexpressible inferiority complex, and for want of being able to instantly replace pagan culture with a Christian culture they considered of equal aesthetic value, the Christians gradually constructed an ontological opposition between being and appearance, truth and beauty, the Gospel and literature, in such a way as to attribute the holiest virtues to their own shortcomings and to present them as the best expression of faithfulness to the divine message. Indeed, God does not worry about the materiality of words: all that matters to him is the intention from which they proceed. Such is the rather ingenious argument put forward by Guibert of Nogent at the turn of the twelfth century:
[The] divine ear measures intentions rather than words. If you hiccup when you are praying, “Let the power of the Holy Spirit be present (Adsit) to us, Lord,” and it comes out, “be absent (Absit) from us,” it does not matter: God is not overly concerned with grammar (non est Deus grammaticae curiosus). No voice pierces him, but a heart reaches toward him.53
During the same period, Pierre Damien provides the most striking and most radical expression of this disdain for form. He uses a single word to excuse the coarseness of his writing and preemptively reject the criticisms of men of letters as null and void: “my grammar is Christ.”54 With a few variations, this is a motto that all extremists, fanatics, and philistines of every religion, belief, and ideology can identify with. Pierre Damien wasn’t expecting as much: he is satisfied to demand the use of an unaffected, charmless, and even openly unpleasant style, since, as he reminds us by quoting the book of Ecclesiastes: “The words of the servants of God should be like goads, their collected sayings like nails firmly embedded in the sky.”55
Ultimately, the anti-literary creed often aims merely to propose another kind of literature, one that is simpler, less sophisticated, and more essential: to walk on goads and nails, even if they are embedded in the sky, is to propose a different kind of writing, one based on what is bitter and sharp rather than soft and caressing. The crux of the matter is that this opposition takes the form of an absolute rejection of the art of writing, as if the conflict between Christ and literature could be resolved not by literature’s conversion, but by its negation and destruction—the only acceptable outcome of a battle between two fundamentally incompatible authorities.
In the Middle Ages, the word poet was long a synonym for a priest or theologian of paganism: in this sense, Ovid and Virgil were “poets,” since the Metamorphoses and the Aeneid were seen as the Old and New Testaments of the Roman religion. In the twelfth century, in Le Roman de Troie, Benoît de Sainte-Maure describes the funerals of Patroclus and Achilles being performed not by priests but by many “poets.” The pagan “poets” and the biblical prophets are brought face to face, as if they were two parallel, practically irreconcilable worlds. One has to wait until Petrarch and Dante to find authors claiming for themselves a title endowed with such suspect connotations; these writers would do so precisely because they sought to restore a lost continuity with classical Antiquity: their choice aimed to be provocative, commensurate with the subversive charge of the word poet.56
WHAT IS STRIKING about Christian criticism of poetry in the Middle Ages is the moderation with which it is generally expressed: these clerics take infinite care to handle literature gently, in the same way that in Plato, Socrates recommended that the poet be accompanied to the gates of the city while being crowned with wool, as if the feeling prevailed that something of this dangerous practice needed to be preserved after all, if only to use it for one’s own purposes. Sometimes criticism of poetry even turns into its most rousing defense. This is the case when Thomas Aquinas makes a list of arguments against the proposition that “Holy Scripture should use metaphors.” The first argument is:
That which is proper to the lowest science seems not to befit this science [theology], which holds the highest place of all. But to proceed by the aid of various similitudes and figures is proper to poetry, the least of all the sciences. Therefore it is not fitting that this science should make use of similitudes.57
But after the arguments against come those in favor, as is always the case in the Summa Theologiae. The first argument in favor of the use of metaphors is based on nature: since human beings acquire knowledge through the channel of the senses, it is legitimate for them to also acquire knowledge of spiritual truth through bodily comparisons.58 Moreover, by hiding divine truth in figures of speech, scholars can exercise their abilities while avoiding the mockery of the impious—an argument that is practical, in discriminating among reading publics, but also evangelical, for Jesus advises not to give that which is holy to dogs.59 Finally—and this is probably both the most sophisticated and the most paradoxical argument—Aquinas develops a philosophical poetics of metaphor as the coincidence of a concealment and a revelation:
[The use of metaphor] is more befitting the knowledge that we have of God in this life. For what He is not is clearer to us than what he is. Therefore similitudes drawn from things farthest away from God form within us a truer estimate that God is above whatsoever we may say or think of Him.60
Thus, according to a paradox consistent with negative theology, the more vulgar the comparison, the more accurate the idea it will provide of divine truths, which are infinitely superior to our own: by exposing their inability to directly name them, comparisons express the distance that separates us from these truths. Later, the Summa suggests a dizzying correspondence between the inferiority of poetry and the superiority of God:
Just as human reason fails to grasp poetical expressions on account of their being lacking in truth, so does it fail to grasp Divine things perfectly, on account of the sublimity of the truth they contain: and therefore in both cases there is need of signs by means of sensible figures.61
Here God and poetry are put on the same level, if it is true that both elude human reason, even though for opposite reasons—the former because He is beyond reason, and the latter because it cannot reach reason’s heights. With this idea, Thomas Aquinas manages to turn several centuries of discourse against poetry into an argument ultimately in its favor: its lack of rationality is precisely what makes it valuable. Situated in relation to us in the same way that we are situated in relation to divinity, poetry is the very image of our condition. Far more than that, it speaks the very language of God, which is that of figures, a language given to humankind to explore the two infinities between which we are torn: the below-rational and the above-rational.
What higher praise could one give poetry? It is not by chance that it was possible to express this in the thirteenth century, when poetry was no longer automatically assimilated to paganism: the troubadours had sung, the chansons de geste had spread, Chrétien de Troyes had written his Story of the Grail, and Aquinas himself produced theological hymns. A few decades later, the greatest and most beautiful poem in the history of Christianity would be written by Dante Alighieri. If literature was no longer a threat, but a tool in the service of faith, it would be utterly absurd to prosecute it for abuse of authority. After all, didn’t the Bible itself contain poetry, at least in Psalms and the Song of Songs? And in retrospect one understands the theologians’ scruples about condemning poetry: they were not targeting poetry itself, but rather the pagan religion for which it appeared to be an indissociable vehicle. Fundamentally, anti-literature was anti-paganism. Why pursue an indictment that was now without content? Though Christian resistance continued to be expressed at least until the seventeenth century, Aquinas cleared the way for the advent of Dante and Petrarch—later to be joined by Charles Péguy and Georges Bernanos.62
THE SAME IS TRUE of every period and culture in which literature is stripped of its authority, or when this authority no longer poses a problem: when the principal charge disappears, almost all the others vanish, as if by magic.
It is revealing that after Plato’s attacks on literature, no one in Ancient Greece bothered to target what no longer represented a threat. It is possible that we have lost any evidence of these attacks, but it is even more probable that with the political transformation of the Greek cities after the Macedonian conquest and the modification of tragic ritual in the fourth century, when participation in choruses lost its traditional role in the civic education of Athenian youth, it was no longer relevant to start proceedings against poets. Societies without anti-literature are either societies in which literature is considered pure entertainment, a game with no stakes, or those in which literature entirely subordinates itself to authority and does not claim an authority of its own. In fact, playfulness and submission often go hand in hand.
So it was in Ancient, pagan Rome, where it would have been impossible to find any trace of anti-literary discourse. Why would anyone have gone to the trouble of composing such a thing? The litterae—poetry, history, philosophy, treatises on agriculture and natural history, plays—served at most as a reservoir of examples for orators. They allowed Romans to prove how cultured they were at banquets, showing off in the vainest, most prodigal manner, as in the Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus and the Table-Talk of Plutarch. Distinct from the public affairs that the Roman citizen had a duty to be engrossed in, the litterae fall under the category of play and otium: neither serious nor farcical, just entertaining. In Rome, there was no reason to question an activity that, without claiming the slightest authority, was entirely subjected to a complex social system of envois, dedications, gifts, and favors.63 If anti-literature is the symptom of a struggle for power, then in the absence of struggle it is superfluous.
THERE IS NO TRIAL for abuse of authority, then, when literature does not claim to have any; neither is there one when the very principle of authority is ridiculed, when there is no recognized authority or every authority is contested—which is more or less the situation in societies that are at the forefront of democratic progress.
But no need to worry: in these cases, anti-literary discourse shifts to other arguments.