The Dartmouth Observer
Friday, September 06, 2002
Laura, just as I criticized the Dartmouth administration for getting its "diversity" priorities mixed up, I'm going to take objection to the title of your previous piece, "Why I Love Literary Theory." You should have called it, "Why I Love Literature." I hope you love literature more than you love Theory (and I think you do).
You write, "the fact remains that literary theory is a powerful body of knowledge that has attracted the greatest minds in literary studies in the past twenty to thirty years." The same might be said about Marxism (as a socio-political theory, not just a "literary" one): just because a lot of prominent intellectuals are attracted to something doesn't mean it's true. Besides, there have been plenty of distinguished and principled dissenters as well: Roger Shattuck, Andrew Delbanco, Frank Kermode (widely regarded as this century's greatest critic), Camille Paglia, Helen Vendler, John Ellis, Jeffrey Hart, and Allan Bloom, to name a few. Many ex-Theorists, Frank Lentricchia being a prominent example, have turned their backs on Theory. Consider also that the rise of Theory had a lot to do with the growing professionalization of literary studies and the pressure on scholars to churn out articles on a regular basis, regardless of merit.
The words "powerful body of knowledge" is more equivocal than you think. Powerful yes - but true? It is difficult to place your trust completely in the hands of people who write badly and don't even refer closely to the text in the formulation of their views, which they then proceed to pass off as absolute truth ("Humanism is everything in Western civilization that restricts the desire for power" - Foucault). And what happens when the person happens to be a complete crackpot? I'm speaking here not of any minor theorist, but the great omnipotent Michel Foucault himself. Here is a person who, in 1978, argued for abolishing the age of consent for all sex acts, heterosexual and homosexual, because "It could be that the child, with his own sexuality, may have desired that adult." He also said that "If sex with a boy gives me pleasure - why renounce such pleasure?" [All this comes from the book, The Passion of Michel Foucault, by James Miller.] Normally one tries to make a distinction between a person's writings and his personal life. In Foucault's case, it is impossible.
Laura, you claim that the damage inflicted by Theory really isn't that bad, based on your "English classes and my conversations with other students." But your experiences are pretty narrow. Andrew Delbanco, on the other hand, is a very well-respected scholar with decades of experience in literary studies, and you're calling him sensationalistic and wrong-headed? He's not the only one saying these things, you know.
Stop criticizing Allan Bloom, Harold Bloom, and Jeffrey Hart. Have you read anything these distinguished scholars have written? The Closing of the American Mind, which I just re-read, is a profound and beautifully-written book. And by the way, Allan Bloom regarded Franklin Roosevelt as this century's greatest defender of democracy (so much for him being an "arch-conservative"). He was also a homosexual (as Saul Bellow documents in Ravelstein), but that in no way distorted the vision of education he held. Harold Bloom, like Lentricchia after him, turned away from theory in his later years having grown tired of its excesses. Finally, in what way is Jeffrey Hart "rancourous and ridiculous"? Smiling through the Cultural Catastrophe, despite its title, contains almost no polemics against multiculturalism. It is a learned and passionate defense of the Great Books, and is more well-written than The Western Canon. As for his articles in the Review, well, I think they're very good. Just because you disagree with them doesn't mean that they're "rancourous and ridiculous," yes? My favorite is this one on his strange friendship with...Allen Ginsberg. Another good read is "How to get a College Education."
"[T]he reality is that the intelligent and fascinating analysis of literature today is theoretical." I'm not so sure. I hope you're not implying that non-theoretical analysis is not and/or cannot be intelligent and fascinating. I've read plenty of non-theoretical stuff written during the days of theory that is really quite good. In fact, I regard such efforts even more highly because they're well-written, resist trendiness, and enhance my enjoyment of the poem or novel. Reading Judith Butler is not my idea of a good time.
In truth, Laura, your piece was very sensible. Now if only more people, including some professors here at Dartmouth, shared your views, the literary world would be a better place.