Given the predominance of cultural materialism and historical scholarship, literary studies no longer ascribe much of a distinct, autonomous role to literariness as such. Current critics are interested in the complicity of individual works in the propagation of social and political power, but the notion of literariness as a power in its own right has for the most part dropped away. The decline of this concept is a real loss; how great a loss becomes evident when one reads a book like Laura Quinney’s Literary Power and the Criteria of Truth, which in a gripping and authoritative fashion recalls the seductiveness of the literary.
Quinney writes with a deconstructionist’s sense of the shaping influence that the desire for literature exercises over claims about the world. For Quinney, the literary—not just individual works, but literariness as a distinct disposition of language—has power and solicits attention on its own terms. To explain her general view of the prevalence of the literary in human experience, she makes use of Wittgenstein’s account of language as an engrossing and primary activity, irreducible to other drives or aims. To discuss the special case of literature, she turns to Maurice Blanchot’s notion that literature constitutes a distinct, impersonal, absorbing, but also uncanny and desolate “space.” Her book aims to affirm and expand on this Blanchotian idea.
Quinney is primarily concerned with what she calls the “tragic paradigm” whose basic premise is that grim and depressing depictions of life somehow tell a greater or deeper truth than happy and comic depictions do. Working from this premise, writers and readers tend to set tragedy and the sublime above comedy and the beautiful in the hierarchy of literary forms. Quinney both acknowledges the force of this preference and puzzles over its oddity; she tries here to explain its origins.
Through an examination of some of its most compelling exponents, Quinney interprets the tragic paradigm as a symptom of the struggle between an attraction to and a recoil from the “literary,” understood in Maurice Blanchot’s sense as an impersonal elaboration of language—language as a motiveless, subjectless compulsion akin to repetition in Freud. According to Quinney, literature is necessarily oriented toward representation, and for this reason, a passion for literature expresses itself as a “love of mimesis.” But because there is an irreducible difference between representation and what it represents, and because the truth it tries to tell is bound to be distorted, the love of it leads to a feeling of loss and mourning; and in turn this feeling seems to reflect the deepest truth of literary experience. According to Quinney, works that obey the logic of the tragic paradigm see the world through the prism of this failure of mimesis, the failure of literature to coincide with the world, and as a result the world appears to them colored with the pain of that failure.
After a preliminary discussion of the sublime and tragedy, focusing on [End Page 275] Aeschylus, Edmund Burke, and Simone Weil, Quinney devotes the bulk of her book to Samuel Johnson and Percy Shelley as major representatives of the tragic paradigm. Johnson embodies the paradigm in all its ramifications, Quinney argues. Shelley, conversely, offers an example of the peculiar, almost surreal desolation that takes over when an author tries to break with the paradigm—that is, to deny tragedy any special epistemological authority—yet remains compulsively under its spell.
These are dense, riveting, illuminating, and groundbreaking chapters. Readers will admire Quinney’s range of reference, her sureness of judgment, her originality, and her power to fascinate. Her argument takes counter-intuitive, paradoxical turns, but always with deliberation and patience. The book is strange, but its strangeness never feels gratuitous or self-indulgent; it only recalls the strangeness that may after all be intrinsic to literature itself.