The Uselessness of Literature

image from Marjorie Garber’s new book—her fourteenth, give or take—is The Use and Abuse of Literature. Currently a Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University, Garber started her career as an English professor and, when moved, she still writes about literature, especially Shakespeare. She also writes about topics large and small, such as art, sexuality, and Jell-O. Here she is on the latter subject:

Jell-O itself both marked and crossed the borderline between Jewish and Christian, American and foreign, kosher and traif. As such, and embodied in the split or bifurcated box, it was the perfect sign for the politics of the Rosenberg case.

The consumption of Jell-O has been declining for years, and so has the reading of literature, although not for the same reasons. Garber’s starting point in Use and Abuse is the National Endowment for the Arts report that found that less than half the adults responding to the 2002 U.S. Census had read any novels, short stories, poetry or plays in their free time. For Garber the report is evidence that literature is no longer considered essential for a well-educated individual; it appears to have been pushed aside by science and technology. Literature, it would seem, is unless.

From time to time authors have claimed that literature should be useless. For Garber, however, even when it aspires to uselessness literature is useful for getting under our skins. Archibald MacLeish’s famous lines, “A poem should not mean / But be” expresses

a sentiment elegantly summarized by Keats when he wrote, “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand into its breeches pocket.” Yet some of the best literature, whether poetry or prose, has been polemi­cal, political, and/or religious (not always in an orthodox way; think of Blake, whose Jerusalem hymn is, ironically, sung in churches all over Britain). Some of the novels of Dickens (the Brontës, Woolf, Conrad, Lawrence, Cervantes, Flaubert) have had palpable designs for political, social, or moral change, as have the great epics, from those by Homer and Virgil to those by Milton and Joyce. This palpable design of epic is the glorification of nationalism and empire; Wordsworth’s personal epic, The Prelude, acknowledges the boldness of using such a public genre for chronicling “the growth of a poet’s mind.”

Questions about the usefulness of literature have always been tied up with questions about what literature is. Shakespeare’s plays may now be considered the epitome of English-language literary culture, but at one time they were considered sub-literary diversions for the unlettered crowds. Garber explains in an interview,

My book goes to some length to talk about how things become literary, become literature, that Shakespeare’s plays themselves were thought of as the opposite of canonical or important or even as literature in their time. When Bodleian funded the Bodleian library at Oxford, he wouldn’t allow stage plays to be there because they were riffraff, they were trash. Very often novels began as alternatives to serious reading (things like sermons or prayers and philosophical meditations) and these things have now made their way into the forefront of what we now call literature.

Use and Abuse comes on the heels of another meditation on the shifting line between the literary and the non-literary, The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books. In that book contributor Rudolph Delson says it’s foolhardy to predict what will happen to literature, and that the present is always the worst time for literature. “That to the extent they were not written before we were born,” he notes, “most of the best books will be written only after you and I are both dead.”

Garber’s point is also that literature is in constant crisis, yet it always somehow muddles through. Literary forms change constantly and eternally. Symbolist poetry may cease to be written one day, but some language will always rise to the level of literature. There’s a speech in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia in which Septimus, the play’s hero, shrugs off the destruction of the ancient library of Alexandria—the first crisis in literature.

You should no more grieve for [the books] than for a buckle from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which shall be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in our arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost.


1 Comment

  1. I tend to agree with Septimus, but only insofar as perishing libraries do not necessarily herald a universal ban on free thought, so that one can still hope that such a tragic, unnamable course is localized and ultimately reversible. In any case the instantaneous picture we are able to capture of the ‘progress’ of good literature seems always to depict it as a trickle of fresh water that’s about to dry up, or as a regressive process. The perspective changes, however, when each of us thinks of the impact of (good) literature on themselves as individuals. (In this sense ALL literature is somehow useful.) As for the purposefulness of writing, I personally believe writing that is sincere and self-less and which is not so ideologically loaded as to be ludicrously cliche, is marked by a singularity of purpose. Even if Dickens, say, had in mind social and political change, he first and foremost strove to write a good novel, even though his mind must have already been conditioned by whatever social ills had offended him. By this token, if an author tried to write a good piece AND to put an unmediated message across, he/she would automatically have broken the rule of ‘singularity of purpose’, and would thus have simply failed in allowing the natural message of his/her writing to emerge. Finally, two things: first one is, what is Jell-O? (No reply required!) The second question is, what if, as happened with Shakespearean texts, forms yet to establish themselves as literature for their ability to enrich the language are even now waiting in the wings to be discovered, and what could these possibly be in this day and age?
    This is a lovable post. Thank you for blogging!


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