Thursday, June 25, 2015

English Lit and Its Discontents: Some Thoughts After Re-Reading Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism

Why is literature central to the humanities? And why is it so difficult to study it?

The answers are related. The first thing to note is that among the humanities, literature is the odd man out because it is an art. Students and scholars of literature do not use specific, more-or-less scientific methods to study a specific component of human life; they study an art that takes human beings as its subject. Literature is the only art that inevitably takes human beings as its subject, which is one reason, presumably, that's it's grouped with the humanities rather than the fine arts. The other reason is that literature does not, like music, involve learning a new language, or, like music and the visual arts, isolatable and teachable techniques (the exception is poetry, which traditionally was grouped with the fine arts).

Literature was originally included in a liberal arts education, alongside the human sciences, because it was considered that a familiarity with the classics of literature was a necessary part of being a cultivated person. In order to become familiar with the classics of literature, however, all one has to do is read them. It has never been clear how one teaches these texts. After all, you don't “teach literature” the way you teach music, or teach painting, or teach dance. Art is represented in the humanities as Art History, but as such, like Religious Studies, it's taught as a special branch of history, looking at a cultural phenomenon on which great importance has traditionally been placed. Literature, on the other hand, is supposed to stand alongside History, as its own liberal art and area of the humanities.

The reason that literature, as an academic subject, has lagged behind the other humanities in becoming a type of (soft) science, is not that English students are especially backward or fuzzy-headed, but that at bottom, students and professors know that what they are there to do is read books. Literature students are not engaged in a practice, as historians are when they study history or philosophers when they practice philosophy. (Philosophy, the other non-scientific humanities field, asks many of the same broad questions about human beings and human life as science, but uses abstract reason rather than empirical analysis and testing to develop answers.) Literature students are reading books. Moreover, because of the status that canonical literature acquires, the humanists within Humanities departments often want to interfere as little as possible in the student's experience of the books, from which students are supposed to get everything they need.

Naturally this has led to a lot of confusion about what English, as an academic subject, is, and what its students and scholars are or should be doing. The confusion that what students are doing is studying literature as a cultural product leads to Cultural Studies and to attracting students to English with courses about popular new books (which can of course be made interesting through postmodern theory: everything can). We have already seen that students cannot be engaged in the study of literary history if English is, as it is taken to be, its own subject; although there is a large component of literary history to what English students do.

Another way in which English students become confused about their subject is that a large component of any university subject is reading books. In other subjects, however, the books present information or arguments about the subject (say, American history, or epistemology, or biology). In English, the books are the subject. Confusion about this difference leads to the idea that what one is studying is the author's ideas, making English into a less rigorous form of philosophy.

There are a couple of reasons why so much radical theory found a home in English departments, from Freud and Marx to feminism, queer theory, and postcolonialism. First, the literary canon has the peculiar feature of coming to stand for cultural authority, quite regardless of whatever ideas the authors represented in it may have had. We often view this as an ex post facto sacralization of literature, but although the phenomenon is most familiar from sacred texts (e.g. The Bible, The Koran), it occurs just as often with secular texts (The Confucian Four Books and Five Classics, The Iliad, Shakespeare). Although any art will acquire a canon, none of the others have anything like the cultural authority of the literary canon: no matter how visual the culture becomes, writing continues to bear authority. At the same time, humanists, understanding that literature is central to the humanities, mistakenly took this to mean that the literary canon exemplifies humanist values. Accordingly, those who are critical of or disappointed in humanism found a logical target in the literary canon, which is also a useful target because of its embodiment of authority.

As Frye recounts in the “Polemical Introduction” to the Anatomy: since neither English students nor English professors are exactly sure what they're supposed to be doing, professors have had to look outside of the subject area for ideas that are teachable, and have found no shortage of them. Since the nature of textual interpretation is such that you can make almost any text into an allegory for almost anything, literature turns out to be a fantastic way of teaching the ideas of the professor's favourite thinker; and as a bonus, you can also symbolically attack authority.

This is how English has gone, or always already went, from being about gaining familiarity with canonical literature as part of becoming a cultivated individual, to being about attacking canonical literature in order to prove you're duly sceptical of bourgeois Western values.

For Frye, rectifying this situation begins with understanding that what the literature student or scholar is doing (as the philosopher does philosophy or the physicist does physics) is not “literature”; literature is what writers do. What literature students and scholars are doing is criticism. It would therefore go a long way toward clarifying things to rename English, English Criticism.

This both is and is not a solution. Students who are avid readers will show up to gain a familiarity with literature; students who are pissed off (with good reason) about Western values or who just like symbolically attacking authority will show up for the other stuff. But I'm not sure who would show up to study English Criticism. We certainly believe that literature is as important as philosophy or history; but do we believe that criticism is?

And yet is makes sense. The philosophy student or professor who reads the work of a canonical or contemporary philosopher, as they will do in their studies, is reading the work of a person engaged in the same activity as they are. When an English student or professor reads the work that they are supposed to be studying, they are obviously not reading the work of a person engaged in the same activity as they are. Yet the literary works, and not criticism, are made central to the study of literature (which is exactly why humanists are always shrieking that they're losing centrality); and, moreover, justify it as a field of study.

For Frye, the real reason that literature is central to the humanities and the liberal arts is that it bridges history and philosophy, with the specificity, the ties to reality and necessity, of the former and the power of generalization and speculation of the latter. In doing so, it creates a hypothetical construct that liberates the reader by freeing her from having to recognize the mere contingency of the natural world (let alone the social world) as necessity. The impulse of imaginative literature is to always propose an alternative; and literature is most important to us of all when that alternative can't be realized, but can only be imagined. Behind these descriptions is presumably some kind of Kantian notion of art as the mental faculties of human beings in free play, liberated from instrumentalism and delighting in themselves.

Frye is all thunder and brimstone in his “Polemical Introduction”; curiously, in his “Tentative Conclusion,” as the title suggests, he has lost his fire, and states more than once that he's not suggesting that literary critics should change what they're doing. Supposing, however, that the study of literature were to become Frye's criticism, and were accordingly to become more scientific. This would doubtless be useful, since if nothing else, the magisterial, densely argued, wildly erudite, elegantly written, and occasionally mad-as-a-hatter Anatomy succeeds in showing what fascinating things can result if we stop reading literature as humanists, for the characters, author, and meaning (or their replacement, the oppressed and the means of oppression), and start studying it methodically and analytically.

This would be a great discipline that would definitely advance human knowledge more than the way we currently study literature does; but would studying literature in this way still do the humanist job that produces some of Frye's greatest flights of rhetoric in the Anatomy? For a man who wants literary criticism to be a science, he sure gets excited about the benefits of the liberal arts.

As an illustration (and only a minor one) of what Frye's kind of criticism can do, the portion of the Anatomy with most relevance to subjects I've written about on this blog is where he distinguishes between the different types of prose fiction (in the Fourth Essay): the novel (by which he means the social novel), the romance, the confession, and Menippean satire or anatomy. In other words, while public criticism currently consists of babbling about whether or not Sheila Heti or Karl Ove Knausgaard is really making art, Frye just throws confession (i.e., literary autobiography) in with “prose fiction,” which makes sense considering that particularly since Modernism, novelists have been blurring the line between fiction and autobiography, and, as Frye points out, the novel and the confession develop together and mutually influence each other. And yet we still can't get over this blurring, because in speaking of book-length prose fiction we have no vocabulary other than “novel” (by which we mean the European social novel) and “experimental novel,” which is every extended work of prose fiction that is not like “the novel,” although it may in fact be trying to be something else, and therefore be neither a novel nor experimental (even though the author himself or herself may make this same mistake).

We pay a huge price for reading literature the humanist way: not only a deeply confused academic discipline, but also an impoverished, ahistorical public criticism. No one took heed of Frye in 1957 and no one is going to do so now, but reading the Anatomy helps to clarify why English is the strange, fraught subject it is, as well as being extraordinarily, if fitfully, illuminating on the subject of literature. Frye manages the seemingly impossible feat of producing a methodical and theoretical work of literary criticism that is nevertheless consistently personal in tone, full of aperาซus and insights; which makes it, after all, the rarest and most valuable form of criticism, not scientific but humanist, a work of literature in itself, though not a work of (in the familiar meaning of the word) fiction – in a word, an anatomy.