When I came to Chronicles, I looked forward to the arrival of a steady stream of books for review: new fiction and poetry, histories and biographies, and the occasional works of popular scholarship or science. From the first I was disappointed in the quality of the books sent in “over the transom,” and I turned to catalogs and Publishers Weekly, only to discover that the overwhelming majority of books published in the United States were absolutely worthless junk that no one, certainly not the typical naive American reader, should be exposed to. Those were the Good Old Days, however, when it was still possible, every year, to find new books worth reading.
In this brave new world of the new millennium, very little readable fiction is being published; poetry—with a few distinguished exceptions—has disappeared; and the bulk of the nonfiction books that make the best-seller lists are afflicted with a disease that is fatal to serious inquiry: They are almost all exercises in hermeneutics. Instead of describing, narrating, analyzing, making sense of reality, the authors attempt to impose their own theoretical reinterpretations on some aspect of human life or culture. There are (inevitably) feminist or Marxist takes on this or that period of history; bizarre and idiosyncratic critical reevaluations of famous writers; economic or sociological analyses of pop music, baseball cards, or speed dating; poli-sci misdiagnoses of what ails the American commonwealth; single-minded racialist (both pro- and anti-white) revisions; and—perhaps worst of all—pop-psychology distortions of the Bible and Christianity.
(Remarkably, 2013 was the year in which both Bill O’Reilly and Jesse Ventura published new interpretations of the Kennedy assassination. The high-school teacher turned chat star stunned the literary world by repeating the lone-gunman theory of the Warren Commission, while the Libertarian rassler, astonishingly, opts for a conspiracy. Jesse has challenged Bill to a debate, but I’d prefer a WWF-style match in which they beat each other’s brains out with folding chairs.)
Thomas Nelson, once famous as a publisher of Bibles, specializes in this last affliction. Just read the complete title of The Storm Inside: Trade the Chaos of How You Feel for the Truth of Who You Are, the 32nd book by one Sheila Walsh, a former diva in the “Christian” rock business, now described as a “featured speaker for Women of Faith.” If you think I have deliberately sought out one absurd example to make Thomas Nelson look ridiculous, think again. I get these books every day, even though I told one of their publicists to quit spamming me with their press releases and sending me advanced copies of this infantile blather. Miss Walsh’s shtick, in case you are interested, is to comb the Scriptures for passages to misconstrue to fit into her pop-psychology feminist agitprop. Her qualifications for such work? She used to be cute.
The problem with most nonfiction books published today—and this includes academic books—is not so much that they are wrongheaded, poorly researched, and badly written (which they are) as that the authors are nearly all engaged in the same project, which is to reinterpret and thus reinvent some body of literature or some part of human experience. In one way or another, their works all resemble literary criticism, as that vile trade has been practiced in academic English departments since the days of I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis.
To forestall angry protests from readers and friends who profess English, French, or Greek literature, I shall tell you what I told the late Mel Bradford many years ago. Of course, there is useful scholarship to be done in the realm of literary history, biography, source evaluation, and textual criticism, but grown men have better things to do with their time than to analyze symbolic patterns of light and dark in Vergil or to tease out Shakespeare’s racism and misogyny from the texts of his plays. Literary works are not, in a word, Scripture. They do not contain the meaning of life or secret codes or even moral instruction.
Who could possibly care what even the best 20th-century novelists think they have to teach us about living well? Hemingway killed himself; Fitzgerald drank himself to death. A good novel is not a gospel; it is (to borrow Donne’s lovely phrase popularized by a fine writer who sometimes slipped into lit crit) merely a “well wrought urn.”
There is nothing wrong with true literary criticism as it has been practiced by writers from Aristotle to Horace to Dryden to Matthew Arnold. The object of the critic is to make a sound judgment (krisis) of good and bad on the basis of established standards or criteria. Aristotle did not seek to explain the meaning of Sophocles’ Oedipus, but he used the play to illustrate how a successful tragedy works. It was only in the 20th century that criticism took on the meaning of interpretation or, to be more precise, hermeneutic.
The modern depraved habit of finding hidden meaning in human experience, while it certainly began with literacy criticism, has spread to all fields of human inquiry, including science. What is Richard Dawkins but a quaintly perverse interpreter of the natural world? Yes, he is an atheist: So what? I do not happen to believe in unicorns, but I do not make a religious fetish out of my nonbelief. Like other interpreters, Dawkins is a mere parasite on the material he studies, and like most parasites, his growth and sensory organs have been stunted. Why anyone should think it necessary to respond to such a ridiculous person, I cannot think. It would be like trying to refute one of Harold Bloom’s self-evidently stupid ideas about the Bible or Shakespeare. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be English majors!
Arguments between interpreters can never be settled because they rest on no commonly accepted reality. It is all (with apologies to Ira Gershwin) simply, “You like tomato, and I like tomahto.” You find misogyny in Aeschylus, while I prefer to discover homosexuality in Homer or political subversion in the Aeneid or feminism in Emma. Each of us picks out his “proof texts” and ignores the rest of the work and the context in which it was written and read. This selective attention permits us to read back into all earlier periods of literature and history the prejudices and ideologies of our own age. Either we find that Shakespeare is one with us in hating ourselves and loving aliens, or else we condemn him as a bigot. Anyone can do it; it is so easy I should be surprised they give degrees for this sort of thing, did I not have some idea of the mean IQ of literature departments. You can find better conversation in any sports bar on football night.
The apotheosis—or rather apocolocyntosis—of modern lit crit was the emergence of the various postmodernist theories of Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, et al., who treat texts as the background on which the theorist is free to scribble his own inanities, rather like a “graffiti artist.” At the height of the craze, Prof. E. Christian Kopff pointed out to me that deconstructionist methods were quite valuable to non-Christian and anti-Christian critics, because they were able to ignore the religious beliefs that so disfigured the works of the great English classics. It is a valuable insight, one which can be extended to the whole field of hermeneutics.
An honest Marxist or feminist or homosexualist or Straussian historian would find himself in a tight spot, unable for the most part to contribute anything useful to a study of the antebellum South or Byzantine Empire, but as a hermeneute, a theoretical reinterpreter, he need only apply his favorite categories—as irrelevant as they are—to any period and aspect of human history and, ecco fatto, he has a book, perhaps an award, and certainly a promotion. If he is one of the familiar species of leftist, he will discover that Hemingway was a closet queen or that Africans invented our civilization. If he is a “conservative,” repeating what thousands of movement dullards before him have written, he will be sure to speak of a “new paradigm.”
As the late Odie Faulk wrote, speaking of the entire academic profession, “It beats working for a living.” Any half-clever plagiarist can crank out some new theory every two years of the Civil War or Lincoln’s career. Real historians, like the late Shelby Foote, take years to construct a coherent narrative, and authentic scholars, however inaccessible their works may be to untrained readers, teach us things we did not know before. After reading dozens of books on the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, I am eternally indebted to the pedantic scholars, such as Bryan Ward-Perkins, for making sense of the archaeological record. As for all the popular historians with bright ideas, there are better ways to spend one’s time. A glass of frozen Miller’s gin and a Dr. Thorndyke mystery? Tennis anyone?
The history of interpretation has yet to be written, though if it were it would probably be (like this essay) another futile exercise in hermeneutics. The words hermeneute and hermeneutics come from a Greek verb, hermeneuien, which means “to act as Hermes,” the messenger of the gods to men. It thus acquired not only the meaning to interpret one language into another but also the religious sense to interpret the meaning of signs and omens. Early Greek religion had little theology; it was realized in rituals and stories of the gods. They had few scriptures per se, though the works of Homer and Hesiod filled the need.
At some point, however, philosophers and other wise guys began to see the problems: Homer’s gods were almost entirely Greek; what of the gods and beliefs of other peoples? These same gods were human, all too human, drinking and wenching, fighting each other and taking part in the wars of men. How could such behavior be squared with the relentless Greek pursuit of rational morality? Different writers came up with different answers: Nations made gods in their own image (Xenophanes); the gods may or may not exist, but we have no knowledge of them (Protagoras); since the world of sensory phenomena is unreal, the only and ultimate reality is the One that is divine, undivided, and unchanging (Parmenides); and the poets are liars whose works should be banned (Plato).
Even Plato, poet that he was, must have realized how futile was his solution. Reinterpretation, in various ways, offered a way out. In the Ion he refers to Metrodorus and Stesimbrotus, two philosophers who apparently read metaphorical or allegorical meanings into Homer. Later on the Stoics, the most influential philosophical school in antiquity, thought the poets had garbled or misreported revealed truths that could be recovered by accurate analysis of the words and their etymologies. (This is more or less the argument of A.A. Long.)
This interpretive tradition reached its full flowering in the great Neoplatonist Porphyry, who was disgusted to learn that Jews and Christians—Origen, in particular—had applied the same techniques to the Old Testament and found hidden and spiritual meaning in references to divinely sanctioned robbery, genocide, and human sacrifice.
Both Porphyry and Origen were playing the same game and with the noblest of motives: to preserve the sacred books of a civilization by making them compatible with the sublime teachings they had received from their masters. Our own hermeneutes, by contrast, are enemies of both our religion and our civilization. Show them something fine, decent, and honorable, and they, like baboons in a zoo, will immediately coat it in their own excrement.
The ongoing hermeneutic revolution is no less pernicious than Mao’s perpetual cultural revolution. The deliberate harm done by the hermeneutic revolutionaries is actually far less than the damage inflicted unintentionally. Every reinterpretation has the opposite effect of a magnifying glass: It diminishes the value and significance of some piece of reality. As we are exposed, one after another, to the “minifications” of liberals, Marxists, feminists, homosexualists, anti-Christians, thesis-pushing art historians, and obsessive monomaniacs who find Mongols or plagues filling every historical skeleton’s closet, actual novels, paintings, and historical episodes become increasingly invisible, rather like the literal meaning of an Old Testament passage after a thousand years of Talmudic glosses.
I gave this stuff up years ago. Why read some new theory of Christianity, whether written by heretics or written by orthodox popes, when we have the Scriptures and a body of great theological literature? Why read one more interpretation of the Lost Generation, when Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Eliot and Pound can still—for the moment—be found on the library shelves, and why, for the life of me, should I read one more minor crackpot on the Fall of Rome when I can turn to the sources or again reread the greatest of crackpots, Gibbon?
I well remember the first time I wasted some small part of a tree to publish a rotten poem. My Greek professor, Kiffin Rockwell, stopped me in the cafeteria line. “Fleming, I read that poem of yours in the literary magazine.”
“What did you think?” I asked with trepidation, knowing he could quote yards of verse from Shakespeare and Milton to Browning and Eliot.
He favored me with a benign if Mephistophelean leer: “Of the making of books there is no end, and much weariness of the spirit.” He went to his grave with only a faint idea of how much wearier it would get.