Thursday, March 5, 2009


The fiftieth post seems like occasion enough to announce my latest turn of the page, which in this case takes the form of establishing some clearer and more stable idea of why I'm in graduate school than the one I originally supplied ("it's better than a 40-hour-a-week job and even if I don't get a job at the end, at least I'll be smarter and I'll get to read books all day." The last part turned out to be true, at any rate. This weekend, I have to read Great Expectations, most of the Metamorphoses, three chapters of Auerbach, Bakhtin's "Discourse in the Novel," and five books of the Odyssey, because next week I have to read three 150-page books on time, physics, and wizardry in the Renaissance that some professor at Berkeley is hording until the last possible moment of his or her recall period).

But back to the point, I've been getting bored lately. Bored with arguments about ghosts and amputated body parts, about martyrdom and altarpieces. It doesn't have anything to do with the skill or persuasive power of these particular arguments, but more with the fact that it all seems like a dodge, as, indeed, does much of 20th and 21st century literary criticism. Not to sound like the latest chancellor's report about the dire state of the endowment, but in a time when people can't pay for their houses and 60-year-olds wake up every morning with a stock portfolio worth approximately half of what they were at this time last year, who's really interested in whether Wuthering Heights is structured like a language, complete (or, rather, incomplete) with absent signified at its center? I freely admit that my mind starts wandering to my shopping list and my taxes, and I get paid to care about this stuff. The humanities don't justify themselves in any obvious, cancer-curing way, and when literary criticism addresses itself almost exclusively to concerns that appear at first blush inconsequential, or, worse, incomprehensible, we humanists can't respond by flailing around at the question anymore. The question, to wit: what, exactly, are we doing? What does the study of literature offer the world? Finally--and here's the $44 billion question (adjusting for inflation)--why does literature exist?

This question isn't as much the poor stepchild of English departments as it first appears. Martha Nussbaum is posing some neo-Aristotelian answers, and Judith Butler (bless her heart, as my southern friends would say), although I can't really understand a word she's saying, appears to be attempting the same. A field called new ethics claims that the novel developed as a response to a changing moral climate requiring one to engage with the inner lives of others, and the mere fact that others had inner lives at all. Even Bakhtin, back in the 1930s, gestured towards some purpose for literature when he tried to define what made the novel different than everything that came before it.

I think these theories are interesting, but are not sufficient. Nussbaum's answer--that literature fulfills the same Aristotelian niche as ethics, i.e. how to live the good life, except concretized so that the senses interpret and process the evidence without the ineffectual moral philosopher standing by to natter about the right interpretation--seems to miss what's literary about literature. It doesn't provide an answer to why case studies (advice columns, nowadays) aren't just as effective at demonstrating the plethora of fixes that humans get themselves into and the solutions they invent to extricate themselves. The New Ethicists have this problem, too. Presumably it's even easier to demonstrate that people are different from you with a genres like the autobiography or memoir, and these don't even require some cognitive leap over the fact that the supposed other you're meant to recognize doesn't actually exist. Fictionality seems to be the missing term in all of this. Catherine Gallagher, the professor for my novel class, wrote an article about this for Moretti's novel anthology, in which she put forward the claim that one of the functions of fictionality is to shore up our own sense of self by offering characters who are real, but limited. We'll never know more about Anna Karenina the character than we already know, she says, and this serves to remind us that we continue to live and create stories, and that our depths are essentially unplumbable. We're real, in other words, and they're just made up. I like this formulation in theory, but find it completely contradicts my reading experience in practice. I feel very little satisfaction that I'll never know more about Anna, and I don't feel like any more of a person for it. I feel instead great sympathy for one of Thackeray's correspondents, who wanted to know if things turned out all right for Becky after Vanity Fair. There's a way in which (good) fiction becomes more real than reality.

In fact and to the contrary, this sense of limitedness is what I think we find in biography. While fiction allows Thackeray to skip around Waterloo and ahead 20 years, we'd reckon any biography that skipped, say, every other year of Winston Churchill's life, or which omitted World War II, completely useless. Selection (in which one's choices aren't limited, but endless) is a principle of fiction, not of history or biography, and while it doesn't even begin to answer why we need fiction, it at least begins to define what differentiates fiction from non-fiction--which seems like an important starting point. Most of literary criticism has worked on the difference between genres (Bakhtin on the novel and the epic, for instance), but I'm not sure that this more fundamental distinction has really received much treatment since the Poetics. Certainly it's been frought enough lately, with fake memoirs and invented authors, to merit further investigation.

In fact, studying it at the point where it breaks down--why do fake memoirs annoy us, anyway?--is the right methodology. Why does it matter that the genres (by which I mean the real and the not real) get mixed up sometimes? We must be getting two different needs supplied, in the same manner that our bodies require both vitamin A and vitamin C. And this, in a nice neat little nutshell, brings me to the direction in which I think those of us studying literature in this generation need to realign ourselves. Instead of running out to find examples to demonstrate how literature is structured like a language, we need to take about 2000 steps back and figure out why such a question is worth asking in the first place. This will necessarily reorient us towards the humanities proper, the study of the human: literature, story, narrative fiction, whatever you want to call it, does something for humans, and it's up to us to discover what that is.

Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 11:50 AM