Monday, November 21, 2005

Literary theory is dead, hurrah! Or is it boo?

The Literary Saloon has a link to an article in Slate, entitled 'The death of literary theory -- is it really a good thing?'

Written by Stephen Metcalf, this is a short history of the life (and death?) of literary theory as taught in the great universities of the western world. It is written, happily, in terms which ordinary people can understand, which is more than can be said for almost everything else ever written about the subject.

Metcalf has an appropriately jaundiced view of the intelligence and ruthless self-interest of professors of Eng. Lit. Such profs, he argues, moved from being suckers to being con men and back to being suckers again; none of these roles being one which attracts respect from anyone capable of rational thought.

Along the way, however, he points out that the great strength of English departments in universities was that, while being 'vulnerable to charlatanism and dupery' (you can say that again), they were also 'the last great repository for the nonutilitarian hopes of the university.' The English departments, were (Metcalf maintains) just about the only places where any serious thinking went on about life and knowledge in general, without that thinking being directed towards turning students into competent lawyers, engineers, and surgeons.

Well, maybe. Metcalf certainly has a point. I have always had a strong preference for vocational education myself, but not to the exclusion of all else. Any vocational education needs, in my view, to be based firmly on a broad liberal-arts foundation. And I would not disagree with the following statement from John Alexander Smith, a professor of moral philosophy at Oxford, who told his new students in 1914 that
Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life, save only this, that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.
The problem with the English departments is that they did (and still do) a great deal of harm and not much good. Their success rate in teaching students how to 'detect when a man is talking rot' is lamentably low. If it wasn't, they wouldn't have any students left after the end of the first term.

If you really wish to consider the purpose of university education in more detail, find a decent university library and read my 1988 book The Goals of Universities.

1 comment:

Iain said...

No one who combines intelligence with intellectual honesty has ever had much time for literary theory. In the notorious Sokal Affair cited by Metcalf in Slate, Sokal’s immediate target is the sort of ludicrous posturing which frequently disfigures university social science faculties, but all kinds of intellectual pretension get hit in the process.

Take deconstruction. If you dissect a human body, the chances are that you are doing something useful –- in all probability, you are teaching anatomy. If, however, you deconstruct the text of a novel, you are wasting your time, and that of anyone foolish enough to pay any attention to you. (And please don’t tell me that I don’t understand what deconstruction is. Neither do you.)

Or take postmodernism, a phenomenon so awful that I cannot even bring myself to discuss it. It is simply a stupid name for a stupid notion. If you want to know (which most people don’t) what it is (which most people don’t) consult Wikipedia.

Strange as it might seem, literary theory as we know it, essentially a postwar development, is driven by the evolutionary impulse. All living things are hard-wired to compete in order to survive, but Homo sapiens in the rich part of the world has cracked it: the necessities of life are available to all, even those who refuse to work. But still we must compete -– hence today’s obsession with sport, which almost always entails identification with one team or contestant. In the EngLit departments of universities on both sides of the Atlantic, competition has often taken the form of an urge to appear cleverer than others, even in manifestly futile ways.

The goal of those who delve into the more obscure corners of literary theory is not to enlighten but to bewilder. They seek to increase their self-esteem by demonstrating intellectual superiority. If you doubt me, take a look at this interesting web page. The Summary at the top will be quite enough.

It is highly questionable that university departments of literature should even exist, but it’s never easy to derail a gravy-train. Best stand clear of the tracks and get your kicks elsewhere: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, R.K. Narayan, Doris Lessing, Ian MacEwan . . . Agatha Christie, Mills & Boon, the Marquis de Sade, Barbara Cartland . . . You get the idea.