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  • Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities
  • Wilbur S. Braden
Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities, by John M. Ellis; 262 pp. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997, $25.00.

Northrop Frye suggested that there is one primordial story: once we were happy; then something happened, and we’ve been trying to get back ever since. Ellis, as his title suggests, is concerned with a version of this story in which there was once (and there really was!) a kind of paradise, the academic humanities—with a special Garden of Eden, literature departments—where scholars and critics worked in relative harmony at the demanding but congenial labor of increasing knowledge and understanding of our rich cultural heritage, and teaching their students to do the same. The creed of this otherwise diverse group of scholars was relatively simple: respect for precision, clarity, sound reasoning, and the objectivity that wide knowledge makes possible. Their job was to ascertain the facts as accurately as possible and then to follow out the logic of their thinking about these facts wherever it led them. This labor required a setting aside of pressing social and political interests in order to perceive the objects of study in their own context, and to interpret them as disinterestedly as possible.

This was, of course, the ideal; actual practice, like all human practice, often fell short. But Ellis is right to emphasize the idealistic spirit of traditional humanistic study, for its accomplishments were one of the most impressive and inspiring features of Western culture. Against the grain of an increasingly materialistic culture fascinated by power, control, and manipulation, the humanities kept alive our concern and respect for other values such as truth, beauty, love, courage, sympathy, grace, justice, gentleness, tolerance, humor, generosity—for the meaning and significance of human experience and for the kinds of knowledge that help us to understand how we ought to live. Samuel Johnson was the patron saint of this enterprise, which was characterized until quite recently by his profound respect for honesty, his antipathy to cant, and his preference for principle over theory in criticism.

But there developed a fatal doctrine in the garden: publish or perish. As universities grew prodigiously in the 1950s and 1960s, graduate schools had to [End Page 242] train thousands of new professors, all of whom were expected to publish articles and books which made “original contributions to knowledge.” However, the number of significant scholarly problems lagged behind the number of scholars seeking a focus for their work, which led first to an increasing amount of scholarly work on minor writers and issues, and then to the need for new scholarly agendas and methodologies. Young PhDs were under great pressure to publish, usually before they were sufficiently knowledgeable to have anything very significant to say. Enter the wily serpent, speaking seductive French. Is it any wonder that the reductive linguistic and ideological theories of the Paris School were so eagerly embraced by younger humanists, or that the gurus of this new cult found so many grateful disciples? These theories provided ready-made results for almost any study, without the burdensome task of mastering the existing scholarship, which could be dismissed, along with the primary works it glossed, as part of the vast “hegemonic” conspiracy by upper-class white heterosexual European males to oppress almost everyone else.

In the last twenty years the study and teaching of literature have been radically changed by the rise of these new “appropriators,” whose scientistic patron saint, Michel Foucault, building on the arrogant a priori theorizing of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida, erected a breathtakingly comprehensive, reductive, and deterministic model of domination and subordination for all “discourse.” Crucial distinctions between different kinds of “texts” were brushed aside, as were concerns with authorship and reference to anything outside the “discourse.” Once this “diminution of language” had been effected, the only remaining issue was the righteous diagnosis of abuses of power in Western culture, starting from the given that all power was used to oppress.

I am reminded at this point of the admonitory comment on human nature offered to André Malraux...

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