The Attack on Literature
From Rene Wellek, The Attack on Literature and Other Essays (1982)
This collection of papers, all written in the seventies, is conceived as a continuation of two previous volumes of mine: Concepts of Criticism (1963) and Discriminations (1970). The papers cannot pretend to present a continuous argument but they do circle around related topics and present, let us hope, a coherent point of view. The title essay, “The Attack on Literature,” tries to refute the wholesale attacks on the very idea of literature by the historical argument: the history of the term “literature.” The nature of literature is then the concern of the second paper, on “Literature, Fiction, and Literariness,” while the next papers, “Poetics, Interpretation, and Criticism” and “Criticism as Evaluation,” defend the different stages of the process of literary study that begins with the interpretation of single texts, aims at a general theory of poetics, and inevitably leads up to a ranking or judging of literary works. “The Fall of Literary History” casts a skeptical glance at attempts to construe an evolutionary history of literature. The next item, “Science, Pseudoscience, and Intuition in Recent Criticism,” raises doubts about quantifying and divinatory methods that have become fashionable, and the three following papers: “The New Criticism: Pro and Contra,” “American Criticism of the Sixties,” and “Russian Formalism,” attempt to expound and to judge the main trends of twentieth-century criticism. In all these papers I hope my concern for clarity, coherence, and definiteness in my thinking about literature is apparent. I believe in literary scholarship and criticism as a rational enterprise that aims at a right interpretation of texts, at a systematic theory of literature, and at the recognition of quality and thus of rank among writers. The last two papers are apologies. “Reflections on my History of Modern Criticism” defends the method of the book, raising the whole question of how the writing of a history of ideas can be managed, and “Prospect and Retrospect” is a little intellectual autobiography that pays tribute to my teachers and reasserts my creed. The Bibliography that supplements those in Concepts of Criticism and Discriminations might be welcome. It lists the many pieces on individual critics that will eventually be incorporated in the last volumes of my History of Modern Criticism and the scattered articles and reviews devoted to Russian and Czech topics which I hope to collect in a separate volume.
The Attack on Literature
In recent years we have heard much about the “death of literature;’ the “end of art,” the “death of culture” and have become familiar with such terms as “anti-art” and “post-culture.” We have been told that “literature, a dumping ground of fine feelings, a museum of belles-lettres, has had its day.” Norman Mailer believes that “we have passed the point in civilization where we can ever look at anything as an art work.”
I should like to examine the arguments for these views, to disentangle their motives and to set them in an historical perspective by tracing the term and the concept of “literature” through their history.
We can distinguish among several directions from which the attack on literature has come in recent decades.
One is politically motivated. It is the view that literature (and presumably all art) is conservative or at least a conserving power which serves only the interests of the ruling class. To quote some examples: Roland Barthes, in France, has said that “literature is constitutionally reactionary”; in Germany, Oswald Wiener has complained that “the alphabet was imposed by higher-ups”; and in the United States, Louis Kampf, who was President of the Modern Language Association in 1971, has charged that “the very category of art has become one more instrument of making class distinctions.” The concept of culture “is rooted in social elitism.” It can be “little else but an instrument of class oppression.“ “Initiating the underprivileged to the cultural treasures of the West could be a form of oppression—a weapon in the hands of those who rule” as “high culture tends to reinforce the given alignments of power within the society.”
The logical deduction from Kampf’s argument would be that people should be denied access to great literature and art in the name of their political advancement. Louis Kampf describes himself standing on the Piazza Navona in Rome, admiring the baroque fountains and architecture but thinking rather of “the crimes, the human suffering, which made both the scene and my being there possible.” “My being there” alludes presumably to the grant he received from a foundation or university to travel to Rome, which he considers tainted as based in economic exploitation. He hates “the economic system which has invested finely chiseled stone with a price. Our esthetics are rooted in surplus value,” he concludes, appealing to Marxist terminology but not of course rejecting the grant. In a different mood he recommends the destruction of what he considers a conspicuous symbol of High culture. “The movement should have harassed the Lincoln Center from the beginning. Not a performance should go by without disruption. The fountains should be dried with calcium chloride, the statuary pissed on, the walls smeared with shit.” These incitements to vandalism by the past President of the Modern Language Association of America are printed on fine paper in a volume entitled The New Left.
No doubt, many splendid works of architecture were built with slave labor, beginning with the Egyptian pyramids, and the money which paid for the fountains on the Piazza Navona came, presumably, from the Papal Treasury, which collected taxes in ways we might consider unjust and oppressive. But the generalized rage against all art and literature seems, to say the least, most unjust to large trends of literature in many lands. Even the briefest reflection will recall the eminently subversive, or at least liberalizing role of literature in many historical situations. The French revolution was prepared by the philosophes; the Russian revolution drew sustenance from a long line of writers critical of the Tsarist regime; the idea of a unified Italy was kept alive for centuries by her poets. The rebirth, in the nineteenth century, of the Greeks and the Hungarians, the Czechs and the Poles was triggered by poets and men of letters, and today few would refuse admiration for his heroic resistance against new oppression to Alexander Solzhenitzyn or deny the prominent role of writers in the Prague spring of 1968.
Thus the political attack on literature amounts simply to an attack on conservative ideology which has been necessarily expressed in print, just as revolutionary ideology has found expression in print, struggling, no doubt, with the obstacles of censorship and government monopoly of print long before the advent of modern totalitarianism, left or right. As long ago as 1816 William Hazlitt complained, on the occasion of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, that “imagination is an aristocratic faculty,” that “it is right royal, putting the one above the infinite many, might before right,” that “the language of poetry is a very anti-leveling device.” Still, even in his time, Blake and Shelley showed that this is not necessarily true and that, as common sense tells us, literature and poetry as such cannot be guilty; men and writers say what they want to say: conservative and revolutionary thoughts, good and evil thoughts. The political attack on literature is a foolish generalization.
Much more serious and interesting is the attack on literature which is basically motivated by a distrust of language. Since the dawn of history many have felt that language fails to express their deepest emotions and insights, that the mystery of the universe or even of a flower eludes expression in language. Mystics have said so, in many variations, about their experience of the transcendent. Shakespeare has Othello say on meeting Desdemona again after landing on Cyprus: “I cannot speak enough of this content: it stops me here: it is too much of joy”. Cordelila in answering Lear’s fatal question can say only “nothing, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth”. Goethe constantly complains of the inadequacy of language and the German language in particular. Philosophers, at least since Locke, have formulated their suspicion of words, and Bishop Berkley has exhorted us “to draw the curtain of words to behold the fairest tree of knowledge.” Fritz Mauthner’s three volumes of Critique of Language accumulates massive evidence for this indictment; and the British analytical philosophers have made us more aware of the precariousness and shiftiness of our abstract and emotional vocabulary. The frightening inflation of the word in journalism and propaganda has brought home to a great many that the old certainties about terms such as “democracy”, “justice”, and “liberty” are gone forever. Linguists such as Benjamin Whorf have tried to show how closely grammatical and syntactical categories shape the view of the world of different people in different cultures; the Hopi Indians, he argued, see a very different order in the world from ours. Philosophers such as Ernst Cassirer have, in extension of Kantian insights, demonstrated that language builds the very structure of our knowledge. We all speak of the indescribable, the unspeakable, we say that words fail us, that words cannot express this horror or that beauty.
This old feeling has in the last century led to a definite rejection of normal language by poets struggling with elusive inner states of mind. Mallarmé was one of the first to despair of expressing the mystery of the universe which he felt not only to be immensely dark but also hollow, empty, and silent. Hugo won Hofmannsthal in a fictitious letter of Lord Chandos to Bacon (1902) expressed his discontent with language, his (or rather his letter-writer’s) justification for falling silent, because he wished only to “think with the heart.” Today this motif has become insistent and almost commonplace. J. Hillis Miller tells us that “all literature is necessarily a sham. It captures in its subtle pages not the reality of darkness but its verbal image.” “Words, the medium of fiction, are a fabrication of man’s intellect. They are part of the human lie.” In France, Roland Barthes complains that “literature is a system of deceptive signification”: it is “emphatically signifying, but never finally signified.” The Saussurian terminology hides a simple thought: a word can never become a thing. Michel Foucault in Les Mots et les Choses has construed a whole history of the human mind in three stages of its attitude toward language. Before the advent of rationalism men assumed that words are things; they believed in the magic of words. In the Enlightenment people wanted to discover the order of things by words or, in Foucault’s technical jargon, they wanted to find “a nomenclature which would be also a taxonomy.” Our own period has concluded that “the thing being represented falls outside of the representation itself” and that man is thus unhappily trapped in a language game of which he knows nothing. There is no relation between language and reality. Language and literature have no cognitive value.
One result of this criticism of language has been the current cult of silence. Taken literally it lends itself to ridicule. In the nineteenth century one could laugh at Carlyle’s gospel of silence in thirty volumes, and one might feel that there is nothing easier than to be silent. Still, George Steiner, as Susan Sontag, Ihab Hassan and other advocates of silence continue writing. But silence, as Susan Sontag recognizes, has become a metaphor for “a perceptual and cultural clean slate.” the end of art, the ultimate horror. Samuel Beckett in Endgame has been “looking for the voice of his silence.” Theodor Adorno’s famous saying “no poetry after Auschwitz” is not a practical solution. The artist’s dissatisfaction with language can only be expressed by language. Pause may be a device to express the inexpressible but the pause cannot be prolonged indefinitely, cannot be simply silence as such. It needs a contrast, it needs a beginning and an end. Even John Cage in his notorious piece of music in which a pianist or rather performer appeared and did nothing, had to time it four minutes and thirty-three seconds; he could not have kept it up for even four hours. Actually he replaced music by an act of pantomime that aroused expectations he disappointed. He manipulated his audience and their time sense, put on a show, made a joke but made no music of silence as there is no silent poetry or literature.
In France, Maurice Blanchot has prophesied the “disappearance of literature” and has envisaged “the death of the last writer.” He recalls that there have been ages and countries without writers, and he dreams of ages without them in the future. He prophesies that “a great disgust against books will seize us.” The age without words will announce itself by the “irruption of a new noise.” “Nothing heavy, nothing noisy; at most a murmur which will not add anything to the great tumult of the cities which we think we suffer under today. Its only character will be: it never stops. It is speaking, it is as if the emptiness spoke, without mystery. The silence speaks.” There will be no refuge for a minority in libraries and museums. They will be burned as Mannetti exhorted the Italians in 1909 to do, in his desire to rid them of their burdensome past. In Blanchot’s vision, the dictator— from dictare, to say—will take the place of the writer, the artist, and the thinker. A deep despair about the future of mankind and of civilization speaks loudly through him and many others. “The human voice conspires to desecrate everything on earth,” says J. D. Salinger. Still, if we reflect upon this indictment of literature and language, we should recognize that it is man’s actions, man’s tools and inventions, his whole society which are here condemned. Admittedly, civilization would be impossible or, at the least, very different if man had not developed speech and writing, which have speeded communication and prolonged human memory. But to deplore this, as our apocalyptic prophets of doom and silence do so eloquently, means deploring that man is man and not a dumb animal—a mood, a gesture of despair but hardly a possible way of life and behavior. Men will continue speaking, and even writing.
Less apocalyptically, literature and writing have been seen as a transitory form of human communication to be replaced by the media of the electronic age. We all know of Marshall McLuhan’s prophecy of the end of the Gutenberg era, his hope that our visual literature will be replaced by the double medium, television, which he argues is both aural and tactile. I won’t enter into the difficulties of his theories: they have been aired by critics who believe that television is just as visual as the film, despite his argument that in television “the plastic contours appear by light through, and not light on, and the image so formed has the quality of sculpture or icon rather than picture.” McLuhan deliberately confuses visibility and legibility. He cannot prove that literacy has impoverished the spoken language. There is, however, little doubt that the new media have made inroads into the reading habits particularly of youngsters, but for the present at least, there are no indications of any extinction of literacy, reading, or the production of books. Any examination of statistics shows that book production and book sales have risen by leaps and bounds in all countries. In 1966, 460,000 new books were published. Even the usual assumption that the proportion of nonfiction compared to fiction has altered radically is not borne out by statistics. In Germany, as a recent article by Dieter Zimmer showed, fiction accounted for 16.4 percent of all book production in 1913 and for 19.5 percent in 1969. Nor is it true that book production is mainly reprinting of older literature. Of the 36,000 books published in West Germany alone in 1971, 85 percent were new books. Similar studies made for the United States, England, and France yield similar results. The enormous expansion of the reading public in Eastern Europe and in the so-called Third World is an undeniable fact which makes the end of the Gutenberg era an event of the very far distant future.
All these attacks on literature, the politically motivated, the despair about the language, the retreat from the word, the cult of silence, and McLuhan’s doubts about the future of literacy, assume a concept of literature that includes all acts of writing, from the most trivial to the most sublime. They make no distinction of quality, no aesthetic judgment.
The aesthetic concept of literature, the very concept of literature as art, has been under attack most insistently in recent decades. The collapse of aesthetics is the presupposition of the success of these attacks. The largely German theory of empathy which reduces aesthetic feeling to the physical action of inner mimicry; the aesthetics of Bernadette Croce in which “intuition” is identified with any act of perception of individual quality— even of this glass of water; John Dewey’s Art as Experience (1934), which denies all distinction between aesthetic and other experiences in favor of a unified, heightened vitality; I. A. Richards’s writings on literary criticism which abolish all distinction between aesthetic and other emotions, are just a few examples of this trend. More recently the analytical philosophers have tried to demonstrate “the dreariness of aesthetics,” the “nonsense” of all traditional terms of aesthetics: beauty, form, and so on. Some of these criticisms are directed against aestheticism, the art for art’s sake movement at the end of the last century which set up art in an ivory tower or, contradictorily, claimed to make all life “beautiful.” Chiding “aestheticism” as it deserved, the reaction against it involved its presumed ancestors: the founders of aesthetics, Kant, Schiller, Schelling, and Hegel, none of whom would have ever dreamt of denying the enormous social and civilizing role of art. They were even extravagantly confident of its power. The aesthetic education propounded by Schiller was a scheme for freeing man from the necessities of nature and the evils of specialization.
The revolt against aesthetics was also a revolt against classical art with its demands for beauty, order, form, harmony, and clarity of meaning. But such a desire to make things new was not a denial of the ideal of art or literature; rather it was an attempt at a redefinition of art or an extension of its meaning to allow for the innovations of the twentieth century. A German volume of conference papers and debates called Die nicht mehr schönen Kunste wittily formulates what has happened in recent decades: the inclusion in art of the ugly, the formless the disorderly, the outrageous and obscene which culminated in Dada’s thumbing its nose at art and echoes today in such movements as Pop art. Attempts have been made not only to widen the realm of art but to abolish the boundary between art and nonart. In music, noises of machines or the streets are used; in painting, collage uses stuck-on newspapers, buttons, medals and so on, or “found objects” - soup cans, bicycle wheels, electric bulbs, any piece of junk - are exhibited. The newest fad is “earthworks” - holes or trenches in the ground, tracks through a cornfield, square sheets of lead in the snow. A “sculptor,” Christo wrapped a million square feet of Australian coastline in plastic. At the 1972 Biennale in Venice, a painter, Gino de Dominicis, exhibited a mongoloid picked up from the streets as a work of art. In poetry, poems have been concocted by the Dadaists by drawing newspaper clippings from a bag at random; more recently poems have been produced by computer and a shuffle novel (by Marc Saporta) has appeared, in which every page can be replaced by another in any order. In these new techniques the old criteria of both making and intentionality are denied: it is the extreme consequence of the rejection of the old conception of the poet as prophet, as poeta-vates, the laureate, the “unacknowledged legislator” with which the Western tradition has been familiar Since Dante, Petrarch, Tasso, Milton and Shelley. The concept of inspiration is rejected: the new technological anti-art divorces the poet from the poem, the artist from the object.
Yet, another attack on literature leads to different consequences. It urges the same objection to defining literature by the quality of the art product. Northrop Frye’s immensely influential and highly ingenious Anatomy of Criticism (1957) wants to abolish all critical judgment in favor of a concept of literature that makes it an organ of myth-making, a part of man’s dream of self-definition. The result is that he can discuss any fairy tale, legend or detective story as if it were on an equal footing with the greatest works of Dante, Shakespeare, or Tolstoy. This breaking down of old barriers in favor of fictionality, myth-making, or “fabulation” must be distinguished from other attempts to disrupt the old concept. I am thinking of critics such as Leslie Fiedler and Richard Poirier, who want to extend the concept of literature to include what used to be called subliterature: pornography, science fiction, and the popular song. Feidler propagates a new, or possibly old, taste: in an essay “The Children’s Hour” the song full of “lovely commonplaces, long-honored phrases, sentimental cliches” is exalted: the tritest poems of Longfellow appear alongside poems of the Beatles, Bob Dylan and black anti-verse, as Fiedler feels liberated, “sincere” for the first time. He can now repudiate Modernist poetry, “feel free at last to evoke in public the kind of poems which I have never ceased to love” but “which I’ve long felt obligated to recite in the catacombs, as it were.” This assertion of a different taste, a return to the folksy, the sentimental, the direct expression of simple feelings is the opposite of what is accomplished by computer poetry or by the graphic devices of so-called “concrete” poetry or even the automatic writings of surrealists. The dissolution of the concept of literature proceeds thus in two opposite directions: toward impersonal technology or toward subliterature, toward kitsch.
Still, both these extensions of the concept of literature are within the realm of art. One can argue (as Louis Mink has ingeniously) that even the most impersonal “found object” can be salvaged for art, if we assume that the fact of its being singled out gives it some allegorical or iconographic meaning Even the hospital urinal submitted by Marcel Duchamp or the grocery boxes of Andy Warhol are, somehow, works of art. They do express some rudimentary feeling. But the latest developments amount to a complete denial of art. Harold Rosenberg, in his aptly named book The De-definition of Art (1972), quotes an artist as saying, “I choose not to make objects. Instead, I have set out to create a quality of experience which locates itself in the world.” The artist has become too big for art: he regards anything he makes or does as art. “No one can say with assurance what a work of art is—or, more important, what is not a work of art.” We can’t distinguish between a masterpiece and junk. Nothing is left of art but the fiction of the artist.
There is more to be said for the extension of the concept of literature to oral literature, to mere yarn-spinning, or to the popular song which returns literature to its oral origins. French and English literature is largely bookish but many literatures are still in close contact with their origins in oral folklore: in Eastern Europe, in Asia, and in Africa. A meaningful concept of literature as a world-wide phenomenon reaching into the dim past of humanity will include what in English has been called, awkwardly enough, “oral literature.” Father Ong complains that the term implies that “oral poetry should have been written down but somehow was not.” Verbal art, Wortkunst, may be a better term: it would include Homer, whom Milman Parry has shown to belong to an oral tradition. But even much later, in the Middle Ages, the history of literature is incomprehensible without the constant interchange between the oral and the written word. Without sharing the taste for the sentimental banalities and comic obscenities admired by Leslie Fiedler, we should grant the fructification of modern literature by what the Russian formalists describe as the periodic need of “rebarbarization.” We seem to be in such a period and can only hope that it will achieve the results that at the end of the eighteenth century flowed from the rediscovery of Scottish ballads and Elizabethan songs in Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.
This incorporation of the popular arts, of oral literature in a total concept of literature cannot, however, ignore the aesthetic question: there is good and bad popular art, as there is good and bad upper-class art. Paul Elmer More, a lover of detective stories, graded his collection into categories A, B, and C, and presumably the same could be done with science fiction or even pornography. The question of quality, the distinction between art and nonart, is unavoidable.
All these objections to the concept of literature have one trait in common: they do not recognize quality as a criterion of literature; quality that may be either aesthetic or intellectual, but which in either case sets off a specific realm of verbal expression from daily transactions in language. This denial of quality runs counter to the whole long history of the term “literature” and the concept. It may be useful to glance at this history in order to see the debate in some perspective and to refute the strange notion of some recent commentators such as Maurice Blanchot and Roland Barthes, who consider the term and concept creations of the nineteenth century. What I can give is only a brief sketch for a topic that deserves a book length study.
The term litteratura, which obviously comes from littera, “letters” in Latin, was called by Quintialian a “translation of the Greek grammatike”: it this means simply a knowledge of reading and writing. Cicero, however, speaks of Julius Caesar as having littaratura in a list of his qualities, which includes “good sense, memory, reflexion and diligence.” It must mean here something like “literary culture.” We have to go to Tertullian and Cassian in the second century after Christ to find the term used for a body of writing. They contrast secular literature with scriptura, pagan with Christian literature.
Much more prevalent, however, was the term litterae in Rome. Cicero speaks of Graecae litterae and of studium humanitatis ac litterarum. Aulus Gellius expressly identifies humanitas with the Greek paideia; litterae in antiquity is simply the study of the arts and letters of the Greeks as far as they represent the Greek idea of man. In practice the study of letters was the study of the Greek writers, of Homer and the writers of the Periclean age. I need not enter into the remote history of the rise of this conception in opposition to the oral tradition crystallized in the Homeric poems. Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato (1963) traced this evolution persuasively.
In the Middle Ages the terms were used rarely. Literatus or literator meant anybody acquainted with the art of reading and writing. With the establishment of the seven liberal arts, including the trivium, literature as a term seems to have disappeared, though poetry was recognized as an art assigned to grammar and rhetoric.
With the Renaissance a clear consciousness of a new secular literature emerges and with it the terms litterae humanae, lettres humains, bonnes lettres, or as late as in Dryden, “good letters” (1692). These terms were used widely by Rabelais, Du Bellay, Montaigne, and other French writers of the sixteenth century. In the seventeenth century the term belles-lettres emerged. In 1666 Charles Perrault proposed to Colbert, the minister of finance of Louis XIV, an Academy with a section of belles-lettres, which was to include grammar, eloquence and poetry. The term, as dictionaries show, was felt to be identical with letters humains and had nothing of the faintly derisive implication with which we today speak of the “belletristic.” The French term spread quickly to England: Thomas Rymer used it in 1692. Hugh Blair became Professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at the University of Edinburgh in 1762.
By that time the term “literature” had re-emerged in the sense of a knowledge of literature, of literary culture. La Bruyère speaks in 1688, of “men of agreeable literature.” Voltaire calls Chapelain a man of “immense literature” and in a dictionary article, defines literature as “a knowledge of the works of taste, a smattering of history, poetry, eloquence and criticism.” Marmontel, Voltaire’s follower terms literature a “knowledge of belles-lettres” and contrasts it expressly with erudition. “With wit, talent, and taste,” he promises “one can produce ingenious works without any erudition, and with little literature.”
In English, the same meaning became established. Thus the antiquary John Selden was, in 1691, called “a person of infinite literature” and Boswell refers to Giuseppe Baretti as an “Italian of considerable literature.” The use of the term survived in the nineteenth century when John Petherham wrote a Sketch of the Progress and Present State of Anglo-Saxon Literature in England (1840), where literature must mean the study of literature. (Incidentally, in the term “comparative literature,” this older usage survives. It obviously means the comparative study of literatures and is not, as Lane Cooper complained a “bogus term which makes neither sense nor syntax.”)
Apparently, very early in the eighteenth century, the term was used for a body of writing, though it is sometimes difficult to draw a sharp distinction between the concurrent use of “literary culture erudition.” Here is the title of a book by le Père Cl. F. Menestrier: Bibliotheque curieuse et instructive des divers auteurs anciens et modernes de littérature et des arts (1704). It clearly refers to a body of writing in François Granet’s little-known Reflections sur les ouvrages de literature in 1737. Voltaire in Le Siècle de Louis XIV speaks in 1750 of “les genres de littérature” cultivated in Italy. The Abbé Sabatier de Castres published Les Siècles de littérature francaise in 1772, the very year in which Girolamo Tiraboschi began his monumental many-volumed Storia della litteratura italiana. In Germany the new use was completely established even earlier. Lessing’s Briefe die neueste Litteratur betreffend applies clearly to a body of writing, and so does Herder’s Uber die neuere deutsche Litteratur (1767).
In English the same process took place. The Oxford Dictionary is mistaken by at least sixty years when it quotes the first example for “body of writing” from 1822. In 1761 George Colman the elder thought that “Shakespeare and Milton seem to stand alone, like first-rate authors, amid the general wreck of old English literature. In 1767 Adam Ferguson included a chapter “Of the History of Literature” in his Essay on the History of Civil Society. In 1774 Dr. Johnson, in a letter, wished that “what is undeservedly forgotten of our antiquated literature might be revived,” and John Berkenhout in 1777 subtitled his Biographia Literaria, A Biographical History of Literature, in which he proposed to give a “concise view of the rise and progress of literature.” Examples from the late eighteenth century could be easily multiplied. Still, the first book in English called A History of English Language and Literature by Robert Chambers dates from as late as 1836.
In all of these cases literature is used very inclusively. It refers to all kinds of writing, including those of erudite nature, history, theology, philosophy, and even natural science. Only very slowly was the term narrowed down to what we today call “imaginative literature”: the poem, the tale, the play in particular. This is a process intimately connected with the rise of aesthetics, of the whole system of arts that in older times was not clearly set off from the sciences on the one side and crafts on the other. The traditional linkage of the arts and sciences was, I believe, first clearly dissolved in Charles Perrault’s Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes (1688-97) where the beaux arts are contrasted with the sciences, though the Dictionnaire de Trévoux in 1721 has still the term “Lettres” defined as “se dit aussi des Sciences.” In the polemics between the conservatives and the philosophes, the term ‘littérature” emerges in the new narrow meaning of fictional literature, to set the humanities off against the new geometrical spirit, the new rationalism. Jean-Georges Le Franc de Pompigan, in L’Essai sur l’état present de Ia republique des letters in 1743, uses “littérature” as a synonym of belles lettres and narrows it expressly to the “epic poem, the tragedy, the comedy, the ode, the fable, history and eloquence.” Another early conscious declaration of this new use I found in the Preface to Carlo Denina’s Discorso sopra le vicende della letteratura (1760), a widely read book that was soon translated into French and English. Denina professes “not to speak of the progress of the sciences and arts, which are not properly a part of literature.” He will speak of works of learning only when they belong to “good taste, to eloquence, that is to say, to literature.” That literature was used in this new aesthetic sense at that time may be illustrated by Aurelio de Giorgi-Bertôla’s Idea della bella letteratura alemanna (1784), which is an expansion of an older Idea della poesia alemanna (1779). The change of title was made necessary by the inclusion of a new chapter about the German novel, in particular the Sorrows of Young Werther.
To speak sweepingly, one can say that in older times, in antiquity and in the Renaissance, literature or letters was understood to include all writing of quality with any pretense to permanence. Poetry was set apart mainly because of the clear distinction made by verse. The view that there is an art of literature, a verbal art that includes poetry and prose as far as it is imaginative fiction and thus excludes information and even rhetorical persuasion or didactic argumentation emerged slowly with the whole system of the modern arts. It took about a century to prepare for Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790), which gave a clear formulation for distinguishing the good, the true, and the useful from the beautiful. The slow rise in the prestige of the novel, long frowned upon as frivolous, collaborated in establishing a concept of literaturé parallel to the plastic arts and to music.
The meaning of a word is that given to it by its users. We cannot prevent anybody from speaking about campaign literature or about the literature relating to a pharmaceutical product. “Literature” has been and can be used to refer to anything in print. On the other hand it has more often meant, as I have shown, literary culture, the whole tradition of humane letters descending from antiquity. It meant for centuries works valued for their intellectual or imaginative eminence. In the eighteenth century the term was often narrowed down to cover all imaginative literature: the novel, the epic, the lyric poem, the play. In English the word “poetry” is limited more narrowly to works in verse. We cannot speak, as the Germans do, of Dostoevsky or Kafka as a Dichter. I have used the term “literature” in this sense in Theory of Literature. Often, of course, literature has been rather contrasted with poetry. Thus Benedetto Croce made a distinction between letteratura and poesia.
Letteratura has a great civilizing function, but poesia stands apart, outside of history, limited to the great peaks of what we would call imaginative literature. Sartre in What is Literature? draws the same distinction but values it differently. Literature is writing committed to changing man’s consciousness, while poetry is assigned only a little nook and corner safely hidden from the stresses of history and historical change. Literature has also been used as a pejorative term for empty rhetoric, as in Verlaine’s well-known poem Art Poetique. He wanted to “wring the neck of eloquence”; he exalted music in poetry and concluded “Et tout le reste est littérature.”
In understanding these lexical distinctions, we shall be able to reject the wholesale attack on literature: the political attack, which makes literature a reactionary force though it obviously can be and has been the opposite; the linguistic attack, which despairs of the very possibility of speech; and the anti-aesthetic attack, which revolts against quality and form in favor of subliterature or the impersonal permutations of the computer. Finally the replacement of literature by the new media will seem a very unlikely event of the distant future. None of these theories touches the capacity of man to create works of literature also in the future. The forms of literature will no doubt change radically, but as long as there is man in any conceivable shape, he will create, that is, speak, express, and communicate in writing and in print his observations, his feelings, his desires, his ideas, and his probings into himself and the nature of the world around him. Doubts about the exact limits of literature cannot obviate the difference between art and nonart, great and bad art, trash, kitsch, a Shakespeare play and a newspaper poem, a story by Tolstoy and a story in True Confessions. Doubts about language and its reach can only sharpen the poet’s struggle to achieve what is difficult to formulate in language and to make him and us suspicious of the debasement of the word in propaganda, advertising, and bad journalism. Predictions of the end of literacy, of the triumph of television, should make us more aware of the need o1 a literary culture. The new barbarism, the knownothingism, the mindless repudiation of the past in favor of so-called “relevance”—one trusts that these are only a passing mood dominating in the United States at this moment. We may reflect that this crisis of the concept of literature is confined to small, largely academic circles in France and the United States. It also flourishes among a group of neo-Marxists in Western Germany. It has not, I think, affected England, though in the writings of Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart the uses of culture and literacy have been subjected to a stringent examination. Doubts about literature and its uses are, I think, completely absent in the Communist world because they have made literature a tool for the education and indoctrination of the masses.
We cannot predict the shape of things to come: in 1872 nobody could have forecast, in any detail, the literary situation as it is today. But there remain basic certainties: there will be, I am sure, no silence, and no incessant murmur, as forecast by Blanchot. There will still be the voice of men of letters and poets, in verse or prose, who will speak (as they have done since hoary antiquity) for their society and for mankind. Mankind will always need a voice and a record of that voice in writing and print, in literature.