Scholarly article on topic 'Why Literature? A Profession'

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Academic research paper on topic "Why Literature? A Profession"

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Procedía Social and Behavioral Sciences 2 (2010) 7428-7434

Selected Papers of Beijing Forum 2004

Why Literature? A Profession

J. Hillis Miller

Department of English and Comparative Literature University of California

I turned to literature from science. I had intended to be a physicist. That shift defined to some degree the form my interest in literature took. That interest has always been double. On the one hand, I have an immense pleasure and investment in reading literature. A literary work is for me the magic entry into an imaginary world or, as I would call it now and as other people also might, a virtual reality. Entering the imaginary, for some reason, gives me great pleasure, as it also no doubt does for others. On the other hand, I have always been fascinated by the question of how that magic is concocted, how it works, what makes it happen. I think that was as important a motive as the slightly hedonistic one of saying this is what I really want to do. I like reading Dickens. Why shouldn't I spend the rest of my life doing that, rather than doing physics experiments? But the other side was equally important. It was a desire to account for literature and to understand it, in a quasi-scientific way.

It has always seemed to me that literature is, in one way or another in different cases, anomalous or strange in its use of language. This is a distinguishing feature of literature: the weird way in which language is used in it. I can remember still the specific example that I had in my mind. This was Tennyson. Tennyson's language seemed to me clearly contrary to fact and strange: "Tears from the depth of some divine despair." What in the world could that mean? No wonder Tennyson's speaker, or singer, says of those tears, "I know not what they mean"! My basic question was: how could somebody come to use the English language in this strange way.

So it's the linguistic peculiarity in works of literature that interests me most. That's a quasi-scientific impulse. What scientists are supposed to do, good ones at least, is to notice anomalies, things that don't quite fit the received paradigm, and to account for them. Scientific advances are generally made in that way. I have a big resistance, and always have, to what you might call the received opinions about literary works, for example, the opinions that come to be enshrined in prefaces of modern editions. I'm suspicious of such introductions, though I've written some myself. Of course, I have great admiration and respect for many of those prefaces written by other scholars, but I would read them last, in order not to have my reading of the novel, or book of poems, or whatever, distorted by them. I want to read for myself. I don't want possibly to be misled by what is always, to some degree, an expression of what everybody is supposed to know about a given work. I have found this abstinence really works. If you have an eye out for contradictions, inconsistencies, oddnesses, things that are not quite explicable by thematic descriptions of the work's features, things not highlighted by previous critics, you may see something of importance.

As you can see, I value most the idiosyncrasy of literary works, the way a given work cannot be entirely encompassed by the ideological assumptions of the period in which it was written. You can't easily fit it into history. The best works are other to their times. I no longer think of this idiosyncrasy as reflecting the idiosyncrasy of the author's mind, though those two forms of otherness may be analogous. Literature is made of language, not of bits of consciousness. That the work reflects the author's mind is an unprovable assumption. What we have is the words on the page. Though no doubt the author wrote them down, we cannot fully reconstruct the relays by which they got there on the page. Nor, for dead authors at least, do we any longer have direct access to the authors' minds. We cannot ask dead authors questions. Do we even have direct access to the minds of living authors or just the people around us? I doubt it. One of the pleasures of literature is that it gives the reader the illusion of such direct access, for example to the minds of characters in novels.

1877-0428 © 2010 Beijing Forum. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2010.05.108

For example, in Hardy's The Return of the Native —I've just been teaching that novel-why is there so much spying on other people? It is a bit strange. It is not evidently necessary to the story, but it happens over and over again. A grotesque embodiment of this is the way Eustacia Vye in that novel wanders around the heath with her father's spyglass. It seems unlikely, implausible, and yet she is always looking through the spyglass. So, you say, OK here's a feature that recurs. It doesn't seem to fit the story or be necessary to the story. Why is it there? It's that why that interests me as much as the general role that literature has played in my life and in so many people's

lives—the unreflective plunge into the work as an alternative world.

The various forms of literary criticism that I have found interesting over the years, and useful, have all been, in one way or another, valuable for me in helping me account for literature's strangeness. These critical methodologies have little to do with my preliminary immersion in a given work. They presuppose it. I don't think you learn that immersion. You either like a given work or don't like it; you get it or don't get it. But I have found other critics' procedures useful in helping me account in teaching and writing for the results of reading. I'm not going to be so na ve or disingenuous as to say that I've never done any theory, nor written any theoretical essays. Nor do I deny that I'm interested in theoretical formulations. Nevertheless, my primary interest in theory has been in the way it can come to the aid of reading. In this I differ from some people, those whose interest in theory is for its own sake. Some people seem to feel that they have to know all the theoretical approaches. They feel an obligation to read all of Foucault, Lacan, Baudrillard, Lyotard, Bourdieu, and so on. I don't feel that obligation. I read the theorists that I find intrinsically interesting in themselves, and I read them as if they were literature—Levinas, de Man, Derrida, yes; Lyotard, less; Foucault, very little. I feel somewhat ashamed of my lack of interest in Foucault. I have read a good bit of Foucault, but I don't find his work very useful for my own work, except his readings of Raymond Roussel or Nietzsche, for example. Foucault was, among other things, a good reader and critic.

I'm now asking, not so much why literature, as why literary criticism? Why was I initially interested in literary criticism? Because it gave me ways of reading, models of reading, but also because I found it fun to read, though in those far off days it was never assigned in courses, not even in my graduate courses at Harvard. Maybe that is in part why I liked it. Doing so was slightly illicit. The New Critics I found most interesting, however, were the slightly odd ones, especially Kenneth Burke and William Empson, also G. Wilson Knight, if you can call him a New Critic. I greatly admired Empson's work, not only Seven Types of Ambiguity, but also Some Versions of Pastoral, especially the latter. I thought that a wonderful book, and still do. Of course I read the other New Critics-Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, from all of whom I benefited, but I gained most from Burke and Empson. Both Burke and Empson are slightly wild and wacky. Their wildness is to some degree commensurate with the wildness of literature. Empson's chapter on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, for example, is superb, as is his notion in the chapter on double plots—he was on to something that I wouldn't have thought of—that Shakespeare's As You Like It is a dramatic working out in the different plots of the contradiction between lust and love. As Empson says, you have different versions of this in the different plots. As Empson also avers, you cannot logically reconcile lust and love. What you can do is get married, and live within the contradiction. This is why, Empson argues, As You Like It ends with so many marriages. Marriages don't solve the contradiction. They provide a quasi-solution to the problem through life, not through theory. Not that you can have both love and lust at once. You can't, but you can, in a productive way, deal with the problem if you are married or if you are living more or less permanently with a partner.

Kenneth Burke's notion that the work of literature is for the writer a strategy for encompassing a situation relates literature back to life in an unexpected way, unexpected at least for me when I was a graduate student. A literary work, Burke claims, is motivated by some kind of problem the writer has, perhaps an Empsonian contradiction, though of course not necessarily the love/lust one. Writing the work is a way of working through the problem. I found Burke's paradigm productive. My PhD dissertation on Dickens was strongly influenced by Burke. It tries to read Dickens's novels according to Burke's conception of literature.

Then, somewhat later, when I was teaching at The Johns Hopkins University and had Georges Poulet as a colleague, I quite accidentally started reading the first of Poulet's essays that had been translated, the introduction to Studies in Human Time. It had appeared in a little magazine called The Hopkins Review. I can still remember my excitement and intellectual elation. At that time I really couldn't read French, though I had passed the graduate

school French exam. I taught myself French in order to read Sartre, Valry, Poulet, Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, Marcel Raymond, Gaston Bachelard, Jean-Pierre Richard, and others. A lot of Sartre, for example, was not yet translated, for example the Genet book. What I found fascinating about Poulet's work was that he had a solution for what was for me at that point a big problem. I had many ideas and apercus about Dickens' novels. These had accumulated as notes, 200 pages of these on a given novel. I considered them, no doubt fatuously, to be brilliant insights, really great ideas, but I couldn't see how to put them together to make a chapter. I was trying to write a book on Dickens, and did eventually publish as my first book Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels. What Poulet taught me was modes of economy. He's marvellous at this. He can put all of the works of Victor Hugo in a 25-page essay, while my tendency is to go on and on. I remember Poulet telling me that my essays were like a fleuve, a great river that disperses itself in a delta at the end. Poulet achieves economy by strategic use of a few short citations to represent a certain feature of a writer's habitual consciousness. That presumes that the writer's consciousness is homogeneous and constant through time. These assumptions seem extremely problematic to me now. Poulet also employs in his essays what you might call, to use an oversimplified term for it, a dialectical sequence. He starts with one originary motif in the author in question, often a moment of waking to self-consciousness, and then moves on to a related motif that is antithetical to the first one. The essay then moves on rapidly through such stages until it reaches its conclusion. Those two strategies of criticism are marvellous modes of economy.

I learned a lot from studying how Poulet puts an essay together. It was a very practical problem that I had: how to write critical essays that would encompass the whole work of some leading Victorian and modernist poets: Arnold, Browning, Hopkins, Yeats, Stevens, Williams. I was working on what were to become my second and third books:The Disappearance of God and Poets of Reality. Poulet held that the literary works by a given author, including letters, essays, etc. represent a specific, unique consciousness, an interior space. One of Poulet's books is called The Interior Distance, La distance interieur. Poulet thinks of the complete works of Victor Hugo as forming a singular space, an interior space, the space of Hugo's special consciousness, and he believed the same thing was true for all other writers, Rousseau or Proust or Balzac or Pascal.

When I talk these days about the way a literary work allows entry into an imaginary world or a virtual reality, I am still thinking in somewhat the same way about literature as Poulet thought. Describing what it is like to move around within that interior space generates a critical essay. Criticism is a topographical exploration. I found that notion helpful to me as a specialist in Victorian literature. I was, for example, much interested in Matthew Arnold. He was one of the people I was supposed to teach. I found both his poetry and his prose powerful, but the New Critical approach doesn't work very well for Arnold. If you're a true New Critic, and you try to read one of Arnold's poems, you find there isn't very much you can do with it. You might be likely to say, as Harold Bloom has said, that it's not good poetry. It doesn't amount to anything because it isn't like Keats; or, as Bloom has said, it's a shallow pastiche of Keats. Yet Arnold's poetry seemed to me more interesting than that. Poulet's criticism of consciousness was a help to me in articulating what I saw in Arnold.

Today, however, I would say that Poulet, to some degree, bypasses the specificities of language in the authors about whom he writes essays. Poulet tends to look upon the passages that he cites as transparent expressions of the author's consciousness. It's not quite so simple as that with Poulet, however, as Paul de Man long ago argued in his essay on Poulet in Blindness and Insight. Poulet is a very great critic. He is attentive to language almost in spite of himself. One might make a law out of that, Miller's Law': The greatest critics are those whose readings exceed their theoretical presuppositions'. Poulet's critical procedure, nevertheless, leads him away from attention to those anomalies that are not thematic or reducible to being seen as features of consciousness. His procedure leads him away also from rhetorical or tropological aspects of literature. Those aspects for Poulet are more or less taken for granted.

When I began to read Derrida, I found someone who does pay attention to language, to put it mildly. I found articulated in his early work presuppositions opposed to presumed New Critical dogma that assumed a good work will be organically unified. Neither Empson nor Burke makes that assumption, but other New Critics tend to do so. Derrida liberated me to recognize that a work can be a great work and nevertheless be contradictory. It need not hang together and the not-hanging-together is perhaps the most important part about it, its value, or virtue, or integrity. My reading of De la grammatologie and of Derrida's other early work was a turning point for me. Derrida's work combines in a quite singular way the two traditions that had influenced me until then, the New Criticism and so-called phenomenological criticism. Derrida's allowed me to understand better my resistance to my closest colleague at Johns Hopkins, Earl Wasserman. Wasserman was an organic unity man through and through. If

he couldn't show that a work of literature was an organic unity, he assumed it must not be a good work. Wasserman would never have written on Shelley's The Triumph of Life because it's not finished. He would say, Well, who knows how it was going to come out? "Therefore we can't write about that work, but we can write about Keats's odes and even about Prometheus Unbound. His goal, Wasserman assumed, was to show that a given work all hangs together. What interested me instinctively, on the contrary, were those places where you can't make a work hang together, parts that seem important but that don't fit the general pattern. Both of those are useful heuristic attitudes. Wasserman had a sharp eye for details. His desire to show that they fitted was useful in his work. It led him to say, I've got to work this in somehow". That is quite different from an assumption that there may be something there that can't be fitted in, not at least in any rational scheme, but that is nevertheless important. Wasserman and I were close colleagues for nineteen years. We used to argue about these issues endlessly, often with Georges Poulet as a third in the discussion, and usually apropos of some work Wasserman was writing about.

Hopkins was my real formation, more than Oberlin or Harvard. It was a wonderful place at that time. Poulet was there. Leo Spitzer was there, along with other distinguished scholars like Don Cameron Allen, A. O Lovejoy, and William Albright. The Humanities Group was small enough so that even a non-tenured member, as I was at first, knew all these people. Wasserman, Poulet, and I used to have lunch together all the time, at least once a week, with me as an assistant professor listening to these two distinguished people arguing about, say, Shelley's Mont Blanc, and never coming to agreement. I remember one time when I thought I had a good interpretation of Wuthering Heights, a novel Wasserman knew well. I went to Wasserman, and I said, Earl, I've really got it'. I then presented Wasserman with my reading. He said, Well, what about this passage on page so and so? "I had to admit that it didn't fit with my little reading, so my reading was disqualified. He was saying: Unless you can incorporate this passage in your reading somehow, it is not a satisfactory reading." That claim, however, was based on the assumption that you have to make everything fit into a presumed organic unity.

Derrida helped me defend my insights by not assuming a good work is necessarily unified. It was not—and still isn't—Derrida's theoretical formulations, la diff rance and so on, that have interested me most in his work. I admire Derrida most as a reader, as an absolutely spectacular literary critic and reader of philosophical texts. He is among the best literary critics in the twentieth century. I feel the same way about Paul de Man. I'm interested, for example, in de Man's theory of allegory, of course, but what I find really interesting about de Man's work and what kept me coming to his seminars at Yale is that his readings were always surprising, at least to me. I tip my hat to anyone who sees something new to me in a work that I know quite well, something that I hadn't seen, but that seems right to me when it is pointed out. Both Derrida and de Man can do that. With de Man, I would know that he was going to talk about some text or other, often one I had already read carefully. I would try to anticipate what he would be likely to say, and I always got it wrong. He'd always seen something that I hadn't thought of. It's the same with Derrida's seminars. There are two cases I remember, both fairly recent. In one seminar Derrida talked about Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, on which I had written a long essay, so I knew the novel really well. Derrida talked about the very end of the story, which is a reference to Job (He's with kings and counsellors now.'). His brief reading was wonderfully perceptive and original. It was certainly not something I had thought of. The other seminar was on Proust. Derrida discussed a small section of the Recherche on the death of Bergotte. Derrida noticed that Proust uses a whole series of words that are forms of prendre-comprendre, apprendre, etc. Derrida made that small detail really work to support his reading. Proust, he showed, plays on the strength of those French words, with their latent image of grasping, as in German Begriff, the word for "notion." Derrida implied that you can't really see this in the standard English translation of Proust. The translation is correct enough, but it necessarily misses the implicit play in the echoing French words. It was a splendid reading of this one episode. The reading was not overtly theoretical. It arose from a close attention to details of language, from Derrida's possession of what one might call an "ear." That s what I most value about Derrida. Think about just his work on English literature: essays on Shelley, Shakespeare, Joyce, Melville, etc. These are magnificent essays, not to speak of the ones on continental literature, on Mallarm or Proust or Celan.

The question, "Why literature?" may, however, refer to literature's social use, its role in human life. In a sense, literature is its own end. It may be a mistake to worry too much about literature's social or psychological utility. When you read a novel or poem you don't ordinarily say to yourself, Am I doing something useful? Is there some

further end? Is what I am doing good for something, good for me, or am I wasting my time?' A phrase has been repeating itself in my head while I have been thinking about the "why" of literature: la rose est sans pourquoi, the rose doesn't have any why. As Julian Wolfreys has reminded me, the phrase comes from Angelus Silesius (16241677). The phrase is echoed in modern times by Immanuel Kant, by Martin Heidegger, and by Jacques Lacan. I don't think applying this aphorism to literature is aestheticism in the bad sense of that word. In Silesius the phrase is a way of talking about the ineffability of God. Literature has had a function sans pourquoi, without any why. It is, as Kant said natural beauty and art works are, an end in itself. Cinema is nowadays replacing this old function of literature. If you go to a movie, you don't usually go because it's good for you, but because it's intensely pleasurable. It is an end in itself. I think that would be an initial answer to the question, Why literature?'

Literature—in the sense in which we use the word in the West-is a relatively recent and historically conditioned institution. It began in the Renaissance. We tend to assume that Beowulf is literature, but it verges on being myth, or an aid to nation-building, or support of a specific religion. It does not have an identifiable author, as most postRenaissance literature in the West does. Beowulf is the somewhat accidental writing down of an oral poem, whereas literature is tied to the printed word. Greek tragedy, to take another example, had a very specific ritual function, a function you wouldn't expect Tennyson to have had in his time. Modern secular literature is detached from any necessary religious function, and this change is quite recent. I think Derrida is right, literature in our culture is associated with the rise of Western-style democracies, with the spread of literacy, with the development of printing, and with freedom of speech, theoretical freedom of speech at least, the right in a democracy to write anything you want. That freedom is never complete, of course, but it has been is more nearly complete in modern Western democracies, than, for example, in Renaissance monarchies. Western literature belongs to the epoch of the Enlightenment, that is, the last three centuries. Clearly it has had an important social function during this period, even if you say, well I'm not thinking about social utility when I am reading George Eliot's Middlemarch, or Alice in Wonderland, or The Swiss Family Robinson, or Shakespeare's King Lear.

This new answer to the why is double. First, literature reinforces and to some degree creates reigning ideologies. How, for example, did people learn in nineteenth-century England how courtship and marriage ought to take place? Certainly they learned in part through family and social conditioning, but also by reading Trollope. Trollope tells you how young marriageable women ought to behave, and how young men ought to behave, and how their parents ought to behave. No doubt Trollope's representations of courtship and marriage have some relation to the way things really were, but the function of those representations was also performative. Trollope's novels coached people into behaving in ways similar to the behaviour of Trollope's good characters. No doubt literature functions in this way. It has always functioned that way for me, without my being at first aware of it. Alice in Wonderland, for example, had a big influence on me. I taught myself to read at age five so I could read it for myself and not be dependent on my mother to read it to me. The Alice books taught me all kinds of things that have to do with gender relations, with word play, and with the ways in which people are idiosyncratic. There are a lot of mad hatters in the world! There are lots of rabbits with watches in their waistcoat pockets.

There is, however, a second social function of literature, another answer to the question, Why literature?' The Alice books are a good example of that. Even as a naive, childish reader, I probably was already at least implicitly aware of this other function. Literature functions as a critique of ideology, not just as a reinforcement of it, as in the political satire in the Alice books, or the many subversive jokes about the way girls were brought up in those days. If you were to ask me what is the purest expression of Victorian middle-class ideology, I would say Trollope's novels. Nevertheless, Trollope's novels also put into question the Victorian middle-class assumptions he dramatizes.

This side of literature is, I think, sometimes underestimated by cultural studies specialists. They may see a given work as a pure expression of, let's say, Western imperialist ideology. Most literary works are not that simple. Usually questions are raised about the ideological assumptions that are dramatized in the work, if only by way of an ironic treatment of these assumptions. Faulkner's treatment of Southern post-Civil War ideology in Light in August is a good example of such irony. That is one reason why Empson interested me so much. He was the first important theorist of irony I read.

I think the function of literature as a critique of ideology is just as important as its role in the reinforcement and or even creation of ideological assumptions.

Literature, I conclude, is an end in itself. It doesn't have any why, and yet it does have a why. That second why, literature's role as support and critique of social assumptions, is in my view historically conditioned. Literature in the modern sense had a beginning in the West, and it could have an end. That would not be the end of civilization. Other cultural forms could take literature's place, or are even now taking its place. I've written elsewhere about the end of literature. Literature is going to be around for a long time yet. Nevertheless, we're in the midst of a radical and fairly rapid transition to other media, as what I would call the literary or literariness is transferred into media like film, but also like computer games. A lot of literary invention goes into computer games. I have no problem with that. Many forms of "the literary" will be around, alongside printed literature. Literature in the old-fashioned sense of novels, poems, and plays, however, clearly already has a smaller role in the cultural life of ordinary citizens, at least in the United States and probably in Europe too. The evidence for this is that the average American spends about five hours a day watching television. You can't watch television or play a computer game and read Shakespeare at the same time, though some students claim they can. Although a lot of books are no doubt still read, this takes place in combination with going to the movies, watching television, and using the internet. The nineteenth century didn't have those other quasi-literary media. Even when I was a child, we didn't have the second two of those. That is bound to make a difference to the social function of literature. It is already doing so. That doesn't mean that literature isn't going to be around for a long time, being studied and being read. What it does mean is that literature, particularly in the United States the study of British literature, will have a different role, a different why.

Literature, British literature, not American literature, used to be a primary means by which American ideological assumptions were instilled into people. When I began to reflect on this some years ago, it struck me as strange, and still does, that we made the basis of the American ethos the literature of a foreign country, much more than our own literature. It was, moreover, the literature of a foreign country that we had defeated in a revolutionary war. In this respect, we went right on acting like a colony. Most people, still today, especially educators, say that every American should read Shakespeare. I agree that reading Shakespeare is a good thing. Nevertheless, Shakespeare doesn't belong to us as he does to a British citizen, not to speak of the way Samuel Johnson, Chaucer, Beowulf, Matthew Arnold, Virgina Woolf, and Yeats belong especially to the British. Everybody ought to read them. I understand, however, why many young Americans find knowing the whole range of British literature less obviously necessary than knowing modernist literature in a global context, and why non-British literature, whether it's Anglophone or in translation, begins to have a larger and larger function among the American people, so many of whom are now not European in origin. I can see various reasons why you might say, To assimilate them they'd better read Shakespeare', but it might be better to say, To assimilate them they'd better read Walt Whitman or Wallace Stevens', which is not the same thing. American literature has a different tradition.

For many American readers, certainly for me, non-English literature in translation, had, even when I could not read any of it in the original languages, a special appeal, for example Kafka, Tolstoy, Proust, or Dostoyevsky. In some ways those writers were more important for me in my adolescence than many works in British literature. I have elsewhere told the story about how when I was a sophomore in college I read, more or less by accident, Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground. I remember saying to myself, This is me; at last I have found somebody like me!' It begins, I'm a sick man, I'm a spiteful man, I think my liver is diseased'. As a sophomore in college, this came home to me in a way that I have never felt about, say, Rasselas, or, to tell the truth, about Shakespeare's characters, much as I admire and delight in Shakespeare. They do not invite, for me, identification, immersion, in the same way that Dostoevsky, or that Conrad, who was after all "not English," but Polish, did. For Dickens I have much more affinity. I think that such a selective response to British literature and an affinity for non-English literature may happen for many Americans. One has to explain why so many Americans today read with such enthusiasm Salman Rushdie or African or Indian Anglophone literatures. Their engagement is not simply political, politically correct'. Something in these works rings a bell because the stories they tell are somehow more like our own experience than is much in canonical English literature.

J. Hillis Miller

Department of English and Comparative Literature University of California Irvine, CA 92697

voice: 2073486696 or 2073596535 or 9498246722 fax: 9498246723

e-mail: jhmiller@uci.edu

Summer home address (mid-June until ca. Nov. 5): 697 Sunshine Road Deer Isle, ME 04627 USA

Voice: 2073486696

Winter home address (Nov. to April 15): RR # 1 Box 920 Sedgwick, ME 04676 Voice: 2073596535

i This essay is adapted from part of a recent interview (April 27, 2004) of J. Hillis Miller by Julian Wolfreys. The full interview a J. Hillis Miller Reader, edited by Julian Wolfreys, to be published by Edinburgh University Press and Stanford University Press (2004).

will appear in later this year