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Philosophy to the Rescue
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Philosophy to the Rescue
Why Does Literature Matter?, by Frank B. Farrell; 266 pp. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004, $39.95.
Why Literature Matters In the Twenty-First Century, by Mark William Roche; 308 pp. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004, $32.00.

I

For those of us who are still in love with literature, it is hard to know quite which way to react to the recent spate of books rushing gallantly to its defense.1 Should we literary folk be flattered and grateful that philosophers are lining up to lend us new resources with which to justify our activities, or horrified that we ourselves have become constitutionally incapable of doing so? Should we join the defenders of serious and passionate literary criticism in celebrating its rebirth, or worry that, unbeknownst to themselves, they are singing what will turn out to have been its requiem? To change the metaphor slightly, are the well-meaning eulogists preventing literary criticism from throwing itself off the bridge, or just shedding helpless tears over a slowly closing sea?

One thing, at least, seems certain: whether successfully or not, literary criticism has indeed made every effort to commit suicide. (In their very different books, Frank B. Farrell and Mark William Roche both begin from this same point). If fewer undergraduates today are taking classes and majoring in English, French, Comparative Literature, et al., [End Page 405] then those disciplines are themselves in part to blame. What on earth could we have expected when we began telling our students that literary texts do nothing more than demonstrate their own failure—or succeed, at best, in the oppression of the weak? (Consider Edward Saïd's now infamous claim that the main purpose of nineteenth-century British novelists was "to keep the empire more or less in place."2 As a British citizen, I have always found this intriguing: if only we had produced more fiction, might we not have lost India?)

We should, of course, beware exaggeration: much interesting and important work has been done in the last forty years, including in the realm of feminist theory (Farrell, unlike Roche and—more famously—Harold Bloom,3 has the merit of separating off feminism from the tendencies he takes to task). Still, it's hard to argue with the claim that by and large, literary scholars have lost the ability, and often the very desire, to make their own activity seem worthwhile. What encouragement am I now at liberty to give, for example, to someone considering a sustained foray into Marcel Proust? If I say that all literature is an allegory of its own failure to signify, then I haven't offered a particularly compelling case even for starting the book, since any other text would do just as well (why not read a haiku and save time?), let alone for finishing it (Paul de Man himself talks mostly about the first hundred pages, offhandedly adding that "the further text of Proust's novel . . . responds perfectly to an extended application of this pattern").4

Similarly, if I say that all literature is "ideology," a mask for capitalist and imperialist propaganda, then I have at most inspired one or two investigative-journalist types to take a sideways look at the novel, carefully handling it with protective gloves as they do so, but it is unlikely that I have unleashed great hordes on the local library. And if I say that In Search of Lost Time is illuminating as a symptom of certain historical forces, then I risk being told, quite legitimately, that less sophisticated literary works—and better yet, works that are altogether nonliterary—are a much more useful place to start.

None of this really mattered when high theory first came into vogue. At that time, its practitioners could count on an audience who already cared about literature; for such readers, the notion of literature's inevitable failure was an added thrill. Literary scholars must have assumed that bright-eyed students, passionately in love with literature for all kinds of naïve reasons, would continue endlessly to stream into their classes, ready to be disillusioned in all kinds of salutary and exciting ways...