14-4 polemic

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.


A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

14.4 (Fall 2014)


academe in decay



Cast a Pale Eye on Right, on Left: A Polemical Lament Upon the Death of Literary Study

John R. Harris

Publishers are frustrating.  The ones possessed of the resources and experience to market successfully a mature, competently written book no longer accept “unsolicited submissions”, but require that the author work through a literary agent.  How does an author acquire a literary agent?  By publishing a volume that sells at least ten thousand copies—for agents do not wish to have their time wasted, either.  So how, in this Catch 22, does an author successfully publish in order that he may engage an agent who will present his work to Their Majesties of the publishing industry?

In the elite cosmos of academic publishing, where the parasitism of literary agents is not yet a fixture, I’ve noticed for about ten years now that submissions are required to be accompanied by the author’s curriculum vitae.  I had the experience in early August of submitting a collection of medieval translations to the University of Chicago Press only to receive my rejection by return email within 48 hours—this despite the website’s promising a verdict in six to eight weeks, which implied a genuine review process.  Here and on other occasions, I am confident that an editor simply glanced over my c.v. and ascertained that I was “nobody”.  The major criterion, in other words, if not the only meaningful criterion, is that one should be Professor Somebody.  This Somebody is an esteemed member of his scholarly community.  His book will be reviewed by leading journals in the field just because Somebody’s name appears on it—and, for the same reason, will be reviewed favorably.  Then academic libraries will mark the latest Somebody monograph for purchase, the publisher will sell his break-even 500 copies… and Bob’s your uncle.  Or Bob’s publisher is your uncle’s pimp: something like that.

As for the more commercialist species of mass-production—mystery novels, romances, self-help guides, fantasy/spirituality, gardening manuals, cookbooks, biographies of Hollywood star-trash, exposés of Hitler’s secret secrets—I almost sympathize with the publishing industry’s Catch 22 tactics.  Nobody checks your c.v. at the door of the Old Boys Club or looks to see if you’re wearing the right school tie: we’re back to the “agent thing”, which is merely a filter to magnify profitability.  Increasingly, the answer to the Catch 22 conundrum is self-publishing.  That is to say, the novice creates a track record of success by financing a book out of his own pocket that proves to sell reasonably well.  Agents accept such achievement as evidence of marketability, and begin to knock on lofty doors for the “newly seasoned veteran”.

My objection to this ingenious arrangement is, in a way, the same as to academic publishing.  Houses of the latter sort (university presses) should be evaluating submissions on their inherent merit, not on the author’s reputation.  Far from demanding a current c.v., the academic publisher should take steps to screen the author’s identity from referees, as happens when articles are submitted to scholarly journals.  The mass-market publisher, similarly, seems wholly uninterested in anything that might be called literary value.  He wants to know only if the manuscript has a fair chance of turning a profit.  Is it pornographic?  Good: that stuff moves off the shelves like French fries out of a fast-food drive-thru.  Is it insipidly religious—almost brain-dead in its childish formulas and dull clichés?  Good: a big audience exists for that, too.  Does it murder the King’s English and slaughter basic grammar?  That can be cleaned up a bit—but not too much, because readers are often won over by ordinary expressions, whereas they may run for their lives from something that sounds too “cerebral”.  Correct grammar is also commonly perceived as “snobby” or “arrogant”.  In contemporary mass-culture, possessing such qualities rates the author—or any public figure—a rung or two below a child-molester on the moral evolutionary scale. How we hate snobs!

In my pitifully under-financed struggle with Arcturus Press well over a decade ago, I drew inspiration from an idealistic confidence that another class of reader existed somewhere and just wasn’t being served: the lover of classic literature, the thinker, the student of humanity, the puzzler over life’s great narrative.  That confidence steadily drained from me; I have only a drop or two now in the bottom of the tank.  I’ve met too many thoughtful adults who draw sincere respect from me yet who nevertheless—alas—follow time-traveling action-heroes on Kindle downloads, or who will read economics or history but won’t even undertake Patrick O’Brian (let alone Joseph Conrad).  Hence the grudging sympathy for the commercial publisher that I mentioned above: if one is to make a living in that racket, one really doesn’t have much choice but to traffic in bread and circuses.  The death of literacy, as a broad constellation of values orbiting individualism, skepticism, and responsible creativity, is a fait accompli in the United States, and probably in the Western world.

Publishing, rather, has become yet another balkanizing influence in our degenerative cultural spiral.  It helps us to divide and conquer ourselves—to drive our common humanity out of our collective mind.  We are niche markets: Civil War buffs, martial arts devotees, sci-fi consumers, cat-lovers, wine-tasters, and collectors of sex toys.  Nothing holds us together.  Literature used to: now, like every other cultural relic around us, it is counter-cultural—and also, for that reason, not very literary.  For the great paradox of literacy’s awakening of the individual has always been (or at least since Montaigne publicized it) that we only understand others deeply when we travel deeply within ourselves. We only grasp what we must do for others or must not do to them once we have pondered how we feel when others act upon us, and extrapolate.  The Golden Rule belongs to literacy: Christianity as a faith rather than a body of ritual belongs to literacy.  Now we haven’t even a Golden Rule, just as we have no more Shakespeare or Milton.  We have conflicting hereditary systems of conduct whose contradictory commandments cannot be arbitrated, competing utopian visions whose programs for ethnic or ideological purge sink or swim on the basis of immediate feasibility.  We have no more soul.

I have often recalled, and often cited, the scene at the end of Oriana Fallaci’s If the Sun Dies.  She happened to be eavesdropping upon the innocent pranks of seven or eight elite astronauts around the pool of a motel before a major mission.  Pete Conrad was struggling to complete a speech that he was slated to deliver a few days later.  He appealed to the group for help, but the other young men were in too festive a mood to take him seriously.  Instead, Frank Borman began to deliver Marc Antony’s funeral oration from Julius Caesar as he sprawled in his deck chair.  Borman then proceeded to elicit successive verses from his comrades, one after another, in a sort of Shakespearean relay.  The baton was smoothly passed all around the pool.  Few of these men had completed any graduate work (and none, of course, in English literature).  They were pilots from various branches of the military, though some had formal training in engineering or physics.  Passing through the public school system, however, they had all not only read Julius Caesar, but could recall verbatim, years later and off the cuff, one of its great speeches.

We had a culture then.  We were bound together by a mutual understanding of certain rhetorical occasions such as the solemn, and by a resonantly coherent vision of human nature (for Marc Antony’s speech in itself is highly manipulative of the play’s untutored mob: its lesson lies in its entire context).  Now the only public appeal to a point of common reference one ever hears is to a movie, or maybe a TV show.  Instead of Shakespeare, we have Duck Dynasty; instead of Dante, we have Breaking Bad; instead of Tolstoy or Poe or Walter Scott, we have Hunger Games or Batman or Men in Black.  And notice how the electronic entertainments partake both of the dated and the cultic as they flow from my keyboard, even though I’m trying my pitiful best to sound contemporary and inclusive.  (I myself have only ever seen one of these productions). The top-grossing film of each new month is destined for overnight antiquity and irrelevance; its mention before a general, randomly selected audience is sure to elicit some head-scratching, much as it may monopolize the parking-lot chatter of a certain demographic.


I stipulate, then, that we are fast receding into cultural barbarism.  For the rest of this discussion, I wish to ask two questions which are, properly speaking, two sides of the same question: 1) why do those who represent themselves as conservatives have no general and plausible interest in classic literature; and 2) why does the liberal professoriate, whose rank and file does indeed usually sustain this interest, make common cause with forces that preach the extermination of our cultural past?

I will risk repeating one more Arcturus Press story which I’m sure must have been mentioned somewhere in the first published pages of Praesidium.  It made a deep impression upon me.  I was employed at a Southern Baptist institution when I originally conceived the idea of starting my own small publishing house.  To christen the enterprise, I thought it fit to bring out a little novel of mine titled Seven Demons Worse, my reasoning being that I ought to be the victim of whatever initial mauling and miscalculating occurred.  In fact, things went quite well.  The cover art was miserable by industry standards—but I succeeded in begging a very quotable blurb from columnist and conservative luminary Jeffery Hart.  The book’s plot was deeply psychological.  I imagined a college professor who had long resisted his milieu’s rampant hedonism until his wife’s sudden death knocked the pins out from under his universe.  There followed a period of bitter nihilism during which the character plunged headlong into the void of shallow pleasures offered him.  The book’s emerging and crowning irony was supposed to be that this man indeed found sterility, vacuity, and deathly despair in his suicidal embrace of “liberation”—and that he observed his fellow celebrants to be at least as null and void as himself.  The shock of this wasteland eventually forced him back to sanity.

Now, when I dabble in fiction, I not write—and have never written—in a coarsely explicit style if episodes involving sexual conduct should crop up.  The insinuation made by a few local readers that the book was too risqué therefore rather outraged me.  Close-up descriptions there were: psychological close-ups.  I have had students refuse to finish reading Shchedrin’s Golovlyov Family who offered essentially the same defense: i.e., that its “dark side” was obscenely dark—something so hellacious that they felt morally obligated to cover their eyes and run away.  If anyone is entitled to this defense, it shouldn’t be a college student; and if any literate adult has a right to it, the Christian should not be that adult.  Do such people, then, hold their professed beliefs because they know Santa Claus to be real and consider the suppression of all conflicting claims to be an act of faith?  Is this not the very mindset which conservatives have so often—and so justly—reproached in progressive Utopians, who ignore human nature to insist that private property can be abolished with sufficient good will and determination?

During these same years, or shortly preceding them, I survived several rounds of moderating a “Christian fiction” panel at an annual book fair in Nashville.  The “novelists” on hand routinely represented sins, crimes, and perversions much more squalid than anything in my novel (incest, rape, child abuse, serial adultery)… yet because a gauzy curtain always fell over the “naughty bits”, readers were free to picture steamy sinfulness to their heart’s content without having to rebuke the author for making them ponder any act’s true motives and consequences.  Decaffeinated soft porn with Reba McIntyre playing in the background; a vicarious daydream of being in the arms of Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie (season to taste) while occupying an utterly word-free zone….  The quality of ecstasy which such people bring to their practice of religion has something of the same self-indulgent intellectual disengagement, I would suppose.  The true risk run by these timid voyeurs is one of willful tastelessness, not of admitting—however slightly—a dark beam of corruption into their thoughts. The dark beam already bores through them; but in their contentment with dull cliché, such “believers” stoutly refuse to grapple with the narrative’s hidden motor, and hence with life’s true conflicts. They might as well be listening to the Peer Gynt Suite while immersed in a tub of water.

I think the coup de grace bestowed upon me by Seven Demons, however (and here is the promised vignette from which I have ineptly digressed), came when I submitted advertising copy to a leading Christian publication.  The ad was rejected, on the ground that the book’s title sounded demonic.  In vain did I point out to this editorial watchdog that the parable of the one demon returning with seven worse to his original host belongs to Christ’s own words (e.g., in Matthew 12:45).  In retrospect, this person probably saved me some money.  I doubt that any consumer of the rag in question would have grasped the novel’s purpose.

I will be very blunt, as I have never been before on this subject.  Christian colleges and universities have had two or three generations now to counter the cynical materialist onslaught of feminism and the lubricious half-truths of deconstruction.  These campuses might have placed the study of literature on an altogether different ground.  Narratives, especially, are laboratories wherein we test reality.  The author constructs a certain arrangement of flasks and tubes containing a certain combination of substances and chemicals.  The reaction either reproduces what we see in real life, or it does not.  Either males are always libidinous opportunists, or they or not; either anyone can be brought to cannibalism in an open boat, or he cannot; either the human being’s conduct is fully determined by genetics and upbringing, or it is not.  Naturally, we will never agree as a society on the precise cut of reality.  Yet certain models predominate certain cultural phases, and certain specific points of disagreement may be isolated when a given culture’s verdict on its own art is split.  The Christian critic could have evolved a rather poetic (or polysemous, if you like critical jargon) standard for measuring tales.  The “something there but not there”, the “anywhere out of this world”, would restlessly circulate through stories that respected spiritual fact.  (This would mean, of course, that the happy little tales of Pollyanna receiving the home and husband she had prayed for after Saddam Hussein had attempted to starve her into thralldom for a year—the kind of tripe I had to read for that book fair—would be exiled to aesthetic outer darkness.)

Christian institutions could have started their own presses, inaugurated their own critical schools, and—in a word—resurrected literature within a moribund society.  They could have done this much operating at half-speed.

Instead, a few literalist, hard-line campuses have devoted their literary curriculum largely to Milton, Herbert, Bunyan, and a smattering of others whose works successfully clip-clop through the same doctrinal dressage as that to which their faculty-applicants must submit as the search committee cracks the whip.  Yet most colleges have another schtick.  Their instructors teach from Norton anthologies as if they were grinding through the manual of a jet engine at technical school; and in the upper echelon, a few dynamic feminists will be preaching the gospel of oppressed and oppressor that they learned in grad school, and that gives them immediate access to publication.  In my many years of association with the Conference on Christianity and Literature, I saw these cross-currents bore through each other in polite silence (the one universally acknowledged Christian imperative being, “Never, ever fight with anyone”) in meeting after regional meeting.  The organization’s journal itself was for years an infinite stock of articles about Flannery O’Connor and C.S. Lewis, C.S. Lewis and Flannery O’Connor, before—inevitably—succumbing to the rhetorical jujitsu that commandeered its platform for career-driven victimologists.

Being a professor of literature, after all, has become primarily about having a career.  One worries about actually preserving great literature later on, or not at all: first one must be promoted, then tenured, then promoted into administration… and la paz empieza nunca.  The very presence of an ambitious young professor at Buford Christian College implies that he (or, more often, she: males don’t take many Ph.D.’s in literature these days) just needs a job.  If you can just sign a document declaring your faith in the holiest of holies—as enunciated in the Umpteenth Millennialist Encyclical—and keep you gob shut during public prayers, you can draw a paycheck here and work at building a c.v.

The Right is no friend to classic literature: QED. Those of its appendages that have the necessary articulation to promote a literary education lie in atrophy.  I no longer nourish any hope that this will change in my lifetime.  I see no way that it can change: the mainstream’s redirection from all things literary has gone on for too long.  A website I randomly found that claims to list the greatest conservative books dives right in with Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, then offers up Milton Friedman, Ludwig van Mises, Thomas Sowell… then proceeds to contemporary celebrities like John Stossel and Ann Coulter.  These are not necessarily undeserving reads; but where is I Promessi Sposi?  Where is Fathers and Sons?  Where is Martin du Gard’s Thibault saga?  Where, even, is Jane Austen (let alone Shakespeare, Dante, Virgil, and Homer)?  If these authors are insufferably tedious to the modern reader, where is the conservative apologist to open up their deep vaults?  If such a Boswell existed for these Johnsons, where is the conservative publishing house that would introduce him to an ignorant and suffering society?

No hope.  Huis clos.

That leaves the existing professoriate: the reviled Left, the relativists, the nihilists, the godless feminists; the teachers who assign plays where a vagina talks and who give credit to students for defecating on Wall Street.  As Sir Kenneth Clark once said of the monasteries clinging to sheer rocks in the Hebrides and the Irish Sea… what a hope!

Let me address the young professor directly, in the second person, for what remains of this polemic.  I am not wholly unsympathetic with this person, and I find myself moved to be avuncular.  Indeed, how could I be out of sympathy with any young person who was introverted as a child, fled to books and to writing, naturally excelled in literary studies for the rest of his or her schooling, and then discovered no aptitude whatever for making money in the great American marketplace?  You see, I know you.  I once walked where you have walked.
You would like more than anything else to write for a living—but it’s quite impossible.  Your society does not support writers: it supports loud hucksters and big-handed types who tear apart engines.  What are you to do?  Teaching seems an obvious choice… but if you are to teach faintly receptive adults rather than adolescent brats, you must secure a college position; and to secure that position, you must balance on the Politically Correct tightrope.  You must write your dissertation about approved authors in the approved vein, you must make only approved noises at interviews, and you must subscribe to approved ideology in publishing the rigmarole necessary to keep your position.

We will dismiss all of that as the price of admission rather than appraise it as sincere conviction.  The problem is that you must sooner or later become brainwashed, since the system demands so many professions of faith from you at every turn. You will at last accept, if you do not already, that aesthetic satisfaction does not exist—that “literature” is merely a pompous and deceptive denominative for “propaganda”.  The didactic treatise or dry “manly” discourse (goes the catechism) may be too blunt, or too heady, as a delivery system of submissive attitudes aimed at the masses.  Literary texts therefore evolved to win over weaker minds.  The unsuspecting reader was duped into thinking that he or she found inspiration, poignancy, or pathos in a love story or a war yarn or an exotic adventure.  What this gullible mark was really absorbing all the while was submission to a certain power structure.  The frisson of appreciation was purely inculcated; it’s like the tingle a young man gets as the nation’s flag is raised because, as a boy, he was slapped once or twice when he didn’t remove his cap.

Do you realize that, in admitting this much, you have a) betrayed those uplifting encounters you had with special books as you navigated a lonely adolescence, and b) signed the death warrant of the profession in which you found refuge from the crude alternatives of the twenty-first century marketplace?  Nobody likes a Judas.  What would the spirit of Joseph Conrad say to me if I were to declare, “I had tears in my eyes as a misfit kid of sixteen when I finished Victory.  Axel Heyst’s facing certain death from hooligans to keep them from stealing his honor and infecting the world any further… no, that doesn’t happen often: that’s why the book’s story is worth telling—because nobility is always a rare bird, and maybe a doomed one.  That’s what the misfit thought, anyway.  Now I have three degrees.  Now I understand that Conrad made his bread preaching a stuffy, stiff-upper-lip Victorian philosophy that seduced the masses into being eager slaves of an oppressive empire.”  Would I be a better person if such were my position?  A wiser person?  Would I like myself better?  Do you like yourselves better when, under heavy layers of pseudo-intellectual terminology, you smirk, “It’s all a bunch of crap!  I can see it, even though others before me couldn’t.  I’ve come to realize that any motive other than service to one’s basic biological needs is manipulation on the part of those seeking power.”  Is there any reason why anyone should respect you for possessing such “knowledge”; and, if you find yourself elevated by its possession, why do you do so—on what basis?  A wino can be found down the alley of every big city who has the same opinions.

But say that you’re correct.  If you possess any intellectual honesty along with your costly-but-pedestrian “knowledge”—if a word like “honesty” can mean anything in your valueless universe, such that you will decline to become a liar and exploiter like everyone else—then you are compelled to declare the death of literature.  All literature.  People continue to be manipulated by texts that move them, even as I write.  The only honest thing for you to do, given your convictions, is to urge one and all to stop reading—or at least stop reading stories.  Once upon a time, the great tales of the past deceived many; now they have no more power to beguile.  Ban them: burn them.  Yet even more urgent is the destruction of propagandistic endeavors that continue to pull in victims.  Denounce novels, short stories, poems… deconstruct them as a collective sham.  No one need have any further motive to read them, unless it be the historian or social scientist interested in how old bones connect or in how a pathology spreads.  Halt this folly of exposing tender young minds to stories, as yours was once exposed.

End your profession.  Annihilate yourself in those same flames of contempt which you aimed at the past.  If you don’t, you are yet more contemptible than any propagandist you have studied; for they of the past did but follow the animal libido dominandi, but you in your superior enlightenment have seen the tawdriness of their exploitation.  If you nonetheless sustain it, knowing all that you know, then you must surely be the vilest of the vile.

The alternative is not to play the Judas.  Defend the texts that you once loved—that originally brought you to the study of literature.  Defend the literary experience: defend the presence of higher motives and of aspirations that transform seventy years of eating, sleeping, copulating, and urinating into the incalculably precious life of a human being.  Be no longer manipulated by the old guard that reduced all to manipulation.  They have their reward.  Now their seventy years are almost up—and marked by stunningly little nobility, in most cases.  Spew them out, while you are yet young and have the energy.  The young are supposed to revolutionize… so stop degrading yourselves in these manufactured revolutions, these “vagina dialogues” and “Wall Street occupations” that have you dancing like puppets on strings.  Send the pathetic old heathens packing, and break you strings.  Do something.  Be something.

You can still execrate “conservatives” and “the Right” all you wish.  They had their chance to defend our common heritage… and they worked around it coyly like a foreign hors-d’oeuvre whose color and texture stir strange apprehensions.  You won’t be doing their work—the work they should have done, yes, but not any work that they acknowledge.  You will, indeed, be almost counter-conservative even in showing conservatory zeal; for nothing makes these people wince and wilt like a copy of Conrad’s Victory, or perhaps the book that meant most to you at seventeen.

Dr. John Harris is founder and president of The Center for Literate Values.  He teaches English and the Classics at the University of Texas at Tyler.

What a hope.  Like selling real estate on Skellig Michael.

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