Nineteen Theses on Literature
by Roger Shattuck, as appeared in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XLV, No. 3
A. Literature in General
I. A REAL WORLD of material things, sometimes called nature, exists around us. Nature includes us, and we share it imperfectly with one another through perception, action, memory, language, love, and wonder.
II. Material nature has gradually helped shape human behaviour and consciousness into patterns we recognize as cultures and as common sense. Across millions of years under a great variety of social behaviours, we have evolved a fairly stable socio-genetic compound we refer to as human nature. Human nature contains an elusive element of freedom: freedom from blind chance and determinism, freedom to choose our actions.
III. There may be more than material nature and human nature. Words like 'spiritual' and 'transcendent' and 'ineffable' may refer to more than mere yearnings. Much around us remains unknown.
IV. Works of literature, through their amalgam of representation and imagination, of clarity and mystery, of the particular and the general, offer revealing evidence about material nature and whatever may lie beyond. This is why we read and study and discuss literary works.
V. Literature ranges from simple songs and sayings to elaborate and extended tales of human deeds. The most compelling literature concerns persons whose feelings and thoughts and actions engage us in the lived time of mortality. Ideas and abstractions, which systematically separate themselves from persons and from time, do not form the essence of literature and do not surpass it.
VI. Works of literature are written by individual authors using an existing language with reference to material nature and human nature. The doctrine known as textuality makes a triple denial of these entities. Textuality denies the existence of the natural World, of literature, and of authors.
VII. No author has a claim to final authority. However, we do well to acknowledge, as all cultures do, sheer seniority. Works that have survived for centuries cannot be dismissed out of hand as stiflingly traditional, as part of the status quo needing above all to be usurped by the modern.
VIII. In order to affirm literature in Its full humanist sense, let us eschew the tendentious freestanding word, text. Its indiscriminate use today provides evidence of deadening stylistic conformity. Let us rather take advantage of the full range of descriptive terms, like book, work, poem, play, novel, essay, passage, chapter, and the like. There is no need to modify serviceable expressions like 'the text of' a work, and 'sacred texts'. But let us refrain from endorsing, indirectly and inadvertently, the doctrine of textuality by chanting 'text' in every other line of what we say and write.
IX. Like our terrestrial environment, our literary, intellectual, and moral environment needs to be wisely cultivated and protected. We have as many strip miners and clear cutters operating in the areas of literature, philosophy, and history as we have operating on the planet Earth. You know their names and their schools. Some of them believe that we, who devote ourselves to literature and inquiry, are an endangered species and should fade away. We, for our part, are resolved to survive and to flourish.
B. Interlude - Partially Plagiarized
X. 'Our lives are a fierce attempt to find an aspect of this world not open to interpretation.' David Mamet, Kafka's Grave.
XI. In the fullness of time a poet-oracle came forth upon the mountain top, whence one could see a great distance in all directions. Out of the innumerable questions put to this fierce yet gentle seer, only two answers have come down to us.
1. 'Everything exists in order to end up in a book.'
2. 'Nothing will survive unless it has been uttered.'
XII. To those getting ready to be shipwrecked on a desert island, I offer a miniaturized library of world literature that can be memorized in a few days. It consists of 3001 bulls - not Papal: Irish. Bulls combine succinct style, compacted logic, and a sharp edge.
At your age Mozart was dead.
Reader's report to a textbook publisher: 'This book does
nothing for the non-reading student.'
No one goes to that restaurant anymore. It's too crowded.
We teach what we hope to learn.
Count no man happy till he dies.
Freedom is the absence of choice. Stop it some more.
I can never kiss her properly. Her face always gets in the way.
He died cured.
XIII. The world scoffs at old ideas. It distrusts new ideas. It loves tricks.
XIV. Everything has been said. But nobody listens. Therefore it has to be said all over again - only better In order to say it better, we have to know how it was said before.
XV. A friend in Missouri recently sent me a book-length manuscript. In the past she has written intense studies of the relation between German and French philosophy as it has influenced literary theory since 1950. In her letter my friend declared that she has undergone a profound change of heart. She now rejects the reigning schools of literary theory and attacks them in this manuscript. It is time for a more direct and less abstract approach to literature. Would I write an introduction to her book? My friend's new book vehemently rebuts Heidegger and Adorno, Barthes and Derrida on their own ground. It reads like her earlier books - with all the signs changed. She has without question changed sides; she has not left the battlefield. As before, her discussions do not refer to any primarily literary works. The only authors she mentions from before 1950 are Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel. I wrote to my friend that I applaud her change of heart. When is she going to change her reading accordingly? I could not write an introduction to a book still transfixed by her earlier theoretical concerns, even though she has joined the other side. I did not write to my friend that I would like to know the titles of the books she keeps within easy reach around her desk or work station. Does she still work surrounded by Saussure and Foulcault? Or does she keep by her again now the works she loved as a graduate student: Stendhal and Balzac, George Eliot and Dickens, Hawthorne and Melville?
XVI. In literary study as in everyday life, we have entered the Age of Appliances. More and more scholars and critics write and teach by applying all ideology or a methodology to a cultural 'text'. This reliance on appliances tends to eliminate the experience and the love of literature.
C. Literature in Education
We have brought ourselves to great perplexity about the basic role of education. Should education socialize the young within an existing culture and offer them the basic means to succeed in that culture? Or should education give the young the means to challenge and overthrow the existing culture, presumably in order to achieve a better life? Here I shall appeal to analogy. Almost immediately after fertilization, the human embryo sets aside a few cells that are sheltered from the rest of the organism and the environment. These cells retain a special ability to divide by meiosis into haploid cells needed for sexual reproduction. Our gonads represent the most stable and protected element in the body and are usually able to pass on unchanged to the next generation the genetic material we were born with This way the sins of fathers and mothers during their lifetimes are not visited upon their children. Except for radiation and a few diseases, the life we live does not affect our gonads.
No such biological process is built into cultures. But all cultures have discovered something similar - all activity, sometimes developed into an institution, we call education. By education we pass on to the young the customs, restrictions, discoveries, and wisdom that have afforded Survival so far.
There is good reason to maintain that, unlike many other institutions - political, social, and artistic - which criticize and rebel against the status quo, education should remain primarily a conservative institution, like our gonads. We are overloading education when we ask it to reform society, to redesign culture, and to incorporate the avant-garde and bohemia in its precincts. In a free society, original and disaffected minds will always find a platform. The university need not provide the principal home for political, social, and artistic dissidents. The primary mission of a University is the transmission of a precious heritage. As the heritage is passed along, both teachers and students will test it and criticize it and seek to improve it. That healthy modification should not supplant the essential process of transmission.
XVIII. Out of the 1960's and 70's one item we should not forget is the counter slogan to relevance. It reads: Curriculum kills. This was the great merit in the nineteenth century ground rule for college programmes that specified: no living authors. Students can read them perfectly well on their own. Why invite professors in to paint contemporary authors over with interpretations and theories? We need scholars in the classroom to help students with the genuine otherness of the past. We need cultivated readers and discriminating critics to deal with contemporary literature. But not in the classroom. Curriculum kills.
XIX In planning the day to day work of education we shall forever be selecting curricula and programmes. In so doing let us desist from referring to "the canon", or canons or - God save us - canonicity. The term was smuggled out of theology into education and literature only a few years ago by those who desperately need something to attack and subvert, something to transgress and deconstruct. Otherwise what would they do? But they are talking about a figment of their own making. Who knows if Pilgrim's Progress or Parallel Lives or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is in the canon? No one. We deal primarily with the curriculum that lies before us in the courses we teach. Here lies our path through knowledge, a path we have to choose over and over again, like love in marriage. Our love of literature does not remain the same. Yet its constancy sustains us.
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