What Is Literature
On Literature Debates rage over what kind of literature we should read, what is good and bad literature, and whether in the global, digital age, literature even has a future. But what exactly is literature? Why should we read literature? How do we read literature? These are some of the important questions J. Hillis Miller answers in this beautifully written and passionate book. J. Hillis Miller begins by asking what literature is, arguing that the answer lies in literature’s ability to create an imaginary world simply with words.
He describes how his early reading of The Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe as a child led him to this view. He then discusses several famous writers who have used literature in this way, from Dostoevsky, Trollope, Proust and Henry James to Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida and J.
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M. Coetzee. Along the way he explains deftly why little-known aspects of such writers matter so much, from Trollope’s “daydreaming” to the crafted realism of James’s novels. On Literature also askes the crucial questions of why we should read literature today and why literature has such authority over us.
Returning to Plato, Aristotle and the Bible, J. Hillis Miller argues we should continue to read literature because it is part of our basic human need to create imaginary worlds and to have stories. Though he has some nostalgia for such “innocent reading,” he cautions us to re? ect on these worlds of innocence in a critical vein. On Literature is a plea that we continue to read and care about literature. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the future of literature, of reading, and what literature can tell us about the human condition. J.
Hillis Miller is UCI Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Irvine. He taught himself to read at the age of ? ve so he could read Alice in Wonderland and has been reading ever since. He is author of several well-known books, including The Ethics of Reading. Thinking in Action Series editors: Simon Critchley, University of Essex, and Richard Kearney, University College Dublin and Boston College. Thinking in Action is a major new series that takes philosophy to its public. Each book in the series is written by a major international philosopher or thinker, engages with an mportant contemporary topic, and is clearly and accessibly written. The series informs and sharpens debate on issues as wide ranging as the Internet, religion, the problem of immigration and refugees and the way we think about science. Punchy, short, and stimulating, Thinking in Action is an indispensable starting point for anyone who wants to think seriously about major issues confronting us today. On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness Jacques Derrida On Immigration and Refugees Michael Dummett On Science B. K. Ridley On the Internet Hubert L. Dreyfus On Religion John D.
Caputo ?? On Belief Slavoj Zizek On Stories Richard Kearney On Humour Simon Critchley On Film Stephen Mulhall On Literature J. Hillis Miller On the Meaning of Life John Cottingham On Authenticity Charles Guignon J. HILLIS MILLER On Literature London and New York First published 2002 by Routledge 11 New Fetter Lane, London EC4P 4EE Simultaneously published in the USA and Canada by Routledge 29 West 35th Street, New York, NY 1001 Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2004. © 2002 J.
Hillis Miller All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data Miller, J. Hillis (Joseph Hillis), 1928– On literature / J. Hillis Miller. . cm. — (Thinking in action) Includes index. 1. Literature. 2. Books and reading. PN45. M495 2002 801?. 3—dc21 ISBN 0-203-16562-4 Master e-book ISBN I. Title. II. Series. 2002021331 ISBN 0-203-26015-5 (Adobe eReader Format) ISBN 0–415–26124–4 (hbk) ISBN 0–415–26125–2 (pbk) Another for Dorothy And all the rest is literature. Paul Verlaine Acknowledgements xi What is Literature? One 1 1 2 8 12 15 21 Farewell Literature? What has made Literature Possible? The End of the Print Age What then is Literature? Literature as a Certain Use of Words Literature as Secular Magic
Literature as Virtual Reality Two 24 24 28 29 33 37 39 41 44 “Open Sesame” Why is Literature Violent? Openings as the Raising of Ghosts Literature’s Strangeness Literature is Performative Utterance Literature Keeps its Secrets Literature Uses Figurative Language Does Literature Invent or Discover? The Secret of Literature Three 46 46 47 49 55 61 64 68 Literature as Secular Dream Vision Dostoevsky’s “Completely New World” Anthony Trollope’s Dangerous Habit Henry James’s Untrodden Field of Snow Walter Benjamin’s “Pure Language” Literature as Lie in Proust Maurice Blanchot’s Sirens’ Song
Literature as the Wholly Other: Jacques Derrida A Motley Crew 76 80 Why Read Literature? Four 81 81 82 86 90 93 97 100 102 107 111 Virtual Realities are Good for You The Bible is not Literature Plato’s Putdown of Rhapsodic Poetry, and the Putdown’s Progeny Why did Plato so fear Poetry? The Long Life of Plato’s Putdown of Poetry Aristotle’s Defense of Poetry Aristotle Lives! Literature as Disguised Autobiography The Author as Con? dence Man Literature as Speech Act Contents How to Read Literature Five 115 115 118 122 124 126 128
Teaching How to Read is a Mug’s Game Reading as Schwarmerei Good Reading is Slow Reading The Aporia of Reading Why I Loved The Swiss Family Robinson Reading The Swiss Family Robinson Lento viii How to Read Comparatively, or Playing the Mug’s Game Six 132 Before and After The Swiss Family Robinson 132 Foe as Revisionist Commentary 133 Literature and Intellectual History Violence in The Swiss Family Robinson The Crusoe Books and Imperialism The Alice Books as Deconstruction of The Swiss Family Robinson Concluding Praise for Innocent Reading, or It’s a Neat Trick If You Can Do It 139 144 148 156 159
Index 160 ix Contents Acknowledgements I am grateful for help with this book from many people, especially Julian Wolfreys, Jason Wohlstadter, and Barbara Caldwell, my “Senior Editor” and invaluable assistant at the University of California, Irvine. I thank Simon Critchley for ? rst suggesting that I might write this book for the series he edits, as well as for his careful reading of the manuscript. I am grateful also to the co-editor of the series, Richard Kearney, for a helpful reading of the manuscript. Muna Khogali and Tony Bruce, of Routledge, have been unfailingly generous and courteous.
Tony Bruce read the manuscript with care and made useful suggestions. A preliminary version of some of the ideas in this book, especially those in Chapter 4, was presented as a lecture for the Koehn Endowed Lectureship at the University of California, Irvine, in Febuary 2001. The lecture was called “On the Authority of Literature. ” Subsequently, the talk was given as the ? rst annual Lecture on Modern Literature for the Department of English at Baylor University in April, 2001. The lecture was then printed there as a pamphlet for local circulation.
I am grateful to my host and sponsor at Baylor, Professor William Davis, for his many kindnesses. Di? erent versions of the talk were given at two conferences, in August 2001, in the People’s Republic of China: at a triennial conference of the Chinese Association for Sino-Foreign Literary and xi On Literature Cultural Theory, held in Shenyang, and at an International Symposium on Globalizing Comparative Literature, sponsored by Yale and Tsinghua Universities. I thank Professor Wang Ning for arranging these invitations and for many other courtesies.
A German translation will be published as my contribution to a research project on “representative validity,” sponsored by the Zentrum fur Literaturforschung in Berlin. I especially thank Ingo Berensmeyer, as well as other colleagues in Berlin, for the chance to try out my ideas on them. A Bulgarian translation will be published in a Festschrift for Simeon Hadjikosev, of So? a University. I thank Ognyan Kovachev for inviting me, and for other kindnesses. Altogether, my preliminary ideas for Chapter 4 and for some other germs of this book have had the bene? t of many helpful comments and reactions.
Finally, I thank the dedicatee of this book for su? ering once more through my ordeals of composition. She had to endure my faraway look, my dreamy absentmindedness. I was dwelling again in imagination on the other side of Alice’s looking-glass or on the deserted island where the Swiss Family Robinson made such an enchanting home. It has taken me a good many months to ? gure out what to say about that experience. Sedgwick, Maine December 15, 2001 xii Acknowledgements What is Literature? One FAREWELL LITERATURE? The end of literature is at hand. Literature’s time is almost up. It is about time. It is about, that is, the di? rent epochs of di? erent media. Literature, in spite of its approaching end, is nevertheless perennial and universal. It will survive all historical and technological changes. Literature is a feature of any human culture at any time and place. These two contradictory premises must govern all serious re? ection “on literature” these days. What brings about this paradoxical situation? Literature has a history. I mean “literature” in the sense we in the West use the word in our various languages: “literature” (French or English) “letteratura” (Italian), “literatura” (Spanish), “Literatur” (German).
As Jacques Derrida observes in Demeure: Fiction and Testimony, the word literature comes from a Latin stem. It cannot be detached from its Roman-ChristianEuropean roots. Literature in our modern sense, however, appeared in the European West and began in the late seventeenth century, at the earliest. Even then the word did not have its modern meaning. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “literature” was ? rst used in our current sense only quite recently. Even a de? nition of “literature” as including memoirs, history, collections of letters, learned treatises, etc. , as well as poems, printed plays, and On Literature novels, comes after the time of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary (1755). The restricted sense of literature as just poems, plays, and novels is even more recent. The word “literature” is de? ned by Johnson exclusively in the now obsolescent sense of “Acqaintance with ‘letters’ or books; polite or humane learning; literary culture. ” One example the OED gives is as late as 1880: “He was a man of very small literature. ” Only by the third de? nition in the OED does one get to: Literary production as a whole; the body of writings produced in a particular country or period, or in the world in general.
Now also in a more restricted sense, applied to writing which has claim to consideration on the grounds of beauty of form or emotional effect. This de? nition, says the OED, “is of very recent emergence both in England and France. ” Its establishment may be conveniently dated in the mid-eighteenth century and associated, in England at least, with the work of Joseph and Thomas Wharton (1722–1800; 1728–90). They were hailed by Edmund Gosse, in an essay of 1915–16 (“Two Pioneers of Romanticism: Joseph and Thomas Wharton”), as giving literature its modern de? ition. Literature in that sense is now coming to an end, as new media gradually replace the printed book. WHAT HAS MADE LITERATURE POSSIBLE? 2 On Literature What are the cultural features that are necessary concomitants of literature as we have known it in the West? Western literature belongs to the age of the printed book and of other print forms like newspapers, magazines, and periodicals generally. Literature is associated with the gradual rise of almost universal literacy in the West. No widespread literacy, no literature.
Literacy, furthermore, is associated with the gradual appearance from the seventeenth century onward of Western-style democracies. This means regimes with expanded su? rage, government by legislatures, regulated judicial systems, and fundamental human rights or civil liberties. Such democracies slowly developed more or less universal education. They also allowed citizens more or less free access to printed materials and to the means of printing new ones. This freedom, of course, has never been complete. Various forms of censorship, in even the freest democracies today, limit the power of the printing press.
Nevertheless, no technology has ever been more e? ective than the printing press in breaking down class hierarchies of power. The printing press made democratic revolutions like the French Revolution or the American Revolution possible. The Internet is performing a similar function today. The printing and circulation of clandestine newspapers, manifestoes, and emancipatory literary works was essential to those earlier revolutions, just as email, the Internet, the cell phone, and the “hand-held” will be essential to whatever revolutions we may have from now on.
Both these communication regimes are also, of course, powerful instruments of repression. The rise of modern democracies has meant the appearance of the modern nation-state, with its encouragement of a sense of ethnic and linguistic uniformity in each state’s citizens. Modern literature is vernacular literature. It began to appear as the use of Latin as a lingua franca gradually disappeared. Along with the nation-state has gone the notion of national literature, that is, literature written in the language and idiom of a particular country. This concept remains strongly codi? d in school and university study of literature. It is institutionalized 3 What is Literature? in separate departments of French, German, English, Slavic, Italian, and Spanish. Tremendous resistance exists today to the recon? guration of those departments that will be necessary if they are not simply to disappear. The modern Western concept of literature became ? rmly established at the same time as the appearance of the modern research university. The latter is commonly identi? ed with the founding of the University of Berlin around 1810, under the guidance of a plan devised by Wilhelm von Humboldt.
The modern research university has a double charge. One is Wissenschaft, ? nding out the truth about everything. The other is Bildung, training citizens (originally almost exclusively male ones) of a given nation-state in the ethos appropriate for that state. It is perhaps an exaggeration to say that the modern concept of literature was created by the research university and by lower-school training in preparation for the university. After all, newspapers, journals, non-university critics and reviewers also contributed, for example Samuel Johnson or Samuel Taylor Coleridge in England.
Nevertheless, our sense of literature was strongly shaped by university-trained writers. Examples are the Schlegel brothers in Germany, along with the whole circle of critics and philosophers within German Romanticism. English examples would include William Wordsworth, a Cambridge graduate. His “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” de? ned poetry and its uses for generations. In the Victorian period Matthew Arnold, trained at Oxford, was a founding force behind English and United States institutionalized study of literature.
Arnold’s thinking is still not without force in conservative circles today. Arnold, with some help from the Germans, presided over the transfer from philosophy to literature of the responsibility for Bildung. Literature would shape citizens by giving them 4 On Literature knowledge of what Arnold called “the best that is known and thought in the world. ” This “best” was, for Arnold, enshrined in canonical Western works from Homer and the Bible to Goethe or Wordsworth. Most people still ? rst hear that there is such a thing as literature from their school teachers.
Universities, moreover, have been traditionally charged with the storage, cataloguing, preservation, commentary, and interpretation of literature through the accumulations of books, periodicals, and manuscripts in research libraries and special collections. That was literature’s share in the university’s responsibility for Wissenschaft, as opposed to Bildung. This double responsibility was still very much alive in the literature departments of The Johns Hopkins University when I taught there in the 1950s and 1960s. It has by no means disappeared today.
Perhaps the most important feature making literature possible in modern democracies has been freedom of speech. This is the freedom to say, write, or publish more or less anything. Free speech allows everyone to criticize everything, to question everything. It confers the right even to criticize the right to free speech. Literature, in the Western sense, as Jacques Derrida has forcefully argued, depends, moreover, not just on the right to say anything but also on the right not to be held responsible for what one says. How can this be?
Since literature belongs to the realm of the imaginary, whatever is said in a literary work can always be claimed to be experimental, hypothetical, cut o? from referential or performative claims. Dostoevsky is not an ax murderer, nor is he advocating ax murder in Crime and Punishment. He is writing a ? ctive work in which he imagines what it might be like to be an ax murderer. A ritual formula is printed at the beginning of many modern detective stories: “Any 5 What is Literature? resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This (often false) claim is not only a safeguard against lawsuits. It also codi? es the freedom from referential responsibility that is an essential feature of literature in the modern sense. A ? nal feature of modern Western literature seemingly contradicts the freedom to say anything. Even though democratic freedom of speech in principle allows anyone to say anything, that freedom has always been severely curtailed, in various ways. Authors during the epoch of printed literature have de facto been held responsible not only for the opinions expressed in literary works but also for such political or social e? cts as those works have had or have been believed to have had. Sir Walter Scott’s novels and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin have in di? erent ways been held responsible for causing the American Civil War, the former by instilling absurdly outmoded ideas of chivalry in Southern gentry, the latter by decisively encouraging support for the abolition of slavery. Nor are these claims nonsensical. Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Chinese translation was one of Mao Tse Tung’s favorite books. Even today, an author would be unlikely to get away before a court of law with a claim that t is not he or she speaking in a given work but an imaginary character uttering imaginary opinions. Just as important as the development of print culture or the rise of modern democracies in the development of modern Western literature, has been the invention, conventionally associated with Descartes and Locke, of our modern sense of the self. From the Cartesian cogito, followed by the invention of identity, consciousness, and self in Chapter 27, Book II, of Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, to the sovereign I or Ich of Fichte, to absolute consciousness in Hegel, to the I as 6 On Literature he agent of the will to power in Nietzsche, to the ego as one element of the self in Freud, to Husserl’s phenomenological ego, to the Dasein of Heidegger, explicitly opposed to the Cartesian ego, but nevertheless a modi? ed form of subjectivity, to the I as the agent of performative utterances such as “I promise” or “I bet” in the speech act theory of J. L. Austin and others, to the subject not as something abolished but as a problem to be interrogated within deconstructive or postmodern thinking – the whole period of literature’s heyday has depended on one or another idea of the self as a selfconscious and responsible agent.
The modern self can be held liable for what it says, thinks, or does, including what it does in the way of writing works of literature. Literature in our conventional sense has also depended on a new sense of the author and of authorship. This was legalized in modern copyright laws. All the salient forms and techniques of literature have, moreover, exploited the new sense of selfhood. Early ? rst-person novels like Robinson Crusoe adopted the direct presentation of interiority characteristic of seventeenth-century Protestant confessional works.
Eighteenth-century novels in letters exploited epistolary presentations of subjectivity. Romantic poetry a? rmed a lyric “I. ” Nineteenth-century novels developed sophisticated forms of third-person narration. These allowed a double simultaneous presentation by way of indirect discourse of two subjectivities, that of the narrator, that of the character. Twentieth-century novels present directly in words the “stream of consciousness” of ? ctional protagonists. Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses is the paradigmatic case of the latter. 7 What is Literature? THE END OF THE PRINT AGE
Most of these features making modern literature possible are now undergoing rapid transformation or putting in question. People are now not so certain of the unity and perdurance of the self, nor so certain that the work can be explained by the authority of the author. Foucault’s “What is an Author? ” and Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author” signaled the end of the old tie between the literary work and its author considered as a unitary self, the real person William Shakespeare or Virginia Woolf. Literature itself has contributed to the fragmentation of the self.
Forces of economic, political, and technological globalization are in many ways bringing about a weakening of the nation-state’s separateness, unity, and integrity. Most countries are now multilingual and multi-ethnic. Nations today are seen to be divided within as well as existing within more permeable borders. American literature now includes works written in Spanish, Chinese, Native American languages, Yiddish, French, and so on, as well as works written in English from within those groups, for example African-American literature. Over sixty minority languages and cultures are recognized in the People’s Republic of China.
South Africa after apartheid has eleven o? cial languages, nine African languages along with English and Afrikaans. This recognition of internal division is ending literary study’s institutionalization according to national literatures, each with its presumedly selfenclosed literary history, each written in a single national language. The terrible events of the mid-twentieth century, World War II and the Holocaust, transformed our civilization and Western literature with it. Maurice Blanchot and others have even argued persuasively that literature in the old sense is impossible after the Holocaust. 8 On Literature
In addition, technological changes and the concomitant development of new media are bringing about the gradual death of literature in the modern sense of the word. We all know what those new media are: radio, cinema, television, video, and the Internet, soon universal wireless video. A recent workshop I attended in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) brought together American literary scholars and representatives of the Chinese Writers Association. At that meeting it became evident that the most respected and in? uential Chinese writers today are those whose novels or stories are turned into one or another television series.
The major monthly journal printing poetry in the PRC has in the last decade declined in circulation from an amazing 700,000 to a “mere” 30,000, though the proliferation of a dozen or more new in? uential poetry journals mitigates that decline somewhat and is a healthy sign of diversi? cation. Nevertheless, the shift to the new media is decisive. Printed literature used to be a primary way in which citizens of a given nation state were inculcated with the ideals, ideologies, ways of behavior and judgment that made them good citizens.
Now that role is being increasingly played, all over the world, for better or for worse, by radio, cinema, television, VCRs, DVDs, and the Internet. This is one explanation for the di? culties literature departments have these days in getting funding. Society no longer needs the university as the primary place where the national ethos is inculcated in citizens. That work used to be done by the humanities departments in colleges and universities, primarily through literary study. Now it is increasingly done by television, radio talk shows, and by cinema.
People cannot be reading Charles Dickens or Henry James or Toni Morrison and at the same time watching television or a ? lm on VCR, though some 9 What is Literature? people may claim they can do that. The evidence suggests that people spend more and more time watching television or sur? ng the Internet. More people, by far, probably, have seen the recent ? lms of novels by Austen, Dickens, Trollope, or James than have actually read those works. In some cases (though I wonder how often), people read the book because they have seen the television adaptation.
The printed book will retain cultural force for a good while yet, but its reign is clearly ending. The new media are more or less rapidly replacing it. This is not the end of the world, only the dawn of a new one dominated by new media. One of the strongest symptoms of the imminent death of literature is the way younger faculty members, in departments of literature all over the world, are turning in droves from literary study to theory, cultural studies, postcolonial studies, media studies (? lm, television, etc. ), popular culture studies, Women’s studies, African-American studies, and so on.
They often write and teach in ways that are closer to the social sciences than to the humanities as traditionally conceived. Their writing and teaching often marginalizes or ignores literature. This is so even though many of them were trained in old-fashioned literary history and the close reading of canonical texts. These young people are not stupid, nor are they ignorant barbarians. They are not bent on destroying literature nor on destroying literary study. They know better than their elders often do, however, which way the wind is blowing. They have a deep and laudable interest in ? m or popular culture, partly because it has done so much to form them as what they are. They also have a proleptic sense that traditional literary study is on the way to being declared obsolete by society and by university authorities. This will probably happen not in so 10 On Literature many words. University administrators do not work that way. It will happen by the more e? ective device of withdrawing funding in the name of “necessary economies” or “downsizing. ” Departments of classics and modern languages other than English, in United States universities, will go ? st. Indeed, they are in many universities already going, initially through amalgamation. Any United States English department, however, will soon join the rest, if it is foolish enough to go on teaching primarily canonical British literature under the illusion that it is exempt from cuts because it teaches texts in the dominant language of the country. Even the traditional function of the university as the place where libraries store literature from all ages and in all languages, along with secondary material, is now being rapidly usurped by digitized databases.
Many of the latter are available to anyone with a computer, a modem, and access to the Internet through a server. More and more literary works are freely available online, through various websites. An example is “The Voice of the Shuttle,” maintained by Alan Liu and his colleagues at the University of California at Santa Barbara (http://vos. ucsb. edu/). The Johns Hopkins “Project Muse” makes a large number of journals available (http:// muse. jhu. edu/journals/index_text. html). A spectacular example of this making obsolete the research library is the William Blake Archive website (http:// www. lakearchive. org/). This is being developed by Morris Eaves, Robert Essick, and Joseph Viscomi. Anyone anywhere who has a computer with an Internet connection (I for example on the remote island o? the coast of Maine where I live most of the year and am writing this) may access, download, and print out spectacularly accurate reproductions of major versions of Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and some 11 What is Literature? of his other prophetic books. The original versions of these “illuminated books” are dispersed in many di? erent research libraries in England and the United States.
Formerly they were available only to specialists in Blake, to scholars with a lot of money for research travel. Research libraries will still need to take good care of the originals of all those books and manuscripts. They will less and less function, however, as the primary means of access to those materials. Literature on the computer screen is subtly changed by the new medium. It becomes something other to itself. Literature is changed by the ease of new forms of searching and manipulation, and by each work’s juxtaposition with the innumerable swarm of other images on the Web.
These are all on the same plane of immediacy and distance. They are instantaneously brought close and yet made alien, strange, seemingly far away. All sites on the Web, including literary works, dwell together as inhabitants of that non-spatial space we call cyberspace. Manipulating a computer is a radically di? erent bodily activity from holding a book in one’s hands and turning the pages one by one. I have earnestly tried to read literary works on the screen, for example Henry James’s The Sacred Fount. I happened at one moment not to have at hand a printed version of that work, but found one on the Web.
I found it di? cult to read it in that form. This no doubt identi? es me as someone whose bodily habits have been permanently wired by the age of the printed book. WHAT THEN IS LITERATURE? 12 On Literature If, on the one hand, literature’s time (as I began by saying) is nearly up, if the handwriting is on the wall, or rather if the pixels are on the computer screen, on the other hand, literature or “the literary” is (as I also began by saying) universal and perennial. It is a certain use of words or other signs that exists in some form or other in any human culture at any time.
Literature in the ? rst sense, as a Western cultural institution, is a special, historically conditioned form of literature in the second sense. In the second sense, literature is a universal aptitude for words or other signs to be taken as literature. About the political and social utility, import, e? ectiveness of literature I shall write later, in Chapter 4, “Why Read Literature? ” At this point my goal is to identify what sort of thing literature is. What then is literature? What is that “certain use of words or other signs” we call literary? What does it mean to take a text “as literature”?
These questions have often been asked. They almost seem like non-questions. Everyone knows what literature is. It is all those novels, poems, and plays that are designated as literature by libraries, by the media, by commercial and university presses, and by teachers and scholars in schools and universities. To say that does not help much, however. It suggests that literature is whatever is designated as literature. There is some truth to that. Literature is whatever bookstores put in the shelves marked “Literature” or some subset of that: “Classics,” “Poetry,” “Fiction,” “Mysteries,” and so on.
It is nevertheless also the case that certain formal features allow anyone dwelling within Western culture to say with conviction, “This is a novel,” or “This is a poem,” or “This is a play. ” Title pages, aspects of print format, for example the printing of poetry in lines with capitals at the beginning of each line, are as important in segregating literature from other print forms as internal features of language that tell the adept reader he or she has a literary work in hand. The co-presence of all these features allows certain collocations of 13 What is Literature? printed words to be taken as literature.
Such writings can be used as literature, by those who are adept at doing that. What does it mean to “use a text as literature”? Readers of Proust will remember the account at the beginning of A la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past) of the magic lantern his hero, Marcel, had as a child. It projected on Marcel’s walls and even on his doorknob images of the villainous Golo and the unfortunate Genevieve de Brabant, brought into his bedroom from the Merovingian past. My version of that was a box of stereopticon photographs, probably by Matthew Brady, of American Civil War scenes.
As a child, I was allowed to look at these at my maternal grandparents’ farm in Virginia. My great-grandfather was a soldier in the Confederate Army. I did not know that then, though I was told that a great-uncle had been killed in the Second Battle of Bull Run. I remember in those awful pictures as much the dead horses as the bodies of dead soldiers. Far more important for me as magic lanterns, however, were the books my mother read to me and that I then learned to read for myself. When I was a child I did not want to know that The Swiss Family Robinson had an author.
To me it seemed a collection of words fallen from the sky and into my hands. Those words allowed me magical access to a pre-existing world of people and their adventures. The words transported me there. The book wielded what Simon During, in Modern Enchantments, calls in his subtitle, “the cultural power of secular magic. ” I am not sure, however, that secular and sacred magics can be all that easily distinguished. This other world I reached through reading The Swiss Family Robinson, it seemed to me, did not depend for its existence on the words of the book, even though those words were my only window on that virtual reality.
The 14 On Literature LITERATURE AS A CERTAIN USE OF WORDS Literature exploits a certain potentiality in human beings as sign-using animals. A sign, for example a word, functions in the absence of the thing named to designate that thing, to “refer to it,” as linguists say. Reference is an inalienable aspect of words. When we say that a word functions in the absence of the thing to name the thing, the natural assumption is that the thing named exists. It is really there, somewhere or other, perhaps not all that far away. We need words or other signs to substitute for things while those things are temporarily absent.
If I am out walking, for example, and see a sign with the 15 What is Literature? window, I would now say, no doubt shaped that reality through various rhetorical devices. The window was not entirely colorless and transparent. I was, however, blissfully unaware of that. I saw through the words to what seemed to me beyond them and not dependent on them, even though I could get there in no other way than by reading those words. I resented being told that the name on the title page was that of the “author” who had made it all up.
Whether many other people have had the same experience, I do not know, but I confess to being curious to ? nd out. It is not too much to say that this whole book has been written to account for this experience. Was it no more than childish naivete, or was I responding, in however childish a way, to something essential about literature? Now I am older and wiser. I know that The Swiss Family Robinson was written in German by a Swiss author, Johann David Wyss (1743 –1818), and that I was reading an English translation. Nevertheless, I believe my childhood experience had validity.
It can serve as a clue to answering the question, “What is literature? ” word “Gate,” I assume that somewhere nearby is an actual gate that I can see with my eyes and grasp with my hands to open or shut it, once I get in sight of it and get my hands on it. This is especially the case if the word “Gate” on the sign is accompanied by a pointing arrow and the words “? mile,” or something of the sort. The real, tangible, usable gate is a quarter of a mile away, out of sight in the woods. The sign, however, promises that if I follow the arrow I shall soon be face to face with the gate.
The word “gate” is charged with signifying power by its reference to real gates. Of course, the word’s meaning is also generated by that word’s place in a complex di? erential system of words in a given language. That system distinguishes “gate” from all other words. The word “gate,” however, once it is charged with signi? cance by its reference to real gates, retains its signi? cance or signifying function even if the gate is not there at all. The sign has meaning even if it is a lie put up by someone to lead me astray on my walk.
The word “Gate” on the sign then refers to a phantom gate that is not there anywhere in the phenomenal world. Literature exploits this extraordinary power of words to go on signifying in the total absence of any phenomenal referent. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s quaint terminology, literature makes use of a “non-transcendent” orientation of words. Sartre meant by this that the words of a literary work do not transcend themselves toward the phenomenal things to which they refer. The whole power of literature is there in the simplest word or sentence used in this ? ctitious way.
Franz Kafka testi? ed to this power. He said that the entire potentiality of literature to create a world out of words is there in a sentence like, “He opened the window. ” Kafka’s ? rst great masterpiece, “The Judgment,” uses that power at 16 On Literature the end of its ? rst paragraph. There the protagonist, Georg Bendemann, is shown sitting “with one elbow propped on his desk . . . looking out the window at the river, the bridge, and the hills on the farther bank with their tender green. ” Stephane Mallarme gave witness to the same amazing magic of words, in this case a single word.
In a famous formulation, he pronounced: “I say: a ? ower! and, outside the forgetting to which my voice relegates any contour, in the form of something other than known callices, musically there rises, the suave idea itself, the absence of all bouquets. ” Words used as signi? ers without referents generate with amazing ease people with subjectivities, things, places, actions, all the paraphernalia of poems, plays, and novels with which adept readers are familiar. What is most extraordinary about literature’s power is the ease with which this generation of a virtual reality occurs.
The little story of my imaginary walk in the woods to encounter a misleading, perhaps a sinisterly prevaricating, sign is a small example of that. It might be objected that many literary works, perhaps modernist or postmodernist ones especially, though by no means uniquely, deliberately resist translation into an internal imaginary spectacle. Mallarme’s poems, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the strange works of Raymond Roussel, or the late poems of Wallace Stevens are examples. Such works force the reader to pay attention to the linguistic surface, rather than going through it to some virtual reality to which it gives access.
Even in such works, however, the reader struggles to imagine some scene or other. Mallarme’s poem about his wife’s fan, “Eventail (de Madame Mallarme),” is a poem about that fan, just as his “Tombeau (de Verlaine)” is about Verlaine’s tomb and the weather around it on a certain day. Stevens’s “Chocorua to Its Neighbor” is pretty rare? ed, all right, but 17 What is Literature? it is still readable as an imaginary conversation between a star and a real mountain. That is Mt. Chocorua, in New Hampshire, near which the American philosopher, William James, used to spend his summers.
Early drafts of Finnegans Wake help readers to orient themselves, for example, in one particularly opaque passage by knowing that beneath various layers of outrageous puns and portmanteau words it is recounting the Tristan and Isolde story, with Tristan in modern guise as “a handsome six foot rugby player. ” Part of the pleasure of Roussel’s Impressions d’Afrique is the struggle, by no means wholly unsuccessful, to disentangle the various bewilderingly intertwined narrative strands. The virtual realities such works invent or discover are pretty weird, but so, in their own ways, are even the most traditionally “realistic” ? tions. Examples, to be discussed later, are Anthony Trollope’s novels, with their strange assumption that each character has intuitive understanding of what other characters are thinking. Moreover, even the most opaque or idiosyncratic literary construction tends to generate the ? ctive illusion of a speaking voice. A literary work is not, as many people may assume, an imitation in words of some pre-existing reality but, on the contrary, it is the creation or discovery of a new, supplementary world, a metaworld, a hyper-reality. This new world is an irreplaceable addition to the already existing one.
A book is a pocket or portable dreamweaver. I refer in this ? gure to two series of books popular some decades ago, “Pocket Books” and “Portable” books – The Portable Conrad, The Portable Dorothy Parker, The Portable Hemingway, and so on. These names signal the portability of modern books as generators of alternative worlds. You can carry these little devices wherever you go. They will still go on working their magic when you read 18 On Literature them, anywhere, anytime. These modern small books are quite di? erent from Renaissance folios, for example the Shakespeare Folio.
Those big books were meant to stay in one place, most often in a rich person’s private library. Literature makes exorbitant and large-scale use of the propensity words possess to go on having meaning even in the absence of any ascertainable, phenomenally veri? able, referent. A beguiling circumstantiality tends to characterize literature. An example is the speci? cation that it was “a Saturday afternoon in November” at the opening of The Return of the Native. Another is the spurious hiding of what are implied to be real street names, with only the ? rst and last letters given, as if something needs to be hidden, in the ? st sentence of Crime and Punishment. No way exists from the opening sentence of Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove to tell whether or not Kate Croy was a real person: “She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in . . . ” Often the illusion that the text is a chronicle of real people and events, not a ? ctive concoction, is reinforced by the use of real place names. An unwary reader, however, is likely to be fooled by a bogus circumstantiality. Kate Croy’s father’s house exists in a real place, the Chelsea region of London, but a search of London maps fails to turn up a Chirk Street, where the narrator says that house was located.
It sounds as if there ought to be a Chirk Street in Chelsea but there is not. Goswell Road, however, is a real street in the Finsbury section of East London, but no Mr Pickwick ever opened a window and looked out upon it, in a passage to which I shall return. To alter Marianne Moore’s aphorism de? ning poetry as imaginary gardens with real toads in them, Pickwick Papers names a real garden with an imaginary toad. The name “Chirk Street” is like a plausible-enough-looking entry in a ? ctitious telephone 19 What is Literature? book, that just does not happen to correspond to any real telephone.
Literature derails or suspends or redirects the normal referentiality of language. Language in literature is derouted so that it refers only to an imaginary world. The referentiality of the words a work uses, however, is never lost. It is inalienable. The reader can share in the work’s world by way of this referentiality. Trollope’s novels carry over into the imaginary place they create (or discover) all sorts of veri? able information about Victorian middle-class society and about human life, for example about courtship and marriage, as we all in one way or another know it.
The Swiss Family Robinson is full of accurate information about animals, birds, ? sh, and plants. Those historical and “realistic” details, however, are, in both cases, transposed, trans? gured. They are used as a means to transport the reader, magically, from the familiar, the verisimilar, to another, singular place that even the longest voyage in the “real world” will not reach. Reading is an incarnated as well as a spiritual act. The reader sits in his or her chair and turns material pages with bodily hands.
Though literature refers to the real world, however, and though reading is a material act, literature uses such physical embedment to create or reveal alternative realities. These then enter back into the ordinary “real” world by way of readers whose beliefs and behavior are changed by reading – sometimes for the better, perhaps sometimes not. We see the world through the literature we read, or, rather, those who still have what Simon During calls “literary subjectivity” do that. We then act in the real world on the basis of that seeing. Such action is a performative rather than a constative or referential e? ct of language. Literature is a use of words that makes things happen by way of its readers. 20 On Literature LITERATURE AS SECULAR MAGIC I have used, and will go on using, the word “magic” to name the power that words on the page have to open up a virtual reality when they are read as literature. Simon During, in Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic, already referred to, has admirably traced the history of magic shows and entertainments, from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century. As part of this history he has discussed the relation of magic to literature.
He is interested primarily in works like Ho? mann’s Kater Murr or Raymond Roussel’s Impressions d’Afrique. Such works have a more or less direct relation to magic shows. Among these he mentions the Alice books, important points of reference later on in this present book. The basic ? ction of Alice passing through the looking-glass echoes magic stage practices and traditions. Moreover, the scenes of the vanishing Cheshire cat and the baby made to sneeze with pepper may be covert references, as During has suggested, to a famous nineteenth-century magic stage show, done with mirrors, called “Pepper’s Ghost. John Fisher, in The Magic of Lewis Carroll, has detailed Carroll’s knowledge of nineteenth-century staged illusions. During does not explicitly observe, however, that all literary works, whether or not they overtly refer to magic practices, can be usefully thought of as a species of magic. A work of literature is an abracadabra or hocus pocus that opens a new world. During has something to say about the way cinema extended magic shows, for example by being based in part on magic lanterns that were long a part of magic stage presentations.
Eventually cinema put staged magic out of business. It had the stronger force. During also does not observe, however, that modern communications technologies, from trick photography, to the telephone, to cinema, to 21 What is Literature? radio, to television, to recordings on disks, tapes, or CDs, to the computer connected to the Internet, ful? ll in reality old dreams of magic communication, at a temporal or spatial distance, with the living or with the dead. I can, any time I like, hear Glenn Gould play Bach’s Goldberg Variations with ? gers long since turned to dust. I can even hear Alfred Lord Tennyson reciting his poems. Talk about raising ghosts! As Laurence Rickels has shown, in the early days of both the telephone and the tape recorder, people believed they were hearing the voices of the dead (usually their mother’s) behind the voices of the living, or through the static, on a telephone connection or a tape recording. These teletechnologies have gradually displaced not only magic stage assemblages, but also that other fading form of secular magic: literature.
Cinema, television, CDs, VCRs, MP3 gadgets, computers, and the Internet have become our dominant far-seeing and far-hearing conjurers, sorcerers, prestidigitators, animators of talking heads. These devices are, in short, our chief purveyors of magic shows. They have incalculable power to determine ideological belief. One place where the way any literary work is a form of conjuring emerges explicitly is in the ? rst words of George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859): With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertakes to reveal to any chance comer far-reaching visions of the past.
This is what I undertake to do for you, reader. With this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you the roomy workshop of Mr Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the eighteenth of June in the year of our Lord 1799. 22 On Literature As Neil Hertz has observed, George Eliot and her readers would have known in 1859 that the Egyptian sorcerer in question was Abd-El-Kadir El-Maghrabee, who lived in Cairo earlier in the century. He is mentioned, Hertz reminds us, in a brief work by J. L. Borges, written in the 1930s, “The Mirror of Ink. What is striking about Eliot’s ? gure is the way it uses the ? gure of a magic trick to name the power not of a Ho? mannian fantasy nor of a work of twentieth-century “magic realism,” but of a paradigmatic example of good old-fashioned mimetic realism, complete with circumstantial dates and places. The analogy also brilliantly transposes the magic practice of Abd-El-Kadir (who used a small pool of ink in the palm of his hand as a visionary mirror) into the ink at the end of the writer’s pen that forms the words on the page we are at that moment reading.
These words are a mirror in what might be called a Carrollian sense, that is, not as a re? ection of something here and now, but as a magic looking-glass that the reader penetrates to enter a new reality on the other side, distant in time and space: the workshop of Mr Jonathan Burge in Hayslope on June 18, 1799. The sentences are both constative and performative. They name Jonathan Burge’s roomy workshop constatively. They promise to “show” it to the reader, “as it appeared. ” In making the promise, the words ful? ll the promise.
The “roomy workshop” arises “magically” before the reader’s mind’s eye, more and more circumstantially so as he or she reads the elaborate description of it that follows these opening words. 23 What is Literature? Literature as Virtual Reality Two “OPEN SESAME” For me the opening sentences of literary works have special force. They are “Open Sesames” unlocking the door to that particular work’s ? ctive realm. All it takes is a few words, and I become a believer, a seer. I become the fascinated witness of a new virtual reality. More accurately, I become a disembodied observer within that reality. “There was a Boy; ye knew him well, ye cli? /And islands of Winander! ” does it for me with Wordsworth’s “The Boy of Winander. ” “Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the ? owers herself,” does it for me with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. “He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a ? xed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull,” does it for me with Conrad’s Lord Jim. “I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-/dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon,” does it for me with Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Windhover. “I struck the board and cried, ‘No more,’” does it for me with George Herbert’s “The Collar. ” Sophocles’s Oedipus the King opens ominously with a question from Oedipus to the procession of Theban priests and citizens: “My sons! Newest generation of this ancient city of Thebes! Why are you here? ” Oedipus’s ? rst words raise the 24 On Literature questions of generation, of fatherhood and sonship. Such themes are fundamental in Oedipus’s story of patricide and incest. Oedipus’s habit of asking questions, and of not being satis? ed until he ? ds answers, gets him into a lot of trouble, to put it mildly. In that same opening speech, he says: “Here I am, myself, world-famous Oedipus. ” He presumably refers to his fame for solving the Sphynx’s riddle. Oedipus becomes truly world-famous, but not quite for the reasons he thinks. The whole play is contained in miniature in Oedipus’s ? rst speech. In each case I have cited, the opening words instantly transport me into a new world. All the words that come after in each work do no more than give me further information about a realm I have already entered.
The words are radically inaugural. They are the creation, in each case, of a new, alternative universe. These words are a miniature, secular, all-too-human version of God’s “Let there be light” in Genesis. A long litany of such beginnings could be cited. I cite a few more out of admiration for their generative power and to illustrate the way each one is a miniature genesis. I put them down pell-mell, in deliberate randomness, as they come to mind. This disorder stresses their heterogeneity. They are stored, so to speak, in separate partitions within that strange organic hard-drive, my memory.
I shall have something to say about each, either now or later: At the beginning of July, during an extremely hot spell, towards evening, a young man left the closet he rented from tenants in S—–y Lane, walked out to the street, and slowly, as if indecisively, headed for the K—–n Bridge. (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment) 25 Literature as Virtual Reality Someone must have slandered Josef K. , for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested. (Franz Kafka, The Trial ) Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit Of the Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast Brought Death into the World, and all our woe . . (John Milton, Paradise Lost) Peach tree soft and tender, how your blossoms glow! The bride is going to her home, she well be? ts this house. (Chinese Classic of Poetry, VI, “Peach Tree Soft and Tender”) Sitting beside the road, watching the wagon mount the hill toward her, Lena thinks, “I have come from Alabama: a fur On Literature piece. All the way from Alabama a-walking. A fur piece. ” (William Faulkner, Light in August) A sudden blow: the great wings beating still Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed By the dark webs . . . (W. B. Yeats, “Leda and the Swan”) I am a sick man . . .
I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. (Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground ) 26 A number of features characterize these inaugural moments. They tend to be abrupt or irruptive. Each is a sudden intrusion on the reader, wherever he or she happens to be when the book is opened. They command attention. Having read these opening words, the reader wants to go on reading. The words whisk the reader into a new place. He or she is enchanted in an instant and wants to explore this brave new world further. This can only be done by reading further, and so the reader is “hooked. These opening moments tend, moreover, in one way or another to be violent. This is so not only in the way they suddenly interrupt whatever the reader was thinking or doing until the moment the book was opened. They also tend to be violent beginnings to tales of violence. This may be the relatively justi? ed and benign violence of God’s relation to the self in the poems by Herbert or Hopkins, or the violence of sexuality in Light and August and “Leda and the Swan,” or the violent stories of transgression told in works like Lord Jim, or the psychological violence of the really weird character who speaks in Notes from Underground.
I ? rst read Notes from Underground when I was a sophomore in college. I remember saying to myself, in my sophomoric way, “Here at last is someone like myself, someone who speaks to me of my secret sense of myself. ” The irruptive, transgressive violence of these beginnings is often proleptic or synecdochic, part for whole, of the work that follows. The climactic violence of Lord Jim, for example, when the hero allows himself to be shot, as expiation at last for his unwilling complicity in asocial acts, seems somehow foreshadowed in that image of Jim as like a charging bull.
The violence of literature tends to involve either sexuality, or death, or both. About violence in The Swiss Family Robinson I shall say something later. I add here and now, however, as a point of special importance, that this violence is experienced as pleasurable. This is true however ashamed we may be of the pleasure in vicarious violence a literary work enacts for us. Literature 27 Literature as Virtual Reality On Literature gives pleasurable violence even though the violence may be no more than the laughter engendered by the outrageous wordplay of a work like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
In the latter, for example, a chapter entitled “The Rabbit Sends in a Little Bill” turns out not to have anything to do with bills in the economic sense. The bill in question is a lizard named Bill. The Rabbit sends Bill down the chimney and Alice kicks him back up the chimney. In the Tenniel illustration, he comes ? ying out like a projectile. In another episode, Alice and the animals are dried o? after their swim in Alice’s tears by hearing the Mouse read aloud an exceedingly dry historical account. Such puns produce, in me at least, an explosion of laughter. Laughter too is violent, as Yeats and Freud knew.
All literary works have something of the laughter-producing weirdness of dreams. Laughter repeats the transgression from which it would protect us, while at the same time holding the transgressive at a distance. WHY IS LITERATURE VIOLENT? Why all this violence in literature? Why is that violence pleasurable? It seems as though literature not only satis? es a desire for entry into virtual realities but that those virtual realities tend to enact, however covertly, an approach toward the hyperbolic violences of death, sexuality, and the subversion hidden in the irrationalities of language.
At the same time, literature in one way or another protects us from those violences. Friedrich Nietzsche, as Paul Gordon has shown in Tragedy After Nietzsche, held that tragedy is essentially superabundant rapture (Rausch) and that all art is essentially tragic. “If there is to be art,” wrote Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols, “if there is to be any aesthetic doing and observing, one physiological 28 pre-condition is indispensable: rapture. ” “Rapture”: the word means being drawn forcibly out of oneself into another realm. That other realm is by no means peaceful.
It is associated in one way or another with those excessive things I have named: death, sexuality, and the irrational side of language. Literature seizes me and carries me to a place where pleasure and pain join. When I say I am “enchanted” by the virtual realities to which literary works transport me, that is a milder way of saying I am enraptured by reading those works. Literary works are in one way or another wild. That is what gives them their power to enrapture. Literature as Virtual Reality 29 OPENINGS AS THE RAISING OF GHOSTS Shakespeare’s plays might almost be taken as a counterproof of what I have been saying.
They typically open not with a speech by one of the main characters but by dialogue among subsidiary folk. A Shakespeare play often begins with minor characters who establish the social milieu within which the main drama will be enacted. Hamlet, for example, starts not with the appearance of the ghost but with a conversation between two sentinels, Bernardo and Francisco (unlikely names for Danes), on the battlements of Elsinore Castle. Othello begins not with Othello himself, but with a speech by Roderigo, a “gulled gentleman,” victim of Iago’s villainy.
Shakespeare’s beginnings, nevertheless, obey my law of an irruptive start in the middle of things. They instantly establish a new social space, the space within which Hamlet or Othello will work out his tragic destiny. The opening of Hardy’s The Return of the Native sets a scene, Egdon Heath. The heath is, the chapter title says, “A Face on which Time makes but Little Impression”: “A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. The openings of Mrs Dalloway, Lord Jim, Crime and Punishment, Herbert’s “The Collar,” Faulkner’s Light in August and many other works, however, establish in a single sentence a character, often a chief protagonist. For me the character springs to life with this sentence. The personage remains alive ever afterward somewhere in my imagination, as a kind of ghost that may not be exorcized, neither alive nor dead. Such ghosts are neither material nor immaterial. They are embodied in the words on the pages in all those books on the shelves waiting to be invoked again when the book is taken down and read.