The Hidden Face of Literature

The Hatred of Literature - William Marx 2015

The Hidden Face of Literature

IS IT WORTH GIVING anti-literature so much attention and building a monument to it, in the fashion of Bouvard and Pécuchet? It might be a mistake to give too much credit to what are most often minority discourses, which stand out against the general acceptance of literature.

However, one should also not underestimate the importance of anti-literary discourses: they reveal something about the opposite camp by exposing the dynamic of tensions and conflicts within literary discourse, the expectations it arouses or disappoints, the antagonisms it creates, and the limits that some would like to place on it. This is the hidden face of the history of literature, in which the stirrings of other competing discourses appear: philosophy, the natural sciences, the social sciences.

Additionally, one should not be deceived by the relatively small number of these anti-literary statements. Their mere existence is evidence of hostility against literature that has most often remained silent, and for good reason: anti-literature is not designed to be expressed in books and texts; it is silent out of principle or necessity (when the attacker is illiterate); its most general form is a plain refusal to read. Anti-literary discourse reveals the tip of an iceberg whose actual size will probably remain forever unknown.

THERE IS MORE CONTINUITY in anti-literature than in literature. An understanding of the historical meaning of this kind of discourse is complicated by the fact that it often repeats old topics and arguments, the vast majority of which can already be found in Plato: real innovation is rare in anti-literature. Its discourse is difficult to interpret when it repeats out of their original context accusations that only made sense in Athens in the fourth century BCE. The anti-literary tradition inaugurated by Plato has lingered on, while at the same time literature has been completely transformed, along with its functions, responsibilities, and status.

This nearly insurmountable gulf reveals both the specificity of the ancient discourses and our modern singularities. Whence that frequent, persistent feeling that anti-literary arguments fall flat, that they tilt at windmills—or at an entirely fabricated opponent. The fact is that they were not conceived for the object that they are supposed to address.

All the more reason to avoid trying to systematically detect the objective reflection of the literature of a period in its anti-literature. Yet since the choice of arguments is often arbitrary, it is also a reason to look at the motivations for selecting one of these arguments over another.

ANTI-LITERATURE is not impervious to the expectations, fears, and obsessions of the various periods in which it asserts itself. This is the case with the charge of homosexuality (or sodomy), which sometimes presents itself in an attenuated form as a reproach against individual or collective effeminacy: recall C. P. Snow and his praise for the heterosexual ruggedness particular to scientists, or Rousseau, who believed all of society was at risk of becoming soft and losing its virile virtue every time it yielded to the temptations of literature and the arts.

Orpheus, who was simultaneously the first poet and the first sodomite, serves as the founding myth of this accusation. Paradoxically, this charge appears nowhere in Antiquity: the first traces of it are found in the fifteenth century, and it persists through the twentieth century, covering the major period of modern homophobia. Yet the suppression of homosexuality had begun centuries earlier; other factors probably needed to come into play to seal the holy alliance between anti-literature and homophobia, including the crisis of the lettered class in the fifteenth century and the emergence of a new status of the literary text and of the author.

In any case, the history of anti-literature cannot be reduced to the interplay of simple deterministic factors.

DESPITE THE FACT that the four trials perpetually faced by literature are repeated century after century, the same arguments being rehashed with infinite, minor variations, they are not evenly distributed throughout history: there are specific time periods in which a certain trial, a certain argument, or a certain indictment is more likely to be heard, though not to the exclusion of the others.

It is possible to suggest, in an exploratory and experimental way, that the four trials could therefore be said to correspond with four historical phases or four ideological environments, each of which highlights a different function or possible aspect of literature:

—literature as authority: in these periods, in these cultures, certain usages of language, even language as a whole, retain their sacred aura. Remember that the poets were in contact with the Muses; certain texts, such as the Bible or the oracles, are transcendent. This is how ancient Greece, Late Antiquity, and the Early Middle Ages appear to us.

—literature as vision: this is the secularized version of the previous phase. The works—such as plays, epic poems, and novels—are supposed to produce a copy of reality, at the risk of the copy taking the place of reality; philosophy and the sciences develop. This is classical Greece, modernity in the widest sense, the positivist nineteenth century, the technocratic twentieth century.

—literature as action: these are the great eras of the development of religious rhetoric or reform; the typical texts are the epigram and the sermon. A notable example is the period from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century.

—literature as individual or collective expression: the typical texts are the essay in the style of Montaigne and the memoir, even the autofiction, in which aristocratic or democratic subjectivity asserts itself. This period stretches from modernity to the contemporary era.

THE VAGUENESS of this chaotic classification and these descriptions sketched in broad outline, as well as their open-ended, schematic, and heterogeneous character, should serve as a deliberate warning against any temptation to believe that these four idealized periods are mutually exclusive or to consider that they occur in a strict chronological succession. The periods are all the more difficult to define given that anti-literary discourse is sometimes aimed at an earlier, obsolete state of literature: this was even the case with Plato, who attacked a state of poetry that was already partially outdated when he was writing, and that he mythologized in order to create an opponent worthy of himself.

The danger would be to solidify these various conceptions and ignore the intersections, continuities, reverberations, afterlives (the Nachleben of Aby Warburg), and revivals that are always at work.1 What we are considering here are potentialities of literature that are more or less exploited in the discourses that deal with it.

THESE POTENTIALITIES are all the more numerous given that literature does not have a proper definition.

Our current conception of literature, focused on the novel, poetry, theater, and the essay, is relatively recent. It was not until toward the end of the eighteenth century that the word literature (or its equivalents) finally eliminated its rivals in the European languages and began to be used in reference to such a heterogeneous body of texts. Previously, the appellations letters and belles-lettres were used; even earlier, that of poetry; but most of the time there was no general term to refer to so many different kinds of texts as a clearly identified group: at the time, writing was thought of as falling into distinct categories, or genres, and included the sciences.

It is more than likely that the reason there was no such overall designation is that people did not feel a need for it. The end of the eighteenth century coincided with the emergence of the different fields of knowledge as distinct territories. This endeavor in definition led to the sudden need to name what did not have a real name.

In Latin, litteratura initially meant writing (littera refers to the letter); by extension, the word was then used to refer to the science of writing, that is to say, grammar or philology; by another kind of extension, it also referred to what had been put down in writing or what could be drawn from a written text—in other words, knowledge and erudition, including the sciences. This very broad sense of the term endured until the modern era.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the term literature could therefore refer to writing par excellence, with a capital W. Yet fundamentally, literature was a name used by default because no more specific word was available. Its meaning was even more general than that of its predecessor, belles-lettres, which was itself more general than poetry. Belles-lettres emphasized the aesthetic dimension, with the idea of a more or less precise consensus about what was beautiful. Literature did not involve any idea of this type, or any real definition.2

TODAY, the impossibility of being assigned a positive definition seems to be literature’s strength, if not its raison d’être. It is the result of the particular history it has followed since its very beginnings, which can be summed up as an enterprise that is perpetually renewed through dispossession3 or through a conceptual hollowing-out. This does not date back to the triumph of the term literature in the eighteenth century; its beginnings can be found much earlier, when the first critical treatises were published.

In the Poetics, for example, Aristotle wanted to exclude from poetry proper all works, including those in verse, that fell within particular fields of knowledge, including medicine, natural science, philosophy, and history; even though Empedocles wrote in verse, he was no longer to be called a poet, but a naturalist. Had Herodotus chosen to write his Histories in verse rather than prose, he should nevertheless be known as a historian, not a poet.4 Admittedly, Aristotle was seeking to give poetry a positive definition, based on mimesis, but in his case, this attempt seems much less convincing than his wish to define poetry from the exterior, from its boundaries. Outside of poetry, according to Aristotle, lies the territory of exact knowledge and real events; inside, well, there is just the remainder, which is indefinable.

In a similar way, the entire history of Western literature since its beginnings is characterized by successive restrictions and limitations applied to literature, which finds itself regularly expelled from territories it had previously occupied. Anti-literature has been a driving force in this process by its effect not so much on literary production in and of itself as on the reading and reception of works: when texts are reputed to have no claim to authority, truth, or morality and to no longer represent society, what do they have left to offer? Nothing more than words, language, sentences, writing.

Literature is what remains when everything has been removed, an irreducible residue that endures because there is always scrap—discourse that no one knows what to do with. Cold comfort.

SO GOES THE OFFICIAL HISTORY, the apparent history of literature, the one that centuries of anti-literature would have us believe, the one many thinkers and many critics have believed in up to the present day: literature as a pure use of language. People speak of poetic function, literality, and formalism. In this scenario, literature has been reduced to its essence.5

Yet there is no chronology that points toward a uniform impoverishment of the literary fact: history goes through ups and downs.6 There is no reduction to any kind of essence: the essence is an illusion. Yes, the will to root out every possible essence, every power from literature has undoubtedly existed at times and probably still does. But literary works nonetheless continue to speak with authority, to present truths, to put forward ethical models, to express the will and the opinions of individuals and peoples.

These works speak of the world, of humans, gods, politics, hearts and feelings, memories and the future, what did not and will never take place, and what might happen after all. They invoke the gods and make them appear, they transport us through time, space, and the mind, heal the sick, cure the possessed, poison the healthy, send the rich home empty-handed and enrich them, overthrow the powerful and keep them in power, elevate the humble or belittle them. They create new universes and new cities, rename the real, transform it, abolish it, idealize it, leave it intact. They make me exist, bring me into the private world of a reader one thousand leagues and one thousand years away, create and destroy both invisible communities and real friendships. They immortalize this bare tree outside my window, the birdsong I hear in the depths of winter, the cold blue of the sky, the clicking of the keyboard on which I type in the frenzy of the man reaching the end of his book. They express fatigue and energy, black and white, light and dark, good and evil, soft and hard, high and low, love and hate, everything and its opposite. In short, they continue to do everything that they were forbidden to do for centuries, through endless trials; and they do far more beyond that, which we have not the slightest idea of and won’t discover until much later—if ever.

They do this as they have always done, that is to say without legitimacy, without method, without a fuss.

Literature is the ultimate illegitimate discourse.

EVEN IF ABSURD, unjust, or anachronistic, anti-literature affirms the existence of that which it opposes; it demonstrates literature’s strength and power, whatever they may be, and pays it a paradoxical form of homage.

Far worse indeed than the hatred of literature would be indifference: may the gods prevent that day from ever arriving.