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Reviewed by:
  • Literature as Sheltering the Human
  • John Durham Peters
Literature as Sheltering the Human, by Frederic Will; 203 pp. Lewiston, Maine: Edwin Mellen Press, 1993, $69.95.

This volume contains thirteen essays by Frederic Will, poet, critic, ex-professor of literature, autobiographer, translator, man of letters. All concern the peculiar powers of literature to offer spiritual comfort and protection against the storms of life.

A cluster of four theoretical essays begins the collection. The first surveys Husserl’s intellectual offspring, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, and Heidegger, and seeks in their philosophies of language a grounding for literature’s uniqueness. The second essay argues that everyday language is always on the verge of entropy, but at its best, can be sublimated into literature. The third essay is a fiction of a crazed lit professor trying to master “the whole of literature” (p. 41). The eternally elusive object of “literature” turns out to evoke erotic-aggressive energies. The fourth essay on “Influencing the Past” rehearses some Benjaminian and Borgesian themes about literary influence being not causality, but intertextual resonance.

The next set of five essays—which Will calls a “testimony” (p. 133) or “hit and run theology” (p. 138)—forms the core of the book. They treat “sheltering the human” in Homer, the Bible, Sappho, the Bhagavad Gita, and the epistles of St. Paul. Each ponders an enclosure—a retreat from battle, a womb, an act of translation, an inward wrestle of conscience, the blood of Christ—made of words. To my mind, this is the best part of the book: a steady meditation, graced with poetic lines and steeped in wide learning, on the proposition that “poetically man dwells.” Here Will performs the humane survey of world-literature he elsewhere extolls.

The concluding section explores the relation of literature to the other arts. There is an essay on the gradual discovery of the oral core of Greek literature, largely through German scholarship, and one on literature’s relation to the other arts, which argues for its unique centrality among human expressive forms, thanks to its alleged continuity with the essential human possession, language. The penultimate essay meditates on Adorno’s aesthetics of music (concluding on an affirmative note not quite in tune with Adorno’s gloomy musings on capitalism), and the grand finale muses on the relation of art to life, via the dubious conceit of “art” as a great resort hotel.

The book is remarkable for an intense and bald aestheticism that is exceedingly rare today. Will calls literature “the ripest offspring of language” (p. 1) and is happy to speak of masterpieces, genius, revelation, the autonomy of art, classics, humanism, values lodged in the structure of the universe (p. 125), universal validity (p. 131), “texts high in redemptive claim” (p. 147), the continuing necessity of the classical tradition (p. 190), and the artist as all but a different species (p. 200). The faith in a totality called “literature” is, to put it lightly, out of season in the academy today. As Will, a confirmed foe of [End Page 387] academic politics and pedantry, might well suggest, this may speak in its favor. Though Will’s aestheticism may refresh, I cannot help but wonder with Adorno whether some forms of expression and faith are objectively impossible in certain eras. Can “literature” sustain credulity today as anything more than one among many remarkable human practices?

There is something, if I may say it, sheltered about these essays. If, as J. S. Mill said, eloquence is heard but poetry is overheard, this work is more poetry than eloquence. It features repeated and unannounced autobiographical intrusions. The self-reflexive quality supplies ready phrases to the reviewer: Will calls himself a “fallen contemporary classicist,” praises “high-minded eclecticism” and favors those thinkers who “sensualize knowing.” These traits make for a rare voice singing in the cornfields of Iowa.

John Durham Peters
University of Iowa

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pp. 387-388
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