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  • The Use and Abuse of Literature
  • Willis Goth Regier (bio)
Marjorie Garber . The Use and Abuse of Literature. Pantheon.

A sentence is a sneaky thing. It can look for all the world like plain assertion yet be a hypothesis, a provocation, a screen, a hook, a ticking bomb, a seed that sprouts, a pill that fizzes, or a magician's hat from which come silks, wildlife, and Shakespeare. For example, three sentences from Marjorie Garber:

The very uselessness of literature is its most profound and valuable attribute.

It is the act of questioning, of finding questions, rather than the determination of rules and answers, that is the real literary activity.

Literature is figure.

None of these should be taken singly, for granted, or at first sight. Each shifts into something else, banter charms attention, and the hat cornucopiates.

Garber's first sentence goes Wilde; her second questions the other two; the third asserts that assertions can be literally turned inside out. Ends begin. Garber twice entwines literature with ouroboros. She believes, [End Page 171] "Trends in intellectual work tend to be cyclical." And in a mutable world, she says, "Some authors translate readily into multiple time periods, seeming to be timeless. . . . Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens are clear examples of this temporal sleight of hand."

Garber moves from fascination to fascination, from figure to figure, starting with "use and abuse." Chapter 1 tracks it to its "parent," Nietzsche's "Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben" (1874), and then to a more distant ancestor, Alberti's De commodis litterarum atque incommodis (circa 1428), whose "modern English translation, The Use and Abuse of Books, is a manifest homage to the current fame of Nietzsche's work" (32-33). Comparing Sir Norman Birkett's "The Use and Abuse of Reading" (1951) and Harold F. Brooks's "The Use and Abuse of Literary Criticism" (1974), Garber concludes that there is "no use without abuse, no abuse without use." Abuse itself is useful, or what is talk radio for?

Garber spent her career in the Harvard English department as it braved waves of theory and anti-theory. She was there for "the culture wars," the "war on drugs," and other wars that wore the metaphor. In matter and practice Garber makes the case for what English departments teach. Rather, she makes many. One chapter proposes "How to Read a Poem" and reads Sidney, Shakespeare, and Marianne Moore. In "Mixed Metaphors" she summarizes Lakoff and Johnson's Metaphors We Live By (1980) thus: "In other words, literature is figure." A few pages later the chapter ends, "Literature is figure," turning a paraphrase into a maxim.

Garber's topics shift swiftly, from literature to language to reading to teaching, in breathtaking legerdemain. Sensibly she gives more space to use than abuse. Literature ballyhoos its uses in titles like Confessions, Travels, and Adventures. Garber gives example after example of its uses: admonition, anodyne, catharsis, class and community glue, commodity, courtship, diction and contradiction, discovery, disguise, diversion, drama, etiquette, moral improvement, nation building, rebellion, revenge, satire, vicarious experience, and wizard tricks. "Business schools teach Shakespeare to exemplify good (and bad) business practices, management skills, and group motivation, and programs in medical humanities likewise use Shakespeare to illustrate key themes about life, death, and humanity." After all, Garber's gnome—"The very uselessness of literature is its most profound and valuable attribute"—looks like hammered gold. Use literature as much as you like, it remains ready for more use, impossible to use up.

Is literary criticism useless too? Her seventh chapter, "On Truth and Lie in a Literary Sense," picks at the scabs of the "truth" of fiction. Embarrassed by recent exposures of fraudulent memoirs, their authors and publishers try to rescue them as "emotionally true" or as fiction so veristic that it deserves applause. Garber's chapter confirms the importance that literary questions have in assessing impact and value. Once a star and now a lighthouse, literary criticism still illuminates, still guides.

Garber's ardor for "the act of questioning" is everywhere aflame. Paragraphs often end in questions. Questions come in flocks and bunches (8- 9, 16, 18, 19, 65, 71, 77, etc.). She...


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pp. 171-173
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