What happens is, I wake up one morning and decide that perhaps I really ought to make another attempt to find out what modern literary theory is all about. After all, I spent most of my working life in the university sector; and although I have been profoundly rude, in the past, about those who work in the English Literature departments of universities, I do occasionally wonder whether I have been entirely fair to them.
So, every once in a while, I make another attempt to figure out what in blue blazes such people are talking about.
My latest attempt was prompted by a reference to Christopher Hitchens's article in the New York Times. I had to register to read it, but this link may work. Hitchens, you may recall, was described by George Galloway recently as a 'drink-soaked former Trotskyist popinjay', and a man who has earned such an accolade cannot be all bad. (I am about to read George's book, by the way; of which more later.)
Hitchens's article takes the form of a review of The John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism; in its second edition, mark you, so the thing must be a really hot seller.
The main problem with Hitchens's review is that he seems determined to prove that he is the intellectual equal of those who contribute to the book. And this seems to require that he write in prose which is as impenetrable as theirs. For example:
Adorno once remarked (this was also in ''Minima Moralia'') that a film of true aesthetic value could be made, and be in full conformity and compliance with all the rules of the Hays Office, as long as there was no Hays Office. That was, if you like, an ironic and paradoxical appreciation of the transgressive.Huh? Whatsay?
However, despite my difficulty, as an intellectually challenged person with only three degrees to my name, in following Hitchens's argument in every detail, I find myself agreeing fully with his conclusion. He says that one of the contributors to the Guide refers approvingly to an essay entitled 'On the Abolition of the English Department'. This man, says Hitchens, should be more careful what he endorses, because 'the prospect of such an abolition, at least in the United States, becomes more appetizing by the minute.'
Well, right on there, brother. No argument from me.
The Hitchens piece attracted a certain amount of attention in various blogs -- sorry, but I do not have all the details to hand -- and Maud Newton (Another look at the popinjay, 2 June) has a useful little discussion with some good links.
Well, I think they're good links. I tried one, and that was enough for me. My funny turn was beginning to subside by then, and sanity was making a comeback.
The link that I tried was to James Wood's article 'The Slightest Sardine' in the London Review of Books. This is very hard going indeed. It really is. But there is, I think, the germ of a sensible point buried there somewhere.
Of course I may have got the wrong end of the stick entirely, but what Woods appears to be saying is that we have endless academic discussion of Eng. Lit. and literary theory and what-have-you, but discussion of books in terms which can be understood by the man in the street/woman on the Clapham omnibus has virtually disappeared.
I repeat. I think that is one of the points that Woods is making. And if so, then I think he is missing something. Namely -- clears throat modestly -- the existence of blogs such as this one. Where books are discussed, I hope, in terms which can be understood by anyone smart enough to navigate here over the web.
And if, as I believe he does, Woods wonders why the academic discourse on literature is conducted in a language called gobbledygook, then the answer is surely perfectly clear. If professors of English Literature were to discuss books in everyday language, in terms which could be understood by the average reader of the Daily Mirror, then it would be blindingly obvious that we don't need professors of English Literature at all. And they would be out of a job. And we can't have that, can we? Hence obscurity.
There are other links in Maud Newton's piece but I'm afraid that by this time my resolve failed me. The trouble is, you see, whenever I read anything serious I get this sharp pain, right between the eyes. I think I will go back to ignoring literary theory and all those who dwell in it; it's much more relaxing if you do.