Thursday, April 28, 2011

The inadequacy of literature

For a long time now, on this blog and elsewhere, I have been hawking the idea that literature is not a special class of human efforts (“Imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value,” as The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language puts it, or “fiction, poetry, or drama that seeks to be judged by ‘literary’ criteria,” as Daniel Green once preferred), but really nothing more than a particular window on the human parade, a distinct and self-governing arrangement of intelligence, a special method for organizing the data of experience.

On this showing, a book that would not be considered “literary” by most people—Darwin’s Origins of Species was a favorite example of the critic E. D. Hirsch Jr.—is literature nevertheless, because it can be read from a literary angle. English departments would read Darwin one way; history departments another way; philosophy departments a distinctly different third way. If I am right that “Literature is simply good writing—where ‘good’ has, by definition, no fixed definition”—then Darwin would be read, when he is read as literature, for the good writing.

I stand by this definition. Literary critics read the same book differently from historians, philosophers, economists, natural scientists, practical men. Reading a book historically is what turns it into history; philosophically, into philosophy; and so on. The same for literature.

Only recently I have been struck, and damned hard too, by the inadequacy of this view. Not the woebegoneness of the definition. No, I mean the limitation, the built-in defect, of the whole literary approach. Sixty-eight years ago, Bernard DeVoto had gave the deficiency a name. He called it The Literary Fallacy. As I paraphrased it elsewhere, this is the fallacy of believing that human experience can be absorbed, both understood and expressed, wholly in literary terms. In the hands of a literary critic, it is the fallacy of reading a book with no check or control outside, but evaluating it instead wholly on the basis of its “fascinating” subject, its “canny strategy,” the “stunning contemporary facts embedded in the text,” its “astonishing” revelations, the “interesting alternative view” it offers, its “urgency,” its timeliness, its success at provoking conversation.

These phrases are the property of Anna Clark. A week ago, on her blog Isak, perhaps in honor of Passover, Clark demonstrated all the shortcomings of reading a book as literature (and nothing more). Her demonstration, in fact, was a bravura performance, maybe the best example of literary criticism’s inadequacy that I have ever encountered.

The book under her review was John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt’s infamous Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, first published four years ago and preceded by a London Review of Books essay laying out the authors’ thesis in 2006. Mearsheimer and Walt freshen up the old theories of a Jewish world conspiracy, familiar at least since the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were forged by the Russian secret police late in the nineteenth century, although the two American professors resort to special pleading, the desire to have it both ways, in passages written between the appearance of the magazine article and their book (“it is . . . wrong—and objectionable—to argue that Jews or pro-Israel forces ‘control’ the media and what they say about Israel”).

Clark evinces no knowledge whatever of the background to Mearsheimer and Walt’s book. And though she quotes the “exclamatory blurbs” on the jacket of The Israel Lobby (“The biggest literary controversy for years,” “It detonated an explosion”), she is a stranger to the controversy and the explosion. This is the most basic (and among the literati a sadly frequent) version of the ignoratio elenchi. Because she is ignorant of its refutations, Clark is unable to follow Mearshimer and Walt’s argument carefully enough to understand it as anything more complicated than an autotelic “literary” machine—a well wrought urn, in other words.

Yet the reception of The Israel Lobby was not merely the “biggest literary controversy for years.” The book was widely and extensively refuted. Indeed, its publication was an occasion for political unity, as critics from Left and Right joined together to refute Mearsheimer and Walt. “They quote only those people who basically have this point of view and don’t take a serious look at anything in a more profound way,” Dennis Ross was quoted as saying by the Washington Post. He said the book was “masquerading as scholarship.” In the Los Angeles Times, Max Boot asked why, if the Israel lobby were powerful enough (in the authors’ words) “to stifle criticism of Israel,” it would “allow such a scurrilous piece of pseudo-scholarship to be published?” Even New Yorker editor David Remnick, no reliable friend of Israel, was troubled by the absence of any larger perspective, any outside check, in The Israel Lobby:

It’s a narrative that recounts every lurid report of Israeli cruelty as indisputable fact but leaves out the rise of Fatah and Palestinian terrorism before 1967; the Munich Olympics; Black September; myriad cases of suicide bombings; and other spectaculars. The narrative rightly points out the destructiveness of the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and America’s reluctance to do much to curtail them, but there is scant mention of Palestinian violence or diplomatic bungling, only a recitation of the claim that, in 2000, Israel offered “a disarmed set of Bantustans under de-facto Israeli control.” (Strange that, at the time, the Saudi Prince Bandar told Yasir Arafat, “If we lose this opportunity, it is not going to be a tragedy. This is going to be a crime.”) Nor do they dwell for long on instances when the all-powerful Israel lobby failed to sway the White House, as when George H. W. Bush dragged Yitzhak Shamir to the Madrid peace conference.And Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who described himself modestly as an “occasional critic of Israel,” confessed that he was moved by Mearsheimer and Walt to burst into “Hatikvah.” “[T]heir argument is so dry, so one-sided,” he concluded—“an Israel lobby that leads America around by the nose—they suggest that not only do they not know Israel, they don’t know America, either.”

The authors falsified quotations, suppressed facts, advanced unsubstantiated claims, and relied heavily upon dubious and shaky sources. The “revisionist” Israeli historian Benny Morris, whose work on the Palestinian refugee problem was of great value to them, quipped that if Mearsheimer and Walt’s essay were “an actual person, I would have to say that he did not have a single honest bone in his body.” And as Bret Stephens observed in Commentary, the most striking thing about their finished book was the complete absence of original scholarship. “Scarcely any primary source materials cited; no first-hand interviews; no hint that either Mearsheimer or Walt ever bothered to visit Israel during the course of their researches or so much as spoke to an actual member of the ‘lobby’ against which they level heavy charges of working at cross-purposes with vital U.S. interests,” Stephens said. “How many readers will notice this travesty of academic standards?”

Not Anna Clark, for one. For her it is enough that The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy is “engrossing and sharp-eyed”; and from the vantage of literature, perhaps it is enough. When a book purports to rip the mask off American support for the Jewish state, however, a literary approach to it will not suffice. Some other means will be required to probe its claims. To praise a book’s literary effect will not be nearly enough, as Clark so amply documents, if it substitutes falsehoods and fantasies for the truth.


Fabio said...

"...literature is not a special class of human efforts ..., but really nothing more than a particular window on the human parade, a distinct and self-governing arrangement of intelligence, a special method for organizing the data of experience."

Literature -- reading, writing, living it -- is the only way to become a mature man, a spoudaios, as it were. Perhaps even more: it may be the only way to become human. What would "human consciousness" be like were it not for the Homeric epics? Could philosophy in Greece have developed or even surfaced had the the Greeks not been previously schooled on the Odyssey and the Iliad for hundreds of years? (I'm thinking here of Jaeger's Paideia, Snell's The Discovery of the Mind and Jayne's The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind). What would the "human spirit" consist of, were it not for the Jewish Bible's influence, starting from a small group and spreading throughout all of humanity?

We cannot fathom what we owe literature -- and what the "death" of it will mean (if your theory pans out). Not only is literature not "inadequate", it is what we are standing on, our ground. Some say it is the very makeup of what constitutes consciousness (see The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language, by Mark Turner). Some others say that not only does literature describe reality, but that it creates a reality for us: we perceive what we perceive because literature has formed a world for us.

There is a phrase which haunts me from Barzun's and Graff's The Modern Researcher: "The expression is the knowledge" (and, likewise, Searle's "if you can't say it clearly you don't understand it"). And this is what literature strives to do: to express experience, and it is in expressing the experience that knowledge itself -- reality itself -- is created. Allow me to quote a paragraph (my translation from the Portuguese) from Brazilian philosopher Olavo de Carvalho, in his introduction to the Essays of Otto Maria Carpeaux, who he calls the greatest literary critic in history:

"... the 'expression' is never a passive exteriorization, but, on the contrary, it is actually an active, luminous and 'liberating' moment of the spiritual process, of which the subject expressed is but the substrate -- a nebulous, subservient and, in and of itself, inefficient substrate. It is only through the expression, which objectifies his interior states, that man can claim ownership of himself and become the creative subject of his actions, be it on the individual psychological level, be it on the historical level (see Benedetto Croce's Estetica come Scienza dell’Espressione e Linguistica Generale). This is why literature cannot be merely a 'reflection' of social history: literature is, alongside the other creative expressions of the human spirit, precisely one of the active forces which produce this history. This is also why certain creative principles of literature -- such as the realism studied by Erich Auerbach (Mimesis. The Representation of Reality in Western Literature) -- can traverse epochs, helping to mold them, without being by them essentially affected and suffering but minor modifications: these principles are structuring factors of the whole of a civilization, not the expression of changeable historical situations."

Grumpy Old Man said...

Mearsheimer and Walt were dead right. The "special relationship" with Israel is a moral and political disaster for American foreign policy, and is supported by a well-oiled political and propaganda machine.

When, oh when, will the Jews examine the log in their piggy, greedy little eyes?

D. G. Myers said...

Oink, oink.

ADDeRabbi said...

I am reminded of a quip by R. Mosheh Lichtenstein in a somewhat similar context: "It's like saying 'you bastard, you slept with my wife; by the way that's a really nice suit.'"