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Reviews The Death of Literature, by Alvin Kernan; ix & 230 pp. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990, $22.50. Professor Kernan declares that his "argument is, to put it simply, that we are watching the complex transformations of a social institution in a time of radical political, technological, and social changes" (p. 10). He deploys instructive vignettes showing the historical development ofliterary study and offers grating and vivid shards of the modern scene in support of his argument. However, all this excellent writing does not ultimately support the apocalyptic trumpeting of the book's tide. His finest historical vignette is of the Lady Chatterley trial, as clear and informative a summation as one could hope to find. His penchant for hyperbole, however, prompts one to mutter that it seems doubtful that this trial represents a Copernican revelation that literature is impossible to define, schematize, or thrust under the tent of some critical theory. Moreover, it seems doubtful that this trial was the one crucial batde pointing toward Armageddon and the demise of literature. The trial is good reading, but here, as elsewhere, it is difficult to locate Kernan's stance. At times he seems to sympathize with the deconstructive assaulters and to share the new contempt for literary study, their mocking of "the emptiness ofthe old literary order" (p. 59), while at the same time describing the recent critical convulsions as a kind of "measles" (p. 59). It is not clear whether he thinks that what literature needs is some sort of quasi-scientific grounding in theory, or that the search for such a Grail is nonsense. What does come clear is a sulphuric odor of doom. A large portion of the book is a shotgun jeremiad, most of it on familiar topics: the lamentable effect of TV on literacy; how TV will triumph like Dullness in The Dunciad; that sixty percent of Americans never read books— the age of reading is over; how it is not possible to define pornography, as in the Hustler case; how copyright laws and plagiarism have become misty issues; diat film coloration is decadence, etc. Finally, out comes the trumpet and we get, "In this kind of bathos did literature die" (p. 125). Philosophy and Literature, © 1991, 15: 323-376 324Philosophy and Literature More apropos of the central argument is his discussion of the recent theoretical assaults on traditional criticism and literature. On the whole, this is nutritious reading. Especially piquant is the case of Paul de Man, the theorist so influential in his insistence on the gulf between reality and language, yet a man so inextricably chained to his own language ofNazi sympathy—all ofwhich gives off a strong odor of the latent fatuosity of deconstruction. As one reads, it becomes increasingly mystifying as to why Professor Kernan accords this theory such potency that it "swept literature before it" (p. 80). In an odd way, a reader of this book is constantly nudged into lurking just outside the text and muttering and mulling counter-arguments. This at least means that the text is not moribund. In my own lurking I came to suspect that much of structuralism and deconstruction is suspiciously like the work of philosophers who have sallied forth to milk Johnson's bull. The prompting of common sense suggests that humanity, indifferent to the hectic posturing of academic critics, will continue to find vitality and redemption in Shakespeare, Milton, and all others who offer necessary nourishment. Literature will go on playing its role in human society regardless of all this frenetic labor to convert Academe into a negligible ghetto. Old or new (I muttered), literature will survive the agon ofepistemology and the rising and declining of any number ofcritical fevers. Professor Kernan's dismal threnody, "the death of the old literature" (p. 209); "the old literature is gone" (p. 21 1); the age of reading is dead, etc., comes finally to resemble the exaggerated report of Mark Twain's death. Whitman CollegeWalter E. Broman French Romanticism: Intertextual and Interdisciplinary Readings, by Frank Paul Bowman; xii & 243 pp. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. $29.50. This is a book written unabashedly for experts. For those who do not know as much as Frank...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 323-324
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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