The dream of “pure poetry” has beguiled those who would remove literature from the blaring disorderly world, and those who would emasculate it, for nearly a century. The term was first introduced by Paul Valéry, who meant simply that poetry should not try to do what history and philosophy can do better, but it fell to the critic Henri Bremond to popularize the concept. In a controversial address to the Académie Française in October 1925, Bremond called for a poésie pure, which would dutifully renounce any baser motive and reduce itself exclusively to poésie. There is, you see, something ineffable about poetry that distinguishes it from prose, and this ineffable quality is what Bremond venerated as its pureté. The pure poem sends its reader into a state not unlike that of religious ecstasy.
In Soviet Russia, meanwhile, the critics who described themselves as Formalists were looking for something similiar—“the specific peculiarities of literary material,” “the autonomy of the aesthetic function” in literature. They called what they were looking for literariness. They would not settle for saying that the distinctive quality of literature, what separates it from all other kinds of human discourse, was ineffable. They wanted to effing name it.
They failed. Every effort to define the unique property of literature has failed, and is doomed to fail. Literature is mimesis! No, it is the sublime! No, it is “that feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching”! No, it is the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”! No, it is the deconstruction of the hierarchies and binary oppositions of Western ideology! No, it is whatever.
The mind of man hankers after a purity and a perfection that are not numbered within its powers. The truth is that literature is an unholy mess, its borders characterized by dispute rather than international agreement. What some writers and critics plant as a garden, other writers and critics yank up as an overgrowth of weeds. E. D. Hirsch Jr. said it best. Replying to a critic who laughed at him for calling Darwin’s Origin of Species a literary masterpiece, Hirsch pointed to Stanley Edgar Hyman, who had classified Darwin as literature in The Tangled Bank, and to the many editors who had included Darwin in anthologies of Victorian literature. He concluded:
My own definition of literature tries to capture its paradoxical condition: Literature is simply good writing—where “good” has, by definition, no fixed definition. From this angle, though, there is nothing whatever to prevent literary works and reflections from running into politics, precisely like colors, and especially since politics admits nearly as much variety as literature. Some literary genres—satire, epigram, the realistic novel—are impure by choice and wantonly susceptible to politics, but even literary “purists” make a political commitment in retreating to the study from the street. There are also those who, in the name of preserving literature (or themselves) from contamination, would not blink at its forced purification.
Politics is merely advocacy for an arrangement of life, and if the advocacy is well-written—or if the advocate is selected and admired for his good writing—then it is literary too. In calling himself a liberal and entitling his most famous book The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling said much the same thing. He acknowledged the word liberal was “primarily of political import, but its political meaning,” he went on, “defines itself by the quality of life it envisages.” Like any other human being, the writer or critic envisages a life of a certain quality. The writer, who can’t set out to write literature without fishtailing into pretense instead, is concerned with getting the vision down in the right words, or as close to right as humanly possible. The critic is more concerned with the quality of the vision. But writer and critic can no more divorce themselves from questions about the arrangement of life—from political questions, that is—than Jewish men and woman can remain apart forever, even if they are strictly separated for a few hours every week at prayer.