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  • Response to College Literature's Forum on Thinking Literature Across Continents
  • J. Hillis Miller (bio)

The seven essays for this Forum are a truly amazing group of brilliant responses to our book. We are greatly honored to have our book read so carefully by such a distinguished and diverse group of scholars who teach at such important universities. The seven essays are impressively perceptive and sharp. I would have much to say about each, too much for more than a few brief observations in this brief "response." Mostly the essayists present their own theories of literature in response to their understanding of the contradictory ones presented by Ranjan Ghosh and me in Thinking Literature Across Continents (2016). I would write my part of our book differently in the light of these seven essays if I were writing it now. I agree with Ankhi Mukherjee, for example, that our book does not sufficiently "take into consideration the very obstacles to the ease of movement and transmission, such as gender, sexuality, class, race, religion, language." This response will indicate below other reasons I would write differently today about literature from the way I wrote about it in 2016.

I want, however, to make one observation that applies in various ways to all the essays. They are long on presenting their theories [End Page 861] of literature, but short on discussing actual literary works. This is perhaps because they thought they were not expected to do so in such short essays. Omitting examples, however, is to some degree analogous to doing astrophysics without any actual data from the stars. In the absence of such stellar information you can say anything you like about celestial bodies: that the moon is made of green cheese and that the stars are made of an incandescent form of such cheese. I suppose I think of this analogy because I began as a physics major before I shifted to English literature as my major at Oberlin College.

Literary theory is in my view ancillary. It is a handmaiden to reading literature, not an independent, stand-alone discipline. With a couple of notable exceptions, the essays in this forum present little in the way of examples that show how their theories might function as actual help to reading literary works. What they say about what literature is and why it matters is noble, high-minded, and plausible. That saying is an excellent counterpoint to our theories in Thinking Literature Across Continents about why literature matters. Literary theory, like astrophysics, however, needs factual data, in this case demonstration that a given theory actually aids in reading specific literary works.

Mukherjee, for example, is a Professor of English and World Literature at Oxford. She might helpfully have cited a work in English Literature or in World Literature and showed us how it exemplifies "literature" as she understands it and knows how to teach it or to write about it. Literature in the old-fashioned sense of printed novels, poems, or plays, appears, symptomatically, in her essay for this forum only in the shape of a citation from Shakespeare's Coriolanus in an episode of Orange is the New Black, a web television series. That is where the action is these days, in web television presentations that may cite literature in passing.

Frédéric Regard writes in fascinating detail about his life as a pied noir from Algiers and eventually as a successful teacher of literature at the Sorbonne. He does not say anything, however, about the actual works of literature he teaches. Just what works does he teach there at the Sorbonne and just how does he teach them? What does he say in the classroom about a given example? Huda Fakhreddine is a specialist on Arabic literature who teaches in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania. She missed a great opportunity to cite some brief Arabic poem in Arabic and in English translation for those of us [End Page 862] who do not read Arabic. She could then have said something about that poem's meaning and distinctiveness in relation to Arabic literary theory and in relation to what we say in...


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